Ep 154 – Jane and Emma
On this episode, as we enter the last half of 1843, an era of good-feelings falls upon Nauvoo. The streets shined as if paved by gold and the Mormons had beat the justice system again while polygamy was in full swing! We focus in on some of the pressures behind closed doors the public wasn’t privy to. We hear the story of Jane Manning James and her migration to Nauvoo, how she met the Smiths, came to live in the Nauvoo Mansion, and her relationships with Emma and other women living in the house. Then we hyperfocus on Emma and her constant inner battle with polygamy.
“Life Sketch” of Jane Manning James
An Interview With William Law
Music by Jason Comeau http://aloststateofmind.com/
Show Artwork http://weirdmormonshit.com/
Legal Counsel http://patorrez.com/
Our timeline continues to saunter through the summer of 1843. Joseph Smith had beat the legal system again after his release from the custody of Sheriffs Reynolds and Wilson. The sherrifs’ petition to bring the Illinois militia into Nauvoo to affect a second arrest was denied by Governor Thomas Carlin and Jo was safe for now. He’d dictated and presented to Emma what came to be D&C 132, the celestial commandment from gods for men to take multiple wives. He had thousands of votes to throw around however he saw fit in the upcoming Congressional and county offices elections. He’d bargained with a popular lawyer running for Congress to defend Jo in the July 1843 court in exchange for Jo’s vote, with the implied understanding that the entire Mormon voting bloc would go for Walker, the Whig congressional candidate, and we’ll see how that plays out in the coming August 1843 election. In addition to politicians in his pocket, progress on the Nauvoo Mansion was progressing quickly. The Nauvoo Homestead was overcrowded with Jo, 6 of his wives, and all the kids, Dr. Robert D. Bob-the-Builder Foster was making good progress and the Mansion was ready to begin moving personal effects and furniture in to. Talos’ Temple Crown was progressing at a promising pace as well. The summer heat was blistering, but brick forges were burning away day and night and buildings were going up faster than bricks could be produced to construct. The Masonic lodge was a popular meeting place. Public areas and mercantile shops were running at full-steam. The Mormons were making goods, even though the products couldn’t compete with cheaper imports from larger metropolitan and industrial areas. The majority of the leadership were siding with Jo. With only a few notable exceptions, Jo’s highest ranks were staffed with ultimately loyal followers. However, Jo’s personal childhood friend, Orrin Pistol Packin’ Porter Rockwell was still languishing in a gentile prison in Missouri, but the state didn’t have any hard evidence to convict him of the Lilburn Boggs assassination attempt so he’d be out any time now.
What I’m trying to say is that nearing the end of 1843, Nauvoo was entering an era of good feelings. There were still many pressures on Jo and the leadership, much of it resulting from Wreck-it Bennett’s expose and the public outcry, but Jo had nearly put that issue to bed with multiple signed statements with thousands of signatures and declarations of Mormon doctrine being strictly monogamous so the public outcry was muted in many respects. Many of those living in or near Nauvoo adhering to the theology of Mormonism simply regarded Bennett’s expose as a propaganda piece and Jo continued to take and give plural wives in secrecy. So, in spite of the fact that Jo was a self-declared Prophet, he couldn’t see the future. He didn’t know what the next year held, he couldn’t foresee his own doom less than a year in the future. He just kept upping the ante and pushing boundaries to see how far the system would bend without breaking.
That was the public face; everything was just fine in Nauvoo and this faux prosperity was felt by the average members. Additionally, many of the Quorum of Apostles were on various missions around the country to disseminate Mormon anti-polygamy propaganda, which produced a dearth of drama usually attendant when Nauvoo elites were congregated together for too long. The streets shined as if paved with gold.
Behind closed doors was a different story. Crushing debt and high unemployment, drama from polygamy and charges of infidelity, ever-increasing secrecy with clandestine Mormon ceremonies, malaria and overall sickness picking off the weakest of the tribe, robbing and unsolved murders; all of these lived in the shadows of Nauvoo alleys. For Jo, the greatest challenge he faced was keeping peace in the home while conducting himself in incredibly controversial ways. Simply put, Emma wasn’t ready to accept polygamy as divinely sanctioned. Jo had hidden most of his wives from Emma, but when that didn’t work he proposed bargaining, then when all else failed, Jo just outright commanded Emma that he was going to have lots of wives and she just had to deal with it. They bickered constantly to the point that even outside observers came to be suspicious of what caused so much discord in the Smith family home.
The main issue between Jo and Emma was that she was cut out of the loop with respect to so many things happening in the church. She’d been by Jo’s side, his coconspirator on the Mormon payroll since 1830, she’d always been there working with her husband to further the expansion of the Mormon empire. But, because she wasn’t sold on polygamy, Jo was slowly cutting her off from the meetings behind closed doors. But it wasn’t just Jo cutting Emma out, it was her friends as well. Her closest advisors and counsellors in the Relief Society were engaged in plural marriage with Jo. 5 young adult women living in the same home as Jo and Emma were all sealed to Jo. Because of her vacillation between begrudging acceptance of, and vitriolic opposition to, polygamy, she couldn’t be trusted. Jo and his inner-circle of celestial initiates recognized Emma as a potential threat and she became more socially isolated from her closest friends for the past 12 years of her life.
