Interview with Dr. Todd Compton—Part 9
AMS: Welcome back to the Apostate Mormon Show with Dr. Todd Compton. We’re talking about polygamy today, and about his book “In Sacred Loneliness – the Plural Wives of Joseph Smith.” You were talking about that you haven’t met very many people who were involved in polygamy today, so you don’t have a very strong opinion about polygamy as it is practiced today.
TC: Um, well, I think that a lot of the same problems are there. You talked about the poverty of modern fundamentalists, and I think you can see some of those issues in Colorado City today. But, it’s interesting to me… Even when a woman married a man who was wealthy, polygamously, it didn’t automatically mean that she was well provided for. And, you see that in the story in my book of Emily Partridge Young, who was married to Brigham Young as a proxy wife, a term we used earlier. She had a very difficult time surviving. There were some problems in her relationship with Brigham Young. He was one who did have favorite wives, and she was not one of his favorite wives.
TC: So, it’s very striking how different her relationship was from, you know, monogamous husbands. In other words, say, if she wanted to see him, she couldn’t just talk to him over the breakfast table. She had to go in and sit, and wait until he was done with his work. And, obviously, he was a very busy Church leader.
AMS: Um, hum.
TC: And, often, she had to deal with the people who, you know, the clerks in his office, rather than dealing with him directly. And she complains in her journal, often, that she cannot pay taxes, which were, for Brigham Young, absolutely nothing. But for her, they were very difficult to pay. And so, because of this phenomenon of favorite wives, polygamy, again, made it so that even women who were married to wealthy men often were not well cared for.
AMS: Yea. And, isn’t it ironic and sad that the Sunday School manual that was published by the Church about Brigham Young… It made him out to be a monogamous man.
TC: Well, again, it’s the… As we talked about earlier in the interview, there’s some elements in the Church who would like to totally bury everything, and act like it never happened, and sweep it under the carpet, and that’s the best way to deal with it. And there’s other elements who believe that you need to be honest with history and deal with some of these issues openly, and the Church would be better off…
AMS: But, aren’t they in the minority?
TC: Obviously, when they left mention of Brigham Young as a polygamist out of there, and kind of… even changed some of his quotes to make it look like he was referring to single women instead of plural wives…
TC: It made them look dishonest. It really was counter-productive to them. It would have been much better to have a short mention of Brigham Young’s polygamy at the beginning of the book, and get the issue out of the way and go on to other things.
AMS: And, it’s also a complete denial of all these women.
TC: Yea, and that’s… Yea, you’re exactly right. When they try to brush polygamy under the carpet, they’re brushing the incredible lives of these wonderful women under the carpet. These women were heroes of Mormonism – they should be well known.
TC: They deserve to be well known, because what they endured was incredible as pioneers, as early Mormons.
AMS: And, I assume that, if they published a manual about Joseph Smith, they would also leave out all mention of polygamy or polyandry.
TC: (Laughs) Well, I think now they might have learned their lesson.
AMS: (Laughs) Oh, you think so?
TC: Yea, I think… Well, what happened was that, since then, they published a manual with Joseph F. Smith who was a polygamist, and they did mention plural marriage in that one.
AMS: Oh, they did?
TC: Yea, they said… I mean, it was very brief, but they said, “of course, he practiced plural marriage,” and then they went on to other things. Which is what they should have done with Brigham Young in the first place. So I think with Joseph Smith, I think they would have learned their lesson by now, to do that.
AMS: Um, hum. (Sighs)
TC: But, it’s interesting, they haven’t done Joseph Smith yet. I think the next one is… I forget, someone told me who the next one is… maybe John Taylor, but…
AMS: Yea, it’s like they skip the founder…
TC: Yea, it’s interesting.
AMS: Of course, it’s probably because we have the officially published Joseph Smith biography, that he wrote, which is part of the canon of the Church, in the Doctrine and Covenants.
TC: Uh, huh.
AMS: Maybe that’s why they felt that they shouldn’t publish a…
TC: Or, maybe they’re just waiting to, you know, make it totally right, to make it the best one. They’re working on it a lot because he’s so important… Who knows? (Laughs)
AMS: You’re an optimist (laughs).
TC: (Laughs) Yea, I’ve been accused of that.
AMS: Well, it’s a good thing. I’m surprised how you keep your cool in the face of all this. When I start talking about polygamy, it makes me mad.
