Netflix 'Keep Sweet: Pray and Obey': Horrors of child marriage, rape in polygamist cult

In a truly distressing Netflix documentary series, Keep Sweet: Pray and Obey takes you deep inside the story of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (FLDS), an offshoot of Mormonism, in a harrowing tale about its polygamist practices, pedophilia and its disgraced leader Warren Jeffs.

“When I was 14-years-old, they forced me to marry my cousin,” Elissa Wall says right at the beginning of the series. “I asked Warren, begged him, please don’t make me get married and he said, ‘do you believe that you know better than the prophet and if you’re questioning me you’re questioning God.’”

In the four-part documentary, with never-before-seen archival footage from the FLDS communities in the U.S., director Rachel Dretzin exposes the cult and Jeffs like we’ve never seen before, largely through the perspective of the women who escaped, who bravely document the cult’s abuse.

“It is hard to prove, and law enforcement and politicians are not very interested in disrupting families,” Utah attorney Roger Hoole says in the docuseries about enforcing polygamy laws. “I think most people in Utah, the mainstream Mormons, people like me, see polygamy as an embarrassment.”

“But polygamy’s really not the problem anyway, it’s the secondary crimes that occur in a closed religious society controlled by men. That’s when all sorts of mischief can take place and that’s what happened with the FLDS.”

Keep Sweet: Pray and Obey on Netflix (Courtesy of Netflix)
Keep Sweet: Pray and Obey on Netflix (Courtesy of Netflix)

What is the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (FLDS)?

The Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (FLDS), is an offshoot of mainstream Mormonism, which began when the church outlawed polygamy.

“The more wives, the more children you have, the higher in heaven you’ll be,” is the FLDS thinking.

As Wallace Jeffs describes in Keep Sweet: Pray and Obey, one of Warren’s 62 siblings (that he knew about), members of the FLDS are taught that to get to the “highest degree of the celestial kingdom,” a man has to have at least three wives while on Earth. If you reach this highest degree, it’s believed you can create worlds, galaxies, universes, “basically become a God.”

Keep Sweet: Pray and Obey on Netflix (Courtesy of Netflix)
Keep Sweet: Pray and Obey on Netflix (Courtesy of Netflix)

What happens to the women in this celestial kingdom? That’s not specifically included in the teachings.

A woman in the FLDS is “turned in” to the leader, called the prophet, who will make the ultimate decision of who she will be married to, through God’s will.

As the documentary shows, FLDS communities were largely in Salt Lake City, Utah and Short Creek on the Utah - Arizona border. The Short Creek dwellings date back to the 1930s when Mormon Fundamentalists didn’t have a place in the mainstream LDS church, and a group started to homestead there.

“The first time I travelled to Short Creek, Utah, I had the same first impression as most,” a statement from director Rachel Dretzin reads. “With their pleated hair, prairie dresses, and diffident, skittish manner, it was easy to see the young girls and women of the FLDS as odd, even alien creatures.”

“It was almost impossible to believe that a society so repressive, isolated and extreme could exist in plain sight in 21st century America.”

Rulon and Warren Jeffs in
Rulon and Warren Jeffs in "Keep Sweet: Pray and Obey" on Netflix (Courtesy of Netflix)

Who is Warren Jeffs?

Many of the former members of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (FLDS) are in consensus that things got significantly worse when Warren Jeffs took over as their leader from his father, Rulon, who died in 2002, even though the FLDS teachings stated that he would never actually die.

“He manipulated their beliefs and turned it into money and power and sex,” Utah attorney Roger Hoole says. “And they ended up following him right off the cliff.”

Jeffs believed that if the Olympics came to Salt Lake City in 2002, that would be the end of the world, and he convinced his followers in the city to sell all their assets and move to Short Creek. When the Olympics proceeded and the end of the world didn’t actually happen, Jeffs said it was God giving them more time to be obedient FLDS members.

It was after FLDS member and police officer Rodney Holm was convicted on sex charges, having sex with his 16-year-old third wife, that Jeffs began the move to Texas.

It’s during the Jeffs era of the FLDS that we hear from women who were child brides in the cult, 14 year olds and 12 year olds getting married to older men, raped and abused.

Jeffs had 78 wives, 24 of which were children.

In 2006 he faced charges with two counts of accomplice to rape, arrested at a routine traffic stop in Las Vegas. In 2008, law enforcement raided Yearning for Zion Ranch in Eldorado, Texas, rescuing 400 children, mostly girls, the largest child welfare case in U.S. history.

Jeffs is serving life sentence after a 2011 conviction on two counts of sexual assault.

Keep Sweet: Pray and Obey on Netflix (Courtesy of Netflix)
Keep Sweet: Pray and Obey on Netflix (Courtesy of Netflix)

'These women could have been my daughter, my mother, or me'

Tracking the systemic pedophilia in the FLDS cult, Keep Sweet: Pray and Obey is a chilling portrayal of these horrific crimes, largely spearheaded by the brave recounts from survivors like Rebecca and Elissa Wall, Ruby Jessop and Alicia Rohbock.

“The stories they told — of the process of systematic coercion and mind control exercised by the man they thought of as a religious prophet, Warren Jeffs — were far from alienating,” a statement from Rachel Dretzin reads. “After many months spent reporting this story, it was clear to me that these women could have been my daughter, my mother, or me.”

“And it was also abundantly clear that they showed incredible courage and strength in leaving this religion-turned-criminal cult.”

It taps into the way that the FLDS, and particularly Warren Jeffs, was able to grip them by their faith, fully taking over control of their lives, with absolutely haunting archival footage from the FLDS community.

“I wasn't scared of death, I was scared of disobeying the profit… I would have rather died than disobey.”

It’s those words by Erna Black that really exemplifies the horrifying level of control Jeffs had on people.

“This was the story I set out to tell,” Dretzin indicated in a statement. “The women in our series managed to leave the FLDS with no real education or skills, no money, no support whatsoever.”

“For their whole lives they had been valued solely as plural wives and as breeders of children. To leave meant saying goodbye to everything and everyone they loved to start over in a society they didn’t understand. 'Badass' doesn’t begin to describe how fierce they are. I am proud to be connected to them and grateful to have had the opportunity to tell their story.”