Emma Smith Movie, Again.

By April 12, 2008

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.

Article filed under Miscellaneous


  1. 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

    That’s exactly what it comes down to, IMO, because this is a film by, for and of the family. The family has a version they want to believe, and everybody else involved wants to make the family feel all warm and fuzzy, both about themselves and about “those nice Mormons who helped us make our film about Grandma.” I predict that the church’s cooperation with the movie will come back to bite us sooner or later.

    Comment by Ardis Parshall — April 12, 2008 @ 2:28 pm

  2. aren’t you playing a semantics game with the polygamy, celestial marriage, eternal marriage trichotomy?

    Personally, I think the film looks like another “Book of Mormon Movie” type deal, which means I will pass.

    Comment by Matt W. — April 12, 2008 @ 3:07 pm

  3. Thanks for the write-up, Taysom. I think Ardis is right about this one. It really does come down to what the family wants to believe is true, which is unfortunate for the reason you pointed out — the family deserves to know, honor, and be proud of the complex figure their ancestor Emma Smith was.

    Matt W., how is Taysom playing semantics here? There is a clear and recognized distinction between what each of those phrases meant among 19th century Mormons and what they mean today.

    And did you even bother reading David’s review? Despite the flaws pointed out by him (and by Taysom here), this film appears to be levels above the Book of Mormon movie.

    Comment by Christopher — April 12, 2008 @ 3:55 pm

  4. I commented on the DesNews website about this article, pointing out the same errors as above and more. I was immediately villified by someone who thought I was clearly out to destroy the entire LDS faith, just because I dared point out such things as that it was Joseph who asked Emma about walls around Jerusalem, and NOT Emma asking Joseph about it, as the moviemakers claimed in the article.

    Comment by Nick Literski — April 12, 2008 @ 10:45 pm

  5. The current raids on the FLDS compound make it tough to talk about the terrible strain the practice of plural marriage placed on the Smith family. It appears to me that the film producer is engaging in the same types of behaviors that Emma engaged in. She wanted polygamy just to go away, to stop disrupting their conjugal life, to make it possible to avoid the sneers of dissidents and critics who viewed her as a wronged woman unable to control and purify her hearth.

    I think there’s some actual reasoning in this producer’s argument about the academy vs. the family. By it he means that the academy prefers the documentary witness to hagiography, that the narratives academics propose favor more complex methods for determining truth content (or at least verisimilitude) than those of the family. In these different worldviews stands a substantial difference. To this producer and the family, Emma is an idealized victorian mother, not an angry cuckold, a truth-telling religious hero, not a broken-hearted mother who misled her children about their father. This form of honor, not based in what less enthusiastic observers would call reality, is still a form of honor. It’s a desire to see her in her best possible light, to undergird her perpetuated memory with positive stories. It doesn’t work for me, but I can understand how it might work for them.

    Incidentally, even though the film’s not true to the evidence, at least we Great Basiners are finally saying something nice about Emma. She had such a tough row to hoe that I’m basically happy with someone imagining that she had a harmonious domestic life and was a model mother. At least we’re writing her hagiography instead of vilifying her.

    We critics of this hagiography will need to write our own Sundance biopic (or maybe a short story?) to tell the story of the more complicated Emma of the documentary witness if we’re upset by the current one.

    Comment by smb — April 12, 2008 @ 10:55 pm

  6. Incidentally, I think Emma’s justification for lying about polygamy was that she believed it was Joseph’s embarrassing and private sin for which he had paid full penance AND that Brigham Young had turned it into a religious practice and the basis for the new Mormonism of the exodus. Reading the question “did JSJ practice polygamy?” as “was JSJ evil” and “is BY his ecclesiastical heir,” I suspect, the only answer she felt comfortable with was NO. No need to use the 1840s polygamy apologia on Emma’s behalf here–she hated that mode of denial.

    Nick, how funny that they would get Emma’s proud announcement of Joseph’s question about Jerusalem’s walls wrong. It’s so familiar, uncontroversial, and is intended as strong evidence of the validity of the Book of Mormon translation. Although as I write this, I realize that Emma’s account presents her as better educated than JSJ, his intellectual superior, and the inversion described in the article would make Emma more subservient than she actually was. If that’s the reason for the inversion, that does bother me.

    Comment by smb — April 12, 2008 @ 11:02 pm

  7. Thanks SCT for the report. The original subtitle was not ambiguous: Mormon Enigma: Emma Smith, Prophet’s Wife, Polygamy’s Foe. The article mentions that Kennedy claims not to have encountered any writings of Emma on the subject, but as you point out, I also don’t get the sense that Emma was a very prolific writer. On it’s face that choice of words seems disingenuous to me, but I’d be willing to give him the benefit of the doubt that he was saying that generally he didn’t run into any reference to Emma reporting on JS’s polygamy or none was reported to him by his consultants (I’m assuming consultants were employed to aid in the historical research). If that’s the case, however, maybe they could have looked harder as it only took me three seconds on google, searching for “Joseph Smith polygamy Emma” to find this brief summary of Emma statements on Joseph Smith’s polygamy. This gives a sampling of how the RLDS have used Emma’s repeated reported denials of JS’s polygamy. Immediately you can see why such accounts might be troubling to some since tied up in these denials is also a denial that Joseph Smith ever practiced polygamy himself.

