Table of Contents
Conservative / Liberal / Moderate
After reading the reviews of Anderson/Faulring and Bachman, I immediately began to ponder what has been called the burden of the moderate in many organizations, including the LDS Church. I've been told that Louis Midgely is writing a book about tensions in Mormon History entitled No Middle Ground. In intellectual, political, religious conflicts, there is an understandable tendency for both sides of the spectrum to move toward the end of the spectrum, then regard the moderate as an enemy. If someone is on the far right end of the spectrum, say, anyone to the left of that position looks wrong, for all practical purposes. The end of the spectrum may dislike and distrust the moderate even more than it dislikes the other end of the spectrum. So a very conservative LDS writer may consider persons like Gerald and Sandra Tanner to be "honest anti-Mormons," while considering the moderate a "dishonest anti-Mormon," a "wolf in sheep's clothing" and thus much more sinister and dangerous. A less melodramatic, but also unsympathetic, perspective might view the moderate as a person who lacks the backbone to take a strong moral stand on an issue, who is wishy-washy, a mugwump, who wants to be all things to all men.
In my meditative mode, I wonder: how can we define extremism? Can extremism be admirable? Can extremism be correct? Furthermore, can moderation be morally wrong, even reprehensible? I think that you can apply these categories to many different issues and come up with many different answers.
For instance, on the issue of whether the earth is round or not, on one end of the spectrum we have the flat-earthers, on the other end the round-earthers, and I don't see much possibility for middle ground there. But take another issue: evolution. On one end of the spectrum are people who reject evolution completely in favor of saying that God created everything without using such methods (and so evidence for evolution, fossils, the scientific method, are viewed as diabolic lies); on the other end are people who say that evolution occurred and occurs and it proves that God did not create anything and there is no God. However, there is also a middle ground holding that evolution, in some form, was part of God's modus operandi of creation. This evolutionist does not reject fossils, a form of evolution, and the scientific method, but he or she still accepts that God was involved in these processes.
Both ends of the spectrum may consider this middle ground, the theistic evolutionist, to be a betrayal of the correct position. The religious anti-evolutionist will consider the middle position to be starting on the "slippery slope" to atheism, and in fact a form of atheism. The pro-evolution atheist may consider the middle position irrationality at best, even a betrayal of the scientific method. Both ends of the spectrum may see the moderate as secretly siding with the other end. And the moderate is not accepted as "a real member of the club" by either side.
I am realistic about this situation. Though I have a background in the conservative side of Mormonism, and retain many conservative viewpoints, I also have what I would call a liberal faith in many ways. I believe that the Church environment has become increasingly polarized recently, for various reasons. In such polarized situations, enormous pressure can be put on moderates to join the far ends of the spectrum. The enormous pressures put on the "moderate Republicans" in the recent impeachment proceedings in the House of Representatives are a good example, and the overwhelmingly party line vote for and against impeachment in the House shows the success the far right wing of the Republican party had in bringing the "moderate Republicans" to accompany them in the vote.
For better or worse, I have watched myself become what I, personally, consider to be a moderate, in LDS intellectual/academic circles. I may be wrong; I may be looking at myself with entirely too much sympathy; but that is how I see myself. I did not become that intentionally -- after my many years of experience reading, writing, talking, participating in a wide variety of situations, I woke up a moderate, liberal in some ways, conservative in others. I offered some unsympathetic takes on moderation above. However, at the risk of looking at myself too sympathetically, I would like to offer some possible positive views of moderation, for a historian and church member.
First of all, there is a natural tendency for one end of the spectrum to view the other end in the blackest possible terms. While there are a few cases in which a person can seem like pure evil or pure good (Hitler or Mother Theresa), in actuality, my experience is that "good" people generally have flaws and limitations, and that "bad" people (people whose acts have been largely destructive, in my view) often have "constructive" traits and motivations.
For instance, in the Civil War, I sympathize strongly with the cause of keeping the country together and ending slavery. Yet I understand that good families were torn apart by the conflict, and brothers fought against brothers on opposing sides. Furthermore, I find Robert D. Lee admirable and heroic, even though he made the (wrong, in my view) choice to stand with his native Virginia and fight against the Union. Both sides in the conflict felt they were fighting for freedom.
