A new, informal survey pegs the number of fundamentalist Mormons in the Intermountain West and other areas at 37,000 - with fewer than half of those people living in plural households.
The survey found that the largest group is the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (FLDS), based at the Utah/Arizona border. The fastest growing group is the Salt Lake Valley-based Apostolic United Brethren, which has added about 2,500 members in recent years.
Anne Wilde, a co-founder of Principle Voices of Polygamy, canvassed various polygamous communities and individuals after realizing an oft-quoted figure of 30,000 fundamentalists hadn't changed in years. "There are more now than there were, say, 10 years ago," said Wilde, adding she believes some of the self-reported tallies may be overstated, while others may be low. She released her findings last week at a state-sponsored polygamy workshop in St. George.
Wilde said, for instance, that the estimate of 15,000 independent fundamentalist Mormons is probably conservative.
And the FLDS count may be high given the exodus of the so-called Lost Boys - a term that describes the hundreds of teen boys who have left or been pushed out of the church - and movement of members to other communities, she said.
Wilde said the term "fundamentalist Mormon" signifies belief in the early doctrines of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints as espoused by church founder Joseph Smith and early leaders such as Brigham Young and John W. Taylor. Fundamentalists believe the mainstream Mormon church has erred in abandoning early teachings, such as polygamy and banning of blacks from the priesthood. The LDS Church publicly gave up polygamy in 1890 as a condition of gaining statehood.
In addition to the FLDS and AUB groups, Wilde contacted representatives of Centennial Park at the Utah/Arizona border, the Salt Lake-based Kingston or Davis County Cooperative Society and a category she called "others."
The latter group includes the True and Living Church of Jesus Christ of Saints of the Last Days in Manti as well as fundamentalists in Missouri and in British Columbia who are associated with Winston Blackmore.
Counts of plural households are hard to come by, given the fear most groups have of being identified. Consequently, estimates can vary widely. Tapestry Against Polygamy, for example, figures there are 100,000 fundamentalist Mormon polygamists in the Intermountain area, according to its Web site. Tom Metcalf, a Salt Lake pediatrician who did his own survey about five years ago as part of a health care study for Voices for Utah Children, estimated there are 20,000 to 40,000 fundamentalists in the Intermountain West.
Any such count is "a wobbly figure, it truly is," Metcalf said. "I would trust Anne's figures because she is closer in and has more recent contacts. Anne kind of knows everybody."
Paul Murphy, spokesman for Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff, also said Wilde's tally may be the most accurate figure available.
"Anne has the ability to reach these groups and find out firsthand to get an accurate count," said Murphy, who added he was surprised by size of the Kingston community. "I thought they were a larger group," he said. Wilde said she estimates that fewer than half of fundamentalists overall are engaged in polygamous relationships; one representative reported that one-third of its group lives in plural households, she said.
Metcalf came to a similar conclusion in his analysis of polygamist groups.
"I was surprised at the number of people who were not in polygamist relationships," he said.
In the 1996 book Polygamous Families in Contemporary Society, authors Irwin Altman and Joseph Ginat reported being told by one unidentified urban fundamentalist group that 20 percent to 40 percent of followers practiced polygamy, with a third of those relationships consisting of a man and two women.