CIRCLEVILLE, Utah Stephen Butt didn't set out to be a polygamist.
A decade ago, he was happily married to one wife, busy with hischurch and working as a cult exit counselor in Maine. Then he met ayoung woman who had been so abused by a cult that he saw only one wayto gain her trust for treatment.
He married her.
Now Butt lives in Utah with three wives and five children,ministering to a group of nearly 1,000 around the country who callthemselves Christian polygamists.
Unlike the estimated 25,000-35,000 polygamists living in the Westwho trace their roots to historical Mormonism, Butt and hisProtestant peers say plural marriage comes straight from the OldTestament.
"We believe that plural marriage is allowed for in the Bible tomeet practical, real needs, and this should be acknowledged by theChristian church," Butt said.
He points to passages that say David, Solomon and other patriarchshad many wives: "Obviously polygamy can't be something that's immoralif God allowed it with these people whom he showed so much favor."
To spread the word, Butt and his three wives moved to southernUtah about a month ago and bought Circleville's original Mormonchapel. They plan to start the first Be Free Patriarchal ChristianChurch in a town of about 300 settled by Mormon pioneers in 1864.
They intend to take their message to the plural families living insouthern Utah and expand into California, the Southeast and thenabroad to countries with polygamous cultures.
It will be easier to convert cultural polygamists to Christianity,Butt figures, than to persuade mainstream Christian churches toaccept plural marriage.
Though Butt talks about multiple wives and uses the term"polygamy," he is mindful that bigamy is illegal and is quick topoint out his second and third wives are bound to him by God's wordalone. Only his first wife has a marriage license, though all threewomen wear wedding rings.
In an anteroom of their old stone church, the family makes plansfor next month, when another Christian polygamist family will bejoining them from Georgia.
Butt, 49, sits in a tweed recliner, his wives and childrenscattered around him and a poster of a male lion on the wall abovehis head. On one couch sits 51-year-old Diane, his legal wife, withtheir two children: Andri, 14, and John, 13.
Dawn a 34-year-old woman who joined the family a little over ayear ago plays with her 2-year-old son, Isaac. The twins she andButt had, 5-month-old Jacob and Abigail, squirm on a blanket.
And in a chair to Butt's right rests Merry-ann, 44, the woman Buttbrought home a decade ago.
"It was like, 'Honey, I brought home the bread and milk and, bythe way, here's a new woman,"' Diane Butt says with a laugh.
She wasn't enthusiastic about her plural status back then, "But ifyou would ask me today if I would choose this way of life, I wouldsay most definitely."
More people seem to be living a polyamorous lifestyle or at leastcoming out of the closet, according to Brett Hill, editor of LovingMore, a magazine for people with more than one partner.
"This is the same thing that happened with the gay movement, wherea lot of people were gay but you just didn't know about it," he said."There are a lot of people who have more than one partner in theirlife. ... In fact, we believe most people do, but they just lieabout it."
And many practitioners, rejected by their churches for abandoningmonogamy, are trying to reconcile their lifestyle and their faith,said Dave Hutchison, who organizes a Phoenix-based group calledLiberated Christians.
"You have a lot of Christians feeling ... guilty they're feelingthis way (about multiple spouses), so they come to us and see theBiblical basis," he said. "And all of a sudden they becomeliberated."
Most find freedom on the Internet, where a half-dozen Web sitestrumpet Christian polygamy and underground practitioners makecontact. Butt has his own site, recounting how he moved his familyfrom Maine to Utah. That's how his third wife, Dawn who was asingle mother living near Chicago found the group. It's also howthey stay in touch while living in this isolated spot a four-hourdrive from Salt Lake City.
The Butts insist their lifestyle is about freedom, not oppression.
In their view, a husband should be a traditionally strong familyleader; the womenfolk should look up to him just as he looks up toGod. But that doesn't mean slavery, they say a good husbandprovides "headship" so his wives can fulfill their own potential.
And what about polyandry, one woman having plural husbands? Buttsays it seems unnatural and that it's not in the Bible. In his view,polygamy is a way to guarantee that all women are taken care of.
"There are more women than men in the Christian church," Buttsaid. "So without allowing for Biblical plural marriage, this forcesmany Christian women to marry unbelievers or to go without the loveof a husband and a family and we feel this is really a burden toimpose on half the population."