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Friday, February 27, 1998

The Wives' Perspective


    Much has been made in Utah of Brigham Young's 27 wives.
    But Mormon Church founder Joseph Smith had at least 33 wives of his own, most of them wed in a matrimonial flurry between 1841 and 1843.
    Who were these women, and why did they agree to marry a man they rarely saw, especially since 11 of them already had husbands?
    Historian Todd Compton answers these questions in a new book, In Sacred Loneliness: The Plural Wives of Joseph Smith, the first comprehensive look at the Mormon prophet's many brides.
    ``Very little was written about these women. There's this natural tendency to focus on the church leaders,'' says Compton, who will discuss and sign his book Saturday at 5 p.m. at Sam Weller's Books, 254 S. Main St. in downtown Salt Lake City. ``But [these women] were very heroic, and their lives were very tragic.''
    In Sacred Loneliness devotes a full chapter to each woman, ages 14 to 54, Smith married between 1833 and 1843.
    While other historians credited Smith with as many as 48 wives, Compton cited the marriages he could document. (Smith also proposed to at least five women who turned him down.)
    As Compton sees it, day-to-day polygamous living was unsatisfying for most of Smith's wives, many of whom felt acute neglect.
    ``It was seen as sacred,'' Compton says. ``On the other hand . . . it was very difficult for a woman to be supported emotionally and economically under those conditions. Women were often very isolated.''
    In researching the book, Compton came away with an increased admiration for Smith's wives. They were persecuted for their religious beliefs and uprooted repeatedly from homes they had built. And many of them lost children to infection or disease.
    ``What they went through in raising their children . . . was often superhuman,'' Compton says. ``How many of these women had normal, happy lives? I only came up with three or four.''
    After Smith's death in 1844, the lonely lifestyle of plural marriage would continue for at least 18 of his widows. Eleven of them married apostle Heber C. Kimball, and at least seven of them married Brigham Young. [an error occurred while processing this directive]