This is part two of two. Find part one here: https://meridianmag.wpengine.com/an-unusual-view-on-joseph-smith-and-polygamy/
Meg Stout is a polygamy researcher and frequent contributor at the Millennial Star blog. Here in an interview with Ralph Hancock, Meg recounts how she first learned about polygamy, her struggles with her testimony, and how she felt inspired to begin seriously researching the history of polygamy in the Church.
Meg’s proposed scenario for Joseph Smith’s plural marriages, an approach that ventures beyond ascertainable facts to recreate a conceivable historical setting, has been met with some important objections by other faithful LDS researchers in this area. Some of these concerns will be noted in an upcoming article.
Ralph: How did you set about learning the history of your ancestors’ involvement in polygamy?
Meg: I am very lucky because all the major lines of my Mormon heritage have been thoroughly documented. Around this time I also began volunteering at the Family History Library in my stake, which involved eight hours or more each month with nothing better to do that research my various hypotheses about family members and Church events.
I initially hesitated to write a book solely about polygamy. I figured I would “bury” these polygamous ancestors in the stories of all my other female ancestors. In the process, I ended up learning a huge amount about genealogical research and history. One of the ladies in my ward was a president of the National Genealogical Society, actually the only Mormon to ever serve in that position. Another is a professional genealogist for the federal government in the Bureau of Indian Affairs. So I had a chance to learn from people who are true professionals in this field.
My husband also kept his eyes open for books that might be of interest. He had collected several texts over the course of his life that relate to polygamy. These include Annie Tanner’s book, A Mormon Mother, and a compilation of unpublished revelations, which includes the revelation John Taylor claimed to have received prohibiting him from abandoning the New and Everlasting Covenant. My husband also had a copy of the Joseph Smith translation of the Bible, with notes that covered when and how it had been completed.
My husband referred me to Todd Compton’s amazing work, In Sacred Loneliness: The Plural Wives of Joseph Smith. And of course, we purchased and read Richard Bushman’s master work regarding Joseph Smith, Rough Stone Rolling when it came out a few years ago. We visited Nauvoo, where I was able to get information on my Nauvoo ancestors at the Nauvoo Land and Records Office the LDS Church maintains there. Another important bit of research was going to the Family History Library in Salt Lake City and looking at the records for sealings from the early days of the Church, records that aren’t widely distributed.
Ralph: Yet you have come up with a distinctly different framework for Joseph’s life and his teachings regarding polygamy. The insights didn’t come from these books and other resources. Where did you make the breakthrough that led to your conviction that Joseph was likely faithful to Emma, despite his teachings regarding polygamy?
Meg: In the fall of 2006, one of my sisters asked if I would be “doing” Nanowrimo. For those who haven’t heard of Nanowrimo, it is a movement where people devote the month of November to writing a book that is at least 50,000 words long. It’s crazy and exhilarating. I had never planned to write about Elvira and her daughters as fiction, but I’m always up for a challenge. I figured one month writing at breakneck speed couldn’t hurt.
On the first day I realized just how little I really knew about Elvira and various events. In fiction, you have to create a whole world, with credible interactions between all the players. Despite all the facts I knew about Elvira, they were loose facts rather than a narrative of a credible person. I had to realize Elvira as a person, the governess who told stories to entertain and teach the children, the cautious woman who would wait for years before being sealed to Joseph Smith, the learned woman who Emma would trust to be her treasurer in the Relief Society.
By the end of the month, I had completed something that was 50,000 words long. But when it got to the end of the month, I didn’t want to stop. I talked to just about everyone I knew, asking if they would be willing to be a reader as I revised the story. I had someone who is involved in a modern polygamous community, various non-Mormon co-workers, and several Mormon readers who were either local flesh and blood friends or online friends. I also kept a blog that hinted at the content of each chapter and documents the comments I was getting from different readers.
