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In Sacred Loneliness: The Plural Wives of Joseph Smith.

By Todd Compton (Salt Lake City, Signature Books, 1998, ISBN 1-56085-085-X xv + 788 pp. Cloth $39.95.

In spite of the image of sexual repression most of us have of what is sometimes called the "age of Victoria," sexual drive continued to break through the surface. Prostitution was rampant, and brothels in the United States were everywhere. Many Americans, upset at the hypocrisy of it all, formed free-love communities such as Oneida or sex-free groups such as the Shakers. Many also turned to scriptural examples to deal with their sexual drives. This was the case of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, or Mormons, established by Joseph Smith in 1830.

In the book In Sacred Loneliness: The Plural Wives of Joseph Smith, Todd Compton, a cautious and careful scholar, has managed to reconstruct the lives of Smith's 33 documented wives, most of whom had previously had been known only by name. He holds that the women as a group were extraordinary in many ways, and he tries to see Mormon history not from the traditional viewpoint of the male church leaders, but from the viewpoint of the wives of the prophet, most of whom played important roles in the Mormon Church.

The Mormons were very much influenced by the traditional Jewish Scriptures in which polygamy was a fact of life. But Smith added a new wrinkle - the Mormons' obligation to bring unborn souls awaiting an earthly body into being, emphasized by the biblical injunction to be fruitful and multiply. He apparently became convinced of the correctness of polygamy in 1831 after he already published the Book of Mormon and gradually revealed the new revelation to his close followers.

Smith probably took his first plural wife in 1833, a 16-year-old named Fanny Alger. Though some Mormon writers, perhaps embarrassed by the polygamous activities of Joseph Smith, have emphasized that Smith's marriages were only spiritual unions without sexual contact, this, as Compton makes clear, was simply not the case.

Over the next few years, Smith took some 33 wives. They included a mother and a daughter, the widow of his brother (in a traditional Levirate ritual), and two sisters. Age was of little matter to him: eleven were between 14 and 20 years of age, nine were 21 to 30, eight were in his own peer group (31 to 40), two were 41 to 50, and three were 51 or oven In addition to the documented wives, there might well have been eight others whom Compton labels as possible wives, and eight who were "sealed" to him after his murder in 1844 so that they might be his wives in heaven. This gives a total of 50 wives, counting Emma, his first wife. Many of the women were married to others when they became wives of Smith.

Polygamy was restricted to the leadership group in the Mormon Church and was more or less kept secret from the other members, although rumors abounded. Emma Smith, the first and only legal wife, was violently opposed to polygamy, and fought the prophet tooth and nail on the issue. After his death she denied the existence of other wives, although records indicate she was well aware of at least some of them. Emma was not alone in her hostility, and many of the early Mormons split from Smith over the issue of polygamy. It was a factor in Smith's assassination. It was not until the Mormons reached Utah, however, that polygamy became a matter of public knowledge.

Almost all of Smith's wives married again after the death of Joseph, and many, as indicated, were already in secular marriages. Thus, it was not just polygamy (plural wives) the Mormons practiced but polyandry (plural husbands) as well. After Smith's death, many of the surviving wives were married by proxy to other Mormon leaders, who were to act as real husbands, even "raising seed" to Smith (i.e. making the women pregnant), although in the next world, the celestial kingdom, Joseph's sacred wives were to again become his. Children from such marriages were "sealed eternally" to Joseph Smith in temple ceremonies so that they could also join his family in the hereafter.

Probably most of Smith's wives were convinced of the rightness of multiple marriages according to what Compton uncovered in their private diaries or letters. Still, he argues that Mormon polygamy was characterized by a tragic ambiguity. A plural wife's marriage had eternal significance in Mormon doctrine, but it lacked earthly fulfillment since the loving, comforting husband was rarely around, even when the wives lived in the same house. Many husbands did not even live in the same community. Most of Smith's wives, reports Compton, were usually forced to carry on by themselves with only an occasional visit from either the prophet or after his death from their new polygamous husband stand-ins for him. Thus, although most came to believe they were fulfilling their sacred duty, they also reported feelings of depression, despair, anxiety, helplessness, abandonment, and anger. They displayed psychosomatic symptoms and had low self-esteem in what Compton called their "sacred loneliness."

Vern L. Bullough is a Visiting Professor at the University of Southern California and an FI Senior Editor.
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Author:Bullough, Vern L.
Publication:Free Inquiry
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 22, 1998
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