Emma Smith was the wife of the first Mormon prophet, Joseph Smith. Mormon is a nickname sometimes given to members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, often inadvertently called the Mormon Church. Her story is complex and has been the subject of great debate both by Mormons and those who are not Mormon. Mormons today tend to look at her more in context of her entire life and not just very small aspects of it. It is understood that she entered into a life more challenging than she could ever have imagined as a young bride who had, until her marriage, lived a life of privilege.

Early Life and Marriage of Emma Smith

Emma smith called an elect ladyEmma Smith was born in 1804 in Pennsylvania. Her family was fairly well-off financially, and so Emma was well-educated for a woman of her time. She was a schoolteacher and even owned items of value, including cows. These may have been given as payment for teaching. Her family was religious, devoutly Christian. Everything in her life to adulthood had been designed to prepare her for a comfortable life as the wife of a traditional and probably successful man with a background similar to her own.

Instead, she fell in love with Joseph Smith, the son of a struggling farmer. His family cobbled together a living as best they could, always working hard at their various family industries, but never quite getting ahead. Joseph had completed only a few years of formal schooling, having learned the basics from his father in the years there were no schools nearby and then attending only about three years in a regular school. He was literate, but not enough to write a good letter, much less a book.

Furthermore, he had “unusual ideas about religion” and was the subject of a great deal of gossip. When Joseph Smith was fourteen, he went into the woods to pray about which church to join. God and Jesus Christ appeared to him and instructed him not to join any church, since none had the complete gospel. As a young adult, an angel named Moroni had appeared to him and taught him about a book of ancient scripture that testified of the Bible and of Jesus Christ. It would be called the Book of Mormon, after Moroni’s father, who abridged the ancient record. Moroni and other heavenly messengers would begin the long process of turning Joseph Smith into a prophet of the restored church.

All of this alarmed Emma’s family, even though Joseph was working hard to be worthy of Emma. He continued attending school while also working to help support his family. He was known as a dependable and honest worker, some describing him as the best worker they had ever hired.

Emma eloped with Joseph, since she did not have her family’s support to marry him. They lived with his family and then, for a while, lived with her family.

Emma Smith, Wife of a Prophet

Eventually, Moroni deemed Joseph ready to receive the ancient plates on which the Book of Mormon was written. He went to retrieve them and Emma rode along, remaining in the wagon to pray as he did so.

As the plates were being translated, they were stored under a cloth. She often moved them around as she cleaned, but felt no temptation to look under the cloth, being a woman of extraordinary faith.

Despite his best efforts, Joseph did not write or spell well enough to record the translations he made through inspiration. From time to time, Emma acted as his scribe. One day, as they were working, he looked up in a panic and asked her if the city of Jerusalem had been surrounded by walls. She told him it had been and he was relieved. He hadn’t known, and seeing the words on the plates he was translating, had been afraid he’d been deceived. Eventually, others would offer to scribe, freeing her to care for her home and family.

Emma Smith: A Life with Many Trials

Many of Emma’s children died young, including her first three, all of whom died even before they were named. A set of twins died and she had the opportunity to adopt another set immediately after. Their mother had died in childbirth and the father felt inadequate to care for them alone. One of these twins would die as a result of a mob invasion of their home. The twins were very ill, and shortly after Joseph had sent his wife to bed with the girl twin, who was finally asleep, and then had eventually gone to sleep himself by the other sleeping twin, a mob broke into the house and left the door wide open. They dragged Joseph out into the street and tarred and feathered him.   The little boy was caught in the draft, and already very ill, died soon after. She also lost one child at the age of fourteen months and an additional child within the coming year.

Life was hard for Emma. Losing so many children was heartbreaking enough, but she also lost her home many times. Mobs forced the Mormons from their homes, often in the midst of winter, and many times she was forced to flee with nothing. On occasion she had to escape with the children alone because the mobs continually had Joseph Smith arrested in hopes of destroying The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints by removing its leaders from influence.

She often found herself having to live with other people after these upheavals, but she also frequently hosted other homeless people when she was the one with a home. While living in Illinois, a group of free African Americans arrived at her doorstep with bleeding feet and little to their name. They had been denied passage on a boat due to their race after their money for the trip had already been paid, and they had walked from the east coast to reach the Mormon settlement. She was at her door when she saw them coming and quickly brought them into her home and put them at her dinner table to eat with the family. She and Joseph invited them to stay on as guests until they could find jobs and homes. When all but one had been settled, she found the last woman, a teenager named Jane Manning, in tears over her inability to find work. Emma hired the girl herself, providing room and board as well as a salary.

As the president of the women’s auxiliary, known as the Relief Society, and as the wife of the prophet, she spent considerable time nurturing, comforting, and teaching other women, even when she herself was in need of comfort.

Revelation revealed that God considered her an elect lady, a term that is often used by Mormon women today to define how they should live their lives and cope with their trials.

Emma Smith and Polygamy

Emma did not have a long history of Mormon women to use as example. When new situations arose, she was often the first to have to cope with them. One challenge she faced was that of the doctrine of polygamy. She couldn’t turn to her neighbors for advice and comfort on making that revelation work successfully, as later women did.

When God revealed the doctrine of plural marriage to Joseph as part of the “restoration of all things,” Joseph could see the principle in the Book of Mormon, wherein the prophet Jacob explained that it was only acceptable during periods when God ordained it, and it was for the raising up of seed unto God.  Joseph couldn’t accept it or practice it or even reveal it for some years until he was warned and chastised by God.

