Emma Smith was the wife of the first Mormon prophet, Joseph Smith. Throughout the years, she has remained a complex topic for both Mormons and non-Mormons. Many people have focused almost entirely on the decisions she made in the last years of Joseph Smith’s life and after his death, and sometimes those events trouble Mormons and please non-Mormons. To understand her, we have to place her in her own setting and time, not in our own. We have to look at her entire life, not just one portion of it.
Emma Smith was born in 1804 in Pennsylvania and had unusual opportunities for a girl in her time. She was well-educated and taught school. She even owned cows and other items, possibly given as payment from students. Her family had a fair amount of money. Imagine, then, her family’s concern when she developed a fondness for Joseph Smith, who was from a poor farm family and had almost no formal education—just that which his father had given him at home with a small amount of traditional schooling. He had no steady occupation and was involved intensely with religion. He was not, however, a member of her family’s faith and in fact, had received a vision at age fourteen telling him not to join any existing church because none were completely right.
Emma saw in him what her family missed. She, like others who knew him well, saw an innate intelligence, a willingness to work very hard, and great integrity. Those who hired him found him to be the best employee they’d ever hired. He attended school as they courted, trying to live up to her. Despite her parents’ disapproval, she eventually eloped. They lived with his family and then with hers for a time.
She worked hard to support his mission. When the time came for Joseph Smith to retrieve the golden plates hidden in ancient times by an angel—a book today called the Book of Mormon—she went with him, praying at the wagon while he went to open the box. She joined in his efforts to protect them from thieves and acted on occasion as his scribe. He was not sufficiently educated to write the translation of the plates, so while he translated through the Holy Ghost, she wrote his words. Other scribes would do the majority of the translation, but she filled in as needed.
She had sufficient faith to avoid looking at the plates even when they were in her bedroom or kitchen, although she frequently felt them and moved them out of her way as she worked. Later witnesses would be permitted to view the plates, but God asked Emma to accept them on faith, a testimony that God recognized her as a woman of great faith.
Emma Smith would make tremendous sacrifices for the gospel of Jesus Christ, for her husband, and for the church. She was not perfect and made choices that seem hard for us to understand today. There can be no question, though, that she made sacrifices far beyond what most Mormons would be asked to make, and that she experienced more than her fair share of suffering.
She would lose many of her children. Her first three died so quickly they were not even named. After losing twins, she adopted a set of twins, but one died after being exposed to the cold when a mob invaded their home while the children were ill. One child died at the age of fourteen months and another died less than a year later.
She would leave her parents in 1830, never to see them again as she and her family were forced to move from place to place to avoid persecution and violence. Her husband was arrested, essentially for being Mormon, leaving her alone to care for her children. She wrote to him that only God knew how hard it was for her to flee her home with her children, abandoning all her possessions and leaving her husband to endure whatever was to come.
Time and again, she was uprooted, often without warning and frequently without time to pack her belongings. She endured the jeering and insults of mobs. The comfortable and peaceful life she had led as a girl had done little to prepare her for this new life, but she faced it with faith. She comforted other women, instructed them, and helped them to build their own faith. She frequently found herself living in the homes of others and just as frequently took complete strangers into her own home. When a group of black Mormons arrived after a very difficult and painful journey fraught with danger and racial prejudice, their feet bleeding because they no longer had shoes, she sat them at her own dinner table and took them all into her home as guests until they could find work. When one was unable to find employment, she hired Jane Manning herself.
She led the Relief Society, an auxiliary for the women of the church that was organized to educate the women and to allow them to serve others. She compiled the first hymnbook.
She handled nearly every trial with grace. She was often anxious and sad, but she coped. Eventually, however, she encountered a trial that became more than she thought she could handle. It is possible that polygamy would have come more easily if it had not been added to an already extraordinary number of other trials and if she had not been the first wife to face it in the Church. She had no example to follow and no real support group, as later women would have.
Initially, when Joseph admitted to her that he had received a revelation about polygamy and was told he absolutely must carry it out, she accepted it. Later, when Brigham Young was the prophet, the practice would be refined so that the first wife had to approve each subsequent wife, but as we also see in the Bible, refinements of new practices often come over time as prophets continue to pray for guidance. Emma did, from time to time, offer approval of specific marriages. At other times, she found she could not handle the choices she had made, much as Sarah in the Old Testament first encouraged her husband to marry her handmaiden and then discovered it was more than she was prepared to handle.
