Interview with Dr. Todd Compton—Part 4
AMS: Welcome back to the Apostate Mormon Show with Dr. Todd Compton speaking about his book, “In Sacred Loneliness – the Plural Wives of Joseph Smith.” You were just mentioning that your career with FARMS might be over. What did you mean by that?
TC: Well, I said jokingly that my career with FARMS might be severely limited (laughs). In other words, previous to this, I’ve published, like reviews in the FARMS review books and so on. I suspect that they simply won’t ask me any more to do that. Although, I would be happy to do it. It’s interesting – I’ve written articles that are quite conservative, you know, that could appear… You know, about religious symbolism, and Classics-oriented things, that could appear in a FARMS forum. But I suspect that for various reasons, I will not be asked to participate with them any more.
TC: Or, I will never be asked to speak at BYU. So, you know, that isn’t ostracism. But it is, in a way, it’s kind of an ostracism.
AMS: Yea. What kind of… What did you write for the Encyclopedia of Mormonism?
TC: I wrote, um… Let’s see… I wrote one on the organization of the New Testament church. And, I have that background in Classics, and I edited that book of Nibley on the New Testament church.
TC: And then, I wrote the article on The Great Apostasy.
AMS: Uh, huh.
TC: And, then I collaborated on the article on Symbolism. And, I collaborated with Bob Reese, who is uncredited. But, Bob Reese wrote most of that. It’s a really good article that is published under my name. I contributed some to it.
AMS: Hum. Interesting. Well, let’s get into your book a little bit, shall we?
AMS: First of all, can you give us an overview of the book and its contents – its protagonists, the heroes, the villains if there are any, um… That sort of thing.
TC: Okay. Um, just for the benefit of any non-Mormons who happen to be listening, the LDS Church started in the early 19th Century, and the founding figure was Joseph Smith, who was viewed as a prophet and was the first President of the Church. And, of course, through him came many writings that are considered prophetic and have become part of the canon of the LDS Church.
AMS: Um, hum.
TC: And, toward the end of his life, he married many women in polygamy. He was very influenced by the Old Testament. I myself believe that the example of Old Testament prophets such as Abraham was a very big influence on him, toward getting him to practice polygamy. And, so, he married… By my research, he married 33 women that I feel can be adequately documented. Other people have different numberings, but most people agree that it’s around 30.
TC: So, in my book, as I mentioned, I got interested in [these] women. So, I wrote a biography of each of these women. In my book, each chapter deals with a woman, or sometimes their sisters – both women in one chapter. But, every woman has her own biography in my book, and I take them from birth to death.
AMS: Right, right.
TC: That allows us to see the impact of polygamy in their lives, in their later lives in Utah. When Joseph Smith introduced it [polygamy], it was obviously completely new. And, no one knew how to take it, or deal with it. It’s interesting to see how polygamy worked out in Utah, when they had to live with it long term.
TC: And, so you see that in these women’s lives. And, um… So, the first chapter in my book, however, is an introduction to how Joseph Smith practiced polygamy. Because, I felt that a number of aspects of polygamy needed explanation because they’re kind of out of the ordinary. One aspect of polygamy that I tried to explain was why 33? Why couldn’t he have married two or three wives like Abraham did? And, the conclusion I came to was that he had developed a doctrine that the more women you married, the more descendents you had and the greater your exaltation in the next life. Exaltation is a Mormon word for the most complete salvation possible.
AMS: Um, hum. Um, hum.
TC: Another issue that’s important was he married some women who were married to other men. And, they continued being married to these other men at the same time they were married to Joseph Smith. I call this “polyandry,” which means one woman being married to two men at the same time. “Polygyny” is the technical term for one man being married to two women at the same time. And, “polygamy” just includes all those kinds of plural marriages.
TC: So, I dealt with that issue of polyandry and I came to the conclusion that one of the reasons that this was happening was, first of all, Joseph Smith had the doctrine that everyone had a life as a spirit before they came to this earth. And, certain spirits were linked in this premortal life. And so, when they came to this life, um… that linking took precedence over if they’d married someone else.
