Interview with Dr. Todd Compton—Part 6
AMS: Welcome back to the Apostate Mormon Show with Todd Compton. Okay, we’re talking about polyandrous marriages, and how they became very, very complicated, I think. One of the things you haven’t mentioned yet, is… And I’m sorry to be a little crude, but we haven’t talked about sex at all. We’re talking about theocracy and revelations and things like that, but didn’t sex have anything to do with it? I mean, as far as Joseph Smith starting this thing?
TC: Um… Uh… Yea, I believe it was one of many motivations. You know. I believe that, today, a marriage like the attraction between a husband and wife is very complicated. And, there are all kinds of factors you take into consideration. One of them should be, you know, attraction. So, I believe it was a factor. And, many of the women Joseph Smith married were young and, uh, they left explicit testimony that they had sexual relations with Joseph Smith. Part of Mormon doctrine is that sexual relations are sacred, if done in the right situation… within marriage. So, there’s nothing wrong that there would be sexual relations in a plural marriage. Having children was just like one of the foundation ideas of plural marriage, both in Nauvoo, and in Utah. So, it shouldn’t be surprising that sexual relations were part of Nauvoo polygamy. Even though, you know, it’s kind of interesting we’ve idealized Joseph Smith so much, that people kind of resist the idea that Joseph Smith in his polygamy had sexual relations. But, why not?
AMS: Yea. I’ve heard people say that, you know… “Oh, if Joseph Smith married any other woman besides Emma, it was purely a spiritual thing.”
TC: Yea, and it’s kind of bizarre, but I think it shows how we’ve really idealized Joseph Smith until he’s not even a human being any more.
TC: And you know, in Utah polygamy sexual relations were an important foundation part of marriage, and they were also in Nauvoo polygamy.
AMS: Yea, yea.
TC: And, women left explicit… You know, there was something called the Temple Lot Trial in 1893. The RLDS Church was trying to prove that it was the true church, so it could claim the temple lot. The LDS Church was trying to claim the same thing. Anyway, as part of this, polygamy became an issue. And so, the Church encouraged the plural wives of Joseph Smith who were still alive to testify wholly in these trials. And, they testified, “yes, these were real marriages, yes, they included sexual relations.” And it was really explicit, which is remarkable because it was such a Victorian era. But, it was very important for the Mormons to say, “yes, these were real marriages” and, “yes, they included sexual relations.”
TC: These people want to kind of portray Joseph Smith as this ultra-idealized person who would never engage in sexual relations in polygamy. And it’s… it’s silly. And, not historical, obviously.
TC: On the other hand, you have people who… Anti-Mormons who say that [sex] was the main motivation and the only motivation and I totally disagree with that. You know, religious, doctrinal reasons were always the main reason for polygamy. Even though attraction, I think, often was a powerful reason in how plural husbands selected wives, both in Utah and in Nauvoo.
AMS: Yea. Well, it’s also a little bit strange… I mean, you say Joseph Smith read it from the Old Testament, but he wasn’t the first man reading the Old Testament, and yet he managed to bring polygamy back.
AMS: So, it wasn’t just reading the Old Testament. There had to be a lot more to this. Because the Old Testament has been around a long, long time.
TC: Well, there’s a long tradition in Protestant history of people bringing polygamy back. Because they saw it in the Old Testament and they said, “everything in the Bible is correct, and so we should be participating in polygamy.”
AMS: Um, hum. Um, hum.
TC: And so it wasn’t just a Mormon thing. However, obviously, you bring back the idea of polygamy, you can go too far with it. And I think that happened often in Mormon polygamy. You know, it’s a form of marriage that can lead to abuses. And, unfortunately, I believe that happened both in Nauvoo and in Utah, sometimes.
AMS: Yea. Well, when I read your book… Reading about the poverty, and the loneliness, and the terrible emotional problems that polygamy brought on… I often thought, I mean, was Joseph Smith completely wrong about polygamy? Did he go too far? Is it even ethical to behave like that?
