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Book Review: In Sacred Loneliness: The Plural Wives of Joseph Smith

By Todd Compton

Signature Books, 1997

Reviewed by Eric Johnson

Although many Mormons know that second LDS President Brigham Young was a practicing polygamist, some may not realize that Joseph Smith had many wives as well. When this issue is broached, I have heard it said more than once that such an accusation is nothing more than an anti-Mormon lie.

For those who are interested in verified historical evidence, the best book on the topic that ought to be studied and used as a resource is In Sacred Loneliness by Todd Compton, a Latter-day Saint possessing a Ph.D. who has taught at prestigious universities such as UCLA and USC. To those who may doubt the veracity of Smith’s polygamous past, this book–recipient of the “Best Book Award” by both the John Whitmer Historical Association and the Mormon History Association–is sure to cause plenty of consternation.

Of course, Compton is not the only one who has come to this conclusion. Other respected historians with the same evidence include Richard S. Van Wagoner (Mormon Polygamy: A History), Richard Bushman (Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling), and Mormon Enigma: Emma Hale Smith (Linda King Newell and Valeen Tippetts Avery).  Yet while there are certainly many reputable sources, I believe that nobody has recorded such in depth histories for each of Smith’s wives as does Compton. This is why I think this volume should be a priority to have within arm’s length on any researcher’s bookshelf.

On page xi of his introduction, Compton writes,

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 details of nineteenth-century polygamy.

I can vouch for his statement. A few years ago, local Christians before the Mormon Miracle Pageant in Manti assembled together in the public street to portray Smith’s almost three dozen wives, each wearing the pioneer dress with a sign around her neck explaining which wife she was. (See the YouTube video links at the end of this article.) For several evenings I stood nearby and watched Latter-day Saints approach the girls and women. I can’t tell you how many times faithful Mormons became irritated, claiming that this was nothing more than an “anti-Mormon” set-up. When presented with the evidence, however, some ended up changing their minds, though the majority chalked this information up to “that’s just the way it was in those pioneer days.” What obviously had bothered them just a few minutes before was suddenly shelved under a category I describe as “not fitting within my comfort zone but I’ll accept it anyway.”

Although the numbers have varied depending on the researcher, Compton counts a total of 33 girls and women whom Smith married.

Eleven (33 percent) were 14 to 20 years old when they married him. Nine wives (27 percent) were twenty-one to thirty years old. Eight wives (24 percent) were in Smith’s own peer group, ages thirty-one to forty.  In the group aged forty-one to fifty, there is a substantial drop off: two wives, or 6 percent, and three (9 percent) in the group fifty-one to sixty. The teenage representation is the largest, though the twenty-year and thirty-year groups are comparable, which contradicts the Mormon folk-wisdom that sees the beginnings of polygamy as an attempt to care for older, unattached women. (11)

Although a number of Mormons may think that Smith had sexless marriages because they were for the next life and not this, Compton says this was not the case. In fact, “many of Joseph’s wives affirmed that they were married to him for eternity and time, with sexuality included.” (14) Thus,

though it is possible that Joseph had some marriages in which there were no sexual relations, there is no explicit or convincing evidence for this (except, perhaps, in the case of the older wives, judging from later Mormon polygamy). And in a significant number of marriages, there is evidence for sexual relations. (15)

Although many Mormons have learned to accept the fact that Smith practiced polygamy, the next earthquake comes with the fact that a third of his wives were married to other men! (This can even be news to those who already knew Smith was a polygamist.) Such a practice is no longer called “polygamy” (one man, multiple women) but “polyandry” (one women, multiple men). “In fact,” Compton writes,

fully one-third of his plural wives, eleven of them, were married civilly to other men when he married them. If one superimposes a chronological perspective, one sees that of Smith’s first twelve wives, nine were polyandrous. . . . 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)

Smith apparently justified the taking of other men’s wives by saying that their husbands were not true believers. What a selfless gesture by Smith! It appears that he was merely trying to give these lonely women a chance at eternal exaltation. (Please check the sarcastic meter.) As Compton correctly points out, if this was the case, then “one would have expected the women to leave the unworthy men.” And the facts state otherwise:

