Interview with Dr. Todd Compton—Part 8
AMS: Welcome back to the Apostate Mormon Show with Annie and Dr. Todd Compton. When Joseph Smith… Okay, there’s all kinds of rumors and Fawn Brodie really presents it this way. She says that Joseph Smith was an adulterer long before he was a polygamist man. What’s your take on that?
TC: I totally disagree with Fawn Brodie on that point.
TC: The evidence as I interpret it is that Joseph Smith started polygamy way back in 1833, in Kirtland, when he married Fannie Alger. I believe he had sexual relations with her, but he had also had a marriage ceremony with her – a formal marriage ceremony. So, I see that as a full-fledged marriage, so I see that as sexual relations within marriage. So, I do not see it as adultery.
TC: Now, the whole story is how the Fannie Alger relationship played out. You know, it’s problematic in some ways. I don’t believe Joseph Smith told Emma. And so, there were problems with it. On that issue, I strongly believe that there was a marriage and that it was not adulterous.
AMS: Well, one thing you brought up just then is that he didn’t talk about Fannie to Emma. One thing that is kind of a myth among Mormons today is that in polygamy, the first wife always had a say about other potential wives. Not only does that seem to not be the case, but in your book you talk about an instance where Heber C. Kimball was specifically told to not tell his wife.
TC: Yes, I totally agree. In Utah polygamy, I think that there was this ideal, that the husband would consult with the first wife, and she had veto power. But I think that, in practice, what happened is sometimes that happened and sometimes that didn’t happen. We have lots of documentation for men marrying wives without the consent of the first wife.
AMS: Or even knowledge.
TC: Yea. Starting back in Nauvoo with Joseph Smith. And again, here I think that Joseph Smith is a powerful example but is not a good example as far as not consulting with Emma. And you know, you can kind of blame Emma. Some people blame Emma because she was always so opposed to polygamy. And so you say, “okay, Joseph Smith couldn’t consult with her because she was so opposed to it.”
TC: But, I still think he should have worked it out with Emma. And that would have been a much healthier and better example to pass down to Mormon polygamists. But there have been lots of examples in Mormon history of… For instance, Heber C. Kimball, in his later life, he married some 44 women.
TC: And, at Vilate’s funeral, he said “yes, I’ve married, you know, however many women. And many of them without the knowledge of Vilate.” So, this ideal that the first wife consents was often not kept.
AMS: Yea, yea. Another thing that people say to justify polygamy… and when I say people, I mean contemporaries. They say that polygamy was justified because there were too many women, particularly widows. Now, I was very shocked to look at some census data for Utah, in the Brigham Young era, showing that there were fewer women than men.
TC: Yea, and that’s pretty complicated evidence. There’s a new book that’s come out. Catherine Dane’s “More Wives than One.”
TC: And, um…
AMS: “More than One?” Is that the one you mean?
TC: Yea, “More Wives than One.”
AMS: Oh, well…
TC: I think that’s the title.
AMS: I know one called “More than One,” that’s being heavily advertised in Utah.
TC: Um, no, I think there’s a different… It’s called “More Wives than One – Transformation of the Mormon Marriage System, 1841 Utah [?]” by Catherine Dane. And, she has really resurrected this whole interpretation of polygamy happening because of a lot of unattached widows. But, I think that what she has said is that at different times… And she’s done a lot of statistics. She focuses mainly on Manti, but I think… I just read the book recently, but I think what she comes up with was mostly there were a few more marriageable women than marriageable men.
AMS: I see.
TC: That would be logical in a polygamist society, because one man might have multiple women, and so… Well no, that wouldn’t be logical…
AMS: No, it wouldn’t.
TC: No. Well, um… I think that’s what her statistics come up with. That there were a few more marriageable women than there were men. So…
AMS: But, even if there’s a few more, if each man takes 10 and more women, then you’re going to end up with a lot of single men.
