Ep 212 – Emma Smith, Linda Newell, and Valeen Avery
On this episode, Joseph and Hyrum Smith are locked up in Carthage Jail and they aren’t going anywhere. We take a little time to catch up with other prominent figures in Nauvoo history; this week begins with Emma Hale Smith. We discuss her role in the Relief Society, unwillingly policing polygamy rumors, running land speculation and deals while her husband is occupied, and fighting with her sister wives. Then we focus on her role in the two week period of June 12-25 1844 and her actions which have been construed by the SLC leadership to lead to Jo’s death. Is she responsible? Or, are those myths fabricated by the SLC propaganda machine which have been debunked by historians? This episode interweaves Emma’s story with the story of her seminal biographers, Valeen Tippets Avery and Linda King Newell on their journey writing Emma’s biography through the 1970s-80s.
Check out Writing Mormon History; Historians and their Books
Also pick up a copy of Mormon Enigma; Emma Hale Smith
Emma Biography JSP
Music by Jason Comeau http://aloststateofmind.com/
Show Artwork http://weirdmormonshit.com/
Legal Counsel http://patorrez.com/
We’ve spent the last dozen or so episodes focusing almost exclusively on Joseph Smith and the historical timeline through May and June of 1844. The truth is, a lot was going on with other people connected with the church during this time. Understandably, the events leading up to, and following, the Nauvoo Expositor consume all the oxygen in the historical record, casting a shadow over every other notable figure during the timeframe. I want to spend the next few episodes catching up with those folks so let’s start today with discussing Emma Smith.
During my off-time I’ve been reading an anthology of Mormon historians titled Writing Mormon History, historians and their books, edited by friend of the show, Joe Geisner. It’s a compilation of essays from many of the most notable Mormon historians of the past 5 decades telling the stories of how their seminal works came to fruition. It’s a fascinating book and I recommend listeners purchase Writing Mormon History edited by Joseph Geisner at your local or independent online bookstore. Why I bring it up is because the last chapter I read was written by Linda King Newell, who wrote the best biography of Emma Smith with her co-author, Valeen Tippets Avery. The chapter is remarkable as it places the readers into the sphere of Mormon history through the lens of two independent women researchers in the late 70s and early 80s in the field of Mormon history completely dominated by men.
Unfortunately, Val Avery passed away a few years ago, so the chapter is written by Linda Newell and we can only see her side of the writing project of Emma’s biography, but Linda’s stories about herself and other women in Mormon history are remarkable. The chapter begins with a story I’m sure many of us can empathize with Linda when she learned a slanted version of Emma Hale Smith’s life. That’s because Emma’s treatment by the LDS church until the 80s was silence at best and caustically derisive at worst. From Writing Mormon History beginning on page 162, Linda begins to tell her story:
My own journey with Emma Hale Smith began [at Ohio State] in 1973. I attended a BYU Education Week where Jaynann Payne from Provo, Utah, was one of the speakers. Her topic was “My Friend Eliza R. Snow.” Dressed in a long, ornate black silk dress with matching hat—an exact copy of the one Eliza R. Snow wore in her famous photograph—Jaynann spoke eloquently of Eliza, often comparing her with Emma: Emma was not as faithful as Eliza; Emma abandoned her faith and the church by not going west when Eliza did; Emma kept the prophet’s sons from the church; and Emma did not love Joseph as much as his plural wife, Eliza, did. I was puzzled.
Linda Newell then details her journey in searching for a biography of Emma written from a faithful Mormon perspective, being a believer herself. The search came up almost dry. All she found was a 25-page pamphlet titled Judge Me Dear Reader, “and a biographical novel, Emma Smith: The Elect Lady, by RLDS writer Margaret Gibson.” Linda adds that “the latter was truly a work of fiction.” And the former had its own problems written from a faithful Mormon perspective because the 25-page short novel claimed “Emma’s transgressions [were] because she suffered a ‘mental breakdown’.”
Linda Newell decided to write her own biography of Emma that would do proper justice to the Elect Lady. From this project, Mormon Enigma was born.
But let’s rewind a little bit. From where did this caustic Mormon narrative come? Emma Hale Smith didn’t go to Utah, she was mother of Joseph III and guided him to become prophet of the RLDS church, the primary competing faction to the SLC LDS church; Emma hated Bloody Brigham Young, justifiably so because he was a power-hungry demon lurking in the shadows until center-stage was vacant. The power struggle between her and Brigham left Emma as the quintessential enemy to polygamy, a worthy personification for the burgeoning SLC leadership to vilify.
Until Jo and Hyrum were assassinated, Emma occupied multiple important roles in the church. However, the tension resulting from the Laws and the Smiths in the last months of 1843 had revealed to Jo and everybody else caught up in polygamy that Emma was not as approving of the doctrine and practice as she’d previously been. The majority of the higher ranks of leadership, those of the anointed quorum, pushed Emma to the fringes and forced her to become an island unto herself. Emma, as cordial and guarded as her deportment would dictate, had to balance the secretive life of her husband and sister-wives and the resulting drama, with her public life as an anti-polygamist and only legal wife of her husband. She was able to act somewhat less guarded among insiders, but she clearly wasn’t attuned to who did and didn’t know the extent of polygamy and therefore had to exercise caution in nearly every interaction. This caution, however, didn’t stop her from speaking her typical sharp wit when circumstances required.
Speaking of autumn to winter of 1843, Newell and Avery describe this balancing act in their biography of Emma Hale Smith Bidamon, Mormon Enigma.
Emma and Joseph maintained an outwardly warm and loving relationship in spite of the tension. Joseph remarked to William Phelps that he had a kind, provident wife who would load the table with good things to eat until the sight destroyed his appetite when all he had asked her for was a little bread and milk. Emma came into the room in time to hear William Phelps say, “You must do as Buonaparte did,--have a little table just large enough for the victuals you want yourself.”
With tact born of experience, Emma replied, “Mr. Smith is a bigger man than Buonaparte; he can never eat without his friends.”
“That is the wisest thing I ever heard you say,” Joseph commented.
Another reminiscence from Benjamin F. Johnson describes where Emma fell in the hierarchy of wives in the prophet’s life, obviously a major source of tension in theirs and all religious polygamist marriages.
In 1903 Benjamin F. Johnson reminisced about a Sunday morning in Joseph’s home. “Two of Emmas childr[e]n Came to him as just from there Mother—all So nice bright & Sweet.” Joseph turned to his guest. “Benjamin, look at these Children. How Could I help loving thire mother; If Necessary I would go to Hell for Such a woman.” Johnson added, “… although at the time he had in the Mansion other wives younger & aparently more Brilliant—Yet Emma the wife of his youth—to me apeared the Queen of his heart & of his home.”
