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In Sacred Loneliness: The Plural Wives of Joseph Smith

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In Sacred Loneliness: The Plural Wives of Joseph Smith

Todd Compton, In Sacred Loneliness: The Plural Wives of Joseph Smith (Signature Books, 1997) 788 pages, cloth, ISBN 1-56085-085-X.

The topic of Joseph Smith’s polygamy1 tends to polarize those who grapple with it. Understandably, it is difficult to remain neutral when faced with the fact that Joseph Smith took at least thirty women as wives, that he physically consummated many of those marriages and made every effort to conceal this from his first wife Emma. Todd Compton’s book, In Sacred Loneliness: The Plural Wives of Joseph Smith, is a calmly crafted work designed to bring truth and understanding to this segment of Latter-day Saint history which too often has been characterized by either deliberate obfuscation or shameless sensationalism. Misrepresenting polygamy, especially that of Joseph Smith, occurs most often when it is removed from its historical context. Compton (Ph.D., classics, University of California, Los Angeles), himself a dedicated Latter-day Saint who upholds Joseph Smith as true prophet, has produced a thorough, well-documented work. The result is that now those who would either vilify or glorify Smith’s actions based on incomplete evidence are without excuse.

"Understandably, it is difficult to remain neutral when faced with the fact that Joseph Smith took at least thirty women as wives, that he physically consummated many of those marriages and made every effort to conceal this from his first wife Emma."

Putting Polygamy Into Context

In Sacred Loneliness puts Mormon polygamy where it belongs and where it can be best understood — into the context of the lives of the men and women who lived it in the nineteenth century. To do this Compton provides a look at polygamy from the vantage point of each individual woman who became Joseph’s wife, as well as from that of her immediate family. This holistic approach to Joseph Smith’s wives is the main strength of the book. The author devotes a chapter to each woman, and starting prior to her birth, weaves a narrative that includes her childhood, her immediate family, and both her own reactions and those of her family as Smith introduces them to "the principle" — a term faithful Latter-day Saints used to refer to plural marriage.

Since the majority of Latter-day Saints and their non-LDS neighbors considered polygamy to be immoral, Joseph Smith’s highly secretive practice of it produced some understandably extreme reactions. For example, the author provides the following from Benjamin Johnson’s response when Smith asked him for his sister Almera, claiming God had commanded him again to take more wives (spelling and punctuation as provided by Compton).

"His words astonished me and almost took my breath—I Sat for a time amazed and finally almost Ready to burst with emotion ...

In almost an agony of feeling ... I looked him Straight in the Face & Said: ‘Brother Joseph This is Something I did not Expect & I do not understand—You know whether it is right. I do not. I want to do just as you tell me, and I will try. But if I [ever] should Know that you do this to Dishonor & debauch by Sister I will kill you as Shure as the Lord lives’" (p. 296).

Convinced Joseph was a prophet, Benjamin and Almera both consented to the marriage and in April of 1843 Almera became Joseph’s twenty-first wife. Joseph was 38 and Almera 30 at the time. Benjamin provides some seldom-recorded details of the marriage ceremony and writes that after the ceremony. "the Prophet asked me to take my Sister to ocupy Room No 10 in his Mansion Home dureing her Stay in the City." Benjamin later records that about three weeks after he [Benjamin] and Almera returned home, "The Prophet again Came and at my house ocupied the Same Room & Bed with my Sister that the month previous he had occupied with the Daughter of the Late Bishop Partridge as his wife" (pp. 297-298).2 Whether this refers to 19 year old Emily Dow Partridge or 22 year old Eliza Marie Partridge is unclear since Joseph had taken both of them as plural wives on March 4 and March 8 respectively, though neither were initially aware of Joseph’s marriage to the other. We will look in more detail at the plural marriages of the Partridge sisters later in this review as it provides a case study with characteristics common to many of Joseph’s clandestine marriages.

Compton’s work demonstrates fairness, accuracy and above all balance. He does not play to the sensational aspects of Joseph’s polygamy — like the number of wives who were teenagers (eleven) — yet he refuses to ignore or gloss over discomforting facts. His observations and interpretations assume Joseph’s status as a true prophet, yet he does not shy away from including historical material that calls into question Joseph’s character. Compton’s overall tone is favorable to both Joseph Smith and his plural wives, yet he refrains from pushing a purely faith-promoting interpretation of the material presented. His commentary contributes insight, understanding, and enough information to allow readers a sense of being able to draw their own conclusions.

