Doris Hanson: Escaping Polygamy
Escaping The Deception of Polygamy Meet Mormon Fundamentalist Refugee
Reality television shows like Sister Wives, or My Five Wives glamorize polygamy. These shows portray a harmonious family life encouraging audiences to accept their adulterous lifestyle through normalization. Another show, Escaping Polygamy, exposes the reality of the emotional, spiritual and sometimes physical damage that occurs in the abusive environments that these polygamy groups subject their “loved” ones to. It may be surprising to know that the isolated polygamy groups exist throughout the country, even though polygamy is illegal.
Many people believe that members within such groups have been brainwashed, keeping them entrapped in a bondage of lies and isolation under the name of religion. Opponents suggest that such brainwashing begins during the cradle to keep their lifestyles a secret believing that participants will go to hell and/or their family members will go to jail if they slip and allow the truth of their lives to be revealed. The foundation of such polygamy groups were established based on the teachings of Joseph Smith, a known polygamist. As the founder and prophet of Mormonism, he claimed that he had a revelation from God saying that polygamy was a requirement in order to earn each one’s way to heaven.
For the Mormon Church this known foundation of their belief system becomes a sensitive issue since polygamy is both illegal and not publicly accepted. On the surface their prophets claim that they do not agree with polygamy. However, if they truly base their beliefs on the Book of Mormon and Doctrine & Covenants it is clear that polygamy is required and they will not be able to become a god or attain the keys of the kingdom if they do not practice polygamy. Many claim that polygamy is biblical.
For those who escape the isolated lifestyle of Fundamental Mormonism, the layers of secrets are able to be brought to light publicly, giving the victims freedom and the opportunity to a new life. One refugee, Doris Hanson, escaped this lifestyle and sat down with Risen to share an in-depth look into what her life was like entrapped in one of the largest polygamous groups in America, the Kingston clan. She went on to found A Shield and Refuge Ministry, which provide hands-on assistance to those who have fled, or are seeking to separate from a fundamentalist group or polygamous lifestyle. In addition, Hanson has created The Hagar House, a safe house for people who are running from polygamy and in need of a safe place to go.
Interviewed exclusively for Risen Magazine in Salt Lake City, Utah
Risen Magazine: You were born and raised in the Kingston polygamy group. Once, ashamed of your background, you now have found the courage to share about it in order to help others. For our readers that may be unfamiliar with this group or lifestyle, please give it some context.
Doris Hanson: Joseph Smith a practicing polygamist and founder of the Mormon church, claimed he had a revelation from God that he was supposed to restore old testament polygamy. He used Jacob, Abraham, Moses, David and Solomon as examples of people who had lived polygamy and God was pleased with them. He claims that God justified them because they were polygamists. Of course that is [incorrect] and he was twisting what the Bible really says. Smith himself had at least 34 total wives, 33 plural wives, plus his first legal wife, Emma. Some records state that he had as many as 40 or more. After he died, Brigham Young who was also a polygamist and had 55 wives, brought the Mormons west. The Mormons themselves split at that point, the ones who didn’t want to continue to practice polygamy stayed in Missouri, while Brigham Young brought the rest to Salt Lake City, Utah.
When John Taylor was the president of the Mormon church he claimed that he had a vision from God, that Jesus and Joseph Smith came to him and said that no matter what the pressure was, they could not ever stop polygamy and if they did they would lose the keys – they all think they have keys to the kingdom [heaven]. They had to make covenant with about seven different men that never would a year pass by, that a child was not born under this new covenant they called polygamy. This was a secret meeting and these men covenanted to do this. So now we have an underground of polygamy.
In 1904 when the LDS [Latter-day Saints] as an official church said they wouldn’t live polygamy anymore and would arrest people and excommunicate them, then the polygamy group started and it’s been underground and secretive ever since.