Emma was fighting a constant battle. She was clearly fed up with polygamy and her husband’s overactive libido influencing other men of the community to practice polygamy as well. Whether by virtue of the position of the leaders in the Relief Society as her sister-wives, or something about her general opposition to polygamy, or maybe it had to do with Emma seeking distractions from the chaotic life in Nauvoo and escaping the drama, her role in the Relief Society shrunk. The issue with Jane and William Law and the Smiths seemed to have been a breaking point for Emma. It is notable that a contemporary expose written by Joseph H. Jackson claims there was a couples swing facilitated between the Laws and Smiths and that Emma desired that “sweet little man” William Law for herself while Jo was clearly gunning for Jane Law. Multiple denials from William Law and Emma cast Jackson’s assertion into question, as well as Jackson’s general lack of trustworthiness. Patrons of the show can listen along to his exposes in our latest installment of the NaMo Book Club at patreon.com/nakedmormonism. Whether the deal happened and was mutually agreed to, whether a swing did happen, or whether it was all fabricated, the record isn’t clear but there’s a lot of smoke for there not to be a fire. Whatever happened, the result is unquestionable, the Laws defected and Emma was pushed further from the inner-circles of the criminal empire… at least at face value.
Beginning at the top of Chapter 12 of Mormon Enigma:
Although Emma’s open opposition to plural marriage had ceased since receiving her second anointing (yeah, psychedelics will do that to ya), the presence of some of Joseph’s young wives under her roof nagged at her. She continued to confront Joseph with the issue.
Emily Partridge was the only plural wife who recounted the events. She said that interviews with Joseph, her sister, herself, and Emma occurred frequently. “She sent for us one day to come to her room. Joseph was present looking like a martyr. Emma said some very hard things. Joseph should give us up or blood would flow. She would rather her blood would run pure than be poluted in this manner.” Emily did not say precisely that Emma threatened suicide, but perhaps Joseph’s fear that Emma had reached the point of taking such a drastic step prompted this final confrontation. Emily “felt indignant towards Joseph for submitting to Emma… His countenance was the perfect picture of despair.” Emily wrote, “[Emma] insisted that we should promise to break our [marriage] covenants that we had made before God. Joseph asked her if we made her the promise she required, if she would cease to trouble us, and not persist in our marrying someone else. She made the promise. Joseph came to us and shook hands with us and the understanding was that all was ended between us. I for one meant to keep this promise I was forced to make.”
Emily and Eliza Partridge are crucial actors in this conflict raging about polygamy in the walls of the Nauvoo Mansion. They’d essentially become the adopted daughters of the Smiths since Edward Party-boy Partridge had passed away in May of 1840. Emily’s journal survived the trek west; Eliza’s, she burned because it was “too full”. In many ways, the Partridge sisters were merely a microcosm of the larger issues in Nauvoo, but Emma held some sway over what happened in her own home, even if it was much harder to control the larger growing polygamist movement in Nauvoo with all its attendant heartbreak, troubles, and abuse.
After this confrontation, Emily and Eliza went downstairs, followed soon by Joseph who talked with Emily alone. Continuing in Mormon Enigma:
“How do you feel, Emily?”
“I feel as anybody would under the circumstances.”
“You know my hands are tied,” Joseph responded.
Emily said he looked as if he would “sink into the earth”; her “heart was melted” and her anger left. But before she had time to speak Joseph was gone. Emma entered as he went out.
“Emily, what did Joseph say to you?” she asked.
“He asked me how I felt.”
“You might as well tell me,” Emma said. “I am determined that a stop shall be put to these things and I want you to tell me what he says to you.”
“I shall not tell you,” Emily retorted. “He can say what he pleases to me, and I shall not report it to you, there has been mischief enough made by doing that. I am sick of these things as you can be.”
Emily did not know how her words might affect Emma, but reported, “[I] learned afterwards that she gloried in my spunk.”
Yeah, I’m sure Emma absolutely loved her husband raping these teenagers in her own home with their children sleeping in the next room. I’m sure Emma was elated to have these repeated confrontations with her sister-wives when it was all because Jo couldn’t keep it in his pants. So much fun for Emma.
Emma’s opposition grew to polygamy. Now, what is later fabrication to assassinate her character by the SLC leadership and what is fact becomes a very hard distinction to make. Clearly Emma had problems with it and had been pushed, coerced, and finally forced into accepting it to keep from the private fights with her husband becoming public. However, she was far from the only dissenting voice as contemporary records reveal.
Emma was not alone in opposing plural marriage. Lucy A. Young, married to Brigham’s brother Phineas, wrote, “With a sad heart I found all the married people at liberty to choose new companions if they so desired. There was marrying and giving in marriage for the first wife was expected to give others to her husband unless she rebelled as I did. There were queens and queens of Queens in those days but I lost my queenship by not giving my husband the women he desired but he got them all the same.” She voiced the dread of many women: that their men would take new wives in spite of their opposition. Cynthia Osborn’s husband wrote, “… the doctrine of polygamy was repugnant to her and the thoughts of going to the body of the Church with her daughters she could hardly endure.”
Emma had other considerations which extended beyond just Joseph and other high-ranking men in the church marrying teenage women. Julia Murdock Smith, the surviving Murdock twin Joseph and Emma adopted in Kirtland back in 1832, was 13 years old in early 1844. How long could Emma keep her safe from Jo giving away his eldest daughter to Bloody Brigham Young, Father Newel K. Whitney, or Heber the Creeper Kimball? Whether or not Emma knew about Helen Mar Kimball, now 15 in 1844, or any of the other teenagers Jo was raping, it wouldn’t be long before Julia was prime property for the prophet to trade to one of his bois for some generous favor. How long Before Joseph III, now 11 years old in 1844, would be taught about polygamy and be expected to follow his father’s footsteps? It really shouldn’t be any wonder that Emma denied polygamy even on her death bed.
In the mid-1970s, Linda Newell’s search for the end-all biography of Emma Smith came up disappointing because, simply put, no historian had ever ventured to write a book-length biography of Emma Hale Smith Bidamon from a serious academic perspective. Linda resolved to get in touch with her friend, Valeen Tippets Avery, and have a serious conversation about writing the greatest biography of Emma Hale ever written. Just like it’s impossible to talk about the history of policing in America without talking about racism, Linda and Val pretty quickly understood that it’s impossible to talk about Emma without confronting the practice of polygamy head on. The fact that Joseph Smith had more wives than Emma is a generally agreed-upon consensus of nearly every historian because the evidence is so overwhelming, but in the late 1970s those conclusions could get members excommunicated. It wasn’t until very recently that the church provided an official statement in the form of the gospel topics essay about Joseph Smith’s polygamy. That was in 2013. Prior to this the church simply allowed members to teach whatever they will without issuing accurate Mormon history concerning the subject in any lesson manual. Prior to that, the church openly taught that polygamy only happened in Utah and Joseph Smith had only one wife. Into this realm of institutional denialism and vastly ignorant membership, Val and Linda took on the task of writing Emma’s biography.
