Flood of the Century

Flood of the century

September 2014, I was living in Cache Valley in northern Utah, where my great-great-grandfather Joseph Smith Jessop settled after immigrating from England and walking across the Plains in his bare feet sometime in 1860.

A neighbor called and asked if I was related to Joseph Jessop, a man from Short Creek, whose two wives and seven children had drowned in a flash flood that very day.

My heart stopped. I locked my doors and closed the blinds and turned off my cell phone ringer and looked up every news article I could find. The terrible flood was big news. There right before my eyes were dozens of horrifying pictures of an incident never to be forgotten. It was one of the most sobering and heart-melting days of my life.

My brother Joe’s family which consisted of his two wives Josephine and Naomi, and their eight children had been out on a drive when a raging flash flood came tearing down from the mountain canyons bringing the Flood of the Century to the community of Short Creek.

Another FLDS family had experienced the same fate. Josephine and Naomi’s sister Della, wife of Sheldon Black, and their five children, were in an SUV following my brother’s family. Both vehicles had stopped near a waterway crossing. Without warning, they were swept into a destructive torrent which battered the vehicles as though they had been made of tinfoil.

It took rescue crews several days to locate the bodies. One of Sheldon Black’s children, a six-year-old boy named Tyson, was never found. Three mothers in their prime and thirteen children lost their lives that day. Two of Sheldon’s boys escaped the vehicle which his wife Della had been driving. The only member of Joe’s family who was spared was his eldest son, Little Joe. As the family’s fifteen passenger van was thrown about in the torrent, he had used his pocketknife to cut through an air bag and escape through a window.

The flood of big picture

I sat in shock far into the night as I gazed at the pictures of my family and friends. I remembered when Joe’s wives and children had been prisoners of the state of Texas in 2008. They had been numbered among those who were taken from the YFZ Ranch and crammed into makeshift shelters until the mothers were forced out and the children distributed to foster care facilities all over the state. I marveled at the almighty hand of God. Sometimes He requires His children to go through much experience. He gives, and He takes away.

I thought of my Grandfather Richard Seth Jessop when his two teen daughters had drowned back in the 1960’s. They had gone swimming at the reservoir in Short Creek and never came home. They were found holding hands under water. The family could only guess that when the girls realized they were in trouble, they had grasped hands for support as they accompanied each other into the next life.

Grandpa had looked at his beautiful daughters and said simply, “The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away. Blessed be the name of the Lord.”

I watched the news and saw my dearly beloved brother Joseph Newel. I could see he had the same unquestioning unconquerable faith as had Grandpa Rich. I thought of my own children and the rest of our people in our scattered state. These are the times that try men’s souls…and women’s and children’s. Exactly what we had been promised was happening–experience that would shake us to the core. Experience…experience…and more experience.

As I read the news, I became more and more horrified. Even though so many sweet innocent people had just died in a traumatic event, the news stories were filled with hateful comments against FLDS people. Some said it was the retribution of God upon evil people. Some said that all FLDS people were lawbreakers and the sooner they were all killed off, the better. Some expressed pity, but it was tainted with hateful suggestions against the Prophet Warren Jeffs and those who supported him.

Some people suggested foul play as though mere humans could have power enough to cause a torrential flood. Some said it was my brother’s fault that his family had perished. They said if he was a real man, he would not have let his family live in Short Creek. They theorized that if he hadn’t been part of a religious “cult”, his family wouldn’t have died in the flood. Some even railed against Joseph Smith, the Prophet who had been murdered in cold blood nearly two hundred years previous.

I should have known that smurky comments are the common thing. I shouldn’t have read them, let alone feel sad or mad over them. I read enough to become aware of the terrible animosity against my people. I already knew it was there, but I didn’t realize how awful it really was. We had been warned by prophecy that hate would grow to the point of mobbing, plunder, and bloodshed just as it happened in the days of Joseph Smith. After reading the comments which obviously portrayed a hateful bloodthirsty prejudice, I needed no further witness.

I began to write. I couldn’t help myself. My people were not bad. In fact, after living alone in mainstream for years and meeting so many people from other cultures, I was even more convinced how dear was my faith and how wonderful my people actually were. My religion wasn’t an ideology of hate and abuse. It was the opposite. Our Prophet wasn’t what they said he was. I knew better. Maybe I could get people to listen.

The general public believed such terrible lies, but I could see why. The news was so rotten. The worst harm was coming from within. Dissenters had much influence with the public. People I had known all my life were telling loathsome stories of violence and abuse. Some spoke of events that I had witnessed same as them, yet their perspective compared to mine was completely opposite.

Something deep within urged me to pick up my pen and write. I had to do my part to speak up and tell the truth. Somebody needed to speak up in defense of truth, in defense of our Prophet and our people. Why doesn’t anyone speak up? I was perplexed.