Moderates, who are not committed to see an opposite end of the spectrum in the blackest possible terms, can see the human side of both sides of an issue. By human, I mean both the sympathetic side and the limited side. Instead of seeing the opposite end of the spectrum as demonic, you see them as sympathetic human beings, possibly with faults. They can be wrong on occasion, make serious mistakes on occasion, be unsympathetic on occasion. I believe this is a very useful trait for a historian to have -- you can see historical figures in their complexity. I think this is a much more true view of human character than the view that sees one side as purely white and the other side as deepest black.
In addition, in my view, this is the best position for the honest apologist. I myself try to be a proponent of the truth in all its aspects, as I have stated above, which by extension means I am a defender of the gospel, if I am successful. If you take the position that important characters on your "own" side are purely good, then you paint yourself into the corner of having to defend their human limitations (and all humans have limitations). Or you are forced to intentionally ignore the limitations or censor them out of the picture, which is a form of defending them, but, as I have stated, a form of dishonesty. In addition, if you paint the opposite side as pure evil, when people find out that the opposite spectrum are people who are often intelligent and idealistic, though with different points of view, you have once again undercut yourself.
Second, ideally, a good moderate can have independence of mind. I remember while I was growing up when I asked my parents what party they voted, they said, we're independents. I know they were conservative, and I respect people who might be part of a political party (I myself am not part of any organized political party -- I am a Democrat) but I like the fact that they wanted to preserve their options in voting. I have a friend who says she is a fiscally conservative, socially liberal Republican. I myself come down with Republicans on certain issues. An independent moderate may be thoughtful, not accepting a party position without examining it. However, because of this, in practical politics, the independently-minded moderate can be viewed as "not a team player."
Third, moderates can save a party from itself. If extremism can be dangerous, as it certainly can be, moderates can keep the party from teetering on the edge. Sometimes extremists can be the party's own worst enemies; for instance, I believe that extremist feminism can delay the progress of constructive feminism. Extremists in a party can be judgmental, melodramatic, and can appeal to the lowest possible denominator in a constituency. Given how human organizations work, they are often more powerful than moderates. For instance, in the Democratic party, demagogues can undo the sincere idealism of many centrist Democrats. Extremist conservatives, on the other hand, can make the Republican party look harshly uncompassionate, given to personal attack, and on the lunatic fringe.
Finally, I want to emphasize that in none of this do I deny that moderates must always face the moral imperative. They cannot be morally indecisive. You should not become "moderate" for the sake of labeling oneself a "moderate." By moderate, I do not mean someone who doesn't make hard moral choices. As Senator Jeffords has recently shown, sometimes the choice to be a moderate is itself a tough choice.
Finally, there is a religious argument for moderation. Jesus encouraged us to "love your enemy." It is difficult to sincerely love your enemies if you are at one end of a spectrum and see the other side as pure evil. Having understanding for all kinds of people, and compassion for the problems faced by all kinds of people, leans you toward being a moderate, I think.
Having made this attempt at a defense for religious, historical moderation, I will now try to show that, from my own perspective, at least, In Sacred Loneliness is in many ways a moderate, even conservative book.
Bias? Genesis of In Sacred Loneliness
First of all, Bachman and Anderson/Faulring imply that I had strong negative biases -- I suppose they mean naturalistic (atheistic) and anti-polygamy biases -- which led me to look for a negative subject and which then warped my research, interpretation and writing of my book from the beginning. (See p. 70 -- Anderson/Faulring imply that I wrote In Sacred Loneliness to support a premise concerning the failure of polygamy -- also 118, 137.) So I will give a quick review of how In Sacred Loneliness came to be.
My biggest influence at Brigham Young University was Hugh Nibley. Nibley led me to studying classics, comparative myth, and history of religions at UCLA. My focus was antiquity, though I had read Mormon history out of interest throughout my life. I think Nibley has major flaws as a scholar (we all have flaws as scholars), but I still admire his emphasis on reading a text carefully, in the original language, examining the cultural background of a text for clues, and was very much influenced by that. I also admire his political liberalism in a very conservative environment, his environmentalism, his anti-corporate viewpoint.