Linda tells us how challenging it was to even begin the project:
There were no books, articles, or conference talks about her. I found only the occasional references to her as Joseph’s wife, the first president of the Relief Society, or as the recipient of “Elect Lady” revelation. The Elect Lady had virtually been written out of LDS history.
Along with discovering just how little there was about Emma in official or unofficial church publications, a small victory signaled a pattern which would plague the authorship process of the biography from that point forward.
Val and I would eventually write the first article about Emma Hale Smith for an LDS Church publication in 115 years. We were delighted, even though Correlation (the LDS Church committee assigned to “standardize” all publications) redacted the original manuscript to where the Ensign published a piece half the size we submitted.
This was a harbinger of what was to come.
Emma’s role as the president of the Relief Society placed her in a unique position of power in Nauvoo. While the reasons for forming the Relief Society were to provide relief to the construction committees of the church working on the temple and various other city projects, the Relief Society’s role quickly expanded from making clothing and providing meals to the workers to policing conduct of women in the city. The inevitable result of practicing clandestine polygamy guaranteed conversation among members of the Relief Society. Emma’s counselors and secretary were all engaged in the practice. 2 of those 3 women were her sister-wives. The first meetings of the Relief Society were devoted to fellowship of women in the city and providing support for them, particularly those who were left home while their husbands were on missions for the prophet. The first meeting on March 17th carried some ambiguous language by Emma.
Prest. E. Smith then arose and proceeded to make appropriate remarks on the object of the Society—its duties to others also its relative duties to each other Viz. to seek out and relieve the distressed—that each member should be ambitious to do good—that the members should deal frankly with each other—to watch over the morals—and be very careful <of> the character and reputation—of the members of the Institution &c.
Emma organized the Relief Society to contain self-policing measures to ensure public perceptions remained that the “object of this Society… [is for] charitable purposes”. It was the very next meeting where Emma began with a speech “and said that measures to promote union in this Society must be carefully attended to—that every member should be held in full fellowship—as a society, hop’d they would divest themselves of every jealousy and evil feeling toward each other”. In this Victorian society, where women are already commodified, introducing a religious polygynous hierarchy into the mix only exacerbates the competition and jealousy among women. This played out in the Relief Society at large and in Emma’s own home with her sister-wives.
I can only assume that Emma never wanted this role, but slipped into it out of necessity. Nobody wants to be the rumor police, especially when those rumors are about your own husband and his friends. Emma’s full-time job was dealing with the problems caused by her husband and she was forced to do so in secret to keep from rumors becoming affidavits. This same second meeting of the Relief Society, a case presented itself which needed to be dealt with, Clarissa Marvel. From the Minutes linked in the show notes:
[Prest. E. Smith] proceeded to read to the honorable body, a report, wherein Clarissa Marvel was accus’d of scandalous falsehoods on the character of Prest. Joseph Smith, without the least provocation, praying that they would in wisdom adopt some plan to bring her to repentance
What actually happened with Clarissa Marvel is a matter of historical mystery as her name is incredibly elusive in contemporary documents. She was discussed and called to repentance the following meeting; the record reads that she signed a statement that anything she said regarding the prophet wasn’t true. After which a speech was made by Sarah Marietta Kingsley where she “caution[ed] the Society against speaking evil of Prest. J. Smith and his companion—that it would not be a light thing in the sight of God—that they had prov’d themselves; and the case of C[larissa]. M[arvel]. Should be a warning, how we hear and how we speak—her fears that the Lord would cut off those who will not take counsel”. Thus, the pattern of secrecy and policing polygamy rumors among the Relief Society was engraved into the record from that point forward. We saw what happened with Clarissa Marvel, she was a warning about how we speak, that if we speak evil of the prophet, that the Lord would cut off those who will not take counsel. That may seem innocuous read outside of context but that’s a death threat. When the Lord cuts somebody off, they were to expect a visit from Pistol Packin’ Porter Rockwell that night. A person cut off by the Lord usually didn’t wake up the next morning.
The more Val and Linda dealt with the history of polygamy while writing Mormon Enigma, the harder the project became at both an academic and personal level. Linda recounts a conversation with church historian Ron Esplin.
One day I remember marching into Ron Esplin’s office and blurting out, “Everybody is lying about polygamy! Joseph and other church leaders are lying! Emma is lying!”
Ron looked at me and calmly said, “You don’t know about the code words do you?” Then he explained that church leaders were answering the public accusations of polygamy with denials “of polygamy in the Asiatic sense,” or “spiritual wives,” but they privately called it “the new and everlasting covenant,” “celestial marriage,” or “a man’s privilege.”
Finally, by about 1981-2, Linda was now initiated and learned the code words, information which would have cut her research endeavors much shorter had the church been honest about its history and never obfuscated or lied about that information to begin with. The simple fact that official church historians at the time knew the code words of polygamy and the public was unaware, and still largely is today, speaks volumes to how much polygamy history has been deliberately lied about. Linda reckons with this information very honestly before telling a story about Val that hurts for me to read, especially considering this was in the early 80s when information about Mormon polygamy was actively suppressed and outright denied, and no internet could confirm this information with 7 seconds on google.
A lie is a lie whenever you knowingly lead someone to a conclusion that is false, even if what you say is true…
One day when I called [Val], I noticed her voice seemed strained and far away. I asked if something was wrong. “I’m sick,” she whispered, “sick to my stomach. I have been lying on the floor so I won’t throw up.” I expressed my concern and asked if she ate something that could have caused it. “No,” she said, “I’m just working in the polygamy section of Nauvoo where Joseph has taken Helen Mar Kimball as a wife—Linda, she was only fourteen! That is how old Maureen is.” Maureen was her only daughter.
Emma’s role in the Relief Society was gatekeeper of the secrets of the kingdom. Her word carried the weight of the prophet and her cautions were not taken lightly. As the Relief Society continued to grow into its own, Emma was fed information from members and her counselors as to the extent and spread of polygamy. She would ensure compliance and secrecy of participants through her role as president of the society. This had multiple effects. As her role developed and her policing of rumors increased, those in the celestial covenant began to bristle at her constant watch. Just like Emily and Eliza Partridge chafed under Emma’s watchful eye, the larger Society became selective of what information was shared with Emma. Meetings continued to be held throughout 1842, but the number of meetings dropped in 1843. Emma was active in politics and sending letters to Governor Ford on behalf of Joseph while he remained in hiding for the summer and autumn of 1843, having evaded extradition to Missouri by Sheriffs Wilson and Reynolds.
The final meeting of the Relief Society in 1843 occurred on October 14th. Emma’s absence was noted in this and many other meetings that year, which points to a few trends. Emma’s time was increasingly occupied with land speculation and recording real estate transfers. With the completion of the Nauvoo Mansion, more visitors and larger crowds were expected to be fed and entertained. Sick children, often feeling ill herself, and other sundry and time-consuming affairs ate away at Emma’s ability to oversee the Relief Society. The increasing destitution of the Mormons, who were all living on credit as no major manufacturing or export projects had been completed, left many sick and hungry, unable to afford food, let alone clothes or school supplies for the children.
