What do we do with the Revisionist Emma Smith?

By August 21, 2008

In recent years there has been a consistent effort on the part of Church members to provide a renewed influence on the efforts and contributions of Emma Smith. For my part, I have been encouraged to see the softening of the rhetoric which surrounded her and these efforts to understand the post-martyrdom Emma. I believe that she was undeserving of much of the rhetoric which surrounded her throughout the latter half of the nineteenth century and the first sixty or seventy years of the twentieth century. Without question, she deserved a place of reverence in Mormon history. However, I wonder if we haven’t swung the pendulum too far to the other side, creating some unanswerable questions in the process. In an understandable effort to create reconciliation with the Emma Smith descendants, Church historians have placed an increasing focus upon Emma’s devotion and faithfulness-both of which I would agree were among the most important aspects of her character-while neglecting issues such as her response to plural marriage and her disagreements with Brigham Young, culminating in her refusal to go west with the main body of the Church.

A fascinating example of this shift was demonstrated to me as I came across a diary written by one of my ancestors, Jonathan Calkins Wright. In 1848, Wright was called on a mission by Brigham Young to return to Illinois and to try and round up some of the Saints that had not yet left Illinois and to encourage them to go west with Brigham. Among his first diary entries is the following, written on January 13, 1848:

Visited Emma Smith (Emma Bidamon) found her filled with hatred towards as she says-the Brighamites-they were all liars and the first principal Brigham taught them was to lie and she could not believe anything they said. I asked her if she meant to include all the Brighamites in that charge as she called them, she included me, and I did not lie. Says she, if I had an opportunity of talking with you one hour you would lie, or would not acknowledge the truth of what Brigham’s teaching was-I told her Brigham never taught me an unrighteous or unvirtuous principle or doctrine in his life. Says a gentile bystander (a woman) I suppose he does not teach those principles only to them that would practice them-and to them he thinks is honest he would not teach those doctrines to. I told them I had hard time enough, to get into the Church, but since I had got in all had been right with me ever since, and my way to Heaven was over the Rocky Mountains-Emma said she could go to Heaven without going to the Mountains-I told her I believed Jesus Christ had established his Church or Kingdom by revelation, and it should be an everlasting Kingdom, and it should not be thrown down-or left to another people. She believed it was established by revelation as much as I did-but the revelation said, that came by that man I thought so much of, (Jos.) if the church did not do so and so they should be destroyed-and I know they have not done it, so let God be true and every man a liar-all creation could not prevail on me to go with that crowd because I know better-and some of the rest was finding out their folly when it was too late-well, they might have done as she told them, for they knew she never told them a lie in her life.

When my great aunt read this entry, she noted that this diary revealed much about Emma’s unwillingness to come west with the Saints. On the other hand, when my mom read this entry a couple of weeks ago, she reacted in Emma’s defense, suggesting that our ancestor had simply not understood how many difficulties Emma had endured. That contrast reveals much about the way that the LDS understanding of Emma Smith has changed in the past 40 years.

I find myself somewhere in the middle. I agree with my Mom that perhaps our ancestor was unduly harsh, writing under the motivation of some of the anti-Emma rhetoric which had begun to appear among the “Brighamites” in the aftermath of the martyrdom. However, I likewise agree with my great Aunt that this diary entry is not just the result of people misunderstanding Emma, but of Emma’s divergence from the body of the Saints led by Brigham and the Twelve, particularly on the issue of plural marriage.

In my mind, accepting either extreme creates some difficult problems for our understanding of Church history. Certainly the perpetuation of anti-Emma rhetoric is problematic because of the great amount of good that she did for the Church and because of the fact that she was Joseph’s first and preeminent wife. However, I believe that an unwillingness to admit that Emma had some fault in the post-martyrdom falling is equally problematic, creating the question of whether following Brigham and the Twelve was actually necessary for Saints during the 1840s, which is clearly an unacceptable alternative for believing Latter-day Saints.

