SALT LAKE CITY — In many ways, the Davis County Cooperative Society is like any other $150-million conglomerate: It sells shoes, mines coal, operates pawn shops and runs health spas.
But the similarities end there.
This is a conglomerate that also is a church, the Latter-Day Church of Christ. It encourages polygamy. It is armed. And critics contend it maintains a cult-like control over the minds and money of more than 1,000 active members.
"We wanted so deeply to be a part of building 'God's work,' " wrote Rowenna Erickson, a polygamous wife excommunicated by the church last year, in a 1991 letter to the group's leaders.
"We thought the co-op was the best place for us to fulfill our desires," she wrote, but "I can't imagine anyone, in the name of God, allowing the continued corruption and premeditated crimes against the people in the co-op, as has been and is continuing to be done."
The group's leaders would not respond to repeated requests for comment. It is led by a single family, the Kingstons; the patriarch, Charles Elden Kingston, founded it in 1935 as an economic and religious cooperative.
Mormon founder Joseph Smith first spoke in 1831 of a "United Order" of communal property "consecrated" to God, and said the law was the foundation of an ideal community. During the 1860s, Brigham Young re-emphasized economic cooperation and self-sufficiency and established about 150 cooperatives.
But Mormon historian D. Michael Quinn said the Kingston movement owes as much to the Great Depression as to religious ideals.
During those bleak years, unemployment in Utah had reached 60%, far higher than the national average, and the New Deal programs and Mormon Church welfare programs had not yet been established, he said.
According to Stacy Erickson, Rowenna's daughter, Kingston claimed he had had revelations to move from Idaho to Utah and start the co-op.
The organization's stated goal was to establish "the long-looked-for ideal condition known as the Golden Rule" and for members to sustain themselves through "united funds and efforts."
Ever since, the group has been so secretive that "even other Mormon fundamentalists regard it as virtually impenetrable," Quinn said.
Members bought properties and companies, called stewardships, and consecrated them to the organization, said Rowenna Erickson. The properties remained in the individuals' names until about 1950, when Kingston's son, John Ortell Kingston, came into power and put all property in his name or those of this wife or other Kingstons, she said.
"Everybody trusted each other because it was God's work, and, hell, why would God do anything dishonest?" Rowenna Erickson said.
The co-op prospered, until its total value reached more than $150 million, according to several former members who spoke on condition of anonymity. They said they feared violent retribution from the Kingstons.
Under a maze of company names and corporations, the Kingston organization now has businesses in Utah, Nevada, Colorado, Arizona, New Mexico, Iowa and Idaho.
In Salt Lake alone, the order operates World Enterprises, Mountain Coin Distributing, Best Distributing, Advance Vending, the Fountain of Youth spas, Factory Outlet stores, Standard Industries, Ensign Shoe, and Sportsman's and Shoppers pawn shops, according to the Utah Department of Commerce.
For a time, it was the exclusive U.S. distributor of work gloves and clothing manufactured in the People's Republic of China, Quinn said. It operates a coal mine in eastern Utah. Until recently, it owned a bank.
John Ortell Kingston died in 1987. His son Paul took over, and graduated from law school in 1990; he transformed the co-op legally into a church.
The group has amassed an arsenal, probably in response to the murderous polygamous clan founded by the late Ervil LeBaron, said Dick Forbes, an investigator for the Salt Lake County attorney. Former members said Paul Kingston is surrounded by armed guards, who also are posted at church services.
On the business side, members receive statements, not paychecks, that credit them with minimum-wage salaries, former members said. Not all who work for the businesses are members.
But members shop at Kingston stores and live in Kingston houses, with debts, rents and an obligatory 10% tithe deducted from monthly statements, they said.
Last year, three former members filed suit against church leaders, claiming they had been defrauded of nearly $70,000 owed them for their work.
Rowenna Erickson said members were urged to send any leftover credits to the co-op's bank, where those who withdrew the most had their names posted for all to see--much to their embarrassment.
"They delight in sacrificing," she said.
Both Ericksons and other former members said children are taught "memory gems" in church, such as, "True happiness is not doing what you want to do, but learning to like the things you ought to do."
Members also are taught they have a "spiritual bank account," and records are kept on that account. Economic sacrifice is a credit; so is practicing polygamy and having lots of children, Rowenna Erickson said.
Certain families, including the Kingstons, are considered to possess superior blood lines, former members said. Paul Kingston, they said, has 17 wives and nearly 50 children.
Those families have intermarried to the extent that half brothers and sisters are now marrying one another, as well as uncles and nieces, they said.
But polygamy, which was renounced by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints in 1890, required great secrecy.
"Ortell would get up in church and say even if an angel of the Lord came to you and asked you if you lived polygamy, you are to tell him no," Rowenna Erickson said.