Bias? Genesis of In Sacred Loneliness
First of all, Bachman and Anderson/Faulring imply that I had strong negative biases -- I suppose they mean naturalistic (atheistic) and anti-polygamy biases -- which led me to look for a negative subject and which then warped my research, interpretation and writing of my book from the beginning. (See p. 70 -- Anderson/Faulring imply that I wrote In Sacred Loneliness to support a premise concerning the failure of polygamy -- also 118, 137.) So I will give a quick review of how In Sacred Loneliness came to be.
My biggest influence at Brigham Young University was Hugh Nibley. Nibley led me to studying classics, comparative myth, and history of religions at UCLA. My focus was antiquity, though I had read Mormon history out of interest throughout my life. I think Nibley has major flaws as a scholar (we all have flaws as scholars), but I still admire his emphasis on reading a text carefully, in the original language, examining the cultural background of a text for clues, and was very much influenced by that. I also admire his political liberalism in a very conservative environment, his environmentalism, his anti-corporate viewpoint.
At UCLA, in addition to studying myth and religion, I majored in basic classics, taking classes in Greco-Roman history occasionally, and I also took New Testament history classes. These were taught by Scott Bartchy, who influenced me a good deal. He taught the sociology of the New Testament, and I came to see how Jesus's social inclusiveness (including women, the racial "underclass" Samaritans, and Gentiles in his fellowship) was a central part of his mission and a central theme of the New Testament.
During this time, Sunstone editor Elbert Peck always would call me up and ask me to speak at Sunstone, and I was always happy to do so. As Jesus in his time spoke freely to educated and unlearned, sinner and Pharisee, fisherman and tax collector, I felt it was not right to ignore this group. As a result, I came to know and understand somewhat the liberal side of Mormonism. I think Elbert invited me because I was one of the few Nibley-related people who was willing to participate. But I came to thoroughly enjoy Sunstone and look forward to it as a true spiritual experience -- people who typecast it as an anti-Mormon rally of some sort know nothing about it.
I continued to enjoy reading Mormon history, from Sam Taylor to Richard Bushman to Leonard Arrington to Mike Quinn. I read the standard books on polygamy -- Foster's excellent Religion and Sexuality, and Danel Bachman's Purdue thesis, also excellent. I didn't do any active research on the subject of polygamy, and it was not a significant issue for me.
As I explain in my introduction to In Sacred Loneliness, a friend, Janet Ellingson, who had a fellowship at the Huntington Library in Pasadena, out of the blue suggested that I apply for one. I could work on the trail diaries of Eliza R. Snow, she said. I felt I had no chance of receiving such a fellowship, but almost as a whim, I filled out the application. To my surprise, I got the grant, though I still am not sure why a classicist got a fellowship in Mormon history.
So my research began. As I explained in the introduction, my book received its genesis as I tried to identify the women Eliza Snow mentioned in her diary. I did not turn to Eliza because I had negative feelings about polygamy, or even because I was interested in polygamy. She was simply a prominent Mormon woman whose diaries happened to be at the Huntington. Her diary led me to an interest in her friends and sister-wives.
It soon became obvious that we needed a good list of Joseph Smith's wives. Fawn Brodie, the only modern, footnoted source, was not completely reliable, I felt. Aside from being out of date and making some factual mistakes, she largely depended on published, anti-Mormon sources while neglecting primary, sympathetic sources such as diaries and autobiographies. (However, since she had limited access to Church Archives, this was not completely her fault.) Furthermore, instead of looking at complex social and religious reasons for Joseph Smith's polygamy, she came close to ascribing it all only to sexual motivations. (The sexual life of the subject of the biography is a common theme in all of her books.)
So, like Bachman's Purdue master's thesis, my book started as a critique of Brodie. One of the early articles I published relating to my Mormon polygamy was a critique of Brodie's treatment of Joseph Smith's polygamy in her biography of Smith. Newell Bringhurst enlisted me to write this paper for a seminar on Brodie, and when I gave the paper orally at the University of Utah, I was told that some of Brodie's descendants were upset by its frank criticisms of Brodie. This somewhat anti-Brodie tendency is an example of a conservative element in my book.
While I was critical of Brodie, I also recognized that she was a pioneer in documenting Joseph Smith's wives. One has to admit that no conservative author had published a competent, footnoted, annotated list of Joseph Smith's wives, with small biographies, to replace Brodie. So I think conservatives sometimes are unfair to criticize even an author as flawed as Brodie. Why had not a competent conservative scholar written a footnoted biography of Joseph Smith that did not avoid his polygamy? (After all these years, Richard Bushman may be finally remedying that lack.)
