An Interview with Todd Compton

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 exposé. It certainly was not written with that in mind. I could have written an exposé 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.

53 comments for “An Interview with Todd Compton

  1. January 7, 2006 at 10:20 am

    Great interview! Todd, if you are taking the time to read comments, I have a brief question. I knew of your classics work previously, but I was unaware of your study of Indo-European myth. For the past week I have been trying to find books on Indo-European and prehistoric European myth. So, other than your own book, what books would you recommend on this area of study. Are there any good comprehensive works? Is the book The White Goddess by Robert Graves a good place to start, or are there better works?

  2. enochville
    January 7, 2006 at 11:50 am

    Todd, how much of the neglect of Joseph’s wives would you attribute to Joseph not living with most of them and keeping those relationships secret? In other words, how did the neglect of Joseph’s young wives who were orphaned sisters and lived in the Mansion house compare with the neglect of his other wives. And if you can address this related question, could you compare the treatment of Brigham’s wives who lived with him with those who had their own houses?

  3. January 7, 2006 at 11:51 am

    Excellent interview. I greatly enjoyed it.

    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.

    I’ve never seen ISL in Deseret Book, but I did buy my copy at the BYU Bookstore. The clerk glanced at the title and excitedly blurted out, “Wow, that sounds interesting!”

    The way that Leonard treated Compton’s book is a bit odd. Leonard’s book does list ISL and his JMH article on Fanny Alger in the bibliography. It also cites the JMH article several times in the footnotes to chapter 13, which discusses Nauvoo polygamy. What is odd is footnote 17, which notes that Jenson identified 27 wives, Bachman, 31 wives, and Anderson and Faulring, 29. Yet, the footnote doesn’t mention Compton’s research or book.

    Leonard states in the same chapter that Joseph Smith had 29 wives and the accompanying footnote (n. 32) says: “We have reduced [George D.] Smith’s listing of forty-three marriages for Joseph Smith to reflect recent research by Todd Compton, Richard Anderson, and Scott Faulring.” Still it doesn’t cite ISL by name.

  4. January 7, 2006 at 11:54 am

    This is a great interview! It is good to here from you, Todd. Your response to the question of Eliza’s relation to the establishment is interesting. I think I force too much anachronism in my perspective, but it seems that she did have significant tension with Brigham, even perhaps, to the point of exile. Or I could be just misreading the situation. I’d be interested in how your thesis relates to her posthumous deconstruction and caricaturization.

    I’m also interested in your perspective on the Mormon studies zietgiest. I realize that Arrington era is unparalleled. I listen with disbelief to accounts, like Quinn’s, of access to diaries and minutes. I wonder if there are not characters that might catalyze a renaissance when certain actors are no longer playing their part.

  5. January 7, 2006 at 12:02 pm

    …also, if you don’t mind, I am interested in the personal responses of other scholars. I found Bachman to be quite engaging and thoughtful. I didn’t find the tone of his review particularly consistent with my experiance. Have you had any personal exchanges with some of your critics, and if so (and you feel that it is appropriate) how was your interaction?

  6. annegb
    January 7, 2006 at 12:09 pm

    I am going to study this and make sure I understand every word. But first I’m going to do the laundry and fix my hair. Then I will be back with my opinions. And you know what they are. I will be very courteous and nice.

  7. Mormon_Conservative
    January 7, 2006 at 12:20 pm

    I think most Mormon “Republicans” see a lot of problems with the political label and while they have sympathies with the classic conservative agenda (low taxes, smaller government, stricter construction of the Constitution etc. etc. ) they have significant problems with the Orrin Hatches and Tom Delay’s of the world. They prefer the label Mormon to Republican. By contrast I think that many Mormon Democrat’s are Democrats first and Mormon’s second. Democrat defines their core beliefs and Mormon is the heritage they struggle with.

  8. annegb
    January 7, 2006 at 12:21 pm

    And I mean to say, welcome Todd. I feel like I sort of know you already.

  9. Julien
    January 7, 2006 at 12:24 pm

    Actually, this is a question I’ve asked myself many times, having a non-absolutist faith myself. How is that compatible with leaders, manuals, etc. almost always asking you to have absolutist faith in your leaders? I know it doesn’t qualify for all, but is a general tendency I have often been scared of… I mean, isn’t it scary not to be able to say “I’m not quite sure about that….” without people looking at you like you’re a heretic?

  10. Julie in Austin
    January 7, 2006 at 12:30 pm


    I’m, obviously, not Todd, but in several situations I’ve said something to the effect of “I don’t yet have a testimony of that principle.” It has always been well received. I think phrasing matters a lot in that situation.

  11. Kevin Barney
    January 7, 2006 at 12:54 pm

    Yes, phrasing matters. So does perceived loyalty. I can be very open and frank about my opinions in my current ward and stake, because I’ve lived here a long time, people know me, they know I love the church and defend the faith and wish nothing but the best for the church and its people. Once people know that about you, they’re not so concerned about particular opinions you might express. If I said some of the things I say now in a brand new ward where no one knew me from Adam, a lot of people probably would look at me as though I were some sort of a heretic.

    I think Eugene England used to talk about this a lot before his death.

    (And Todd, if you’re peeking in on this thread, “howdy!”)

  12. Blake
    January 7, 2006 at 1:11 pm

    Todd: Great interview! From one flaming moderate to another, I join your wish that the moderates would come out in numbers. However, as one who views the choice between Democrat and Republican as being like the choice between snakes or spiders, cigarrettes or cigars, bourbon or beer, coffee or tea, I have to question your sanity about the liberal wing of the Democratic party.

    To join Kevin and Julie, letting others know where my loyalty lies has been very important in not creating consternation and abject fear when I speak up in Church. I was amused that when I wrote about my expansion theory I was seen as attacking the Church when my intention was to defend it. I’m not nearly as good at the “phrasing it gently and non-threatingly” as Kevin is.

  13. January 7, 2006 at 1:14 pm

    Great interview, Julie. Only in Mormon Studies does the story of the historian become as interesting as the history. We shouldn’t be making exiles out of our historians.

  14. kris68
    January 7, 2006 at 2:27 pm

    Thanks to both Julie and Todd — I thoroughly enjoyed this interview.

  15. Jim F.
    January 7, 2006 at 5:16 pm

    Todd, unlike Blake, I applaud your political choice. It was good to read this interview with Julie (which, as usual, she has done very well), but it makes me miss “the good old days.”

  16. January 7, 2006 at 7:43 pm

    I rather tire of Mormon Democrats or Mormon Republicans trying to prove which political party actually fits the gospel.

    Like Blake, I find both choices somewhat damning. Eugene England wrote, in his essay on why more Utah Mormons should become Democrats, that neither party had an absolute hold on the truth. He also wrote that he was a Republcian, and so his call for more Mormons to be Democrats wasn’t a recruiting drive, but a call for more diversity in Utah’s politics. I read the New Testament and the Book of Mormon, and find plenty in there to condemn the Democratic party as well as the Republican.

