SALT LAKE CITY — Brady Williams has five wives, 24 children but no organized religion.
The newest polygamous family from Utah on reality TV considers itself progressive and independent. Williams and his wives slowly withdrew from the fundamentalist Mormon church in their rural community outside of Salt Lake City during the mid-2000s after re-evaluating their core beliefs.
The family no longer teaches the tenets of fundamental Mormonism to their children at home, opting instead to take from other teachings such as Buddhism to instill good, morale values in their two dozen children, who range in age from 2 to 20.
“Since we have left the religion, it’s now about love and it’s about commitment, and it’s about happiness as a family,” said Brady Williams, 43, a project manager in his brother’s construction business. “It’s not about the fear of hell or the promise of heaven.”
It wasn’t the first time Brady Williams has crossed religious lines. As a teenager, his parents left mainstream Mormonism and joined polygamy. He said that transition was very difficult, but not as hard as leaving the fundamentalist church his five wives all grew up in.
The women still have family members in the church who pray for them to repent and return. They haven’t been ostracized by family and friends in the community, but town leaders have made it clear to Brady Williams, a former church leader, that they prefer the family leave town.
Dealing with that scrutiny may help as the Williams family braces for newfound attention now that TLC has debuted the one-hour special about the family, called “My Five Wives.” The show could turn into a full series depending on ratings.
Nonaffiliated plural families are actually quite common among the estimated 38,000 fundamentalists who practice or believe in polygamy, most living in Utah and other Western states, said Anne Wilde, co-founder of a polygamy advocacy group called Principle Voices. The group estimates that about 15,000 are independent like the Williams family.
The two largest organized polygamist churches are Warren Jeff’s Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints on the Utah-Arizona border and the Apostolic United Brethren in northern Utah, of which the Williams family used to belong.
The practice of polygamy is a legacy of the early teachings of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The mainstream church abandoned polygamy in 1890 as Utah moved toward statehood.
The family lives in two large multi-plexes built by Brady Williams that sit across a valley from a breathtaking mountain range. One is a two-story building that resembles a motel with three green doors on the bottom level, each the house of one of the wives. The other two wives live in the ground floor of an adjacent building.
Two of the wives work outside the home and one in the construction business. The other two are taking college courses. Two of the wives are cousins, and all have been married to Brady Williams for at least 14 years.
The five wives take turns fixing dinners on weeknights for 30 hungry people. Rosemary, the third wife, likes to experiment with new recipes while the other wives stick with the old standbys like spaghetti.
“It’s like having Thanksgiving dinner five nights a week,” Brady Williams said.
The family is taking some risk in coming out: polygamy is illegal in Utah and the trailblazers for polygamous families on reality TV, the Browns of the “Sister Wives,” fled Utah for Las Vegas in 2011 after a local prosecutor opened an investigation after the first season aired.
No charges were filed, but the family uprooted their lives and moved permanently to Nevada. The Browns challenged Utah’s prohibition on plural marriage and a ruling is pending from a federal judge. The Utah Attorney General’s office does not enforce the law against consenting adults unless there is another crime involved such as child abuse, domestic violence or fraud, said spokes-man Paul Murphy.
Rosemary Williams, the third wife, said the fear of prosecution is always in the back of their minds, though they feel there is more acceptance of the polygamous today than when the Browns came out.
Brady Williams said the increasing social and legal acceptance of gay marriage has helped society open up toward plural marriage. But he’s still concerned, which is why the show isn’t saying exactly where they live for the family’s safety.
In addition to the Browns and now the Williams family, TLC also has done a special featuring the Darger family of Utah. HBO’s fictional show about a polygamous family, “Big Love,” ran for five seasons.
These shows create nervousness among plural families but the net impact is positive for the polygamous community because they help dispel many of the negative myths, said Wilde, of Principle Voices.
The Williams family said it chose to do the TV show after declining previous offers to show that polygamy can be healthy and stable.
“There is an unhealthy stigma attached to polygamy,” Brady Williams said. “There is nothing wrong with consenting adults living and loving how they choose.”