Warren Jeffs has been a fascinating character to watch ever since he took the reins of leadership of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (FLDS) upon his father’s death in 2002. He’s an interesting case study for Latter-day Saints to observe, since practically everything he has done or claimed was also done or claimed by the Prophet of the Restoration, Joseph Smith. (If anyone disagrees with this statement, please give specific examples.) I can actually see quite clearly why someone who was raised in any kind of Mormon tradition might believe and behave the way he does.

Were some of Joseph’s teachings (esp. polygamy) only applicable for the time in which he lived, and no longer necessary today? Will they be reinstated at a later time or in the afterlife? Or were Joseph and his immediate successors mistaken on which teachings were of an eternal nature and which were not? These questions are difficult to answer definitively. One of the major ideas that distinguishes Warren Jeffs from those of the main Church is the zealousness with which he adheres to the fundamental doctrines taught by Joseph Smith. LDS today struggle with how to reconcile our early practices and how we live our religion today.

Indeed, Latter-day Saints who follow President Monson are taught that the level of zealousness exhibited by Jeffs and his followers is inappropriate. Recently, an article by Robert Millet on BYU’s Religious Studies Center blog, A Sane and Balanced Life, exhorted us not to “exceed the bounds of propriety and go beyond the established mark,” lest “we open ourselves to deception and ultimately to destruction.” We shouldn’t try to be “truer than true,” Millet explained. For many, Warren Jeffs will be the consummate example of what dangers could await if we do not heed these cautions. But others might wonder how he compares to the lives of the founders of the Restoration and the scripture which admonishes believers “So then because thou art lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will spue thee out of my mouth.”

Warren Jeffs made national news in May 2006 when he was placed on the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted List for unlawful flight to avoid prosecution on charges related to his alleged arrangement of illegal marriages between his adult male followers and underage girls. After he was apprehended he remained in prison in Utah, exhibiting such behaviors as fasting for over a month, until he was fed intravenously; and developing ulcers on his knees from kneeling in prayer to excess.

On November 20, 2007, after Jeffs was convicted and sentenced to imprisonment for 10 years to life in Utah, his attorneys released the following statement: “Mr. Jeffs resigned as President of the Corporation of the President of The Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, Inc.” Since the FLDS do not require their prophet to be fiduciary president of the corporation, there has been some confusion regarding the leadership of the sect. But according to a Salt Lake Tribune telephone transcript, there is evidence that Jeffs told William E. Jessop, his former first counselor, that he had never been the rightful leader of the FLDS. His statement can be viewed on YouTube:

During this period of uncertain leadership, the public has seen a few important changes in FLDS policy. An announcement was made that they would no longer approve marriages of females under the age of 18, for example. But Jeffs’ conviction was reversed by Utah’s Supreme Court on July 27, 2010 because of incorrect jury instructions. He has since been extradited to Texas, where he will face charges of bigamy and sexual assault in connection with a raid on a West Texas ranch in 2008. Upon arriving in Texas, Jeffs has seemingly taken back the reins of the FLDS Church. Apparently Jeffs has increased access to communication with the outside world, and his followers have seen a return of the zeal he was known for before being imprisoned. From an electronic connection, he has been giving instruction to FLDS members at Sunday meetings. He has excommunicated about 30 members in leadership positions, and has issued a warning letter to the President of the U.S. and a prophecy to the nations, predicting a whirlwind of judgments and a great destruction in the land of Illinois. What is Warren Jeffs doing? No one would say he’s living a “sane and balanced life.” But how does he compare to other prophets, ancient and modern?