As for myself, I’m not entirely sure what should be done with the revisioning of the post-martyrdom Emma Smith. My opinion is that historians must exercise a generous amount of mercy in their judgments while retaining due honesty in their writing. In essence, this is simply a good case study for the ever present problem of LDS biography. Thoughts?


  1. I don’t have an answer in response to the questions you raise here, Brett, and I don’t want to threadjack your post, but what sticks out to me from your post is the simple fact that historians of Mormonism still have a long way to go in situating the larger Latter Day Saint communities (RLDS, Strangite, etc.) into the various narratives of Mormon history.

    Comment by Christopher — August 21, 2008 @ 10:54 pm

  2. Excellent point Chris

    Comment by Brett D. — August 21, 2008 @ 10:58 pm

  3. It’s funny, because from the title, I thought this post was going to be about how Emma denied that Joseph practiced polygamy and how we deal with that revisioning.

    I do agree that there has come forth a correlated warm and fuzzy Emma of late. I think she was much more complicated person than we can caricature her as.

    Comment by Matt W. — August 21, 2008 @ 11:26 pm

  4. Steve’s Dialogue article on polygamy in Mormon memory is perhaps the best scholarly examination of the changing image of ES in Mormon history. He suggests that the shift came as a result of the reimagining of JS as a model husband with one model wife. I think that if we’re going to grapple with the excellent questions that you raise, Brett, we need to understand the discursive undercurrents surrounding JS’s marital status that are driving the change.

    Comment by David G. — August 21, 2008 @ 11:46 pm

  5. Do you know what the “lies” were that Emma believed BY was telling?

    Comment by kodos — August 22, 2008 @ 3:47 am

  6. Great entry. I’m like you. I think all the anti-Emma rhetoric is too heated and we should recognize what she went through. Years in poverty. Most of he children dying (and merely pointing out how common this was at the time doesn’t relieve the pain). Then finding out two of her counselors were secretly married to Joseph. Then the death of Joseph and the loss of her place as Brigham took over.

    Having said that one has to recognize her bitterness towards the saints, her actions while RS president towards polygamy, and so forth. If there was a test she failed it and merely recognizing how hard the test was ignores how many others passed it.

    Comment by Clark — August 22, 2008 @ 11:45 am

  7. David, I admit that I find the whole setting up of Emma and Joseph as the ideal of marriage to be deeply problematic. It involves huge revisionism at least as deep as what Emma engaged in. Plus I honestly don’t see why we need it. Of course attempts to make Christ the ideal of marriage (as has happened at times) is also problematic.

    Comment by Clark — August 22, 2008 @ 11:46 am

  8. I don’t believe we have yet swung the pendulum too far on Emma Smith because so little about the historical Emma is unknown to most LDS. I dare say that the image of Emma in the LDS cultural psyche is off on nearly all accounts. She’s either the “Brighamite hater” or the cherished wife of the prophet who can do no wrong. The pendulum is still swinging, if that makes any sense, but in all directions, at least within Mormon culture. Historical work will continue to be revisionist, simply because so many alternate histories for Emma are being promulgated among the LDS masses.

    Comment by Dave Golding — August 22, 2008 @ 12:02 pm

  9. The fact remains, however, that faithful Lucy Smith was unable to go west and Emma cared for her until her death. Not everyone went west in the first wave of 1847, it was a gradual process for a few years as husbands returned from the Mormon Battalion, etc. Perhaps Emma would have followed if she had not taken on the care of her aged mother-in-law, but by the time Lucy died the bitterness was more pronounced between Emma and “the Brighamites.” Emma was also left with huge debts in Joseph’s name (much enmity over separating the assets/debts all in Joseph’s name–which were church and which were Smith family?) which she worked for years to pay off, and may have felt obligated to stay and take care of that.

