Emma and Polygamy– Summer Book Club Week 8: Mormon Enigma, Chaps. 21-23

By July 25, 2016

This is the eighth installment of the Summer Book Club, this year focusing on Linda King Newell and Valeen Tippetts Avery?s Mormon Enigma: Emma Hale Smith. You can read installments one, two, three, four, five, six, and seven here.. This part focuses on chapters 21 through 23 (Epilogue), which follow Emma at the end of her life through her passing in April of 1879 and continuing her legacy.

Chapter 21, “Josephites and Brighamites: 1870-1877” continues with Joseph III’s leadership of the new Reorganized Church, and his attempts to proselytize for membership in Utah and California, first through assigned missionaries and later by sending his own brothers to Utah.  These meetings in the 1860s and 1870s were awkward and politely cautious at best, and volcanic at worst.  Mormons in Utah seemed fascinated by these visits from the offspring of their beloved dead prophet, even holding out hope that they might reconvert to the “true church.”  Cousins met cousins on politely civil ground, but the visiting “Josephites” from Illinois and the established “Brighamites” in Utah could only dance in cold, tense circles around each other, until some visits escalated into blow-ups, sometimes over succession, but always over polygamy.  Of course, Brigham Young consistently placed blame for all of this squarely on Emma.  This chapter highlights how the visits of the sons only heightened Brigham’s pent-up anger toward Emma.  At one meeting with Church leaders, someone tried to remind Brigham that “We love these boys for their father’s sake,” but still he blew up, insisting that Emma was “the damnedest liar that lives,” (285) and that she had tried to kill Joseph twice through poisoning.  Honestly, I was struck by the very sexist way these grown men on both sides used this aging woman as a pawn in their tit-for-tat over plural marriage. Just as Brigham was absolutely obsessed with proving the divinity of plural marriage and it connections to Joseph, so did Joseph III have a “recurring preoccupation with separating his church and family from the taint of plural marriage.”  (291)  The two could never be reconciled.

Emma also received an inordinate number of visitors to Nauvoo from Utah, who held her in fascination as a living “holy relic,” a last connection to the Prophet Joseph.  Visitors often arrived with a zealous mission to tell her how wrong she was, that polygamy was a true principle.  And Emma, like any person who feels like they are the subject of self-righteous correction, reacted as anyone might:  “If they were open and warm, she talked freely with them.  If they came to challenge her, to prove points of doctrine, or to criticize, she withdrew.” (286)

A few surprises from this chapter.  One is how successful the Josephites’ conversion efforts were in Utah.  Between 1863 and 1890, over “three thousand new members would have left the Great Basin in wagon trains returning East or pushing father west.”  (286)  Of course, this conversion must have tapped into disillusionment with polygamy.  But was it exacerbated by the stresses and hardships of the anti-polygamy legislation of the 1880s?  Or ongoing concerns about prophetic succession?

A second surprise has to do with David Smith’s ultimate acknowledgment that his father probably did practice polygamy and that it was his mother who had been either deceitful or in denial to him for so many years.  The chapter concludes with David’s downward spiral into mental illness, culminating in his committal by his family to the Illinois State Hospital for the Insane.  (As a side note, I was left wondering about the prevalence of mental illness and mood disorders in the Smith family.)

But it was really Joseph III who struggled over his insistent denial of polygamy, in spite of his brothers’ testimonials from their Utah visits, and even contradictory information from Emma herself, her belief that Joseph sought to stop polygamy before his death, and details about the practice in Nauvoo.  But for her sons’ sakes, Emma ultimately arrived at her famously public denials about polygamy in her own marriage. (291-292)

A third and most refreshing revelation from this chapter, that while Mormon male leadership considered Emma a fair subject for their attacks, Mormon female leadership only spoke of her with kindness.  BY’s son, John R. remembered “[I] listened to the conversations of Eliza R. Snow, Zina D. Huntington, Emiline [Emily] Partridge, Precella Buel Kimball, wives of the Prophet Joseph Smith . . . and during that year I never heard one of those noble women Say one unkind word against Emma Smith.  To me, they were her truest, Best Friends.” (292)  This is something I would like to explore further.

Chapter 22, “The Last Testimony” addresses the final interview that Emma gave prior to her death in 1879, as well as other interviews she gave to Mormon visitors from Utah.  She can best be described as cagey and evasive.   What strikes the reader is how absolutely coherent and lucid Emma appeared to be about so many details of her life and past, and yet so incredibly and stubbornly obstinate about the existence of Joseph’s plural wives.  Buried under much of the ongoing tension between Emma and Church leaders was her resentment that her family was neglected during these years, that more efforts hadn’t been made to reach out to them and to provide emotional and financial support for her children.

It was due to the testimonies about Joseph’s polygamy that that prompted Joseph III and Alexander to attempt to get one final statement from their mother.  In February of 1879 the brothers interviewed their mother in Nauvoo.  See the full transcript here. They tried to pin her down about polygamy, and she responded with her famous statement that “No such thing as polygamy, or spiritual wifery, was taught, publicly or privately, before my husband’s death. . . . [and] He had no other wife but me; nor did he to my knowledge ever have.” (301).  It is also from this interview that we get her famous description of the process of translating the Book of Mormon, including important details often cited in translation narratives. feeling the plates under the cloth,  “Joseph Smith could neither write nor dictate a well-worded letter,” and most significantly, that Joseph would sit “with his face buried in his hat, with the stone in it, and dictating hour after hour with nothing between us.” (These passages are taken from the interview transcript itself, not from the chapter in the book.)  Various audiences responded differently to the interview: Church leaders in Utah wanted her testimony of the “divine authenticity” of the Book of Mormon, but were still frustrated at the denials of polygamy.  Eliza R. Snow expressed profound disappointment that Emma would have “died with a libel on her lips– a libel against her husband– against his wives– against the truth, and a libel against God. . . ” (308)