A brief passage from Mormon Enigma to illustrate this point:
Joseph’s choice of women as plural wives gradually put a wedge between Emma and her friends as long as she remained either ignorant of the practice or opposed it. By late summer 1843 most of Emma’s friends had either married Joseph or had given their daughters to him. Her sister-in-law, Agnes Coolbrith, was married to Joseph; another sister-in-law, Mary Fielding, had consented to the marriage of her husband Hyrum Smith and her sister Mercy. At least five women in her own household were Joseph’s plural wives. Whether Emma knew about them or not, the women would not have been sympathetic to Emma while she opposed plural marriage. As a result, she became isolated from her friends and associates, and through the next four years this isolation would become more and more acute.
This was a general theme throughout most of 1843 both before and after the plural marriage revelation was given. Emma was a member of fight club, but she was cut out of project mayhem because she had too much critical thinking and a strong backbone. Newell and Avery put it wonderfully in their book, Mormon Enigma, “There is no evidence that Emma opposed Joseph on any doctrine other than plural marriage.” But Mormon theology and doctrine had been teetering on the edge of evolution to a free-love sex ring for over a decade. Many of Jo’s theological expansions in Kirtland and Nauvoo can be chased down to the idea of plural marriage. But Jo finally had an identifier and terminology that made it seem divinely inspired. Instead of polygamy, it was the new and everlasting covenant. Instead of plural marriage it was celestial sealing. Instead of telling your first wife to just deal with you having multiple wives, it was known as the Law of Sarah, that she was required to accept of her sister-wives or suffer damnation. The quorum of the anointed, or the Holy Order, was the culmination of these clandestine doctrines being practiced openly, but only behind closed doors with fellow initiates. Anybody opposed to this, or even thought to be opposed to polygamy, never were granted access to these clandestine meetings.
Notably, women weren’t allowed to be part of the endowment practiced in these clandestine meetings. Today’s endowment is solely practiced in temples, but Nauvoo Mormonism had yet to complete their temple and practicing anything in the Kirtland temple was out of the question and over 600 miles away. The endowments under Joseph Smith’s leadership were most-often conducted in the upper floor of the masonic lodge, or the upper floor of Jo’s red brick store, where many community functions were held. The Anointed Quorum most frequently met in the red brick store where the endowments were practiced, initiates were inducted into clandestine Mormon ceremonies, and plural marriages were sealed.
Jo’s endowment was being practiced for over a year by the late summer of 1843. No explicit writings of his intentions survive, but it seems he’d always wanted to induct Emma into the Quorum of the Anointed to be sealed to her for time and all eternity, but refused to do so until she relented on her opposition to polygamy. With the production of the plural marriage revelation and Emma’s assent to allowing Jo to marry the Partridge sisters, the Lawrence sisters, and Lucy Walker, the Elect Lady of Mormonism was finally in the proper place to allow her initiation into the endowment ceremony. Finally, after more than a year of explicit knowledge and opposition to polygamy, Emma’s capitulation to Jo’s demands of having multiple wives granted her entrance to the quorum of the anointed as the first Mormon woman to enjoy the blessings of the endowment. But this didn’t happen in isolation, many other issues were happening simultaneously which complicated matters.
One of these issues was the constant stress on Nauvoo housing and infrastructure with the constant flow of immigrants. The Immigration Fund was in full swing, bringing European converts across the Atlantic and up the Mississippi to the tune of thousands of people by the beginning of 1844. Nauvoo was already short on possible housing and every building that was completed had 10 possible families who were dying to get their own home instead of living in hastily constructed shacks with huge groups of people from other families.
While the Smiths were moving into the newly-completed Nauvoo Mansion house in July and August of 1843, a specific group of people arrived to Nauvoo seeking refuge among fellow followers of the Mormon Mahomet. Not only from Europe, but from all over the country, people were converting to the new one-true religion and flocking to Nauvoo to live in this new Zion. One of these domestic converts was named Jane. From her own reminiscence when she was living in Utah in the year 1900 including a brief autobiographical sketch:
When a child only six years old [in 1828], I left my home and went to live with a family of white people [in Connecticut]; their names were Mr. and Mrs. Joseph Fitch. They were aged people and quite wealthy. I was raised by their daughter. When about fourteen years old, I joined the Presbyterian Church. Yet I did not feel satisfied; it seemed to me there was something more that I was looking for. I had belonged to the Church about eighteen months when an elder of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was traveling through our country [and] preached there. The pastor of the Presbyterian Church forbid me going to hear them—as he had heard I had expressed a desire to hear them—but nevertheless, I went on a Sunday and was fully convinced that it was the true gospel he presented and I must embrace it.
