Plural marriage in Nauvoo continues to be one of the thorniest issues when discussing the life and legacy of Joseph Smith. One of the major works that helped shed greater light on the roots of plural marriage and the women who practice it with the Prophet is Todd Compton’s book, In Sacred Loneliness, published in 1997. Not too long ago, a sequel or companion volume called In Sacred Loneliness: the Documents was published by Signature Books. Todd Compton recently discussed this latest volume in an interview at the Latter-day Saint blog From the Desk.
In describing the original book, In Sacred Loneliness, Compton wrote that:
For those who haven’t read the book, I should mention that it deals with Joseph Smith’s polygamy in Nauvoo. However, it mainly provides chapter-length biographies of his plural wives. The book takes them from birth, through the Latter-day Saint migrations, and into Utah (or California or other states, in a few cases).
Their lives were mixed: sometimes very tragic, sometimes generally happy. The women often lived in large polygamous families in Utah, and experienced what I call “practical polygamy.” It could be difficult.
It’s very powerful to understand the lives of some of the first women in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to agree to practice plural marriage and what they went through.
The effort to write a follow-up volume 20 years later came in connections with another writing project. As Compton explained:
Joe Geisner had the great idea to edit a book in which authors of books of Mormon history told about how they’d written the books. Sometimes, they also shared responses to their books. It turned out to be a great publication (Writing Mormon History: Historians and Their Books), with essays by the above-mentioned Gregory Prince, as well as D. Michael Quinn, Linda King Newell, Will Bagley, and John Turner.
There were also really interesting chapters by people not as famous. So, Joe asked me to write a chapter about writing In Sacred Loneliness.
While I was writing that essay, I went back into my computer files from the time I was writing the book, looking for letters I’d written and received. I found my transcriptions of many texts written by the women in In Sacred Loneliness.
When I wrote that book, there were no primary historical texts on the internet, so you had to visit library after library, sit down with your laptop, and take notes and type transcriptions. If a document was fairly short, you could transcribe the whole thing. So, I had a lot of documents on my computer that had never been published that I thought were important.
While I had quoted from them in the first In Sacred Loneliness, I felt it would be valuable to publish these documents in full. So, I mentioned the idea to Gary Bergera at Signature Books, and he was very positive about doing a book such as this.
So, strangely enough, I started work on In Sacred Loneliness: the Documents while I was trying to explain how another book came into being.
It began as he came in contact again with the documents that were behind the original volume and grew from there.
I am generally grateful when the primary sources are made more available, because it helps to evaluate the interpretations that historians have placed on the lives of the people who are involved. It seems to be similar feelings that spurred Compton to publish this latest volume:
It’s great to have the full document. When you’re dealing with something that might be controversial, it’s helpful to have the full context for a quote. In addition, the woman’s voice comes through more fully. You will know her better if you read a full document rather than isolated quotes.
For the first In Sacred Loneliness, I selected quotes carefully, depending on if they were dramatic, funny, or historically valuable. But it’s wonderful to read the whole letter, autobiography, or interview.
For example, when I do readings in live appearances to support this new book, I often share a letter from Ina Coolbrith that includes her negative evaluation of polygamy. I do that because it illustrates vivid and funny writing from a precocious 16-year-old girl.
But in her 1857 letters to Joseph F. Smith, she also gives a great description of early Los Angeles and the violence of that town during the Gold Rush era. It’s fascinating to someone like me who is a California resident interested in California history. But it also gives you greater insight into what life was like for Ina and her mother, Agnes, in that time and place.
He shared more of the story from Ina Coolbrith elsewhere in the interview:
Here is the anti-polygamy quote by Ina Coolbrith that I mentioned previously. She went on to become a famous poet in nineteenth-century California. She was also a friend of Bret Harte, John Muir, Mark Twain, and Jack London.
“Ina Coolbrith” was a pen name. Her full name was Josephine Donna Smith (Carsely). She was the daughter of Don Carlos Smith, Joseph Smith’s brother, who died in Nauvoo. Her mother, Agnes Coolbrith (Smith Smith Smith Pickett) married Joseph Smith after Don Carlos’s death and then went on to marry lapsed Latter-day Saint William Pickett before the family came to California in the Gold Rush era.
We have wonderful letters by the teenage Ina in Los Angeles writing to her cousin, Joseph F. Smith, who was on a mission in Hawaii. This letter was written on July 22, 1857:
Is it right for a girl of 15 and even 16 to marry a man of 50 or 60. Can there be any love there? and has not God willed a woman to love honor and obey her husband? And can it be right thus to pledge false vows at the altar, in perfect mockery of all that is good, and pure in Gods most holy laws? I think I see myself, vowing to love and honor, some of old driv driveling idiot of 60, to be taken into his harem and enjoy his fav the pleasure of being his favorite Sultana for an hour, and then thrown aside, whil’st my Godly husband, is out Sparking another girl, in hopes of getting another victim to his dep despotic power. Pleasant prospect, I must say. And this, Joe, this is of God, is it? No, never, never, never! You may preach, you may talk to me from now, to Eternity, but you never will make me believe that polygamy is true.
While Ina was a niece of Joseph Smith, she did not believe that it was a true principle.
Not everyone who was involved agreed with Ina, though. As Compton shared:
To give a contrasting view of polygamy, Eliza Partridge Smith Lyman spoke at a “Mass Meeting of Ladies in Fillmore to Protest Against the Proceedings of the Anti Polygamous Ladies of ^Utah^” in 1879, and copied her speech into her diary:
It is now about thirty one years since the Prophet Joseph Smith taught to me the principles of Celestial marriage. I was then married by that order and have raised a family of both sons and daughters in what is called Polygamy, and I am not afraid to say that it is one of the most pure and holy principles that has ever been revealed to the Latter day Saints, and one that is necessary to our exaltation. The Anti-Polygamists say the laws of Celestial marriage are a curse to our children. Will they be kind enough to tell us where it is any disadvantage to them? We are not afraid to compare our children with those born and raised in Monogamy. Perhaps they do not know that the Lord reserved some of the most noble spirits to come forth in the last days, to perform the great work which he has begun on earth, and which he will consummate in spite of all opposing influences. . . . Then let us rejoice my Sisters, that we are numbered with the People of God, that we have embraced the Celestial Order of marriage, and happy shall we be in a coming day if we have never spoken lightly of sacred things.
So, some of the women who practiced plural marriage were very willing to defend the practice as a sacred principle, difficult though it was.
To read more about Joseph Smith’s practice of plural marriage and In Sacred Loneliness, head on over to read the full interview with Todd Compton. It’s a very fascinating interview with a lot of material that wasn’t shared here, including more quotes from and information about women like Emily Partridge Smith Young, Louisa Beaman, Fanny Alger; information about things that have come out in the 20+ years between the books; Todd Compton’s relationship with faith; the biggest question about Joseph Smith’s plural marriage; and more.