The author uses extensive quotations from diaries, journals, letters, family reminiscences, legal affidavits and the like to achieve his goal of bringing each woman "vividly to life, giving a flavor of the way she talked, thought, felt, and believed, evoking humor and humanity that over-idealized or academic history sometimes ignores" (p. xii). These sources allow the reader to follow each woman’s life up to and through the trauma of Smith’s murder, the adjustments of widowhood and the arduous trek many of them made to the Salt Lake Valley. For most, polygamy would be a constant way of life, as they became plural wives of Brigham Young, Heber C. Kimball and other LDS leaders.

We get a taste of Compton’s commitment to a balanced understanding of polygamy early on, when in his introduction he writes:

Anti-Mormon polemicists saw polygamy as pure evil. Mormon men were viewed as insidious enslavers of women; polygamous women were seen as helpless, mindless victims … After sweeping aside such melodramatic propaganda, one finds that in actuality Mormon polygamists, both female and male, were generally sincere, intensely religious, often intelligent and able, and men and women of good will. Nevertheless, my central thesis is that Mormon polygamy was characterized by tragic ambiguity. On the one hand, it was more than secular, monogamous marriage — it was the new and everlasting covenant, having eternal significance … On the other hand, day-to-day practical polygamous living, for many women, was less than monogamous marriage — it was a social system that simply did not work in nineteenth-century America. Polygamous wives often experienced what was essentially acute neglect (p. xiii)

History Surrounded By Secrecy

As he takes us through the lives of each woman, Compton’s thesis emerges with striking clarity. On the one hand, these women revere polygamy as a sacred trust, on the other hand they wrestle with the disappointment and loneliness that so often resulted. The author acknowledges the difficulty of presenting a fair and complete composite picture, stating, "Since early polygamy was secret and not officially documented, there are still many uncertainties in even a conservative, carefully documented description of Smith’s extended family" (p. ix). The case of Joseph’s marriage to 17-year-old Sarah Ann Whitney exemplifies both the extreme secrecy that surrounded early polygamy and Compton’s skillful use of the historical record to reconstruct the events.

In the spring of 1842 Joseph Smith privately approached a close friend named Newell K. Whitney, a man he had appointed as a Presiding Bishop, and introduced him and his wife to the doctrine of plural marriage. Following this, 36-year-old Joseph explained he had been commanded to marry their oldest daughter, 17-year-old Sarah, and he produced the following revelation which promises eternal salvation for Newell and his wife if they will obey:

Verily, thus saith the Lord unto my servant N.K. Whitney, the thing that my servant Joseph has made known unto you and your family and which you have agreed upon is right in mine eyes and shall be rewarded upon your heads with honor and immortality and eternal life to all your house (p. 348).

The revelation continued with the wording of the ceremony to be used including the following pronouncement, "I then give you, S[arah].A. Whitney, my daughter, to Joseph Smith, to be his wife, to observe all the rights between you both that belong to that condition" (p. 348).

Compton comments:

This was a marriage for time and for eternity. The references to "posterity" and the "rights" of marriage suggest that the marriage would have a physical dimension, consistent with the evidence for Joseph’s other marriages.

… Curiously, even though Sarah’s father had authorized her marriage to the prophet, Joseph felt that Horace (Sarah’s older brother) would oppose it and therefore sent him East on a mission: "But Joseph feared to disclose it [the marriage to Sarah Ann], believing that the Higbee boys would embitter Horace against him, as they had already caused serious trouble, and for this reason he favored his going East." This is an important reference, as it shows that Smith could use mission calls to male family members to remove possible opposition to his polygamous marriages (p. 349).

About a month later, Smith wrote a letter to the Whitneys asking them to meet him in hiding and bring their daughter, but cautions:

the only thing to be careful of; is to find out when Emma comes then you cannot be safe, but when she is not here, there is the most perfect safty …

Only be careful to escape observation, as much as possible, I know it is a heroick undertakeing; but so much the greater friendship, and the more Joy, when I see you I will tell you all my plans, I cannot write them on paper, burn this letter as soon as you read it; keep all locked up in your breasts, my life depends upon it. … I close my letter, I think emma wont come tonight if she dont dont fail to come to night, I subscribe myself your most obedient, and affectionate, companion, and friend. Joseph Smith (p. 350 — spelling and punctuation as provided by Compton).

Compton observes that, "The cloak-and-dagger atmosphere of this letter is typical of Nauvoo polygamy."