The following Sunday [in 1841] I was baptized and confirmed a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. About three weeks after, while kneeling at prayer, the gift of tongues came upon me and frightened the whole family who were in the next room…
One year after I was baptized I started for Nauvoo with my mother, Eliza Manning; my brothers, Isaac, Lewis, and Peter; my sisters, Sarah Stebbings and Angeline Manning; my brother-in-law, Anthony Stebbings; Lucinda Manning, a sister-in-law; and myself…
We started from Wilton, Connecticut, and traveled by canal to Buffalo, N. Y. [New York]. We were to go to Columbus, Ohio, before our fares were to be collected, but they insisted on having the money at Buffalo and would not take us farther. So we left the boat and started on foot to travel a distance of over eight hundred miles.
We walked until our shoes were worn out, and our feet became sore and cracked open and bled until you could see the whole print of our feet with blood on the ground. We stopped and united in prayer to the Lord; we asked God the Eternal Father to heal our feet and our prayers were answered and our feet were healed forthwith.
When we arrived at Peoria, Illinois, the authorities threatened to put us in jail to get our free papers. We didn't know at first what he meant, for we had never been slaves, but he concluded to let us go, so we traveled on until we came to a river and as there was no bridge, we walked right into the stream. When we got to the middle, the water was up to our necks, but we got safely across. And then it became so dark we could hardly see our hands before us, but we could see a light in the distance, so we went toward it and found it was an old log cabin. Here we spent the night. [The] next day we walked for a considerable distance and stayed that night in a forest out in the open air. The frost fell on us so heavy that it was like a light fall of snow. We rose early and started on our way, walking through that frost with our bare feet, until the sun rose and melted it away. But we went on our way rejoicing, singing hymns, and thanking God for his infinite goodness and mercy to us in blessing us as he had, protecting us from all harm, answering our prayers and healing our feet.
In course of time we arrived at La Harpe, Illinois, about thirty miles from Nauvoo. At La Harpe we came to a place where there was a very sick child. We administered to it and the child was healed. I found after [that] the elders had before this given it up, as they did not think it could live.
We have now arrived to our destined haven of rest, the beautiful Nauvoo! Here we went through all kinds of hardship, trial, and rebuff, but we at last got to Brother Orson Spencer's. He directed us to the Prophet Joseph Smith's Mansion.
Jane and her family were now in Nauvoo and seeking a meeting with this nearly-mythical figure they’d only known through correspondence with missionaries who’d converted them, the great Joseph Smith. This reminiscence doesn’t include dates so I’ve added the years at the beginning from other sources. The exact time of year also isn’t specified but from details included in Jane’s account we can understand it likely occurred sometime in September or October of 1843, as the nights froze the dew and morning sun melted it away. We’ll discuss the intervening time from July to autumn of 1843 in the coming weeks, but we’re reading Jane for now for the sake of continuity, so please bear with me as we continue to understand her story.
When we found it, Sister Emma was standing in the door and she kindly said, "Come in. Come in!" Brother Joseph said to some white sisters that was present, "Sisters, I want you to occupy this room this evening with some brothers and sisters that have just arrived." Brother Joseph placed the chairs around the room, then he went and brought Sister Emma and Dr. Bernhisel and introduced them to us.
Brother Joseph took a chair and sat down by me and said, "You have been the head of this little band, haven't you?" I answered, "Yes, sir!" He then said, "God bless you! Now I would like you to relate your experience in your travels." I related to them all that I have above stated and a great deal more minutely, as many incidents has passed from my memory since then. Brother Joseph slapped Dr. Bernhisel on the knee and said, "What do you think of that, doctor: isn't that faith?" The doctor said, "Well, I rather think it is. If it had have been me, I fear I should have backed out and returned to my home!" He then said, "God bless you. You are among friends now and you will be protected." They sat and talked to us a while, gave us words of encouragement and good counsel.
We all stayed there one week; by that time all but myself had secured homes. Brother Joseph came in every morning to say good morning and ask how we were. During our trip I had lost all my clothes. They were all gone. My trunks were sent by canal to the care of Charles Wesley Wandel. One large trunk full of clothes of all descriptions, mostly new. On the morning that my folks all left to go to work, I looked at myself clothed in the only two pieces I possessed; I sat down and wept. Brother Joseph came into the room as usual and said, “Good morning. Why—not crying, [are you]?” “Yes sir,” [I said] “the folks have all gone and got themselves homes, and I have got none." He said, "Yes you have, you have a home right here if you want it. You musn't cry, we dry up all tears here." I said, "I have lost my trunk and all my clothes." He asked how I had lost them; I told them I put them in care of Charles Wesley Wandle and paid him for them and he has lost them.
Brother Joseph said, "Don't cry, you shall have your trunk and clothes again." Brother Joseph went out and brought Sister Emma in and said, "Sister Emma, here is a girl that says she has no home. Haven't you a home for her?" "Why yes, if she wants one." He said, "She does," and then he left us.
