Reviews – In Sacred Loneliness: The Plural Wives of Joseph Smith
Journal of the West, Gary Topping
Under attack in the 1880s, Mormons defended polygamy in various ways. They pointed out that in family life many hands make light work, and that polygamy provided a home for widows and otherwise unmarriageable spinsters. A darker advantage was that in conjunction with a vigorous missionary program, polygamous procreation enabled the Mormons to populate their Utah stronghold rapidly and thus resist Gentile incursions and Federal meddling.
Todd Compton’s meticulously researched and judiciously interpreted biographical sketches of the 33 plural wives of Joseph Smith portrays a much less happy picture. Their stories included infidelity to previous husbands, neglect or abandonment, and depression. After Smith’s death, many remarried polygamously to Mormon apostles, some of whom turned out to be poor husbands. Compton has provided an intimate glimpse into an exotic institution hitherto inadequately studied.
Journal of Mormon History, Carmon Hardy
Determining the number of women married to Joseph Smith Jr. while he was alive will occupy students of Mormonism as long as serious interest in the Church’s founder continues. Some, like Joseph H. Jackson, maliciously claimed that the Prophet boasted of having hundreds. Spokesmen for the RLDS Church, until recently, denied that, apart from his wife Emma, Smith had any. While the exact number is unlikely ever to be known, reliable counts range between twenty-seven and forty-eight. Todd Compton, in his survey identifies thirty-three plural wives for whom he finds persuasive evidence of a sealing to Smith during the latter’s lifetime.
Commencing with an introduction and prologue that review this and other questions associated with Smith’s marital activities, Compton provides us with the most comprehensive account ever written of Smith’s plural wives, his relationships with them, and their life experiences after his death. Among other things, and contrary to Mormon folk tradition contending that a rationale for polygamy arose from a need to care for older, unattached women, Compton shows that the largest percentage of Smith’s thirty-three successful proposals were to women between ages fourteen and twenty. What it was that drove Smith to take so many wives, Compton says, was the scriptural command to multiply along with promises made to Abraham concerning his posterity. Smith’s own revelations not only approved the practice but linked glory and kingdom in the next life to the progeny from such relationships the more glaring, especially if, as Compton says, the Mormon leader was intimately involved with most whom he married. The explanation offered by later apologists—that the Prophet’s plural wives had difficulty conceiving because of the harried conditions under which he visited them—only begs the question of God’s part in arrangements He had commanded.
Compton carefully explores the delicate matter of polyandry—the intimacy of so many already-married women (one third of the thirty- three identified here) with Smith. Compton explains the Prophet’s willingness to cultivate such relationships as, among other things, a consequence of his disbelief in the binding authority of civil marriages and his conviction that his attractions were ratified in the preexistence. Compton also shows that polyandrous companions were the most active assistance Smith had in recruiting and initiating younger women into the principle. But polyandrous marriages were as vulnerable, if not more so, to complication and tragedy as the rest. The cruel, well-known story of Henry Jacob and Zina Diantha Huntington Jacobs, especially Henry’s heart- rending odyssey after Zina’s marriage to Brigham Young, is retold in powerful detail. The experience of Zina’s older sister, Presendia Lathrop Huntington Buell, another polyandrous wife, is movingly laid before us with its amalgam of deception, heartache, and spiritual devotion.
And there were Smith’s polyandrous marriage to Patty Bartlett Sessions and Sylvia Sessions Lyon, mother and daughter, providing us with the only firm instance known of Smith successfully fathering a child by a plural wife: Josephine Rosetta Lyon, Sylvia’s daughter. While these two marriages were surrounded by secrecy, and Compton suggests that no cohabitation between Smith and Patty occurred, it is quite certain that both women knew of the other’s marriage to the Prophet—an emotionally complicated and possibly ugly entanglement of the kind critics later seized on as confirming the decadence of polygamous society in Utah. Compton contends that some of the husbands involved in Smith’s polyandrous marriages probably knew of their wives’ relationship to the Prophet but were assuaged by the honor of a dynastic tie to Smith as well as other blessings he promised, including the prospect of plural wives for themselves.
One of the contributions this book makes to our knowledge of polygamy in the Nauvoo period is a clearer view of how Smith approached women he wished to marry. It was done, most often, indirectly through an intermediary such as a brother, father, or close friend. Blessings were commonly promised to those who gave such aid as well as to the women involved. Hesitation was met with assurances that fervent prayer would reveal the righteousness of Smith’s intent and the argument that the woman concerned had already been given to the Prophet in the resistance. These complex negotiations, of course, took place within a context of faith that Smith was indeed inspired—a faith nurtured by the Prophet’s charismatic personality and what Compton refers to as “Smith’s enormous psychic presence” (228).
Of greater importance than information about Smith, and central to the book’s intent, are the women he married. Too frequently our histories grant them little more than vague identities, leaving them overshadowed by the hero patriarchs of Mormonism’s early years. And what this book reveals is that most often their lives were riddled with great hardship, secrecy, and feelings of disregard. While in Nauvoo, not only had they to conceal their marriage to the Prophet from others, including most church members, but they found one of their chief foes in Joseph’s first wife Emma. More than Eliza R. Snow alone met with Emma’s wrath and was driven from her home. Fanny Alger, perhaps Smith’s first plural wife, and the Partridge sisters personally experienced Emma’s fierce jealousy. Describing these and similar matters, Compton refers to “the cloak and dagger atmosphere. . .of Nauvoo polygamy” (350). Given such a milieu, and our growing appreciation of the role played by plural marriage in precipitating Joseph’s and Hyrum’s assassinations, one is no more astonished by the Prophet’s commitment to the practice than the determination of his plural companions to stay the course with him.