The Kingston group that I was raised in started in 1935, but there were many other polygamy groups that started as well. The Kingston group was started by Eldon Kingston and he died a few years after they started it and his brother Ortel, we called him J.O. Kingston, took over the leadership. He was the leader when I was born. My mother joined with her family, and my father joined separately. My father had two wives, my mother was the second wife. So I was born, the third child, but the first daughter. My father had three or four kids from his first wife when I was born.
He was an adult and I was a newborn and my mother thought that was the neatest thing in town that her daughter would be promised to the leader.
When I was born, the leader of the group, J.O. Kingston was there at my birth – babies are always birthed at home. This is done, and still currently done, so there are no records. I didn’t get a birth certificate until 1995, and I’m obviously older than that. But he saw that my mother had a girl, and he said, “save her for me.” He was an adult and I was a newborn and my mother thought that was the neatest thing in town that her daughter would be promised to the leader. I didn’t like the idea at all and thought he was kind of creepy. So, I became very rebellious, and fortunately he never did approach me to marry him as I grew into a teenager. I don’t know if it was because I was so rebellious or he was too busy. My mother was a very abusive person physically, so I knew by the time I was eighteen that I was going to run away, but I couldn’t run away until I was of legal age because they would have forced me back.
Now that I’m older when I look back I can understand that my mom was a very frustrated woman. She was left alone on this big farm to raise her kids all alone. My dad only came to visit every second weekend for two days and then would go back to his first wife who lived a long way away at that time. I never knew him as my father until I was old enough to keep a secret, then he became the disciplinarian. Before I found out he was my father, I just thought he was a family friend. At ten years old I found out he was my father. I had to call him by his first name, we couldn’t address him as father. Even now I never call him my father, I use his first name.
RM: Since you were raised in the Kingston polygamy group, what experiences stand out the most to you?
DH: There are a lot of experiences you have growing up in a polygamist group. Your life is a secret and you cannot tell anybody. In the 50’s and 60’s they didn’t have their own private school like they do now in the polygamy groups, so I went to public school and could not tell anyone about my life at home. I remember a girl asking me if I was a Mormon and what ward I went to. I was confused, I had no idea what she was talking about. All of polygamy doctrine is Mormon doctrine, but we never went to the Mormon church. We couldn’t say who our real father was, we had to make up our father’s name and give a fake career in the papers we filled out in school. I couldn’t make friends because no one could ever come to my house and I couldn’t go to their houses. It was total isolation and not healthy at all. I was lonely.
We were taught at home how to lie. If someone stops and asks you this question, this is how you answer it. They even changed my younger brother’s birthday. He was born in November and they changed it to August so he could get into school sooner. Your life is a lie; you cannot tell the truth. I didn’t understand why it was okay to lie about certain things, but then we were taught to tell the truth on other things. My mother would say that lying for the Lord is a Mormon praise, it’s okay. God doesn’t hold it to you as a sin. But if you lie about anything else, it’s a sin. We had to know the difference. When I left I didn’t have any trouble knowing the difference between right and wrong. But I did feel the need to hide the fact that I came from a polygamy group, that was still ingrained as my hidden life. Even when I became a Christian it was challenging to allow myself to believe that it was okay, that I am a new creation in Christ and that it’s not my fault.
What made me want to share [my story] was the fact that I could tell the truth and I wouldn’t go to hell. In the group we were taught that if you told the truth about the polygamy life, then God would condemn you and you would go to hell. But when I got saved there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. I was freed from that lie. But I was still a little nervous about sharing it because I was concerned with how others would respond, because it is so weird.
RM: You wanted to leave the Kingston group at the age of fifteen or sixteen, but knew that if you left before the age of eighteen, you would be caught and the punishment would be severe. How did you overcome the fear and guilt to obtain the courage to run away?
