BOOK RECOUNTS HEARTBREAK, ISOLATION OF POLYGAMOUS
AUTHOR DOCUMENTS LIVES OF WOMEN WHO MARRIED JOSEPH SMITH
By Vein Anderson
The Associated Press
SALT LAKE CITY A year's celebration of the Mormon pioneer experience
is ending with publication of a book on the "tragic ambiguity"
of polygamy as experienced by 33 plural 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 this year
of the Mormon church's successfully orchestrated sesqui-centennial 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
"Most were pioneers, 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.
'A TRAGIC AMBIGUITY'
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
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 husbands, who mostly were faithful Mormons, when
Smith married them.
MARRIED TO OTHER MEN
Yet not one divorced her "first husband"
when Smith was alive. Indeed, they continued to live with their civil spouses
while married to Smith.
"If one superimposes a chronological perspective, one sees that
of Smith's first 12 wives, nine were polyandrous. So in this early period,
polyandry was the norm, not the anomaly," he writes.
Compton, a practicing Mormon living in
Santa Monica, Calif, has a doctorate in classics from UCLA, but spent much
of the 1990s combing pioneer records, diaries and reminiscences.
He cites strong 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. Curiously,
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 ages 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.
"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."
After Smith's death, his successor as church president, Brigham Young,
married between seven and nine of Smith's widows. Young's counselor, Heber
C. 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 a 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 said 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 super-human
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.
ONLY TOO HUMAN
Compton finds humanity aplenty in some
of the Smith wives' stories. Emily Dow Partridge recounted how in 1843 as
a frightened 19-year-old 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 that we should
promise to break our covenants, that we had made before God."
Kimball, 14-year-old daughter of Heber C. Kimball, wrote that after initially
refusing when her father proposed marriage on Smith's behalf, she finally
"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,"
Toward the end of Smith's life, knowledge of his secret marriages 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
In a speech a month before his death, Smith responded by flatly denying
polygamy, which was illegal under federal law. 'What a thing it is for a
man to be accused of committing adultery, and having seven wives, when I
can only find one," he said.