    Orson Scott Card is a Democrat, but I did hear him say at BYU that he felt too many Mormon Democrats were more loyal to the political party than to the Church. But then he went on to say that too many Mormons in general were more in love with capitalism than the gospel.

  17. Jim F.
    January 7, 2006 at 8:04 pm

    Ivan Wolfe: Arent’ you overreacting a bit? Blake disagrees with Todd’s politics, but he didn’t couch that disagreement in terms of the gospel. Todd’s essay explains why he is a Democrat and in it he says that, as he sees things, the Democrats are currently closer to the gospel than the Republicans, but that claim is surrounded by a number of qualifiers, leaving plenty of room for other opinions and for change. It is hardly a manifesto for all members of the Church to become Democrats.

  18. harold b. curtis
    January 7, 2006 at 8:09 pm

    Interesting interview……

    I do not believe that we have anything to fear from our history. The restoration has been and will continue to be a journey. President Hinckley’s observation ” we have just scratched the surface”, is really a statement of our current position in this the dispensation of the fullness of time. We have been through much, we will go through much more, and in the end zion will be brightly arrayed in her beautiful garments.

    If your book is perceived as airing out some dirty laundry then you shall have done harm to the church, because I do not think the Prophet Joseph had much dirty laundry. What Sister Emma could not get to, other lovely hands were able to finish.

    I think the Prophet Joseph Smith will be arrayed in spotless white, when we all shall see him again, arrayed in his robes of righteousness. I expect to likewise see his wives adorned and adored by their husband, in spite of earth and hell. At that time all tears shall be wiped and all inequalities equated, and all inattentions attended to. There will be much time for attention when “time is no more.”

    I will not judge the morality of “the practisce” during the eighteen hundreds through the lens of the morality of the year 2006. All would be wise to be careful of such far sighted hind sight. God will one day administer the occular correction needed to get a better view eternity.

    The story of the sacrifice of those wonderful women who followed their faith in spite of a world arrayed against them will one day be told and retold. We need not worry about their status, we need only worry about ours.

    Harold B. Curtis

  19. January 7, 2006 at 10:37 pm

    Jim –

    No, not really. It wasn’t couched among that many qualifiers. 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!) is a rather unambiguous statement that the gospel is really for liberals and that Mormons who are Republcians are not truly living what the New Testament teaches. I don’t see many qualifiers there – the ones there are more “qualifiers that aren’t really qualifiers.”

    But I don’t see my comment as an overreaction – just a reaction.

  20. Mathew
    January 7, 2006 at 11:27 pm


    I thought that Todd was telling the storyof sacrifice of those wonderful women who followed their faith. Am I wrong?

  21. January 7, 2006 at 11:37 pm

    The Missouri book sounds intriguing. It’s nice that Kofford has stepped up to the plate to fill a rather big void in LDS publishing. (IMO) And as a plug to Blake, his second theology book comes out soon – sure to be the source of many posts at various LDS blogs.

    One question about the Missouri book that I’ve noticed hasn’t been well treated by many LDS histories. That is the context of the Missouri conflict in terms of conflicts there before the Mormons arrived and especially conflicts after the Mormons left on up through the rather horrible guerilla wars during the Civil War. I think that context does change how we view the Mormon wars, especially the war of 1838.

  22. harold b. curtis
    January 8, 2006 at 3:53 am

    #20 “…Todd was telling the storyof…”


    In my view……………It’s the timing of the telling that is telling in this tale.

    By this I mean:
    1. I do not see any of the brethren attempting to defend the practice at this time.
    2. We don’t practice the “practice” at this time
    3. We don’t practice practicing the practice at this time.
    4. As a matter of practice the brethren don’t comment on the “practice.”
    5. Telling the tell must address the “practice”, that as a matter of practice, we can’t practice so why bring up the tales of the “practice” and those who practiced the “practiceâ€? when we don’t need to address the “practice as a matter of practice, because we don’t practice the “practice”.

    All practical considerations aside, the enemies of the church may use this sacred story to further malign the Prophet Joseph, and demean the sacred sealing, and we will have cast pearls before swine. In short this work could be perceived by those who do not wish us well to be just another tell all tale, and their tongues will be a tattling! Additionally I just do not think Brother Joseph appreciates his wives being involved in the fray. I do think he will have something to say about it.

    I have no reason to doubt Todd’s research or his motives for producing this book. This is not a reflection in any way on him, or the historical accuracy of his book. I have seen the book, I have not read the book, but I will read the book. Right now I am busting through a 400 page book on the Universe, and another 400 page book on world history, plus two treatises on world history as shaped by catastrophes, as well as tying the same to scripture, both ancient and modern. But I digress…..

    In conclusion I just have to say that there is a spirit of voyeurism in the world where we just feel we have to look into the private lives of other people and see what’s going on. In connection with that spirit is the titillations associated with peering or even “peeping” into areas where we can get some kind jolly out of it. Members of he church have not escaped the voyeurism to which I allude, and I feel some of our LDS literature is beginning to reflect that peeping Tom syndrome. It is a fine line that the historian walks between recorder, interpreter and interloper. That may be why I decided after three years of studying history in college that I did not want that burden. Blessed are the LDS historians who wish to shoulder that weight, and increase faith while they tell truth.

    Harold B. Curtis

  23. comet
    January 8, 2006 at 4:12 am

    I am not convinced by #22’s censure of peeping tom history. 1st and 2nd Samuel
    sometimes tread on otherwise intimate ground (David’s life). Private moments get caught up
    in unanticipated ways in history, scripture and literature, often for the better it seems to me.

  24. Jack
    January 8, 2006 at 6:32 pm

    Re. #23–

    I’m not convinced either. I think we should get the inside scoop on David’s neglect of his 999 other wives.

  25. annegb
    January 8, 2006 at 8:18 pm


  26. R McMullin
    January 8, 2006 at 9:43 pm

    Todd – Thanks for the interview. I read mormon history books at the same time as a close relative of mine. After finishing each book, we touch base and compare notes and opinions. He is a conservative active mormon; while I am moderate to liberal active mormon. Of all the books we have read together, ISL has generated the most interesting discussion (except perhaps D. Michael Quinn’s books). We both thoroughly enjoyed ISL, though our interpretions of it differ somewhat. To be clear, it isn’t the “spirit of voyeurism” referenced by Curtis (#22) that captures our interest, but rather the compelling narrative. The story of the lives of these faithful women, and the sacrifices they made, needed to be told. We both appreciate the foundation you have created in this field of study.

    I’ll look forward to “Fire and the Sword”… which I trust will be an update to LeSeur’s book (which I considered groundbreaking).