DH: My father wanted me to let him make all of my decisions until I was 19 years old and then he felt he would be able to trust me to make my own decisions moving forward. I asked, “How can you make someone’s decision for them until they are 19 and then turn them loose to make their own decisions when they have never been trained to make their own decisions?” He would say, “I am going to see to it that you get to heaven even if I have to boot you all the way there.” I remember thinking there is no way I want to go to heaven if that is the way I get there. If I get to heaven and see all of these polygamist people there, people who were mean who treated me badly, then I don’t want to go there. Hell sounds bad too, but I feel like I am already there. My purpose from that point on was to find a way to get out when I turned 18, which I did. I found a friend and told her that my parents were abusive. I didn’t even say that I was from polygamy because of the fear about talking about polygamy to others. The polygamy group raises their children on guilt, shame and fear. And when I left I had all three. People say that they think I must have been so courageous to leave. I tell them that I left out of desperation, not courage.
I did not get rid of my guilt, shame and fear until I got saved [became a Christian]. When Jesus died on the cross, he died for all of that guilt, fear and shame. I don’t have anything to fear, 1 John 4:18-19 says, “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not been perfected in love. We love because he first loved us.” (ESV) Fear has to do with punishment, Jesus took my punishment.
RM: The shame, guilt and fear is so ingrained in you. How have you been able to allow the Lord to restore you?
DH: At first it was a big hurdle for me. I didn’t know what to do with my guilt. In fact, it took reading 1 John 4 over and over again for me to get it. That’s the book in the Bible that helped me personally deal with it. But you’re right it is so ingrained. Even today if I do something dumb, my first response is guilt. But, now I know how to deal with it. The shame is gone, it’s not my shame. I didn’t choose to be born in polygamy. I didn’t choose my parents. I didn’t choose to be abused or brainwashed. That shame is gone.
It was a combination of faith, reading God’s Word and helping others. The Bible tells us that God purifies our hearts by faith, and He was purifying me through the reading of the Word.
The shame for my sins, well, the greatest sin I committed was leaving the group. There is no shame there because it wasn’t a sin. And yes, there is shame of the sins I have committed in my life, but Jesus took that, so I am freed. I have received His forgiveness so profoundly that I don’t need to hold onto that. It’s the cross that takes care of all of those things after. I also realize that after we are saved and become a Christian even though we’ve been raised in these kind of abusive situations with false religions, brainwashing, and mind control, we are healed after we are saved as quickly as we will let God heal us. Sometimes it takes five years, or twenty years… it depends on your submission and your willingness to let God get it out.
RM: Once you gained your physical freedom, you realized that you were not ready for the world because you were brainwashed and not allowed to have your own opinions. What was your biggest fear?
DH: My biggest fear was not being able to make it and that I would have to go and beg them to take me back and give me a job. I was afraid of poverty because if I got that low, I would have to go back and beg for forgiveness. There would be no asking for help. No matter how old you are in a polygamy group they control you because you belong to them. I only knew a few people outside the group that I went to school with.
It was a hard road, a very difficult road. I was very proactive in looking for work. I was very young and naive. I was probably emotionally 12 years old so I had a challenging time getting a job. I started at the bottom and worked my way up, but it was a hard process. My friend who helped me escape knew a friend who was willing to take me in.
This is probably the worst part of my story and probably one of the reasons that God let it happen, because of what it would do in me to propel me to help others. When people leave polygamy most people are desperate, poor and have no place to go. My friend had an older male friend who offered to take me in, I was really naive and trusting. I trusted her to put me with a safe person and she didn’t. She knew he was a pervert when she put me in his home and after about two weeks his true colors showed through. He told me that he wanted me to be his sexual partner and if I didn’t he would take me back to the Kingston group.
My friend still didn’t know that I had come from that group, but he had figured it out. First he asked me about the group and used it to his advantage and then he was afraid that they would come and kill him for taking one of their girls. They never even knew where I was. He decided this is a young sweet girl who is brainwashed and timid and could take advantage of this situation. So I went from one bad situation to another – still dominated by a man. I stayed for awhile. He knew how to exploit me and he did.
After I got saved, I said, “God I would want to help people to get out safely and give them a safe place to go so they don’t have to go through what I went through.” Time and experience helped me to get out of the second bad situation. Getting a job, confidence, being able to make my own decisions without fear of making a bad one, and eventually I said to him, “This is it, no more. Go away and leave me alone.”
