28 May 2009
In Sacred Loneliness
So I finally sat down and read Todd Compton's In Sacred Loneliness about the wives of Joseph Smith. You can find lots of reviews of this book if you search for them, so I'm not going to write so very much here. Overall, I thought it was interesting, well-researched, and worth reading. We need more books like this. I did get bogged down in places (honestly, it got repetitive at times) and I had to take a break for quite a few weeks because there's only one copy in my library system so several of us seem to be trading it around, but that's okay.
The best and essential thing about this book is the women. Even though they're all here because of their marriages to Joseph Smith, this book is about 33 interesting and important women. In fact, since most of these women long outlived Joseph Smith, he's hardly here at all in many ways.
I did feel that there was just a touch of an agenda throughout the book despite its telling about these women. Compton states in the preface: "Nevertheless, my central thesis is that Mormon polygamy was characterized by a tragic ambiguity. . . . it was a social system that simply did not work in nineteenth-century America." It seems sometimes that the reason for these biographies was to prove this point.
I was very unhappy with the citation system. In a scholarly book with a zillion citations, I think numbered footnotes or endnotes are essential. There was a lot in the notes that I missed because it simply took too much time to find a source if Compton made a statement that I wondered about- and there were definitely statements that I would have liked to have known more about. However, once you found what you were looking for, the citations were good, although I would have liked to know a little more about the reliability of some sources.
I do think the FARMS review is too defensive and tries too hard to soften some of the very sharp edges in this book. The truth is that Joseph Smith did marry many women, often without Emma's knowledge, and many of those women were married to other men at the same time, apparently sometimes without their (the other husbands') knowledge. Polygamy resulted in a lot of loneliness and difficulty. It really doesn't seem like it worked out well at all. In my own family history there are plenty of examples of polygamy being very difficult along with a few success stories. But it's still perfectly possible to accept Joseph as a prophet. He's the same man before you read this book as he is afterwards. I can't think of anything Joseph did that's any more awful to our modern sensibilities than any number of other prophets accepted by Christian, Muslims, and Jews.