Difficult as times were in Nauvoo, conditions for Smith’s widows became more perilous at the time of the overland crossing and after their arrival in the Great Basin. Though most were remarried to high church authorities like Brigham Young and Heber C. Kimball for “Time” (they were to be Smith’s in eternity), they were sometimes neglected. Few images in the book evoke more pathos than Compton’s account of Emily Partridge, ignored by Joseph after Emma ejected her, Hagar-like, from the Mansion House. Though taken on as one of Brigham’s plural wives, Emily was left to cross the Mississippi in the winter of 1846 by herself with a three-month-old child in her arms, straggling “from one fire to another, receiving food and shelter from near-strangers” (412).
It is interesting that the period during which these women were involved with Joseph Smith was so brief. At best, none had more than four years of even a shadow marriage with him. Since most were quite young, their widowhoods were long indeed. In each case, Compton provides extensive information on other marriages and especially on what happened to the women after Smith’s assassination. In most instances, the strongest theme that emerges in recounting their post-Nauvoo lives is despair and loneliness. There were, to begin with, the difficulties of a frontier, of pioneering life with its sickness, heat, cold, and want. Women, including Smith’s widows, endured an appalling amount of infant mortality. Louisa Beaman, one of Smith’s earliest plural wives, and one who was remarried to Brigham Young after the tragedy at Carthage, not only lost all five of her children, but died of breast cancer in 1850. Grafted into the large families of other pluralists, Smith’s former wives were less unique and more neglected than in Nauvoo where, with all its difficulties, their alliances with the Prophet brought at least the private satisfaction that, as Mary Elizabeth Rollins Lightner was later reminded, they had been “the first honored of God to help lay the foundation of this great work of regeneration.”
For those polyandrously involved with Smith, after the removal west where polygamy was publicly acknowledged and encouraged, they themselves now had to endure displacement as husbands invited new partners to their beds. Reading these accounts, one is quickly disabused, as the women themselves undoubtedly were, of any assumption that Mormon worthies always took care to obtain the consent of previous wives before marrying new ones. Nevertheless, both in Winter Quarters and in Utah, Smith’s widows met together often, cultivated common memories, and cheered themselves by singing, speaking in tongues, and giving each other blessings. One senses that these occasions with their intense spiritual displays were in many instances but a way of subliminating grief. Compton summed up the matter best, perhaps, in his discussion of Agnes Moulton Coolbrith by saying “polygamy was almost an institutionalized form of marital neglect” (170).
The largest effect left by the book is that the women were as real and human as ourselves. They felt the thrill of a living Prophet in their midst, the equivocal surprise of his forbidden, romantic attention, and the bereavement of secret widowhood after his untimely death. One also senses their pride, arising from the teachings that they were this dispensation’s premier exemplars of heaven’s own system of marriage. At the same time, they had to brook the humiliation of scandal and suspicion, as in the case of Marinda Nancy Hyde, who was not only the legal wife of Apostle Orson Hyde but rumored to be a sexual partner to Willard Richards before also becoming the plural wife of Joseph Smith. If only occasionally, these women must have started at and questioned the divinity of Smith’s claims. It s not insignificant, as Compton shows, that four of Smith’s plural wives drifted from the body of the church: Fanny Alger, Lucinda Pendleton Morgan, Agnes Coolbrith, and Elizabeth Davis—the latter eventually joining the RLDS Church which, ironically, was engaged in a crusade to prove that Joseph Smith had taken no plural wives at all.
With so many strengths, one wishes that the book were documented in a different way. It would have been clearer and easier to review Compton’s sources had he employed traditional end notes rather than organizing his references by phrases and names. While the amount of material consulted was enormous, and reading Compton’s notes is rewarding, references supporting precise passages in the text are too difficult to find. I also felt that the attempt to compare Joseph Smith’s method of recruiting plural wives with the anthropological device known as “exchange of women” (32-35) was extraneous. The use of models from the social sciences is sometimes insightful. In this case, however, I found it unhelpful in explaining how and why Smith behaved the way he did. Similarly, the description of some of Smith’s marriages as leviratic, “modified” leviratic, or “ideologically” leviratic (15, 295, 364, 371) goes further than the evidence allows. With the exception of Agnes Moulton Coolbrith, none of Smith’s wives were widows of his blood brothers; neither did he succeed in raising up progeny to their names, one of the purposes of the levirate.
