Content Warning: This article contains references to sexual assault, child abuse, racism, homophobia, and suicide.
Netflix’s Keep Sweet: Pray and Obey is a four-part documentary series that chronicles the rise and fall of cult leader Warren Jeffs and the institutionalized child abuse and sexual assault that took place under his rule as the leader and self-proclaimed prophet of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter- Day Saints. The documentary is largely faithful to the harrowing real story of the abuse and manipulation carried out under Jeffs.
Directed by Rachel Dretzin and Grace McNally, Keep Sweet: Pray and Obey draws largely on the testimony of survivors as well as news footage and internal church videos to make the secretive inner workings of the FLDS easy to follow. There are also several recreated scenes using actors and real-life survivors, a narrative method seen in other Netflix documentaries like Worst Roommate Ever. Archival and recreated video alike is edited in Keep Sweet: Pray and Obey to look like it was captured from an 8mm camera, which is somewhat anachronistic as most of the events in the series take place in the 2000s.
While these recreations may not be real footage of events, there is a large amount of evidence that supports the survivors’ claims of underage marriages and child abuse by the FLDS, including exhaustive documents and tapes that Jeffs kept himself in a safe in his large temple. at the Yearning For Zion Ranch in Texas. Members of the FLDS continue to believe that Jeffs was unfairly charged, but Keep Sweet: Pray and Obey shows how real and extensive the abuse and crimes happening within the Church truly was.
The Origins Of The FLDS Church Explained
Most of the events depicted in Keep Sweet: Pray and Obey take place in the 1990s and 2000s, but FLDS’s history goes back much further, described by the Netflix documentary as rooted in Joseph Smith’s practice of polygamy during the early days of the Mormon Church. In 1890, the Church banned what its supporters call “plural marriage“and eventually excommunicated those who continued the practice. Polygamists gathered in the community of Short Creek, legally recognized as the twin cities of Hildale and Colorado City, which straddled the state line between Utah and Arizona. The Church legally began in 1932 as an organization. known as the Council of Friends, but there remained many different ideas and practices of fundamentalist Mormonism within it, which led to several schisms.
The polygamists in Short Creek followed a succession of prophets, beginning with John Y. Barlow. In 1953, a government raid on Short Creek failed to dislodge the sects. In 1984, Rulon Jeffs became the sole leader of the FLDS after the death of Leroy S. Johnson and worked to consolidate the Church under his rule. As documented in Jon Krakauer’s Under the Banner of Heavenadapted into a Hulu series, several of Rulon’s 60-65 wives were underage at the time he married them, with some as young as 14. While many of the interviewees in Keep Sweet: Pray and Obey describe Rulon’s reign positively compared to his son Warren’s, he still maintained a patriarchal system of arranged marriages and exploited it for his sexual gratification.
How Warren Jeffs Became A Prophet
As his father’s health failed, Warren Jeffs maneuvered to become his successor with the help of his mother, Merilyn Steed. Following Rulon’s death, Warren married all but two of his father’s wives within a week and seized control of almost all of the lands and businesses within Short Creek. Jeffs began transferring his most loyal disciples and several children to a second compound, the Yearning for Zion Ranch in Texas.
Keep Sweet: Pray and Obey depicts Jeffs’ increasingly radical theology, including the strict imposition of Mormon religious garb and his millenarian prophecies of impending doom, which only true believers on a particular piece of land would be saved from. However, the Netflix documentary does not delve into the more bigoted beliefs of Jeffs and the Church, which included viewing homosexuality as the ultimate sin and considering Black people as the instrument of the devil. For these reasons, the Southern Poverty Law Center has deemed the FLDS a hate group. By isolating his followers with radical preaching, Jeffs gained complete control over them and began separating families to further facilitate the marriage and abuse of underage girls within the Zion Ranch.
The Prosecution Of Warren Jeffs Breakdown
Jeffs was first charged with sexual assault of a minor and conspiracy to commit misconduct with a minor due to his role in arranging the forced marriage of Elissa Wall, who is interviewed in the Netflix true-crime documentary. Keep Sweet: Pray and Obey, followed by a similar charge based in Utah. Jeffs really was placed on the FBI’s Most Wanted List with a $ 100,000 reward offered. Utah state officials believed that Hildale police were non-cooperative during the investigation due to their ties to the FLDS.
Warren’s brother Seth was convicted for harboring a fugitive after being stopped with almost $ 150,000 in cash. Jeffs was caught during a traffic stop in 2006 and was tried and convicted on both counts of accomplice to rape. The Utah conviction was later reversed on appeal due to inadequate jury instructions. Jeffs was later prosecuted in Texas on two counts of sexual assault of a child and sentenced to life in prison, although he will be eligible for parole in July 2038.
Like other true-crime series, Keep Sweet: Pray and Obey is selective in the information it provides, and as such, the documentary does not address all of the allegations made against Jeffs. Jeffs’ nephew Brent filed a lawsuit against him in 2004, alleging that Warren had raped him. Brent later wrote a memoir, Lost Boy, depicting his family and the wider FLDS as being rife with sexual abuse of both boys and girls. Four more of Jeffs’ children and nephews have also claimed he sexually assaulted them. While Jeffs was not criminally convicted of these assaults, there is a disturbing pattern of a culture of sexual abuse and exploitation in the FLDS that cannot be ignored.
What Happened To FLDS After Warren Jeffs’ Trial
The Netflix series Keep Sweet: Pray and Obey largely ends its sequence of events after Jeffs’ conviction, but the FLDS continues to exist to this day, with an estimated 6,000-10,000 members. Following Jeffs’ conviction and the April 2008 Child Protective Services raid on the YFZ ranch documented in Keep Sweet, several other senior members of the Church were prosecuted, including Raymond Merril Jessop and Merrill Leroy Jessop. There were also raids in 2010 on government offices in Colorado City and Hildale related to the misappropriation of public funds. The investigation led to the dissolution of the Hildale Public Safety Department, with county organizations taking over law enforcement and other emergency services. In 2014, the state of Texas seized the ranch property in Eldorado from the FLDS.
Warren Jeffs is currently imprisoned near Palestine, Texas. In recorded conversations with his brother Nephri in 2007, Warren renounced his prophethood and confessed to “immoral actions“but he has since re-asserted his role as leader of FLDS. Jeffs has reportedly tried to take his own life while in prison and gone on hunger strike on multiple occasions. He has since claimed a”mental breakdown“in response to being asked to testify in a lawsuit by a women alleging sexual assaults.
Current members of the FLDS continue to see Jeffs as their leader and prophet. The group currently identifies their headquarters as Hildale in the Short Creek area but also maintains an offshoot in British Columbia that was not described in Keep Sweet, in addition to more recent settlements in South Dakota, Colorado, North Dakota, and Minnesota. The group continues to practice arranged polygamy and has additionally received criticism for exploiting welfare systems, using child labor, and condoning incest. Despite the courageous efforts of the survivors documented in Keep Sweet: Pray and Obeyit seems that little has changed in the FLDS.
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