Was Ross LeBaron a Mormon Fundamentalist?

“I have been associated with the Fundamentalists since 1936” – Ross Wesley LeBaron wrote to Fundamentalist leader Margarito Bautista in December 1958 – “but have stood a hundred percent on my own feet.”[1]

Ross and Thelma Cox LeBaron, with first child. | Image Courtesy of Mary Taylor, available at FindaGrave.com

Almost 27 years later, LeBaron would give a more detailed – and probably more honest – account of his early association with Mormon Fundamentalism:

In 1936, I began working and studying with the Barlow Group in Short Creek, Arizona. I believed what they taught without thinking…  I had heard it all my life. [2] [Emphasis added]

As the subterranean sanction of plural marriage in the LDS Church died out, the late 1920’s and early 1930’s were a period of identity definition and membership growth to Mormon Fundamentalism. In response, a statement by the LDS First Presidency in 1933, sometimes nicknamed “third” or “final Manifesto”, spoke of “misguided individuals” adopting “adulterous relations” and explicitly denied the existence of any revelation received by John Taylor in September 1886.[3]

By the end of 1933, Prohibition would be repealed in the United States[4]. To the American public, polygamy was, like alcohol, perceived as a menace to morality. To the LDS Church, Mormon polygamy was now a menace to its claims of exclusive priesthood authority and to the official narrative that the practice of plural marriage had ended with the 1890 Manifesto.

A target for both Church and State, Mormon polygamists of Short Creek in 1935 faced the first raid by Arizona authorities.

Probably impressed by the Mormon resistance against the administration of Heber J. Grant and by the practice of plural marriage in an arid, impoverished Arizona town, 23-year old Ross Wesley LeBaron would find himself at the crossroads of Church, Fundamentalism and family tradition. Celestial plural marriage, after all, had been part of his belief system, his family history and childhood memories.

Raised in the Mormon colony of Colonia Juarez, Mexico eight-year old Ross saw his father Alma Dayer LeBaron (1886-1951) courting his Sunday School teacher the day he was baptized:

When I first joined the Mormon Church, I believed in polygamy.[5]

Alma Dayer, however, never fully integrated with the Fundamentalists and young Ross LeBaron’s desire to move to Short Creek met his opposition in June, 1936:

As I gathered up my belongings, to move to Short Creek My Grandfather took me aside and counseled me not to join the Fundamentalist Group. He told me that much of their doctrine was unfounded, but that he wanted me to use my own judgement and think for myself.(…)

About a month later, I took a trip to Mesa Arizona to visit my Father: He again warned me not join the Short Creek Order as some of their Priesthood doctrine was not valid.[6] [Emphasis added]

Despite the warnings, Ross LeBaron did have an early association with the Fundamentalist movement. Eventually his priesthood views and claims made him an eccentric in the eyes of many of its members.

In the 1940’s, while visiting John Y. Barlow, LeBaron heard a voice: “Tell Brother Barlow that you do not uphold him as President of Priesthood over all the world.” He did and “Barlow responded with a blank look”.[7]

On another occasion, High Priest Apostle J. Marion Hammon asked LeBaron not to come to the Fundamentalist meetings anymore. LeBaron wrote to Hammon saying that the Fundamentalist council was acting in a similar ways to the LDS Church and gave the following warning:

Whenever an organization casts out the thinkers of its membership, and only keeps the “yes men” and “blind followers”, it soon comes to an end.[8]

In the spring of 1940, LeBaron received a revelation about his interactions with the polygamist community:

I was contemplating my relationship with the Fundamentalist people, and feeling very downcast and rejected, and I heard a voice say, “The Lord will give you more intelligence than any man among them.”

(I wondered by what principle or for what reason the Lord would give me more intelligence than any man among them.) [Emphasis added]

His self-perception as an outcast among supporters of plural marriage, and perhaps a sense of competition led LeBaron to identify himself with the Biblical prophet Enoch, and wonder what he was expected to do with his priesthood heirship:

I was later reading the story of Enoch; and it seems that he was also wondering why he was the Lord’s servant.

I had understood for some time that I was the patriarchal heir of the prophet Joseph Smith; but neither the Church or the Fundamentalists had an office in their organization for an heir of the prophet, so I considered it an honor with no responsibility. [Emphasis added] [9]

LeBaron perhaps had not yet thought of organizing an earthly Church of the Firstborn, or clearly elaborated his view of a Church of the Son and a Church of the Father which would later become a main tenet of his theology.

In 1944, LeBaron was convicted with other 31 polygamists. While in prison, he heard a voice instructing him to have his defense independent from the other men because while they represented the priesthood line of Hyrum Smith, LeBaron represented the line of Joseph Smith.[10]

That same year, LeBaron and his wife Thelma Cox were excommunicated from the LDS Church.[11]

For LeBaron, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints was the Church of the Gentiles. And he foresaw the beginning of a new patriarchal age, the Times of Israel.

“Now these words, O Lord, we have spoken before thee, concerning the revelations and commandments which thou hast given unto us, who are identified with the Gentiles”, prayed Joseph Smith at the dedication of the Kirtland temple.[12]

Gradually, Ross LeBaron would see himself an the main actor in the end of the Times of the Gentiles, fulfilling a divine mission his family had been prepared to. “And in that generation shall the times of the Gentiles be fulfilled”, proclaimed a revelation received by the Mormon Prophet in 1831.[13]

References

[1] Ross LeBaron. Letter to Margarito Bautista, dated 06 December 1958.

[2] Priesthood Expounded, 1985.

[3] Deseret News, 17 June 1933, Church section 1-4.

[4] The Twenty-first Amendment to the US Constitution, ending the national Prohibition, was ratified on 05 December 1933. Historian Martha Sonntag Bradley relates the efforts of moral reform to the anti-polygamy crusade of the 19th century: “It was inevitable that a plurality of wives would come under the perusal of reform-minded American men and women of the 1880’s. Plural marriage, like alcohol or crime, seemed to pose a threat to the basic moral fiber of America.” (Kiddnapped From That Land: The Government Raids on the Short Creek Polygamists, University of Utah Press, 1993, p. 04).

[5] Priesthood Expounded, 1985.

[6] Priesthood Expounded, 1985.

[7] Thomas A. Green. The History of Ross Wesley LeBaron, 1995, p.6.

[8] Ross LeBaron. Letter to Mr. J. Marion Hammon, dated 17 December, 1958.

[9] Ross Wesley LeBaron. “Behold, I say unto you: THE REDEMPTION OF ZION must needs come by power…” [The Yellow Book]. The Church of the First-born. [circa 1962]

[10] Thomas A. Green. The History of Ross Wesley LeBaron, 1995, p.7.

[11] The Improvement Era, 30 November, 1944, p. 790.  Ross Wesley LeBaron and his wife Thelma Elena Cox LeBaron (1918-1991) were part of a list of 33 men and women who had been excommunicated from the Church in the previous months of 1944. The Church magazine stated they had been both excommunicated on 18 April, in the Third Ward, Liberty Stake (Southeast area of Salt Lake City, Utah).

“I was exccommunicated in 1944, I believe, for the belief in Adam-God and polygamy beliefs” (sic), declared Ross LeBaron, according to journalist Dale Van Atta in June, 1977. Interview with Ross LeBaron. Dale Van Atta Collection, L. Tom Perry Special Collections, Brigham Young University.

[12] Doctrine & Covenants 109:60.

[13] Canonized as section 45 of LDS Doctrine & Covenants.

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