But in the face of the work’s many gifts, these are minor criticisms. Compton succeeds in establishing his central thesis: the “tragic ambiguity” of the women Smith chose as plural companions (xiii). He accomplishes this, in part, by his sensitive style and in part by questioning his own inferences, by doubling back on the evidence to suggest alternative interpretations. This technique is illustrated in a passage describing the assistance given Smith by Elizabeth Davis, perhaps the most-married and one of the older of his polyandrous plural wives, in contacting other prospective spouses:
Depending on how one feels about polygamy, Elizabeth’s activities as Smith’s messenger will be viewed with more or less sympathy. The feminist will perhaps see her as co-opted by the male to further his power, while the conservative Mormons will see her as obediently following a Prophet. Even those unsympathetic to Joseph will understand that Elizabeth, like all Mormon women, had accepted him as an infallible leader and that it was the intensity of her religiosity that led her to influence other women to enter polygamy. In the nineteenth century, all leading Mormon women were expected to further the cause of polygamy, which was considered identical with the cause of the church. (262)
In Sacred Loneliness is a major work that will long be essential to anyone studying Mormon history. Apart from the illumination the stories provide concerning the prophet himself, Todd Compton’s portraits of Smith’s plural companions elevate the importance of women in Mormonism generally. Rather than the satellite role to which Mormon writers have so often assigned their pioneer mothers, by giving them his primary attention, Compton makes women the chief characters in the drama of the Prophet’s polygamy. Because he paints those in the early Church both men and women with flesh tones and earth pigments, there will undoubtedly be attempts to diminish the work’s credibility by searching for the inevitable, occasional error and criticizing the author’s naturalistic approach. But such a reading will miss the deeper, humane achievement of this book. Moreover, Compton consistently makes a large effort to be both fair and empathetic in his rendering. When accounts differ, he presents them honestly, leaving the reader to decide which is preferable—as in the matter of Smith’s relationship with Fanny Alger: was it in fact a solemnly contracted plural union or only an affair? Compton himself believes it was a bona fide plural marriage. The quantity of detail summoned in sifting through these lives and dealing with such questions will invite profitable revisiting of Compton’s book again and again by historians of every bias.
This volume was given the Best Book award by the Mormon History Association and also by the John Whitmer Historical Association. These prizes are fully deserved. In Sacred Loneliness will continue to be the best collective biography on the plural wives of Joseph Smith for many years to come.
The Salt Lake Tribune, Brandon Griggs
Much has been made in Utah of Brigham Young’s 27 wives.
But Mormon Church founder Joseph Smith had at least 33 wives of his own, most of them wed in a matrimonial flurry between 1841 and 1843.
Who were these women, and why did they agree to marry a man they rarely saw, especially since 11 of them already had husbands?
Historian Todd Compton answers these questions in a new book, In Sacred Loneliness: The Plural Wives of Joseph Smith, the first comprehensive look at the Mormon prophet’s many brides.
“Very little was written about these women. There’s this natural tendency to focus on the church leaders,” says Compton, who will discuss and sign his book Saturday at 5 p.m. at Sam Weller’s Books, 254 S. Main St. in downtown Salt Lake City. “But [these women] were very heroic, and their lives were very tragic.”
In Sacred Loneliness devotes a full chapter to each woman, ages 14 to 54, Smith married between 1833 and 1843.
While other historians credited Smith with as many as 48 wives, Compton cited the marriages he could document. (Smith also proposed to at least five women who turned him down.)
As Compton sees it, day-to-day polygamous living was unsatisfying for most of Smith’s wives, many of whom felt acute neglect.
“It was seen as sacred,” Compton says. “On the other hand . . . it was very difficult for a woman to be supported emotionally and economically under those conditions. Women were often very isolated.”
In researching the book, Compton came away with an increased admiration for Smith’s wives. They were persecuted for their religious beliefs and uprooted repeatedly from homes they had built. And many of them lost children to infection or disease.
“What they went through in raising their children . . . was often superhuman,” Compton says. “How many of these women had normal, happy lives? I only came up with three or four.”
After Smith’s death in 1844, the lonely lifestyle of plural marriage would continue for at least 18 of his widows. Eleven of them married apostle Heber C. Kimball, and at least seven of them married Brigham Young.
Associated Press, Vern Anderson
A year’s celebration of the Mormon pioneer experience is ending with the publication of a book on the “tragic ambiguity” of polygamy as experienced by 33 wives of church founder Joseph Smith.
The 788-page group biography casts a stark light on the peculiar practice that made the Mormons pariahs in the Midwest and compelled their epic migration to the Salt Lake Valley 150 years ago.
In Sacred Loneliness: The Plural Wives of Joseph Smith vividly documents the faith, hardship and heroism that were the focus of this year of the Mormon church’s successfully orchestrated sesquicentennial celebration.
But in this first comprehensive examination of the lives of the women Smith married and widowed, author Todd Compton also tracks the isolation and heartbreak that were a significant part of the Mormon female experience with polygamy.
“Most were pioneer, sometimes throughout their lives, moving from New England to Ohio, then to Missouri, to different parts of Missouri, to Nauvoo, to Winter Quarters, and on to Utah. Houses were built, then abandoned, with nearly every move,” Compton writes in the introduction.
And while most polygamists were sincere, intensely religious people of good will, “my central thesis is that Mormon polygamy was characterized by a tragic ambiguity.”
On one hand it was “the new and everlasting covenant,” restored by prophesy from the patriarchal milieu of the Old Testament and taught by Smith as an essential ingredient of eternal exaltation.
“On the other hand, day-to-day practical polygamous living, for many women, was less than monogamous marriage—it was a social system that simply did not work in 19th-century America.
“Polygamous wives often experienced what was essentially acute neglect. Despite the husband’s sincere efforts, he could only give a specific wife a fraction of his time and means,” Compton adds, and polygamy’s “practical result, for the woman, was solitude.”
In identifying 33 well-documented wives of Smith—other researchers have placed the figure as high as 48—Compton found that in the case of 11 women, Smith’s polygamy was polyandrous. That is, the women were married and cohabiting with their husband’s, who mostly were faithful Mormons, when Smith married them.
