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In Sacred Loneliness: The Plural Wives of Joseph Smith [Hardcover]

Todd Compton
4.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (16 customer reviews)
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Book Description

Dec 15 1997
Beginning in the 1830s, at least thirty-three women married Joseph Smith, the founder of Mormonism. These were passionate relationships which also had some longevity, except in cases such as that of two young sisters, one of whom was discovered by Joseph’s first wife, Emma, in a locked bedroom with the prophet. Emma remained a steadfast opponent of polygamy throughout her life. 

The majority of Smith’s wives were younger than he, and one-third were between fourteen and twenty years of age. Another third were already married, and some of the husbands served as witnesses at their own wife’s polyandrous wedding. In addition, some of the wives hinted that they bore Smith children—most notably Sylvia Sessions’s daughter Josephine—although the children carried their stepfather’s surname. 

For all of Smith’s wives, the experience of being secretly married was socially isolating, emotionally draining, and sexually frustrating. Despite the spiritual and temporal benefits, which they acknowledged, they found their faith tested to the limit of its endurance. After Smith’s death in 1844, their lives became even more “lonely and desolate.” One even joined a convent. The majority were appropriated by Smith’s successors, based on the Old Testament law of the Levirate, and had children by them, though they considered these guardianships unsatisfying. Others stayed in the Midwest and remarried, while one moved to California. But all considered their lives unhappy, except for the joy they found in their children and grandchildren.  

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From Library Journal

Formerly at UCLA and now the editor of Mormonism and Early Christianity, Compton has compiled a meticulously researched and masterly study of Mormon Joseph Smith's 33 wives. The women are presented individually, with many of their own documents cited. Compton contends that "Mormon polygamy was characterized by a tragic ambiguity": infinite dominion in the next life vs. a social system that did not work, thus resulting in acute neglect of the wives. These "key women have been comparatively forgotten," surprisingly so considering the reverence Mormons hold for their founding prophet and how important polygamy was to Smith. The "sacred loneliness" refers to Smith's promise of salvation combined with the solitude of the forsaken multiple wives. A plenary reference and bibliography and a collection of the wives' photographs fill out this tome, making it a fascinating work. Valuable for both lay readers and scholars, this is recommended for public and academic libraries with good collections in history and women's studies.?Kay Meredith Dusheck, Anamosa, IA
Copyright 1998 Reed Business Information, Inc.

About the Author

 Todd M. Compton, Ph.D., classics, UCLA, is the author of In Sacred Loneliness: The Plural Wives of Joseph Smith, editor of Mormonism and Early Christianity, a contributor to The Encyclopedia of Mormonism and Women and Authority: Re-emerging Mormon Feminism, and has been published in the American Journal of Philology, Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought, Classical Quarterly, and the Journal of Popular Culture, among others. He currently plays electric violin in the Mark Davis Group, which performs at coffee houses and music clubs in the Los Angeles area, and is the assistant systems manager for Paul, Hastings, Jaofski, and Walker. He lives in Santa Monica, California.

