After the martyrdom of the Mormon prophet Joseph Smith and his brother Hyrum, the Saints were forced to leave Nauvoo, Illinois, and head West. Emma, Joseph’s grief-stricken widow, did not want to leave the bodies of her beloved husband and his brother behind. She was exhausted from running with her children, and she had lost her best friend. Because Joseph died without leaving a will, there was a great deal of confusion about what property was his and what property he held as Trustee-in-Trust for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, as the Mormon Church is officially known. Regardless of who owned what, most of the property was mortgaged anyway.
It isn’t hard to understnd why Emma would want to hold on to many of Joseph’s manuscripts, including his unpublished manuscript of his translation of the Bible. It also isn’t hard to understand why she tried to obtain many of Joseph’s papers from Brigham Young, the president of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, who was not trying to lead the Church. She felt those documents belonged to her, and they were a dear reminder to her of her husband. As Brigham saw it, those documents were revelations from God for the good of His Church, and they were necessary to the leadership of the Church. Thus, despite the amicable resolution of most of the property issues, a rift was made between Brigham and Emma over other disagreements. This rift grew among their descendants, especially Emma’s, as misunderstandings compounded later.
Though Mormon Church leaders thought they had taken care of Emma leaving her with a hotel, multiple houses, lots to sell, and a farm, the actions of others who stayed behind to help settle the Smith estate were less than honorable. In the end, Emma was reduced to poverty level and lost nearly all of what she had been left. Though these actions were not known of or condoned by Church leaders, Emma was, understandably, deeply hurt. Joseph III, Emma’s son, remembered the actions taken against his mother at this time and later blamed Brigham Young for her condition.
Matters did not improve when Joseph III’s brothers, Alexander and David (now aligned with dissenters against Brigham Young who had established a group called the Reorganization) travelled to Salt Lake in the 1870s to meet with Brigham Young. They were denied access to the Tabernacle, which they wanted to preach against the Mormon Church. People on both sides of the issue were upset and gossip raged. Accounts were published in Salt Lake newspapers as well as the RLDS (Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) publication. This led to Emma being branded as an apostate or simply being ignored by many in Utah, while RLDS members harbored ill feelings towards Brigham Young.
While there is little evidence that Brigham Young and Emma Smith personally had prejudice for each other, events continued to snowball and hatred abounded between groups whose leaders had once been close, loyal friends.
After more than 100 years of this prejudice, descendants of Joseph and Emma Smith planned to gather for a reunion. Michael Kennedy, who held responsibility for the organization of this event, felt strongly he should contact the Young family to try and heal the relationship between the families. After a few weeks, Michael successfully contacted Kari Robinson, a historian for the Brigham Young Family Association. Kari contacted Mary Ellen Elggren, President Elect of the BYFA, and explained the situation. Mary was quite surprised, because she had been largely unaware of the history and any feelings of animosity. She felt a heavy responsibility to try and make amends by writing an “apology” letter as Michael called it, though he knew that wasn’t quite the right term. Gracia Jones, Chief Historian for the Joseph Smith Sr. and Emma Hale Smith Historical Society, explained it would act more as a bridge to connect the two families. Mary prayed about it and finally felt she was given the words to compose the letter. It was accepted unanimously by the BYFA and signed by its ten leaders. The letter has since been dubbed the “Healing Letter.” The letter was even shown to and approved by the First Presidency. It was presented to the Smith family at their gathering at the Nauvoo House in 2007 by three representatives of the BYFA: Mary Ellen Elggren, Kari Robinson, and Peter Kennedy. This is the letter:
For a century and a half we have grieved over the loss of the fellowship of our dear Emma Hale Smith, her children and her descendants. We feel in our hearts an abiding longing to join once again these two families in a common celebration of their ancestors, two men who loved each other and gave their lives together in the service of the Lord, Jesus Christ. The Prophet Joseph Smith, who stands at the head of this dispensation, is second only in our affections to the Lord Himself, and we hold in the highest esteem our progenitor, Brigham Young, whose dying words in this world were the repeated name of his greatest friend and mentor, Joseph.
If there are any misunderstandings that continue to exist in the lexicon of traditions in our family concerning the Prophet’s beloved wife whom we revere as a truly great and saintly aldy, we would commit ourselves to do whatever is needed to publish to the world our deep regard for her noble life.
It would be our earnest desire to rebuild that bridge of friendship between our two families that existed not so long ago.
At least twice now, LDS members of both families have met in temples in prayer circles. Many hurts have been healed, and the families continue to grow in love and respect for one another.
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