Independent scholar Todd Compton is the author of the much acclaimed volume In Sacred Loneliness: The Plural Wives of Joseph Smith (hereafter, ISL) and three forthcoming books: Victim of The Muses: Poet as Scapegoat, Warrior and Hero in Greco-Roman and Indo-European Myth and History (Harvard University Press), Fire and the Sword: A History Of The Latter-Day Saints In Northern Missouri From 1836 To 1839 (Greg Kofford Books), and Cyril of Jerusalem: Initiatory Lectures (translation and commentary, FARMS).
You write on your website that in writing ISL, you “gradually became very caught up in the drama of [the lives of Joseph Smith’s plural wives], and became deeply attached to them as real, living people.” Would you highlight one or two examples of this for us?
I probably had the same experience that family historians have when they discover a story, or a letter, or an artifact, relating to their great-grandmother that brings her to life. When I discovered diaries or autobiographies for any of the 33 women, I was thrilled. Some women left little or nothing written behind, so it was a special challenge, and especially exciting, to piece together their lives. When I discovered a holograph letter by Almera Johnson Smith Barton (in the collection of her brother, I think Joseph Johnson, at University of Utah), that was a memorable moment. Suddenly she was more than a bare chronology. Of course, reading through the diaries of Eliza Snow, Zina Huntington, Emily Partridge, Patty Sessions, Rhoda Richards and Helen Mar Whitney was exciting. The writings of both the Partridge sisters are very haunting. And they both grappled with less than ideal polygamous situations. Emily trying to understand why Brigham treated her so distantly was very striking. Eliza Partridge has been published, and I think Emily will be published in the Utah State University Press women’s writing series that Eliza Snow, Patty Sessions and Helen Mar have been published in.
ISL often seemed to me to be almost two books in one: a collection of mini-biographies of the plural wives of Joseph Smith and also your interpretation of polygamy as an institution; it seems that even the most critical reviewers of ISL focus more on your interpretation of polygamy than on your biographies of the women involved. Do you think any other person analyzing the same data that you did would also come to the conclusion that polygamy constituted virtual ‘neglect’ of these women, or might another reasonable person choose to emphasize different data points and reach another conclusion?
I think any two competent and intelligent scholars (and human beings) will look at any subject somewhat differently. This is both a maddening thing and an enriching thing. There are so many factors: focus of evidence collecting, focus of research, educational interests. There is also, in Mormon studies, Mormon and non-Mormon bias, and within Mormonism, liberal and conservative bias. An honest scholar and writer does not just give himself up to his or her bias; he or she actually strives to rein it in, and thinks about dialoguing with the “other side.” One of the ways you do that is present evidence in a reliable way, so it convinces not just “your side” but the “other side” too. (By the way I would call myself basically a liberal Mormon whose heroes are people like Leonard Arrington and Lowell Bennion.) Having said all that, on the subject of neglect of women in polygamy, it’s hard to quantify scientifically. In the stories I read, autobiographies and diaries, it was a major theme. (I merely pointed out what was already there.) But I wrote about only 33 women. However, in my experience reading lots of Mormon history, neglect is obviously a major theme in Mormon polygamy generally. (For instance, read Tanner’s A Mormon Mother.) If you deny that, overtly or subtly, I think you’re not being true to the documents. Now, on the other hand, if I say, neglect was a serious problem in 50% of polygamous households, and someone says, I disagree, I think it was a serious problem in only 30-35% of polygamous households, I think that author might be reasonable. If they tend to portray polygamy as 100% positive, in obvious or subtle ways, I think they’re not being faithful to the evidence.
How do you reconcile Joseph Smith’s marriages–including polyandrous ones–with the modern Church’s emphasis on (monogamous) marriage?