About nine months later Joseph arranged a mock wedding, which he officiated, of Sarah Ann and Joseph Kingsbury in order to cover his own polygamous relationship with her (p. 351). Compton writes:

Historians of polygamy will remember Sarah Ann Whitney Smith, Kingsbury Kimball as a participant in the only well-documented "pretend" marriage that Joseph Smith engineered to cloak a polygamous marriage of his own — an interesting example of the lengths to which he would go to preserve the secrecy of plural marriage. Her sealing to Smith is also significant in its demonstration of a classic dynastic marriage between Smith and an important church family, a marriage that assured the Whitneys eternal blessings and an important connection to the Mormon prophet in this life (p. 362).

If there is any aspect of Compton’s work that may be less than satisfying it is the ease with which he attributes a chiefly sociological motivation to Joseph Smith's plural marriages and avoids raising the issue of sexual impropriety. In cases like that of Sarah Ann Whitney (17) and Helen Mar Kimball (14), where Smith sought out the daughters of early LDS church leaders, Compton is quick to identify Joseph’s dynastic interest in the girls. In other words, Joseph desires to establish a deep and abiding relationship with the parents and link them to himself; marriage to their young daughter is seen as the means to that end (pp. 497, 500). While Compton presents some evidence that the parents saw this dynastic aspect and even appreciated the closer relationship they had with the Prophet as a result, there is little evidence that suggests the parents understood this as Joseph's goal rather than simply a natural by-product of Joseph marrying their daughter. Other evidence even seems to argue against a dynastic motivation, for Compton states that "there is no evidence elsewhere that Smith married for eternity only, not including 'time'" (p. 500).3 To his credit, Compton does not eliminate sexual desire from the equation. After reviewing the data regarding the ages of his plural wives4 he acknowledges that,

These data suggest that sexual attraction was an important part of the motivation for Smith's polygamy. In fact, the command to multiply and replenish the earth was part of the polygamy theology, so non-sexual marriage was generally not in the polygamous program, as Smith taught it (pp. 11-12).

While it is quite possible that Joseph Smith's motivation included a desire to form dynastic links, one has to wonder why he needed to marry the girls for both "time and eternity" and then physically consummate the marriage to accomplish this goal.

Since it would be naive to ignore the nature of the human heart, the tendency of power to corrupt, and the all too common use of a position of authority for sexual advantage, can one be judged too severely for considering an alternate motivation? Is it not almost more plausible that having these young girls as wives — with all the corresponding rights and privileges — was Joseph's primary goal, and that his close relationship to the family as both friend and infallible spiritual leader was the means to that end? Could it be Joseph approached those with whom he already had an established relationship because he knew they would be among the least likely to question his character and refuse a command he claimed came directly from God?

It is clear from the historical accounts that those who were approached about plural marriage to Joseph Smith were shocked to the core of their being, and many initially refused his advances outright. Though in the case of 19-year-old Zina D. Huntington, her refusal of Smith and even her eventual marriage on March 7, 1841 to young Henry Jacobs did not stop Joseph's advances. Shortly after their wedding Smith informed them that Zina was to be his celestial wife. Interestingly enough, her husband Henry accepted this for he believed that "whatever the Prophet did was right, without making the wisdom of God's authorities bend to the reasoning of any man" (p. 81). Zina, however, continued to resist. Like most of the other women Joseph pursued, Zina complied after being convinced that plural marriage came from God. Compton writes:

Zina remained conflicted until a day in October, apparently, when Joseph sent [her older brother] Dimick to her with a message: an angel with a drawn sword had stood over Smith and told him that if he did not establish polygamy, he would lose "his position and his life." Zina, faced with the responsibility for his position as prophet, and even perhaps his life, finally acquiesced (pp. 80-81).

It is clear these women took their marriages to Joseph very seriously, and understandably so, since Joseph had made it clear that not only in some cases was his life at stake, but that in other cases, marriage to him would guarantee her salvation, and also the salvation of her parents (p. 349).

Yet, in the case of the Partridge sisters, after marrying and physically consummating the marriage, Joseph's first wife Emma either discovered or suspected the physical nature of the relationship. When she protested, Smith dismissed the marriages with a handshake (p. 411). This apparently casual attitude toward a sacred vow with eternal consequences suggests that Joseph did not take his marriages as seriously as those to whom he was married. It also raises serious questions with staggering implications regarding why Joseph introduced polygamy in the first place. While Compton never even suggests sexual impropriety on Joseph's part, perhaps it is enough that he provides sufficient documentation to enable the reader to draw his own conclusions.

