Monday, February 18, 2008

Not a Poke in the Eye

Last Saturday Ruby, Georgia and I went on a pawn shop and book store shopping adventure. I hoped to find a pair of binoculars for cheap (no luck). At Benchmark Books, I bought four books. 1) In Sacred Loneliness, the Plural Wives of Joseph Smith by Todd Compton 2) Four Zinas: A Story of Mothers and Daughters on the Mormon Frontier by Martha Sonntag Bradley and Mary Brown Firmage Woodward 3) Lowell L. Bennion: Teacher, Counselor, Humanitarian by Mary Lythgoe Bradford and 4) Working the Divine Miracle, The Life of Apostle Henry D. Moyle by Richard Poll.

I had toyed with getting the Compton book for a least a couple of years but was worried that it wouldn’t hold my interest. Plus it’s pricey -- $41. It's pretty distressing to pay that much for a book, get through 30 of 800 pages and then get bogged down because it’s not engaging or credible or it’s just too much work.

The Compton book is not a biography of Joseph Smith; it is 33 mini-biographies of the women he took as wives. I am not far into it, but one thing is certain, I didn’t waste my money. Compton thus far strikes me as extremely fair, even and candid. I have a hard time reading a book if I sense that it is babying me by holding back information. I say, give me the goods, be fair, acknowledge your biases and agenda, and let me draw my own conclusions.

This book certainly doesn’t hold back, but it is far from an exposé. Compton is not trying to poke anybody in the eye with this information. He aims to show us that these were real women who walked and talked and breathed like you and me, and he thinks their existence should be documented and understood. Compton’s writing is very readable and the subject matter, which I find inherently interesting, has not been smothered with dreary academic prose. It is an easy, smooth read. It’s also chock full of extraordinary bits of information. I mean, we all know Joseph Smith was a polygamist, but who can name more than one or two of his wives? Emma – OK, that’s easy; Eliza Snow, Fanny Alger, others? My knowledge stopped about there. I knew he had many wives but I was unclear on why or when or how he did it. How does someone get 33 women (several already married to other men) to agree to marry them? Talk about thinking (and acting) outside the box. It’s astonishing. To say that Joseph was an extraordinary person is an understatement.

This book details what we know (and importantly, what we don’t know) about each of the women. Some get 40 pages and some get two. Some we know a lot about and some remain a mystery. The youngest was 14 at the time of her marriage and the oldest was 54, give or take a year. Most were in their late teens, 20s or 30s. In 1843 alone, Joseph took about 15 wives. How is that even logistically possible?

Much of the evidence for these polygamous unions comes from the efforts of President Joseph F. Smith (Joseph Smith’s nephew), who documented the practice. He was in something of a debate with the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (now the Community of Christ) as to whether Joseph actually practiced polygamy. He said yes – they said no. Several women swore out affidavits attesting to their marriages, which he then used to bolster his case that polygamy started with Joseph Smith rather than Brigham Young.

I will be posting more as I get farther into the book. As to the other three books, I hope to get to them sooner rather than later.


CraigJ said...


A fine blogosphere launch :-)

Interesting book selections - in regards to the wives of Joseph I recalled the excerpt below, taken from Benjamin Franklin Johnson's Autobiography - he's my great grandfather^6.

(Sorry it's long...curious if these stories are in the book):

As I have alluded to the law of plural marriage I will relate the time and manner in which it was taught to me.

About the 1st of April, 1843 the Prophet with some of the Twelve and others came to Macendonia to hold a meeting, which was to convene in a large cabinet shop owned by Joseph E. and myself, and as usual he put up at my house. Early on Sunday morning he said “Come Br. Bennie, let us have a walk.” I took his arm and he led the way into a by-place in the edge of the woods surrounded by tall brush and trees, and here, as we sat down upon a log he began to tell me that the Lord had revealed to him that plural or patriarchal marriage was according to his law; and that the Lord had not only revealed it to him but had commanded him to obey it; that he was required to take other wives; and that he wanted my Sister Almira for one of them, and wished me to see and talk to her upon the subject. If a thunderbolt had fallen at my feet I could hardly have been more shocked or amazed. He saw the struggle in my mind and went on to explain. But the shock was too great for me [to] comprehend anything, and in almost an agony of feeling I looked him square in the eye, and said, while my heart gushed up before him, “Brother Joseph, this is all new to me; it may all be true, – you know, but I do not, to my education it is all wrong; but I am going, with the help of the Lord to do just what you say, with this promise to you – That if ever I know you do this to degrade my sister I will kill you, as the Lord lives.” He looked at me, oh, so calmly, and said “Br. Benjamin, you will never see that day, but you shall see the day you will know it is true, and you will fulfill the law and greatly rejoice in it. And, he said, “At this morning’s meeting, I will preach you a sermon that no one but you will understand. And furthermore, I will promise you that when you open your mouth to your sister, it shall be filled.”

At the meeting he read the parable of the Talents, and showed plainly that to him that hath shall be given more, and from him that had but one should be taken that he seemed to have, and given to him who had ten. This, so far as I could understand, might relate to families, but to me there was a horror in the idea of speaking to my sister upon such a subject, the thought of which made me sick. But I had promised, and it must be done. I did not remember his words and have faith that light would come, – I only thought “How dark it all looks to me.” But I must do it, and so told my sister I wished to see her in a room by herself, where I soon found her seated. I stood before her trembling, my knees shaking like Belteshazzar’s, But I opened my mouth and my heart opened to the light of the Lord, my tongue was loosened and I was filled with the Holy Ghost. I preached a sermon that forever converted me and her also, to the principle, even though her heart was not yet won by the Prophet. And so I had great joy after my tribulation.

He had asked me to bring my sister to the city, which I soon did, where he saw her at my sister’s, the widow Sherman, who had already been sealed to him by proxy. His brother Hyrum said to me: “Now, Br. Benjamin, you know that Br. Hyrum would not sanction this if it was not from the Lord. The Lord revealed this to Brother Joseph long ago, and he put it off until the Angel of the Lord came to him with a drawn sword and told him that he would be slain if he did not go forth and fulfill this law.” He told my sister to have no fears; and he there and then sealed my sister Almira to the Prophet.

Soon after this he was at my house again, where he occupied my Sister Almira’s room and bed, and also asked me for my youngest sister, Esther M. I told him she was promised in marriage to my wife’s brother. He said “Well, let them marry, for it will all come right.”

Anonymous said...

Does it talk about all the sex? Where are all the babies? Someone should DNA test to see just how widely spread his jeans were. If the Jeffersons can expand their family tree, so can the Smiths.

jupee said...

Okay, okay. I guess I give you the address to the blog I started over a year ago. xoxo

kframpton said...

To answer the comment that you left for me, I am not worried about lies and whatnot. I am worried about hurting my parents feelings by things that they might find out.

jupee said...

Take a looksee at That looks like a good reason to blog to me. If I was into family, I'd be into that.