Interview with Dr. Todd Compton—Part 7
AMS: Welcome back to the Apostate Mormon Show with Dr. Todd Compton. We were talking about coercion in religion. Let’s talk about some of the other means that Joseph Smith used in coercing some of these women. One that I thought was just….almost ridiculous, you know, from my point of view, was when he said that… He sent somebody called Dimitry to tell Zina “an angel of the Lord appeared to me with a drawn sword, and if you don’t agree to this polyandrous marriage I will be killed, and you won’t be saved, or something to that effect.” Am I misrepresenting that one?
TC: I think that’s fairly close to what happened.
AMS: I mean, that is not a nice thing to do, is it?
TC: Well, as I said, I believe that coercion is always counter-productive to the best interest of the Church and not part of the eternal gospel. It’s an example, though, of how Joseph Smith introduced polygamy as a moral imperative. It wasn’t just like something that you could take or leave. When he introduced it to someone, he said that “okay, now that I’ve told you about this doctrine, you have to…”
AMS: You must.
TC: Yea. “You must practice it, or you’ll be damned.”
TC: And, you could… again, you could say that represents how religious it was for Joseph Smith and how passionately he believed that it was a religious principle. On the other hand, if you look at it from a non-believer’s point of view, it looks like coercion.
AMS: Yea. Well, I was a believer, and trust me, I was a firm believer. But, never having been exposed to all this, I read it as coercion.
TC: Yea, I think there were coercive elements there that were not wise.
AMS: Another one that was quite shocking is with Heber C. Kimball, how Heber C. Kimball was very attached to his wife. They had had a long-standing relationship that seemed like it was going very well. And, Joseph Smith comes to him one day and says, “you must give me your wife.” Tell us about that.
TC: Well, yea, basically that’s what happened. Heber C. Kimball was an apostle. And, Joseph Smith introduced him to polygamy in Nauvoo, and then said, “you must give me your wife.” And so, Heber C. Kimball, it was agonizing for him, but he finally decided he had to be obedient, so he took Vilate and handed her to Joseph Smith, though I’m not sure how much Vilate understood about what was going on. But then, Joseph Smith, according to… and the source for this is Heber C. Kimball’s grandson, Orson K. Whitney, in his biography of Heber C. Kimball. So then, Joseph Smith took Vilate’s hand and put it in Heber C. Kimball’s hand, and said “I did this as a test for you, and Heber C. Kimball, now I’ll marry you both for eternity.”
AMS: (Sighs) That’s cruel.
TC: Yea, um… Again, from a certain perspective, that’s a faith-promoting story, and that’s how Orson K. Whitney recorded it, showing the incredible obedience of Heber C. Kimball. But, I don’t think it was wise to create tests like that.
AMS: Well, and somehow, the LDS Church and leaders have been aware that it wouldn’t play so well with most people, because that’s not a story that’s widely known in the Church.
TC: Yup. Yup, you’re right. And yet, it’s interesting. It came out of an extremely conservative source – a biography by a grandson of Heber C. Kimball, and the family is proud of the story. So it’s an interesting example of how some stories that were faith-promoting when they came out have kind of become, in a different religious environment, have kind of become totally taboo.
AMS: Would you think that your average Utah Mormon would be shocked?
TC: I think many of them are conservative enough that they would see it as a faith-promoting story.
AMS: Yea, you’re probably right.
TC: Other people would react, they would be upset. You know, especially the women, I would think, might be upset.
TC: And I think, seeing polygamy from the point of view of a woman is very different than a man. And, I think my book contributed to that. Before, often, polygamy had been seen as, from the perspective of male leaders, as very different, you know, from the woman who is very much alone, raising her own kids…
AMS: Well, in this instance, Vilate is… she’s merchandise.
TC: Yea, you kind of see women as, um… becoming objects, if you take this too far. This point of view of the highest salvation being dependent on how many wives you marry, it isn’t seeing the women as individuals.
TC: They’re more as objects.
TC: And again, I myself think that it was not a good path for the Church to start on.
AMS: Yea. (Sighs) Let’s see…
TC: The subtext of what I’m saying, of course, is that I believe Church leaders can make serious mistakes.
AMS: Yea. I hear you, I hear you. (Laughs)
TC: At the same time, they can be very sincere, very likable, and be inspired at other times in other ways. You know, but I’m much more liberal than other Mormons who kind of have the point of view that if a Church leader makes a mistake, it’s not very important. You know, it’s almost forgivable… For me, Church leaders make serious mistakes, and you need to confront them, and say they were mistakes, and that will help the Church to move on.