    Comment by Anita — August 22, 2008 @ 12:43 pm

  10. I can’t imagine a scenario where Emma would go west with Brigham.

    Comment by Clark — August 22, 2008 @ 3:38 pm

  11. I would prefer a better approach on Emma’s distaste (to put it mildly) for plural marriage.

    Comment by BHodges — August 22, 2008 @ 4:13 pm

  12. I have been unable to see ” Emma Smith-My Story. Should I??
    Will it chance thoughts about her?

    Comment by Bob — August 22, 2008 @ 4:17 pm

  13. From what I’ve heard, the Emma Smith movie didn’t reveal anything that hasn’t already been shown in LDS films.

    I think that making Emma fit into one category or the other forces a dichotomy that doesn’t need to be made. She lived a long life and, like the rest of us, changed over time. She was a faithful wife, AND someone who could/would not follow Brigham Young west. Other early church characters have similarly been forced into this dichotomy, and I don’t think it’s a very effective argument to make either way.

    Comment by Austin — August 22, 2008 @ 5:22 pm

  14. The movie is very similar to the Joseph Smith movie that plays in the JSMB in SLC–same actors and some of the same footage. Still ends up being more of JS’s story than Emma’s. I would instead just recommend a few minutes watching this:


    It has footage from the movie but soundtrack from the CD “Joseph: A Nashville Tribute to the Prophet” that might touch and inspire you.

    Comment by Anita — August 22, 2008 @ 5:36 pm

  15. #14, Anita, I did enjoy that. I know these lives were even a lot harder than shown, but this does add some humanity to these very complicated persons.

    Comment by Bob — August 22, 2008 @ 6:32 pm

  16. “If there was a test she failed it and merely recognizing how hard the test was ignores how many others passed it.”

    I am not in a position to judge who has “passed” and who has “failed”.

    Comment by DavidH — August 22, 2008 @ 9:08 pm

  17. The JI has provided a fair amount of coverage of the ES movie and its production. See here and here.

    Comment by David G. — August 22, 2008 @ 9:15 pm

  18. I believe that for years we have skipped over ES. She is so full of contradictions and strong emotions. Not to judge her in anyway. I bet 8 out of 10 church member could not identify ES from a photos we have.

    Comment by Jim B — August 22, 2008 @ 10:42 pm

  19. I can’t add much to this discussion, but I am also a descendant of Jonathan C. Wright. Nice to meet you cousin!

    Comment by Gary — August 22, 2008 @ 11:37 pm

  20. Ok, I really don’t mean anything offensive by this–perhaps it just reveals something horrible about my subconscious mind–this just made me chuckle mentally in a South Park sort of way: The first thing I thought after reading the above post was, “Huh, maybe that’s why more women aren’t mentioned in the BOM.” Just imagine the crap that must have hit the fan when Alma and the sons of Mosiah returned from their missions…having left their wives to wipe noses and change nappies. :-0 I think we often overlook many of the ways in which we are blessed to live in the Dispensation of the Fullness of Times (which, btw, I think is something that is clearly becoming “fuller” as time progresses)–somebody finally figured out that either you send them before they get married, or send them as couples after they retire!

    Comment by Owen — August 23, 2008 @ 10:25 am

  21. #17: Thank you for the links. They were good discussions.
    I am OK with Joseph and Emma getting a little airbrushing from time to time. But the good history is also needed. But, the balance is hard.

    Comment by Bob — August 23, 2008 @ 12:26 pm

  22. 21. Bob/others – Just a matter of sincere curiosity.

    When dealing with such an elemental historical figure like Emma (and Joseph for that matter), why would we be OK with a little airbrushing, period?

    I understand that any written history will be subject to the bias or slant the author embraces. Some authors are better at managing this human axiom than others. I also can appreciate that some will write with either a pessimistic flare, while others will take the optimistic angle. These are all authorial traits, that versed reader will take into consideration when basing their views of historical figures on biographical works. Understanding all of this, are we licensed to approve intentional “airbrushing”, or more correctly revisionist history because its paints a more pallatable picture.