But, more than all these factors, Emma was increasingly seen as hostile by members of the Society. Her vacillation from approval to outright abhorrence of polygamy made her unpredictable and caused the other women in the new and everlasting covenant to be very judicious with what information made its way to her. The Relief Society took a hiatus over the remainder of autumn into the winter of 1843-4. During this period, Emma stood her ground with Jo and demanded he remove his other wives from living in the Nauvoo Mansion. Arrangements were made and the Partridge sisters, Lawrence sisters, and Jane Manning James were transferred to other homes to live away from Jo’s grasp and Emma’s watchful eye. Concomitant with this purging of Jo’s younger cohabiting wives was a precipitous drop in new wives for the prophet. While other men in the city took more wives under the direction and approval of Jo, he himself didn’t take any new wives. To what extent Jo was finally acquiescing to Emma’s feelings or just trying to keep peace in the home, or maybe he was just more successful at keeping his new marriages secretive, we don’t know because the cloud of secrecy surrounding the practice at the time.
It is notable that Emma’s role in Nauvoo was far more than just regulating or obstructing polygamy. While so much conversation about Emma in Nauvoo is focused on polygamy, her time was occupied by many other affairs, almost exclusively financial. Joseph Smith wasn’t much for keeping records so the messes he made left Emma constantly scrambling to make sense of Jo’s complicated web of financial dealings and land contracts. When Jo was liquidating his assets to file for bankruptcy back in July to October of 1842, he transferred an insane amount of land to Emma and his kids, leaving Emma as one of the richest women in America at the time without nearly any documentation to back it up. A single document from July 12, 1843 listed 28 city blocks of Nauvoo from Jo to Emma. Her personal name is listed on at least 79 other property transfers in just the years from 1841-43. It’s safe to say that basically no other woman in America was this active in real estate speculation at the same time. Notably as well, those are merely the deeds and land records which survived, we actually don’t know the scope and extent of Emma’s land contracts and other financial dealings.
While writing Mormon Enigma, Val and Linda were both independent scholars and both had only written college level essays before, never a full-length book. Both were housewives in an era where working women were seen as an enemy to the nuclear family and female scholars were almost completely absent from the realm of Mormon history academia with only a few notable exceptions. Both, however, would go on after Mormon Enigma was published to be presidents of the Mormon History Association and give dozens of lectures and submit a handful of papers to various journals and conferences.
Remarkably, Val and Linda self-funded the research, which we’ll discuss in a moment. During this journey, Linda and Val met with Maureen Ursenbach Beecher, the foremost historian on Eliza R. Snow who was in the process of writing her seminal biography of Eliza when the three women met. They discussed how the church would react to the coming book on Emma.
We asked Maureen if she thought our book might cause a negative reaction with church leaders. She though a moment then said, “No, I don’t think so. There is a new, more open climate now with Leonard Arrington as Church Historian. But, I would be prepared if I were you.”
Signals began to emerge about the church disliking the project, particularly because of polygamy and their candid scholarly approach to the subject. Current events played into these matters as well; the nation was occupied with open and heated discussions about the Equal Rights Amendment and Mormon leadership vociferously opposed, viewing the ERA as a threat to the nuclear family and men’s dominion over their wives and families. As women’s role in society was growing to an extent never seen in America before the early 80s, both Val and Linda were invited to speak at firesides and sacrament meetings about Emma… with mixed results.
Val Avery was invited to speak at the Utah Westerners society in Salt Lake City “about the relationship between Emma Smith and Brigham Young.”
Linda continues the story with candor.
At that time the Utah Westerners was male only, as was the Alta Club, where the group met. Wilbur “Bud” Rusho, who Val had met earlier, had issued the invitation and accompanied her to the Alta Club the evening she spoke.
As they approached the front door, Bud told her, “You can’t go in that door, it is only for members. I will take you in the side door.”
Val shot back, “The hell you say!” and marched up the front stairs and into the lobby, much to the consternation of the door guard.
“Hey, you can’t come in this door,” he confronted.
“I already did,” she said, and walked right past him.
When Bud introduced her to the group, he told of her position as a woman sheriff in the Flagstaff Westerners and of her grand entry into the Alta Club. This being the one meeting a year that wives were invited to attend, she received resounding applause.
Not all speaking engagements were met with such good cheer and loud laughter. Val also spoke at a stake fireside about Emma, discussing the issue of Joseph’s polygamy openly to an audience of mostly teenagers. Val’s husband, Chuck, was called into the office of their stake president to have a hostile chat about his wife’s work.
Unbeknownst to Val, the Flagstaff Stake president had called Chuck into his office to talk to him. He told Chuck that Val had no right to be delving into Church history. “The Church has its own historians,” he said, “and if Church leaders want history written about Emma Smith or anything else, they will tell those historians to write it.” Then he told Chuck, “You must control your wife. She needs to stay home with her family—where she belongs.”
Prior to that, Val also had a run-in with her local LDS ward bishop, who was a close friend of the stake president. She was asked to give a talk on Joseph and Emma’s children at a fireside for the youth of her ward. In what was probably a lapse in judgment on her part, Val ended by talking about the possibility of children by Joseph’s plural wives. In a letter to me she wrote: “My Bishop was so affronted that he was rude at the fireside, challenged my statements, took the RLDS position that we do not know that Joseph Smith had wives other than Emma! And would not listen when I sought him out privately to explain.”
Then Val went on to detail another exchange between her and her bishop when Val was invited to teach a Gospel Doctrine class on Emma. Val, knowing the opposition she was receiving from her husband, stake president, and bishop, declined to teach the class and instead said she would attend and be a resource to answer questions. When the bishop caught wind that she would be there he confronted her.
“I understand you are going to teach the Gospel Doctrine class on Emma Smith this morning.” Val told him no, that she was only going to be a resource. “You will not go into that class,” he said. “As long as I am bishop of this ward, you will not talk about that woman in my church!”
We now have the words to identify this as ecclesiastical abuse, but the bishop, stake president, and Val’s husband, Chuck, were men operating with authority and exercising dominion over the hysteric woman in their lives. Such was the plight of independent women historians in the 70s and 80s while Val and Linda were writing Emma’s biography.
The Relief Society in Nauvoo under Emma’s direction had a new piece of propaganda to work with in 1844, known as the Voice of Innocence. Check the backlog for episode 173 where we read through it. This piece, written by W.W. Phelps, one of Jo’s chief propaganda ministers and his personal ghost-writer, and it was an open denial of polygamy, using those codewords Linda learned about in the late 1970s when she told Ron Esplin that everybody is lying about polygamy. The first meeting of the Relief Society in 1844 occurred on March 9 where Emma “read an Epistle called the Voice of Innocence—adressed the Meeting on the late Slander, of Hiram Smith &c by O F [Bostwick] which called forth—the above Epistle”. Those in attendance then voted on “who would be willing to receive the principles of vurtue, keep the commandments of God and uphold the [Presidentess] in puting <down> iniquity” which was “received by unanimous voice”. As Hyrum Sidekick-Abiff Smith had been accused of teaching and practicing polygamy by Orsimus Bostwick and the Warsaw Signal had published Buckeye’s Lamentation for want of more wives, it was clear to Emma and the Relief Society counselors that keeping polygamy under wraps was increasingly becoming a challenge.