AMS: Yea. Well, to me it’s all the more shocking because all I knew of it was Doctrine and Covenants 121, Verse 41, okay? No power or influence can be or ought to be maintained by virtue of the Priesthood, only by persuasion, by long-suffering, by gentleness and meekness and by love unfeigned. Okay, and he goes on talking about unrighteous dominion and all that.
AMS: This is the same guy who… who will say to somebody, “give me your wife or you’ll be damned.”
TC: Of course, with Heber C. Kimball’s story, you can interpret it as he never intended to take Vilate.
AMS: That’s true.
TC: However, with 11 other women, he did marry them – women who were married to other men.
AMS: There you go.
TC: It would be wonderful to have more detail to those stories. As I said, we just have… The only full account is Mary Elizabeth Rollins Lightner. Even though we have affidavits that the other marriages happened. She was the only one who left a good autobiography.
AMS: Well, and although he didn’t take Vilate, he took Helen Kimball…
TC: Yea, and that’s a story that kind of shows this whole… And again, the word “coercion” is ambiguous. Some Mormons could argue that “well, it isn’t coercion because they could always leave the Church.” But, you know, I think that’s difficult. Because, the Church is like this real, wonderful, tight web that you’re kind of raised in and you’re kind of part of. And it’s very difficult leaving, especially when you’re a young person. But, anyway, the story of Helen Mahr Whitney, of course, was that she was the daughter of the same Heber C. Kimball and Vilate. She was the only daughter who had lived of Heber and Vilate, and when she was 14 her father offered her to Joseph Smith.
TC: His motivation was that he wanted to be connected with Joseph Smith. So, in other words, this is what we call a “dynastic marriage,” where you have prominent Mormons who want to be linked through plural marriage. And plural marriage made that possible, even though Joseph Smith was already married to Emma.
AMS: What a strange theology.
TC: When Heber C. Kimball approached Helen, he told her about it and she was just totally horrified. She was shocked by the idea of polygamy, because it was totally new to her.
AMS: Yea. Sounds like me.
TC: And, then the next day, they had a meeting with Joseph Smith and Joseph Smith told her that the salvation of, not only of her, but of her whole family, depended on her marrying him. And our source for this is an autobiography that Helen Mahr Whitney herself wrote. So, it’s not controversial what I’m saying, the evidence for that. Yet… look at the pressure that’s putting on a 14-year-old girl.
TC: And, to enter this plural marriage…
AMS: Talk about unrighteous dominion!
TC: Yea, you could call it that. You could interpret it that way. And, putting the salvation of her family, you know, as what the marriage would bring. And, she said, “Faced with that, I felt that I had to marry Joseph Smith.” So, she married him and it’s one of these odd polygamist courtships where it took a day. And, again, I think in a healthy marriage relationship you get to know each other more than that.
AMS: Yea (laughs).
TC: So, she married Joseph Smith. I believe she didn’t really have a good idea of what the marriage meant, because, I think she felt that she could still continue on with her life, and have a normal marriage to someone else. It was only after this sealing that she came to realize that she would be connected with Joseph Smith in this life also. It was devastating to her.
AMS: Yea. So, did he actually consummate the marriage with a 14-year-old?
TC: Okay, now there, we have no evidence either way. No solid evidence whether he did or not. My personal belief is that he did not consummate the marriage. And, I use parallels from Utah polygamy for that. Because, we have examples such as the case of John D. Lee where Lee married an underage woman, who was around 14, but with the agreement that they would not have sexual relations until she had reached 18 or 19. And, there were a couple of other cases of that. So, I use that as a parallel. I believe that it was not consummated sexually, myself. But, there’s no evidence, positive or negative. Of course, it’s interesting. Conservatives take the position of “absolutely not. There’s absolutely no consummation.” When actually, there’s no evidence positive or negative, so all you can do is just give your opinion.
AMS: Yea, Yea.
TC: That’s my opinion.
TC: Let’s take a quick break. This is the Apostate Mormon Show. We’re talking to Dr. Todd Compton today about his book “In Sacred Loneliness – the Plural Wives of Joseph Smith,” which is a fabulous book. I know we’re talking about things that might be making some of you people’s skin crawl, but it’s really a good read. (AMS and TC laugh) Let’s come back in a minute.