  27. LRC
    January 8, 2006 at 10:27 pm

    re #22

    If historical biography can be counted as “peeping tom” history, then perhaps you might be able to fit the square peg that is ISL into the round hole that is “peeping tom” voyeurism, but you’d have to shave some corners off to make it fit. After you read the book, you’ll see that it’s not so much about a prurient view of the sex life of Joseph Smith, but rather a compilation of stories about the lives of the women who married him – their strengths, weaknesses, struggles, trials and experiences with polygyny and polyandry.

  28. Johnna
    January 9, 2006 at 1:28 am

    I think, from my read of ISL, the major times of neglect Joseph’s wives experienced was in the years after Joseph’s death, when they were plural wives for time to either Brigham or Heber.

  29. Nate Oman
    January 9, 2006 at 10:00 am

    “Utah will become a bastion for liberal thought.”

    I certainly hope so. The Democratic party desperately needs a bastion of thought someplace. “George Bush is evil” and a reflexive defense of the exhausted remnants of the New Deal and the Great Society strike me as exceptionally thin intellectual gruel.

    “Bill Russell, of CofC, says he can’t see how anyone can read the New Testament and be a Republican.”

    Suffice it to say, that this strikes me as glib partisan snarking or a gross failure of charitable interpretation of GOP thinking, or both. I think it is perfectly acceptable to argue that this or that position is inconsistent with the NT or other scriptures, but it would be nice if folks could dial back the theological self-congratulation about their political commitments. (And this applies to all you right-wing wackos as well ;->)…

  30. Visorstuff
    January 9, 2006 at 10:34 am

    Todd, if you are reading this thread, I have two qestions, but need to give background info leading to them (curious on other’s thoughts as well).

    My reading of ISL also originally led me to think that you are a naturalistic historian. No offence meant, but that was my take when I read it. I appreciate the documentation, and source material (and loved the bios), however, I both agree and disagree with certain conclusions and theories you put forth. The air of the work, however, bled with the Mormon strain of naturalism, IMHO.

    For example (and as was cited in the original Q&A), I find that you drew conclusions about Helen Mar Kimball, particularly in what has led many to believe that there may have been some confusion between sealing and marriage by some in the Nauvoo-early-Deseret timeperiod, as non-treated in your work (ie was it truly a “marriage” or was it a “sealing,” why her and not Heber, etc.). Certainly this theory was believed by some prior to this time, yet you don’t treat it in the work in an obvious place.

    I find that this work in particular simplifies some complex issues, and makes others rightfully complex (I’m of the opinion that polygamy is a complex issue). It provides theory and makes conclusions there without conclusive primary (and contemporary) sources and evidence to support them (please don’t take offense, as none is meant, this is leading up to my question).

    My question, using the above as background is: Is it the duty and curse of historians to try to put forth theories and draw conclusions, even without solid evidence? Or is it in your view that our purpose is to solely put forth all of the evidence and let it speak for itself (I also assume this is what you mean by calling the standard church history sanitized). Or should historians put forth evidence that supports their thesis and only acknowlege a different viewpoint? Tanner’s A Mormon Mother clearly cautions her children and other readers not to draw conclusions, and not try to understand the lifesyle, and not judge it as they didn’t have to live it. And as BY said, “To know, they must experience.” Where is the middle road?

    Leading up to my second question, I am a moderate published amateur historian (with a degree), sometimes conservative, sometimes libral in my own studies, yet moderate-to-conservative in my statements in public settings. I believe that church history at church and in faith-promoting situations, should be faith promoting. We should not deal with complexities within an hour-long SS class, as more people than not will not be able to grapple with the complexities. I’ve heard that you are of a similar mindset. I also remember family reunions where we went to visit my great-grandmothers’ sister wives at the Great-Grandfather’s farm. Polygamy is still fresh in my mind, and I’m proud of the heritage, I study about it, yet, I don’t try to understand it or put forth my own theories anymore. I’ve found too much uncertainty. .

    Also, with the the statement in OD 1 that Elders who teach Polygamy in church settings should be “promptly reproved,” should the church reverse this policy, and allow for BY, WW and other manuals to discuss more about polygamy? I was told by a church leader, and now use it myself, that the church doesn’t “teach” anything about polygamy, aside from a contextual and historical point of view, so it should not be discussed in SS, EQ, HPG or other classes. I believe there is a growing group of church leaders who feel this way (if they haven’t alread). This group believes that history is not neccessarily sanitized, but that it is church policy not to teach about it. What is your thought about this movement in light of your research? Should it still be studied in private (obviously) and on the academic level, but left out of church materials, or how should it be incorporated?

    This sounds conservative, yet, I’m curious in your response….

  31. January 9, 2006 at 12:04 pm

    One problem, Visorstuff, that I don’t think has been resolved by Mormon Historians is the naturalistic problem. I tend to agree that Todd adopts what to many are naturalistic approaches in the text. I suspect though that his choice of publisher might demand that. I recognize he apparently originally shopped the text to FARMS who perhaps understandably didn’t want it. But I suspect a less “objective” voice wouldn’t have been attractive to Signature, University of Illinois or others. Kofford didn’t exist back then.

    Having said that though, I think most “conservative theologically” Mormons would find Todd’s introduction questionable. I think it was that which the FARMS reviews primarily found problematic. I don’t think most found the biographical issues as troubling, except perhaps in a few spots. I’m also don’t think this is an issue of polyandry. After all BYU Studies published Zina Huntington’s diaries – before ISL as I recall. Rather I think it is the interpretive framework that Todd puts things into. Some of that has been tremendously influential, such as his dynastic marriage hypothesis. Other aspects, such as the naturalism towards polygamy, seem more troubling. Even though I know some major bloggers also adopt Todd’s conclusions. But as you say, I think other alternatives are available.

    The big issue is, to what degree should an author present alternatives? I’d not that the recent review of RSR in Christianity Today also touched on this. Albeit from the other perspective. I think Bushman does a good job tracking out a middle ground, but I also think it a fair criticism that he presents this middle ground without necessarily giving voice to the other alternatives sufficiently.

  32. Dale
    January 9, 2006 at 3:13 pm

    I bought the book late last fall and was looking forward to reading it with great anticipation. When I started in on it, I felt the book had too much specualtion. I decided I would underline in orange, every time I ran across such words as “might have been”, could have been”, “should have been” or “perhaps was”, etc. Soon my book looked like Hallowe’en run a muck. So I found that speculative approach very annoying.