In this same meeting, Elizabeth Ann Whitney spoke when she “requested the Sisters to Pray that Sister Emma might be supported, to teach us the princples of Righteousness expressed her fears, that Jugement would bgin at the house of God”. As the Nauvoo Temple was edging ever closer to completion by March 1844, the purposes of it were becoming clear as well, to purge those opposed to polygamy and judge the women who would be good candidates to be sealed to church leaders. This was merely an extension of the initial purposes of the Society so of course the Relief Society would be active in culling the weak and unfit for polygamy once it was completed. When we read through contemporary exposes of the temple ceremony, it’s very clearly a breeding ground for polygamous practices. This hypothesis is substantiated by what Emma said immediately after her counselor, Elizabeth Whitney, finished her speech.
Prest. S. said it was high time for Mothers to wach over their Daughters & exhort them to keep the path of virtue
Watching over daughters and exhorting them to keep the path of virtue is all very coded language when taken in the larger context of the stratified polygamy of Nauvoo. Mothers here most likely refers to the Mothers in Israel, the older women who were used as liaisons for church leaders to teach the younger women about the doctrine of polygamy, priming them to be approached by Jo or one of his best friends. What those Mothers in Israel learned from their conversations with the younger women would be fed back to those men who would use that information to form their plan of attack in their proposal. If the younger girl was receptive or open-minded to the doctrine, they’d become a prime target for Jo or his closest buddies. If they seemed repulsed by it, maybe the men choose a different young woman or alter their plans of how to approach her. The path of virtue is also a loaded phrase as the commandment on polygamy, well-known among the anointed quorum and High Council by this time which later became D&C 132, required new wives to be virgins, which was never strictly adhered to by the leadership. There was a conceptual exception to this commandment which allowed the men to marry women who weren’t virgins, they simply needed to not have had sex with the prospective polyandrous husband before the sealing ceremony, making her essentially a virgin to that church leader until after the sealing for time and eternity. This is how non-virgins could still be considered virtuous when marrying into polygamy, even if those women had kids with their lawful husband.
Once again, during this first meeting of the Relief Society in Nauvoo in 1844, we see Emma as tasked with the unenviable task of policing polygamy, both the practice of it with the various participants, and with curtailing the spread of rumors. Most historians have concluded that these statements should be taken at face value and were made by Emma because either her ignorance or her opposition to polygamy. I choose to view it differently. I think Emma had so long resigned to the fact that she couldn’t stop polygamy and the only way she could still exercise control and be helpful in polygamy was to be the gatekeeper and support system for the women caught up in it. Her statements can be viewed both ways but I chose the latter, especially when we see the minutes from the second meeting that day where Emma again read Voice of Innocence and then continued.
continued firther by exhorting all to take heed to their ways; and follow the teachings of Broather Joseph; and when he Preacheas against vice to take heed to it; and said; he meant what he said; concludid her remarks by requsting all to use theire common senses; and they would teach us right principles if we would adheare to them
The meeting was closed and called to reconvene for the next meeting a week later, which would be the final time the Relief Society would meet officially in Nauvoo. In this meeting of March 16th, 1844, Emma continued damage control with more coded language.
Mrs Prest… arose and adress’d the Meeting upon the Necssity of being united amoung ourselves and Strenthing each others hands in ordor that we may be able to do much good amoung the poor…
Then she read the Voice of Innocence again and “Spoke of J.C. Bennets Spiritual Wife system, theat some taught it as the Doctrene of B Joseph”. This is an important distinction with the code words. Spiritual wifery was the terminology used to attack John C. Wreck-it Bennett’s practice of polygamy once he defected. Time and eternity, new and everlasting covenant, Abrahamic covenant, other terms in Mormon theology today were used to describe the approved-of version of polygamy. It was only semantics and code words used to publicly deny polygamy while continuing to secretly practice it. The meeting adjourned for lunch and returned at one o’clock when Emma took the stand again to, what it looks like to me anyway, determine who would be willing to join polygamy with a public display.
Pres Emma Smith… Desired none shluld lift their hand or voice; to adopt the principles unless they where willing to maintain their integrity through time & Eternity Said thease contain the princples, the Society started upon; but was sorry to have to say all had not adhere’d to them
She wrapped the meeting by telling the women to follow the public teachings of her husband and that he couldn’t use clearer language. Spiritual wifery bad, celestial marriage good. Get it yet ladies?! With this final admonition, the Relief Society adjourned to never reconvene under Emma as presidentess in Nauvoo ever again. Notable as well, Emma was about a month along with her final of Jo’s children, David Hyrum Smith. She wouldn’t be showing yet and nobody probably knew it at this time, but by the time we get to June of 1844, she was four months along and would have been showing. This is the same David Hyrum Smith who would be locked up in an insane asylum for the last 20 years of his life because he was gay. History is fun.
As Linda and Val continued their research for Mormon Enigma, it became clear that no treatment of Emma without a head-on approach to polygamy would be laughed out of academia. However, some stories had percolated through the cultural heritage of Mormonism and they were hit with controversial questions from audiences. Linda describes a funny little interaction when a panel discussion was held with her, Val, and Maureen Beecher while Maureen was progressing on Eliza Snow’s biography.
Through friends and history contacts, word started to travel around Salt Lake that I was working on a biography of Emma Smith, and I began to get invitations to speak at book clubs, firesides, Relief Society meetings, and discussion groups. I always took questions, and when I didn’t know the answer, I focused on finding it next time I was in the archives. The most frequent question I got was: “Did Emma push Eliza R. Snow down the stairs?” Eventually, the two of us coauthored an article with Maureen Ursenbach Beecher, who was working on a biography of Eliza. We presented it as a panel titled “Emma, Eliza and the Stairs” at an MHA conference… An audience member asked if we believed that Emma had, indeed, pushed Eliza down the stairs. In unison, we answered, “Yes” (Val), “No” (Maureen), and “I don’t know” (me). After all our research and publishing an article on the alleged incident, we had each reached a different conclusion. There are several version to the story. The most common accounts say that fter catching Eliza and Joseph in an embrace in the upstairs hall, Emma (who did not know the two had secretly married) flew into a rage and pushed her down the stairs. Another says she dragged her down by her hair. Still another claims she turned her out into the dark in her nightgown. I believed there was enough evidence to conclude that there was a physical altercation, but we were unable to determine what exact form it took. Had it been me, I would have pushed her down the stairs.
