Interview with Dr. Todd Compton—Part 3
AMS: Welcome back. We’re talking today to Todd Compton, prominent LDS scholar. We’re talking about the reception that your book got, as far as the official Church is concerned. From what you were saying it sounded like, maybe you had a faint hope that your book would help reform the Church’s point of view about polygamy? Or, at least about these particular women?
TC: Well, um, yes… I suppose you could say that. Though, when I started writing the book, the only idea I had was “these are really fascinating women.” And, it’s really interesting to figure out how their really complex lives worked out. And, you know, the writings they themselves wrote were so wonderful, and moving. That was the main idea of the book. As the book went along, it kind of gave a portrait of polygamy that, I feel, shows the drawbacks of polygamy. And, this was in the writings of the women themselves, it wasn’t that I…
TC: I didn’t start out with a really strong feeling about polygamy, pro or con. It’s just kind of something, part of the Mormon background, part of my family background. But, as I continued my research I found, you know, this view of the drawbacks of polygamy in the writings of the women themselves. And, then, I suppose you could say that I began thinking about… Generally, I believe the problems in Church history, the Church is a lot better off if they admit the problems, if they investigate the problems, and then work through the problems, and…
TC: …if they’ve made mistakes, say “yes, those were wrong and we’ve made the mistakes,” and then go forward.
AMS: But don’t you think that poses a problem because they claim absolute authority and revelations from God?
TC: Well, yea, I mean… And, so there’s this tendency to want to say everything is perfect.
TC: But, you know, I think that isn’t scriptural, it isn’t doctrinal, the idea that, you know, all Church leaders are perfect. And, it’s interesting, they themselves will say, “Yes, well, Church leaders are not perfect.” But, it’s kind of like there’s this implicit, unstated belief that Church leaders are perfect.
TC: (Laughs) So, they haven’t really confronted that issue completely. You’re right that the history of polygamy would work against this idea that Church leaders were perfect.
AMS: Yea, well, especially when we’re talking about Joseph Smith. You know, the founder of the faith… it’s hard to justify some of the things he’s done. But, we’ll get back to that subject a little later. Let me ask you about what sort of access you had to historical documents. Where did you do most of your research? Are there any documents that you would have liked to have seen but were not able to get your hands on?
TC: Uh, I started my research at the Huntington [Library] here in southern California, as I mentioned. And they have a wonderful Mormon collection largely because Juanita Brooks helped collect it. And then they have other things that, um, she was not involved in getting. Like the Eliza R. Snow journals, and the John D. Lee collection. And, so I started there, but then I branched out to other libraries. The Bancroft in Berkeley, California has a good Mormon collection. I went there.
TC: And of course, I realized very quickly that I would have to go to Utah to get many of these documents. So, I went to Utah and went to all the major libraries in Utah. The LDS Church Archives has most of the Mormon documents.
TC: Even though, like, BYU and the University of Utah and Utah State Historical Society, Utah State University Library have lots of wonderful Mormon documents. At the LDS Church Archives, um… I had a really good experience researching there, and they were extremely helpful. The people who are the archivists there are extremely professional, and extremely helpful. Um, they do have a policy which comes from far up, that certain documents are restricted. These are mainly writings of General Authorities. But, most of the documents I wanted were written by women…
AMS: Oh, yea.
TC: And, so this didn’t affect me that much. Most, you know, 99 percent of the documents I was interested in I, you know there was absolutely no problem. I just got them immediately. However, occasionally I wanted something written by a General Authority and, um… For example, I wanted the Brigham Young diaries. He had married many of the women I wrote about in my book and he had information in his diaries – holograph diaries – about marriage dates for some of the women he had married. And that was restricted. And, um, often when a document is restricted you can go to other libraries and they have copies of it; Xeroxes or typescripts. And so, that was the case with this particular document. However, I still couldn’t see the original. And as a historian, you always want to see the original.
TC: So, that was the situation. I had a… It was a great experience, they’re wonderful… It’s a wonderful place to do research, LDS Archives. But, there is that policy that certain General Authority writings are restricted. And so, I ran against that a little bit. But, because I was writing mostly about women, not a lot.
AMS: It wasn’t a big deal for you. Hum. Let’s switch gears a little bit and talk about how your book was received. Do you get much feedback from the people who read your book?
TC: Um, yea, I get some. It’s… I’m sure that I get very little compared to how many have read the book. I guess every author realizes that, but you run into people who have read it, and have liked it, and occasionally people… It’s interesting, I think the people who don’t like it have less of a tendency to go out of their way to tell you so, in real life. Just because it’s kind of unpleasant, going up to someone and saying “Hey, I hated your book.” (Laughs)
TC: And, I’ve gotten a couple of letters from people who were extremely upset about my book. But, just a couple. And, as I say, most of the feedback I’ve gotten has tended to be positive. One reaction that’s been interesting has… When I wrote the book, I didn’t know much about modern day fundamentalist Mormons who still practice polygamy, and are not part of the LDS Church.
TC: So, I didn’t know how they’d think of my book because, often it looks at problems in polygamy. And, you can see that in the title, “In Sacred Loneliness.” I portray women under polygamy as often quite, um… separated, and distant from their husbands, and enduring loneliness and financial hardship sometimes in polygamy.
AMS: Um, hum.
TC: But, interestingly, I’ve run across a few Mormons who are fundamentalists, I should say who are fundamentalist Mormons, who still practice polygamy and they… Many of them have been positive about the book. It’s very interesting.
AMS: Do you run into a lot of people who say that your book…. helped them leave the Church altogether?
TC: Nope. No, um… One of the letters I’ve received was from a mother whose daughter was, um, having some kind of problems with the Church. So she was upset that she’d read my book and it caused her to distance herself from the Church to some degree. I don’t know the full story. So, I know that can happen…
TC: But, I wrote back a letter and explained to her how I really do believe that dealing with the problems in Mormon history is a lot, you know, saner way of working with the issues than trying to hide the issue. Because, you know, if Joseph Smith married 33 wives, as we know he did, you can’t play like that’s a secret. And, it happened. He’s a major historical figure. You’re going to have to look at it and deal with it. And, often, if you try to hide these problems in Church history. You known, people who are having problems with the Church look at that as a form of dishonesty.
TC: And, um, so I wrote back to her and kind of explained that and explained that I myself attend church, and so on. But, I think, yea, all kinds of people at all different stages of their relationship with the Church read my book. And so, some people will read the book and leave the Church. And some people will read the book and join the Church again. And, you know, some people will leave for awhile and come back, and, um… But, I really do believe that if you’re telling the truth, that isn’t your problem. You’ve just got to tell the truth and it will help the Church to have the truth out there and to start dealing with it.
AMS: Um, hum. Um, hum. Have you been ostracized at all by Church members for writing this book?
TC: Um… (long pause). Again, these questions sometimes require complex answers.
AMS: That’s fine.
TC: And, one easy answer would be to say “no.” And, like, my local church members, I haven’t been ostracized in any way. Some of them have been quite supportive of me doing research and I know there’s one person in my ward and his uncle read the book. I learned through my friend that the uncle felt that it was basically a good book, it just, you know, occasionally my tone was wrong, but… You know, so that’s… I kind of have reactions like that from local members.
AMS: Very mild, it sounds like.
TC: Yea, and I’m living in California in kind of a… I would say it’s a little… It isn’t one of the super conservative wards in the Church. On the other hand, you could say that, my career has, um… My career as a FARMS participant has been severely limited. (Laughs)
AMS: (Laughs) Hold that thought – we’ll get back to it after the break.