Summer Book Club Week 6: Mormon Enigma, Chapters 16-18

By July 11, 2016

Click here for part onetwothree, four, and five of this year’s summer book club. 

 This week’s chapters address the transitions in Emma Smith’s life from Winter 1845-1846 through the removal of the Latter-day Saints from Nauvoo in 1846 to the Elect Lady’s marriage to Lewis Bidamon and his travels throughout 1849. Brilliantly, the authors open these chapters with a letter forged by James Bennet and/or associates of his, published in the New York Sun. In the fraudulent letter, someone impersonating Emma claims that the current governing leaders of the Mormon Church were “tyrants” and that she planned to raise her children in another faith. Furthermore, the letter-writer claimed to have never believed her husband’s revelations or his religious innovations.

Emma denounced the letter and wrote a letter in response, which reveals her uncomfortable and unwinnable position in the years after her husband’s death. Because she could not support Brigham Young’s leadership (and, it seems, he viewed her as a threat) she could not find a comfortable place within Mormonism. However, as one of her husband’s most devoted followers, she could not wholly separate herself from the Latter-day Saints (nor would they cease visiting her). The Mormon hierarchy seemed to realize this as well. As the Mormons prepared to leave Nauvoo in January/February 1846, Heber C. Kimball and others visited her asking Emma to accompany the main body of the Saints to the West. Upon her refusal, prominent Mormon leaders and their families gave Emma and Joseph III parting gifts. In my mind, these gifts commemorated the love they held for their dead Prophet and his family. They left objects, like a bowie knife, for Joseph III’s protection. The authors inform readers that Latter-day Saints continued to visit Emma and her family in Nauvoo but that she refused to discuss the Brighamites or her dead husband. She could not be with the Saints because of her feelings about Brigham Young and plural marriage but the gifts surely functioned as reminders of her friends and former co-religionists.

If the physical objects did not remind her of her separation from the Saints, Latter-day Saints visited her in Nauvoo face to face when they journeyed East for some reason or another. Emma could not fully become part of the largest Mormon body in the 1840s after her husband’s death, but she could never really start over, either. Try as she might, she could not move beyond her husband’s legacy because his followers loved him so much that they could not cease worrying about his family’s well-being. In addition to the genuine love and concern for Emma and her children, Latter-day Saints and their leaders believed that Joseph III (and perhaps David Hyrum) would hold a special place in the Kingdom of God. Brigham Young knew that he must both keep an eye on Emma out of jealousy and on her boys for any sign that they were ready to assume leadership in the Great Basin. What a precarious balance of religious hope (for the Smiths to return and submit to Young’s vision of Mormonism) and religious disappointment (that Emma and her children never joined the LDS Church).

Emma Hale Smith

As I read the final chapter in this section, I wondered if Emma viewed her marriage to Lewis C. Bidamon as a final break from the Saints. Her marriage to “the Major” was certainly an act of closure in putting her husband’s assassination. I also wondered if Bidamon’s lack of religious affiliation appealed to Emma. She had followed her husband halfway across a continent, lost children, lived through her husband’s whirlwind ministry without a permanent home for years at a time, lost children due to the actions of her husband’s enemies, weathered the tolls of plural marriage, and had buried her husband in the name of his religious views. Perhaps she had had enough. Or perhaps she trusted in the liturgical bonds that Joseph Smith had introduced before his death, which promised to bind them together and to God throughout the eternities. Or, perhaps, as a human, she grew weary of living alone and raising children by herself. In any case, her marriage to Bidamon cut any tie between the Brighamites and herself. Brigham Young had accused her of betraying her husband’s marriage must have represented a betrayal of Joseph’s memory to the fiery Mormon leader.

Questions: how should readers and historians think about trauma in the life of Emma Smith? The trials of her life as the wife of Joseph Smith must have taken a toll. How did those tolls affect her decisions after his death? Finally, a counterfactual to consider. How would Emma’s joining with the Brighamites have shaped nineteenth-century Mormonism? Would her presence and leadership have caused further controversy over succession? Or would it have created a “wait and see” scenario with Joseph III and succession in the LDS Church?

Article filed under Book History Summer Book Club


  1. Great closing question J. When the Smith sons visited Utah in later years, there was clearly some fear over their influence among Latter-day Saints. Brigham seems to have been of two minds. Apostolic succession as we view it today, almost a mechanical exercise in longevity, had no such assurance in the wider church, whatever individual apostles projected. What if they had stayed? Absorbed the theology of the west? Would they have been some kind of superior clones of JFS? What about succession then? Fascinating.

    Comment by WVS — July 11, 2016 @ 11:37 am

  2. Thanks, WVS. I wonder if both Joseph and Hyrum’s sons would have assumed leadership or whether JFS and John Smith would have lost favor to Joseph III and David Hyrum.

    Comment by J Stuart — July 11, 2016 @ 1:04 pm

  3. I don’t think the question would have surfaced. JFS is patriarch, JSIII ends out Pres if he’s up to it. The question might be David. What’s his mojo? And presumably RS never disappears?

    Comment by WVS — July 11, 2016 @ 3:21 pm

  4. It is really hard to say just what would have happened had Emma decided to join the Saints in Utah. However, I do not think that Brigham Young had any fear of succession problems arising if that had happened. There were letters written to Joseph Smith III repeatedly from the First Presidency urging him to come to Utah and take his place among the Saints. This information can be found in various places, such as the John Whitmer Historical Association, particularly the Volume 1 of the 1981 Journal.
    Brigham was quoted in that Journal as saying that when Joseph Smith?s sons “make their appearance before this people, full of his power, there are none but what will say-?Amen! we are ready to receive you.? ”
    The stumbling block for J.S. III seemed to be the polygamy question.

    But Brigham Young seemingly have been willing and expected to cede the leadership position and mantle of the prophet to Joseph Smith III. We just do not know. We are looking through that history glass darkly still.


    Comment by Glenn Thigpen — July 11, 2016 @ 3:35 pm


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