Yet not one divorced her “first husband” when Smith was alive. Indeed, they continued to live with their civil spouses while married to Smith.
Compton, a practicing Mormon living in Santa Monica, Calif., has a doctorate in classics from UCLA, but spent much of the 1990s combining pioneer records, diaries and reminiscences.
He cites evidence that Smith experimented with polygamy in the 1830s in Ohio and Missouri, but added wives in large numbers only in the final two years of his life in Nauvoo, Ill. Smith took no new wives in the eight months before his assassination by a mob, at age 38, in 1844.
Eleven of Smith’s wives were between the ages of 14 and 20, nine were in their 20s, eight were in Smith’s own peer group of 31 to 40, two were in their 40s and three in their 50s. One, Agnes Coolbrith Smith, was his brother’s widow.
“I knew that Joseph Smith had married younger women,” Compton said in an interview. “But when I read all of the sources, the composite history is very troubling, striking, especially from the viewpoint of the young women.”
In Smith’s theology, Compton writes, “a fullness of salvation depended on the quantity of family members sealed to a person in this life . . . This doctrine also makes it clear that, although Joseph’s marriages undoubtedly had a sexual dimension, theological concepts also drove his polygamy.”
After Smith’s death, his successor as church president, Brigham Young, married between seven and nine of Smith’s widows. Young’s counselor, Heber Kimball, married 11 more.
Compton is aware that relatively few of the world’s 10 million Mormons know many particulars of the polygamy practiced by their antecedents. Since abandoning the practice in 1890, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has striven for the place in the American mainstream that it was denied in the 19th-century, largely because of polygamy, he said.
But Compton isn’t comfortable with Mormon discomfort with the past, or with attempts to minimize polygamy or “sweep it under the carpet because it was an oddity.”
He pointed out that the three pioneer women featured in “Legacy,” the church-produced movie about the Mormon migration shown to Temple Square visitors, were all polygamous wives—a fact not mentioned in the film.
“Those who would portray Mormon history as carried on by superhuman men and women, without flaws, would turn them into inhuman automatons, which in fact betrays a deep disrespect for the real humanity of our foremothers and forefathers,” he writes.
Compton finds humanity aplenty in some of the Smith wives’ stories.
Emily Dow Partridge recounted how in 1843 she was approached by the Mormon prophet, who said “the Lord had commanded (him) to enter into plural marriage and had given me to him . . .”
So secret was the practice that neither Emily nor Eliza Partridge, a 22-year-old sister married by Smith four days later, initially knew they shared a common spouse.
Later, the two sister-wives were ordered out of the Smith home by Emma, Smith’s first wife, with her husband’s anguished acquiescence.
“When we went in Joseph was there, his countenance was the perfect picture of despair,” Emily wrote later. Emma Smith “insisted we break our covenants, that we had made before God.”
Helen Mar Kimball, 14-year-old daughter of Heber Kimball, wrote that after initially refusing when her father proposed marriage on Smith’s behalf, she finally relented.
“I knew that he loved me too well to teach me anything that was not strictly pure, virtuous and exalting in its tendencies; and no one else could have . . . brought me to accept of a doctrine so utterly repugnant and so contrary to all of our former ideas and traditions,” she wrote.
Toward the end of Smith’s life, knowledge of his secret began to leak out. William Law, Smith’s second counselor in the church’s First Presidency and an ardent polygamy foe, filed suit against the church leader for living “in an open state of adultery” with 19-year-old Maria Lawrence.
In a speech a month before his death, Smith responded by flatly denying polygamy, which was illegal under the law.
Church History, Gerald E. Jones
The Latter-day Saints placed the beginnings of plural marriage in the days of Abraham, in the Old Testament. As Martin Luther recognized, it was an acceptable practice before God at that time and presumably could be practiced later as well. With the LDS belief in the restoration of all things, including all ordinances, practices, and doctrines of previous dispensations, polygamy became a principle to practice with a religious motivation. The year 1832 is the commonly agreed-upon beginning of Smith’s teaching the doctrine of plural marriage. The written revelation was recorded in mid-1843. A similar revelation is contained in the Doctrine and Covenants, section 132.
Estimates of the number of Joseph Smith’s wives have varied from twenty-seven (A. Jensen) to eighty-four (S. Ivins), with the majority being in the forties (Brody and Quinn), while Foster and Hardy avoid even an estimate of the number. Compton has decided on thirty-three, feeling that affidavits, reliable testimony, or records of various kinds give us the names of the ones he tentatively proposes as Joseph’s plural wives. He gives the biographies of each in far more detail than has been done before. Another eight are listed as inconclusive and not accorded detailed life histories. Some may feel that the number should be lower, as the evidence is examined and found somewhat dubious.
A very helpful chart (4-8) lists each woman according to the chronological date of the marriage. From Fanny Alger in 1833 to Fanny Young in November 1843, Compton gives an account of their other husbands and their marital status prior to their marriage to Smith, and the age of each woman (ranging from 14 to 56) when married to Smith. It becomes clear that polygamy is the correct term and not polygyny, because polyandry was common. Fifty-five percent (18) were single when sealed to Joseph Smith though most later married again “for time only” to others. Thirty-three percent (11) remained with their husbands and thus were in a polyandrous relationship, though perhaps only in a spiritual and not a physical one. Three of these were married to non-Latter-day Saints. The wives’ ages break down as follows: 33 percent were 14-20 years old; 27 percent were 21-30; 24 percent were 31-40; 6 percent were 41-50; and 9 percent were 51-60.
