By Chuck Goldberg
“For God hath not given us the spirit of fear; but of power, and of love, and of a sound mind” (2 Timothy 1:7, KJV).
Born into a Utah polygamist family in the Kingston clan, Doris Hanson knew nothing but fear throughout her formative years because of physical and emotional abuse. That’s why she resolved early on to flee before she’d be forced into a polygamist marriage of her own.
“We were taught from the cradle that polygamy was God’s only way to save souls,” says Hanson, now 66, “and if you didn’t live polygamy, you were doomed.”
The Kingstons are one of the most well-known polygamy groups, along with the Apostolic United Brethren, nicknamed the Allred Group, and the FLDS—the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints—whose leader, Warren Jeffs, essentially received a life sentence in 2011 for aggravated sexual assault on two girls he claimed were his “spiritual wives.”
Numbering about 2,500 adherents, the Kingstons are among the 30,000 to 100,000 polygamists scattered throughout the West, though polygamist communities of all kinds exist from Canada to Mexico, Hanson says.
Though Mormonism’s founder, Joseph Smith, taught that polygamy was an “everlasting covenant,” the LDS church officially abandoned the practice in 1904, threatening its devotees with excommunication. Polygamy sects, however, continue the practice, believing Smith’s teaching that it remains the only avenue to the highest heaven.
All polygamist groups share the basic Mormon belief that three levels of heaven exist, and that whenever a child is born, a spirit out in the universe inhabits that body. Polygamists believe it is important to produce as many children as possible, because this will give more spirits the chance to make it to heaven. Plus, each polygamy group believes that it alone holds the keys to salvation, so only their children can reach the highest degree of heaven, Hanson says.
At the same time, men are motivated to marry as many wives as possible, because they believe this determines their eternal destiny. The more wives a man has, the more powerful a god he believes he will be in eternity. One polygamist group teaches that a man must have at least three wives to be among the elite in heaven.
Growing up on a Kaysville, Utah, farm, Doris Hanson lived with her mother and seven siblings, wondering about the identity of her father and why she never saw him. She accepted the story that he was a truck driver. The truth, though, was that he had another family of eight children where he spent most of his time.
When he came around once or twice a month, Hanson thought he was a family friend, not her dad. The deception continued because little kids could not be trusted to keep their secret, which could lead to arrest. Consequently, Hanson did not learn her father’s identity until age 10. While other kids lived carefree lives, Hanson wasn’t allowed to play with friends or invite anyone over in order to maintain the family’s illicit life. She was taught to lie about her dad’s identity and lived in fear about anyone finding out.
“We were severely warned that if we ever said anything that resulted in the kingdom of God being found out, that person would be damned to hell as a ‘son of perdition,’” she says. “We were God's chosen people, and we had to be protected. We had to live in secret or we would be prosecuted, and then God's work wouldn't survive.”
Meanwhile, Hanson’s home life consisted of constant chores. She remembers her mother as both a hard taskmaster and disciplinarian. She got hit with sticks and other items as far back as she can remember and saw siblings struck to the point of cruelty. The emotional abuse, however, exacted an even greater toll, especially when it came from her father as his visits became more frequent.
“Once we knew who he was, he was also harsh,” she says. “There was no sexual abuse but a lot of emotional abuse: ‘You’re no good; if you don’t do things right, God will punish you; you’ll go to hell.’ I was less than worthless. That’s the way I grew up. If I was not perfect, I was no good. My value depended on my performance.”
Along with fear of abuse and fear of discovery was the fear of surviving extreme poverty. The polygamy group assigns professions, but earnings are never enough to support multiple families with many children, Hanson says. Besides, all money must be given to the group, which allots it as it sees fit.
“They keep everyone in poverty deliberately,” she says. “Their mind-set is that they’re working for God, not for the group or for themselves.”
In the polygamy world, relinquishing earnings demonstrates obedience and ultimate goodness. Enough good deeds gives them the best chance to become a god in the next life.
“Secrecy, fear, guilt, and threats of divine retribution, God's rejection, and punishment are their tools of bondage,” Hanson says.
Nevertheless, rebellion began setting in about age 12. By 16, Hanson knew she would flee before getting married off to an older man with several wives, but she knew she had to wait until she reached legal age. Her upbringing told her that leaving the group for the outside world would be committing the unpardonable sin, but she was too desperate and sick of the abuse to care.
“I consciously chose hell instead of staying with the group,” she says. “I didn’t think real hell could be much worse. I was tired of living in fear every day of my life and wanted out of it.”