In the eleven certain polyandrous marriages, only three of the husbands were non-Mormon (Lightner, Sayers, and Cleveland) and only one was disaffected (Buell). All other husbands were in good standing in the church at the time Joseph married their wives. (16)

I like to ask faithful Latter-day Saints if they think Smith was wrong to marry other men’s wives. Some insist that polygamy can be supported by the Bible. This is not true. Certainly polygamy took place, but the practice was never commanded by God. In fact, Genesis says woman was made for the man and how two would become one flesh. Yes, polygamy was allowed, but it was neither condemned or condoned. If the Bible is studied closely, though, each and every instance of plural marriage proved to be disastrous. (For examples, see the life stories of Abraham, Jacob, David, and Solomon.)

I find that most Mormons try to change the topic when the issue of plural marriage is introduced. Down deep, they appear to be bothered. One rebuttal is that “Joseph wasn’t perfect,” even though I never insist that he had to be “perfect” to be a prophet. But I still want to know, do they as faithful Latter-day Saints condone such a practice? If they don’t, why can’t they just admit that Joseph Smith ought to lose significant integrity points for the way he lived his life. If a leader does not have integrity, the Bible says such a man should not be followed.

I have gotten to know some polygamous folks (not connected to the LDS Church) over the years. My perception is that, while there may be some cases of success with this type of lifestyle, for the majority there is more angst than satisfaction in the relationship(s). As Compton points out, the more women a man marries, the greater the likelihood there is to have

serious problems in the family, for the husband’s time and resources became more and more divided. By an almost cruel irony, the greater the number of women married, the greater the man’s exaltation, according to nineteenth-century Mormon theology. Not surprisingly, therefore, polygamous wives, even those married to prominent, well-to-do mean, were often not supported adequately financially. (xiv)

Compton traces Smith’s first marriage all the way back to the late winter of 1833 to Fanny Alger, a 14-year-old house helper. While some would not list Fanny as Smith’s first wife, “nineteenth-century Mormons, however, regarded the Smith-Alger relationship as a marriage.” (28) Just as he did with his other teen-aged wives, Smith was able to coax Alger’s parents into giving him approval to take their daughter. As Compton explains, “It is significant that the Alger parents felt it a spiritual honor to have their daughter married to Smith, just as the parents of Sarah Ann Whitney and Helen Mar Kimball did.” (33)

This 1872 letter from William McLellin to Joseph Smith III is quite telling, as quoted on page 35:

In an 1872 letter to Joseph Smith III, William McLellin wrote: ‘Again I told her [Emma] I heard that one night she missed Joseph and Fanny Alger. She went to the barn and saw him and Fanny in the barn together alone. She looked through a crack and saw the transaction!! She told me this story too was verily true.” Compton says that the late account may have been embellished, “but whether Emma saw her husband in the barn or discovered evidence of Fanny’s pregnancy, her reaction was the same. (35)

Smith was certainly a master manipulator. Should such a man be held in high regard. After all, what would we say about a 21st century man who had a message delivered to a 20-year-old woman (Zina Huntington) that “an angel with a drawn sword had stood over Smith and told him that if he did not establish polygamy, he would lose ‘his position and his life.’” Huntington finally gave in to Smith’s proposal in October 1841, even though she was seven months pregnant with her second child from her first husband.

Compton writes on page 496:

As so often, Joseph Smith taught polygamy as a requirement, and to reject it was to lose one’s eternal soul. Once one had accepted him as a prophet, one had to comply or accept damnation.

