Joseph Smith Latter-day Saint History Polygamy

The Remarkable Legacy of Emma Smith

Emma left an unmatched legacy in ways we can only understand from a distance.

Emma Hale Smith is sometimes viewed only as “Joseph Smith’s wife, Emma.” Stories are told of her wrestles with polygamy or her decision to remain in Nauvoo. There’s even a new argument that she may have possessed a Joseph Smith daguerreotype. But Emma is more than a story. In this interview, Jenny Reeder shares insights from her Emma Smith biography, First: The Life and Faith of Emma Smith.

Read the biography of Emma Hale Smith, the wife of the Prophet Joseph, written by Jenny Reeder.

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Table of contents

How did Jenny Reeder become interested in Emma Hale Smith?

I am the nineteenth-century women’s history specialist at the Church History Department for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. I came to history in a roundabout way: I thought I wanted to be a high school English teacher. Student teaching changed those plans.

After following a kind bishop’s suggestion to study communication and an MA at Arizona State in human communication, I got a temporary job as a research assistant for Carol Cornwall Madsen in her work on Emmeline B. Wells. Soon I was also working for Jill Mulvay Derr in her work on Eliza R. Snow, and their combined work on the Nauvoo Relief Society minutes. The women in Nauvoo spoke to me through Eliza R. Snow’s words on those pages and called me to the work.

The loss of Joseph was devastating for Emma.

After three years at the Joseph Fielding Smith Institute for Latter-day Saint History at BYU, Jill and Carol pushed me off to grad school. I earned an MA in history, documentary editing, and archival management at New York University, then a PhD in American history from George Mason University, with a dissertation on memory, material culture and the Nauvoo Relief Society.

My first work project evolved into At the Pulpit: 185 Years of Discourses by Latter-day Saint Women. I knew we had to include something from Emma Smith, but unfortunately that meant cobbling together some of her words in the Nauvoo Relief Society minutes—words that in my mind had come to express her disdain for polygamy and the secrecy surrounding the practice.

One day, co-author Kate Holbrook and I met with the general Relief Society presidency to give them information about our project, and I expressed my dismay and anxiety about Emma Smith.

Then-president Linda K. Burton looked me in the eye and said:

Jenny, remember, Emma was the elect lady.

Linda K. Burton

That exclamation, coming from the current “elect lady,” shifted my understanding of Emma. I wanted to see her as a powerful agent, a significant participant in the early church, and a vulnerable woman of her time.

What is the backstory for First: The Life and Faith of Emma Smith?

Deseret Book approached me about writing a book on Emma Smith. They wanted me to include as much of her words as possible—and they did not want me to write a “history,” which I found ironic. I accepted the assignment and proceeded to write a history, using as many primary sources as possible, and to write with accuracy and authenticity.

What new details was Jenny Reeder most excited to share?

So many things! I think I was most excited to really examine how involved Emma was in the restoration—to give her credit for her contributions, whether that be with the Book of Mormon, or the hymns, or Relief Society, or the temple.

I think we all have a sense of that, but to know how deep those contributions are and what impact they have on the church today. I see Emma as a very significant, multi-dimensional individual, both publicly and privately, and I was excited to share that part of her as well.

Jenny Reeder shared five lessons learned from her study of Emma Smith.

Tell us about Joseph and Emma’s atypical marriage.

I see Emma and Joseph’s relationship as very progressive for their day, and I think their relationship, as any other, changed over time. I think in the beginning, Emma was intricately involved as Joseph processed ideas and revelation and understanding of the restoration, the Bible, and the Book of Mormon. I think as others came into his life—like Oliver Cowdery and his clerks and the different quorums and councils, that that changed their relationship a little bit and Emma wasn’t as central.

But I think he still shared quite a bit with her, more than what Brigham Young preferred. I think Brigham Young and Mary Ann Angell had a much more traditional relationship, that Emma in a way in her active participation may have threatened Brigham.

I love that in Nauvoo, when Joseph and Emma had very little privacy, that they would take their carriage or ride horseback out into the country to have private conversation and come to terms with each other. Theirs was a working relationship, and I value that.

In what ways was Emma the ‘first’?

Emma was the first scribe for the Book of Mormon, which I think is significant. I also like to consider Emma as the First Lady—meaning she had a social role as wife of the church president and mayor. She hosted a lot of dinners and events and rode with Joseph and the Nauvoo Legion. I think she had an important public persona.

How did Emma Smith contribute to the coming forth of the Book of Mormon?

The “right one”

First, Emma was the “right one” Joseph was instructed to bring to actually obtain the plates. Moroni told him each year at their annual appointment on the hill that he needed to bring the right one.

