My place in Mormon history

Book Review History Joseph Smith Polygamy

A lot of people — upon leaving the CoJCoL-dS — are amazed to discover how fascinating LDS church history really is. It’s not just that the whitewashed history in Sunday School is incomplete and inaccurate. It’s that you’re force-fed this watery-porridge version of church history that inoculates many people from even wanting to study more church history on their own. So when the leaders say, “Don’t go out and read a bunch of (non-or-marginally approved) books about church history!” one very natural response is “No problem!” Until you disobey that commandment and see how interesting those books can be, that is.

One such book I read recently is Todd Compton’s In Sacred Loneliness, a relatively faith-friendly series of short biographies of the plural wives of Joseph Smith. This book gives a good overview of what it was like to be a member of Joseph Smith’s inner circle. The thirty women profiled run the gamut from LDS leaders to people who kind of lost interest and wandered off, from women who embraced polygamy (going on to join another leader’s harem) to women who had close relationships with their pre/post-JS husbands, from women who died in the thick of the story to women who lived long enough to see the CoJCoLd-S give up polygamy.

Part of my motivation for buying this book was to learn more about Nancy Maria Winchester — my personal church-history connection — to help find my place in the grand Mormon adventure. There’s kind of a “pioneer day” sentiment of “Wouldn’t it have been exciting to have been there when all of these miracles were happening, and to have known Joseph Smith?”

Yet, reading the book made me feel almost more of an outsider than before. I was continually struck by the feeling that I would never have joined this organization. I would never even have considered it. Then I tell myself: It was the ‘Great Awakening’! This was an exciting new trend! They had a prophet who was presenting popular, modern ideas as revelations from God, improving on that dusty old Bible! Yet, I still feel like it’s not a trend that would have appealed to me. Perversely, I can’t imagine my Uber-Mormon mom converting to a wild new religion, either. But my Dad? Maybe…

But then I ask myself if that would have been enough to have gotten my family [fictionally transported more than a century into the past] involved in the grand Mormon adventure. Certainly there were cases where a woman was brought into the Mormon adventure more-or-less against her will by a husband or father (like Martin Harris’ wife Lucy, or Helen Mar Kimball’s first polygamous marriage). Yet, this book also has tales of women who converted whole-heartedly to Mormonism — and brought unwilling or half-willing husbands along for the ride. Overall, the book showcases a number of tales of women’s independence and autonomy. It illustrates the strange connection between polygamy and feminism. At a time when women essentially had the same legal status as children (with respect to their father or husband), the central matriarchs of early Utah society were functionally single moms. Their husbands were more like patrons “with privileges”. Of course the women relied on a great deal of material support from their brothers and other male relatives when their absentee (deadbeat?) shared patriarch “husbands” didn’t come through.

One other striking thing about the book is all of the death: specifically how many mothers lost many or all of their babies and children. This isn’t a specifically Mormon point, BTW. If you can find a collection of bios of ordinary women of centuries past, you’ll find a collection of tales of babies and children dying. Really — despite the trek west — the pioneers of the American frontier had a better survival rate than families in many countries of Europe that didn’t have plentiful farmland to invade.

One line in the book jumped out at me about how we can hardly imagine what it would be like to experience so much loss. That’s true, but it’s because we’re the strange ones. We modern people in wealthy countries have managed to separate ourselves so completely from the daily experience of death that we can hardly comprehend what it was like for ordinary parents and spouses for most of human history. Rather than having more children than you can effectively handle and then watching many of them die you can typically choose to have no more kids than you think you can raise well, and more importantly, you can expect that you will most likely see them all live to adulthood. As I’ve said before, this is the number one thing I appreciate about living here and now, over all other modern advances. And it’s a point to keep in mind when trying to understand the experiences of people in earlier eras.

Todd Compton’s In Sacred Loneliness is an excellent starting point for an adventure exploring your Mormon heritage!

9 thoughts on “My place in Mormon history

  1. In Sacred Loneliness was one of the the first serious books I read on LDS history and what a way to start. Compton compilation of biographies of the wives of Joseph Smith is an amazing introduction to early Mormonism in all it’s complexity.

    One book lead to another and 6 years or so later I have effectively studied my way out of the LDS Church. I do however remain very interested in LDS history not only because I am dealing with my belief etc but also because it is facsinating and it is my heritage. Also as they say…it’s in my DNA.

    I’ve run into some of my ancestor in my studies as well. One male ancestor who I have seen in as few books including one of Quinn’s ‘power’ booksgot in trouble attempting to help another man by watching over one his plural wives as he traveling to collect things before a move to CA around 1856 or so. By the time the man returned this ancestor and his first wife had made moves to allow this give to join their family as plural wife because she did not wish to move to CA. The upshot is that he was brought up on charges by LDS leaders (perhaps cohabitaion had already begun) and eventually had to travel form So Utah where he lived to SLC to talk to Brigham Young. According to the records while meeting with Young he confessed his sins and offered himself to be blood atoned but Young declined. The sentence was a fine and some time served as I recall.