Consider the story of Helen Mar Kimball, a 14-year-old girl whose father (Heber) was a good friend with Joseph Smith. Compton quotes from Helen’s 1881 written explanation of her relationship with Smith, describing how her father approached her in the early summer of 1843:

Without any preliminaries [my father] asked me if I would believe him if he told me that it was right for married men to take other wives. The first impulse was anger. . . . My sensibilities were painfully touched. I felt such a sense of personal injury and displeasure; for to mention such a thing to me I thought altogether unworthy of my father, and as quick as he spoke, I replied to him, short and emphatically, No I wouldn’t! . . . This was the first time that I ever openly manifested anger towards him. (498)

Her father had already offered her to Smith, as Helen continued:

Having a great desire to be connected with the Prophet, Joseph, he offered me to him; this I afterwards learned from the Prophet’s own mouth. My father had but one Ewe Lamb, but willingly laid her upon the altar; how cruel this seamed to the mother whose heartstrings were already stretched until they were ready to snap asunder, for he had taken Sarah Noon to wife & she thought she had made sufficient sacrifise but the Lord required more. (498)

According to Helen, Smith told her, “’If you will take this step, it will ensure your eternal salvation & exaltation and that of your father’s household & all of your kindred.[‘] This promise was so great that I willingly agave myself to purchase so glorious a reward.” As Compton puts it, “Helen’s acceptance of a union that was not intrinsically attractive to her was an act of youthful sacrifice and heroism.” (499)

However, Helen apparently had assumed that this marriage binding the Smith and Kimball families was only for time and not this life. When she realized this wasn’t the case, she felt deceived.

She must have been attracted to boys her own age, as would be normal. She certainly was already paying attention to Horace Whitney. The marriage to Smith coming so suddenly and blocking these growing feelings must have been devastating to her. These lines are the first evidence of depression in Helen Mar’s life. (501)

Besides repeating vows with teens and other men’s wives, Smith married mothers and daughters (Patty Bartlett and Sylvia Porter Sessions) as well as sisters (Emily and Eliza Partridge/Sarah and Maria Lawrence). Say what you want about polygamy, but such unions were certainly banned in the Pentateuch. Besides sounding very abnormal, the ban found in scripture ought to be a sign that such marriages were off limits.

Even the Book of Mormon does not allow for polygamy in such a way. According to Jacob 2 in the Book of Mormon, the practice is only allowed when “seed” is required (for children to be born). If this is the case, then why are a third of the women he married already married to men who could have provided them children. And why is there no proof that Smith ever had any children in these polygamous unions, even though “there is a great deal of evidence that Joseph Smith had sexual relations with his wives.” According to Compton, Smith did have children, though “some of his children apparently grew up under other names, as Mary Lightner suggested.” (13)

Compton also talks about why the women of polygamy put up with this so easily. Writing about Eliza Partridge, he explains:

But it is worth noting that the women who suffered so much under polygamy gave it their unqualified support in public rallies and wrote impassioned defenses of it. They too were devoted to the idea that their church was led by practically infallible, authoritative prophets, especially Joseph Smith. This was the reason why missionaries could teach that only Latter-day Saint baptism was recognized by God. If nineteenth-century Mormons had concluded that Smith had been wrong in what he taught was the crowning revelation of his life, they would have been left with a very different Mormonism than the faith they followed. Neither Mormon men nor women were willing to jettison that much of their religion. (456)

Through it all, Smith kept lying to his wife as well as the public. Even though he had several dozen wives as of May 26, 1843, Smith denied polygamy in a speech: “What a thing it is for a man to be accursed of committing adultery, and having seven wives, when I can only find one.” It was not the only lie regarding polygamy that he told. Compton explains Smith reasoning:

As polygamy was illegal under U.S. law, Smith had little choice but to openly repudiate the practice. But as is often the case with secret policies that are denied publicly, Smith’s credibility would later suffer. Realistically he must have understood that thirty-three or more marriages could not be kept a secret forever, and that when they became known the gulf between his public statements and private practice would come back to haunt him. Church leaders would face exactly the same dilemma when practicing post-Manifesto polygamy half a century later. (477)

All in all, I give an enthusiastic recommendation to Compton’s book for those who are interested in Smith’s polygamous history. Yes, it’s incredible and hard to believe, yet this is not anti-Mormon rhetoric. Rather, it’s verified history. To allow Joseph Smith a “free pass” on this issue is, to be blunt, highly unconscionable in my book.

Consider the following YouTube videos:

         Stories of Joseph Smith’s Wives (actresses playing wives of Joseph Smith)__________________

And check out these Viewpoint on Mormonism podcasts:


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