Sister Emma said "What can you do?" I said, "I can wash, iron, cook, and do housework!" Then she said, "When you are rested, you may do the washing, if you would just as soon do that." I said, "I am not tired." "Well," she said, "you may commence your work in the morning."
And just like that, Jane, in a time of need with no home or even clothes beyond what she wore when she got to Nauvoo, was taken into the Smith Mansion house as a temporary resident. Jane found in Nauvoo a sense of sorority and camaraderie she hadn’t before experienced. She documents these intimate details of the Smith family and their hospitality among other interactions. Eliza Partridge’s journal from the time reveals that Jane became good friends with her peers living in the Smith mansion for the few months she remained there during the winter of 1843-44. Jane even had a brief moment with Lucy Mack Smith, who Jane refers to as “Mother Smith,” that clearly left a profound impression on her.
I had to pass through Mother Smith's room to get to mine. She would often stop me and talk to me. She told me all Brother Joseph's troubles and what he had suffered in publishing the Book of Mormon. One morning I met Brother Joseph coming out of his mother's room. He said, "Good morning," and shook hands with me. I went into his mother's room; she said, "Good morning; bring me that bundle from my bureau and sit down here." I did as she told me. She placed the bundle in my hands and said, "Handle this and then put in the top drawer of my bureau and lock it up. After I had done it she said, "Sit down. Do you remember that I told you about the Urim and Thummim when I told you about the Book of Mormon?" I answered, "Yes, ma'am." She then told me I had just handled it. “You are not permitted to see it, but you have been permitted to handle it,” [she said]. “ You will live long after I am dead and gone and you can tell the Latter-day Saints that you was permitted to handle the Urim and Thummim.”
This was a rare occurrence in early Mormonism. The seer stones were revered as holy and sacred to all who knew of them and Jane here was granted a brief moment of holding one of the seer stones in a pouch for a brief moment. The next interaction Jane relates is between her and Emma, which seems to allude to something between the lines that caused Jane a lot of trouble in Utah under the leadership of Bloody Brigham Young.
Sister Emma asked me one day if I would like to be adopted to them as their child and I did not answer her. She said, "I will wait a while and let you consider it." She waited two weeks before she asked me again. When she did, I told her, "No, Ma'am!" because I did not understand or know what it meant. They were always good and kind to me, but I did not know my own mind. I did not comprehend.
And with that small interaction, Jane refused to join the celestial Smith family during Jo’s lifetime, and therefore forfeited eternal sealing to the prophet and Elect Lady of Mormonism, which she would come to regret when Bloody Brigham sealed her to the Smiths as their eternal slave. Jane wasn’t even allowed into the endowment house where the sealing was performed for herself, instead another woman stood as proxy for her while she waited outside.
To understand Jane’s refusal of Emma’s proposal, it’s important to understand how Jane likely understood the proposal in the first place. Jane said herself that she did not comprehend or understand what the adoption/sealing meant. Emma made this proposal soon after Jane had arrived in Nauvoo once all her family had found homes in town and Jane had taken up residence in the Nauvoo mansion at the age of 21. She was surrounded all day by half a dozen women who were plurally sealed to Joseph. Understandably, with the gossip mill that was Nauvoo, Jane quickly became aware of the practice of plural marriage happening in Nauvoo. When Emma first proposed for Jane to be sealed to the Smiths, Jane likely didn’t understand what was meant. Emma said that she’ll wait a while for Jane to reconsider. During the following two weeks between the first proposal and Emma’s second proposal, it seems Jane became aware of everything that was included in the practice of Mormon polygamy through the relationships she built with her fellow young-adult women living in the same house, all of which were sealed to Jo. After learning about what polygamy really included, it’s understandable that Jane vehemently refused the second proposal Emma made two weeks after the first. She was literally surrounded by Jo’s wives while most of them were barred from engaging in social activities for fear their secrets would be discovered. That made for a lot of down time for all these young women to talk while doing chores around the massive Nauvoo Mansion which was now doubling as the most prestigious hotel of Nauvoo.
Jane reported a conversation with Jo’s young adult wives while she was living in the Nauvoo Mansion in a life sketch she provided in 1890 to Joseph F. Smith.
“Brother Joseph’s four wives, Emily Partridge, Eliza Partridge, Maria and Sara Lawrence, and myself, were sitting discussing Mormonism and Sarah said ‘What would you think if a man had more wives than one?’ I said, ‘That is all right!’ Maria said, ‘Well, we are all four Brother Joseph’s wives!’ I jumped up and clapped my hands and said, ‘That’s good.’ Sarah said, ‘She is all right, she believes it all now.’”
This was reported in 1890 while she was living in Utah. That was the story of Jane Manning James and how she came to live in Nauvoo with the Smith family. Memories, especially when reported in a letter to one of the highest-ranking church leaders in the Utah Territory, have a way of sliding behind rose-colored lenses. How Jane Manning James felt at the time about plural marriage when talking to her peers and possible future sister-wives doesn’t seem to comport with her earlier refusal of the proposal by Emma. That’s not a problem, it just needs further context to make proper sense, and I think the explanation to reconcile these seemingly different positions on sealing stems from Emma herself.