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Customer Reviews

Most helpful customer reviews
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The plain truth about Smith's polygamous ways Aug. 23 2003
Todd Compton, who has a Ph.D. from UCLA in classics, has outdone himself with this book. Written from a factual perspective while incorporating the individual story of each woman who married the Mormon prophet Joseph Smith, this book is interesting reading for Mormon or nonMormon alike. Although Latter-day Saint Mormons have not officially practiced polygamy since 1890 (still, many who belong to splinter groups and follow Smith continue its practive even today), having relations with more than one woman is a foundational piece upon which the Mormon Church was built.
Although Compton is more conservative than others when it comes to how many wives Smith had--he says 33 while others count more than 50--the author shows that these women married Smith in secret ceremonies in order to keep his wife Emma from finding out. Smith also convinced them to have his children, oftentimes while they were married to their original husbands. (This is better classified as polyandry rather than polygamy.) In essence, Smith had relations with each of his wives at his personal convenience. Generally these women did not live with him, and when they did, they did not live openly as wives but rather as helpers around his home. It was Brigham Young who first flaunted his polygamous ways. So, in all actuality, they were merely Smith's play toys in the name of God, allowing him to have a variety of sexual partners with little responsibility for his actions. His first plural wife, Fanny Alger, was only 14 when he (in his late 20s) married her in 1833, well before the "revelation" on polygamy that he received in the early 1840s.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
This is a long overdue look at one of what I refer to as "The Big Two Controversies" in mormonism, i.e. the ugly history and legacy of polygamy and racism under the guise of revelation. Much like the reprehensible excuses following the lifting of the black priesthood ban, mormon leaders have never repudiated polygamy as a doctrine and try their best to hide that it ever existed. If you doubt this, look at the recent "priesthood" instruction manual detailing the teachings of Brigham Young. In a timeline of Young's life, it mentions his first wife and remarriage after her death but no mention of his dozens of other wives. To an uninformed reader, you would think Young the model husband, committed to monogamy.
It is clear from Compton's work that Smith was a philanderer who used a supposed revelation from God to keep his understandably upset wife under control. I liken this to the Book of Abraham. When a travelling show came to town with Egyptian hieroglyphs, of course Smith had to pretend to be able to translate them, otherwise he would be exposed for the fraud he was. I will give Smith credit for this, he was slick. Smith's polygamist ways were obviously destructive to his first wife Emma and to the hundreds of other women who ended up caught up in polygamous relationships, many at a very young age given away to lecherous older men as rewards for their loyalty to Smith.
Lest you buy into the mormon party line that this is old news and no longer an issue, it is still central in mormon theology, still contained in mormon scripture and still haunting the church today. Elizabeth Smart's captor "Emmanuel" was merely following original mormon teachings about polygamy. Even the kidnapping is not that farfetched when you look at some of the methods Smith used to get the women he lusted after.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Myth Buster July 3 2000
On the first level, this book is about the women who married Joseph Smith. Beyond that, though, this is a book about the early psychology of the Mormon Church, and the power of the prophetic and apostolic paradigm that the Mormon people lived under during those early, charismatic years.
At first blush, the reader is amazed at the number of women Joseph Smith married. Traditional Mormon mythology teaches that J.S., Brigham Young, Heber Kimball, et al, mostly married elderly women and widows who needed to be taken care of in "the kingdom," or that most were sealed to them posthumously. Many Mormans will be surprised to find out that Joseph was polygamous at all, since Emma is the only wife we ever hear about in "authorized" church history. But to learn of the nature of those relationships, including the fact that most were wives in consumated relationships with the prophet while many had "first husbands" is truly a myth buster.
These women, however, were not just starry-eyed groupies of the charismatic prophet. These were remarkable women of great charisma, leadership and personal power that they possessed of their own, not merely borrowed from their husbands. Their lives are tributes to the spirit of early Mormon faith and endurance.
The second layer of this book is a psycho-social study of the early mormon community, particularly from the perspective of the female leadership. These were women who participated in priesthood administrations, healings, speaking in tongues, visions and the administration of temple ordinances. These were women who found a way to create a sisterhood of wives when their husbands were so largely removed from the day-to-day affairs of their enormous families.
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Most recent customer reviews
5.0 out of 5 stars A Psychological Puzzler Worthy Of Attention
I am not a Mormon, so I cannot speak of their theology.
However, I found this book fascinating. Merely ask yourself such questions as:
1. Read more
Published on Nov. 9 2003 by Peter L. Swinford
3.0 out of 5 stars This is not the book to find your answers on plural marriage
Plural marriage has been a subject of much contemplation for me, which is why I borrowed this book when I came across it. Read more
Published on April 30 2002
5.0 out of 5 stars A Must For Mormon Historians
Compton's book won the Best Book Award from the Mormon History Association and with good reason. The books greatest strength is its fairness and even handedness. Read more
Published on Sept. 8 2001 by John Hatch
5.0 out of 5 stars Balanced and sympathetic
Compton focuses on the devotion and inner lives of women involved directly with the development of polygamous marriage within Mormon theology. Read more
Published on Jan. 31 2001 by Kolby
5.0 out of 5 stars Captivating - What the church has hidden
I literally could not put this book down. The concept is amazing and while the church admits to its history of polygamy they usually skirt the issue but never really delve into... Read more
Published on Jan. 9 2001 by Shawn Tassone
5.0 out of 5 stars Simply a great read!
I am sure many people will comment on this book for religious reasons, originally Mormon social history was the reason that I read In Sacred Loneliness, and religion seems to breed... Read more
Published on July 31 2000 by T. Mazerolle
5.0 out of 5 stars For the real history of Joseph Smith's polygamy come here.
The author does a wonderful job of first determining which women were actually, strongly documented wives of Joseph Smith, then those that there is some evidence for, then some... Read more
Published on May 25 2000 by L. Troy Beals
2.0 out of 5 stars A few Interesting Facts, but a Bad Premise.
The author of this book started out with a premise: Men having more than one wife (polygamy, plural marriage) is a bad thing. Read more
Published on April 26 2000 by John Walsh
4.0 out of 5 stars VERY ENLIGHTENING!
To say the least, this was a very informative book! I had long suspected that there was more to Joseph Smith's plural wives, and I am grateful to have a book which has provided me... Read more
Published on March 27 2000
5.0 out of 5 stars In Sacred Loneliness
I was impressed with the factual material that was used for references. I read half of the book and ended up giving the book to my sister in law who has the same concerns that I... Read more
Published on Feb. 16 2000 by Glenn E. Smith
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