At UCLA, in addition to studying myth and religion, I majored in basic classics, taking classes in Greco-Roman history occasionally, and I also took New Testament history classes. These were taught by Scott Bartchy, who influenced me a good deal. He taught the sociology of the New Testament, and I came to see how Jesus's social inclusiveness (including women, the racial "underclass" Samaritans, and Gentiles in his fellowship) was a central part of his mission and a central theme of the New Testament.
During this time, Sunstone editor Elbert Peck always would call me up and ask me to speak at Sunstone, and I was always happy to do so. As Jesus in his time spoke freely to educated and unlearned, sinner and Pharisee, fisherman and tax collector, I felt it was not right to ignore this group. As a result, I came to know and understand somewhat the liberal side of Mormonism. I think Elbert invited me because I was one of the few Nibley-related people who was willing to participate. But I came to thoroughly enjoy Sunstone and look forward to it as a true spiritual experience -- people who typecast it as an anti-Mormon rally of some sort know nothing about it.
I continued to enjoy reading Mormon history, from Sam Taylor to Richard Bushman to Leonard Arrington to Mike Quinn. I read the standard books on polygamy -- Foster's excellent Religion and Sexuality, and Danel Bachman's Purdue thesis, also excellent. I didn't do any active research on the subject of polygamy, and it was not a significant issue for me.
As I explain in my introduction to In Sacred Loneliness, a friend, Janet Ellingson, who had a fellowship at the Huntington Library in Pasadena, out of the blue suggested that I apply for one. I could work on the trail diaries of Eliza R. Snow, she said. I felt I had no chance of receiving such a fellowship, but almost as a whim, I filled out the application. To my surprise, I got the grant, though I still am not sure why a classicist got a fellowship in Mormon history.
So my research began. As I explained in the introduction, my book received its genesis as I tried to identify the women Eliza Snow mentioned in her diary. I did not turn to Eliza because I had negative feelings about polygamy, or even because I was interested in polygamy. She was simply a prominent Mormon woman whose diaries happened to be at the Huntington. Her diary led me to an interest in her friends and sister-wives.
It soon became obvious that we needed a good list of Joseph Smith's wives. Fawn Brodie, the only modern, footnoted source, was not completely reliable, I felt. Aside from being out of date and making some factual mistakes, she largely depended on published, anti-Mormon sources while neglecting primary, sympathetic sources such as diaries and autobiographies. (However, since she had limited access to Church Archives, this was not completely her fault.) Furthermore, instead of looking at complex social and religious reasons for Joseph Smith's polygamy, she came close to ascribing it all only to sexual motivations. (The sexual life of the subject of the biography is a common theme in all of her books.)
So, like Bachman's Purdue master's thesis, my book started as a critique of Brodie. One of the early articles I published relating to my Mormon polygamy was a critique of Brodie's treatment of Joseph Smith's polygamy in her biography of Smith. Newell Bringhurst enlisted me to write this paper for a seminar on Brodie, and when I gave the paper orally at the University of Utah, I was told that some of Brodie's descendants were upset by its frank criticisms of Brodie. This somewhat anti-Brodie tendency is an example of a conservative element in my book.
While I was critical of Brodie, I also recognized that she was a pioneer in documenting Joseph Smith's wives. One has to admit that no conservative author had published a competent, footnoted, annotated list of Joseph Smith's wives, with small biographies, to replace Brodie. So I think conservatives sometimes are unfair to criticize even an author as flawed as Brodie. Why had not a competent conservative scholar written a footnoted biography of Joseph Smith that did not avoid his polygamy? (After all these years, Richard Bushman may be finally remedying that lack.)