What would Jane have learned from these conversations? Jane, upon her arrival to Nauvoo, became one of the quickest initiates into the practice of sealing and plural marriage in Nauvoo. She ascended from convert-immigrant to a Cloistered Sister, as Wreck-it Bennett would have called her, in a matter of weeks. Most women who were members for over a decade by this point didn’t gain the amount of knowledge and intelligence that Jane was privy to in a matter of a few weeks. Imagine, if you will, the way Jane saw Emma interacting with the young women living in the house. The coldness with which Emma approached most of these relationships must have been relatively off-putting until Jane learned that they were all sister-wives, which would have allowed quite a few puzzle pieces to fall together in her mind.
Consider the root of what caused Emma to treat these young women harshly. The inner turmoil Emma suffered from Jo’s libertine nature must have weighed heavily on her conscious. That turmoil coupled with her ever-expanding wealth and corporate power in Nauvoo, conducting business deals with men who never thought they’d be signing contracts with a woman in their lifetimes. Jo was sometimes in hiding for fear of arrest, which forced Emma to step up to the plate and take care of his shoddy business practices. Emma was also planning an escape route in late 1843. She was entertaining the idea of divorcing Jo, for many understandable reasons, and had to plot a secret escape to be able to leave Nauvoo with the divorce and get her kids away from the dangerous criminal that was her husband. She had to set herself up financially to be able to support the departure and any complications that may have come along with the divorce and fleeing from Nauvoo. Accordingly, throughout July to October of 1843, Emma acquired a ton of property, most of it transferred from Jo to her. Some of those transfers may have been deals brokered between Emma and Jo for Emma to give her consent for Jo taking more wives, but of course that’s speculative at best. Regardless of the reasoning behind these land and property transfers, the end-result became a complete fiasco between Emma and Brigham for years following the deaths of Jo and Hyrum Side-kick Abiff Smith in Carthage 9 months in the future from where we currently are. Emma had a lot going on in her own mind and bringing more young women into the home almost always ensured future relations between them and her husband. Emma’s frustrations and internal conflicts were projected onto these young women who had even less control over the situation than Emma had. This coldness even extended into her interactions with men in Nauvoo as she treated William Clayton, Brigham Young, and others of Jo’s closest acolytes with contempt. Here’s a few extracts of Emma’s interpersonal conduct from Newell and Avery’s biography of Emma, Mormon Enigma:
No matter what its origin, [Emma] opposed the doctrine [of polygamy]. She was not without power in the struggle with Joseph over it. Four days after her return from St. Louis Emma exerted her strongest leverage. She threatened divorce.
[William] Clayton reported under the date of August 16, 1843, “This A.M. Joseph told me that sin[c]e Emma came back from St. Louis, she had resisted the P[rinciple] in toto, and he had to tell her he would relinquish all for her sake. She said she would give him E and E P[artridge] but he knew if he took them she would pitch on him, & obtain a divorce & leave him. He however told me he should not relinquish anything.” In the most serious crisis of their marriage, Joseph backed down. He told Emma that he would give up his wives. But he confided to Clayton that he did not intend to keep his word.
Five days after Joseph agreed to “relinquish all” Emma found two letters in his pocket from Eliza [R.] Snow, who was still at the Morley settlement [after her quick removal from the homestead]. Emma confronted William Clayton with them and asked if he had delivered them to Joseph. Clayton denied being the courier; he said Emma “seemed vexed and angry.” He also recorded that Joseph told him Emma had said some “harsh words.” Two months later Eliza would visit Nauvoo, on October 10, and would afterward confide to her diary, “Some circumstances of very peculiar interest occur’d during my visit to the City. Every thing connecting with our affections is engraven on the heart, and needs not the perpetuating touch of the sculptor.” The entry hints that Emma’s suspicions about Eliza and Joseph were not unfounded. On August 19 Eliza Snow penned some verses for Eliza Partridge, who had begun to chafe under Emma’s surveillance…
Still smarting from finding Eliza’s letters to Joseph the previous day, Emma went for a short carriage ride with her husband on August 22. She called on the Lucian Woodworth family while Joseph attended to some buinsess at the temple. Emma apparently did not know that the Woodworths’ sixteen-year-old daughter Flora had been Joseph’s plural wife since spring. What probably began as a casual social visit resulted in a confrontation between Emma and Flora when Emma discovered that Joseph had given Flora a gold watch. She would have recognized the implications of such a gift, since he had also given one to Eliza Snow. Joseph returned just as Emma “was demanding the gold watch” from Flora, and he reprimanded her. Once in the carriage, however, Emma vented her own frustrations. Joseph told Clayton she continued “her abuse” after they arrived home, and said he finally had to employ “harsh measures” to stop her.