It’s amazing how different the church is today than it was in the 1800s. Anyone who reads primary documents (as opposed to sanitized history) will run up against that. I remember reading through the Oliver Huntington journal while researching ISL, and Oliver goes on a mission to England. On arriving here, he meets the mission president, apostle John Taylor, and the two men sit down and drink a glass of whisky together! You laugh when you run across things like that, but it makes you realize that the 19th century church was very different than ours. Another example, from Missouri and Nauvoo, is Joseph Smith’s flamboyant militarism. Which of our present general authorities would be so militaristic? (Of course, having a prophet in his 20s and 30s is another big difference.) So that transitional period between 1890 and 1920 is incredibly important. Many of the basic practices of our present church became institutionalized then. I recommend books such as Carmon Hardy’s Solemn Covenant, Thomas Alexander’s Mormons in Transition, and A Widow’s Tale, Helen Mar Whitney’s diaries, edited by me and Chick Hatch, to understand that period. And yes, one thing that really changed was our attitudes toward monogomy. And parallel to that, our attitudes toward the U.S. government. While we were on our polygamy crusade, polygamy was one of the central doctrines of the church. Because the government outlawed polygamy, we had an anti-government attitude. After we gave up polygamy (a painful period after the Manifesto, read Hardy’s book), we could give up our anti-U.S. government attitude. So, understandably, many “conservatives” in the LDS church tend to think of the church today as a simple inheritance from Joseph Smith’s and Brigham Young’s days. And they would prefer to give a picture of church history leaving out those differences. Thus you have that priesthood manual on Brigham Young giving the impression that he was a monogamist. Joseph Smith’s polygamy is almost a taboo subject. The basic problem is an absolutist view of religious realities, I think. If you view the church and church leaders in absolutist ways–as infallible, for all practical purposes–you can’t deal with church leaders making serious mistakes occasionally, and the church working through issues and programs and improving. For me, I think non-absolutist faith is much more workable and exciting. You can include everything in your faith, including tragedy as well as triumph. (By the way, all of these terms need fuller explanation, and I hope to do so in a book someday.)
The 2006 Priesthood and Relief Society manual almost engages some of the issues raised by ISL (unintentionally, I’m sure) when it explores Wilford Woodruff’s contribution to shifting the ‘adoption by a high leader’ focus of early sealings to the ‘adoption by one’s physical father’ focus that continues to this day. Do you think it is reasonable to consider early polyandry, levirate marriages, and posthumous sealings to leaders as part of an immature understanding of the sealing power? If not, what do you ‘do’ with these now-abandoned practices?
I wouldn’t use the term “immature”; but I would talk about programs, practices and attitudes that were finally viewed as not working for practical reasons, not functioning in the context of eternal truth. Leaders made mistakes with those particular programs. If we have a non-absolutist faith, that is no problem at all. If you have an absolutist faith, it may be a problem. What do you do with those practices, as a historian? You record them in history, and ponder what lessons you learn from them. I view the process of writing history as a ethical practice. You learn moral lessons from it. The historian is not a crude, judgmental, didactic moralist, beating the reader on the head with his views, but a sophisticated storyteller with morality as a subtext. For instance, in Hardy’s Solemn Covenant, he explores why Mormons lied after the Manifesto, and shows that they were doing it for idealistic reasons; but he also shows the lying had a tragic impact, and in fact allowed for the rise of polygamous fundamentalism. That book has great tragic force. I wrote an article in Dialogue about John Willard Young (another tragic story) that showed how in the 19th century, church leaders often called their sons as general authorities. I concluded that the church of our generation has improved by avoiding that for the most part.
ISL was published almost a decade ago; can you tell us a little of what the reception of the book by various audiences has been like? Was the reception what you expected?
I could write a long essay on this, and may do it someday. When I wrote the book, I had a hard time judging what the reception would be. Would it get published? Would people read it? Would I be excommunicated (a very real possibility at the time, as it was the era of the September 6)? Of course, I hoped for the best. It got published, and I’m pleased that people are reading it, more than the average scholarly Mormon history book, I think (but much less than, say, Mormon Enigma, or Bushman’s Rough Stone Rolling). I was not excommunicated, though my stake presidency did call me in for formal discussions in which they expressed disapproval for the book. (I tried to explain to them how I believe honest history helps the church, in the short and long run, but my powers of explanation were pretty weak in that situation, I’m afraid.) As far as conservatives go — after the book was published, I was told by someone in Salt Lake that there was some talk among the powers that be about coming up with a formal response to my book, but that some historians advised them against it, as the documentation in