    I would say that Emma’s statement in the movie as reported in the DN article of “Well what good would that do?” in reference to talk of JS’s polygamy reflects 21st century thinking on the matter more so than it does 19th century sentiments given the historical record. There was a lot more at stake over this issue at the time than there is now.

    A fascinating inquiry in my opinion, would be to ask Kennedy and Savage about what kind of reading list that they formed upon which to base their narrative and what types of consultants they used, what works were emphasized, what works were brushed away. I’m sure they must have known about Mormon Enigma, and I wonder how much it was read and considered alongside more popular treatments. It would be interesting to see to what extent different works were used or dismissed and why.

    Comment by Jared T — April 12, 2008 @ 11:36 pm

  8. Of note, Michael Kennedy is quite close to Gracia Jones. I met both of them together, years ago, and have visited with Gracia more recently as well.

    Comment by Nick Literski — April 13, 2008 @ 12:26 am

  9. smb #6, I like your take on Emma’s justification for lying about polygamy. This approach is far superior to that taken by the producers, who present the idea that rather than denying Joseph’s polygamy, Emma simply preferred not to discuss it.

    Savage said in research for the film, he’s come to the conclusion that “Emma stayed consistent with Joseph’s public pronouncements through the end of his life,” that the practice was a command from God.

    “In those days, it had a different definition than what you commonly see today,” Kennedy said. “What Joseph Smith had revealed was the celestial marriage covenant. That’s very different and distinct.”

    “Celestial marriage is as different from polygamy as apostate Christianity would be from the restored gospel,” Savage said. “Their practice was reflective of a higher law, not the baser aspects of humanity,” that are now playing out in news accounts from Eldorado, Texas.

    I’m seeing this attempt all over the internet to distance the Church from polygamy by drawing a distinction between what Mormons practiced and how the FLDS live it today. A comment here states:

    This group in Texas is the absolute antithesis of anything a Mormon believes or teaches. These people in Texas are in no way akin to the actual Mormons, nor does their style of polygamy in any way resemble the polygamy of the 1800’s Mormon church. There was no marrying nieces and or isolation in the 1800’s.

    You historians don’t need me to point out the fallacies in that comment!

    I have a concern with the production of films such as this, whether they be “for the family” or for a wider audience. Far from giving a faith-promoting or a positive slant on Emma’s life, they actually perpetuate falsehoods which the membership as a whole then take up to defend the Church.

    Comment by Bored in Vernal — April 13, 2008 @ 12:27 am

  10. A few other stories here and here mention the existence of records of Emma’s that the family had that had not been seen before by historians. Maybe I’m a little late getting to this conversation, but I didn’t know about that until I sat down today and read the stories. Have these documents been well circulated by now and I just didn’t know about it? Either way, for me, that would be the real story in all this. I noticed that the website of the Joseph Smith Jr. and Emma Hale Smith Historical Society mentioned in the articles has some sort of publication called Writings of Emma. If that contains these recently discovered writings, it just might be worth picking up. It had been my understanding that there were no Emma Smith diaries, yet one of these news stories mentions diaries. Personally, rather than talk about this movie, which is, after all, a theatrical production, I’d like to know more about documents, which are real, and what additional light they are said to throw on Emma’s life and persona. That would be, in my opinion, the more worthwhile story.

    Comment by Jared T — April 13, 2008 @ 1:47 am

  11. smb,
    I understand the argument about scholars vs. family, competing narratives, epistemological divergence and the rest. I just don’t buy it in this case. To me it just smacks of opportunistic exploitation of this distinction to argue, on the one hand, from the documentary witness when it supports one’s chosen narrative and then retreat to the hagiographical model when the historical record clearly departs from that agenda. On another note, it’s true that Emma took some hard knocks in the past, but I think she has enjoyed quite a bit of positive press among “Brighamites” over the past decade or so. Consider the Gracia Jones books, the Liz Lemon Swindle paintings and recent treatements in church magazines.

    Comment by SC Taysom — April 13, 2008 @ 6:21 am

  12. Prof. Taysom,
    Just wanted to agree with everything you have said. This “academic” red herring is ridiculous in the extreme: one doesn’t have to have been through a Latin matriculation ceremony at Oxford to know the basic facts of Emma Smith’s life. The producers know them, I think, but are ignoring them. In that sense, the “family” is doing Emma a great disservice. Yuck.

    Comment by Ronan — April 13, 2008 @ 8:02 am

  13. Steve, thanks for the analysis. Had they decided to ignore polygamy altogether, I would have been a bit more sympathetic. But to represent ES’s views falsely and to give these lame justifications just smacks of arrogance to me.

    The article bugged me for two reasons. First, Kennedy mentioned that blogs had been discussing the film and its representation of plural marriage.

