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.