my book was solid. I was also told by someone who works in the Church Office Building that it was “middle management” that was upset with my book. (Which implies that upper management was not as upset, in his view.) One response by conservatives has been to simply ignore my book. To the best of my knowledge, Deseret Book has never carried my book on its shelves. (Every now and then I go in and ask for it, just to see what they say!) Conservative historians have sometimes simply not mentioned my book in situations where you’d expect them to cite it. Glen Leonard’s book on Nauvoo, published by Deseret Book, which has a section on Joseph Smith’s polygamy, is one example. My book is never cited in his footnotes, I believe. My book also is not mentioned in Walker, Whittaker and Allen’s Mormon History. (Certainly, this might be a reflection on their view of my book’s quality or lack thereof.) Many conservatives, and most moderates and liberals tend to like my book. I’m pleased that there are some conservatives who have been enthusiastic about it, though it must be painful for them to read in some ways. Some antagonistic conservatives and enthusiastic liberals view my book as an exposÃ©. It certainly was not written with that in mind. I could have written an exposÃ© in a hundred pages. I wrote the book as biography (so I’m always pleased when I find a reader who has read the book completely and has enjoyed getting to know those women). However, I did not leave “problem” areas out (or “positive” “faith-promoting” things). I tried to understand the problems as throroughly as possible and share my evidence and conclusions with the reader. There were two long reviews of my book in the FARMS review of books; I didn’t think any of the three authors understood or enjoyed my book as biography. They also referred to me or my work as naturalistic, i.e., rejecting God and the supernatural, which is wrong. The Community of Christ (RLDS) response to my book has been interesting and generous. ISL won an award from the CofC John Whitmer Association. The AP did a story on the book when it came out that was widely picked up throughout America. The CofC church historian, Mark A. Scherer, told me how he started getting emails asking about Joseph Smith and polygamy and he could track the appearance of that AP article across the time zones. He’s told me that he appreciates the fact that my book helped the RLDS community come to terms with Joseph Smith’s polygamy. (Of course, the conservative breakoffs from the RLDS church still deny that Joseph Smith was a polygamist.) Mormon polygamist fundamentalists, at least the few that I’ve met, have been positive about my book. The fact that it documents Joseph Smith’s polygamy so completely I suspect outweighs the problematic things about polygamy that are in the book, for them. I was once told by a bookshop salesperson in St. George that around Christmastime, fundamentalists from Colorado City buy ISL as gifts.
A quick glance at your CV reveals something unusual: an almost even division between work in Mormon Studies and Classics. Can you comment on the relationship for you (if there is one) between these two areas of study? How do you manage having two irons in the fire?
I just finished the index and final corrections for my next book, Victim of The Muses, Poet as Scapegoat, Warrior and Hero in Greco-Roman and Indo-European Myth and History — it should be published by Center for Hellenic Studies/Harvard University Press this month, see here. I got my PhD in classics with a concentration on Greek and Indo-European myth. But I had trouble finding a job (though I taught classics for a year at USC), and when I got interested in Joseph Smith’s plural wives, and Mormon history, I simply left the field of classics and didn’t think I would return. However, Gregory Nagy at CHS got interested in my dissertation and I am very pleased that it is appearing. It’s been fun to work on it through the last year. It’s pretty broad-ranging, so I’m a little worried about how the pretty specialized field of Classics will react to it. It’s very Nibleyesque, actually. Kind of sophic and mantic in literary criticism. It’s not overtly in Mormon studies, but I hope at least a few Mormons will be interested. I have broad interests: Mormon history is my primary focus now, but I’m also interested in New Testament studies, feminist studies, comparative myth and ritual. Politics. Music. Film. (One of the essays I have published on my web page is The Spiritual Roots of the Democratic Party: Why I Am a Mormon Democrat. All of those thing interrelate, of course. For instance, Mormon history and the Democratic and Republican parties is an interesting story. (See the Hardy and Alexander books mentioned above, also Leo Lyman’s Political Deliverance : The Mormon Quest for Utah Statehood; also Mike Quinn’s great Mormon Hierarchy books.) A Classics background was good for my studying Mormon history because it taught me to have respect for primary documents. In classics, you’re dealing with copies of copies of copies; it is exciting in Mormon studies to actually read an author’s holograph. Obviously, knowing ancient Greek it is also good for reading the New Testament. I’m focusing my future research on Mormon studies, but that includes a lot. (There is a biography of Jacob Hamblin in the works; also a book on women and ritual in Mormon history; and a book on Mormon faith. Also, I’d like to do a commentary on Luke, someday. I hope I live a long time.)
Since 1993 you have been an “Independent Researcher,” which I suspect is the dream job for half or more of our readers. Can you tell us a little bit about your situation and its perks and drawbacks?
