Summer Book Club Week 1: Chapters 1 and 2

By June 6, 2016

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.”

Revelation, July 1830-C [D&C 25]. Source: Josephsmithpapers.org

Revelation, July 1830-C [D&C 25].

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.

Article filed under Summer Book Club


Comments

  1. Thanks, Robin. This is a great kick-off for the series.

    Comment by David G. — June 6, 2016 @ 8:04 am

  2. Great write up, Robin. I remember when photos of the seer stone were released that some attributed its pouch to Emma’s making. Is there any truth to that?

    Comment by J Stuart — June 6, 2016 @ 10:00 am

  3. You wrote a compelling review, with fantastic writing and unique insights. I still remember where I was the day I bought this book, at a bookshop near the Salvador Dalí Museum in St. Petersburg. Considering all of my books, it was an important memory. Emma rocks! (In the Seer stone sense of that word.)

    Comment by John Hajicek — June 6, 2016 @ 10:01 am

  4. J Stuart: When Franklin D. Richards saw the seer stone, he recorded in his diary that “the pouch containing it [the seer stone] [was] made by Emma”. (See JSP, R3:xxi) I have always been fascinated by this bit of material culture. It’s worthwhile for those interested to go back and read Kris’s post on this artifact: http://juvenileinstructor.org/20-questions-to-ask-a-seer-stone-and-its-pouch/

    I think the pouch does more to help us get at Emma’s devotion to her husband’s calling than perhaps any other source (written or not). The exploration and implication of the pouch made for the seer stone by Emma uncovers a deep insight into Emma’s religious worldview.

    Comment by Robin — June 6, 2016 @ 10:18 am

  5. Thanks, Robin. I love the idea that the pouch protects and keeps safe the material object of revelation (like Emma did to Joseph, but you know, protecting a rock instead of a human).

    Comment by J Stuart — June 7, 2016 @ 7:58 am

  6. […]             Welcome to week 2 of this Summer’s Book Club. We’re reading Mormon Enigma, and this week’s post focuses on four chapters: “Gathering in Ohio, 1830-1834,” “‘Seas of Tribulation,’ 1834-1838,” “Strife in Missouri, 1838-1839,” and “Sanctuary in a Swamp, 1839-1841.” For the first two chapters, see Robin’s helpful post for week 1. […]

    Pingback by Juvenile Instructor » Summer Book Club Week 2: Chapters 3 through 6 — June 13, 2016 @ 7:53 am

  7. […] Tippetts Avery’s Mormon Enigma: Emma Hale Smith. You can read the first two installments here and here. This part focuses on chapters 7-9, which cover the introduction of polygamy, formation of […]

    Pingback by Juvenile Instructor » Summer Book Club Week 3: Mormon Enigma, Chapters 7-9 — June 20, 2016 @ 6:53 am

  8. […] Stapley brings us the next installment of the Summer Book Club. Click here for part one, two, and […]

    Pingback by Juvenile Instructor » Summer Book Club Week 4: Mormon Enigma, Chapters 10-12 — June 27, 2016 @ 5:00 am

  9. […] here for part one, two, three, and four of this year’s summer book […]

    Pingback by Juvenile Instructor » Summer Book Club Week 5: Mormon Enigma, chapters 13-15 — July 4, 2016 @ 5:00 am

  10. […] here for part one, two, three, four, and five of this year’s summer book […]

    Pingback by Juvenile Instructor » Summer Book Club Week 6: Mormon Enigma, Chapters 16-18 — July 11, 2016 @ 6:01 am

  11. […] here for part one, two, three, four, five, and six of this year’s summer book […]

    Pingback by Juvenile Instructor » Summer Book Club Week 7: Mormon Enigma, Chapters 17-19 — July 18, 2016 @ 2:56 am


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