Table of Contents
Responses to Bachman:
Responding to the Prologue
Bachman spends most of his review criticizing three or four pages in my prologue in every possible way, then in effect says, What if everything else in the book is just as completely, absolutely false? (p. 137.) By this reasoning, one doesn't have to make the effort to read, review and assess the whole book.
Bachman does not allow me even a shred of possible validity in those three or four pages he reviews in detail. His analysis reminds me of those comical legal documents in which the attorney objects to every single word in the opposing document. Bachman asserts that I am writing "pure fantasy" (133); and I have "taken" Mormon arch-enemy John C. Bennett's "bait." (p. 131). He repeats over and over again that I do not have even minimal competence as a historian: "He is imprecise in analyzing texts." "His historical analysis is elementary." (p. 135) Bachman is not merely saying that he disagrees with me. He would have you believe that I am given to hallucinations.
While I do not think that my book is perfect, and fully agree that competent historians might disagree with sections of it, I think this scorched-earth rhetoric undermines Bachman's position. In regard to the question of whether I have minimal competence as a historian, the book has received awards from historical organizations I respect, the Mormon History Association and the RLDS John Whitmer Historical Society. Bachman might argue that these awards might have been influenced by the biographies of the women rather than the first chapter which he attacks. However, as has been mentioned, this very chapter was published first as an article in Dialogue, and as an article, was singled out for special recognition, winning the Mormon History Association's "T. Edgar Lyon Award of Excellence for an Article in Mormon History" in May 1997. While these awards are not blanket endorsements of all the details found in my book, the experienced historians who were on the panels that gave the awards would not reward a writer given to "pure fantasy," who lacked even minimal competence in the historian's craft.
A more level-headed approach would have been for Bachman to review the whole book, give a balanced assessment of its strengths and weaknesses, then say he disagrees strongly with some aspects of the prologue. (None of these three reviewers seem very interested in the actual women who were the focus of my book. At least, they did not spend much time discussing the women I focus on, but they instead focus on Joseph Smith.)
So let's look at the few pages that Bachman disagrees with in my Prologue, that lead him to hint darkly that the rest of the 824 pages in the book are completely worthless. There are basically two issues here: (1) why Joseph Smith married so many women and (2) why he married some women who was already married to other men in civil marriages. This second issue is broken down into two parts: (a) the religious "illegality" of civil marriages as opposed to "eternal" priesthood marriages, and (b) the idea that some couples were linked in the pre-existence.
Why so many wives?
Issue one: Why did Joseph Smith marry so many women? Abraham, Joseph Smith's primary model, did not marry many women -- why did Joseph? He could have married two women and fulfilled the polygamy requirement. Now, if I'd been in Brodie's camp, it would have been easy to say, he simply was simply sexually promiscuous. Brodie writes, "For once Joseph had succeeded to his own satisfaction in revolutionizing the Puritan concept of sin, there was no stopping him." However, as I have mentioned, my book is a reaction against Brodie. So when faced with this issue, I looked for a religious reason for the number of wives in Joseph's family.
My search for a religious motivation does not merit any praise, or even recognition, from Bachman; he must go on the attack. I look to a number of sympathetic sources that create a scenario for number of wives, the idea that the greater the size of a man's kingdom on this earth, the greater his dominion and glory in the next life. (In Sacred Loneliness, 10-11) There are Benjamin Johnson (a friend of Joseph Smith, writing in a memoir); Joseph Fielding (a Nauvoo period journal); and Helen Smith (wife of a church patriarch, in a letter, 1857.) I use the word salvation instead of exaltation, or highest degree of glory, since my book was not written to lifetime Mormons alone; part of its audience was non-Mormons. But obviously, Latter-day Saints view salvation in the context of three degrees of glory, and within them, sublevels. For the LDS, the fullness of salvation is to achieve the highest possible glory. So I equate the non-LDS view of "salvation" with "highest possible eschatological status." Now here are the words in question: "Dominion & powr in the great Future" (Johnson), "a Man,s Dominion will be a God,s" (Fielding) and "greater glory" (Smith). All of which are dependent on the quantity of the family. (I also use a number of other sources in this section that Bachman should have mentioned: Jedediah Grant; sources relating to the practice of adoption in late Nauvoo and early Utah; and sources relating to the importance of the Abrahamic promise in Joseph Smith's writings.)
Bachman writes: "where does Johnson say 'complete salvation'?" A summary by its very nature does not simply quote the summarized text. However, to say, as Bachman does, that "Dominion & powr in the great Future" (Johnson), "a Man,s Dominion will be a God,s" (Fielding) and "greater glory" (Smith) have absolutely nothing to do with "salvation," "exaltation," and "highest possible eschatological status" is to my mind absurd.
Bachman attacks my argument here from every possible angle. He vehemently denies that Joseph Smith taught this doctrine ("as if they all reflect the thinking and practice of Joseph Smith," p. 135) despite the fact that Benjamin Johnson wrote, "the Prophet taught us that" (cited in In Sacred Loneliness, 10). If Fielding (who had close ties to the Smith family) is holding to a very similar doctrine in Nauvoo, and Johnson tells us Joseph Smith was the source (and Johnson was a close confidant of Joseph Smith), it is not a wild jump, "pure fantasy," to suppose that the doctrine had its origin with Joseph Smith.
It is curious to me that Bachman should write so emotionally on this issue, as my discussion here is not by any means an attack on Joseph Smith. It is more an attack on the one- sided sexual analysis of Fawn Brodie.