Long answer: Since you ask — “Independent Researcher,” is code for “Unemployed Academic.” To keep bread on the table, I work in a law office, doing computer stuff and word processing. It’s not an ideal situation, by any means. My ideal situation would be to research every day, all day, and do some teaching also. (As Mike Quinn has said, when you go to the Church Archives, every day is Christmas.) A book published by Center for Hellenic Studies may help me find a teaching job some day, who knows? However, the career detour I took when I wrote ISL was not what an employment counselor would have advised. But I remember Nibley, whose classes I and my friends took over and over again, denouncing “careerism” constantly. Maybe I’ve been true to that ideal–probably by being a bad interviewer. (By the way I admire a lot of things about Hugh Nibley, but have serious reservations about some aspects of his scholarship. That’s another story. His brother, Richard, was my violin teacher, and was a great one.) On the other hand, the lack of institutional support can be a good thing. It allows you to have full independence of thought. (I think I’m joking.) Short answer: Perks?
You were a Visiting Fellow at the Huntington Library researching Eliza Snow; this month will see the publication of your book Victim of The Muses: Poet as Scapegoat, Warrior and Hero in Greco-Roman and Indo-European Myth and History by Harvard University Press. Eliza Snow is regarded by many as the premiere poet of Mormondom; do any of the descriptors in your subtitle apply to her?
Interesting question! In my book I outline two patterns; one, in which the poet has good, mutually benefecial relations with his or her patron. The other (which my book focuses on) is poets who have tensions with politicians and kings, and who become marginalized, scapegoats, exiles, as a result. Eliza seems to be in the first pattern. Of course, she was the wife of Mormonism’s highest leader. Brigham was very deferential to her in many ways, though there were some tensions. Heber C. Kimball and my great-great grandfather, Jedediah Grant, attacking the Polysophical Society, which Eliza loved, is an interesting situation.
You have another book, Fire and the Sword: A History Of The Latter-Day Saints In Northern Missouri From 1836 To 1839, forthcoming this year (from Greg Kofford Books). Does it challenge the prevailing interpretation of this period of Church history? If so, in what ways?
This book is mainly by Leland Gentry; I have edited it and have afterwords after every chapter. Both Gentry and I challenge some standard conservative myths about Missouri (i.e., that Mormons were not Danites, or that Joseph Smith had no involvement with Danites). The conservative idea that the Mormons were simply victims of persecution is also wrong; Mormons made some serious mistakes that helped bring the persecution on them. Two fine books about the Mormons in Missouri are The 1838 Mormon War in Missouri by Stephen C. LeSueur and A Call to Arms: The 1838 Mormon Defense of Northern Missouri by Alexander L. Baugh. But Gentry was the foundation, and I hope Gentry updated is even better.
How would you describe the current state of Mormon Studies? Care to make any predictions about its future?
I think the era under Leonard Arrington was a Camelot period; I think he was a real bridge between conservative, moderate and liberal. I don’t think we have anyone similar these days, so Mormon studies is increasingly fragmented. You have many conservatives who tend to ignore or understate a lot of the problem areas in Mormon history. Then you have people who are purely naturalistic who have no real sympathy for the Mormon tradition. I’d like to see a strong moderate group dominating the community, but instead things seem quite polarized to me. I think Richard Bushman’s biography of Joseph Smith is a step in the right direction. He tackles the real problems in Joseph Smith’s life (even though he may not solve all of them completely). He treats books published by Signature with respect, at the same time that he may disagree with them. Predictions: Bill Russell, of CofC, says he can’t see how anyone can read the New Testament and be a Republican, and I tend to agree (at least, the way Republican party works today). So I think the church will gradually liberalize, until we’re mostly Democrats and Utah will become a bastion for liberal thought. Orrin Hatch and George W. Bush will be nothing but a bad dream. (A very bad dream!) Facing the problems in Mormon history, which we will increasingly have to do, will also be a liberalizing force. I may sound like I’m joking, but there may be a serious undercurrent here. How long this will take is another question!
What’s your favorite novel, short story, classical music, rock album, and film of all time?
Hmmm. Well, today I’d say: The novel may be David Copperfield by Dickens. Short story: Kipling, The Wish House. Classical music, Brahms, Violin Concerto. Rock album, Jimmy Webb, Land’s End or Suspending Disbelief (a great religious title, isn’t it?). Movie: Bergman’s Fanny and Alexander had a big impact on me when I first saw it, and when I saw a five hour version later. I’ll have to see how that holds up. Otherwise, it would have to be A Night at the Opera by the Marx Brothers.