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.
The next four chapters of Linda King Newell and Valeen Tippett Avery’s Mormon Enigma focus on Emma Smith’s experience throughout the 1830s. Emma’s life during this time period was marked by transition: she trekked over one thousand miles, lived in at least seven different households (that’s after I started counting), birthed six children (and adopted three more), hosted countless “boarders” who passed through her homes, and earned money from home economics, to trade, to real estate. And she was faithfully married to a religious prophet who polarized nearly everyone he came into contact with. In spite of Emma Smith’s many accomplishments and fortitude, her inner life is hard to get to. Sources are simply scarce, and seeing Emma Smith the individual becomes murky through the refracted and power-laden narratives that constitute Joseph Smith’s history. I read these chapters with these thoughts in mind, and this post will survey and suggest some ways into Emma Smith’s life.
Chapter three, “Gathering in Ohio,” narrates Emma’s experiences during the development of the early church in Ohio and Missouri. At times, her life intermingled with significant church events. Emma Smith participated in the creation of the Kirtland temple by sewing together cloth for its inside, spawned the Word of Wisdom revelation in response to cleaning up the School of Elders meetings, and indirectly led (by nature of being a prophet’s wife) Eber D. Howe to her father and a denouncement of her husband and religion. These are all well and good, but might overshadow some more subtle dynamics of her life during Mormonism’s early years. For example, Emma facilitated female networks of friendship, trade, and housing that stemmed from the domestic home. Indeed, these networks determined the way that the Smiths would cope with the deaths of their first three children, and their adoption of two more. While these networks aren’t explicit, they can help the narrative of Emma, and other Mormon women’s lives.
A next phase in the biography depicts Zion’s Camp, growing tensions in Kirtland, and the veiled origins of polygamy. In these moments, the opportunity of using material culture as a kind of source becomes viable. Regarding Emma’s involvement with Zion’s Camp, authors Newell and Avery write, “[Emma] and the other women outfitted the army with food and clothing and gathered provisions for the homeless Missouri Mormons.” What might remnants of these clothes tell us about the daily life of Emma Smith? What about her cooking, or the location and design of her home? These material sources represent a historical hinterland: a region of hidden and feminine sources that make possible masculine and public events. Thinking about material culture can also provide insight into the limited sources that aren’t necessarily hidden behind public masculinity. For example, thinking about the ways that early Mormons smelled, saw, and heard their nineteenth-century world can highlight the importance of Emma Smith’s 1835 (dated 1836) creation of a Mormon hymnbook. These pages make invisible the melody of each tune and make visible the song’s words and poetry. It takes a sensitivity and imaginative approach for historians to recreate the knowledge and assumptions that nineteenth-century Mormons brought while reading Emma’s hymnbook and making music. While I’m not well versed on early Mormon polygamy, I imagine that thinking in terms of material culture can also help historians narrate and understand the practice’s muddled origins.
Eventually, schism and tension in Kirtland pushed Joseph and Emma westward to Missouri. I found it interesting that the success of Joseph Smith’s flight westward depended on the social anonymity of Emma Smith and her children. As likely innocent women and children, the gaze of Joseph Smith’s Kirtland pursuers passed over Emma et al. in a failure to recognize the wife and family of a wanted religious prophet. Their hunt focused only on the man himself. Additionally, this social anonymity forced Emma Smith and other Mormon women to face the trauma of late 1830s Mormon life in Missouri. Also in this time period, Emma became a learned crosser of rivers, one time guiding two young children and a double-arm-full of Joseph Smith’s written documents across a frozen river in winter. I would need at least two more arms and some very good hiking boots to come close to matching the impressive feat.
The last chapter in this summary covers Emma’s early arrival in Nauvoo. Here, the reader sees Emma Smith as host and nurse, home-goods producer extraordinaire, and real estate agent. Oh, I forgot: along the way Emma birthed four children. This time in Nauvoo represents a small respite and moment of relative peace and calm before the storm. Sickness plagued Nauvoo and John C. Bennett annoyed Emma, but Mormons remained stationary, if only for a moment.
These four chapters provided some creative thoughts for my understanding of the 1830s, but also left some questions in my head. While Newell and Avery remark on Emma Smith’s many pregnancies, I came away wondering how pregnancy and sexuality contributed to Emma’s religiosity and identity. Death and adoption were prevalent for both Emma and Joseph in these years:did their experiences with children foster some of Mormonism’s theological concerns? The above summary depicts multiple moments of both physical and emotional dislocation (which sociologists have theorized drastically impacts religious conversion, commitment, and retention). How did movement across space impact theological change within Mormon minds? Would new sources prompt a different kind of biography of Emma, if someone wrote the book today? I present these questions as my sincerest form of compliment to a work that teaches, engages, and provokes thoughts in one reader more than thirty years since its original publication.
 See page 50.