The same sister who had asked me about Nanowrimo then asked if I was planning to apply to Orson Scott Card’s Literary Bootcamp, a week-long writing workshop that selects roughly 15 participants from an applicant pool of roughly 100, based on a writing sample. I was one of those admitted. We were supposed to write a story that we had just researched that day. I wrote a piece about a friend’s Scottish ancestor who it appears had been seduced into white slavery in Glasgow circa 1885. One of my favorite memories was hearing how my father-in-law read the story and became so engrossed that he didn’t realize the fire alarm was going off (he’d allowed the lunch he was cooking to burn, mere feet from where he stood reading). I had a co-worker who asked why I didn’t quit to write, given how juicy my stuff was. My mother warned me, however, that I could get distracted having great success writing sexually-charged material if I didn’t stay focused on my goal.
As I honed my writing abilities, a key skill was how one creates a believable world. Past writers who have talked about polygamy have neglected to do this, merely juxtaposing inferences from the documentation that does exist. One of my main principles was that my writing, even if fiction, needed to be absolutely consistent with all the documented history. However in fiction, I also needed to give a reader a plausible background for key events. I was focusing on Elvira and her husband Jonathan as actual historical characters although they are individuals who have remained out of the spotlight, whose stories are therefore fresh.
It was in determining how to make a story about Elvira and Jonathan match actual history that I began to suspect no sex had been going on at least in Elvira’s marriage to Joseph Smith.
Ralph: What made you suspect Elvira wasn’t having sex with Joseph?
Meg: Andrew Jensen had written Elvira’s daughters around 1869, asking if Elvira had been Joseph’s first plural wife. Elvira’s daughters responded that Elvira wasn’t the first, but Andrew’s hypothesis made me think. Elvira became the Smith governess in Nauvoo in the spring of 1840. Romance stories are full of stories where the master of the house falls in love with the governess. But Elvira doesn’t get sealed to Joseph until 1843. Based on the affidavit she gave Joseph F. Smith regarding the sealing, it couldn’t have been earlier, given the other witnesses. Adding to the confusion, in 1842 Joseph himself had performed the marriage uniting Elvira to the husband with whom she would spend the rest of her life, Jonathan Harriman Holmes. To complicate matters even further, Jonathan told his family and acquaintances that Joseph had been Elvira’s husband, that he, Jonathan, had only become Elvira’s husband after Joseph’s death, at Joseph’s request.
To recap, Elvira may have been asked to become Joseph’s wife in 1840, yet would not become sealed to him for over two years, after entering into a pretend marriage. And she would not have children until over a year after Joseph’s death. Following her first child, Elvira has a child every two years whenever Jonathan is around, including giving birth to a daughter 40 weeks after Jonathan returns to Salt Lake City with other Mormon Battalion veterans.
The only way I could reconcile Elvira’s obvious fecundity with a lack of children was a lack of sex. In this I am influenced by members of my family who we joke would get pregnant if their husband so much as breathes on them.
It was around this time that I became aware that Ugo Perego had been conducting DNA analyses of alleged children born to Joseph Smith’s plural wives that could theoretically have been sired by Joseph. At that time all the completed analyses were showing that Joseph’s alleged offspring were actually the children of their mother’s legal husband.
Ralph: What was it that made you extend your hypothesis beyond Elvira?
Meg: I remember meeting Jan Shipps, a renowned scholar of Mormon studies, though she herself is a committed Methodist. I told Jan that I thought the big secret about Joseph was that he didn’t have sex with anyone. Jan looked at me as though I were lacking brain cells, and asked me what I had thought of Mormon Enigma. I admitted I hadn’t read it at that point. Any respect Jan might have retained for me disappeared. However she did tell me about her great friendship with Val Avery, and how much writing the polygamy portion of Mormon Enigma had distress Dr. Avery, to the point that Dr. Avery could only write for a few minutes before she would have to go vomit and lay down on the floor to calm herself.
Challenge issued, I went ahead and read Mormon Enigma. I remember being so upset by the way Avery and Newell suggest a prurient reading of events by their choice of words. Their interpretive bias was much stronger, in my opinion, than the interpretive bias Todd Compton displays in his otherwise excellent book on Joseph’s plural wives.