    I recommend the book to people based on the amount of research that went into the book. The footnotes are also annoying, as they do not point to specific points in the text, but the research has so far proven to be exhaustive. If Compton’s opinions had been restricted to a forward or a concluding chapter, the book would have improved a lot. The constant negativity about Joseph’s approach to plural marriage gets tedious. So let’s do a second edition, add whatever new research has come to ground and delete the author’s opinions. Joseph, even if we view him from afar in the 21 Century, believed that God had revealed the practice of plural marriage to be lived by the Saints. The biographies of his wives, should be told from that assumption, even if we as the author or the reader’s do not agree. dale

  33. Suzanne A.
    January 9, 2006 at 3:18 pm

    Todd Compton, on p. 496 of his book “In Sacred Loneliness”, writes:

    According to Orson [Whitney], “Heber was told by Joseph that if he did not do this he would lose his apostleship and be damned.” As so often, Joseph Smith taught polygamy as a requirement, and to reject it was to lose one’s eternal soul. Once one had accepted him as a prophet, one had to comply or accept damnation.


    Is “losing one’s eternal soul” doctrinal? What is damnation?


    The Bible Dictionary (LDS scriptures) defines damnation as: “The opposite of salvation, and exists in varying degrees. All who do not obtain the fulness of celestial exaltation will to some degree be limited in their progress and privileges, and hence be damned to that extent.”


    I also came across the following footnote from an article entitled “Saved or Damned”: Tracing a Persistent Protestantism in Early Mormon Thought by Grant Underwood. (BYU Studies, vol. 25 (1985) Number 3-Summer 1985):

    The terms salvation and damnation and their cognates present semantic problems which should be addressed briefly at the outset. “Just as there are varying degrees and kinds of salvation,” writes Bruce R. McConkie, “so there are degrees and kinds of damnation.” He distinguishes four usages of the term damnation: “1. Those who are thrust down to hell to await the day of the resurrection of damnation; 2. Those who fail to gain an inheritance in the celestial kingdom or kingdom of God; 3. Those who become sons of perdition; and 4. Those who fail to gain exaltation in the highest heaven within the celestial world, even though they do gain a celestial mansion in one of the lower heavens of that world” (Bruce R. McConkie, Mormon Doctrine, 2d ed. [Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1966], 176-77).

    In other words, damnation can be said to come to anyone not exalted to the highest level of the celestial kingdom (sense 4), or to anyone not inheriting either the celestial kingdom at all (sense 2), or to anyone not inheriting either the celestial or terrestrial kingdoms (sense 1), or to anyone not inheriting either the celestial, terrestrial, or telestial kingdoms (sense 3). The range of interpretations is thus sufficiently broad that aside from “exalted” beings and “sons of perdition,” it is possible to conclude that all the rest of humanity will in a sense be both “saved” and “damned.” For reasons made clear in the remainder of this paper, such semantic options were not articulated in the years under study (1830-46).


    My question then is this, when Joseph said Heber Kimball would be damned what type/degree of damnation are we looking at here?

    1. Those who are thrust down to hell to await the day of the resurrection of damnation;
    2. Those who fail to gain an inheritance in the celestial kingdom or kingdom of God;
    3. Those who become sons of perdition; and
    4. Those who fail to gain exaltation in the highest heaven within the celestial world, even though they do gain a celestial mansion in one of the lower heavens of that world.

    See what I’m trying to understand? Is it correct for Compton to come along and write “As so often, Joseph Smith taught polygamy as a requirement, and to reject it was to lose one’s eternal soul. Once one had accepted him as a prophet, one had to comply or accept damnation.” without explaining the Mormon concept of damnation seeing as we have umpteenth degrees of damnation?

  34. January 9, 2006 at 3:51 pm

    Suzanne: Is it correct for Compton to come along and write “As so often, Joseph Smith taught polygamy as a requirement, and to reject it was to lose one’s eternal soul. Once one had accepted him as a prophet, one had to comply or accept damnation.� without explaining the Mormon concept of damnation seeing as we have umpteenth degrees of damnation?

    Yes. Simply put, you have introduced anachronism into your analysis and don’t allow for a plain reading of the text. The Whitney quote states something quite similar.

  35. Visorstuff
    January 9, 2006 at 4:51 pm

    Clark #31 and Dale #32 seem to have seen some of the same things I noticed. I do hope Todd responds to the questions…

  36. RNM
    January 9, 2006 at 5:35 pm

    Good points #32 The qualifications were annoying. I would, however, rather have historical sources quoted, followed by analysis with qualifications — than non-synthesized sources dumped with no analysis and no interpretation. I would prefer to throw rocks at qualified interpration with supported documentation.. call me lazy :) I probably am. The negative tone in a few places in Compton’s book I thought was unnecessary..

    While we are on a topic for a second edition of ISL, one decade since initial publication, let me suggest additional chapters to ISL second edition.

    -One chapter briefly depicting the story behind each of the women Joseph proposed to, but who turned him down. I, for one, would like to find the Pratt, Rigdon, Law, Foster, etc proposals and denials under a single volume… Why limit the comprehensive single volume to those women who decided to say “I do”? Lets put them all under one cover as the basic starting point.

    -One chapter with comparative analysis on 19th century polygany and polygamy in the context of Jacksonian America’s evangelical protestant offshoots, showing how sexually deviant practices of select mid-19th century millenial Christian groups compared to those practices in Mormonism. How were they the same, and how were they different?

    #32, on the subject of how the Mormon Church should deal with the history in official curriculum….. I would put 19th century Mormon marriage practices and doctrines at the top of my list titled “Non-essential doctrine and history”. Independent researchers like Compton should lead the way in this field, and serious scholars and historians watch the discussion evolve. As much as I love my list, I love the gospel of Jesus Christ more… and thats what we should talk about on Sundays and in church curriculum. Recently I watched the DVD series on Joseph Smith put out by BYU and narrarated by Susan Easton Black. I loved it, and I’ll watch it over again. More importantly, I can watch it with my children and still agree with the central messages of faith and sacrifice. I think Nauvoo Polygamy got about 20 seconds of cryptic dialogue in episode 6. I would have added another 20 seconds, but thats about it.

  37. Allen Lambert
    January 10, 2006 at 12:29 am

    Interesting interview. But let me take issue with one idea, on philosophical and sociological gournds.
    Compton says, “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.”
    One problem with such an assertion is the implicit (but common) definition of politics and parties as outcome oriented rather tha process and procedure or structure oriented, and assumptions about priorities.
    Contemporary liberals tend to be strongly outcome oriented. Conservatism tends to be procedure and structure oriented, as is the Constitution. Democracy is a process, not an outcome. And when one thinks about proper processes, procedures and structure for governing, one has to make assumptions about the nature of human beings, society, the state, and so on. Many Mormons will have a strong commitment for a long time to the kind of assumptions and priorities about those things which are consistent with conservative tendencies.
    While liberalism may have its heart in the right place, its head is not. There is more strong political philosophy and sociological argument in support of conservative principles than the above statement recognizes or admits.
    Allen Lambert

  38. Allen Lambert
    January 10, 2006 at 1:31 am

    Here is a comment from a friend of mine who is a very knowledgeable scholar of things Mormon. This is about Compton’s praise for LeSueur
    “David Whittaker’s work on Danites is roughly 100% more reliable than LeSueur and comes to some opposite conclusions …
    “Conservative myths” or “myth of persecuted innocence” however stated, comes down to “Why did the Mormons think they had any rights? If they had accepted that they didn’t, they wouldn’t have been persecuted.” But the persecution began in Palmyra, when Joseph was a defenseless boy, and continued virtually uninterrupted from that time onward. That some got sick of it and retaliated in an un-Christian way may be true, but it matters who threw the first stone, and it was always the Gentiles. Or was it a crime for generally northern/anti-slave Mormons to move to Missouri? Nonsense. They had the same rights as any other Americans, and if Missourians didn’t like it, they had the right to commit suicide (perhaps), but not to kill Mormons.”