RM: Going from one horrible situation to another, how were you finally able to be free of the mind-control and abuse?
DH: The promises in the Bible, where Jesus has promised that the truth will set us free. That He is the way, the truth and the life. He desires everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of truth. He cleanses us completely, gives us a new heart and a new spirit. All of that is absolutely true in my own experience and that is the only way I have overcome it. I didn’t get healed, I didn’t even begin to heal until after I became a Christian. Before that as I was pulling myself up by my own bootstraps I pretended like I was getting healed, but there was so much hurt and fear and guilt. I was not a happy person. I was always looking for something and I didn’t know what it was. When I got saved I looked back and thought that was what I was looking for. I didn’t know it then, but I know it now.
For a few years God placed me in a ministry, in a Christian operated homeless shelter and after a few years I realized that He placed me there because while I was helping women [and] mothers who were homeless, He was healing me. I could relate to them. I realized that God had been healing me through those experiences because I would openly share about my past at that point and the questions the women would ask would hurt because it brought up bad memories. Then one lady asked me some of the same questions and it no longer hurt or triggered me. I thought, “I’m healed!”
It was a combination of faith, reading God’s Word and helping others. The Bible tells us that God purifies our hearts by faith, and He was purifying me through the reading of the Word. It’s nothing less than a miracle, all of a sudden it’s just gone. He takes what was meant for evil and turns it into something good. One of the women in the homeless shelter I was helping laughed and told me that she was so glad that God put me through all of that because my experiences were helping her so much.
We don’t want the women we rescue to think, “You’re getting us out of one religion to force us into another.”
We always want them to know the truth.
RM: For many years you did not want anything to do with religion. The only god you knew was from the polygamy group, a vengeful god that hated you so you wanted to run away from him. The three little words that melted your heart were, “God loves you.” You had never heard that before. It was a changing point in your life. Since that moment, how have you experienced the God that loves you fully?
DH: Oh, my! That’s a big one! I think that the greatest thing about His love is that when He forgives our sins He forgets them. And He doesn’t shame us with them or tell the world about them. There were some bad choices and attitudes I had made when I was a new believer and I would worry that God was going to hold it against me. He didn’t. Once I realized the mistake, I learned from it and He cleansed me from it after I repented. For example, when I became a smoker, I knew that it wasn’t what God wanted for me but I couldn’t quit on my own strength. I wanted to, but I told God that He would have to do it because I can’t. That was the clincher because I recognized His power rather than my own and I quit.
God answered my prayers in profound ways. After I had been saved for one year, I was unemployed for a full year and it wasn’t for lack of looking for a job. I knew later why God allowed me to stay unemployed. Because I had been raised in a polygamy group where the United Order prevailed and you were promised that no matter what, you would be provided for, all of a sudden I didn’t have anyone to turn to for provision but God. It wasn’t relying on the United Order, I had to rely on God to provide for me for that full year. And, He did in some very interesting ways.
A year later I got a job and He saw me through all of that. One of the experiences I like to share is that I had one pair of nylons for one year, one pair of pantyhose and I used them every day for when I looked for jobs, for interviews, for church, and they never got a run in them. I got a job and didn’t get a paycheck for three weeks, and the day that I received my paycheck my pantyhose got a run in them. I used to tell the homeless ladies, “This is how God takes care of us.” They would ask what brand the nylons were and I would tell them that it’s not the brand, it’s God. It may seem like a little thing, but to me that was huge because I didn’t have any cash to go buy pantyhose. He could have let the pantyhose run and somehow have someone give me money to get new ones, but that is not the way He did it.
There are ton of little things like that where I can just see God proved His faithfulness. It was so hard for me to trust God. During that year of unemployment, I received a tax refund of $471, in the mail and the letter stated that they assessed my account and that they would be sending more. The IRS doesn’t do things like that, God does things like that. I just cried because I needed to make my house payment and wasn’t going to be able to. It wasn’t just money, there were several other things. Like my son coming to Christ when he wasn’t raised as a Christian. When God says He is faithful, He is faithful!
