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!