As Richard Lloyd Anderson has written extensively on evaluating sources in early Mormon (New York) history, I should talk briefly about my view of anti-Mormon data. As mentioned above, I think Brodie's use of anti-Mormon exposÚs as her main basis was a serious flaw in her methodology. But unsympathetic sources still can be useful, when used with caution. I believe I occupy a middle ground on the issue of source analysis. Extremely negative sources are always suspect, on certain contested issues. Nevertheless, they cannot be simply ignored. If authors are firsthand witness to events, they should still be considered, though allowances should be made for their biases. In exactly the same way, extremely positive sources are suspect, on certain contested issues, and one must allow for biases there also. So in both cases, one should try to balance data from a very biased source with other sources. Heightened rhetoric can be a suspect sign. For instance, while some historians take the Oliver Cowdery reference to the Joseph Smith/Fanny Alger relationship as a "dirty, filthy affair" (see In Sacred Loneliness, 38) as evidence that this was an affair, not a marriage, I think the heightened rhetoric is suspect. So I take it as evidence that Cowdery knew something about the relationship, but not as evidence that the relationship was actually an affair. (I believe the relation with Alger was a marriage.)
In my view, the position that non-Mormon evidence should not be used at all, however, is extreme and non-critical. Non-Mormon evidence can be very valuable as supporting evidence in conjunction with sympathetic evidence. However, if you are going to be balanced and even- handed, sympathetic and unsympathetic evidence should be subjected to exactly the same careful analysis and scepticism. In a contested issue, do we have heightened rhetoric? Are there signs of extremist bias? Is the witness reliable on specifics?
So I came to my research subject as a critic of Brodie. I mentioned this in my book; my article in Bringhurst's anthology has been available for years. (In fact, I sent Faulring and Anderson a copy when I shared a preliminary reading of In Sacred Loneliness with them a year or so before it was published). So I was very surprised to have them placing me in Brodie's naturalistic, secular camp.
As I began my core research, rejecting Brodie's list of wives as often sensational in tone and unreliable in its sources, I began piecing together a list I felt was reliable. To do this I had to put together at least rudimentary biographies of the women, as it is impossible to identify women without birth and death dates and a reliable marriage history. And these small biographies gradually became longer and longer.
After I had amassed a substantial amount of evidence, a number of patterns struck me. But one of the major patterns was the harsh reality of "practical polygamy" for women. This presents a striking contrast to the high religious emphasis placed on polygamy in nineteenth century Mormonism. I believe I can even document when the phrase "sacred loneliness" (which reflects this theme) first struck me -- when I gave the paper on Presendia Huntington Smith Kimball at Sunstone Symposium in Summer, 1994. This was long after I began researching and writing the book.
The "sacred loneliness" contrast is definitely there in the life histories and writings of many of the women I wrote about, though the phrase is my own. I did not create the contrast and inject it into their writings. I would agree that thirty-three women is a small control group for the whole of Mormon polygamy. In addition, it would be difficult to "prove" that polygamy was a positive or negative experience for the totality of Mormon women. (And, as I state below, there were some polygamous families that were more harmonious than others.) However, readers and historians may judge whether the same patterns are found in the lives of other polygamous wives.
I should also note that I did not seek out "controversial" documents. My sweep for evidence sometimes included them, but they were not my main interest. Bachman's rhetoric portraying me as "taking the bait of" or "joining hands with" anti-Mormons like John C. Bennett, Eber D. Howe, William Hall, and Joseph Jackson, as if they were my main sources or inspirations, is completely incorrect. When I had established a fairly stable list of Joseph's wives, I read everything they had written, everything their families had written about them, everything their close friends had written about them, everything journalists wrote about them. Aside from my main researches at Church Archives, BYU, University of Utah, and the Huntington, I spent hundreds of hours in the Church Genealogical libraries, both in Los Angeles and Salt Lake City. In addition, I read anything I could find written by women in the early eras of Church history. I read many printed primary and secondary sources. I xeroxed and plowed through the many fat volumes of the Wilford Woodruff diaries. When I discovered a primary document reflecting one of the thirty-three women's children's birth dates, I felt it was a major accomplishment. I would have liked to read twice as much as I did, but I did the best I could under the circumstances. Writers such as Bennett, Howe, Hall and Jackson were a very small part of my research, and did not influence me at all, to the best of my knowledge. In fact, I have no fondness for them, though felt that I had to read them. The writings of the women I wrote about, however, had a profound influence on me.