Dayna Patterson has produced a book obsessed with motherhood and daughterhood, ancestry, and transition—of home, family, faith, and the narratives woven to uphold the Self. In her debut collection of poetry and lyric essay, Patterson grapples with a patriarchal and polygamous heritage. After learning about her mother’s bisexuality, Patterson befriends doubt while simultaneously feeling the urge to unearth a feminist theology, one that envisions God the Mother taking pride in her place at the banquet table.
My first impression in reading this text was that it was rightly named in its title. Indeed the author intends to lead the reader through an exploration of a book that he describes as an imperfect book, and does so in a way that enables the book to speak for itself. Given the fact that so many approach the Book of Mormon through lenses already adjusted to read the text for apologetic purposes, I found the author’s engagement of the Book of Mormon to be respectfully and critically refreshing. Feeling unable to rely on historians, archeologists, self-designated authorities, or others with sure knowledge of the Book of Mormon, the author turns to the book itself for what it might reveal about itself. Rather than turning to external evidences to vindicate the central claims of the Book of Mormon, the author invites the reader to explore internal evidences to be discovered in the book itself. He does this while engaging a broad range of contemporary scholarship.
Plural marriage in the Nauvoo era of LDS Church history has long been a fascinating subject. To understand it fully requires one to look at it from the perspective of the man who introduced it, but just as crucial is a dive into the lives of the women he married, all who have their stories to tell. In his 1997 award-winning study, In Sacred Loneliness: The Plural Wives of Joseph Smith, Todd Compton focused on the thirty-three women who he could demonstrate that Smith married, providing life stories of many who were well-known and others who have been largely forgotten. In his new work, In Sacred Loneliness: The Documents, Compton returns to his subject and provides the raw materials that helped him create his original study, writings composed by the women themselves.
This volume includes many autobiographical writings, diaries, and letters, with Compton providing annotations and introductory material that illuminates these crucial primary sources. This allows readers to take their understanding of this unique group of women to a new level and to drive home that fact that their lives go far beyond the Nauvoo experiment that forever links them to Mormonism’s founding prophet.
Beginning in the 1830s, at least thirty-three women married Joseph Smith, the founder of Mormonism. These were passionate relationships which also had some longevity, except in cases such as that of two young sisters, one of whom was discovered by Joseph’s first wife, Emma, in a locked bedroom with the prophet. Emma remained a steadfast opponent of polygamy throughout her life.
The majority of Smith’s wives were younger than he, and one-third were between fourteen and twenty years of age. Another third were already married, and some of the husbands served as witnesses at their own wife’s polyandrous wedding. In addition, some of the wives hinted that they bore Smith children—most notably Sylvia Sessions’s daughter Josephine—although the children carried their stepfather’s surname.
For all of Smith’s wives, the experience of being secretly married was socially isolating, emotionally draining, and sexually frustrating. Despite the spiritual and temporal benefits, which they acknowledged, they found their faith tested to the limit of its endurance. After Smith’s death in 1844, their lives became even more “lonely and desolate.” One even joined a convent. The majority were appropriated by Smith’s successors, based on the Old Testament law of the Levirate, and had children by them, though they considered these guardianships unsatisfying. Others stayed in the Midwest and remarried, while one moved to California. But all considered their lives unhappy, except for the joy they found in their children and grandchildren.
Over the past thirty years, an enormous amount of research has been conducted into Mormon origins—Joseph Smith’s early life, the Book of Mormon, the prophet’s visions, and the restoration of priesthood authority. Longtime LDS educator Grant H. Palmer suggests that most Latter-day Saints remain unaware of the significance of these discoveries, and he gives a brief survey for anyone who has ever wanted to know more about these issues.
He finds that much of what we take for granted as literal history has been tailored over the years—slightly modified, added to, one aspect emphasized over another—to the point that the original narratives have been nearly lost. What was experienced as a spiritual or metaphysical event, something from a different dimension, often has been refashioned as if it were a physical, objective occurrence. This is not how the first Saints interpreted these events. Historians who have looked closer at the foundational stories and source documents have restored elements, including a nineteenth-century world view, that have been misunderstood, if not forgotten.
William Clayton is best remembered today for his hymns, especially “Come, Come Ye Saints.” But as one of the earliest Latter-day Saint scribes, he made intellectual as well as artistic contributions to his church, and his records have been silently incorporated into official Mormon scripture and history. Of equal significance are his personal impressions of day-to-day activities, which describe a social and religious world largely unfamiliar to modern readers.
In ministering to the sick, for instance, Clayton anointed with perfumed oil and rum. He performed baptisms to heal the sick. Church services, held irregularly, were referred to as “going to meeting” and seemed to be elective. He testifies of people speaking in tongues and of others “almost speaking in tongues.” When introduced to plural marriage, he was reluctant but eventually became one of its most enthusiastic proponents, marrying ten women and fathering forty-two children.
Since polygamy was initially secret, Clayton spent much of his time putting out the fires of innuendo and discontent. He caught his first plural wife rendezvousing with her former fiancé; later, when she became pregnant, her mother–his unaware mother-in-law–was so overwrought that she attempted suicide. Joseph Smith reassured him: “Just keep her at home and brook it and if they raise trouble about it and bring you before me I will give you an awful scourging and probably cut you off from the church and then I will set you ahead as good as ever.” Clayton was also the object of Emma Smith’s attentions, allegedly part of a jealous wife’s plan to make a cuckold of her errant husband.
For more than 150 years the story of Mormon origins has been rewritten to a point where only fragments remain of the original. This book restores much of the human drama and detail. Moving from village to village, the Joseph Smith, Sr., family lived in constant poverty. When in 1825 Joseph, Sr., a cooper, defaulted on the family’s final mortgage payment, he and his nineteen-year-old son, Joseph Jr., traveled 100 miles south to Pennsylvania to join a band of money diggers on a desperate hunt for buried Spanish treasure.
Following this ill-fated quest, father and son returned near-penniless to New York to face eviction. They resettled in a small Manchester cabin where young Joseph later saw angels–not unlike his father and other contemporaries–and eventually found hieroglyph-inscribed sheets of gold, which his former money-digging associates repeatedly tried to steal.
During this turbulent time Joseph Smith was brought to court three times for crystal gazing, eloped with a former landlord’s daughter, watched as his mother and siblings were excommunicated from the Presbyterian church, published his translation of the hieroglyphs, founded the Church of Christ, saw a potential convert forcibly abducted by her minister, and eventually sought refuge in Ohio where he changed the name of his church and its place of origin.
Francis (“Frank”) Hammond was not an average Mormon pioneer. After breaking his back working on a whaling ship off the coast of Siberia in 1844, he was set ashore on the island of Maui to heal. While there he set up shop as a shoemaker and learned the local language. Three years later, he converted to Mormonism in San Franciso, and in 1851 he was sent back to Hawaii as a missionary along with his new wife, Mary Jane. In the 1860s he returned to the islands as mission president.
Through all this, he and his wife kept extensive and fascinating journals, documenting their adventures on land and sea, as well as relations (some prickly) with fellow missionaries and non-Mormon caucasians and Hawaiians. Hammond established a Mormon gathering place on the island of Lana’i, and in the 1860s he traveled by stagecoach from Utah to the west coast with a satchel of $5,000 in gold coins to purchase the land that became the site in O’ahu of the LDS temple, church college, and Polynesian Culture Center.