TC: And another aspect of the doctrine that I thought was the background for this polyandry was the fact that Joseph Smith had a very strong idea of authority in the Church. For example, only baptisms performed within the Church were valid, he felt, in the eternal scheme. But he also felt this about marriage. Only marriages performed by Mormons were valid in the eternal scheme. So, by that perspective, civil marriages were not even real.
AMS: Well, not just civil marriages. Wouldn’t that include Presbyterian marriages, or any other…
TC: Yea, and marriages solemnized by other churches, that’s true.
TC: And, so, if he marries a woman who had been married…
AMS: That’s a breach of the social contract.
TC: If he’d been married to a woman who’d been married civilly or by a Presbyterian, you know, by eternal perspective that marriage vow really doesn’t factor in.
TC: So, that premortal linking took precedence.
AMS: But it doesn’t strike you as a breach of the social contract?
TC: I think it’s an example of the Mormon idea that you find also in Utah, that the laws of God take precedence over the laws of man. You find this all through the history of polygamy. And, you find it in the theocratic, what Michael Quinn calls the “Theocratic Kingdom,” in Utah, in which Mormons felt that the laws… Common Law, and the laws of the United States, had to be subservient to what they felt were the laws of God. And so, I believe that was the situation with polyandry, that Joseph Smith simply felt that the laws of God and the realities of God, as he perceived them, took precedence over civil marriage.
AMS: It’s interesting how…
TC: This caused great practical problems. You know, if a husband and wife were in love with each other, and the wife had to marry Joseph Smith, obviously that… It caused great practical problems there.
AMS: Yea. It’s interesting how, the way you explain it, it sounds, you know… far-fetched to me. It’s not a theocracy that sounds very… appealing to me. But, I can follow your reason.
TC: I’m not necessarily defending everything the Church did as a theocracy.
TC: Because, Mountain Meadows Massacre was done by good, believing Mormons who were following their local Church leaders, definitely. And, um… felt that they were following the laws of God. And I don’t [?] think they were completely wrong.
AMS: Right, right…
TC: And, so, that whole idea of a theocracy could go into great excess, which I think it did sometimes. And you could argue that it went into excess in the whole polygamy history, too.
AMS: Yea. I’ve got to say, though, that as a convert to the Church, and never having been exposed to all these ideas, I was shell shocked reading the first 20 pages of your book. I didn’t know. I had never been exposed to any of it, because, as converts, you don’t hear about these things.
TC: Um, hum.
AMS: And, I went on a mission, too. I never taught that to anybody. Not that I wanted to hide it, it’s just that I didn’t know. And so, it’s really hard emotionally to be faced with that all of a sudden. When the Church has been very careful to, I don’t know… Bury it I guess is the term for it? How do you think the Church dealt with polyandry? And again, I mean the official Church.
TC: Well, I think that the Church… And, again, you have to remember that the Church is not monolithic. You have some General Authorities believing in full exposure. And then you have other General Authorities just believing in covering it up. It’s not monolithic, but… Obviously, I totally agree with the Church leaders who think that you need to be honest about history, you need to bring it out, study it, and work with it, think about it, deal with it. And you need to be open about it with non-Mormons and people who are investigating the Church… You know, I totally agree with that point of view. I think that if you simply cover it up, when people find out about it, they just feel betrayed.
TC: And, it’s… I think the policy of covering it up is dishonest. Obviously, you know… Jesus is not dishonest, God is not dishonest, if you believe in Jesus and God, as I do…
TC: And, I think it really is counter-productive to them, you know?
AMS: Um, hum.
TC: But, on the other hand, you know, I see that it’s a real difficulty for them. There’s this real emotional difficulty …
AMS: Again, we’re coming up against the break, Todd. Let’s take a quick break and we’ll come right back to that thought.