It is no secret that many protestant Christian denominations view the Mormon or LDS faith as “non-Christian.” For Evangelicals like Baptists and Southern Baptists they do so with great disdain, as was seen when Mitt Romney ran for President in 2008 and 2012.
In Utah, there are many Baptist ministry organizations specifically geared toward “saving Mormons” and converting them to the Baptist version of Christ. They target the mainstream Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints as well as other Mormon traditions, including plural family traditions. Baptist organizations like Holding Out Help in Draper, Hope Church in Sandy, and the Salt Lake Baptist Association in Salt Lake City, target plural family traditions specifically for religious conversions.
In a 2019 article titled, "God’s grace counters fundamentalist Mormon polygamy", the Baptist Press interviewed Tonia Tewell from Holding Out Help as she describes the Baptist “ministry [she] founded in 2009.” The article quotes many supporters of Tewell, including Ben Heile, pastor of Hope Church, a Southern Baptist congregation in Sandy.
Heile is quoted saying, “[t]he desire to engage this community and reverse that curse [of their plural family] is what we’re called to in Christ.”
Hope Church provides financial support for Tewell as well.
Another supporter and close associate of Tewell, Ron Clement from The Salt Lake Baptist Association states, “[w]e do share Christ with them intentionally,” that is, the Baptist version of Christ.
Some suggest “intentionally” is a gross understatement. Although proselytizing is the hallmark of many faiths, “evangelical Mormon rescue” organizations like Holding Out Help reportedly take it to the extreme. Accounts from current and former DCCS members paint a dark picture of aggression and self-aggrandizement of Tewell’s efforts to gain forced conversions. These organizations seem to justify whatever tactics are necessary to break up families they view as “sinful.”
One woman, a current DCCS member, claims her sister was held captive against her will by Holding Out Help in 2019.
She states, “[s]he was basically put into an isolation room, locked from the outside, for 3 days. She was 17 years old.”
We have not identified the woman by name to protect her identity.
“My sister was told she would not be helped or let out unless she gave them information about her family or until she agreed not to go back to her family,” the woman writes. “[Holding Out Help’s] goal is basically to destabilize families to get more converts. For my sister, [Holding Out Help] alternated between isolation, coercion to attend [Tewell's] church functions, and love-bombing…. buying her gifts and supplying fake friends to pull her away.”
Tewell also leads an aggressive public relations campaign, at times meeting with lawmakers, state officials, state agencies, school board members, and community members in an effort to bolster her image as a victim’s advocate. At the same time, her associates appear to be working to destabilize families in order to gain converts. A quick google search of Tewell reveals a number of her high-profile public relations campaigns. In 2020, she testified against SB 102, a bill effectively decriminalizing polygamy.
Coincidently, at the same 2020 hearing, Dr. Cristina Rosetti, a Roman Catholic with a PhD in religious studies testified in favor of SB 102, stating, “I have seen the effects of government fear within these communities as well as the results of some evangelical rescue efforts. This includes the experience of one of my best friends. This summer I buried him. He died by suicide,” due in part to tactics employed by predatory organizations that exploited him as he left his plural tradition.
These alleged forced conversions employed by Tewell and other “mormon rescue” organizations are harmful to actual victims and vulnerable young people looking to make a change. It forces vulnerable individuals to trade one religion for another by religious actors who feel the end justifies the means.
For decades, plural families were subject to these types of abuses without any recourse or voice to call them to account. We hope to bring accountability and awareness so those in real need can find help from organizations who will advocate for the victim; and so vulnerable individuals can stay away from predatory organizations like Holding Out Help.
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