RM: When you first came to church one of the amazing things you learned was that Jesus Christ is God. Why did this stand out to you specifically?
DH: It amazed me to learn that Jesus was God because Mormons believe Jesus and God are two different people. Jesus is not God to them. He has become a god now because he has earned his godhood. He is Jehovah, but He wasn’t originally.
After I was saved, the first time I went to a Christian church happened to be the first Sunday in December. I went alone and I didn’t know what to expect. I got there a little bit early and the worship team was practicing. They were singing Christmas songs, but it wasn’t “Deck the Halls,” or “Here Comes Santa Claus,” all the songs were Jesus-focused. It resonated with me because by then I knew that the center of Christianity was Jesus. I knew what He did on the cross and I finally knew the birth of Jesus was the meaning of Christmas. I cried through all the songs during that service because the Christmas message became so real.
RM: As the director of A Shield and Refuge Ministry, you provide hands-on assistance to those who have fled, or are seeking to separate from a fundamentalist group or polygamous lifestyle. It is your goal to communicate that “THERE IS A WAY OUT” of feeling trapped under the often harsh oppression and unthinkable abuse. How did you first start this ministry and what is the process in keeping people safe through this transitional time?
DH: From the beginning of my salvation experience I had a heart to help people get out of polygamy. I wanted them to know that they don’t have to go through what I went through. Of course that is easier said than accomplished. The opportunity was given to start A Shield and Refuge Ministry through the DVD, “Lifting the Veil of Polygamy.” The Main Street Church in Brigham City created the DVD with more than ten interviews and they became the umbrella for my ministry to polygamists since they supported my heart. The goal was to reach out to women who wanted to escape, and also any who had escaped and were living under the cloud of guilt for leaving. When I left polygamy, as I said, I had jumped from the frying pan into the fire. I wanted to help others so they wouldn’t have to go through some of that negative, hurtful stuff that I went through and, to help them integrate into society into a safe and healthy way.
We put up a website up and within two weeks we had a woman who wanted out of her betrothal to a polygamist man. We orchestrated her escape, a rescue so to speak. We got her safely out and found her a place to stay until she was able to get on her feet. When she was out safely she didn’t tell him where she was, but she texted him and let him know that she was out safely and that she was never coming back. He responded that if he found her he would come chop off her head. The people who were housing her were Christians and knew the risk. But as long as she didn’t tell where she was, they couldn’t find her. A lot of times the ones who escape will go back. The main reason they go back is that they don’t want to go to hell. If they do go back it’s usually because of the guilt of leaving. Satan works on guilt, big time.
The touchy part of the ministry is that we don’t ever want anyone to feel forced. We don’t want the women we rescue to think, “You’re getting us out of one religion to force us into another.” We always want them to know the truth. I will always tell them the truth; everyone that comes out of polygamy needs to know that God did not command polygamy. This is where my booklet, “Is Polygamy Biblical?” becomes a great resource.
RM: In June of 2008 as a production of your A Shield and Refuge Ministry, a call-in television talk show titled, Polygamy: What Love is This? with Doris Hanson, began broadcasting. Share why this opportunity to get into the homes of polygamists in the area was so important to you?
DH: When we first started the ministry in 2007, after the release of, Lifting the Veil of Polygamy, people were very interested. It was the first time anyone had gone so public with the issue of polygamy on the DVD. Everyone knew about polygamy in the intermountain west, but this had personal stories of people who had escaped polygamy. The testimonies of how women had escaped and become Christians had never been produced. These stories had never come out before.
After the DVD came out, I was invited to come and speak to church groups, congregations and women’s groups, and get the story out and introduce our ministry. The truth of what was going on in polygamy was shocking to people. They just couldn’t believe that all of this was really going on behind the scenes in their own backyards. So at the end of a talk, I would have a time for questions and they would ask how they could be praying for us. My biggest prayer was, “How do we get to the polygamist people?” Polygamists won’t say they are polygamists; you don’t even know where they live.
