`Tragic Ambiguity' Found in Lives of Prophet's Wives; Book Offers a Look At Joseph Smith's 33; Book Explores The Lives of Smith's Wives

As published in Salt Lake Tribune, Page: C1, 12/13/97


A year's celebration of the Mormon pioneer experience is ending with publication of a book on the ``tragic ambiguity'' of polygamy as experienced by 33 plural wives of church founder Joseph Smith.

The 788-page group biography casts a stark light on the peculiar practice that made the Mormons pariahs in the Midwest and compelled their epic migration to the Salt Lake Valley 150 years ago.

In Sacred Loneliness: The Plural Wives of Joseph Smith vividly documents the faith, hardship and heroism that were the focus this year of the Mormon Church's successfully orchestrated sesquicentennial celebration.

But in this first comprehensive examination of the lives of the women Smith married and widowed, author Todd Compton also tracks the isolation and heartbreak that were a significant part of the Mormon female experience with polygamy.

``Most were pioneers, sometimes throughout their lives, moving from New England to Ohio, then to Missouri, to different parts of Missouri, to Nauvoo, to Winter Quarters, and on to Utah. Houses were built, then abandoned, with nearly every move,'' Compton writes in the introduction.

And while most polygamists were sincere, intensely religious people of good will, ``my central thesis is that Mormon polygamy was characterized by a tragic ambiguity.''

On one hand it was ``the new and everlasting covenant,'' restored by prophesy from the patriarchal milieu of the Old Testament and taught by Smith as an essential ingredient of eternal exaltation.

``On the other hand, day-to-day practical polygamous living, for many women, was less than monogamous marriage -- it was a social system that simply did not work in 19th-century America.

``Polygamous wives often experienced what was essentially acute neglect. Despite the husband's sincere efforts, he could only give a specific wife a fraction of his time and means,'' Compton adds, and polygamy's ``practical result, for the woman, was solitude.''

In identifying 33 well-documented wives of Smith -- other researchers have placed the figure as high as 48 -- Compton found that in the case of 11 women, Smith's polygamy was polyandrous. That is, the women were married and cohabiting with their husbands, who mostly were faithful Mormons, when Smith married them.

Yet not one divorced her ``first husband'' when Smith was alive. Indeed, they continued to live with their civil spouses while married to Smith.

``If one superimposes a chronological perspective, one sees that of Smith's first 12 wives, nine were polyandrous. So in this early period polyandry was the norm, not the anomaly,'' he writes.

Compton, a practicing Mormon living in Santa Monica, Calif., has a doctorate in classics from UCLA but spent much of the 1990s combing pioneer records, diaries and reminiscences.

He cites strong evidence that Smith experimented with polygamy in the 1830s in Ohio and Missouri, but added wives in large numbers only in the final two years of his life in Nauvoo, Ill. Curiously, Smith took no new wives in the eight months before his assassination by a mob, at age 38, in 1844.

Eleven of Smith's wives were between ages 14 and 20, nine were in their 20s, eight were in Smith's own peer group of 31 to 40, two were in their 40s and three in their 50s.

``I knew that Joseph Smith had married younger women,'' Compton said in an interview. ``But when I read all of the sources, the composite history is very troubling, striking, especially from the viewpoint of the young women.''

In Smith's theology, Compton writes, ``a fullness of salvation depended on the quantity of family members sealed to a person in this life. . . . This doctrine also makes it clear that, though Joseph's marriages undoubtedly had a sexual dimension, theological concepts also drove his polygamy. . . .''

After Smith's death, his successor as church president, Brigham Young, married between seven and nine of Smith's widows. Young's counselor, Heber C. Kimball, married 11 more.

Compton is aware that relatively few of the world's 10 million Mormons know many particulars of the polygamy practiced by their antecedents. Since abandoning the practice in 1890, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has striven for the place in the American mainstream that it was denied in the 19th century, largely because of polygamy, he said.

But Compton isn't comfortable with Mormon discomfort with the past, or with attempts to minimize polygamy or ``sweep it under the carpet because it was an oddity.''

He pointed out that the three pioneer women featured in ``Legacy,'' the church-produced movie about the Mormon migration shown to Temple Square visitors, were all polygamous wives -- a fact not mentioned in the film.

``Those who would portray Mormon history as carried on by superhuman men and women, without flaws, would turn them into inhuman automatons, which in fact betrays a deep disrespect for the real humanity of our foremothers and forefathers,'' he writes.

Compton finds humanity aplenty in some of the Smith wives' stories.

Emily Dow Partridge recounted how in 1843 as a frightened 19-year-old she was approached by the Mormon prophet, who said ``the Lord had commanded (him) to enter into plural marriage and had given me to him. . . .''

So secret was the practice that neither Emily nor Eliza Partridge, a 22-year-old sister married by Smith four days later, initially knew they shared a common spouse.

Later, the two sister-wives were ordered out of the Smith home by Emma, Smith's first wife, with her husband's anguished acquiescence.

Helen Mar Kimball, 14-year-old daughter of Heber C. Kimball, wrote that after initially refusing when her father proposed marriage on Smith's behalf, she finally relented.

``I knew that he loved me too well to teach me anything that was not strictly pure, virtuous and exalting in its tendencies; and no one else could have . . . brought me to accept of a doctrine so utterly repugnant and so contrary to all of our former ideas and traditions,'' she wrote.

Toward the end of Smith's life, knowledge of his secret marriages began to leak out. William Law, Smith's second counselor in the church's First Presidency and an ardent polygamy foe, filed suit against the church leader for living ``in an open state of adultery'' with 19-year-old Maria Lawrence.

In a speech a month before his death, Smith responded by flatly denying polygamy, which was illegal under federal law. ``What a thing it is for a man to be accused of committing adultery, and having seven wives, when I can only find one,'' he said.

Linda King Newell, who co-authored a 1984 biography of Emma Smith, said Compton's focus on Smith's wives gives the book ``a ground-breaking impact because we tend to look at polygamy from a male point of view.

``He didn't sensationalize,'' Newell said, ``which tends to be the case when people get going on polygamy.''