The study of polygamy in Nauvoo taps into a lot of sensibilities, especially for historians who are believers in the form of nuclear cis-hetero marriage the church claims today. Salacious stories like this pervade the culture among those who know just a dabble of Mormon history but the larger topic itself causes so much conflict and question, often leading to answers researchers may see as counterintuitive or unnatural. Physical altercations like Emma’s Stairway to Hell, episode 137, seem to be rare but the competitive nature this polygamist society created obviously created pain and heartache in addition to making many young women the victims of sexual predation and rape. That’s uncomfortable for a lot of people to consider, that Joseph Smith was a rapist. Even more uncomfortable is that Emma’s inability to oppose her husband’s desires and her unique role as president of the Relief Society made her complicit in that sexual abuse, even though she was clearly unhappy with the role Jo had forced on her. People don’t want to see their heroes like the prophet and the Elect Lady of Mormonism as co-criminals on top of a criminal syndicate of rape, but that’s the most simplistic summary of what occurred in Nauvoo.
Publicly speaking about these controversial aspects revealed through their research, Val and Linda both experienced increased opposition from church leaders, local ecclesiastical authorities, and even their own husbands. That opposition, however, was matched by encouragement from LDS and RLDS historians who eagerly awaited the fruits of Val and Linda’s work. Once Mormon Enigma was published, Val and Linda were publicly banned from addressing any church gatherings about Emma or the book. They were blacklisted, but they remained in good standing with the church by obeying these orders. However, the Streisand effect played a huge role and the second edition of their book, which is sitting on my lap with margins full of notes, reads this in the introduction.
But the book offended the leadership of the LDS Church in Utah. In June 1985, a month after it received the Evans award, newspaper headlines of the Los Angeles Times announced, “Mormons Forbid Female Biographers of Smith’s Wife to Address Church.” We were prohibited from speaking about any aspect of religious or church history in any LDS Church-related meeting or institution. Church leaders took this action without reading the book in its entirety or informing us of their decision, and it remained in effect over ten months. In the wake of the national publicity caused by the ban, the sales of the book tripled, but the church’s speaking ban was detrimental to all concerned—it took its toll on us, our families, and on the public perception of the church itself.
Only a week after the ban was lifted did the Mormon History Association name Val Avery as their president elect in 1986. What that says about MHA and the church in the 1980s, I’m not sure so take it how you will. Simply put, the church can only control independent researchers so much. Val and Linda funded their research themselves, whether that was a typist in the days before computers and word processing programs, their trips to historic sites and archives, their thousands of pages of copied archives, their long-distance phone calls that became a problem with their spouses, it was all their project and everything was under their control, much to the church’s chagrin. If they can’t control what people publish, they will control what the public thinks about what’s published. If that doesn’t work, they will control what the public thinks about the person who published it in the first place.
Emma Smith’s role in the weeks prior to Jo and Hyrum’s deaths have cast her into the category of a hysterical woman who had a mental breakdown by those who blame her for their deaths. We can never forget that, for all of her public opposition to polygamy and her role in the RLDS church and raising her son to be the prophet of it, Emma became the victim of a vicious and total character assassination campaign by the Utah leadership. Emma’s real story is so terribly obscured by this coordinated propaganda campaign that the contemporary leadership were able to effectively blame Emma for Jo and Hyrum’s deaths. As Val and Linda put it in Mormon Enigma, albeit in very gentle terms:
Details of Emma’s role in events during the next few days [June 12-28] are critical to understanding later accusations leveled at her. When Brigham Young and other leaders tried to reconstruct this period, they relied on reminiscences in which Emma’s actions were often interpreted unfavorably.
I find Val and Linda are too generous to LDS leadership here, possibly owing to their belief in the church. Brigham and LDS leadership outright lied about Emma’s role in order to vilify and blame her for the assassinations. These deliberate and calculated lies about her actions cloud the historical record and make it very challenging to determine fact from propaganda to minimize the role and power of the RLDS church during Bloody Brigham’s reign.
Emma has been blamed by members of the LDS church for the deaths of Jo and Hyrum. This has all been done as a result of a smear campaign begun by Bloody Brigham and the SLC leadership. As Linda and Val describe throughout chapter 13, Emma was relatively calm and resolved in her own actions and she followed the instructions of her husband. Yes, Emma sent the letter to Jo across the Mississippi when he was in hiding urging him to return, but Emma’s letter was carried by Jo’s friends who called him a coward. That charge of cowardice is what Val and Linda claim was the turning point for Jo, but sending the letter to Jo telling him to come back isn’t the only thing Emma did that church leaders have used to vilify Emma. Further clarification follows through Chapter 13 of Mormon Enigma. Jo’s original arrest on charges of riot led to his first hearing in the Nauvoo Municipal court which discharged the prisoners. Jo held his military parade and gave his final public speech to the Mormons. Val and Linda pick up from there.
Emma saw little of Joseph in the following four days. He spent most of his time sequestered in his office, planning a defensive strategy aware that in a short time he could be arrested again. He gathered affidavits in his behalf and wrote to Governor Ford explaining his actions in the destruction of the Expositor…
When Joseph retreated to his office, he assigned Alpheus Cutler and Reynolds Cahoon to guard the door. Emma moved into her usual role in times of crisis: she acted as a liaison between him and anyone intruding into his privacy, carried messages to him, and apprised him of the outside situation.
Emma had developed a formula out of necessity for dealing with herself, her husband, and her children during times of crisis. From Jo being attacked, beaten, tarred and feathered in 1832, resulting in the death of one of their adopted children, to multiple times in both Missouri and Illinois that authorities called on her residence asking for the prophet to arrest him, Emma’s ability to cope in these situations held the family together and often kept Jo out of the custody of the state. Yes, Jo had a group of bodyguards lurking in the shadows, but not every situation called for their hammer-and-nail approach to dealing with problems. Sometimes, the careful and precise wit of Emma was exactly what was needed to keep the prophet safe.
After the first hearing in the Nauvoo Municipal court, Jo sent for Judge Thomas to give some guidance as to how to proceed, who told him to hold another hearing in front of somebody not connected with the church, which Jo eventually did hold the second hearing in front of Daniel H. Wells. Wells wasn’t a member of the church technically, but he’d go on to lead some of the most crucial massacres in the Utah Territory commanding his company of Nauvoo Legionnaires. How that information reached Jo has been a source of character assassination against Emma, although the conflict seems to have arisen more out of confusion and seems far from deliberate on Emma’s part.
When Anson Call offered to help, Joseph sent him and David Evans eighty miles to Knoxville to deliver an affidavit and letter to Jesse B. Thomas, judge of the circuit court, requesting clarification of Thomas’s earlier instructions about Joseph’s legal rights.
The two men returned to the Mansion on June 20 with a letter from Judge Thomas, but the guards refused them entry to Joseph’s office. When Anson Call insisted, Cutler and Cahoon disappeared inside. After they returned, the four men argued sharply, but Call and Evans refused to leave until they had personally delivered the letter. A few minutes later Lorenzo Wasson appeared and said Emma would see them.