In January 2008, the manager of the local Christian television station called me. He and his wife offered A Shield and Refuge Ministry a television show. I asked them what they had in mind and he said, “Whatever you want, we’re just giving you a choice. You can have one show for two hours, a show a week for a month, whatever you want to do, we’re offering you and we won’t charge you.” I went to the Main Street Church and said that we needed to pray. On one hand it scared me and on the other hand it excited me. None of us had ever been on television before. We decided to take the couple up on the offer and try it, not knowing how long it would last. We figured a season, maybe thirteen weeks. We ended up producing the show for seven years.
The ironic part is that I asked God, “Why did you do this? I can’t do television it scares me to death, I live in fear of not doing the show right.” And He spoke so clearly to me and said, “I answered your prayer. What better way to get into the homes of polygamists than through television?” It’s better than a computer, because a computer has a history. With television you can turn it off and on, or you can record it and watch it privately. A woman is home alone, she only sees her husband once or twice a week so she has time to watch it. And at that moment I knew, I just had that peace. It still scared me, it still took a couple years to get rid of that shaky feeling, but I knew that God had answered my prayers. And the show just kept on going, it didn’t last just thirteen weeks, it just kept going on and on.
When I left polygamy, as I said, I had jumped from the frying pan into the fire. I wanted to help others so they wouldn’t have to go through some of that negative, hurtful stuff that I went through, and to help them integrate into society into a safe and healthy way.
Then the television station was sold to a Spanish programmer, so we no longer did the live one-hour television show every week. But God is faithful and we went into taping half hour shows, which we are still doing, and we release them on Vimeo, Roku and YouTube. We still do shows every week.
What’s amazing is that I have received so many emails from Mormons who have turned away from Mormonism and converted to Christianity as a result of the show for polygamists. That’s not surprising because they are interested in what these crazy polygamists are doing and they will listen to a show that’s against polygamy; whereas they wouldn’t watch a show that is against the Mormon church. They are surprised to hear more about what Joseph Smith really did. Moments like those help to encourage me. There is a lot of spiritual warfare.
RM: Your current interest is in founding The Hagar Home. Share your vision for this safe haven for those fleeing polygamy. And is there a timeline?
DH: The Hagar Home is something that I’ve always wanted to open, a safe house for people who are running from polygamy so that we would always have a safe place to go. Right now we are using personal homes and sometimes it’s a real scramble to find a home immediately if it’s an emergency. That has been a real challenge.
In reading the story of Abraham, Sarah, and Hagar in the Bible from Genesis 16, Hagar got pregnant and she was abused. This happens a lot in polygamy groups where the second wife is abused. Sarah got mad at Hagar because she was very proud of her pregnancy. It says that Sarah abused Hagar so badly that Hagar ran into the desert. Here she was alone and pregnant. A woman alone in those days was a dangerous place to be. She was a slave woman and she was also a foreigner, which was also very dangerous. Hagar was in really bad shape; every way you look at it she was in a dangerous situation. She sat down in the desert thinking that she was going to die, she was just crying and guess who came to her aid.
God came to Hagar’s rescue. This touched my heart so deeply because I had been in the wilderness. Not pregnant and not as a plural wife, but I had been in the wilderness, afraid of what was going to happen to me. God made promises to her that He would keep, and take care of her and the baby. So we decided that we would name our house the The Hagar Home, showing that God loves even the runaway slave who is pregnant and He would take care of her if she would just trust Him. We have a building right now and we’re negotiating the price, zoning, and amenities.
With the The Hagar Home we plan to not only house them safely, but we will have computer training classes, life skills classes, Christian classes for those who are interested in learning about the Bible, and we’ll provide childcare, anything that will help them get on their feet. Ministries for children, youth and women will come in and help walk alongside them as they integrate into society. As they learn how to get their GED, how to apply for a job or complete a resume.