Interview with Todd Compton--Part 1:
AMS: Welcome to the Apostate Mormon Show. Today’s show is a very special treat for me, as I will have the pleasure to interview one of Mormonism’s best scholars, Dr. Todd Compton. Dr. Compton is not your typical Mormon historian, because he believes in studying history, whether or not it is faith promoting. This may sound like a… not such a big deal to those listeners who were never part of the Mormon tradition, but it is quite revolutionary in Mormon circles. So, welcome to the show, Dr. Compton.
TC: Glad to be here.
AMS: Your book, “In Sacred Loneliness – the Plural Wives of Joseph Smith”, is one of the gems of Mormon research and thought. This hour, next, we will delve into a couple of chapters of the book and we’ll talk about a number of subjects having to do with polygamy, the early LDS church, and contemporary issues having to do with polygamy. It is such a pleasure to have you on. I have greatly enjoyed your book, and I admire your work. I’ve got to say for the listeners who haven’t read the book that it is full of intrigue, and it’s like a great novel. It’s got the intrigue, the sex, the mystery, it’s got it all…
Before we get much further into the conversation I need to introduce you to our listeners. You have a PhD in Classics, from the University of California Los Angeles. You’ve taught at UCLA, the University of Southern California, Cal State Northridge. You are the author of “Mormonism and Early Christianity.” When was that published?
TC: I’m one of the editors of that…
AMS: Oh, you’re one of the editors, okay…
TC: Some of the Nibley collected works volume series…
AMS: I see. You’re also a contributor to the “Encyclopedia of Mormonism,” you’ve been published in the American Journal of Philology, Dialogue: a Journal of Mormon Thought, Classical Quarterly, the Journal of Popular Culture, among others. So, you’re widely published. Was “In Sacred Loneliness,” was that your second book?
TC: Um, I consider it my first book. There was another, kind of previous book that isn’t really, you know, in the same category of scholarly books… So I consider it my first book.
AMS: You are the recipient of the Best Article Award from the Mormon History Association, and just a very interesting person. You are currently working on a new book? Do you want to tell us a little bit about that?
TC: Um… yea, but, let me do my statement first, okay?
AMS: Very good, let’s go ahead and do that.
TC: Okay. This is kind of an explanation of why I’m doing this program. So, I’m going to read it right now. [Reading from prepared text] I’m doing this interview as an active Mormon, as a believer in God and Jesus Christ, and Christ’s Church. I am not a particularly outstanding Mormon, never having served as a Bishop or Stake President, for instance, but I’m an average Mormon who shows up every week. I believe the LDS Church has been and is far from perfect. Nevertheless, I believe God has called me to be a part of it, to be improved by it in some ways and to help improve it in others. I’m a Liberal Mormon, though some people consider that a contradiction in terms. I participate in an interview program like this because long ago, I decided that Jesus’ example obligates us to talk with everyone. He was fiercely criticized by religious conservatives in his day, for teaching people the conservatives considered sinners. We are not to wait until we have as listeners only other active conservative Mormons. Jesus’ call and outreach goes to all human beings and we should not consider any group of human beings out of the reach of his call and outreach as we strive to follow Him. [No longer reading] So, there’s my statement.
AMS: Very good.
AMS: Well, I have to add to it, if I may, that I think you’re being very gutsy to do this, because it is not traditionally well seen in the Church for people such as yourself to be speaking out. And, as a matter of fact, it is… we’ll delve into that later, but… your book probably raised some eyebrows as well.
TC: (Laughs) Yes.
AMS: Well, let’s talk about your book. It is very large. It’s over 600 pages, with a couple hundred pages of references and notes. It must have been a monumental undertaking. How long did it take you to research and write this book?
TC: Uh, it took about 5 years… You know, and it’s funny because people think writing a book like this is a lot of work. But you read interviews with professional authors and they say, “Yea, I write three pages a day.” And if you think about it, three pages a day… in one year you’ve got 900 pages.
AMS: That’s true.
TC: So, to me it didn’t seem like a monumental task. When I was doing it, it was a lot of fun. And then it ended up pretty long just because there’s 33 women in there…
AMS: Yes, there’s a lot of people.
TC: So, I was glad that Signature was willing to publish it at that length.
AMS: Yea, did you… Were you approached by Signature Books, who is your publisher, first, or did you approach them?
TC: What I did is, when I had a manuscript that was actually just the first half of the book, I was thinking of publishing it in two volumes at that point. I sent query letters to a number of publishers who were interested in Mormon history. Two were most interested, and they were University of Utah Press and Signature Books. University of Utah accepted it first, and I was going to publish it with them, and then they kind of dropped their Mormon series. Signature was still interested, so I published it with them. So, I was happy with either of those, but I kind of leaned to University Press because I thought it might help my academic career further.
AMS: Um hum. Did you attempt to publish it with Deseret Book?
TC: I actually, uh… explored publishing it, not with Deseret Book, but with the BYU University Press. I let them see part of it, and predictably they were not really too interested (laughs).
AMS: Okay, okay… I notice today on amazon.com that… I keep sending lots of people to your page on amazon.com. And I noticed today that they only have two copies left. So, I assume it’s been a popular book. Do you have any idea how many copies have been sold?
TC: Well, in the first two months, 2000 copies were sold. So, then they did another edition, which is another few thousand copies. I’m not sure exactly how many. So…
AMS: A substantial amount.
TC: For a scholarly Mormon history book, that is very good, that’s almost Best Seller status. For a Deseret Book, that’s nothing (laughs).
AMS: Well, yea, but… Deseret Book doesn’t specialize in scholarly publications anyway.
AMS: Let’s talk a little bit about your motivation in writing this book. What gave you the idea?
TC: Um, my background is in the Classics, which is Greek and Latin. And, um, I finished my degree at UCLA and I taught, just a little bit, at USC, and I was having trouble finding other jobs. At this period in time, I happened to have a friend who came down here to southern California and had had a summertime fellowship with the Huntington Library. She suggested that I apply for it, apply for one of these fellowships, and she suggested I apply to work on the journals of Eliza R. Snow, which the Huntington Library has. And, I thought it was kind of a crazy idea, because I didn’t have a background in Mormon history, but it, um, looked like it would not take too much time to apply. And so, I applied and strangely enough they gave me a fellowship. So, they were basically paying me to research the journals of Eliza R. Snow, who of course was one of the plural wives of Joseph Smith. And, as I started doing that, started studying her journals I was trying to identify the people in her journals. I realized I would really need a good list of Joseph Smith’s plural wives. There was a good list of Brigham Young’s wives, and Heber C. Kimball’s wives, but I didn’t feel there was a good list of Joseph Smith’s wives. The best list there was--modern, scholarly list, was an appendix by Fawn Brodie. And, I felt that had lots of problems. It was inflated, it depended too much on anti-Mormon writing, and I just felt… I couldn’t rely on it. Even though I felt it was valuable…
TC: And, it was great that she’d done it. It helped me get started on my own research.
TC: So, I decided I needed to make my own list, to make my own decisions on which women were plural wives of Joseph Smith, and to do this I had to start studying their lives a little bit, reading what they themselves had written. And that’s what got me started. And then I just got interested…
AMS: Yea, and it kind of grabbed you…
TC: My life was no longer my own at that point, it was just so incredibly fascinating.
AMS: The subject is so fascinating, and the way you write it is so interesting, it’s like reading a good novel.
TC: Well, I’m glad you feel like that.
AMS: It’s really good. We have to take a quick break, and we’ll be right back with Dr. Todd Compton.