A reader from Virginia, USA , August 4, 1998. Picture: 5 out of 5 stars.
Through research combined with compassion and eloquence Todd Compton has done a truly impressive job in documenting the plural wives of Joseph Smith, and the personal trials, hardships, and religious rewards of polygamy. His focus on the wives, rather than on Joseph Smith, enables the reader to empathize more fully with the sacrifice these women made in the name of their religious convictions. Compton also does an excellent job explaining why women who were products of a Victorian society, would embrace such a radically different and scorned way of life, which, pratically speaking, brought them very little rewards in this life. There is information which may shock current Latter-day Saints, due to the fact that the modern LDS church has attempted to distance itself from this early practice, but it is information which is essential to know to understand the origins of the church's theology. Over and over I was impressed by how well Compton seemed to reach into the very heart of the experiences of these devout women who did! , indeed, live in sacred loneliness.
Aptly titled, this book shatters modern perceptions If you are looking for another anti-Mormon tome to discourage and embarrass the church, this book is not for you. I was struck over and over again as I read how completely forgotten the lives of these incredible women are. Because the modern church has distanced itself in every way possible from the practice of plural marriage, the legacy of faith, sacrifice and spiritual majesty of these early Mormon women is all but lost beyond their obvious utility as examples of their contributions to the Relief Society, Primary and Young Women organizations. Compton, however, has preserved for all who care to examine it this priceless legacy of the spiritual gifts and power of these women as exemplified through his well-documented research. His work on the lives of these incredible women exceeds anything we have may have imagined about them -- good or ill. In its practical application the plurality of marriage doctrine seemed to fail miserably and seemingly makes no sense on the surface. But the reader must search beyond the obvious to find incontravertible evidence of the divinity of the calling of the Prophet Joseph Smith. This book can do nothing but add to the lustre and majesty of his place at the head of this last dispensation of the gospel. Rather than distance ourselves from the lives of these valiant women as they lived through a period of confusing contradictions swirling around what appears to be a reprehensible practice in the Victorian days of the nineteenth century, I was constrained to embrace these women, Joseph Smith, and the restoration of all things through Compton's contribution to my library. My faith increased through the faith I saw radiating in their lives. I thank Compton for his invaluable contribution to the fleshing out of this shrouded chapter of Mormon history.
An excellent book
It is hard to find a book about early Mormonism that does not focus almost exclusively on Joseph Smith. As founder of the Mormon religion, this may not seem surprising, but it's refreshing just the same to read Todd Compton's book with its almost exclusive focus on Joseph's wives, and comparatively little focus on the Mormon prophet.
Compton's book consists of 30 chapters; each written as a biography of the various women Joseph Smith married, with the conspicuous absence of Emma Smith. This highlights and emphasizes the fact that, though Joseph had many wives, they were all rejected by Emma who vigorously opposed polygamy and the intrusions it brought into her home.
Studying Mormon history has become a mixed blessing. On one hand, historical scholarship of the subject has advanced greatly since Bodie's landmark "No man knows my History." On the other hand, excommunication of prominent historians (such as Quinn and Brodie) by the Mormon Church has resulted in much fear and distrust. For most Mormons, Todd Compton's book probably falls outside the designation of "faith promoting," and may be uncomfortable for many active members of the church.
Growing up in the Mormon Church, I learned several myths about early Mormon polygamy such as: 1. A man's wife had to approve the marriage to plural wives. 2. Most plural wives were older women whose husbands had died, and for whom polygamy represented safe heaven from a brutal world. 3. Most of Joseph's plural wives were sealed to him, but had no sexual relationship with him. 4. Joseph's plural wives never became pregnant from him. 5. There was never any admission or even mention of polyandry.
Through the biographies he has constructed, Compton exposes each of these myths. Chapter 1 discusses Fanny Alger, who married Joseph when she was only sixteen and he was twenty-seven. Emma didn't know about the marriage, and when she learned of it (by seeing Fanny and Joseph together, by one account, and noticing Fanny's pregnancy by another account - see pages 34-35) drove Fanny from their house. Oliver Cowdery (one of the Book-of-Mormon witnesses) described Joseph's relationship with Fanny as a sexual affair, and accused Joseph of adultery - resulting in Oliver's excommunication in 1838 (see pages 38-39).
Compton spends considerable effort reconciling Cowdery's description of Fanny Alger as an affair, and others who clearly describe a marriage relationship (though without the approval or knowledge of Emma). As I read the book I kept expecting Compton to draw the obvious conclusion, that Joseph had an affair with Fanny and then invented polygamy (which he may have been contemplating anyway) to save his presidency and justify his actions. Compton, however, never draws this conclusion, and ends still contemplating the two possible scenarios as mutually exclusive.
