I have a magnet of Emma Smith on my fridge. It’s the lone souvenir of the church history trip I took in the summer of 2014, from Palmyra all the way down to Nauvoo, and I bought it at the Community of Christ-operated shop in Nauvoo. Emma’s portrait stares at me, amongst the magnets commemorating visits to national parks and museums, pictures of my family, postcards my friends send me from far-away places, and the coupons I can never remember to use before they expire. I deliberately did not buy the portrait of Joseph Smith. As a non-Mormon, Joseph is mostly irrelevant to my life, except in the ways he matters to those that matter to me. But Emma, Emma I feel for. And thus she has a place in my kitchen, and I was excited to start this year’s book club selection.
We’ve established how, as Robin said, even in a book about her, oftentimes “Emma is simply added to the narrative. This brings about a history … that is, at times, little more than ‘and Emma was there too.’” Robin called for historians to move beyond written records, as Emma did not leave many of them, and Jeff too focused on the wealth of material sources that might shed light on the lives of early Mormons, Emma included. . Then Ben wrote about how “[b]iography, then, is always at least in part a form of autobiography” and can take an emotional toll on its researchers and writers. As Ben writes, the sense of bitterness, the feelings of betrayal, and the many paradoxes and contradictions that came along with being Joseph Smith’s wife are evident in the work. Lastly, Stapely wrote about reading Mormon Enigma as a modern scholar, highlighting how well Newell and Avery do their work, even while recommending readers absorb primary sources and more recent understandings of Nauvoo polygamy in order to grasp a better idea of the inner worlds of Joseph and Emma both.
Today, we’re tackling chapters thirteen through fifteen: 13, “A Final Farewell: June 12-28, 1844,” 14, “The Lady and the Lion, Fall 1844,” and 15, “Inherit the Legacy, October 1844-October 1845.” Chapter thirteen opens right after the Expositor press has been destroyed, with the arrest and acquittal of Joseph and others. The authors express the fears and tensions present at this moment—concern for Joseph, but also fears about the possible loss of property and the possibility of far-reaching violence—that ultimately result in Joseph returning and giving himself up to the law. Pregnant Emma waits at home for Joseph to return, but, as the title of this chapter makes clears, is not granted that reprieve. Joseph and Hyrum are dead, killed in Carthage, and Emma is left behind. Lucy Mack Smith has lost two sons. The bodies are hastily buried in the basement of the Nauvoo House, and the Mormons grieve.
In chapter fourteen, we read about Emma’s financial difficulties, the debts she now owned and the ways in which her own wellbeing and that of the church were intimately tied together. With the arrival of Brigham Young in Nauvoo, the power struggle over who was to succeed Joseph comes to a head, and Young is voted into authority. Emma and Brigham’s relationship does not improve, but rather deteriorates, and Emma is not included in these deliberations or others. Here, I think, is room for fruitful analysis—of gender and power, of Emma’s femininity and Brigham’s masculinity, to start—and the authors try to tease apart the memories surrounding Emma’s actions in this time, many of which, as they say, fed later accusations by Brigham Young and others. Nevertheless, the authors stress that both Emma and Brigham “had a great affection for Joseph,” noting how Brigham was more able to look past Joseph’s failings than Emma, who was “forced to deal more candidly with his failings” because of “the closeness of the marriage relationship” (205). The chapter ends with the Lady and the Lion at opposing ends and with differing opinions on how best to continue Joseph’s legacy.
In chapter fifteen, uncertainty reigns. Emma is increasingly left out of social and administrative going-ons, and William Smith’s bid for leadership does not sit well with the Quorum of the Twelve. Violence threatens, and then occurs, and it becomes clear that the Mormons must go west. The chapter is short, serving more to set up the next chapters than provide any real analysis, and readers quickly move on to chapter sixteen.
For discussion, today, then, I’d like to freeze this moment in the narrative where the story of Emma and that of the wider church begins to converge. What are the stories you were told about Emma? In which ways is she included in the official narratives, and where is she left out? How is Emma perceived in the Community of Christ? How does her treatment at the hands of historians and others mirror other questions of gender in the LDS Church? Walk into a Deseret Book and chances are you’ll see a book highlighting the love between Joseph and Emma: here, for example, popular Mormon author Anita Stansfield characterizes their story as “a love story that transcends time and embraces eternity.” It is a likely bet that this book doesn’t include the other people present in Emma and Joseph’s marriage, even though to deny the complicated realities of polygamy is to do the choices of both partners an injustice. Polygamy tends to be both a present and a hidden force in Mormonism—a part of a celebrated pioneer past, a reality in many temple sealings today, a persistent source of suspicion from outsiders, and so we could go on and on. How does polygamy reverberate in the narratives that surround Emma in the contemporary church? I look forward to reading your thoughts.