Harsh measures to stop Emma from abusing him. I assume Jo never realized all of these troubles in the home were a direct result of his own actions. But hey, he was just doing what the voices in his head told him to do so that makes him a great guy.
Emily Partridge recalls this tumultuous time in the Women’s Exponent of Utah in the 1880s:
[Emma] often made things very unpleasant, but I have nothing in my heart towards her but pity. I know it was hard for Emma, and any woman to enter plural marriage in those days, and I do not know as anybody would have done any better than Emma did under the circumstances. I think Emma always regretted having any hand in getting us into such trying circumstances. But she need not have blamed herself for that, in the least, for it would have been the same with or without her consent, and I have never repented the act that made me a plural wife… of Joseph Smit hand bound me to him for time and all eternity.
Emma’s internal conflict throughout most of 1843 caused her to turn her attention to affairs outside of the church. She was president of the Relief Society from its formation in March of 1842, but throughout all of 1843 she only attended two of the meetings. She spent a lot of time travelling to and from St. Louis to pick up supplies for the Red Brick Store as well as managing other familial affairs in her growing family as a result of polygyny. She was writing many letters to important people to put out fires that Jo was setting all around town. One of these came as a result of Hingepin Sidney Rigdon’s questionable loyalty.
Ever since the Wreck-it Bennett meltdown and his expose was published, many entertained thoughts that Rigdon was actually colluding with Bennett to bring down the prophet. Rigdon was postmaster of Nauvoo at this time, the only real government job bringing income from the federal government. Jo had repeatedly accused Rigdon of throwing out Jo’s mail or letting other people see Jo’s letters before Jo actually received them. There may have been something like that going on, but separating fact from accusations is a tough matter here. Regardless of what really took place and whether or not Rigdon was screening Jo’s mail to help aid Bennett in taking down the Mormon Mahomet, Emma joined in the fray.
[A] problem with Sidney Rigdon had been festering for some time. Joseph had addressed their differences earlier, and they had been temporarily resolved. William Marks reported that at that time “Sister Emma had a good many feelings against Elder Rigdon, but they are all done away. She has said within a few months, and in fact within one week, that she was on as good terms with Elder Rigdon as she had ever been since he was a member of the church.” But the strong feelings between her husband and Rigdon flared again.
The tension between Jo and Rigdon would continue for another few months before it was finally resolved, but we can clearly see from this passage written by William Marks, as well as letters exchanged between Rigdon and Emma, that she was willing to go to bat for her husband when it was for the overall benefit of him or the church.
Emma’s headspace and her relationship to Jo were very complex at this time. We can’t see what truly happened; historians can only piece together from outside sources occurrences that hopefully reveal a window into this complexity. They dearly loved each other, but they also had serious issues in their relationship. They both tried to put on the best possible face for the public, but the façade was hard to keep going when those tensions flared as they often did. Again from Newell and Avery’s book, Mormon Enigma:
The personal tension between Emma and Joseph may have eased toward the end of the summer when Emma seemed to have come temporarily to terms with plural marriage. Allen J. Stout, who served as Joseph’s bodyguard, testified in an 1885 meeting that with “only a single door separating him from the family, he listened to a conversation which took place between Joseph and Emma Smith, on the much vaunted subject of plural marriage. This impulsive woman,” Stout declared, “from moments of passionate denunciation would subside into tearful repentance and acknowledge that her violent opposition to that principle was instigated by the power of darkness; that Satan was doing his utmost to destroy her, etc. And Solemnly came the Prophet’s inspired warning ‘Yes, and he will accomplish your overthrow, if you do not heed my counsel’”
Notice the coercive language Jo was using to break Emma’s spine in these interactions, while also fearing Emma when she would lash out in a fit of rage and jealousy.
A young woman named Maria Jane Johnston told a similar story. Disowned by her family in Tennessee after joining the Mormons, she lived as a hired girl in Emma’s home from 1841 to 1844. In 1843 she was nineteen, and, according to her reminiscences, she overheard a snatch of conversation between Emma and Joseph in the next room. Emma “was crying and in trouble about something.” Joseph went to the door of the dining room where Maria Jane was working. He asked her to got to Hyrum’s house with a request that he come to the Mansion. When Hyrum arrived with Maria Jane she heard him ask, “Well Sister Emma, what is the matter?” The door closed and the girl heard no more of the conversation.
The following day Emma found Maria Jane upstairs making beds and commented, “It was you that Joseph came to when he sent for Hyrum last night wasn’t it?”
Emma invited the young woman to sit down on the bed. Emma “looked very sad and cast down,” but remarked, “The principle of plural Marriage is right, it is from our Father in Heaven.” Maria Jane reported, “Then she again spoke of her jealousy… ‘What I said I have got [to] repent of. The principle is right but I am jealous hearted. Now never tell anybody that you heard me find fault with that principle we have got to humble ourselves and repent of it.’”