Interestingly, the authors spend most of the chapter on her ongoing struggle with the memories of polygamy. When one visitor asked her whether Joseph had practiced polygamy, Emma “broke down and wept, and excused herself from answering directly. . . ”  It seemed, according to Avery and Newell, that “The old ghosts still haunted her.” (303)  As her memories came flooding forward, other spiritual portals were opening as well.  One dream showed Joseph in a mansion, her deceased baby, Don Carlos, and a promise that her children would be given to her “if she would be patient.”  The dream ended with the appearance of a “personage of light, even Jesus Christ.” (303)

We are fortunate to have such detailed documentation of the final days leading up to Emma’s death, and the authors’ telling of it is poignant and touching.  And the legacies of her life and memories are mixed, conflicted, and still subject to ongoing interpretation. Her son Joseph could never completely reconcile himself to polygamy, but he conceded that his father had played some part in it, even if it was “wrong.”  And Joseph left the Reorganized Church with a long standing official position of denial of the practice.

For Mormons, Emma’s legacy has gone in circles: derision and pity that resulted from Brigham Young’s persistent campaign against her; honor and reverence as the beloved wife of the Prophet– even immortalized in LDS documentary films as a picture of 19th-century romantic monogamy; and for her support throughout the events of the Restoration,  and finally, as a mother who lost too many children and devotedly nurtured the surviving ones.  But it is her struggle with polygamy that has lingered in shadows in Church history narratives.  So, it is with such great interest that the recent Gospel Topics essays on polygamy included this important, very carefully-worded concession on behalf of Emma:

“After Emma opposed plural marriage, Joseph was placed in an agonizing dilemma, forced to choose between the will of God and the will of his beloved Emma. He may have thought Emma?s rejection of plural marriage exempted him from the law of Sarah. Her decision to ?receive not this law? permitted him to marry additional wives without her consent. Because of Joseph?s early death and Emma?s decision to remain in Nauvoo and not discuss plural marriage after the Church moved west, many aspects of their story remain known only to the two of them.”

While Newell and Avery received pushback for their depictions of how polygamy negatively affected Emma and her marriage, it is so significant to have this statement declare how much polygamy– and Joseph’s secrecy– really hurt Emma.  The attempt to explain the secrecy will not satisfy many readers, but the statement is there. And now for the new dilemma faced by many believing students of Mormon history:  How to reconcile Joseph Smith as a prophet and his duplicitous actions toward his wife.  Even last night, I received this unexpected message from a former student:  “The only part of polygamy and the restoration that has always been hard for me to reconcile . . .  is Joseph not telling Emma.”  I get these questions a lot.  As an active Mormon, a feminist, a professor/mentor, and a historian, I feel shamefully ill-equipped to answer this question that would satisfy everyone in my circles, or even myself.  The conflict is there:  Many want to love and respect the Prophet, but they want to feel appropriate sympathy and indignation for Emma, too.  (Reminder: I know that this paragraph has the potential to draw a lot of comments that will range all over the spectrum, from apology for Joseph’s actions to absolute derision toward the Prophet’s sexual practices, so I only ask that your comments be respectful and follow our comment guidelines here at Juvenile Instructor.)

Still, regardless of where we all land on the Joseph, Emma, and the polygamy thing, I still am relieved that perhaps now we can fully accept Emma as Emily Partridge thought about her: “Poor Emma, she could not stand polygamy but she was a good woman and I never wish to stand in her way of happiness and exaltation.” (309)

Article filed under Miscellaneous


  1. Great summary, Andrea. These are powerful chapters, and you do an excellent job highlighting important points. The dilemma of how to deal with JS’s secrecy and ES’s betrayal is something that haunts all of us today–or, at least, it should.

    Comment by Ben P — July 25, 2016 @ 4:10 pm

  2. Thanks, Andrea. And amen, Ben. Mormonism is haunted by many ghosts of traumas past.

    Comment by J Stuart — July 26, 2016 @ 9:33 am

  3. Wonderful write up. I am enjoying this series and finally reading this book.

    Comment by Moss — July 29, 2016 @ 1:35 pm

  4. What a great analysis of the final chapters! Thanks for your insights.

    I have just finished reading Mormon Enigma. I’m a little slower than the rest of you. I found so many interesting and troubling things about Emma’s life. I feel great respect for her; she devoted her time to Joseph and the new gospel and church he was leading; she left her mark in many ways.

    One of my favorite quotes (from page 300): “I have seen many, yes very many, trying scenes in my life which I could not see any . . . place where any good could grow out of them, but yet I feel a divine trust in God, that all things shall work for good.”

    Thank you to JI for giving me the incentive to read last summer and this!

    Comment by Mary Lou — August 7, 2016 @ 6:55 pm

  5. Thank you Andrea for this great analysis of the final chapters. I have thoroughly enjoyed reading about Emma, church history and the culture of that time.

    My favorite quote from the book (page 300): “I have seen many, yes very many, trying scenes in my life in which I could not see any . . . place where any good could grow out of them, but yet I feel a divine trust in God, that all things shall work for good.” Indeed!

    Thank you, JI, for the summer book club which encouraged me to read these two wonderful books! I look forward to next summer.

    Comment by Mary Lou — August 11, 2016 @ 6:10 pm


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