In 1826, Moroni gave Joseph one last chance for the next year to bring the “right one.” Joseph Knight Sr. records that Joseph received revelation in his seer stone to know that the right person was Emma Hale of Pennsylvania. She joined Joseph in the carriage to Cumorah, and while she probably didn’t go meet Moroni with him, she was there in the vicinity.

The gold plates

Second, Emma protected the plates. That first night, Joseph hid them in a hollow log. The next day, he found work in nearby Macedon to earn money to buy a lock to secure the plates. While he was gone, Joseph Sr. brought word to Emma that there were local rumblings about efforts to find the plates. Emma found a spare horse and rode bareback an hour to warn Joseph.

Then, when they decided to move to Harmony, Emma called for her brother Reuben’s assistance in the relocation. They placed the plates in a barrel of beans, and Reuben, a constable, would sleep outside to guard the barrel and other items.

In Harmony, Emma obtained a glass box from her carpenter brother-in-law to secure the plates, and later got a red Moroccan leather box where they placed the plates under their bed at night. Emma produced a linen cloth to cover the plates during the day when Joseph and Martin Harris or Oliver Cowdery or others worked on the translation during the day. She also made a leather pouch to hold Joseph’s seer stone.

A scribe

Third, Emma was the first scribe. We don’t know how much she wrote before Martin Harris came to Harmony, but we know she was invested enough to express concern about the 116 pages of manuscript after she had recovered from a traumatic delivery and loss of their first baby. She also scribed a bit for the Bible translation.

Belief in the Book of Mormon

Lastly, at the end of her life, Emma told her sons, Joseph III and Alexander, that she continued to believe in the Book of Mormon and the role of Joseph as prophet. She witnessed the process of the Book of Mormon translation and testified to it throughout her life.

At the end of her life, Emma remained true to Joseph.

Why was she concerned about the plates?

Emma realized all that she and Joseph had invested in the Book of Mormon. She accompanied Joseph to retrieve the plates from the angel Moroni, and she believed in his prophetic and seer role.

She supported him when her own family didn’t. She believed. She had also participated—this felt like her work as well. Emma felt a responsibility because of the time and energy she had invested in procuring, protecting, and scribing for the plates.

Why does Jenny Reeder refer to polygamy as “Emma’s personal Abrahamic sacrifice”?

Section 132

The revelation on plural marriage—Doctrine and Covenants 132—is interesting to me. It seems to have been written as a personal revelation to Joseph and Emma, and it wasn’t included in the printed publication until 1876 by Orson Hyde.

The references to Abraham are multiple—he is mentioned 20 times in this one revelation. The revelation turns from Joseph to Emma in verse 51, “to prove you all, as I did Abraham, and that I might require an offering at your hand, by covenant and sacrifice.”

In broader terms, an Abrahamic sacrifice refers to the things that are dearest or hardest to give. I think this is the case with Emma. Her marriage to Joseph was sacred and deeply personal.

One of the instructions given to Joseph in section 132 is to get the permission of his first wife to marry plural wives, which he obviously didn’t do. She felt extremely betrayed to discover that he had been married plurally to some of her dearest friends and Relief Society sisters. The discrepancies between public teachings and private practices were extremely unnerving for a woman in such a public position.

A depiction of Joseph and Emma Smith discussing polygamy, by Latter-day Saint artist Anthony Sweat
Jenny Reeder says that Emma Smith felt betrayed when she learned Joseph married other women without her permission. Credit: “Purgatory: Joseph, Emma, and the Revelation on Plural Marriage” by Anthony Sweat.


It is significant to note that DNA tests show that Joseph did not have children with any of his plural wives, and that Emma was pregnant with Joseph’s baby when he died. I remain undecided on the meaning of the “law of Sarah” (D&C 132:65) and what that meant for both Emma and Joseph.

And yet I am extremely intrigued with Emma’s acceptance of her second husband, Lewis Bidamon’s betrayal of their marriage when he fathered a baby out of wedlock. In fact, the idea that Emma took little Charlie Bidamon into her home and helped raise him, then brought his mother, Nancy Abercrombie into her home, suggests that perhaps after several years Emma had reached a point of accommodation. She, of course, never had children with Lewis, but they loved each other and cared for each other.

However, it was Joseph who came for Emma at the end of her life and who promised her in a dream that her eternal covenants remained in force, that she would have all of her babies whom she had lost throughout their years.

Emma delivered nine babies and adopted two.

Jenny Reeder, First: The Life and Faith of Emma Smith

Why did Emma Smith stay in Nauvoo?

The loss of Joseph was devastating for Emma. I think deep down she always knew it was a possibility, but it truly took her breath away and altered her personality. She became much more of an introvert and vigilantly protected her children and her property.