Maria Jane remembered that Emma concluded the discussion by pondering, “I do not know why it is that Brother Hyrum holds such a controlling power over my spirit but when he comes to me and speaks to me I am melted to tears and cannot talk back to him.”
In 1887, William Law, at this time a dear friend of the Smiths, was interviewed by The Daily Tribune out of Salt Lake City. His memory serves to further contextualize the inner conflict Emma was working through in accepting the practice of polygamy. He also reveals some details of how she stood to gain from some of these marriages, which certainly adds more dimension to her personality.
“Did Emma, the elect lady, come to your house and complain about Joseph?”
“No. She never came to my house for that purpose. But I met her sometimes on the street and then she used to complain, especially because of the girls whom Joseph kept in the house, devoting his attention to them. You have overrated her, she was dishonest.”
“Do you mean to say that she was so outside of the influence Joseph had over her?”
“Yes, that is exactly what I mean. Let me tell you a case that will be full proof to you. Soon after my arrive in Nauvoo the two L[awrence] girls came to the holy city, two very young girls, 15 to 17 years of age. They had been converted in Canada, were orphans and worth about $8000 in English gold. Joseph got to be appointed their Guardian, probably with the help of Dr. Bennett. He naturally put the gold in his pocket and had the Girls sealed to him. He asked me to go on his bond as a guardian, as Sidney Rigdon had done. “It is only a formality,” he said. Foolishly enough, and not yet suspecting anything, I put my name on the paper. Emma complained about Joseph’s living with the L[awrence] girls, but not very violently. It is my conviction that she was his *full accomplice, *that she was not a bit better than he. When I saw how things went I should have taken steps to be released of that bond, but I never thought of it. After Joseph’s death, A. W. Babbitt became guardian of the two girls. He asked Emma for a settlement about the $8000. Emma said she had nothing to do with her husband’s debts. Now Babbitt asked for the books and she gave them to him. Babbitt found that Joseph had counted an expense of about $3000 for board and clothing of the girls. Now Babbitt wanted the $5000 that was to be paid Babbitt, who was a straight, good, honest, sincere man, set about to find out property to pay the $5000 with. He could find none. Two splendid farms near Nauvoo, a big brick house, worth from $3000 to $4000, the hotel kept by Joe, a mass of vacant town lots, all were in Emma’s name, not transferred later, but transferred from the beginning. She always looked out for her part. When I saw how things stood I wrote to Babbitt to take hold of all the property left by me in Nauvoo and of all claims held by me again in people in Nauvoo. And so the debt was paid by me–Emma didn’t pay a cent.”
Emma was smart and powerful in Nauvoo, but she was also playing the hand she was dealt. Willliam Law’s opinion of Emma is also very complex given his own sordid history with Mormonism being the only surviving publisher of the Nauvoo Expositor when this interview was conducted. But another Q&A from the interviewer reveals even more concerning details about Emma and her conduct.
“What do you remember about Emma’s relations to the revelation on celestial marriage?”
“Well, I told you that she used to complain to me about Joseph’s escapades whenever she met me on the street. She spoke repeatedly about that pretended revelation. She said once: “The revelation says I must submit or be destroyed. Well, I guess I have to submit.” On another day she said: “Joe and I have settled our troubles on the basis of equal rights.” * * * Emma was a full accomplice of Joseph’s crimes. She was a large, coarse woman, as deep a woman as there was, always full of schemes and smooth as oil. They were worthy of each other, she was not a particle better than he.”
The entire interview is full of precious little nuggets similar to this that preserve a candid view of the belly of the beast from somebody who was in the circle of elites and saw most of what went on. My overall point is that Emma and her relationship to polygamy at this time is incredibly complex. It can’t be summarized simply. She clearly stood to gain from some of these relationships and in the case of the Lawrence sister she did to the tune of $3-8000. She gained property as well. Some of the arguments she and Jo had about polygamy were resolved with Jo signing over land and building deeds to her, or buying her a nice coat. But this material wealth she gained from polygamy came at a price. What is material and monetary wealth good for when the community treats you as an outsider? What good is lots of money if your friends only treat you nicely because they fear your wrath? The overwhelming feelings of jealousy created when you know your husband is in the house but isn’t in his own bed many nights must have been absolutely crushing. The time and effort expended on policing the conduct of young women in the house tarnished the relationships Emma had with many of them. Beginning in Kirtland Jo had a pattern of bedding Emma’s best friends, then she would react, then they’d go away. Emma and Fanny Alger were close friends until she discovered Fanny and Jo in the barn and Fanny was taken away to Indiana. She was close friends with her secretary in Nauvoo, Eliza R. Snow, but when Emma saw them a little too close an altercation ensued and Eliza was forced to move out of the Nauvoo homestead and their friendship was never repaired. Eliza and Emily Partridge were like daughters to Emma, but they became bargaining chips between Emma and Jo lest Emma violate the Law of Sarah.
