Interview with Todd Compton—Part 2
AMS: Welcome back to the Apostate Mormon Show. Dr. Compton, we were talking about your book, and how you got the idea to write the book. We know that it took you about 5 years to write. Um… What impact did you hope this book would have?
TC: Well, um… The book offers different things. It will offer different things to different people. I think the main impact I wanted it to have was to help people get to know these women in early Mormon history… who were very important women who have kind of been overlooked. And, I wanted people to get to know them and tell their whole lives. I look at each of these women, and I look at their whole lives. Interestingly, their marriage to Joseph Smith often is just a year in a long life. And so, I got emotionally caught up in their lives, and came to feel close to them, and so I… That, I feel is the main thing I wanted to contribute in this book. You know, to help people experience what they had experienced in their lives, and get to know them better.
AMS: Which is not an approach that anybody else before you had taken, I don’t think.
AMS: Yea, it was completely new… and very interesting. How many pages of documents do you think you read in preparation for this book?
TC: (Laughs). Well…
AMS: Do you wear glasses now? (Laughs)
TC: Yea. It’s hard to quantify. I mean, I tried to read everything that, you know… just about everything published in Mormon history, you know that’s published… Because it’s really necessary to know what’s been published first, you know, not just in Mormon polygamy—in all aspects of Mormon history. I didn’t succeed in reading everything, but I really read a lot. Of course, I’ve always been interested in Mormon history so I’d read a lot beforehand also.
AMS: Um, hum.
TC: But then I went to all the archives I could find that had Mormon collections. And of course the first thing I did was try to read everything written by these 33 women, and by members of their families…
TC: … and by their close friends. And, then I tried to read everything I could get my hands on written by women also in Mormon history. And, so, lots and lots of reading that was a lot of fun to do.
AMS: And, do you feel there are a lot of documents that have been preserved in various collections that are available to the public?
TC: Yes, yes, very very many. And, when I started research, very few of them had been published. Now, more have been published. There’s a series Utah State University Press called “Life Writings of Mormon Frontier Women.” And, they’ve published four or five major autobiographies and diaries by Mormon women. When I started, that series hadn’t even started.
AMS: Well, I’m sure your book spurred a lot of interest in that area of research.
TC: Some, hopefully.
AMS: Hmm. I think so. So you think, or did you think, that this book project you had could ever wind up being labeled as anti-Mormon or detrimental to the image of the Mormon Church?
TC: Yea, I knew it could be labeled as anti-Mormon. And, even now it’s labeled as anti-Mormon. When I wrote this book, this was a period when the Mormon Church excommunicated a number of high-profile editors and historians and feminists.
AMS: Um, hum. September 7?
AMS: The September 7 group?
TC: Yea, and the excommunications following that of people like Margaret Toscano, and
AMS: Maxine Hanks…
TC: David Wright… Maxine was one of the September 7.
TC: So, I knew that it was possible that it would be viewed badly and I knew there was a possibility of some kind of Church action. There hasn’t been. And, I’ve had really good talks with my Church leaders, my local Church leaders about it. But, as you may know, FARMS -- Foundation for, what is it?
TC: what is it? Foundation for Ancient Research in Mormon Studies?
AMS: Correct, I think.
TC: Which is now a part of BYU…
TC: …published two reviews of it, and one of those reviews especially, linked me with other anti-Mormons such as John Bennett, who’s kind of like the quintessence of evil in Mormon history (laughs).
TC: But, I guess when I wrote the book I knew it was a controversial subject and so I just hoped that I could write it in a way as balanced… balanced enough that many conservatives would, you know, read it and enjoy it, as well as liberals. And, in fact, some liberals have criticized it because they feel that it is too conservative, and the FARMS conservatives of course have criticized it, considering it just total anti-Mormon…
AMS: Which says a lot about your book. It displeases everyone -- this is great (laughs).
TC: But, a lot of… I’ve really been encouraged that a lot of conservatives have read it and like it, and expressed that to me. A lot of liberals, too, have read it. And, of course it won the “Best Book” award from the Mormon History Association.
AMS: Exactly. And, the tone is so… even, I thought. And so… You try to be a neutral as you can. I’ve read other books dealing with Joseph Smith and polygamy, notably Fawn Brodie’s book, and she is after him. Your tone is not at all like that and I see, as a non-historian, a non-scholar… I don’t find it difficult to suggest to people to read your book. Even people who are very ingrained in the Mormon faith, because I know your tone is not scandalous.
TC: Um, hum.
AMS: You know what I mean? It’s very… For one, it’s very well researched. You don’t propose anything that you do not back up with facts. So, it’s kind of hard to argue. I wonder, did FARMS use their usual tactics, you know, the personal attacks and so forth, or did they actually find problems with the facts that you were presenting?
TC: Well, I’ve been associated with FARMS, and I have friends in FARMS, and so, many of them I respect really highly, the people who are associated with FARMS. Um… However, I really do not respect these two reviews really highly. However, one, written by Bachman, it leaned more toward the personal attack.
AMS: Um, hum.
TC: Both reviews kind of categorized me as someone who is associated with naturalistic points of view. And, you know, look up the word “naturalistic” in the dictionary and it simply means “atheistic.” So, it was factually wrong. And, so I would say that, again [the reviews] lean toward the personal ad hominem attack. The review by Anderson and Falring, which was a long review… In addition to labeling me this way, however it did try to deal with some of the issues in my book on more of an evidential and scholarly level.
AMS: Um, hum.
TC: I disagreed with many of their judgments, but there was that component of… the scholarly component in their…
AMS: They tried to do some of that too.
TC: Yea. And there was some of that component in Bachman’s review also. But for me, it was overshadowed by the leaning toward the personal attack.
AMS: Um, hum. Well, yea. I’ve seen a lot of FARMS material, and it seems to take that approach all too often, so…
TC: Yea, and the personal attack, it doesn’t deal with the real problems. The problems remain.
TC: So, it really is counter-productive for them.
TC: Many of them don’t use that. Many of them, as I say, I have high respect for and I’m friends with, and…
AMS: Um, hum. Did you ever think that the LDS Church would be happy to see your book in print? I mean, did you hope that they would take it favorably?
TC: Well, uh… The LDS Church is not one monolithic thing. I think what you’re saying is, the centralized leadership of the Mormon church…
AMS: You’re correct, yes.
TC: Even though maybe that includes, maybe other parts of it too. I didn’t think that the centralized leadership of the church would be completely thrilled about having this book come out.
TC: You know, though, I feel that… I hoped that, over time they would come to see that it was a contribution, that it was valuable to have this issue out there, to have the evidence out there, and to be able to start dealing with it. So, I hoped, you know, some of them have at least come to that position on the book, now that they’ve been able to have time to read it. Some of them. Some of them are that interested in Mormon history. Others are totally uninterested, their focus is in other directions. And I doubt that they’ve read it.
AMS: Do you know of any prominent Church leaders who have read your book?
TC: Nope, I have no... You know, I don’t have any close ties with any prominent Church leaders. And, I haven’t heard any rumors… I have been told by someone who is kind of a lower-level Church employee that some of the middle management in the Church Office Building had read it and were upset about it.
TC: You know, but, answering the question about the Church as a whole, I think that people who are seriously interested in Mormon history, even conservatives, are often glad that it’s out there, that it’s been published and brought the issue out. Many conservatives feel that… They’re glad that the evidence is there that they can see.
AMS: That’s great. Well, it’s time for another quick break. We’ll be right back with Todd Compton.