August 30th, 2011
03:25 PM ET
By Dan Gilgoff, CNN.com Religion Editor
News that polygamist leader Warren Jeffs has landed in the hospital and is in critical condition raises the question of who will lead his breakaway Mormon sect when Jeffs dies or if he becomes incapacitated.
It turns out that Jeffs, 55 and serving a life-plus-20-year prison sentence, is likely to be replaced as head of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (FLDS) in the relative near term, even if he survives for decades to come.
Jeffs had succeeded in leading his church from jail in Texas in the leadup to his trial on sexual assault charges this summer, but prison is much more restrictive.
Before his trial, Jeffs had spent thousands on phone calls in which he’d deliver sermons, conduct excommunications and conduct other church business with his followers, who are believed to number about 10,000, with most based in Arizona, Texas and Utah.
But as a Texas prisoner, he is able to telephone only 10 people a month, and those people must be pre-registered on a visitors’ list, according to the Texas Department of Criminal Justice.
Jeffs was convicted in early August of the aggravated sexual assaults of a 12-year-old girl and a 15-year-old girl who he claimed were his "spiritual wives."
He fell ill Sunday while fasting, Texas Department of Criminal Justice spokesman Jason Clark said.
Jeffs remained in critical condition in a Texas hospital on Tuesday but was not in a coma – as was previously reported - and is expected to recover, state prison officials said.
Experts say the jockeying to replace Jeffs as FLDS head, or prophet, is already under way. The FLDS is a breakaway Mormon sect that practices polygamy, which the mainstream Mormon Church renounced more than a century ago.
In previous generations, the leadership of the LDS church had been determined by a priestly council. But that practice ended when Jeffs’ father took the reigns of the church in 1986 and instituted what FLDS church expert Ken Driggs calls a system of “one-man rule.”
A few months after Rulon T. Jeffs died in 2002, his son Warren announced that his dad had designated him successor before his death, a claim that one of Rulon’s wives – who Warren later married - corroborated.
Driggs, a lawyer and a mainstream Mormon who has written about the FLDS for decades, said the episode led many FLDS members to believe that future leaders had the power to designate successors before they died.
But he said the more likely scenario is that the FLDS community will collectively decide on who leads the church.
“It’s not like a formal election,” Driggs said. “It’s going to amount to what consensus in the community is. I don’t think it’s going be immediate. It’s going to take time.”
Many FLDS members have disavowed Jeffs over his criminal convictions, while others are defending him and casting his conviction on sexual assault charges as an act of persecution.
Jeffs younger brother, Lyle, is seen as a likely contender to be the church’s next prophet.
Another potential candidate is Willie E. Jessop, a former close aide to Jeffs, who said this year that Jeffs had lost legitimacy because of the sexual abuse charges against him.
“We wanted him so bad to be good that we were willing to condone his dereliction of people,” Jessop said in Texas after Jeffs’ convictions. “We built this golden calf. Now, we have to decide: Do we love God, or do we love the golden calf?”
Jessop recently said he’s not interested in assuming the job of leader, but some FLDS experts doubt he’d refuse the role.
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