Lately, Emma Smith has become quite the popular figure in Mormon history circles. I’m offering some of my thoughts about Emma, her legacy, and our modern-day treatment of her story.
During my time working at the Joseph Smith Historic Site in Nauvoo, Illinois, I’ve seen many people pick up a certain postcard depicting Emma Smith. They gaze at her photograph, the one with the embroidered shawl around her shoulders and her simple gold-plated necklace around her neck, and they say, “She just looks so tired. She had such a hard life, I can’t even imagine.” Her right eye droops and her mouth is turned down. She may look sad to modern eyes.
But Emma was in her 60s when that photograph was taken, and besides, people didn’t smile for photos back then. Back then, most women lost half of the children they bore; back then, settlers of all types, of all nationalities, all across the fledgling United States, eked out a living from the rough, stony ground and disease-ridden swamps.
Emma was no different from any of these. She might have simply been one more of those thousands of individuals whose names and stories blur together to form our collective understanding of “the settlers.” No different, other than she was married to Joseph Smith. A decision made against the wishes of her father, back in the eastern United States, in the years of her youth, became a decision that forever solidified Emma’s name as a permanent fixture in the history books. Emma Hale became Emma, the wife of Joseph, the “Elect Lady,” and later, even after she remarried Lewis Bidamon, Emma was known as the Widow Smith.
That decision catapulted Emma into a life of criticisms and judgments, intrusions into her life, pointed questions about polygamy, and endless comparisons to her first husband’s beliefs and church teachings. It also ensured that stories about her benevolent spirit, wit, tireless work ethic, and independence would be preserved, and for this we are truly lucky.
Today, I’m not offering a historical analysis of Emma’s life—I’ll leave that to the academics and historians. Biographical details, quotes, and facts about Emma’s life are already extensively documented in a variety of sources. I’ve read these sources and have done some thinking about Emma, but, I have to confess, I’m hesitant to write an essay on Emma Smith.
Recently, there has been a lot of attention given to Emma. There have been scholarly articles and papers at history conferences, film interpretations of her life, conversations on blogs and virtual threads, and of course, this panel. People talk about her faults and merits, some sympathize with her and others judge her.
As a guide walking visitors of many religious backgrounds through Joseph and Emma’s Nauvoo homes, I have been exposed to many of these perspectives on Emma. Some visitors speak about Emma with respect and sympathy underlined with a sense of pity for a woman who somehow made the wrong decision to stay in Nauvoo and remarry. Some see Emma as the ultimate model of justice, faithfulness, and compassion. Some wonder how in the world Emma put up with Joseph and his antics.
It’s tempting to idealize Emma Smith, however we may understand her character. But I don’t think it’s as simple as that.
How can we pretend to know a person, to make a judgment on his or her personality, by reading scraps of business transactions or one side of a conversation, by considering insults and criticisms hurled from a thousand miles away by former acquaintances, or by descriptions of how the cow is doing or how the garden grows? We see parts of Emma’s personality emerge through stories like the time when Lewis repeatedly forgot to fix the old stairs to the cellar so that Emma could safely carry the milk down and Emma “gently” reminded him by throwing that milk down there, or when Joseph brought some political candidates home for dinner without warning Emma. She scrambled a meal together and served some fried bread for dessert. The guests complimented Emma on her dessert and asked what she called it. “Candidates,” she replied. “Why?” they asked. Emma explained: “Because they are puffed up and full of hot air!”
What do we know from these glimpses into Emma’s life?
We know that she constantly took in boarders, friends, and children of all ages, providing room and board and love and care. In 1844, Emma took the time to sit down and thoughtfully compose what she called “these desires of my heart.” “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 a coming day rise up and call me blessed.” She always left room for one more in her house. In their biography, Mormon Enigma, authors Linda Newell and Valeen Avery tell the story of how a neighborhood boy fell into the river near Emma’s house. She invited him in, dried him off, and offered cookies to him and his friends. After that, it seemed that quite a few boys “accidentally” fell into the river.
We know that Emma was intelligent. She routinely managed financial decisions and business matters. After Joseph’s death, Emma was left with a crushing debt and was forced to navigate the complicated world of legal claims to lands and properties and competing interests from all sides. She ensured that her children received an education. People described her as well-spoken.
We know that she loved her family. She offered them shelter when they had none. She cared for her mother-in-law, Lucy Mack Smith, and her son, Frederick as their health was failing.
She loved lilacs and damson plums. She sang. She made a “most excellent salve” with elder bark, camphor, and mutton tallow.
She struggled with polygamy.
But what do we really know from these glimpses into Emma’s life? A woman emerges who was loyal, yet also rebellious. She was kind sometimes, and stern sometimes. She changed her mind. She was a trusted confidante to Joseph but also an outsider. She was a questioner and an obedient, model woman of the church. She was faithful yet wasn’t afraid to speak her mind. Her life was full of opposites.
She was human.
So that’s why I’m hesitant to write about Emma Smith. I don’t want to idealize her as the perfect church wife, always supportive to her husband; I don’t want to label Emma as a behind-the-scenes resistance fighter. I don’t want to try to explain her decisions or rationalize her actions. I believe that her life, like any life, was complex and full of hypocrisies, full of weaknesses and strengths.
Let’s offer Emma the peace that she did not have during her life; let’s spare her from visitors knocking on her door with pre-conceived notions of how she should behave and speak. Let’s shield her from curious passersby just wanting to get a look at the woman who was once married to the prophet Joe Smith. Let’s refrain from interviews about polygamy and her personal relationships.
Let’s allow Emma to simply settle down in Nauvoo, to write about mundane things like the grape crop or the neighbor getting married, to raise and support her family the best she knew how and to live out an honest, Christian life on the banks of the Mississippi River.