  39. comet
    January 11, 2006 at 9:35 am

    #30: “I believe that church history at church and in faith-promoting situations, should be faith promoting. We should not deal with complexities within an hour-long SS class, as more people than not will not be able to grapple with the complexities.”

    I think I understand the sentiment behind this: many people come to church with the hope that teachers will give them reasons to keep serving in the church, paying tithing, abiding by a relatively strict moral code, making sacrifices, etc. However, from my experience it is not always obvious what will promote another person’s faith. It seems to me what many people mean by faith-promoting can sometimes actually be quite deflationary. As for complexity, I assume you mean by this hot button topics like polygamy (messy reversals in church doctrines) and not the elimination of complexity per se?

    RNM: Any bets on which currently accepted doctrines might end up in the
    “non-essential” bin a hundred years from now?

  40. RNM
    January 12, 2006 at 12:28 am

    Comet – Interesting question. Here is my speculation.

    100 years ago, had we walked the streets of Salt Lake City in the wake of the Reed Smoot hearings and second manifesto, at the dawn of a new century where Utah was not yet Americanized, we would definitely feel out of place… like strangers in a foreign land. But if we then walked in the tabernacle to hear the speakers in Joseph F. Smith’s general conference, we would glean, here and there, threads of eternal truth that stand tranfixed in time.. echo’s of eternity that stir the soul and warm the heart.. Countless ‘non-essentials’ have changed hundred years since, but that is another blog…

    100 years from now, Mormons will look back on the year 2005. They will feel similar feelings as we do looking back at the dawn of the 20th century.

    Internal & External changes in the next 100 years should be discussed first. Unprecedented population growth in the number of Mormons will change the landscape. I believe in the exponential population math postulated by sociologists like Rodney Stark. For 20 years he has been predicting that by the year 2080, when accounting for conversion and birth rates, there could be as many as 260 million Mormons worldwide. By 2105, all the continents and every major free country will be strongly represented with church members. The Americas will dominate the other continents. Significantly, the church will be highly concentrated in Central and South America. Conference talks will be in Spanish, Portuguese, and English. At least 3 of the quorum of the 12 apostles will be of Latin American descent, and a much higher proportion represented in other general offices. Mormonism will become a world religion by 2105, on its way to become as recognized as Islam or Catholicism. The church will remain highly centralized, but the trend toward local empowerment and simplified standards in the handbook of instructions will continue. Correlation will remain as a dominating hallmark of the day-to-day church operatins… indeed, it will become increasingly more important as languages, cultures, customs, and people are assimilated and instructed in the rudiments of Mormonism (i.e, the first principles & ordinances). Race mixing will be the norm rather than the exception. Almost all American adult Mormon women will work out of the home at least part time basis. I’m not talking about call centers… I’m talking about real professionals. Women will continue to dominate the home front, and will exert more influence in local congregations & auxiliaries. Given the prevalence of homosexuality in 2105, members will be MUCH more tolerant of homosexuals, while still not approving of homosexual acts.

    Now to your question – what is essential today that will be non-essential in 100 years?

    First, I think the doctrines of Christ’s Atonement will more heavily rest on the Saints 100 years from now. In 2005, when Children bear their testimony in sacrament meeting, you are likely to hear “I know this church is true. I Joseph Smith was a profit and he restored the true church. I love my mother and father.� I think the culture will change (not the doctrine) where much more often we’ll hear people say “I know Christ suffered and died for my sins, and provided a way for me to return to my Heavenly Home. I know Christ restored His true church through Joseph Smith….� Notice it will be Christ who restored the church in the average testimony, through Joseph Smith.

    Second, we will see a much broader political and ideological representation in the church population than today, and the discussion of ‘conservative vs. liberal’ will be only a subset discussion of a much more diverse mormonism. Undoubtedly the Republican party will lose its monopoly in Utah politics, including in Utah Valley. We will have 2 American Presidents in the next 100 years, and at least one of them will not be a Republican.

    Third, the Church will be an immense force for good in the world. I’m not just talking about cleaning up after tornados and floods, or having a storehouse where widows can get peanut butter. I’m talking about being a part of forums to resolve global hunger, illiteracy, and a host of societal ills. The combined and united resources (financial, organizational, global) will be put to use in unimaginable ways.

  41. Todd C.
    January 12, 2006 at 2:12 pm

    Hello, old friends and new. Kevin, Jonathan, Johnna, Jim, among others. Those who disagree with me, I hope we can disagree in friendship. Yes, Jim, those were fun nights studying the New Testament at your house. (If you’re the Jim I suspect you are!) By the way, I asked my wife about one person’s response, and my wife told me that person’s whole life history. There are no secrets on the net . . .

    Thanks for your interest and responses. I was struck by the diversity of voices that responded!

    Dallas: the place to start for Indo-European myth is a book by my teacher at UCLA, Jaan Puhvel, Comparative Mythology, which actually mostly deals with Indo-European comparative myth. After that, something by Dumézil, possibly The Stakes of the Warrior. A great book about ancient Indo-European culture is Benveniste, Indo-European Language and Society. The White Goddess used to be one of the key books for a group of us in grad school, that we read like it was a talisman; now, I can’t recommend it as a solid reliable book. It may be evocative for you, though, as Graves was a remarkable writer and poet. I like the books by Mircea Eliade, who wrote on the history of religions, by the way, and at one time read almost everything he wrote.