Compton’s central thesis is that Mormon polygamy was “characterized by a tragic ambiguity” (xiii). A spiritual dimension was added to the lives and marriages of the individuals, but the practical side was diminished due to expanded commitments. An example is the amount of marital relations between Joseph and his wives. There is testimony of three of the women that such occurred with them but with the rest silence rules and only rumor portrays the relationships. The real motivation seemed to have been to gain an eternal mate in the heavenly life to come. When this was the only motive there was little stress or conflict. When more was expected by either party trouble ensued. After Joseph died many of his widows were married for time only to Brigham Young, Heber C. Kimball, or some other person—sometimes a non-Mormon. The same consideration was altered as financial support and marital relations were usually expected with this time-only marriage.
An interesting account is of Lucinda Pendleton Morgan, widow of the anti-Masonic martyr William Morgan. Lucinda married Smith ca. 1838 at age 37 while married to an active Latter-day Saint, George Washington Harris (43-54). This was considered a sealing for an eternal marriage and not a threat to the civil marriage to Harris. In fact, he evidently approved or at least did not cause trouble.
The first specifically dated sealing was to Louisa Beaman on 5 April 1841. She was not married to anyone else during Joseph Smith’s lifetime and seemed to be supported by him. She was a friendly confidant of his other plural wives (55-70). Later married to Brigham Young, she bore him five children, all of whom died in childhood.
Another famous wife was Agnes Coolbrith, who was married to Joseph’s brother Don Carlos when she was 27 and he 19, in 1834. Upon the death of Don Carlos, Agnes was married for time to Joseph in an Old Testament-sanctioned Levirate marriage intended for men to marry their brothers’ widows. When Don Carlos died in 1841 he left three children, one of whom, Josephine Donna Smith, later became known as Ina Coolbrith, California’s poet laureate.
The only mother-daughter pair married to Joseph was Patty Bartlett Sessions and her daughter Sylvia Sessions. Sylvia was married to Smith first in 1842 and a month later her mother was sealed to him as well. Sylvia later claimed her daughter Josephine was fathered by Joseph. Patty became famous as a midwife and reportedly delivered nearly 4,000 babies. Her story in the West is a poignant one as the wife of John Parry, and active Latter-day Saint.
Each biography is well researched and gives ten to twenty pages about each wife and family. Along with two other works, Jessie Embry’s and B. Carmon Hardy’s, this is a definitive work on the subject of early Mormon polygamy. Hardy’s work continues where Compton’s stops and Embry’s research and interviews with descendants of polygamous families rounds out a fairly complete picture of this unusual practice. Some may be troubled with the lack of definitive evidence for these thirty-three marriages. A lot seems to rest on an assumption that the word “was” in a sentence concerning two people was a code word for “wedded and sealed.” That may be the case, but there is no conclusive evidence and therefore skepticism may be warranted. Compton recognizes this and presents all information he has found in his impressively researched work. The book is well worth the price and the effort due to the scholarship of the author and the interesting lives revealed.
Latter Day Saint History, Gerald John Kloss
Despite the fact that the concept and practice of plural marriage promulgated by Joseph Smith Jr. has been swept aside and even denied by several Latter Day Saint churches, there is ample evidence in existence that not only did this happen over 160 years ago but that the lives of these women was harsh, even bitter and lonely. In this text, author Todd Compton lays out evidence that Joseph Smith Jr. was indeed a practicing polygamist with thirty-three known wives and a possible eight others. The age range of these women was from fourteen to fifty four.
In approaching a study of plural wives it is important to clearly understand that this doctrine was of central importance to Joseph Smith Jr. for religious, doctrinal, ecclesiastical, and emotional reasons. Joseph spoke of little else in private in the last year of his life. As he developed the principle of sealing ordinances that connected families for eternity, this doctrine was inextricably bound up with plural marriage.
It is evident in the doctrine and teachings of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, particularly during the latter part of the nineteenth century that anyone who practiced monogamy could never gain a complete salvation. This teaching was obviously based on the teaching of the founding prophet, Joseph Smith Jr.
Knowing that Joseph Smith Jr. believed and taught that complete salvation (called exaltation in Mormon doctrine) depended on the extent of a man’s family sealed to him in this life will help any researcher understand the extent of Joseph Smith’s family until the time of his death. One can only imagine the size of it if he had not died in 1844!
It is believed that while Joseph was engaged in the work of translating the Scriptures [Inspired Version of the Bible] that he focused on the concept of polygamy. This occurred in 1831 while Joseph was dealing with the Book of Genesis—specifically Genesis 13:16; 16:10; 17:6; 18:8, and 22:17) in which God promised Abraham that his posterity would be as plentiful as the dust of the earth, the stars in the sky, and the sands of the seashore. After reading, studying, and praying it is believed that Joseph received his first revelation on this topic.
Currently, the example of Abraham and the Abrahamic promise are pointed out in the Book of the Doctrine and Covenants, published by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Section 132.
The other scripture that brought the idea of polygamy into Joseph Smith’s mind was Matthew 22:30, in which Jesus states that “in the resurrection they neither marry nor are given in marriage”. Joseph’s understanding of this scripture was that one had to create ones “extended family,” ones Kingdom in a sense, by marriage while here on earth.