TC: Yea, well, I’m upset about it too. About some aspects of it, some abusive aspects of it.
TC: I think the best way to deal with it is to try to understand it as a historian, and to represent it fairly and in a balanced way…
AMS: But, do you think this historical polygamy hurts the Church today?
TC: Well, it depends on how you define “hurts the Church.” Um… I think dealing with polygamy in the early Church openly will help the Church a lot. The idea of sweeping it under a rug, I think will harm the Church a lot…
AMS: So, you don’t think that would scare people away?
TC: …It’s a dishonest policy which is inconsistent with God. And, also it just postpones confronting the issue, and I think when they do deal with polygamy they’ll again, realize that, well, sometimes Church leaders can make serious mistakes. And, I think that will be very helpful to the Church when they are able to deal with that and still go on being believing Mormons.
AMS: But, don’t you think it would set in motion a whole movement of people who will start questioning all kinds of things about the Church? You mentioned Mountain Meadows, and you mentioned… We didn’t mention the Book of Abraham, but let’s bring it up. It’s not just polygamy that was a problem. There’s problems with racism in the Church, and with bad treatment of women in the Church.
TC: Um, hum.
AMS: Don’t you think that, if they start being open about things like that, they would lose a lot of members?
TC: Well, I think in… As I said earlier, I think it would… You know, some members would leave, other people would come back in, if the Church was more honest and forthright about its early history.
AMS: I have to say that, personally, if I had had any feeling that someday the Church would come forward, and come clean, I might have stayed longer than I did.
TC: Well, you know we had that period where… And, I think leaders such as Harold B. Lee and Howard W. Hunter especially, and Spencer W. Kimball, where they tried to get the archives open. And the archives were open for quite awhile and Leonard Arrington, professional historian, was in charge of the archives. And, Howard W. Hunter and Harold B. Lee made some strong statements that they felt that history should be honest, and we’ve reached the point where we should be able to deal with honest history now… And they encouraged Leonard Arrington. And then, as often in Church history, you have a counter-balance to that.
TC: But, I think that, in the future time, there will be a counter-balance to the present, you know… reactionary [Church leadership?]…
AMS: Well, you know Leonard Arrington attempted to donate photocopies of some documents to, I think it was Weber State University?
TC: Utah State University.
AMS: Utah State. And, the Church sued.
TC: Yea, of course, this is all after his death. (laughs)
TC: I don’t think the Church sued. I think they threatened to sue. I think it was worked out before…
AMS: Yea, there was a settlement, you’re right.
TC: …before it got to court.
AMS: They were very worried about “sacredness” and things like that. However, it sounds like they were trying to cover something up, to me.
TC: Yea. And, I realize… I think eventually they realized it was a public relations disaster, but, you know, I think covering things up is dishonest.
TC: You know, the Church should just realize that. It’s kind of interesting, I think that often, Church members are very honest in many ways – in their business dealings, and in talking with people. And yet, when it comes to history, it’s kind of like, there’s this part of them that feels like it’s okay to be dishonest.
TC: Sometimes I think it’s lack of sophistication and lack of understanding of how history works. But, it’s very interesting. It’s kind of like that honesty thing hits a blank spot when it comes to Mormon history.
AMS: Well, in my circles, we call it “Lying for the Lord.” (Laughs)
TC: Yea, and you know, that’s a very… It’s not a simple moral issue. Even though, obviously, it can look simple. And again, let me recommend Carmen Hardy’s book “Solemn Covenant,” because it has an appendix that has that title, “Lying for the Lord.” In post-Manifesto polygamy, of course, the Church gave out varying… all kinds of public messages about what was happening and, in private, totally different things were happening. And, Carmen Hardy deals with that. He’s very sympathetic to the pressures that were faced by all these General Authorities who were giving out these contradictory messages.
TC: And he talks about issues where we lie. We lie for justifiable reasons, for higher reasons. For instance, in wartime if you’re a spy you lie about everything. You lie about your life, if you go into an enemy country, and pretend to be someone who you’re not. And so, you’re actually lying for the higher purpose of helping your country. And so, there are cases where not telling the whole truth can be justifiable. However, Carmen Hardy in that appendix, he does say that, even though it can seem like there are times when lying is justifiable, it’s almost always a bad policy because eventually it comes out.
TC: And you look really bad, and you look like you’ve betrayed people. And so, he’s come to the conclusion that it’s almost always the wrong policy…
AMS: We are coming up against another break (sorry).