I reasoned with myself. “Maggie, you can’t look around wishing someone else would speak up. What about you? It ought to be a woman. We are the ones who have been stigmatized as witless and spineless, victims of what they call abusive men and an abusive ideology. That someone needs to be you.”

Yes, I believed in turning the other cheek as Jesus did. Yes, I believed in patience and humility and waiting on God to intervene. I reasoned that there is definitely a time for silence, the test that all Christians have to pass. But I also believed there is a time to speak up. True Christians face that test also.

I believed that truth is truth and needs no defense. Truth would remain whether I spoke up  or not. I reasoned that the real test would be if I had the willingness to defend it and be condemned by the majority. I didn’t believe in debates or quarrels, and I didn’t believe in revenge. Reason told me that there comes a time in every person’s life when they must stand for what they believe even if they are all alone. Perhaps my time had come.

I picked up my pen and wrote a letter to my brother Joe. For hours I poured out my heart on paper filling sheets and sheets with my testimony, my experiences, my analogies, my convictions, my yearning, and my love. Then I put the letter in my filing cabinet. I didn’t have an address for my brother. Besides that, I couldn’t quite imagine that anyone would want to read my words.

As time went on and wounds healed, the aching void caused by the trauma lessened, though I never forgot. A couple years later, I found the letter and read it again. At first I thought, “Where did this come from? Did I write this? No, I’m not that good. This is actually pretty good writing.”

Back pat. Cheesy grin. I read it again and thought, “I should have mailed that letter. Now what should I do with it?”

I put the letter back in the file and closed the drawer. Months went by. But something about that letter nagged my conscience.

“What should I do with it?” I asked the invisible presence hovering patiently nearby.

“Turn it into a book,” came the answer.

“No way,” I replied with an incredulous laugh. “I’m nobody special. Nobody would give me the time of day except throw rotten tomatoes at me. That’s all I need…to make a public spectacle of myself and get a whole bunch of unwanted publicity from the haters in the world.”

I thought about the Prophet Warren Jeffs. I had known him for forty years. He is a quiet man by nature. I had never seen him promote himself or try to be the boss or make any effort whatsoever to outshine anyone else. He had never sought a public appointment or platform. Yet his name and his picture had been rudely flung to every corner of the earth. He had been likened to tyrants like Hitler and Stalin. Anti-FLDS activists had made several unflattering movies and documentaries about him. Even some of his own family members had publicly denounced him and accused him. I had never heard of him speaking ill of those who sought his harm. I knew him to be the kind of man who never retaliates, the kind who loves his enemies and prays for them.

I knew Warren Jeffs too well to believe the propaganda. More particularly, I knew his identity. I knew who and what he is in the eyes of God.

No true FLDS believer wants publicity. It’s just not part of our religion. We are simple people who would much rather be out of the public eye. We like to live quietly on farms and in harmonious communities. We believe in faith and home and family. We believe in gardens and fields and flocks and herds. We believe in working together and building beautiful things. God is number One with us.

I studied these deep-down feelings. Whose voice was speaking to me? I knew well that Satan has great power to impersonate and deceive. Me, write a book? All my former traditions protested loudly. But wait. Should my desire for anonymity override what could be a timely defense of truth which would likely bring the risk of publicity?

“Come now, Maggie,” I chided. “What good are you if you’re not willing to stick up for your friends and your faith?”

I knew there were plenty of mad people who were upset about losing their homes in Short Creek. Many were angry about the messages which had sent hundreds of our people on missions of solitaire all over the nation. I had heard boatloads of vehemence expressed by those who took offense at the reprimand of God which had been delivered to our people via the Prophet.

Mad people don’t like it when other people aren’t mad. Angry people want everyone else to join them and help them get revenge.

But that mindset of misery wasn’t for me. I would rather hear uncomfortable truth than a pleasant lie. I would rather look deep within to discover myself and not be popular than join group indignation and be accepted by the majority. I didn’t understand why people would condemn the Messenger just because they don’t like the message. Would I betray someone I know is good just because everyone else says he’s bad? No. I wouldn’t like myself if I did that.

“Am I a woman of faith,” I asked myself, “or am I just a spineless mouse? Do I have the courage to defend the unpopular truth and become a lonely outcast? Or am I just a coward with lots of friends?”

As the persistent idea of becoming a published author began to dawn upon my mind, I searched my heart for many days to discover and identify my motives. The story of Alma and the four sons of Mosiah came to mind. They had been so blessed growing up among the Nephites. Alma’s father was the Prophet—Alma, the Elder. Ammon, Aaron, Omner, and Himni were sons of King Mosiah.

In their youth, those five young men had been blind to their blessings. They were guilty of the sins of both commission and omission. They were complacent, idolatrous, and proud. History infers they were popular young bucks, guilty of light-minded sarcasm. They made fun of their parents and leaders and the church.