TC: Yea, and that’s an issue that people need to confront, and deal with, and ask seriously and answer honestly. Different people will come up with different answers, but I think it needs to be asked seriously. I myself think that many of the ways he practiced polygamy were not good examples for later polygamy. He married a woman… a young girl who was 14 years old. And, I believe he married one other who was 14 years old. We don’t have a date, but the one I’m thinking about, Helen Mahr Whitney – Helen Mahr Kimball at the time – she was 14 years old at the time. And that’s explicitly documented, as you know. There’s nothing controversial about that. So, I think that was kind of a wrong path, a wrong example for all later polygamy. And, I think we would have been much better off if Joseph Smith had said, “okay, I’m not going to marry anyone until they’re 21.”
AMS: Hum. But that kind of denies that the… I’m not sure how I’m going to say this, but isn’t the whole point of polygamy to exert domination on these women?
TC: Um… I kind of think in terms, myself, of… Polygamy is not… I believe polygamy is closely associated with a view of male / female relations in which the woman is subservient to the man.
TC: That there’s kind of an ideology of male superiority that’s closely connected with polygamy. In fact, it’s called “patriarchal marriage,” the Mormons themselves called it that. Carmen Hardy, a wonderful scholar, wrote a wonderful book on post-Manifesto polygamy, a totally different period than mine. It’s called “Solemn Covenant, the Mormon Polygamist Passage.” But he wrote a fine article called “The Lords of Creation,” about this ideology of male superiority, as connected with polygamy in Mormonism. And, I think that there’s a lot of truth in that. I think that, um… polygamy allows the man to have power over women in such a way that it allows them to be abusive, many times, because of the inequality.
TC: It’s interesting because you can see that… if you look at the roots of polygamy in Old Testament Semitic culture, you can see that they didn’t have the idea of male / female equality, that modern Europeans have.
TC: So, you can see that if they just bring this back willy-nilly from the Old Testament that they’re going to bring some of that baggage of total inequality of women with it. So, you can argue that there was that problem in polygamy that’s right there in the institution itself.
AMS: Right. Right.
TC: And so, if you’re… I myself, as I’ve said, I’m a liberal Mormon and so I can deal with problems in Church leaders and say, “okay, Church leader _______ made a mistake.” And so, for me, it’s alright to say, “okay, yes, Joseph Smith made a mistake. He made a serious mistake.” And, I can deal with that.
TC: Many Mormons, however, have been taught all their life that Church leaders make no mistakes, especially Joseph Smith, and, so, I think that’s one of the reasons they tried to make Joseph Smith’s polygamy taboo. But one thing you can do, is you can kind of say “well, the idea of polygamy, restoring polygamy, makes sense in terms of the restoration of all things and Joseph Smith’s close identification with Abraham.” But how Joseph Smith practiced polygamy, you know… there were some wrong steps with the way he did it.
AMS: Some problems.
TC: And that’s how some people deal with it.
AMS: One of the things that was shocking to me was (and I don’t know if I read it in your book or in “Mormon America,”) that Joseph Smith, when he received this revelation about celestial marriage, for time and all eternity marriage, that he did not immediately go out and marry Emma that way. He wasn’t sealed to Emma for eternity right away, was he?
TC: Yea, and you know, in fact that might have been from “Mormon America” because I certainly didn’t make a point of it. My book didn’t focus on Emma. There’s already that wonderful biography of her, “Mormon Enigma.” But, yea, I think that he married other women as plural wives, that were eternal sealings, before he married Emma.
AMS: And, I think “Mormon America” goes as far as saying he was waiting until she consented. I mean, he kind of beat her into consenting to other women by saying “if you don’t consent, I will never marry you for eternity, and you won’t be exalted.”
TC: Yea. If I remember, um… And I think all that is in “Mormon Enigma,” yea… I think there was an element of coercion there, and I think that coercion in religion is always a mistake.
TC: But this is a problem the Mormon Church has had for awhile. They were very successful in organizing their church, but there was also an element of coercion there that I think, obviously, is not part of the gospel, the eternal gospel.
AMS: Um, hum. Well, we’re up against a break again. This is the Apostate Mormon Show with Todd Compton. I’m Annie, and we’ll be right back in just a moment.