    Enochville: It’s always interesting to say what if in history – what if Joseph hadn’t been killed, and he’d led the Saints across the plains, settled in Utah, and lived with his wives openly, as did Brigham Young? But those questions unfortunately can’t be answered precisely. In some ways the same patterns would emerge, I think, and in other ways things would be different. (How’s that for a statement of the obvious?) I haven’t studied Brigham Young’s families exhaustively. I do know that most of his wives lived in the Lion House at one time, and then gradually moved into separate homes, I think. By the way, the Lion House is one of the sacred places in Salt Lake City for me, because that’s where Eliza R. Snow, Zina D.H. Young, Emily Partridge, Fanny Murray, etc. lived. Wouldn’t it be great if the church honored Eliza and Zina and Emily, by restoring it somehow with period furniture and publicizing that they lived there? But now the Lion House is used as a cafeteria and a reception center. No mention is made that Brigham’s wives lived there. (If I remember right from the last time I was there.) Once again, I think it’s a matter of avoiding any mention of polygamy. On your first question, the experience of the Partridge sisters is striking. Of course, they had to leave Joseph’s house because Joseph had a first wife who would not tolerate “practical� polygamy, even if she accepted the idea of it occasionally. So that is another important contrast to Brigham in Utah.

    Jonathan: I’m not following you totally on Eliza. Brigham did rebuke her on occasion, sometimes publicly, and did not support her when Heber and Jed, my great-great-grandpa, attacked the Polysophical Society. However, at other times, Brigham deferred to her judgment and felt she was a valued ally in his work. On Eliza’s subsequent “deconstruction and caricaturization�: remember Legacy? That film was based on Eliza and Mary Elizabeth Rollins Lightner. Obviously, it left out quite a bit! We Saints tend to have a saccharine view of early Mormons in general, and Eliza is no exception.
    On the zeitgeist, and possible improvements, we can only hope for the best.

    Exchanges with critics . . . hmmm. I think mostly critics, when they haven’t liked my book, and I’m sure there are many of them, haven’t gone out of their way to tell me about it. Once or twice I’ve gotten a letter from someone who is a relative of someone who has left the church, partially because of my book. I write back and tell them that I believe that learning about Joseph Smith’s polygamy is not something that we can avoid talking about and discussing. Joseph Smith is a major figure in American history; we can’t act like his marriages are simply a taboo subject; they’re a major part of his story. It’s much better to work through problem areas in Mormon history, learn about them, discuss them, than to play like they aren’t there. I actually believe that not being afraid of problem areas is a component of mature faith. We are helping anti-Mormons by not discussing these problems areas in a context of faith (i.e., in Sunday School, seminary, and institute classes, in FARMS publications, etc.). Your reaction to Bachman — did you mean his review of my book? I really like his master’s thesis, but didn’t find his review of my book too helpful.

    Mormon Conservative: see my paper. There’s a strong tradition of comitted Mormon Democrats among church leaders. People like Orson F. Whitney, Anthony Ivins, Heber J. Grant, Hugh B. Brown, James Faust. Strangely enough, Boyd K. Packer, according to one source. I know that I certainly put the gospel first: it leads me to principles in the Democratic party. (One issue I like that is conservative is fiscal responsibility: but then you have Clinton leaving office with a surplus, and Bush — supposedly a conservative — giving us massive, record deficits. Another conservative issue I like is not getting involved in foreign wars unless it is as a last resort — which again Bush has not lived up to.) I think you’re right to the extent that no political party exactly reflects the gospel, so a sensitive Mormon should feel some discomfort with either party, even though he must choose one as the lesser of two evils.

    Julien: you’re right, the institutional church has focused on absolutist faith, though you find some non-absolutist faith in writings by people like Orson F. Whitney, James E. Talmage, Widstoe, Hugh B. Brown. Among non-GAs, Arrington, Lowell Bennion and Nibley. I think that’s a challenge that the church faces: accepting liberals as full, welcome members of the church. It would be nice if we felt valued, not just tolerated, or even disliked. Of course, wards can be very different (with some more accepting of “liberals�); and of course, since, “liberals� run a gamut from obnoxious to very nice, the obnoxious ones won’t be accepted too well.

    Blake: if you’re a moderate, you’re attacked by both sides. It’s much more comfortable to be fully on the extreme end of things.

    Ivan Wolfe: I think you have to choose the lesser of two evils, or you’ll end up with the greater of two evils. Supporters of the Green party found that out in 2000. By the way, Jim was referring to my paper on my website — I’m not sure you understood that. Even in my interview, I said, “as the Republican party is now.� Think of Karl Rove and Tom Delay and Scooter Libby.

    Jim: you’re right. I would like to see the Republican party reformed, so I could feel comfortable voting for one sometime.

    Clark: interesting comments on violence in the 1838 Mormon War and violence in the Civil War guerilla wars. I’m sure there’s a connection: extralegal violence was seen as a necessary option by that Missouri culture. I discovered that the phrase “nits make lice� had a long history in Indian massacres. People killed small Native American children and said, “nits make lice,� which salved their conscience.

    Harold and Jack: Joseph Smith’s polygamy is a major issue in church history (and American history) that has to be addressed. Why is there this sense that we have to keep a man’s marriage or marriages secret? Especially Joseph Smith’s? A person’s family life is a major part of his life story. You can’t leave it out. Eliza R. Snow and Zina D.H. Young are also two major figures in Mormon history; you can’t tell their stories leaving out their marriages. Isn’t it better to deal with these problem issues, look at them thoroughly, than to play like they don’t exist? Two conservative books that deal with Joseph Smith’s polygamy are Glen Leonard’s Nauvoo book and Bushman, Rough Stone Rolling.

    Yes, I agree, Comet. And thanks, LRC.

    R McMullin: Interesting. Those must have been interesting discussions when you read the Quinn books. Here’s an interesting story. I met someone by email who has relatives who are polygamous, including a sister. He is opposed to polygamy. He was reading my book and thinking, gosh, I wish my sister would read this book, it would convince her to stop polygamy. He talked to her and found out that, strangely enough, she was reading ISL at the same time, and it was inspiring her to keep practicing polygamy. We bring a lot of our own baggage to any book we read.
    Have you and your close relative read Solemn Covenant yet? That should be interesting.

    Hi Johnna! Good point.