Finally, as is typical of Bachman in his review, he tries to utterly discount my argument, but then he does not give an alternate explanation for the number of Joseph's plural wives. He is not offering a constructive critique, part of a discussion intended to further insight.
As Bachman turns to polyandry, he disapprovingly observes that I reject the perspective of "informed Mormons" (p. 119) that Joseph Smith was sealed to married women primarily because they were married to unworthy men. Bachman himself offered this theory in his thesis as I note at In Sacred Loneliness, 639. I respectfully disagreed with this theory, as a holistic explanation for polyandry, but I in fact respected, and respect his master's thesis. He is one of the few conservative Mormon historians who has even made an attempt to consider the issue of Joseph Smith and polyandry.
But when I had arrived at a list of wives that I felt I could rely on, there were eleven women who were polyandrous, but only four of the eleven had problematic marriages (three married to non-Mormons, one to a disaffected Mormon). Even if Bachman's explanation might apply to those four, it did not apply to the totality of the marriages, so I had to look elsewhere for an explanation of Smith's polyandry. Once again, Bachman is willing to characterize my writing as "pure fantasy," but then has not supplied a positive, alternate explanation for those seven marriages.
When faced with this problem, again, as I have mentioned, I looked for a religious, doctrinal rationale, whereas if I'd been following the Brodie path, I would have simply portrayed Joseph Smith as pursuing other men's wives for sexual reasons.
Bachman writes, in a heated rhetorical question, ". . . are we obligated to accept and believe it [an interpretation] as Todd Compton has recounted it?" (p. 133) Let me reemphasize that the quotations I cite and the concepts I develop have been useful to me in understanding a complex issue, but I never meant them to be put forward as some kind of binding doctrinal pronouncement, or a final, authoritative historical position. I have never dogmatically demanded that anyone accept them. All readers are completely free to consider them, accept or reject them in part or completely, then, if they wish, turn to other interpretations they find more useful. If significant new evidence is found in the future, they may be modified.
Civil marriages -- "illegal," earthly, lower
The first concept that I felt was useful in this regard was the concept of religious "illegality" of civil marriages in Nauvoo Mormonism (and I quote John D. Lee and Orson Pratt). I'm not sure that Bachman and I are seriously disagreeing about anything here. He presents evidence that Mormons engaged in civil marriage in Kirtland, Missouri and Nauvoo, as they certainly did, though he shows that sometimes Joseph Smith did not require divorce from a civil marriage before remarriage in a Mormon context. However, I was not suggesting that Joseph Smith and the Mormons were rejecting civil marriage within an earthly context. But just as a Mormon marriage performed in a Mormon chapel by a Mormon bishop today is not seen to have any eternal consequence, so all marriages apart from eternal sealings were seen to be of a lower nature once Joseph had begun to practice celestial marriage.
Bachman makes a distinction between civil marriages performed by non-Mormons and civil marriages performed by Mormons, but for the purpose of my argument, that distinction is not really significant. All marriages performed among Mormons since Kirtland were resolemnized as eternal sealings in Nauvoo and later. I think this is what John D. Lee meant when he wrote, "About the same time the doctrine of 'sealing' for an eternal state was introduced, and the Saints were given to understand that their marriage relations with each other were not valid . . . They were married to each other only by their own covenants." (Quoted at In Sacred Loneliness, 17.) Lee does not make a distinction between earlier civil marriages performed by non-Mormons or Mormons. He makes a general statement referring to "the Saints." Neither I, nor Lee, said that civil marriages were by definition "sinful" -- according to Lee, they were sinful only if the partners continued the marriage "in alienation from each other." However, their civil marriages did have the validity of "their own covenants" if they were "productive of blessings and peace" and were cemented "by love and affection." So I agree that the lower, civil marriage, sometimes solemnized by Mormons, did have some limited validity to Mormons.
But my main point was that this kind of marriage, even if solemnized by Mormons, was still a lower form of marriage, compared to eternal sealings. From the eternal perspective, it was not a marriage at all. I think Bachman will agree with me completely here.
Another reference I cite that Bachman unaccountably overlooked is Jedediah Grant's remarkable 1854 reference to polyandry. (Quoted at In Sacred Loneliness, 18, 639.) Grant, specifically talking in the context of Joseph's polyandry, said, "Joseph says all covenants are done away, and none are binding but the new covenants." Grant, a member of the First Presidency when he made the speech, was a Nauvoo veteran, and moreover was a close friend to Brigham Young and Heber C. Kimball, who were thoroughly familiar with Joseph's polyandrous marriages. Despite the "lower" validity of civil marriage, even that solemnized by Mormons, no covenants were binding "but the new covenants."
I believe this principle gives insight into why Joseph Smith would superimpose one marriage (higher, eternal) onto another (lower, temporal) -- from an eternal perspective, the other marriage had no validity, was not even a marriage. However, I agree with Bachman that even the lower marriages had some earthly validity if, as Lee wrote, they were "productive of blessings and peace" and were cemented "by love and affection."
Finally, while Bachman would have you believe that my reasoning here is based on "pure fantasy," other respected historians of polygamy have made this same argument. For instance, in Lawrence Foster's treatment of what I refer to as polyandry, he calls it the "all previous covenants suspended" argument, and he quotes many of the same sources I do, including the John D. Lee quote. Unless Bachman is willing to accuse Foster, a respected historian of Mormon polygamy, of "pure fantasy" here also, he is practicing special pleading. In fact, Bachman's own treatment of Nauvoo polygamy makes many of the same points I do, citing many of the same sources.