The Old Testament obviously influenced Joseph Smith and his theology. Of particular note was the prominence of prophets, temples, and polygamy. These all served to give him his prophetic mission as well as his doctrine.
These doctrines were formalized and practiced particularly during the Nauvoo Church period. Knowing that Smith believed and taught and practiced that a fullness of salvation depended on the quantity of family members sealed to a person in this life helps to put the number of women Joseph married, as revealed in this text, into an understandable context. It also helps the researcher to understand that even though Joseph’s marriage had a sexual dimension, his theological concepts also drove his polygamy in addition to the related purpose of gaining the highest possible exaltation by linking prominent families to him for both temporal as well as eternal reasons and rewards.
In the preface to his book Compton writes “All historians are subject to the limitations of the evidence available, and this book is no exception. But it is surprising that these key women have been comparatively forgotten, especially considering the reverence Mormons hold for their founding prophet, and considering how important polygamy was to Smith. In fact, one occasionally meets Mormons who have no idea that Joseph Smith had plural wives at all: twentieth-century Mormons are undoubtedly uncomfortable with the tales of nineteenth century polygamy.” (page xi)
Later on in the same preface (pages xiv-xv) Compton notes: “often plural wives who experienced loneliness also reported feelings of depression, despair, anxiety, helplessness, abandonment, anger, psychosomatic symptoms, and low self-esteem. Certainly polygamous marriage was accepted by nineteenth-century Mormons as thoroughly sacred—it almost defined what was most holy to them—but its practical result, for the woman, was solitude.”
In this tremendous volume, researcher and author Todd Compton reveals the personal stories of these women whom Joseph Smith loved, married and even guaranteed their eternal salvation.
The stories of the individual women reveal the difficult lives which they led dealing with problems related to secrecy; sharing sexual relations with a man who has engaged with many others, forfeiting a one-one love relationship with a partner of their own choosing; being branded with marked reputations; and no where or no-one to turn to after the death of their beloved husband in June of 1844. Many of the stories of these women reveal personal heartbreak and tragedy.
It is interesting to note that researcher Tom Compton began working on this topic in 1992 when he was interested in finding out more about the life of Eliza R. Snow, one of Joseph Smith’s plural wives. His research, a result of a research fellowship from the Huntington Library, led him into many libraries and list of Joseph’s wives. These include lists of the marriages of Brigham Young, Heber C. Kimball, as well as Joseph Smith. He also referred to Andrew Jenson’s century old list of twenty seven of Smith’s plural wives, Stanley S. Ivins list form the 1950s of forty eight wives and Fawn Brodie’s book—”No Man Knows My History” published in 1945 and updated in 1971.
Todd Compton relates that because early polygamy was secret and not officially documented, there are still many uncertainties in even a conservative, carefully documented description of Smith’s extended family.
Of particular note is the title for this text “In Sacred Loneliness—the polygamous wives of Joseph Smith.” Noting that since the polygamous husbands were often church leaders, demands on their time further reduced their ability to be with their families. Polygamous husbands, like Joseph Smith, generally had favorite wives, siblings, and children, which limited even more than time with their wives. As a result some women left their polygamous husbands, but if they remained in the family, they compensated by developing especially close ties with sister wives, siblings and children. This type of relationship certainly does set the stage for loneliness and because it existed in the early Mormon Church, it was indeed a sacred loneliness.
This text is a must for anyone who even has had questions or a curiosity regarding polygamy and Joseph Smith’s role in it.
Library Journal, Kay Meredith
Formerly at UCLA and now the editor of Mormonism and Early Christianity, Compton has compiled a meticulously researched and masterly study of Mormon Joseph Smith’s 33 wives. The women are presented individually, with many of their own documents cited. Compton contends that “Mormon polygamy was characterized by a tragic ambiguity”: infinite dominion in the next life vs. a social system that did not work, thus resulting in acute neglect of the wives. These “key women have been comparatively forgotten,” surprisingly so considering the reverence Mormons hold for their founding prophet and how important polygamy was to Smith. The “sacred loneliness” refers to Smith’s promise of salvation combined with the solitude of the forsaken multiple wives. A plenary reference and bibliography and a collection of the wives’ photographs fill out this tome, making it a fascinating work. Valuable for both lay readers and scholars, this is recommended for public and academic libraries with good collections in history and women’s studies.
Free Inquiry, Vern L. Bullough
In spite of the image of sexual repression most of us have of what is sometimes called the “age of Victoria,” sexual drive continued to break through the surface. Prostitution was rampant, and brothels in the United States were everywhere. Many Americans, upset at the hypocrisy of it all, formed free-love communities such as Oneida or sex-free groups such as the Shakers. Many also turned to scriptural examples to deal with their sexual drives. This was the case of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, or Mormons, established by Joseph Smith in 1830.
In the book In Sacred Loneliness: The Plural Wives of Joseph Smith, Todd Compton, a cautious and careful scholar, has managed to reconstruct the lives of Smith’s 33 documented wives, most of whom previously had been known only by name. He holds that the women as a group were extraordinary in many ways, and he tries to see Mormon history not from the traditional viewpoint of the male church leaders, but from the viewpoint of the wives of the prophet, most of whom played important roles in the Mormon Church.