TC: Yea, and, again, things were different in different towns. There were different demographics in different places in Utah, and I know that in some towns, there was this real lack of marriageable women. The result was, that when a woman was very young, when she was like 14, she was immediately like, you know, like on the marriage market…
TC: … as a result.
AMS: They didn’t have time to grow up, or decide what they wanted to be or do, or whatever…
TC: Yes, and you know, each case is different, and each polygamist’s history is different. I should say that we’ve talked about problems in polygamy, [but] there were many cases where it seems like the polygamist marriages did work out, despite the problems.
AMS: Okay, why don’t you tell us about those?
TC: Well, I mean, um… One book I read not too long ago was by Juanita Brooks called “On the Ragged Edge.” It’s about her grandfather, Dudley Leavitt, who was one of the great pioneers of southern Utah. And it’s a very fascinating history of his plural family. But, she portrays it as quite… quite equitable, and that it was without major problems, and she portrays Dudley as just a wonderful man, who really tried to be… who really tried to be just to each of his wives, and deal with them all equally. But, with him, it sounds like he was just an extremely likeable person, definitely. And a decent, good person. So, I think a lot of Mormons were like that – they were just decent, good people who with polygamy tried to do the best they could.
TC: Many of them did quite well. Dudley had, if I remember, he had like five or six wives. But he had 30 or 35 children. And, the way Juanita Brooks talks about them, she said, “yea, he considered them his children, that it was his job to raise them right.” And so it sounds like he took a lot of effort to raise his children well. So, you don’t have a case… One of the problems with polygamy is, sometimes you had favorite wives.
TC: And, so, it was almost like the husband would revert to the monogamous pattern, and the other wives were unfavored wives. And he would have this almost monogamous relationship with his favored wife. And, obviously that was completely unjust to the other wives. Though, you could see that it would be a human pattern… that would be very easy to fall into.
TC: Anyway, Dudley Leavitt evidently didn’t fall into that. And so, that’s an interesting portrayal of one of these standard relationships where the husband tried to really do well, and the wives worked it out among themselves, and often wives had really good relationships with sister wives. Sometimes there were conflicts, big conflicts. And, so, you know, I tend to look at polygamy as like, half the time it was remarkable, and there was really great stories of Christian sacrifice in polygamy. And, other times it was very tragic. And so, you have to deal with both of those.
AMS: One of the problems that I see a lot in today’s polygamy is poverty. And, to the point where it’s almost child abuse. Or neglect, anyway.
TC: Um, hum.
AMS: Because there are so many children brought into families that are just dirt poor. And they can’t afford any education, besides of course religious education, you know. They always get that… [laughs] But, it’s pretty sad. I’ve had occasion to talk to people who were raised in polygamy today, and I haven’t met anybody who has defended it as a great situation.
TC: Um, hum.
AMS: But, it probably happens some of the time. So, in your mind, to defend Church polygamy in early Church history… I mean, how do you… how do you defend it?
TC: Well, I don’t defend it.
AMS: Oh, okay.
TC: As I say, I kind of try to study it, and understand it, and understand the people who were involved in it. I don’t see myself as… Definitely, it wasn’t the intent to either defend it or attack it. However, after I was done with my research, I had a real strong view of the problems with it, and that came through in the title, the tragic ambiguity in the title, “In Sacred Loneliness.”
TC: So, you know, I tend to think that it was… I tend to think it is not an eternal principle. Eugene England wrote a really good article on polygamy where he talks about how he believes monogamy is the order of heaven. Of course, the only way you can do that is to disagree with many 19th century Church leaders who felt that polygamy was necessary for exaltation.
TC: But, no, I don’t defend it, and you know, I’m very up front about the problems in it. And, um, I haven’t studied contemporary polygamy. I’ve read a couple of books about it, and I’ve met a couple of people who were involved with it, but I think you see some of the problems now that you see way back then.
AMS: Let’s take a quick break.