For this Summer’s Book Club, we will be reading Mormon Enigma by Linda King Newell and Valeen Tippetts Avery. This week’s post focuses on the first two chapters, “Emma and Joseph, 1825-1827” and “The “Elect Lady” 1827-1830.”
Linda King Newell and Valeen Tippetts Avery published Mormon Enigma, the biography of Emma Smith, in 1984 at the height of the Hofmann era (any guesses how many Hofmann sources are quoted in the first two chapters of the first edition?). Their work went a long way in bringing Emma Smith out of the antagonistic rhetoric so often used by members of the LDS Church. Today, the work still serves as a corrective to a surprising amount of Mormon scholarship, despite the fact that it does show signs of its age.
The first two chapters of Mormon Enigma outline the life of the Hale family and Emma’s marriage to Joseph Smith. Refreshingly, the early visionary experiences of Joseph Smith are told through the eyes of someone other than Mormonism’s founder. This perspective is invigorating in several ways. I’m struck at how a familiar story takes on new ideas simply by focusing on a different narrative angle. Joseph Smith was a charismatic figure first touching the lives of dozens, then hundreds, and ultimately thousands of individuals. How did one experience that charisma? Emma’s story gets to some of that. But at the same time, it opens up the idea that the church was a robust web where members created a charismatic network of members separate from Joseph Smith while simultaneously pushing Joseph Smith to new heights. Emma was one of Joseph Smith’s biggest supporters and, it could be argued, incubators of ideas.
Although these chapters of Mormon Enigma describe a familiar story through Emma’s perspective, the narrative is still dependent upon the prominent (male) figure and his activities. We have the story of Emma as refracted through the life of her husband. This is as much a reflection of the paucity of sources created by Emma as it is in the new Mormon history approach to the past, where so often, early Mormon history is essentially Joseph Smith centric. As founder of the church and as one who attempted several times to write his history, Joseph’s life is relatively well documented. In these first two chapters, Emma is simply added to the narrative. This brings about a history—particularly of the earliest events—that is, at times, little more than “and Emma was there too.”Historians who focus on the written record are left with little recourse. Few letters are written to or from Emma and her silence is almost deafening in the first few chapters of the book. But bringing the surviving records into a broader context actually brings about a myriad of insights needing exploration. What, for instance, can we do with the revelation dictated by Joseph Smith to his wife? The second chapter, “An Elect Lady,” ends with Joseph Smith’s only revelation dictated explicitly to a woman (now current D&C 25). That exception to the revelations is often mentioned, but rarely analyzed (with some important exceptions). The revelations that survive for this early period are to male family, friends, and co-believers. They are words of comfort, commandment, and inspiration to Joseph Smith Sr., Hyrum Smith, Oliver Cowdery, Martin Harris, Newel Knight, and other men assisting Joseph Smith in his work.
This male-centric context makes the revelation to Emma all the more remarkable and prompts many questions. How did Emma receive these words of the revelation? Did her familiarity with him and the revelatory process make the words less formal? Having perhaps observed the revelatory experience for others, did she hear (and write?) the words with an eye to others’ experiences? What of the words themselves? What was the role of the revelation in addressing Emma’s personal concerns? Did the routinization of the revelatory experience already preclude certain topics (the loss of her first child, for instance) in favor of ecclesiastical counsel (the role she would play to the church, for instance)? And what of the expectation of Emma in her role as supportive wife to Joseph? Was this counsel to Emma spoken and heard from an ecclesiastical context rather than a familial role (and was there a difference to either Joseph or Emma)?
Finally, when reading the chapters, my thoughts turned to the ephemeral sources created by Emma during this early period (we have some important letters from and to Emma and Joseph as well as important documents during the 1840s and her later life). Emma’s actions during this period are as much sources as any written record. What of the food cooked, floors swept, clothes made, scriptures read, and conversations had? How can historians begin to incorporate these types of sources into their historical narrative? And how will that change the history of early Mormonism? Instead of looking to see how the life of Joseph influenced and affected Emma, perhaps we can examine how Emma influenced Joseph and Mormonism through activities, comfort, and intellectual engagement (we already have the example of the Word of Wisdom revelation). Looking to reminiscences, ephemeral sources, archaeology, broader cultural trends, or other methods of uncovering aspects of Emma’s life not documented by written sources will bring insight to the life of one of early Mormonism’s most important individual. Though I’m sure there are other examples, I’m particularly thinking of Mark Staker’s important work as an example of this type of historical research.
Thus, as we look to Mormon Enigma this summer, I hope we recognize it as a product of its time, but also look to ways it can shape our future direction of studying the women and men of Mormonism.