Both the Prophet and the King, Alma and Mosiah, mourned over their wayward sons. They prayed over them pleading with God to intervene. Because of the faith of their fathers, Alma, the Younger, and the four sons of Mosiah were visited by an angel with a flaming sword. The boys saw proof of the existence of God standing there speaking the truth of their sins. They shook in their shoes as they were severely chastised.

Alma was so shocked with fear and amazement that he fell to earth as if he were dead. It took his father and a group of faithful men fasting and praying for days before he woke up praising God for delivering him from misery.

Alma and the four sons of Mosiah went through the process of severe repentance. They became the most humble and faithful of all men in their day. After their conversion, they couldn’t stand to think of anyone else going to the awful hell they had nearly earned for themselves. They would do anything to rescue those who had been convinced by Satan that it’s okay to live in pride and rebellion. They thought if they could just convince a few servants or slaves, they would be content.

The story of their incredible success as missionaries among the Lamanites is one of the sweetest stories in holy writ. Makes me weep tears of gratitude and empathy every time I read it.

How similar this sacred story is to our day. Our people, the FLDS, have been severely chastised by God. We were guilty of sins of commission and omission. Our Prophet and other faithful men and women have exerted much faith and prayer yearning for the repentance of our people. We have been slow to obey the voice of God. Subsequently, our entire group has been severely chastised by Him. Every family has been affected. All of us should be in sackcloth and ashes.

I personally felt the chastening hand of God. It was as though I, too, had seen an angel with a flaming sword and had fallen to the earth. I had gone through the dregs of repentance. I had wandered through the valley of death. Through tribulation, I had earned an increase of faith in God and faith in myself. I had sought forgiveness for my trespasses and had forgiven the trespasses of others. Most difficult of all, I had forgiven myself. I was at peace with my own heart and at peace with the world.

Now, I could hardly bear to think of anyone being sad or fearful or hateful. It hurt to think of others living a lie. Those who were so quick to believe the worst and turn persecutor against innocent people would no doubt be punished someday. I pitied them. Why would they justify their hate and live in misery? Why would they bring condemnation upon themselves? The road to perdition is paved with bitterness and revenge and self-righteousness.

As I read again the letter I had written in response to hateful words from the public at the death of thirteen FLDS women and children, a flame of conviction ignited into fire. It wasn’t only a tiny spark of hope. The fire of indignation burned hot and bright. How could they be so wrong? How could they be so blind?

I thought if I could just write my story and my testimony, though it would only be a small splash in the ocean of conflict, maybe somebody would listen. Even if just one person in the world could read the story of an FLDS woman who had been through so much experience, maybe just one person would set aside their prejudice. Maybe they could finally understand that they cannot understand. Unless we have walked in the shoes of others, how can we judge them?

It took two more years of steady persistent reasoning from my inner voice before I published my first book. What began as a letter became FULL of BEANS. I didn’t expect that anyone would listen to me unless I spoke the language of mainstream—sarcasm. Full of Beans with all its faults and failings, its sass and satire, splashed onto a base of faith and testimony, would not only pester bent feelings, but also test my fortitude.

Did I get flack? You bet your boots I did. From the moment I pushed the publish button, I got hailstones and rotten vegetables. At first, it hurt. Now, I just laugh. The more people cuss, the more I write. I decided I wouldn’t write just one book. My life has been packed with much experience. My heart is full of faith and testimony that I hope will last throughout my life and beyond. I have no problem coming up with words. I could fill a library!

I write chiefly for the sake of history. I write hoping to influence someone, sometime, somewhere, that love is always the answer. Faith in God will never fail you, though it may take time and tears to see the rewards of faith. The humility of submission to His will, His way, brings grand results in the end.

I also write hoping to encourage men and women who have victimized themselves for any reason to stop blaming others for their losses. All of us have room for improvement. All of us can overcome mistakes of the past. None of us are qualified to throw stones. All of us can forgive one another and rise above conflict and animosity. All of us can SHINE today.

Come, Come Ye Saints

William Clayton

Come, come, ye Saints, no toil nor labor fear, but with joy wend your way.
Though hard to you this journey may appear, Grace shall be as your day.
‘Tis better far for us to strive, our useless cares from us to drive.
Do this, and joy, your hearts will swell. All is well! All is well!

Why should we mourn or think our lot is hard? ‘Tis not so, all is right.
Why should we think to earn a great reward if we now shun the fight?
Gird up your loins, fresh courage take; Our God will never us forsake.
And soon we’ll have this tale to tell–All is well! All is well!

We’ll find the place which God for us prepared, far away in the West.
Where none shall come to hurt or make afraid; There the Saints will be blessed.
We’ll make the air with music ring, shout praises to our God and King.
Above the rest, these words we’ll tell–All is well! All is well!

And should we die before our journey’s through, happy day! All is well!
We then are free from toil and sorrow, too; with the just, we shall dwell!
But if our lives are spared again to see the Saints their rest obtain,
Oh, how we’ll make this chorus swell–All is well! All is well!

From Stranger in a Strange Land