Following that exercise, I had to spend a couple of weeks aboard a frigate in 2010. I took Rough Stone Rolling, Mormon Enigma, and In Sacred Loneliness. I read through them in one sitting. I found that not only did my hypothesis of a faithful Joseph Smith survive my own standards reading these books, but that the stories of certain women practically leapt off the page, offering these women as the previously unknown cause for “plot points” I had struggled with for years.
Ralph: You refer to plot points. So at this point, you were still planning to, if you don’t mind my saying it, “merely” treat this story as fiction?
Meg: Yes. I didn’t think there would ever be a way for me to approach this as a serious, historical treatment. I’m just a wife and mother who works as an engineer. I am not a formal scholar, much less a degreed historian.
An interesting thing happened in 2010. The mandate to write about Elvira and her daughters had ridden me for years, ever since 2001. Yet in 2010 that pressure went away.
It was weird. I liked waking up in the morning and being able to think about other things. The main “other thing” that occupied me in those days was aquaponics, a really cool way to grow plants without artificial fertilizer, using water from a fish tank. So I set about blogging about aquaponics and building a system in my basement and then my back yard. I ended up being asked to be an officer when an Aquaponics Association was formed, based on that blog. And less than a year later, I was approached to write The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Aquaponics.
I asked my prospective agent if a book on Joseph Smith would be of interest, since I knew that would eventually be a future project I’d want to pursue. My agent indicated such a project might be something they’d be willing to represent. And so I found myself in possession of a literary agent who might be interested in my planned books about Joseph Smith, a search that I had expected would take a long time.
Within months of my aquaponics book being published, my husband told me about Brian Hales’ three-volume work regarding Joseph Smith’s Polygamy, a series of books Professor Millet at BYU had told my husband about when my husband had conveyed my theory that Joseph Smith might have refrained from having sex with his plural wives. (Yes, my husband will randomly pop into the office of a BYU professor he doesn’t know to talk religion, conveying my unconventional ideas as an aside. Did I mention how much I love my husband?)
I was not happy to learn that there was yet another huge scholarly work I would have to read before moving forward with my own Joseph Smith project. But I dutifully purchased the set and began reading.
To my surprise, I found Brian Hales quoting me as “polygamy researcher Meg Stout.” The quote came from a blog post I had written before 2010, talking about my hypothesis that Elvira didn’t have sex with either Joseph or Jonathan, based on her reproductive history. Even though Brian Hales quoted me, he clearly couldn’t wrap his head around what I was saying.
After completing Brian’s book, I realized that Brian Hales had done all the nitty gritty research documentation that I had known was required, but that I’d also known I would never be able to complete. It was absolutely fabulous. I didn’t agree with some of Brian Hales’ conclusions, as I hadn’t agreed with some of Todd Compton’s conclusions, but what a wealth of data both Joseph Smith’s Polygamy and In Sacred Loneliness contain!
Having read Brian Hales’ book, my mental vacation from the calling to write about Elvira and her daughters started coming to an end.
Ralph: I believe this is when Bruce Nielson asked you to blog at Millennial Star. How did that come about?
Meg: I had posted a detailed review of Brian Hales’ books on Amazon. I wrote a brief sentence about each chapter, in part as a guide to myself, for when I would want to go back and find important references. Bruce Nielson replied to one of those reviews, asking how he could get in touch with me.
I remember I finally had a moment to call after getting back from a trip to Asia. So we talked while I waited at Dulles Airport for my family to pick me up. I don’t remember in detail what we talked about, but I do remember that it was a rollicking fun conversation on my part–I always love to talk about Joseph and Emma and Dr. Bennett and the intrigue.
We exchanged a few e-mails after that, and Bruce admitted that he’d contacted me to recruit me as a blogger at Millennial Star.
Now, I hadn’t been active in the Bloggernacle, either as a reader or a writer. My bishop at one point had tried to recruit my husband and me to participate in some forum, but we’d never followed up. I see that forum has ceased to exist. I had no idea what Millennial Star was, or that it appears to be one of the few faithful blogs that remains.