    Anyway the crazy stuff of Mormon history (polygamy, blood atonement etc.) in my own family. Amazing.

  2. I was so ready to read Chanson’s extended thoughts on her own place in Mormon history, but apparently she’s not ready to stake that claim just yet. Hoping this suggestion isn’t rude or out-of-line, I’d suggest maybe titling that memoir Nancy’s Revenge.

    And that’s a nice blog you’ve got there, badseed. You oughta get it listed at Outer Blogness.

  3. I am interested in reading this book. It sounds fascinating.

    I think that there were a lot of things going on in the 19th century. The Irish potato famine, other class related movements. Some of my Ukrainian ancestors were still serfs – not able to leave the land in Ukraine. So, I’m not surprised at the hold that mormonism (and other movements, Shakers, etc.) had on some people. It was definitely a change from what they were familiar with, and may have given them some upward mobility.

    Whenever I read about 19th century women, I also am struck by how many women died in childbirth. It was very common, more common than it is in the western world today.

    PS. I wonder if Compton mentioned that Abraham Lincoln ran on a platform against the twin evils of the time – slavery and polygamy. It’s one of those things that is glossed over (I believe). Polygamy was really shocking and difficult to comprehend for people in the 19th century – against the social order.

  4. badseed — Wow, an ancestor who offered to be blood-atoned? Family history can can lead you to some of the more colorful bits of Mormon history.

    Chino — I guess my place in the grand scheme of Mormon history is something for future historians to determine. 😉 Oh, and I’d linked to my earlier post about my teen-bride-of-JS g-g-g-g-aunt, but maybe I was too coy or subtle about it.

    Aerin — Yes, the situation for people in parts of Europe at the time is a key part of the story. Moving to the United States was often an attractive proposition for purely economic reasons. So that was another motivation for people to listen to the representatives of this exciting new American religion.

  5. I was struck by how deeply committed most of Joseph’s wives, who later became the wife of either Brigham or Heber, were to the “Principle,” even though they struggled along without much help from either Bro Brigham or Bro Heber. They were convinced by Church leaders they were doing God’s will. With that in mind, I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised at the number of current women who profess that they neither want or need the priesthood, that women shouldn’t hold it because that is God’s will.

  6. See, as a Mormon, I always felt vaguely guilty for not really being interested in Church history. Now, I don’t have to feel bad about it.

  7. Whenever I read about 19th century women, I also am struck by how many women died in childbirth. It was very common, more common than it is in the western world today.

    Childbed fever — mainly spread by doctors — was a major cause of maternal deaths. They had no notion of germs nor even of basic hygiene at the time.

  8. I think it would be possible to do research to find out more about Nancy — someone would just have to troll around all the archives in Utah and get in touch with our various oldest relatives. I talked to Todd Compton about Nancy and we both ended up wishing the other knew more about her.

    I can tell you some of my own impressions intermixed with family lore (as recorded in the Winchester family history volume). The Winchester family and Hyrum Smith’s family were very close friends. Stephen and Nancy Case (Nancy Mariah’s mother) were of an older generation than most early Mormon leaders and Stephen became a loyal backbencher. He served as a captain in Zion’s camp, he was a Danite, he was on the High Council in Far West and Kanesville, and when the prophet wanted to marry his 15 year old daughter, he gave her to him.

    According to family lore, Nancy Mariah Winchester used to bring meals to Joseph Smith when he was “hiding from mobs in their attic” (apparently the Winchester home in Nauvoo). The family was also friends with the Kimballs, and lore has it that Nancy’s second marriage to Heber was never consummated. Possibly Heber thought too much of her as a daughter to think of her as a wife. In any event, she continued to live with her own parents’ household until a younger man named Amos George Arnold came into the picture. Heber apparently knew she was unhappy and wanted a more normal family and children, so he apparently arranged both his own divorce and her marriage to Amos. Unfortunately Nancy’s ill health meant that she and Amos continued to live with her parents. She had one son, George Stephen Arnold, satisfying that desire, but she died 8 years later at the age of 47.

  9. That’s interesting — I hadn’t heard the story of JS hiding in the Winchesters’ attic and Nancy Mariah bringing him meals.

    I think you’re right that it would be possible to get more information about her by digging around the archives in Utah. Even though she didn’t leave a journal herself, she’s probably mentioned in enough other journals that one could get a basic outline of her situation from her friends. She’s such an interesting, enigmatic character — I’d be curious to try and do some of that research (if I had time and lived anywhere near Utah…).

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