Hanson made her break within a week after her 18th birthday with the help of a classmate, telling her only that she wanted to escape an abusive situation. So she arranged to get a ride on a night when she knew her dad would be away. Though Hanson felt an indescribable sense of freedom, she said she was far too brainwashed to be ready for the world—a feeling that causes many women to return.
“You think you’re going to hell,” she says. “I was convinced that God had always hated me because I had never been good enough, and now He was really angry at me. I was full of guilt and fear. Because of my cautioned and cloistered upbringing, I found it difficult to relate to the outside world.”
The fear instilled in her lingered for many years, and she learned to repress it, just as she had seen her mother do with her own fear and pain of being the “second wife.” Years later, Hanson married of her own volition, but with no concept of healthy relationships, she made the wrong choice and it ended after seven years and one son, now 43.
She went on living in the same fear of God she had always known, viewing him as a “celestial policeman,” just waiting to get her. She figured either Mormonism was the only way to heaven, or it was polygamy, and since she rejected both, she was headed for hell.
Eventually summoning the courage to find the truth behind polygamy, she began reading a book called Mormonism, Mama & Me, by Thelma Geer, and was shocked to see the phrase, “God loves you.”
“Tears sprang to my eyes, and I actually started to cry,” she says. “I had never heard of God's love before. God loved me? How could this be? I was intrigued, so I read on.”
She had also never heard of some of the unsavory Mormon history documented in the book, so in the end she knew that neither Mormonism nor polygamy could be of God. She felt free to read other books and eventually the Bible.
Having spent her whole life trying to earn salvation, she was stunned when she saw Ephesians 2:8, 9: "For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God: Not of works, lest any man should boast." This affirmed for her that no works done in the Kingston clan could save her.
Eventually she said the sinner’s prayer, felt the need to devour the Bible and then attend a Bible-believing church, though she feared falling into another false teaching. It was Christmas season, and as she walked in and heard the music team singing Christmas songs about Jesus, she couldn’t stop crying.
“I remember well my thoughts: This is home; I had finally come home,” she says. “And I was disappointed that all these years I had been missing out on this glorious business of knowing who Jesus really is. Everything was Jesus-centered; in the polygamy group, it was them-centered. When you get out and see Jesus is at the center, it’s a beauty that permeates your soul and changes your life.”
Hanson began reaching out informally to anyone who would listen, showing that polygamy is not God’s commandment. In 2007, her story was included in a DVD titled Lifting the Veil of Polygamy, which coincided with the start of her ministry called A Shield and Refuge, dedicated to helping people leave polygamy and equipping them to face the world.
In 2008, a Salt Lake City Christian TV station offered Hanson a weekly show devoted to polygamy. Polygamy: What Love Is This? airs Thursday nights from 8 to 9 p.m. MST on KTMW-TV 20. It is a live interview talk show with viewer call-in during the last half of the program. It is also available on streaming video via www.whatloveisthis.tv.
Hanson’s passion is to help set women free, showing that polygamy is totally unnecessary to find salvation. She teaches that no woman has to live that way and suffer, and they do suffer in many ways, Hanson says. No matter the group, all the women are told their only value is to have children. A second or third wife spends considerable time alone in anguish, missing the love she needs from her husband.
“I know what my mother suffered, and the tears that she cried privately when she didn’t think anyone was listening—her life of pain, sharing her husband, knowing that she was second best, and her children second best, because we were not as favored as the first family,” Hanson says.
Any woman desiring to leave is too afraid because she lacks the funds and is unwilling to leave her children. These women deny their unhappiness and claim they love their lives and receive equal treatment.
“My mother taught me that the more miserable you are here, the greater glory you are going to have on the other side, so you are earning your glory by your misery here,” Hanson says. “She almost had the attitude, ‘Bring it on,’ but when you see you’re not equal among the wives, it’s too painful. You’ve got to cope, and the coping mechanism is to stuff your feelings.
“A woman is just a peon, just a pawn, just somebody who can be used and set aside. The women don’t have any value in polygamy groups. They’re not esteemed.”
Polygamists desiring to leave the sect are always told they’ll regret it and are threatened with eternal damnation. One of Hanson’s passions is for them to know that just the opposite is true. So as she devotes herself full-time to her ministry and TV show, she thrills to every life liberated from polygamy.
“It’s a wonderful experience to help people out of polygamy and watch them blossom and grow into individuals,” she says, “and to watch children come out from under that bondage and start to play and be happy again.”
Chuck Goldberg has a degree in journalism and a Master of Divinity in Christian education. A former newspaper reporter and magazine managing editor, he is now an ordained minister and freelance writer-editor. He and his wife Dolly have three children and live in Layton, Utah.