I found particular interest in this book because one of Joseph Smith's plural wives, Melissa Lott, was my great, great, great grandmother (see chapter 28). Like many of his other plural wives, Melissa was young (only 19) when she married Joseph Smith. Growing up Mormon, my parents taught me that Melissa had been a "spiritual" wife of Joseph Smith, having been sealed to Joseph only after his death (a common occurrence). During an interview with Joseph Smith's son, and President of the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, however, Melissa stated that she had been a wife indeed, with full benefit of a sexual relationship with the prophet. Melissa married Joseph less than a year before he was murdered and later married my great, great, great grandfather. Both lived hard lives, and her second husband died (along with their young son) when the wagon he was driving turned over with its load of firewood and drowned them in a creek. It was a touching chapter for me, the more so because Melissa is my ancestor, and illustrates the central theme of all Joseph's plural wives: sacred loneliness and lives of hard work and toil.
Passionately written through the eyes of those who knew him, loved him, followed him, and counted on him for salvation, Compton's book is a must for anyone interested in Mormon history and the personal lives that launched this twentieth-century American religion. Meticulously researched and well written, I highly recommend it.
Reviewer: Glenn E. Smith from USA
I was impressed with the factual material that was used for references. I read half of the book and ended up giving the book to my sister in law who has the same concerns that I had about Joseph Smith Jr. I am reordering the book and plan on doing a time line study on the people and places that are referenced in the book. I try to read materials that are not slanted in one direction or the other. I wanted just the facts and the book was good with dates and places. I would recommend the book for those who are serious about studying the life of Joseph Smith Jr.
Reviewer: A reader from A member in St. George, Utah
To say the least, this was a very informative book! I had long suspected that there was more to Joseph Smith's plural wives, and I am grateful to have a book which has provided me with SOME ANSWERS about a topic which is so ignored in the Church. This book is not for the weak in faith; it presents information which can be very disconcerting (which I have, personally, corroborated from other sources). In sharing some of the information with my wife, she seriously questioned whether Joseph Smith was a "fallen Prophet." (Joseph married other men's wives; and, understandably, my wife finds that very disturbing). In sharing some of the information from the book with my brother (who, as I, has been faithful and active members of the Church for over 25 years), my brother responded: "Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely." Needless to say, I have some very serious concerns about the secreative aspects of a "Man of God." I, however, am reserving judgement - as I have not, as yet, finished the book; also, I tend to give Joseph and Brigham the benefit of the doubt (There must be some explanation with which I am unfamiliar.). I must say, at times - as a result of reading the book, I regard polygamy, as practiced by Joseph and Brigham (who, later, married some of Joseph's wives, and who married the wife of a member who was away on a mission), as very repulsive - even though I have been a personal supporter of polygamy (based upon the limited "teachings" I have received in the Church). The unusual method of footnoting used by the author is very confusing (which causes me some apprehension as to the authors credibility -- which, as mentioned above, has led me to independently corroborate what I can). As mentioned by others who have reviewed the book, there is no apparent effort by the author to degrade Joseph Smith and/or the Church; he, simply, presents his information for your personal and independent consideration - which I have found very admirable; there is no "anti-mormon" sentiment (frankly, I can't tell if the author is a member, a non-member, or an ex-communicated member; and, really, it doesn't matter - the truth of the material stands on its own). Well, I highly recommend the book to a person seeking the truth and answers about the beginnings of polygamy in the time of Joseph Smith; I have given the book a 4-star rating (rather than a 5-star rating) only because of the very cumbersome footnoting. Finally - Thank You Todd Compton (the author) for your efforts in bringing this valuable information into the reach of those of us seeking the truth - which is, so often, hidden and kept from us by those who might find the material "politically incorrect."
Reviewer: John Walsh (see more about me)
The author of this book started out with a premise: Men having more than one wife (polygamy, plural marriage) is a bad thing. He then created a dark and depressing book to support the premise. A couple of scholarly reviews have been written which place the book in proper perspective.
The book could have been a really good one without this fatal flaw. But it is a huge one and it is fatal. Editor, All About Mormons web site.
Reviewer: L. Troy Beals (see more about me) from Huntsville, Tx.
The author does a wonderful job of first determining which women were actually, strongly documented wives of Joseph Smith, then those that there is some evidence for, then some where it is just heresay. He then organizes the book by bascially writing biographical sketches of each wife, including as much of there own story as possible. These women are portrayed without either praising or condeming them. This book is recommend[ed] for anyone who really wants to know about the Prophet Joseph Smith's polygamous activites.
Reviewer: Paul Allen (see more about me) from Idaho Falls, Idaho USA
On the first level, this book is about the women who married Joseph Smith. Beyond that, though, this is a book about the early psychology of the Mormon Church, and the power of the prophetic and apostolic paradigm that the Mormon people lived under during those early, charismatic years.