The Partridge Sisters: A Plural Marriage Case Study

According to Compton, the cases of Emily (19) and Eliza (22) Partridge contain elements common to many of Joseph’s plural marriage:

  • They had shared a home with Joseph and Emma before being approached about plural marriage, as did Sarah (17) and Maria (19) Lawrence, Fanny Alger (17), Melissa Lott (19), Elvira Cowles (29), Desdemonia Fuller (32), and Eliza Snow (38)
  • They were sworn to secrecy and told of the plural wife system as a new revelation from God before being specifically asked to marry Joseph Smith
  • Their initial reaction (when recorded) was often one of shock and at times revulsion (suggesting a strong moral upbringing and commitment to personal purity)
  • They viewed Smith as an infallible prophet of God
  • They were told by Smith the marriage was commanded by God
  • They were told that entering into plural marriage with him (Smith) would guarantee eternal life in the celestial kingdom for themselves and their immediate family
  • They had a physical marital relations with Smith but were never allowed to relate to Smith publicly as his wife
  • They were told to maintain strict secrecy about the relationship, especially when it came to Emma, Joseph’s first wife
  • Following Joseph’s death they were allowed to pick which of several LDS leaders they wanted to wed with most becoming plural wives of either Brigham Young or Heber C. Kimball
  • Their subsequent lives were characterized by marital isolation and loneliness offset at times by close relationships with "sister" wives

The conclusion of Compton’s chapter on Emily contains the following:

"Emily Partridge provides us with a classic example of the central pattern examined in this book: polygamy may be sacred in theory, but when practiced on a day-to-day basis the plural wife is not given financial or emotional support. In Nauvoo Joseph taught Emily the principle of plural, celestial marriage, and married her and Eliza, but then acquiesced to Emma’s brow beatings and consented to his new wives’ expulsion from his home. Then he allowed the marriages to lapse, apparently taking the unions less seriously than did the Partridges. It should be remembered that he had at least thirty other wives to turn to at the time. After Joseph’s death, Emily married Brigham Young in open polygamy, but from the beginning of the marriage to its end she was less than a full wife in his family. During the exodus from Nauvoo, the haunting image of the lonely wife standing with new-born baby in the snow shows Emily’s lack of practical marital support .... Her diary entries expressing her resentment form a significant document, a moving cri de coeur against a non-supportive polygamous husband. The fact that this husband was the prophet and president of the church added a note of cognitive dissonance to her journal, for her religion demanded that she see him as an inspired religious leader. Her words of praise for Brigham after his death show her highly developed capacity for Christian forgiveness" (p. 432).


Compton’s book should prove to be a landmark work on early Mormon polygamy. Besides the extensive quotes from journals and diaries there is an excellent prologue containing an overview summary of Joseph’s polygamy which briefly covers the timing of Joseph’s marriages, the issue of how many women he married, their ages and Joseph’s sexual involvement with them. Compton also addresses the martial status of these women and possible motives behind Joseph’s plural relationships. The highlight of the prologue, however, is a six-page chart listing Joseph’s plural wives. It contains the date of each marriage, their marital status prior to marrying Smith (11 already married to other men), the age at which they married Smith, and a short summary of their later lives.

Overall this book provides a broad look at how Joseph Smith viewed and practiced polygamy and it illustrates the effects of plural marriage on those who lived it. It also, and perhaps most importantly, provides the historical evidence whereby a religious leader’s actions and his claims to be a prophet of God can be evaluated based on historical truth. Those who honestly consider the implications of this evidence may share the reaction of LDS author and editor Lavina Fielding Anderson:

I was shocked and disgusted to discover that Joseph Smith married a fourteen-year-old girl, fully consummated that marriage, and concealed it from Emma. My image of "prophet" did not accommodate this kind of behavior (Sunstone, October 1990, p. 27).

While such information tends to be initially disquieting, the end result is beneficial if we are brought even one step closer to the truth. That being the case, we will have benefited from the stories of these women — women who married Joseph Smith, and who then lived their lives In Sacred Loneliness.


