In Sacred Loneliness: The Plural Wives of Joseph Smith by Todd M. Compton
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
This was such a great read! I can't even imagine the amount of research that went into this. Each chapter is a detailed biography of each of Joseph Smith's plural wives (Todd Compton settles on 33 absolutely proven marriages while there are definitely others out there that are still being investigated).
Learning the stories of these women and getting to read things that they themselves wrote was amazing. We hear so little about women during the founding of the Mormon church and when we do it's often dramatized or makes them out to be never doubting, perfect, angel type women. While I believe they should be respected I think getting to know who they really were and what they really thought does much more to honor them than to only tell a sanitized version of their history.
Compton uses so many types of records to recreate each woman's life. Some of the wives are very well documented and known already such as Eliza R. Snow or Helen Mar Kimball, while others we have only one or two extant documents. There has been a lot of speculation about Smith's polygamy, who was involved, why it was practiced, etc. Compton uses journals (of men and women involved with polygamy at the time), as well as affidavits that many of the women wrote and signed later in life, writings and quotes attributed to Smith, receipts, newspaper articles, census records, and more in order to give us a more clear picture of these women's lives.
In addition to painting a more vivid picture of each of these women, this book also brought polygamy more into more focus for me. One realization was that Smith started practicing polygamy way before section 132 of the Doctrine and Covenants was written. Not only was it done in secrecy, but the secrecy was actually part of the covenant that Joseph made people take to participate in it. While I knew that it was a very hushed practice at the time I was amazed at the level of deception that many of the leaders participated in when talking to Emma about it and also in confronting accusations of polygamy in local newspapers and publications. Finally I was suprised at how important polygamy was to Joseph Smith and the early saints. It wasn't just a part of the gospel for them, it was the entire thing. They believed that polygamy was a pattern of what heaven will be like and Joseph believed that polygamy was his crowning revelation to the church and the most necessary component to assuring one's salvation.
Knowing these things, especially the last point, makes it much harder to simply put the question of polygamy on a shelf. Joseph Smith really believed that we'd be practicing polygamy in heaven, that the bigger the family kingdom you build on earth the higher your exaltation, and that it was necessary for salvation. All of which I don't believe. So this causes quite the dillemna for me in reconciling that with my belief in the church. While this book didn't really help me reconcile anything, I have found a couple others that break down the scriptures and revelations a little more and also, of course, I believe in the idea of updated revelations from our leaders now and in the future, and I don't think they are preaching that. I still find myself fascinated by the way Joseph viewed it though and learning more about the revelations themselves: where they came from, what Joseph thought they meant, what they actually could have meant, how Joseph tried to remain faithful to what he thought he should do, how he may have deviated from that course. Whether these beliefs about God were his only motive in implementing plural marriage we'll probably never know. But we can probably stop promoting false defenses of it such as stating that it increased the number of children born, or took care of widows, etc. We can see by birth statistics and the average age of Joseph's wives (and all polygamous wives in the early church) that these theories just aren't supported.
I enjoyed this book so much because it made the women come alive to me! I see such value in women learning about the stories of other women. It's something that can often get overlooked in a religious setting- the voice of the women. These ladies loved and were loved. They were mothers, daughters, sisters and friends. They had their heart broken, had hope, were midwives, felt lonely, lost husbands, lost children, got divorced, raised hell, etc. It let me look past the anecdotal stories that we hear and see a full dimensional person. Instead of just seeing their very best quote from an ensign article we get to see their real life quotes from their journals. Just what they were thinking and why. I loved it. I was amazed at how many women have a certain story in church history that we've heard and we only know just that one story and we never find out that she was also a wife of Joseph Smith and she also did all these other things outside of just the one little story. In fact, they have stories about divorce, raising children with disabilities, children who elope, being midwives for hundreds of births in primitive conditions, losing children who are poisoned by people who hate the church, not being sealed to the love of their life since they are already sealed to Joseph Smith, going through depression, participating in prayer meetings where they speak in tongues and give one another healers blessings, and much much more.
Also, the authors title was a pretty good description of how these women lived. Loneliness is a huge theme throughout the book and my heart broke for them and their sacrifices many times. Many of these women were told that not only their salvation but the salvation of their families relied upon them becoming plural wives to the prophet. One woman, Lucy Walker, even describes her feelings after she receives Joseph's proposal as saying that she felt her life was stretched across the sacrificial alter. My heart broke so many times for each of them. Those who were already married, those who were so young, those who were Emma's friends and yet keeping this secret. And of course my heart breaks for Emma and the things that she had to endure.
I was also surprised by how adamantly the women defended polygamy in public while hating it and rallying against it in private conversations or journal entries. I was also surprised by the fact, that in their zeal to defend polygamy they put down the institution of monogamy by calling it vile, wicked and carnal. Many of them talk about polygamy being God's only way of marriage and that monogamy was brought to the world from the evil Romans and that it took away the virtue of women and caused whoredoms and adultery. They also truly believed that monogamy would never be reinstated and so when it was within many of their lifetimes, that was a very very hard thing for them to go through.
I was also fascinated by the history of polygamy after Joseph's Smith's death. When Joseph III became president of the RLDS church he and others went on missions with the sole purpose of convincing others that Joseph Smith had never practiced polygamy. When information came to light that he had, the RLDS then took the perspective that none of the marriages were ever consummated. To counter their opinions Brigham Young made many of the plural wives of Joseph Smith sign affidavits that not only were they married but also that they were intimate. So we have their stories in their own words many times that spell out exactly the nature of their relationship.
Anyway, I could go on and on about this book but really people just need to read it. It will give you a better understanding of where Joseph Smith was coming from and also who these women were and the amazing things they did outside of marrying Joseph Smith. I think this part of our history is so important to study and learn from. These women have interesting and unique lives and go through so much more than I think I could bear in one lifetime. They are overlooked, persecuted, lonely, loyal, filled with faith, supportive friends to one another and amazing!
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