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?