So, yes, Emma opposed polygamy. She also approved of it. She couldn’t stand watching the religion her and her husband had created devolve into a sex ring, but she also became incredibly wealthy throughout it and the bodies and trauma created in the warpath of Mormon expansionism was just another line to mindlessly add to the “expenses” column. Emma also served to be the moral devil’s advocate on the real-world results of polygamy. For example, Emma had many issues with Jo’s personal scribe, William Clayton. However, when she found out Clayton had impregnated his polygamous wife, Emma told Clayton he should take the teenager into his home to provide support for her and the coming child. In many ways, Emma was the only advocate polygamous women had in Nauvoo that kept the practices from completely breaking people. She had the ear of the prophet, the patriarch, and nearly all of Jo’s closest acolytes who were running the church. Her personal affect seemed to fluctuate with current events. During this era of good-feeling in Nauvoo she was reported by friends as being friendly, jovial, hospitable, and kind to most people. When events turned for the worse, her health sickened and she became the vengeful woman full of wrath because of the blatantly immoral conduct of her husband and many other Nauvoo elites.
Emma was a great human being with plenty of flaws. She always stood to gain from the church and always did, but she also suffered through every trial and tribulation the church experienced. She left very few personal writings that reveal what her true thoughts and intentions were. She always lived behind a mask that was adaptable. But, more importantly, she was often the morality check on her husband, which was the most unenviable task in the entirety of Mormon history. How do we reconcile the models of Emma that are floating around out there? We have the pious and stoic Emma who was unflappable and faithful in everything she did. We have the Emma who was grabbing up any land and wealth she could get her hands on, just like every elite in Nauvoo was doing. We have the Emma of William Law and Joseph Jackson who was just as devious and immoral as her husband, Jo just helped direct her menacing mind to whatever task they both could gain from. We have the Emma who was a vicious and avowed opponent to polygamy her entire life juxtaposed to the Emma that literally took the hands of teenage women and put them into the hand of her husband while she bore witness to their marriages. We have the Emma who was hospitable and kind, and the Emma who kicks people out of her house because they showed too much affection towards her husband. We have the Emma who was deeply in love with Jo, but when she was in a truly inconsolable or angry state, Hyrum came to the rescue and calmed her down. We have Emma who was bound to bed for weeks at a time from illness, and the Emma who stayed by mother Lucy Mack Smith’s bed for 5-days straight nursing Lucy to health before her own health gave out and she collapsed. We have an Emma who was frequently surrounded by legions of friends and personal women leadership in the Relief Society, then we have Emma in 1843 becoming increasingly reclusive and spending lots of time outside of Nauvoo on various business trips, never really paying her friends much mind as she was forced into isolation due to her circumstances and personal demeanor. We have the Emma after Jo’s death, avowed and sworn enemy to Bloody Brigham Young, and the Emma who raised Joseph III to become the most intelligent and pragmatic prophet throughout the entire history of the tradition of Mormonism.
These models of Emma needn’t be reconciled. To a degree they’re all true. Emma simply doesn’t get enough credit for her role in early Mormon history or for her incredibly quick wit. Here’s a few examples to prove my point from Mormon Enigma, you’ll find a link in the show notes to buy a copy of this book for yourself, it’s truly an incredible book.
During this summer [of 1843] political activity increased as candidates began to campaign for the 1844 elections. Joseph had tried unsuccessfully to avoid being committed to a political party. Judge Stephen Douglas, now quite well acquainted with Joseph, visited Nauvoo and dined at the Mansion. Joseph invited the leading men of Nauvoo to join them, but this invitation caught Emma without a desert. Quickly she made apple fritters and fried them to perfection. The men liked the fluffy morsel and one of them asked its name.
Emma smiled. “I call it a candidate.”
“Why?” they all wanted to know.
“Why not?” she answered them. “Isn’t it just a puff of wind?”
Emma was of interest to the diary and journal keepers of Nauvoo. They described her as “a woman of commanding presence,” only rarely losing self-control or giving way to tears. She was a “brilliant conversationalist” and “high spirited.” A man once twitted her about “fishing for a compliment.” Her prompt rejoinder, “I never fish in shallow water,” took him aback.
Both the people we’ve discussed today, Jane and Emma, are so incredibly fascinating. They both had their own stories, they had intentions and unexpected outcomes when working towards those intentions. They were both held back by society because of their birthright, both finding themselves in situations with little control or ability to give true consent or change their circumstances. Both were sealed to the prophet only after assenting to the requirements of people they couldn’t control. In Jane’s case, sealed as a slave by proxy to the Smiths, agreeing only after it was the only sealing Bloody Brigham would allow to be done in the temple for Jane. In Emma’s case, she was only sealed and inducted into the holy order with her second anointing after she agreed to Jo taking half a dozen wives living in her own home. Both of these women were victims of a coercive system with eternal ramifications they both sincerely believed in. Both were forced into systems they didn’t agree with because they were obeying the laws of men who said they were speaking for god. Both were conflicted. Both were complex and unique human beings. Most importantly, both considered each other family, sealed together through the new and everlasting covenant.
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