The Mormons were very much influenced by the traditional Jewish Scriptures in which polygamy was a fact of life. But Smith added a new wrinkle—the Mormon’s obligation to bring unborn souls awaiting an earthly body into being, emphasized by the biblical injunction to be fruitful and multiply. He apparently became convinced of the correctness of polygamy in 1831 after he already published the Book of Mormon and gradually revealed the new revelation to his close followers.
Smith probably took his first plural wife in 1833, a 16-year-old named Fanny Alger. Though some Mormon writers, perhaps embarrassed by the polygamous activities of Joseph Smith, have emphasized that Smith’s marriages were only spiritual unions without sexual contact, this, as Compton makes clear, was simply not the case.
Over the next few years, Smith took some 33 wives. They included a mother and a daughter, the widow of his brother (in a traditional Levirate ritual), and two sisters. Age was of little matter to him: eleven were between 14 and 20 years of age, nine were 21 to 30, eight were in his own peer group (31 to 40), two were 41 to 50, and three were 51 or over. In addition to the documented wives, there might well have been eight others whom Compton labels as possible wives, and eight who were “sealed” to him after his murder in 1844 so that they might be his wives in heaven. This gives a total of 50 wives, counting Emma, his first wife. Many of the women were married to others when they became the wives of Smith.
Polygamy was restricted to the leadership group in the Mormon Church and was more or less kept secret from the other members, although rumors abounded. Emma Smith, the first and only legal wife, was violently opposed to polygamy, and fought the prophet tooth and nail on the issue. After his death she denied the existence of other wives, although records indicate she was well aware of at least some of them. Emma was not alone in her hostility, and many of the early Mormons split from Smith over the issue of polygamy. It was a factor in Smith’s assassination. It was not until the Mormons reached Utah, however, that polygamy became a matter of public knowledge.
Almost all of Smith’s wives married again after the death of Joseph, and many, as indicated, were already in secular marriages. Thus, it was not just polygamy (plural wives) the Mormons practiced but polyandry (plural husbands) as well. After Smith’s death, many of the surviving wives were married by proxy to other Mormon leaders, who were to act as real husbands, even “raising seed” to Smith (i.e. making the women pregnant), although in the next world, the celestial kingdom, Joseph’s sacred wives were to again become his. Children from such marriages were “sealed eternally” to Joseph Smith in temple ceremonies so that they could also join his family in the hereafter.
Probably most of Smith’s wives were convinced of the rightness of multiple marriages according to what Compton uncovered in their private diaries or letters. Still, he argues that Mormon polygamy was characterized by a tragic ambiguity. A plural wife’s marriage had eternal significance in the Mormon doctrine, but it lacked earthly fulfillment since the loving, comforting husband was rarely around, even when the wives lived in the same house. Many husbands did not even live in the same community. Most of Smith’s wives, reports Compton, were usually forced to carry on by themselves with only an occasional visit from either the prophet or after his death from their new polygamous husband stand-ins for him. Thus, although most came to believe they were fulfilling their sacred duty, they also reported feelings of depression, despair, anxiety, helplessness, abandonment, and anger. They displayed psychosomatic symptoms and had low self-esteem in what Compton called their “sacred loneliness.”
Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought, Lawrence Foster
Joseph Smith’s polygamous relationships have been a topic of great interest and controversy among Mormons and non-Mormons alike. The reactions of the women whom Joseph Smith took as plural wives and the way in which their relationships with the Mormon prophet were part of their own larger life experiences, however, have seldom been studied systematically. Most writers have contented themselves with making head counts of Smith’s alleged plural wives. The Mormon church historian, Andrew Jenson, listed twenty-seven probable plural wives. Fawn Brodie identified forty-eight, and more recent Mormon historians such as Danel Bachman, D. Michael Quinn, and George D. Smith have identified thirty-one, forty-six, and forty-three plural wives, respectively. These lists often do not adequately distinguish between different types of plural wives, particularly between those who probably sustained full connubial relations with Joseph Smith and those who were only posthumously sealed to him “for eternity.”
Todd Compton’s massive and path-breaking, 788-page study, In Sacred loneliness, provides the most comprehensive assessment yet available of the lives of thirty-three women whom he considers “well-documented wives of Joseph Smith” (1). Compton begins with a twenty-three page introduction that discusses some of the complex issues that must be addressed if Joseph Smith’s plural marriages are to be understood, and then he briefly summarizes the evidence on each of the wives in chart form. The 596-page core of the book consists of thirty well-written and thoroughly documented chapters that sympathetically reconstruct, using detailed quotations from a wide range of primary sources, the lives of the thirty-three women he has identified as plural wives. These include two sets of sisters and one mother-daughter pair whose stories are combined in three of the chapters. Instead of in-text source citations, 148 pages of bibliographic and chapter references are provided. A fifteen-page index concludes the study.
Although scholars may take issue with some of Compton’s assumptions and arguments, his study is a major step forward in understanding early Mormon plural marriage. First and most impressively, Compton is concerned about treating each of the women whom he studies as a real person in her own right and reconstructing the entire life stories from birth to death of these often quite remarkable women, many of whom became among the most respected and influential female leaders in pioneer Utah. For many of these women, their relationship with Joseph Smith was only a brief interlude in a much larger and more complex life; for others, the issues of their polygamous relationships with Joseph Smith and, subsequently, with other Mormon leaders such as Brigham Young and Heber C. Kimball were a focus of recurrent concern and tension. Compton masterfully reconstructs the often poignant stories of these women without reducing them to stereotypical heroines or victims as so many earlier accounts have done.