“You have a letter for Joseph, haven’t you?” Emma asked. The two men agreed and insisted they see joseph. Anson Call remembered that “She used many arguments and persuasions and we left the room and concilled together and concluded to give her the letter.” Emma broke the seal and read the contents in the presence of the five men. Call later reconstructed the message from memory: “I find that you were mistaken in the instructions I gave you while at Nauvoo, now sir I know of no course for you to pursue to answer the requirements of the law but to suffer yourself to be taken by the officer holding the writ and go before the justice of the peace who issued the same and have an investigation of the matter. It is the officers duty to protect you.” Call and Evans left the Mansion harboring the notion that Emma acted without Joseph’s authority. In his autobiography, written years later, Call suggested that, because Willard Richards did not remember seeing the letter from Judge Thomas, Emma did not give it to Joseph. Characteristically, Emma was steady in a crisis. Undoubtedly she gave Joseph the letter. He probably gave it a glance but chose not to give himself up.
Emma not delivering this letter from Judge Thomas to Jo has been a source of controversy which helped the SLC leadership pin his death on Emma. It was Judge Thomas’s letter that told Jo that the first hearing wasn’t good enough which caused them to hold the second hearing before Daniel H. Wells and it was this second letter which told Jo to just give himself up, which he didn’t do for another 5 days after receiving it. Whether or not he read the letter, and whether or not Emma gave him the letter, is a matter of conjecture, which means it’s one ambiguity in the weeks between the Expositor destruction and Carthage the SLC leadership used to vilify Emma.
Another action of Emma’s used to vilify her is an issue with the horses. Jo and Hyrum wanted their horses brought to them by Pistol Packin’ Porter when they were in hiding across the Mississippi and refusing Governor Ford’s orders to surrender. They wanted their horses so they could begin their journey across the plains to Mexico on the other side of the Rockies with the Mormons soon to follow. Continuing in Mormon Enigma from page 186:
Not long after Rockwell left Emma’s door, Stephen Markham came and explained that Joseph wanted him to dismiss the Legion before dawn so anyone coming from Carthage would not know they were under arms [martial law]. Markham was also to send Joseph’s and Hyrum’s horses across the river on the eight o’clock boat Sunday morning. Markham had gone home after disbanding the Legion the night before and apparently overslept because it was nine o’clock when he appeared at the Mansion—he should have had the horses on the boat an hour earlier. He found the barn door locked with the horses inside. It was locked for good reason. The night before a posse had ridden into Nauvoo to look for Joseph, promising they would return. Emma saw that no unauthorized person could get to Joseph’s horses. In the confusion of his departure, Joseph had given conflicting orders. He had told Porter Rockwell to take the horses across that evening under cover of darkness. Since Rockwell had delivered Joseph’s letter before Markham arrived, she no doubt knew the horses were to leave that night and refused to give Markham the key which, he said, was in her pocket. When he threatened to chop the door down Emma told him, “You may go and deliver yourself up and rest contented that they will get the horses.”
Jo had also sent order to Emma that she was to depart for Ohio and head for Washington D.C. Whether he would join his wife in meeting with the president or expected her to meet with president John Tyler on his behalf while he and Hyrum were crossing the plains towards Mexico is still a matter of historical controversy. He expected her answer to his order that same night while the remaining leadership in Nauvoo were weighing the balance of Jo turning himself in with what might happen if he didn’t.
At Markham’s departure, Reynolds Cahoon and Hiram Kimball headed toward the Mansion House. They met Wandle Mace and his brother in the street near Emma’s home. Kimball and Cahoon were “very much excited, and thought it was absolutely necessary that Joseph should return,” Mace related in his journal. “If Joseph don’t come back the Governor will put the city under martial law, and then nothing can be brought into the city, neither can anything be taken out, and then what will all our property be worth?”
Wandle Mace countered, “We [should not] for the sake of a little property, be so selfish as to push [Joseph] into the very jaws of death!”
Cahoon and Kimball turned toward the Mansion. The Mace brothers watched them stop outside the gate, absorbed in conversation. “We… both felt the impression that they were going to persuade Sister Emma, Joseph’s wife, to write to him and prevail on him to return, this feeling came upon us so forcibly, we were very uneasy.”
From these later reminiscences, accusations were drawn up by the SLC leadership that Emma’s success in “prevail[ing] on [Joseph] to return” was what caused his martyrdom. The message was placed in the hands of Porter Rockwell who found Jo and Hyrum across the river in Montrose, Iowa territory.
The four men reached Joseph at one o’clock that same afternoon on June 23. Joseph read Emma’s letter, then handed it to Hyrum. “I know my business,” he said, indicating that his course would be to leave.
Reynolds Cahoon snapped, “you always said if the church would stick to you, you would stick to the church, now trouble comes and you are the first to run.” Hiram Kimball chimed in and the two men called Joseph a coward, reminding him that if mobs destroyed their property they would all be homeless.
These were cutting words. “If my life is of no value to my friends, it is of none to myself,” Joseph replied.
It wasn’t Emma’s letter that convinced Jo to return, it was Hiram Kimball and Reynolds Cahoon calling him a coward and Hyrum telling Jo they should see this thing out that caused Jo to return. It’s only a myth that Emma was responsible for convincing Jo to return, although her words in the letter probably did go some distance in convincing him. She doesn’t bear the responsibility any more than Hiram Kimball, Reynolds Cahoon, and Hyrum Smith. Besides, it was Jo’s actions which led to this whole situation anyway, we can never forget that.
Now, to the final myth Emma is accused of for being responsible for Jo’s death, the garments. It has long been circulated that Emma convinced Jo to remove his endowment garments before departing for Carthage, which would have protected him when the mob attacked if he had them on. This is plain stupid for two reasons. First, the endowment garments at the time were only worn during the ceremony itself, not outside it. Mormon wearing their sacred garments 24/7 is a construct of SLC Mormonism and was never the practice during Jo’s life. Second reason this is stupid, cloth underwear doesn’t do anything to stop a bullet because, and I can’t emphasize this enough, they aren’t magic or made from Kevlar! Linda and Val dismantle this argument from top to bottom in one short paragraph in Mormon Enigma:
Brigham Young later alleged that Emma had Joseph remove his “garment of the priesthood” before going to Carthage to give himself up the next morning. Since these garments, worn by all the members of the Endowment Council, were seen as unspecified “protection” for the wearer, the insinutation is that Emma wished Joseph harm. Three other accounts refute Young’s statement. The most reliable of these took place in December 1845, in a Nauvoo Temple meeting with seventy-five newly “endowed” men and women present. Significatnly, Heber C. Kimball presided in the absence of Brigham Young. Until this time the priesthood garment or “robe” had been worn, for the most part, during participation in the endowment ordinances. After the death of Joseph Smith, minutes kept by William Clayton in the Nauvoo Temple show an increasing emphasis put on the now assumed protective power of the garment or robe, with the implication that members would be kept safe from physical harm if they wore it all the time. IT was during a discussion of this nature that “Elder John Taylor confirmed… that Joseph and Hyrum and himself were without their robes in the jail at Carthage, while Doctor Richards had his on, but corrected the idea that some had that they had taken them off through fear. W.W. Phelps said Joseph told him one day about that time, that he had laid aside his garments on account of the hot weather.” Kimball ended the discussion by saying that “word came to him and to all the Twelve about that time to lay aside their garments, and take them to pieces, or cut them up so that they could not be found.”