    From what I have read, there was some speculation that Joseph and Emma’s marriage was on the rocks before the martyrdom. I cannot doubt that she truly loved him, by her writings and actions, yet she seemed unresolved with polygamy. Airbrushing these details, and the many others, serves no purpose because it is not true, even if a case can be made that it is partly true.

    In almost all cases, biographical works of past Church figures, by current Church members, is executed with the intent of building faith and developing testimonies. Given the emphasis of member missionary work in the Church, for most members this tendency is inexcapable, and perhaps should be. The only concern I have is that, we cannot build faith from false foundations. In spite of our best efforts, our biases will still be reflected in our work, and that is acceptable, but historical integrity should be the primary concern, and try and let our biases show forth in the conclusions we make from the data, not from the data itself.

    Comment by Cowboy — August 25, 2008 @ 10:42 am

  23. What are some suggestions for readings about Emma? I have only read “Reflections of Emma” by Buddy Youngreen (and gained a huge amount of respect for Emma because of it), but would like others. I’ve heard mixed reviews on “Mormon Enigma.”

    Comment by Bret — August 25, 2008 @ 12:05 pm

  24. I would still suggest Mormon Enigma. There has been alot of controversy about this book, though I am not aware of any material complaints regarding the historicity. Rather, I think some people have been turned off by the frankness, especially in an age, as this post alludes, where perspectives on Emma have come full circle.

    Comment by Cowboy — August 25, 2008 @ 12:40 pm

  25. What I find fascinating is that Brigham Young was really concerned, (some might say obsessed), about her and wanted her to make the move to SLC. What was BY’s motivation for continual persuasion of Emma moving west? Was there a deeper relationship between them then what has been generically told??

    Comment by PJD — August 25, 2008 @ 7:31 pm

  26. PJD, you have to understand that at this point Church leaders recognized the primacy of the Smith family and believed that one of the Smith sons would be Church President one day. Further, Emma had not a few sacred relics (manuscripts, etc.). The Smith family was institutionally legitimizing.

    Comment by J. Stapley — August 25, 2008 @ 7:49 pm

  27. Was there a deeper relationship between them then what has been generically told??

    That rumbling you feel is Emma spinning in her grave. Major RPM!

    Comment by SC Taysom — August 26, 2008 @ 5:54 am

  28. Was there a deeper relationship between them then what has been generically told??

    Are you alluding to a possible Polygamist union between the two? According to several contemporary authors, at least one facility of polygamy in the Joseph Smith era, was to form “dynastic unions” between several of the prominent families. Again, according to some, this was coupled with the promises of salvation when being grafted into the families of leading Brethren. I am sure Brigham Young felt that having Emma in utah would have been, in the eyes of many of the saints, the next closest thing to an actual endorsement by Joseph Smith.

    Comment by Cowboy — August 26, 2008 @ 9:22 am

  29. Has there been any documented journal entries of post martyrdom conversations between BY and Emma.

    Also, was Bidamon a former member of the church and how did enter the scene?

    Comment by PJD — August 26, 2008 @ 11:16 am

  30. PJD, check out Mormon Enigma: Emma Hale Smith.

    Comment by J. Stapley — August 26, 2008 @ 11:41 am

  31. #22: Cowboy, I regret my use of ?airbrushing?. I don’t like it’s use in history anymore than “bashing”. I like the word “Enigma.”, it keeps me looking. I look at every fact as a half truth, than look for the other half. That’s why I read both Vogel and Bushman, Palmer and McConkie.

    Comment by Bob — August 26, 2008 @ 1:05 pm

  32. 31 – Bob

    Thanks for the clarification, and overall I agree with your statements (#31). The reality, as you are obviously aware, of studying church history is that most of the best work is very polarizing. It is very difficult to find truly balanced work, and so we are left to do as you have, balance ourself with the polar opposites.