Equally, if not more importantly, Compton has provided in this study the massive primary documentation from widely scattered sources that will allow both scholars and the general public alike to form their own opinions about just what was going on in Joseph Smith’s polygamous relationships and how those relationships affected the women who participated in them. As a non-Mormon scholar, I had the exceptional opportunity of spending more than four months reading primary diaries, journals, records, and affidavits held in the Church Archives in Salt Lake City while working on a study of the early development of Mormon polygamy that eventually would be published as Religion and Sexuality. Only someone who has worked closely with these documents can comprehend Compton’s full achievement in identifying and providing detailed quotations (with exact original spelling and punctuation) from virtually all of the most relevant portions of this substantial corpus of primary materials relating to Joseph Smith’s polygamous relationships and the larger life experiences of these women.
Finally, Compton is to be commended for candidly trying to come to terms with some of the most knotty and controversial aspects of early Mormon polygamy, including the evidence that Joseph Smith took as plural wives in a full physical sense women who were already married to other men. Compton argues, for example, that “fully one-third of his [Joseph Smith’s] plural wives, eleven of them, were married civilly to other men when he married them. … Polyandry might be easier to understand if one viewed these marriages to Smith as a sort of de facto divorce with the first husband. However, none of these women divorced their ‘first husbands’ while Smith was alive and all of them continued to live with their civil spouses while married to Smith” (15-16). Compton further points out that “there is evidence that he did have [sexual] relations with at least some of these women, including one polyandrous wife, Sylvia Sessions Lyon, who bore the only polygamous offspring of Smith for whom we have affidavit evidence” (21).
While Compton deserves much credit for tackling squarely and sensitively the thorny issue of these unusual relationships with Joseph Smith, I am extremely dubious about his characterization of them as “polyandrous.” As I have pointed out in Religion and Sexuality, 159-166, and in “Sex and Prophetic Power” (Dialogue 31, no. 4, Winter 1998), I see no evidence that the behavior in which Joseph Smith apparently engaged was viewed, either by the Mormon prophet himself or by his close followers who knew about it, as a form of “polyandry.” Rather, it seems far more likely, given the intensely patriarchal emphasis in early Mormon plural marriage, that such relationships were interpreted as a complex millenarian version of patriarchal levirate polygamy. Even this interpretation, which cannot be detailed here, may not be sufficient to explain all instances of this kind, however. For example, the most tangled such relationship, that of Zina Diantha Huntington, skillfully analyzed on pages 71-113 of In Sacred Loneliness, suggests the possibility that the demand for total loyalty to the leadership of the prophet and to his will may ultimately be the only way in which some of these relationships can be understood.
Another reservation that I have about this study is Compton’s tendency to state as matters of fact what are, at best, only his own suppositions. This is most apparent in the first paragraph of his chapter on Fanny Alger, the first of the thirty core chapters on Joseph Smith’s plural wives. Compton asserts, without initial qualification in the chapter, that she “was one of Joseph Smith’s earliest plural wives” (25). This is only Compton’s debatable supposition, not an established fact. While contemporary evidence strongly suggests that Smith sustained sexual relations with Fanny Alger, it does not indicate that this was viewed either by Smith himself or by his associates at the time as a “marriage.” The most substantial contemporary description of the relationship comes from a letter written by Oliver Cowdery on January 21, 1838, in which he declares that “in every instance I did not fail to affirm that what I said was strictly true. A dirty, nasty, filthy affair of his and Fanny Alger’s was talked over in which I strictly declared that I never deviated from the truth” (38).
There is strong evidence from later sources that Joseph Smith may have considered, at least as early as July 1831, the possibility of reintroducing a form of patriarchal Old Testament polygamy. There is no reliable contemporary evidence, however, that any of the sexual relationships that Joseph Smith may have sustained with women other than his first wife, Emma, prior to the first formally documented plural marriage ceremony with Louisa Beaman in Nauvoo, Illinois, on April 5, 1841, was necessarily viewed at the time as a “marriage.” Such earlier sexual relationships may have been considered marriages, but we lack convincing, contemporary evidence supporting such an interpretation. Later Mormon writers simply have assumed that if there was a sexual relationship involving Joseph Smith, then it must have involved a “marriage.” For this debate as it applies to Compton’s interpretation of Fanny Alger, which first appeared in an article in the Journal of Mormon History 23 (Spring 1996): 174-207, see Janet Ellington’s letter in the Journal of Mormon History 23 (Spring 1997): vi-vii, and Compton’s response in the Journal of Mormon History 23 (Fall 1997): xvii-xix.
From a larger perspective, this and other scholarly reservations that one might have about In Sacred Loneliness are far less significant than the remarkable achievement of this study. Just as the superb biography, Mormon Enigma: Emma Hale Smith, by Linda K. Newell and Valeen Tippetts Avery for the first time presented a full, sympathetic, and well-rounded scholarly analysis of the life of Joseph Smith’s dynamic but much misunderstood first wife, In Sacred Loneliness provides a thorough, sympathetic, and well-rounded scholarly analysis of thirty-three other women who also sustained important relationships with the Mormon prophet. Anyone seeking to grapple with the complex issues of how Mormon plural marriage originated and what it meant to some of the most articulate Mormon women who participated in the practice will find this study an invaluable starting point.