All in the family

More features from this issue:

When the Latter-day Saints come marching in
With a new church on Airport Road and their numbers growing nationwide, local Mormons are unwavering in their faith

A lot on his plates
How Joseph Smith founded the Mormon Church

White and black
The Mormon Church struggles to shake the stigma of racism

“Although polygamy is no longer practiced…no account of the Church’s history can be complete without some discussion of the practice,” says Truth Restored, a short history of the church published by the LDS themselves. “It was first announced by Joseph Smith in Nauvoo in 1842.”

Understandably, Smith’s first wife, Emma, chaffed at the notion, so much so that on July 12, 1843, Smith felt the need to go before the Heavenly Father, who then dispensed some divine revelation concerning the plurality of wives. Recorded as the 132nd of the Doctrines and Covenants, it says in part that “if any man espouse a virgin, and desire to espouse another, and the first give her consent, and if he espouse the second, and they are virgins, and have vowed to no other man, then is he justified. …And if he have ten virgins given unto him by this law, he cannot commit adultery, for they belong to him, and they are given unto him; therefore is he justified.”

Although it was not publicly taught until 1852, the practice took little time to galvanize the rest of the nation in opposition. Ten years after its introduction, Congress passed a bill against plural marriages. And 10 years later, another one specifically proscribing the practice of polygamy. A few years later, in 1878, the law was upheld by the Supreme Court and in 1882, the Edmunds Act was passed by Congress, making polygamy punishable by fine or imprisonment. States increasingly took action too, disenfranchising those who admitted belief in polygamy and even throwing a thousand men into jail because they had plural families.

When it came to these last measures, the Mormons finally relented. On September 24, 1890, the then president of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints issued a divinely received proclamation that concluded, “I now publicly declare that my advice to the Latter-day Saints is to refrain from contracting any marriage forbidden by the law of the land.”

Thus ended the sordid practice of plural marriage, at least officially. Henceforth, anyone who practiced it would be excommunicated like the so-called Fundamentalist LDS church that still operates a polygamist community in the side-by-side towns of Colorado City, Arizona and Hildale, Utah. On November 20, 2007, sect leader Warren Jeffs was sentenced to five years to life in prison for his role in the arranged marriage of a 14-year-old follower and her 19-year-old cousin in 2001. Convicted of rape as an accomplice for his role, Jeffs also has an upcoming trial in Kingman, Arizona, on eight charges involving marriages that he performed in 2005 of two teenage girls and older men who were the teens’ relatives.

The media focus on that, plus Jon Krakauer’s Under the Banner of Heaven, have maintained a focus on the Mormon practice of polygamy even though it was outlawed more than a century ago. A certain HBO series starring Bill Paxton hasn’t helped. “Thanks to that show ‘Big Love,’ a lot of people think members of the church still practice polygamy,” says Gretchen Patterson.

All in the family

—Scared Shifflett


A: Well ’fraidy cat, Ace delved into the annals of Virginia Colonial history seeking answers to your query. But before Ace regurgitates his research findings, yours truly, being a well-integrated member of Charlottesville’s social circle and acquaintance of many a Shifflett, can tell you that the names Shifflett, Shiflett, Shifflette, can I get a Shifflette?, Shiflet and even Schiflett have been around these parts for centuries.

 Genealogists and researchers concur that most of the 599 Shiffletts listed in the Charlottesville phonebook (the two Fs-two Ts-no terminal E spelling being the most common) are descendants of the first Shifflett known to reach the New World, John Shiflet. One of numerous 18th-century opportunists, Shiflet arrived in King William County in 1712 to get his piece of Virginia’s sweet Colonial land distribution deal.

 According to files at the Albemarle-Charlottesville Historical Society, John Shiflet begat what would prove to be an extremely fertile family. At the turn of the 19th century, numerous Shifflett clans had upwards of 11 children each, and the family’s record of fecundity didn’t stop there. In the late 1900s, Althea Shifflett and Gallant Shifflett of Albemarle County died, leaving behind 26 and 24 grandchildren, and 32 and 15 great-grandchildren, respectively. In 1973 Betty and Jimmy Shifflett of Earlysville gave birth to triplets on Christmas day, to give a few illustrative examples.

 Those who think the Shiffletts have a reputation as “moonshiners and backwoods marksmen,” as claimed by a 1994 article in The Daily Progress, have most likely overlooked the Shifflett history of community involvement, military service and, in some cases, exceptional athletic talent. Ace’s trek to the historical society revealed countless military records of Shiffletts who fought in both world wars, the Civil War and Vietnam. Earl J. Shiflet was Virginia’s Secretary of Education in 1972. And Barry Shifflett, who graduated from Western Albemarle High School, was drafted to play baseball for the Toronto Blue Jays in 1986.

 So when it comes to family pride, this tribe is not found wanting. One Charlottesville Shiflett even pimped his ride family style, ordering a license plate with the characters “1F & 2TS.”

 So, Scared, Ace recommends you chill it. The Shiffletts aren’t invading, they’ve just been around and abundant for eons. Ace hopes you note that he refrained from taking offense that you didn’t inquire about the colorful Atkins family. He assumes that’s because you’re already aware of the virtues of the low-carb culinary regimen. If the other Atkinses could convince the populace that bread, fruit and flour are bad for you, it’s no wonder Ace can report with such aptitude and cunning wit.