All of us have by now been made aware of the new movie about Emma Smith. If you’re not up to speed about it yet, please see here for David G.’s excellent review. This post is concerned, not with the film itself, but with the discussion of polygamy that was included in an article in the 11 April edition of the Deseret News. In this article, producer Mike Kennedy takes three historically inaccurate the positions. 1) Emma Smith “ultimately agreed” with plural marriage 2) Emma Smith “never really discussed [plural marriage]….She responded in one of two ways [to inquiries about plural marriage], she either didn’t talk about it, or she said, it’s none of your business.” 3) “What Joseph had revealed was the celestial marriage covenant. That’s very different and distinct [from plural marriage]”
In some ways it is absolutely mind-boggling that we even need to have this conversation nearly 25 years after Newell and Avery’s Mormon Enigma. One would think that these issues were settled. In any case, Emma Smith did not “ultimately agree” with plural marriage. She apparently vacillated between grudging acceptance and hostile rejection of the practice during her husband’s lifetime, but she clearly rejected after his death. Secondly, Emma Smith did talk about plural marriage. This is no secret. In 1876, Parley P. Pratt, Jr., visited Emma and asked her “Did [Joseph Smith] have any more wives than you?” and “Did he receive the revelation on plural marriage?” To both questions, Emma answered “not to my knowledge.” She did not say that it was nobody’s business and she did not remain silent. She denied it. Kennedy may be trying to find a way around this by stating that he could not find any writings that “Emma produced that discusses her husband’s polygamy.” Two points here. First, if the only evidence he is accepting has to be produced by Emma Smith herself, then he is going to have a short film. Second, even if Emma Smith had remained silent about plural marriage (and she didn’t) it still would not justify the interpretation offered in the film–that Emma Smith accepted the doctrine and supported her husband in it while choosing not to discuss it with anyone. Finally, Kennedy attempts to make the case that celestial marriage and polygamy are different. The article is not clear about why he makes this point, but it may have something to do with the Pratt interview I cited above. If plural marriage and celestial marriage are different, and Emma Smith believed that her husband received a revelation about celestial marriage, then she could theoretically be telling the truth when answering “not to my knowledge” when asked if her husband received a revelation about plural marriage. Whatever Kennedy’s reason for trying to make the distinction between celestial marriage and plural marriage, he runs into a problem. When the present tense is used, his assertion about the difference between plural and celestial marriage is true. However, during the nineteenth century, celestial marriage meant plural marriage. Kennedy is anachronistically applying a modern distinction to an earlier period in order to justify his approach to Emma Smith in his film. Yes, they are distinct and different, but when Emma Smith was alive they were not. By the way, had he said “eternal marriage” instead of celestial marriage, he may have had a case.
I am uncertain how to react to Kennedy’s clearly defensive claim that “This [film] isn’t seeing Emma or Joseph from the viewpoint of academics. This is a family perception.” Either she accepted plural marriage or she didn’t. Either she talked about or she didn’t. I’m not sure how being an academic or a family member would influence that, unless it comes down to what one wants to believe is true. Emma Smith is a complex figure–at least as complex as her husband. I think that her descendants deserve to revel in that complexity rather than have it masked.