Other research done by LDS scholars which complements Compton's work includes but is not limited to:

  • Prisoner for Polygamy: The Memoirs and Letters of Rudger Clawson at the Utah Territorial Penitentiary, 1884-87, (University of Illinois Press, 1993, 256 pages) by Stan Larson (former employee of the LDS Church's Translation Services department). Clawson was a second generation polygamist and the first to be tried and convicted for polygamy and cohabitation. At the time of his release he had served longer than any other convicted polygamist. He was also a prominent member of the LDS church. He served, among other things as a stake president, apostle, and counselor in the First Presidency, and his letters and prison journal reflect the pride and commitment he had both to his church and polygamy as an eternal doctrine. This commitment is further evidenced by his 1904 post-Manifesto plural marriage.
  • Steven Faux, "Genetic Self Interest & Mormon Polygyny: A Sociobiological Perspective of the Doctrinal Development of Polygyny" in Sunstone, July-August 1983, pages 37-40. Dr. Faux, a professor of psychology at Drake University whose ancestors were practicing LDS polygamists, looks at little-known attitudes of early Mormon leaders regarding polygamy. He introduces quotes from LDS Presidents and apostles Brigham Young, B. H. Roberts, Heber C. Kimball, Wilford Woodruff, and George Q. Cannon supporting his thesis that nineteenth century polygamists saw themselves as spiritually superior men who were divinely commanded to propagate their own bloodlines to an extent not possible with only one wife. Faux writes:

Discourse about polygny often emphasized the need to control and discriminate the types of men who would become polygynists. Heber C. Kimball's comment, while manifesting hyperbole, reveals the general attitude of the period: "If I am not a good man, I have no right in this church to a wife or wives, or to the power to propogate my species. What then should be done with me? Make me a eunuch and stop my propagation" (p. 38).

Faux provides the following from George Q. Cannon, an apostle and First Counselor to three LDS presidents:

There are those in this audience who are descendants of the Lord's Twelve Apostles — and, shall I say it, yes, descendants of the Savior himself. His seed is represented in the body of these men (p. 39).

Faux's article explores an aspect of polygamy the modern LDS church studiously avoids.

  • Richard Van Wagoner, Mormon Polygamy: A History, (Signature Books, second edition, 1989, 255 pages). Perhaps the best known and most respected historical study, tracing polygamy from its inception through both manifestos, up to the founding of fundamentalist polygamist groups.
  • Of interest also is Polygamous Families In Contemporary Society by Irwin Altman and Joseph Ginat (Cambridge University Press, 1996, 512 pages). Though neither are LDS, their work shows in part how the legacy of nineteenth century polygamy as a means of creating spiritual and earthly dynasties continues to impact modern polygamists who also believe that only "righteous men" are to "have the privilege of being patriarchs of plural families" (pp. 92-93).



1. Compton provides the following helpful definition of terms:

POLYGAMY ("many-marriage"): A man or woman has two or more marriage partners. Plural marriage is the preferred Mormon term. Anthropologically, polygamy is divided into two subcategories: polygyny and polyandry.

POLYGYNY (i.e., "many-woman"): A man is married to two or more women simultaneously.

POLYANDRY (i.e., "many-man"): A woman has multiple husbands.

2. According to Benjamin, Joseph Smith visited again five months later, but this time asked for Benjamin’s youngest sister who was 15 years old. When Joseph was told she was already engaged he "reluctantly" let the matter drop (p. 298).

3. It is interesting that Compton seems compelled to provide a sociological reason for Joseph’s plural marriages whether it be levirate (marrying a brother's spouse to carry on the family name for him), or dynastic (marrying for the sake of creating or strengthening ties between families) when Joseph repeatedly gave his motivation as theological. Was Joseph intentionally creating dynastic links or was he simply following a direct command of God as an obedient Prophet. And is it less of a breach of integrity to use "The Lord God said" to cover for a social motivation rather than a sexual one? Maybe Compton is not all that comfortable — and understandably so — with a Prophet who "often framed his marriage proposals in terms of a divine fait accompli — the Lord had already 'given' the woman to the prophet. God was the ratifying agent, and it was sacrilegious to doubt. It was the woman's duty to comply with the fact that she was already Joseph's possession" (p. 407).

4. Compton provides the following age categories of Joseph Smith's wives and how many he had in each: eleven wives — 14-20 years old, nine wives — 21-30 years old, eight wives — 31-40 years old, two wives — 41-50 years old, and three wives 51-60. He notes, "The teenage representation is the largest, though the twenty-year and thirty-year groups are comparable, which contradicts the Mormon folk-wisdom that sees the beginning of polygamy as an attempt to care for older, unattached women. These data suggest that sexual attraction was an important part of the motivation for Smith's polygamy" (p. 11).