Bruce wrote a nice intro for me, and I started writing. At this point I was still thinking I’d write a fictional treatment, and was merely laying out the plausible history that forms the world for my fiction or midrash. Very early on, I recall, I developed a schedule of topics that would guide us through the history. But these were not articles I had already written.
As I sat down to write each article, I would start from scratch. I would search the Internet and find original sources to supplement the library of sources I own. There’s an amazing amount of original documentation available these days, including scans of material like the Relief Society minutes, lists of who was in the Nauvoo Legion, etc. You have to remember that not only was this the first time I was actually writing this history down, this was also the first time I was putting my hypotheses out on the Internet for public comment. For all I knew, someone would come and blow me out of the water, pointing out some super-important fact I had managed to overlook. But that never happened.
What did happen as I would sit at my home computer writing a post each weekend is I uncovered additional data that was completely consistent with my original hypotheses. Brian Hales, although he is extremely uncomfortable with certain of my conclusions, was kind enough to share a copy of the High Council minutes and the handwritten testimonies from the women who confessed to the High Council in May 1842.
Probably the thing that surprised me most was uncovering the timeline for Joseph Smith conferring the keys on the apostles and how that corresponded with the conspiracy to kill Joseph. And I was absolutely astounded to find eyewitness testimony that suggested someone with a rifle had killed Hyrum and possibly Joseph, and information indicating that one of the 1842 seducers wrote the pamphlet that ended up causing the dismissal of the key eyewitness to the killing of Joseph and Hyrum, leading to complete acquittal for the conspirators.
I could wish that I hadn’t come to learn what a central role my own ancestor, Austin Cowles, played in the conspiracy to murder Joseph Smith. But the facts are the facts.
Ralph: I’ve read your series. It’s certainly thought provoking. I see that the final post in the series was published in August 2014. What did you think of the Church series discussing polygamy?
Meg: One of the fun things about blogging with Millennial Star is getting the occasional inside scoop on things. Because of my interest in polygamy and women’s issues, I’d get invited to provide an advance review of books or participate in discussion with the Church Public Affairs folk.
In October, I got an email telling me there was a new article on polygamy up at lds.org. I read it, clicked on the links to other related polygamy articles and wrote up a review. I titled it “Mormon Polygamy–The Short Version.” I liked the various articles for the most part. Of course they reflect the traditional view of an Emma Smith who was highly conflicted and often uninformed, a view I reject. But for the most part, they are great articles.
Then in November I was in Japan. Since no one was blogging or emailing at the equivalent of the middle of the night stateside, I browsed to cnn.com for a rare dose of news. That was where I saw the article titled “Mormon founder Joseph Smith wed 40 wives.” I read the article, wrote up a post with the same title at Millennial Star in response, and went to bed. I may have been the first Mormon blogger to respond to the news storm that happened that day.
I didn’t realize the story would be printed on the front page, even in Japan, or that it would be featured by so many news outlets. Also, frankly, I hadn’t realized how many people have successfully kept themselves insulated from any knowledge of Joseph’s plural wives and his teachings regarding the acceptability of plural marriage.
Ralph: I look forward to exploring some of your views about Joseph and polygamy in the future. Until then, is there anything you’d like leave us with?
Meg: For those who have watched the movie The Sixth Sense, you will remember discovering something at the end of the movie that completely changes your understanding of what you thought as you first watched the movie. Watching it a second time, you realize that what you thought was betrayal was something else.
It’s the same way with A Faithful Joseph Smith. The history you believed is not what happened. Joseph was a good and faithful man. Emma was a supportive wife. There was secret intrigue causing events, intrigue that many of the contemporaries knew nothing about. And because we haven’t previously been aware of this intrigue, we could not properly understand why Joseph and Emma did the things they did.
I’d just like those who are struggling with Joseph and polygamy to take a deep breath and relax. The version of the story you are hearing from the media and that you will hear from almost every current source portrays Joseph Smith as a complete creep.
But there is another way to understand what happened. I think if you’ll stop, pay attention, and allow your pre-conceptions to be challenged, you will find in Joseph Smith a man you would be happy to claim as your friend, a man whose death you will mourn again as though you are losing someone dear to you.