At the time Joseph Smith was the prophet, only a small number of Latter-day Saints practiced polygamy, and everyone, male and female, struggled with feelings of uneasiness and uncertainty about how to handle it. As we see in the Bible, even the most righteous people in ancient times struggled with the practice. Abraham was forced to send his second family away. His grandson Jacob’s wives struggled with jealousy regularly.

Emma struggled as well. She accepted the revelation initially and worked to become comfortable with it. Then, Emma went back and forth between acceptance and avoidance.  One obvious reason, in addition to the principle’s effect in her private life, was that the Saints were already bitterly persecuted, and it was certain that persecution would increase should the Saints begin to practice plural marriage.  This indeed was the case.

There is no evidence that any children resulted from the plural marriages of Joseph Smith, with one woman writing in her journal that when the marriage was performed, Joseph shook her hand and they both went back to their separate homes. Joseph generally brought another man along to the proposal or asked a relative of the woman to do it for him. There was no courtship or romance involved in the process of finding a new wife. DNA testing has been done on descendants of all children whom critics of the Church believed were the result of Joseph’s other marriages, where there are descendants, and all tests have proven negative. Since Joseph was able to father children, it is clear he saw it as simply a way to join families in the afterlife, not as co-habiting marriage.

Regardless of the format of the marriages, Emma found it increasingly difficult to cope with them. Historian Richard Bushman says they had many deep and intense discussions on the subject and their marriage was severely strained.

Their relationship improved when the temple was completed. She was one of the first to perform the ordinances that allowed Mormons to make covenants to live a Christ-like life and afterwards, she worked in the temple, helping others as they did the same.

Emma Smith’s Life after Joseph Smith’s Murder

Despite her worries over polygamy, Emma continued to support Joseph Smith in his work as the prophet and to testify of him in that role. She cared for him and grieved mightily at his death. She took a lock of his hair from his body and wore it the rest of her life. Stories tell that she dreamed of him and their mansion in heaven shortly before her death, and that his name was on her lips at the time of her death.

Her actions after his death are one reason some Mormons have struggled to understand her. She was left with five children in a time when the Mormons were in great danger. She quickly realized her financial situation was complicated by the fact that in those early days of the Church, the family’s money and property was mingled with church property, something no longer done. It was unclear just what belonged to her and what belonged to the Church, particularly since Joseph often used his own money to support church needs, a practice that had generated debts she found herself responsible for.

She and Brigham Young, the new Mormon prophet, had disagreements over what she had a right to take and what belonged to the Church. She held onto some of the properties as a way to support herself and her children, but the struggle created a rift between her and church leaders, as well as some church members. Everyone in the Church was on edge as they realized they would have to flee once again and everyone feared for his or her life. This made people less considerate of her challenges than they might have been under normal circumstances.

As she found herself alienated from many church members, and because her health was poor, she chose to remain behind when the Mormons fled to Utah. Joseph’s mother also remained behind due to age and health. Over the years, Emma would help to care for Joseph’s mother. However, she initially left the city because she and her children were in danger from those who had killed her husband. When she returned, she struggled to support her family using the properties she owned.

She married Major Lewis Bidamon, a military man who was not Mormon but who had supported the Mormons during the attacks on them. He was the father of an illegitimate child. When he fathered another illegitimate child during their marriage, she took the child in and raised it as her own.

When Joseph Smith was murdered, some people had fought for control of the Church. One small group argued that the role of prophet and president ought to be handed down from father to son. Emma’s son was too young to fill the role, so these men decided to operate a splinter group from the Church in trust for him until he was of age.

He initially resisted their attempts. Emma had taught her children the Bible and Book of Mormon at home, but had avoided becoming associated with any other church. However, her son eventually agreed to head up the church that had been held for him. Emma dutifully joined, but never became active in the church. This church became known as The Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and is today known as The Community of Christ and is an evangelical church.  Over the years it has pulled farther and farther away from its origins.  It has about 250,000 members.

Evaluations of Emma Smith are colored by the expectations and motives of those who study her. Some Mormons want her to be perfect, an unrealistic expectation for any person, but particularly for one who faced so many complications and who was forced to pave a new path with no prior examples to follow. Non-Mormons often want her to serve as some sort of “proof” the Church was false. Either expectation is unfair to Emma and avoids the simple truth that she was a complex person who didn’t always live up to her own expectations for herself. She was thrown into a life for which she was little prepared and had to create her own path. She did the best she could under extraordinary circumstances. She retained her testimony of Joseph Smith all her life, even after she remarried. She struggled, as all people struggle, to fit her life to the expectations of God for His children, but she was noted as a kind and caring woman. Her mother-in-law stated that no other woman had endured so many trials with so much grace.

Mormons today are taught to honor and respect her, accepting that she was less than perfect, but acknowledging her essential contributions to the gospel, both in her own church work and in her support of her husband throughout his lifetime. Today, many of her descendants are returning to the church Joseph Smith led and are helping us to see them as real and complex people.

Sources:

Turley, Richard E., and Brittany A. Chapman. “A Comfort unto My Servant, Joseph.” Women of Faith in the Latter Days. Salt Lake City, Utah: Deseret Book Company, 2011. 343-362. Print.

Bushman, Richard L., and Jed Woodworth. Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2005. Print.

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