It took more than a year for the Apostles to inculcate into the members minds the propaganda that they were supposed to wear their endowment garments at all times and that Jo wasn’t wearing his because of Emma when he died in Carthage. They were deliberate lies and rewriting of history as it was more than a year from everybody’s memories when the propaganda was crafted. Bloody Brigham is a terrible human being and Emma was his punching bag. The LDS Church has treated her as the cause of Jo’s death for multiple reasons for over a century and a half because Bloody Brigham lied. He lied about everything and he did it only to serve his own interests.
It was paramount for Brigham to minimize Emma and elevate his own authority, especially when we consider what happened when Jo returned to Nauvoo with his friends and said a final goodbye to his family the day before he surrendered to Governor Ford that same night at 5 minutes to midnight on June 24th. From Mormon Enigma, Linda and Val take a moment to describe the entire Smith family.
Joseph stayed with Emma and the children that night. Julia at thirteen would never be a beauty, but her brown eyes and thick hair were assets. She was a sensitive girl with a streak of daring and a sense of humor that endeared her to her father. At eight years, blond, blue-eyed Frederick looked more like his father than the others. Six-year-old Alexander resembled his mother in coloring and features, as did young Joseph. Young Joseph remembered being called into a large north room of the Mansion where his father gave him a blessing similar to the one he had received in the red brick store a year earlier and said to the assembled group, “If anything should happen to me, you will know who is to be my successor. This, my son, has been blessed and set apart, and will in time succeed me.”
One of Jo’s final acts before leaving Nauvoo for Carthage the last time was to set apart Joseph III as his rightful successor. This does away with any other claims to authority made by the SLC church, Hingepin Rigdon, the Whitmers, James Strang, or anybody else claiming authority from Jo. Joseph III in every way was Jo’s rightful successor and only 3 days before Jo was dead in Carthage he sealed that blessing on Joseph III’s head in a room full of witnesses who largely followed Joseph III when he formed the Reorganized church (RLDS) in 1860.
To magnify how much Emma loved her husband and did everything in her power to keep him safe when she could; how much she loved her family, and how much she loved her personal god, permit me one more reading today to round out the episode as the last communication Emma sent to her husband after he’d been committed to Carthage Jail on charges of treason. This is a crucial letter known as “these desires of my heart,” written the night Jo was riding to Carthage to surrender at 5 minutes to midnight.
First of all that I would crave as the richest of heaven’s blessings would be wisdom from my Heavenly Father bestowed daily, so that whatever I might do or say, I could not look back at the close of the day with regret, nor neglect the performance of any act that would bring a blessing. I desire the Spirit of God to know and understand myself, that I desire a fruitful, active mind, that I may be able to comprehend the designs of God, when revealed through his servants without doubting. I desire a spirit of discernment, which is one of the promised blessings of the Holy Ghost.
I particularly desire wisdom to bring up all the children that are, or may be committed to my charge, in such a manner that they will be useful ornaments in the Kingdom of God, and in the coming day arise up and call me blessed.
I desire prudence that I may not through ambition abuse my body and cause it to become prematurely old and care-worn, but that I may wear a cheerful countenance, live to perform all the work that I covenanted to perform in the spirit-world and be a blessing to all who may in any wise need aught at my hands.
I desire with all my heart to honor and respect my husband as my head, ever to live in his confidence and by acting in unison with him retain the place which God has given me by his side, and I ask my Heavenly Father that through humility, I may be enabled to overcome that curse which was pronounced upon the daughters of Eve. I desire to see that I may rejoice with them in the blessings which God has in store for all who are willing to be obedient to his requirements. Finally, I desire that whatever may be my lot through life I may be enabled to acknowledge the hand of God in all things.
Emma had no way of knowing this would be her last letter to her husband. She had no idea what the future held. She had no idea of how to keep the Mormon settlement in control as thousands of people cast their eyes toward her to be the mouthpiece of her husband in his absence. Emma had no way of controlling the overt and deliberate character assassination she suffered after his death. This letter is a testament to her wisdom in that only the wise will pray to their god earnestly asking for such broad swaths of wisdom in return. We can’t control what happened to Emma’s legacy after her death, but we can be appreciative to revisionist historians like Linda King Newell and Valeen Tippets Avery who worked tirelessly for years to write a biography that did the complicated enigma that is Emma Hale Smith the justice her life actually deserved. My first episode talking about Emma was titled Blushing Bride, Mafia Wife. I had no idea what I was talking about. But I supplicated at the altar of Mormon history academia and the endowments of wisdom were granted thanks to these wonderful scholars.
But what about Emma? She, like everybody else thought Jo would get out of this scrape with the law like he had every other scrape before. She thought his departure from Nauvoo to Carthage would result in his victorious return having one yet another legal battle and the Smith family would continue to build the Kingdom on the Mississippi until the stone could roll forth and fill the whole earth. I can’t help but wonder when studying various figures in Nauvoo history whether they truly believed or not. It’s never a simple question. What we do know is Emma fought and struggled with some doctrines more than others. She had a history of dealing with Jo’s sexual indiscretions their entire married life so a revelation claiming polygyny was required for salvation couldn’t have struck her as anything more than a plot to stop her incessant complaints to her husband. However, she also witnessed the authorship process of the Book of Mormon and her public statements, including her death bed confession, reveal the claimed narrative as accurate. Also notable is that for her entire life, all her financial and social success, including becoming one of the wealthiest women in America for a brief time, were predicated on sticking to the story Jo had crafted. Even after Jo’s death, her reliance on the Book of Mormon as scripture was absolutely necessary for her eldest son, Joseph III, to retain credibility as the rightful heir his father had ordained him to be. We know she lied about polygamy. We know she lied by using codewords and outright lied to her own son on her deathbed when her son remembers calling Eliza R. Snow aunt Eliza when Eliza lived in the Nauvoo Mansion with the Smiths. The simple fact is, it’s impossible to nail down exactly what Emma was, what she truly believed, and what secrets she carried with her to her grave. In that regard, Val and Linda chose the perfect title for Emma’s seminal biography as Emma truly is the Mormon Enigma.
Check show notes for links to both books discussed today and please buy them from an independent retailer instead of feeding the monster that’s taking over all commerce in this country
Upcoming GBP interview about this book, we’re working out the details for a panel of historians during the New Mormon history era.
Coming soon on GBP as well, an interview about Ezra Benson, who was influential in shaping Mormon politics as an apostle and was prophet for many of the years historians were doing their research.
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