Summer Book Club Week 7: Mormon Enigma, Chapters 17-19

By July 18, 2016

Click here for part onetwothree, fourfive, and six of this year?s summer book club. 

This week?s chapters address Emma?s experiences in Nauvoo after the population of Nauvoo became thoroughly non-Mormon (Ch 19: ?Change in Nauvoo,? 1850-1860) and as her sons (and Joseph Smith, the prophet?s sons) became established as adults and potentially key figures within Mormonism (Ch 20: ?Emma?s Sons, Lewis?s Son,? 1860-1870).

Most Mormons left Nauvoo in the late 1840s—going West with the Brighamites, drifting around in preparation to go West, or leaving Mormonism and the area entirely to diffuse out of the scope of Nauvoo. For Emma perhaps one of the biggest impacts of the Mormon Exodus was not just that Mormons stopped using Nauvoo but that almost everyone stopped using Nauvoo: it?s hard to run a profitable hotel when no one comes to town. The arrival of French Icarians and some German immigrants enlivened the cultural scene but did not help the financial situation much. Emma?s husband, Lewis Bidamon, went to California for awhile in search of economic success but struggled—though by the end of the decade he and Emma had settled into an economic situation comfortable enough to be a support to others and leaders of a sort in their small community.

The difficulty in making money early in the 1850s was made even more momentous by the enormity of the debt Joseph had left. Lawsuits to settle Joseph?s debts led to the confiscation of much of the property Joseph had left Emma and the children (and others). At great effort and financial loss Emma was able to hold on to some of the property. Brigham Young, meanwhile, continued to assail Emma for her supposedly great wealth, allegedly acquired at the expense of the Brighamites (ie, the group of Mormons that became the present-day Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints).

Emma?s relationship to the Brighamite church in Utah was so tense she even feared for Bidamon?s safety in California: ?It may seem strange and ungrateful to you that they [ie, Brighamite Mormons] should even wish you harmed, and so it is, but I can tell you they are capable of an infamous ingratitude as any other beings? (256). The public announcement of polygamy deepened the estrangement further as various people came asking questions about Emma?s relationship to the church and its practices.

An even more pressing question, however, was what role Emma?s son, Joseph Smith III, might play in Mormonism outside the teachings and direction of the Brighamites. Joseph (ie, Emma?s husband) had prophesied that Joseph Smith III would assume the role of prophet at some point. In 1856 members of the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints approached Joseph III and asked him to assume the role of prophet. He declined with vehemence and some anger. Newell and Avery emphasize that, contra the Brighamite narrative that Emma had conditioned her son to become a prophet, Emma did not actively try to persuade or prepare Joseph III for a prominent religious role and that Emma?s refusal to join the Brighamites—or any other of the Mormon groups—surely influenced Joseph III?s approach to the question. Furthermore, Emma did not tell Joseph III about his father?s polygamy. Whatever Emma?s action and non-action, Joseph III eventually did accept leadership of the Reorganized Church.

As I read these two chapters my big questions were about ?influence?: What influenced Emma in her decisions? How much, and in what ways, did Emma influence Joseph III? How much of Emma?s spoken and unspoken thoughts and feelings about prophethood and religious followerhood and non-followerhood derive from her personality? Background? Experience with Joseph Jr? Experience with Brigham Young? Knowledge of prophecy and teachings? Understandings of priesthood? Beliefs about family and heritable callings? And so on. What can any conclusions we draw tell us about authority and followerhood today?

Obviously, the question of influence is one of the central questions of History-writing and Newell and Avery lay out an excellent account of the influences they were able to discern, taking care to point out how their account differs from the one told by Brigham Young and his successors. More so than most books about the past I read, Emma?s interactions in the 1850s and 1860s leave me wondering what could have been different? How much would have had to change to put series of decisions on a different ?track??

Article filed under Book History Summer Book Club


  1. I think the question of Emma’s influence on Joseph III is really important and would make an interesting addition to the study of Mormonism. I’ve wondered for some time why Emma never told Joseph III about plural marriage and why she denied it until the end. My only thought is that it helped her to preserve her memory of Joseph–as she wanted to remember him rather than for the heartbreak she could have remembered him for.

    I guess what I’m saying is that we need more work on Emma and Joseph III, both in terms of their relationship and their individual religious lives.

    Comment by J Stuart — July 18, 2016 @ 10:05 am

  2. Great questions, Edje. Nice work.

    Comment by WVS — July 18, 2016 @ 11:04 am

  3. Yes, thanks Edje.

    Comment by David G. — July 18, 2016 @ 11:18 am

  4. Thanks, J Stuart, WVS, and David G.

    Comment by Edje Jeter — July 18, 2016 @ 5:20 pm


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