    Nate, please forgive me for my lame attempts at humor, especially on political matters. For my more serious views, see my article that is linked in the interview. Jim mentions that it has nuances beyond simply Democrats=righteous, Republicans=unrighteous. I have a lot of respect for many moderate Republicans. I have friends and family who are Republicans. Also, political parties are always in a state of flux, and no political party completely reflects the gospel. My love for the Democratic party (at this time) derives from my thinking that compassion for the poor (and really helping them), social justice for minorities and less-advantaged people, civil rights, preserving the environment (one of the great witnesses of God’s majesty), helping children and young people through financing education, are core elements of the gospel. I totally agree that those things can be done in impractical and even harmful ways, so I would agree with Republicans who might criticize programs that are not perfect. But in my experience with the Republicans, I don’t find that they have a passion for helping the poor and disadvantaged, offering social justice to minorities, preserving the environment, spending whatever it takes on education. There is no “passion for compassion.â€? It’s almost as if compassion is way down the list of priorities in the spirit of the party – and because Democrats are associated with compassion, there’s almost a reaction against it. What does our present President feel passionate about? Though in his first campaign he frequently proclaimed his compassion (as a “compassionate conservativeâ€?), when he became president, his passion seemed to go elsehwere: especially tax cuts that overwhelmingly benefit the wealthy. (Poverty has steadily risen on his watch.) Of course, he described the tax cuts as job stimulus programs; but jobs did not increase as a result. It it’s really a job stimulus program, why not guarantee jobs? I think the Republican idea that we can help less advantaged people by requiring them to practice self-reliance, like all ideas, has some truth to it if it is not taken too far. If taken too far, it is a case of Darwinian survival of the richest, and the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. There are people who need help and we should help them gladly, happily, even if it means more taxes. Nate, if you have anything to read that shows that Republicans have a “passion for compassion,â€? I’d be interested in reading it, or if you’ve written anything that explains how the Republican philosophy meshes with compassion for the poor. My email is on my website: [email protected].
    As you’ll see in my paper, President Hugh B. Brown said all this in a simpler and more eloquent fashion when he said he was a Democrat because he felt that the Democrats had more sensitivity to the poor.

    Visorstuff: (and by the way, what were your parents thinking when they gave you that name?). Interesting comments. I like the fact that the current priesthood manuals have a historical component. But if they include that history, they should do it right. We teach that an important part of a man’s life is his family life; if a man’s family life is polygamous, we should have that as part of the story. Leaving it out creates an 800 pound gorilla in the room that noone wants to talk about. Wouldn’t it be great, by the way, if we could read Rough Stone Rolling for a priesthood manual? Followed by Arrington’s Brigham Young. Alexander’s Wilford Woodruff. Walker’s Heber J. Grant (which will have appeared by then). Prince’s David O. McKay.

    Clark: naturalism is a precise term, ina religious-philosophical context: it means a rejection of God and the supernatural. So referring to any part of my book, in any way, as naturalistic, is incorrect. I agree that I have a liberal faith, following people like Arrington and Bennion. But I believe conservatives should have a measure of tolerance for those who have liberal faith.

    Dale: on those qualifications. Believe me, every competent historian does that. See my discussion of this on my online response to the FARMS reviews of my book. Using qualifications is the sign of a *good* historian. A bad historian takes a subject that is not certain and treats it like it is absolutely certain. (Brodie was guilty of that.)

    I haven’t responded to everyone yet, but give me a few more days.

  42. Julie M. Smith
    January 12, 2006 at 7:30 pm

    “Walker’s Heber J. Grant (which will have appeared by then)”

    [does happy dance]

    I got the impression from his previous work on Grant that he had shelved plans for a more complete treatment–I’m thrilled to hear otherwise.

  43. Visorstuff
    January 13, 2006 at 3:08 pm

    Todd, this has been a very enlightening discussion for me. You wrote:

    Wouldn’t it be great, by the way, if we could read Rough Stone Rolling for a priesthood manual? Followed by Arrington’s Brigham Young. Alexander’s Wilford Woodruff. Walker’s Heber J. Grant (which will have appeared by then). Prince’s David O. McKay.

    I’d love it. And I know you’d love it. But I don’t think it would be great overall – especially in my ward. We get basic doctrinal and historical questions Gospel Doctrine. I think this is why we focus so much on reading the scriptures. Many aren’t even familiar with the miracles of Jesus in the New Testament, and would probably stumble that he whipped people to get them out of the temple. So many people outside of Utah are still learning the “basics” of Church history. It is wonderful for personal study, but to me, giving too much information drowns new converts and those already struggling with their testimonies. That’s like teaching the Mormon cultural view of what it means to be “a god” in the first discussion. There are more appropriate settings than a one-hour class. Like web site design, you should teach for the lowest common denominator, and encourage others to do personal study where they can grow, find out more, and give them just enough to build faith.

    This is illustrated by Joseph Smith when he stated: “[I]t is not always wise to relate all the truth. Even Jesus, the Son of God, had to refrain from doing so, and had to restrain His feelings many times for the safety of Himself and His followers, and had to conceal the righteous purposes of His heart in relation to many things pertaining to His Father’s kingdom.”

    I’m not advocating that we hide things, but rather that there are appropriate places to share things. I’m not sure what the answer is, but as #39 pointed out, there needs to be some sort of balance to the most controversial.

    That said, I imagine (and predict) that the proclamation to the family will one day be (and already is in some areas) as controversial as polygamy, blacks and the priesthood, orgin of man, the king follet discourse, the book of mormon and other controversial teachings and beliefs (note I did not say doctrines).

    By the way, I’ll let me parents know you don’t like my Wikipedia screen name :^)

    I’m still curious in your thoughts about whether “Is it the duty and curse of historians to try to put forth theories and draw conclusions, even without solid evidence? “

  44. January 13, 2006 at 4:47 pm

    “Leaving it out creates an 800 pound gorilla in the room that noone wants to talk about.”

    I found it interesting that last Sunday in RS the very first question someone asked about Wilford Woodruff was: “Wasn’t he married? I looked through the timeline in the book and I couldn’t find any mention of a wife.” Once the question was asked several people were nodding their heads as if they had the exact same question.
    Aside from the surprise that many of the women there really didn’t know that he had not just one but several wives, I was not at all surprised that because the polygamy was left out entirely it guaranteed that it was discussed on the very first day.
    (BTW the question was answered by a blushing Relief Society President who announced that she “had looked it up and he had five wives, 30 some-odd children, and he divorced one of them.” After which she quickly sat down and the lesson moved on promptly.)

  45. Visorstuff
    January 13, 2006 at 4:56 pm

    Very interesting. The manual does discuss his marriage to Phoebe Carter. Very interesting.

  46. Todd C.
    January 13, 2006 at 9:10 pm

    Visorstuff: (the visor thing makes me think of Darth Vadar)

    I think it makes sense to have an introductory SS class for investigators and new converts (which we have now, correct?). Other than that, I think Mormon adults should be treated like adults, and that neither church history nor the scriptures should be dumbed down for them.

    I believe that the glory of God is intelligence, not boredom. I think more people would stay active in the church if we had interesting, stimulating manuals. Now, as support for my position, I remember Nibley talking about how his books used to be used as priesthood manuals. (Hard to believe isn’t it? Bennion’s books also used to be used as manuals.) He said that naturally those who wanted the gospel dumbed-down, instead of challenging, objected to President McKay. According to Nibley, McKay always supported the more challenging manuals. I’m with Nibley and McKay on this issue.

    You write: “I’m still curious in your thoughts about whether “Is it the duty and curse of historians to try to put forth theories and draw conclusions, even without solid evidence? “

    Good historians always work from evidence, and from evidence they believe is solid. I doubt that any historian would disagree with me on that. Of course, there’s infinite room for historians and readers to disagree about the quality of the evidence and whether the argument really follows from the evidence. Evidence is extremely complex. One piece of evidence is extremely complex. When you see it in relation to other pieces of evidence (each of which is also complex), you can see how incredibly complex the game of reconstructing the past is. (Often the different pieces of evidence simply contradict each other!)