At first blush, the reader is amazed at the number of women Joseph Smith married. Traditional Mormon mythology teaches that J.S., Brigham Young, Heber Kimball, et al, mostly married elderly women and widows who needed to be taken care of in "the kingdom," or that most were sealed to them posthumously. Many Mormans will be surprised to find out that Joseph was polygamous at all, since Emma is the only wife we ever hear about in "authorized" church history. But to learn of the nature of those relationships, including the fact that most were wives in consumated relationships with the prophet while many had "first husbands" is truly a myth buster.
These women, however, were not just starry-eyed groupies of the charismatic prophet. These were remarkable women of great charisma, leadership and personal power that they possessed of their own, not merely borrowed from their husbands. Their lives are tributes to the spirit of early Mormon faith and endurance.
The second layer of this book is a psycho-social study of the early mormon community, particularly from the perspective of the female leadership. These were women who participated in priesthood administrations, healings, speaking in tongues, visions and the administration of temple ordinances. These were women who found a way to create a sisterhood of wives when their husbands were so largely removed from the day-to-day affairs of their enormous families. These were often self-sustaining frontierswomen who played a courageous and unsung role in settling the Great Basin region of the intermountain west.
Lastly, I believe this book provides the necessary insight to understand why polygamy failed: it was too psychologically and physically taxing on its participants. Todd Compton does not make any judgement along these lines...the reader is free to come to this conclusion on their own. But to read of the sadness, the loneliness, and the heartache, such a conclusion is inevitable.
Compton does the world of history a great favor by bringing together this collection of stories and insights about the leading ladies of early Mormondom. It is an essential counter-balance to the traditional patriarchal authorized history, and is often the history that later Church leaders must have deemed "unwelcome" or at least "unimportant," because you won't find this history in "church approved" manuscripts. It will, however, assist the seeker in determining for themselves the spirit, and culture, out of which sprung the church we know today.
Reviewer: terrymaz (see more about me) from Halifax, Nova Scotia Canada
I am sure many people will comment on this book for religious reasons, originally Mormon social history was the reason that I read In Sacred Loneliness, and religion seems to breed ridiculous arguments where no grounds for arguments really exist. I found the book particularly even - at different times in the book I thought he was shamelessly praising the church and other times too harsh, soon though the sway of the characters took over, and the emotional involvement with the lives of such powerful, pitiful and human women really pulls you in.
Regardless of what you think about polygamy, this book gives you an appreciation for the dedication of the integrity of some of these people to follow it, and for some a deep respect for those who chose to leave it. I really had a hard time with this book as some of these character really are heroic, like Patty Sessions, and Zina Huntington. I think that Compton leaves the reader to decide about polygamy, or Mormonism - right or wrong the story of the women involved is needed, useful and inspirational.
For those who want to argue about religion there is a lot here to mull over, but I really think that you miss the point.
Compton focuses on the devotion and inner lives of women involved directly with the development of polygamous marriage within Mormon theology.
I found the stories of these women absolutely amazing. Regardless of where you stand in relation to the theology, their individual biographies reveal interesting, sincere women.
Given the potential controversy of this book, the author is always careful to explain the available data. In areas of conflicting reports, he presents all available data, and leaves judgment to the reader.
If you are interested in early Mormon polygamy, and the philosophy/theology behind it, this book is the mother lode.
I literally could not put this book down. The concept is amazing and while the church admits to its history of polygamy they usually skirt the issue but never really delve into the humanistic side of this horrible history.
As a former member of the LDS church I had never even heard the information that was presented and that is because most of this information is shielded from public eye. I applaud the author for his writing and investigating.
I think this book is a must for any American History scholar.
Reviewer: John Hatch (see more about me) from Salt Lake City, Utah United States
Compton's book won the Best Book Award from the Mormon History Association and with good reason. The book's greatest strength is its fairness and even handedness. Compton clearly has done his homework, a most difficult task given the secrecy around polygamy in Nauvoo. Writing about polygamy in Utah, when the Church openly practiced it is one thing, but researching the Nauvoo period when most people, including Emma Smith, didn't know about polygamy is something else.
One reviewer, the only one to give this book a poor review so far, mentioned that the book has an agenda to prove polygamy was bad. This is simply not true. He also mentions that some "scholarly" reviews have covered the book. FARMS Review of Books is the only negative review I know of, and they are hardly a scholarly journal. FARMS is interested in nothing but polemics and their reviews of Compton's book are painfully off base. This is clear to anyone who reads the book and then reads the review.
This book is about Joseph Smith's polygamous wives. Their strength and bravery shine through and the book is quite inspiring at times. However, there is also a lot of sadness and difficulty in these women's lives that Compton displays with compassion. Each chapter is on a different woman who was once a wife of Joseph Smith's. These women were sealed to Joseph during his lifetime, not posthumously like some Mormons will have you believe.
I am a believing Mormon and found this book to be most informative and entirely inspiring.