The Elect Lady

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. Continue reading

Passivism

I recently returned from a trip to Salt Lake City to attend the Sunstone Symposium.

Driving back on 1-70 across the seemingly never-ending fields of Kansas gave me plenty of time to reflect on my whirlwind week of experiences there. We were within walking distance of the epicenter of Mormonism, Temple Square, but the conversations and sessions at Sunstone were anything but mainstream Mormon topics.

I can’t claim to be an expert on Sunstone (for that, you’d have to ask Bill Russell, who has been attending faithfully for thirty years or so) but I came away from the symposium impressed by the openness and camaraderie of the participants and their willingness to unashamedly examine tough issues.

Although attended by many ex-Mormons and others with non-traditional views, Sunstone is not a place to simply bash all things Mormon. Session titles included “Why We Stay” and “Pillars of My Faith,” both examining the significant role the LDS church plays in various people’s lives. Sunstone is, though, a place to confront questions some may be uncomfortable asking.  Nothing’s safe. Homosexuality, women’s issues, perspectives on history—all of these are questioned, prodded, discussed. It’s an open forum, and the participants visibly thrive on it.

I was stunned at some of the heart-wrenching stories I heard there. I listened to stories of separation from a beloved church home (some forced, some voluntary), stories of hurt and genuine belief juxtaposed in one individual. Their courage to share impressed me.

A few months ago, when asked to participate in a session commemorating 25 years since Community of Christ extended priesthood to women by reflecting on my experiences as a young woman in the church, I realized that I didn’t have much to say. I had never seriously thought about these things because the possibility of priesthood has been a reality for me my entire lifetime. My mother is in the priesthood, and so many of the women I knew and respected growing up are also priesthood members. It was normal for me, taken for granted. It was not even an issue. I had been given the luxury to sit back and relax, and I enjoyed it.

I was swept away by a “pacifism” of a different sort—“passivism.”

I am lucky to be part of a church that meets dissent with dialogue instead of silence, where the worth of all persons is upheld. I find a profound comfort in this. But when considering issues that don’t seem to affect me directly, it’s all too easy to let the church’s promises of acceptance and justice speak for me instead of wrestling with hard questions myself. The church’s open approach may shield its members from direct confrontations, but this does not mean our members are immune to pain.

We cannot be passive observers. The kind of dialogue present at Sunstone, while sometimes uncomfortable, is necessary—especially now. I’m a long way from being able to call myself an activist, and I am all too guilty of being the quiet one at the back of the congregation, but I take inspiration from the examples of the people I encountered at Sunstone. These people feel a calling to point out injustices. They share personal, painful experiences. They don’t hesitate to goodheartedly poke fun at their faith’s idiosyncrasies.

I’m sure there are conversations like these going on right now in the Community of Christ, but I’m not exactly sure where to look. Any suggestions?

Wherever they are, I’m looking forward to participating.

(By the way, Community of Christ enjoyed quite the presence at Sunstone this year. Two of our apostles attended, and there was a classy reception sponsored by the Community of Christ. Other members presented papers or sat in on sessions. Props to the church!)

Go here for more information on Sunstone.

The Homestead Keeping Room

Let me set the stage for this little encounter:

It’s a small tour. I have two couples with me today; one older, one younger. I’m in the 1840 addition to the Homestead, dutifully explaining the intricacies of the hiding place in the cellar (now gone) and clarifying that the floorboards have, in fact, been replaced. My visitors nod.

Then the older man looks in my direction and asks,

“So, Rene, what do you think about Joseph?”

It’s a different question—one that I hadn’t encountered before, at least not like this. The unspoken variations and twists on this simple question hang in the air:

What do I, as a Community of Christ member, think about Joseph?
What do I, as a young woman, think about Joseph?
What do I, as a repeated tour guide at Kirtland and now Nauvoo, think about Joseph?

Whatever my answer, I’ll be speaking not just for myself, but also for the Community of Christ, in a way. It’s a caution, honor, and responsibility that all of us tour guides encounter on a daily basis.

So, as our small group stands in Joseph and Emma Smith’s first Nauvoo home, surrounded by 1840s artifacts and axe-marked wooden beams, I take a moment, then answer.

Before I tell you my response, though, I’m interested to know how you would react in this situation.

What do you think about Joseph?