    Part of the reason for my question (#22) is that there seems to be an attitude prevailing, that it is acceptable to “airbrush”, as you say, Church history when it serves the greater good of promoting the Church. With a subject as serious the Lords gospel, and his Church, I would argue that intentional ommisions and revisions, is as damnable as the ommisions and revisions in early Chritianity which brought about the great apostasy. As Joseph said, corrupt and designing priests…

    Comment by Cowboy — August 27, 2008 @ 10:43 am

  33. #22 “for most members this tendency is inexcapable”

    Sorry for the grammar here, in-es-cap-able.

    There, got it.

    Comment by Cowboy — August 27, 2008 @ 11:58 am

  34. #32:Cowboy: I am not sure I like “balance” either. Good things and bad things happen in history. Good things and bad things happen in men. I am not sure they balance each other out. Sometimes people use “balance” (not you), as “Oh well, boys will be boys”. Then walk away. I have read a lot about Joseph Smith, Brigham Young, Thomas Jefferson “types”. I am left with “Enigmas”, and I am comfortable with that.

    Comment by Bob — August 27, 2008 @ 1:43 pm

  35. I only advocate balance from the “logos” position of facts and data. It is essential that when formulating opinions about past figures and events, we have as much “relevant” data as possible. I do not necesarilly think that must require our views to be balanced. Favoring ambivalence to taking aggressive stances on important issues is unnatural and usually the product of personal insecurities. But taking aggressive stances with an unbalanced view of the facts leads to poor decision making, such as when you are trying to decide whether a specific Church is true, or a man claiming to be a Prophet of God, actually is.

    Comment by Cowboy — August 27, 2008 @ 2:21 pm

  36. #35: I guess I am leery of “balance” as in Accounting. That somehow you can tally a man’s assets and liabilities, and reach a sum (balance), of his life. But this is just my way of reading history. When I use to keep score at Little League games, Errors were never counted. In history, I keep track of the Hits, Runs, and Errors.

    Comment by Bob — August 27, 2008 @ 6:42 pm

  37. Fair enough, sorry for the confusion.

    Comment by Cowboy — August 27, 2008 @ 11:06 pm

  38. […] What do We Do With the Revisionist Emma Smith? […]

    Pingback by Juvenile Instructor » From the Archives: Posts You Might Have Missed, June-August 2008 — July 3, 2009 @ 11:21 am

  39. Personally, I think from what I have read that Emma felt coerced into accepting the Partridge sisters as plural wives of Joseph if she wanted to be his “queen”. Then when she learned that the spiritual wifery wasn’t just for the afterlife, she rebelled and repented her assent to it.

    She watched Joseph very closely as he tried to make opportunities to meet with his “wives” whenever she was out of town.

    She had to be a part of the conspiracy to write the Book of Mormon and that may be why she denied even to her deathbed that Joseph had taught and practiced polygamy. She may have been protecting her reputation/her sons.

    Comment by Margie Miller — July 15, 2009 @ 3:02 pm

  40. I loves me a good conspiratorial novel, too, Margie.

    Comment by Ardis Parshall — July 15, 2009 @ 4:14 pm

  41. No to threadjack, but I am also a descendent of Jonathan Calkins Wright, and would love to see his journal(s). Where I can find them?


    Comment by K Wright — July 15, 2009 @ 5:22 pm

  42. The Journal is at the Church Archives. For some reason I can’t find the call number in my notes right now, but if you go to the Church History Library and type in Jonathan Calkins Wright on the library catalog, it will come up.

    Comment by Brett D. — July 15, 2009 @ 8:26 pm

  43. From my perspective, I’ve yet to discover information about Emma and polygamy either before Joseph’s death or after that indicates that she was anything but a spouse and later a heir and guardian of heirs trying very hard to protect her own and her children’s financial interests. This could be an explanation for her breaches of integrity rife in the historical information we do have.
    It was about the money.

    Comment by Theresa Petrey — November 7, 2009 @ 9:13 am

  44. Wow.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — November 7, 2009 @ 9:47 am


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