    Some historians are more theoretical than others, but even they have to be grounded in good evidence. I like historians, like Quinn, who roll up their sleeves and dive into the evidence. I’m not so enthusiastic about historians I could name (but won’t!) who rarely seen to spend time in archives.

  47. January 13, 2006 at 11:07 pm

    Todd –

    I think of Karl Rove and Delay and all I see are smear tactics by liberals. I just ain’t seeing it. From your comments, it seems you buy into the odd conspiracy theories of the moonbat left (sorry). I liek Bush, despite not liking the Republican party.

  48. January 14, 2006 at 8:10 pm

    I should also add, Todd, that I don’t see the Democratic party as the lesser of two evils (or in that case, the Republican party and/or Bush as the greater evil).

    I did once, actually. I almost became a Democrat. Then I realized all the current Democratic party has to offer me is hate. Hatred of Bush especially, but there’s just too much hate on the left right now. IMHO.

  49. Jackson
    January 15, 2006 at 6:16 pm

    Todd: I found ISL at Deseret Book at the Orem City Mall a few years ago.

  50. Merikay Smith
    January 16, 2006 at 12:51 am

    This is my first blog comment. I finished reading ISL recently and was grateful to finally encounter a book which dealt with polygamy from the perspective of understanding the lives of the women involved.

    On the topic of what is appropriate to be discussed in a church class setting I wanted to share an incident in today’s R.S. lesson (Chapter 2 of the Woodruff manual, on the life of Joseph Smith). The lesson followed the manual deviating only so much as to mention the great sacrifices of Emma, as well as Joseph, referring to their frequent moves, financial hardships, and persecution. A sister raised her hand toward the end of the lesson and naively asked, “I read a Newsweek article that says Joseph had more than one wife. Could that be true? I’ve never heard anything about it in Church.” This sister is a convert of about 4 years who attends church regularly. It’s quite a shock for those who join the Church as converts to learn about polygamy in a setting outside of Church. The topic will obviously come up eventually for most members. I hope Church leaders will recognize the difficulty it poses when there is official silence on an issue of such integral importance to the early Church members (and indirectly for us as well). The history is too complex to be dealt with in any single lesson, but some honest acknowledgement of well-documented polygamy would be a place to start. As one of the earlier writers (#44) mentioned, R.S. sisters notice immediately that no wives are listed in the historical summary for Wilford Woodruff. This not only brings up concerns about polygamy but also (and perhaps more importantly relative to our day) leaves women wondering: Do we belong to a church that treats its wives and mothers as invisible, useful for bearing children but not meaningful enough to be listed by name in a spouse’s life summary? That is the unintended consequence of wiping polygamy out of our history. The story of women and their service and sacrifice is also wiped out.

  51. Todd C.
    January 17, 2006 at 7:50 pm

    Merikay: Very eloquent. You’re exactly right. Thanks for responding. People who are not told about these basic problem issues in church history, because they are treated as taboo, often feel they’ve been treated less than forthrightly. If you have faith in the gospel, much better to talk about these issues, fully and honestly, within a context of faith. I think I will write a listing of Woodruff’s families and put it up on my website. He had about ten wives, by the way.

    Ivan: Delay is under indictment. Libby is under indictment. Fitzgerald is seriously investigating Rove for indictment. That is hardly simply Democratic smear tactics. There is enough evidence that they broke the law that they have been indicted (except for Rove, who is still under investigation). The Abramoff investigation I think will include a lot of individual Republicans in its net, but in addition, I think it includes the Republican philosophy of being very sympathetic to big business, and the wealthy. Obviously, Democrats are not perfect, either. But keep on reading and trying to figure things out, politically and religiously. I totally agree that telling partisan lies is wrong; but telling negative truths about politicians is an important part of the free press. (As long as we’re talking about truth, not cynical partisan spin and distortion.) In politics, as in history, it’s important to find the evidence behind the biases, and use it to rein in our biases. Good luck.

  52. Visorstuff
    January 17, 2006 at 7:57 pm

    Todd – That is exactly the problem I have with historians like Mike Quinn. He draws conclusions between evidences where I don’t see any connection, and there really is none to be had. I read he sources and go to the historical office, to the archives, to special collections, and don’t get the same conclusions as he does from his sources. Very good sources, very relevant, but his conclusions are lacking substance. He reminds me of Nibley’s “How to write an anti-mormon book” speech where he talks about context – something along the lines of: this person lived in London in the 1800s, was married and had children and we know that some people in London who were married beat their children, so we can surmisethat he beat his children. I know that example is not being fair to Quinn, but it illustrates my point. In my own research I try to rather than draw conclusions, provide the evidence and then point to the various schools of thought, or say there isn’t a school of thought, but this is what I beleive. It is really our purpose to draw these conclusions?

    Sorry about the Vader-Visor thing.

    One more Nibley thing about gospel doctrine. When I lived in his ward, he was asked why he didn’t correct doctrine in Gospel Doctrine class. He said that he realized that it was not so much as what was taught as it was was meant, or the spirit of the point being illustrated. He said some of the most profound things were taught by children (I’m sure you’ve heard him say that a time or two) that were probably doctrinally incorrect, but had correct principles.

    I’m also of the opinion of Clark, McKay and others that we shouldn’t “dumb down” doctrines for children or adults, but I also believe Church services tend to get tangental enough and stay in the speculative range far more than they need be. Perhaps, we should give home teachers manuals that let them get into more meat with those they hometeach. Perhaps that would invigorate home teaching. Perhaps that would leave the faith building at church and the instruction of doctrine to the home teachers. That would be interesting to see if home teaching stats would go up church-wide? I believe there is a balance. I’m just not sure what it is, and where it fits – but for me right now, that place is in my personal study and my research. Feel free to email me to continue dialogue – I’d enjoy it. This has been most enlightening.

  53. Suzanne A.
    January 19, 2006 at 12:16 pm

    Further reading suggestion, I’d like to recommend “More Wives Than One: Transformation of the Mormon Marriage System, 1840-1910” by Kathryn M. Daynes (University of Illinois Press). Her chapters one and two on the “Introduction of Plural Marriage to the Manifesto” are enlightening and informative. This book was the winner of the Best Book Award from the Utah State Historical Society (2002) and winner of the Best Book Award from the Mormon History Association (2002). Dr. Daynes is co-authoring two more books on the topic of Mormonism and polygamy due out in 2007 and 2008.

    Another very good read is “Mormon Polygamous Families: Life in the Principle” by Jessie L. Embry (University of Utah Press).

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