According to historian Richard Bushman, Joseph saw polygamy simply as a way to join families together for eternity. Mormons believe family life continues after death. When eternal marriage was first introduced, many families carried out “sealings” with friends and those they wanted to be eternally associated with, not entirely understanding what the revelation meant. Many wished to be associated with the prophet for the eternal blessings they felt this would bring. He did not court the women or put his proposals in romantic terms. In fact, he generally took another man with him or even asked a father or brother to approach the woman. He instructed them to have the women pray about the request.
Modern DNA has ruled out all children Fran Brodie had proposed were his through other marriages. Since he did father many children with Emma, parenthood was possible, but there is, at this time, no biological proof of traditional marriage relationships and the only accounts came from others, not the women or Joseph. For him, it appears the marriages were fairly impersonal and meant to fulfill the requirement given him by an angel and to join certain families together in the eternities.
Whatever the situation, Emma eventually found herself unable to cope with polygamy. Bushman reports that Emma and Joseph had many intense discussions about his polygamy and their relationship was periodically strained.
All the same, she continued to have a testimony of his role as a prophet and she carried out her duties faithfully. She became the first woman to receive the temple endowment involving the making of sacred covenants with the Savior. She then became a temple worker, helping others with their first temple experiences. During this time, their relationship improved and Joseph may have agreed to stop taking on additional wives.
Although their marriage was often troubled following the introduction of polygamy, Emma continued to care for Joseph. When he was murdered, she bent over him and expressed her sorrow that they had taken him from her. She had a lock of his hair cut and given to her. She wore it in a locket the rest of her life, even after she remarried.
She was left alone with her five children, including her adopted daughter and four sons. Her financial state was precarious because there had not been a clear line between the family money and the church money, with Joseph often going into debt to help support the church. She made an understandable effort to keep some of the property and this put her at odds with Brigham Young, since it was unclear which of those properties belonged to the church and which to her. Some church members inappropriately rejected her because of her rejection of polygamy and her outspokenness on the subject. The Church was already in a period of great stress and grief as people struggled to decide who the next prophet would be and they faced the realization that they were again in great danger with an uncertain future. This most likely caused people to behave differently than they might have in gentler circumstances. With discomfort on both sides, she soon found herself outside the mainstream of the church.
When the Mormons left for Utah, she elected to remain behind. She moved away from Nauvoo for a while to avoid danger, but eventually returned to her former home. She was able to utilize the properties she owned to support her family, but with difficulty, particularly since she was left to cover Joseph’s many debts. She later married Major Lewis Bidamon, who had supported the Mormons during the trials, but was not a member. He had one illegitimate child and after marrying Emma had another, which she raised, making her a most extraordinary woman. They had a reasonably good relationship despite these challenges.
When her son became an adult and headed up the Reorganized Church, as it was then known, she joined. However, she was never really an active member of that church, nor did she become active in any other church. She admitted that she had been reluctant to give her children any formal religious life—just personal reading of the Bible and Book of Mormon—because she was afraid of a return to the many trials she had faced. She helped to care for Joseph’s mother and her mother-in-law noted that few women had endured as many trials as she had with so much grace.
Emma’s life was a complex one. Her refined childhood and girlhood was not designed to give her the skills she needed in adulthood, and yet she managed nearly everything thrown at her. She held on to her faith in God, in the gospel, and in Joseph Smith as a prophet throughout it all. She was not perfect, but what is amazing is that she was as perfect as she was given the powerful trials and persecutions she experienced. Her heartaches were very real and would have been a challenge to any woman, particularly without the lens of understanding time brings. They were enough to wear out any woman and if she, in the end, was tired of fighting her way through life, that can be understood.
Modern Mormons are beginning to come to terms with Emma as the elect lady God declared her to be in a revelation, but a very real and human one at the same time who fought for God as long as she had to before choosing the calmer life she longed for. She stood by her husband even when they faced strains in their marriage. After his death she resisted encouragement to deny his role as a prophet. Since she left no journal, we don’t really know what the entire truth about Emma Smith is…but we do know she was remarkable.
Turley, Richard E., and Brittany A. Chapman. “A Comfort unto My Servant, Joseph.” Women of faith in the latter days. Salt Lake City, Utah: Deseret Book Company, 2011. 343-362. Print.
Bushman, Richard L., and Jed Woodworth. Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2005. Print.
Terrie Lynn Bittner
The late Terrie Lynn Bittner—beloved wife, mother, grandmother, and friend—was the author of two homeschooling books and numerous articles, including several that appeared in Latter-day Saint magazines. She became a member of the Church at the age of 17 and began sharing her faith online in 1992.