    “I’ve already read the blogs where people were speculating we wouldn’t touch polygamy,”

    I’m not aware of other blogs that have been discussing the movie critically, so I presume he’s talking at least in part about the JI. After viewing the film, I sent a courteous email to the producers raising my concerns about the false portrayal of ES’s views on polygamy, and I included the link to my review. They didn’t bother to respond directly, but they did adjust the portrayal a little bit. It’s still disingenuous, imo, but better than it was.

    My second source of irritation is what Steve lays out in the OP about setting up the dichotomy between academic history and family history. It’s almost like he was purposely challenging academics, a tactic that will rarely win points with historians that are already skeptical of popular representations of historical events and people.

    Jared, by all means, dig up some info on those new ES documents.

    Comment by David G. — April 13, 2008 @ 1:06 pm

  14. sct, i guess i see this movie (sight unseen, i confess) as a cinematization of Gracia Jones’s work, which to my reading of the one about “Joseph and Emma” is equally out of touch with the documentary witness. At some level, I guess I’m saying, let them give her a parade even if she wasn’t the first one on the moon. Once we’ve had a stable hagiography that is pro-Emma for a bit, then it’s time to start getting closer to historical roots. I seriously think it could be a great Indie film maybe with someone spunky like Rebecca Pidgeon as Emma and someone similarly textured for JSJ. That’s how I think we should protest the current Emma movie personally, by moving to the next stage.

    Comment by smb — April 13, 2008 @ 1:12 pm

  15. smb,
    Your idea about an indie film has set my imagination alight. Who could be JS? Jared Leto? Robert Downey Jr.? I think it has great potential.

    Comment by SC Taysom — April 13, 2008 @ 2:46 pm

  16. “My second source of irritation is what Steve lays out in the OP about setting up the dichotomy between academic history and family history.”

    Agreed agreed agreed.

    Comment by Jared T — April 13, 2008 @ 3:48 pm

  17. You?re idea about an indie film has set my imagination alight. Who could be JS? Jared Leto? Robert Downey Jr.?

    I nominate Dean Cain to reprise his role as JS from September Dawn. 🙂

    Comment by Christopher — April 13, 2008 @ 8:44 pm

  18. downey a little too short and nervous.
    i’m thinking more a young Robert Duvall. dean cain looks like a human toaster.

    Comment by smb — April 13, 2008 @ 9:30 pm

  19. […] Oases, April 13 « The Exponent: “On Zion’s Mt.”: ReddSteve: Guest Request: Needed: Asmb: Emma Smith Movie, Again.Christopher: Emma Smith Movie, Again.Jared T: Emma Smith Movie, Again.SC Taysom: Emma Smith Movie, […]

    Pingback by Juvenile Instructor » The Historians’ Craft: A Call for Understanding — April 14, 2008 @ 2:57 pm

  20. Sorry I am late to this discussion. I actually disagree with this SC statement based on Ehat’s Master’s thesis.

    However, during the nineteenth century, celestial marriage meant plural marriage.

    I think it is more correct to say that the terms became synomous in the 19th century Utah period. In Nauvoo there is evidence that the two ideas as presented in D&C 132 and in the Anointed Quorum could be distinguished. So, in my opinion, it could be argued that Emma held to the earlier distinctions (which I am don’t think the people the DNews interviewed really understand.)

    To clarify, my point is that our modern anachronistic understanding of celestial marriage is actually closer to the original intent (Nauvoo interpretation) of D&C 132 than the 19th century Utah interpretation.

    Comment by Keller — April 27, 2008 @ 3:20 pm

  21. #4 – I posted two review’s on the Deseret Website about this movie. In the first one I mentioned several of the historical inaccuracies, and was very critical of the movie. This was my first time ever commenting of Deseret News. I waited about a day or two but the comments were never posted. I got to wondering what would have happened had I given a positive review, so I posted again under a different name and on a different computer. This time I gave a positive review and my comments were posted within an hour. My comments can be read here:

    April 16,2008

    Comment by Cowboy — August 29, 2008 @ 10:41 am

  22. I’ve had the same experience with commenting at DesNews on other topics, Cowboy (trade with China, among others). Nice to know that it isn’t just me, that it’s the DesNews’s odd sense of what is appropriate — although on hot button Mormon threads they seem to allow as much poison as the Trib does. Bizarre little newspaper all the way around, isn’t it?

    Comment by Ardis Parshall — August 29, 2008 @ 10:59 am

  23. It?s funny that everybody, (in order to remain politically correct, neutral, whatever), seeks to find excuses with polygamy.
    Hey, I come from polygamist lines and I’ll SHOUT IT FROM THE MOUNTAINTOPS! I can’t imagine what the church would be like today without those large strong families to anchor the small, fragile, latter day saint existence.

    Comment by PJD — August 29, 2008 @ 7:28 pm

  24. I am a member of the same ‘family organization’ as Kennedy. With all due respect, this film offered only the LDS (read: Kennedy’s) view on Emma, completely disregarding her own public words easily verified by either academic or family member. My own voiced apprehension to him for why a non-LDS family member would wish to be associated with this huge, mostly-LDS family group were realized in the creation of such a film – one that violated the mostly non-LDS direct descendants of Emma Smith by blatant historical (and bland) revisionism.

    Comment by Eric — March 14, 2011 @ 10:35 am


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