As Richard Lloyd Anderson has written extensively on evaluating sources in early Mormon (New York) history, I should talk briefly about my view of anti-Mormon data. As mentioned above, I think Brodie's use of anti-Mormon exposÚs as her main basis was a serious flaw in her methodology. But unsympathetic sources still can be useful, when used with caution. I believe I occupy a middle ground on the issue of source analysis. Extremely negative sources are always suspect, on certain contested issues. Nevertheless, they cannot be simply ignored. If authors are firsthand witness to events, they should still be considered, though allowances should be made for their biases. In exactly the same way, extremely positive sources are suspect, on certain contested issues, and one must allow for biases there also. So in both cases, one should try to balance data from a very biased source with other sources. Heightened rhetoric can be a suspect sign. For instance, while some historians take the Oliver Cowdery reference to the Joseph Smith/Fanny Alger relationship as a "dirty, filthy affair" (see In Sacred Loneliness, 38) as evidence that this was an affair, not a marriage, I think the heightened rhetoric is suspect. So I take it as evidence that Cowdery knew something about the relationship, but not as evidence that the relationship was actually an affair. (I believe the relation with Alger was a marriage.)
In my view, the position that non-Mormon evidence should not be used at all, however, is extreme and non-critical. Non-Mormon evidence can be very valuable as supporting evidence in conjunction with sympathetic evidence. However, if you are going to be balanced and even- handed, sympathetic and unsympathetic evidence should be subjected to exactly the same careful analysis and scepticism. In a contested issue, do we have heightened rhetoric? Are there signs of extremist bias? Is the witness reliable on specifics?
So I came to my research subject as a critic of Brodie. I mentioned this in my book; my article in Bringhurst's anthology has been available for years. (In fact, I sent Faulring and Anderson a copy when I shared a preliminary reading of In Sacred Loneliness with them a year or so before it was published). So I was very surprised to have them placing me in Brodie's naturalistic, secular camp.
As I began my core research, rejecting Brodie's list of wives as often sensational in tone and unreliable in its sources, I began piecing together a list I felt was reliable. To do this I had to put together at least rudimentary biographies of the women, as it is impossible to identify women without birth and death dates and a reliable marriage history. And these small biographies gradually became longer and longer.
After I had amassed a substantial amount of evidence, a number of patterns struck me. But one of the major patterns was the harsh reality of "practical polygamy" for women. This presents a striking contrast to the high religious emphasis placed on polygamy in nineteenth century Mormonism. I believe I can even document when the phrase "sacred loneliness" (which reflects this theme) first struck me -- when I gave the paper on Presendia Huntington Smith Kimball at Sunstone Symposium in Summer, 1994. This was long after I began researching and writing the book.
The "sacred loneliness" contrast is definitely there in the life histories and writings of many of the women I wrote about, though the phrase is my own. I did not create the contrast and inject it into their writings. I would agree that thirty-three women is a small control group for the whole of Mormon polygamy. In addition, it would be difficult to "prove" that polygamy was a positive or negative experience for the totality of Mormon women. (And, as I state below, there were some polygamous families that were more harmonious than others.) However, readers and historians may judge whether the same patterns are found in the lives of other polygamous wives.
I should also note that I did not seek out "controversial" documents. My sweep for evidence sometimes included them, but they were not my main interest. Bachman's rhetoric portraying me as "taking the bait of" or "joining hands with" anti-Mormons like John C. Bennett, Eber D. Howe, William Hall, and Joseph Jackson, as if they were my main sources or inspirations, is completely incorrect. When I had established a fairly stable list of Joseph's wives, I read everything they had written, everything their families had written about them, everything their close friends had written about them, everything journalists wrote about them. Aside from my main researches at Church Archives, BYU, University of Utah, and the Huntington, I spent hundreds of hours in the Church Genealogical libraries, both in Los Angeles and Salt Lake City. In addition, I read anything I could find written by women in the early eras of Church history. I read many printed primary and secondary sources. I xeroxed and plowed through the many fat volumes of the Wilford Woodruff diaries. When I discovered a primary document reflecting one of the thirty-three women's children's birth dates, I felt it was a major accomplishment. I would have liked to read twice as much as I did, but I did the best I could under the circumstances. Writers such as Bennett, Howe, Hall and Jackson were a very small part of my research, and did not influence me at all, to the best of my knowledge. In fact, I have no fondness for them, though felt that I had to read them. The writings of the women I wrote about, however, had a profound influence on me.