Tension with Brigham Young came to a head when she chose to stay in Nauvoo while he led many of the saints west. I believe Emma was heeding the charge given to her in her revelation, D&C 25, to stay with her husband at the time of his staying, to watch over his body and ensure his safety.

I think Emma’s life had been incredibly transient, from Harmony to Manchester to Fayette to Kirtland to Far West to Nauvoo, and the constant lodging in other family’s homes and loss of children certainly built up over time. She crossed a lot of frozen rivers and walked through a lot of mud. When the deed of the Mansion House and the Smith Homestead were in her name, she was not going to risk the safety and security she felt there to go into another unknown, led by a man who obviously did not have her best interest in hand. I think she became a sort of “mama bear” in digging her heels in and staying.

It’s interesting to look at photographs of Emma after Joseph’s death (there are none before). As she ages, one of her eyes becomes more and more droopy. Some have speculated that she had a stroke, but we have no record of that. I think she dealt with post-traumatic stress, and it was manifesting physically.

Emma Smith was the wife of the Prophet Joseph Smith
Some think that Emma Smith had a stroke sometime after Joseph’s death because of the way her eye looks droopy.

That said, even though Emma did not continue with Relief Society or temple ordinances, she died with a firm expression of faith in the prophetic role of Joseph and the Book of Mormon.

Much has been said about the 1879 interview with her sons. Some believe that she was a bit delusional by this time, that Joseph III fed her answers appropriate for his needs at that time, and that she had become a pawn. Some or any of that may be true. But I believe she was cognizant enough to recognize and revere Joseph to the end of her life.

She was a real woman whose life was scarred by significant trials.

I believe that as she recounted her life, she recognized the things she had witnessed and the prices she had paid, and that her faith remained strong.

What are some of her lesser-known contributions?

It’s hard to link contributions where there are not explicit sources, but I think Emma left an unmatched legacy in ways we can only understand from a distance. By divine assignment, she facilitated a distinct method of worship through music that reverberates today.

We often think that it wasn’t until the Relief Society in 1842 that Emma “expounded scripture” and “exhorted the church,” but surely she accomplished that through her selection of hymns. We must take into account the power she claimed in formulating doctrine through selection of certain hymns, and how that theology changed from 1835 to 1841. The hymnals reveal a specific time and place for religious practice and collective identity and need to be historically contextualized to appreciate their full value. Emma needs to be recognized for her theological contributions with the hymns.

Emma’s role as “elect lady” with the formation of the Relief Society under the direction of Joseph Smith is also extremely noteworthy.

I think we all know the story of the creation of the Relief Society in 1842 Nauvoo with Sarah Kimball, but do we recognize the value of the organization as a partner quorum of the priesthood, as an ancient organization that always existed on the earth when the priesthood was on the earth, and the connection between the Relief Society and the temple?

Do we today realize the female religious authority intended by Joseph Smith to reside in the Relief Society as an independent agent?

Do we understand the inherent power of sisterhood among women, in administering and healing, and in providing relief and saving souls?

This is a salvific sisterhood, and when men and women on a general and a local level understand this, we understand the role of Emma Smith in concert with her prophet husband. King and queen, priest and priestess, prophet and prophetess, president and presidentess, father and mother.

What is the key to understanding Emma Smith?

The key to understanding Emma Smith is to recognize the complexity of her life. She was a real woman whose life was scarred by significant trials. She also recognized her role and she maintained it until it was too much after Joseph’s death.

They were a mighty partnership. He could not have received the plates or become a prophet without her. She is integral to Latter-day Saint heritage today, in so many different groups and break-offs. She is a mother to all of them.

Why is a resurgence of love and respect for her among Church members?

This is an interesting and important question. Brigham Young did not speak kindly of Emma, and her denial of plural marriage angered a lot of her old friends and sister wives. The fact that she remained in Nauvoo did not leave her in a respectful light, even though Lucy Mack Smith also remained; she was not denigrated as Emma was. It has taken decades for those hard feelings to fall out of favor.

The first attempt that I am aware of to write about Emma’s life came from Vesta Crawford, an editor of the Relief Society Magazine and a noted poet in Utah. She and Fay Ollerton researched and interviewed and produced a manuscript that was never published. The story goes that the church warned Crawford that she would lose her job if the book was published.

Another book on Emma was published in the 1970s by Ernst Wirkin, Judge Me, Dear Reader, a wonderfully insightful though apologetic text. Then others picked up on the topic, both devotional and academic—Buddy Youngren, Val Avery and Linda Newell, Gracia Jones, and others. Slowly, over time, the public perspective of Emma shifted and placed her, for the most part, on a pedestal.

I believe we can have both love and respect for Emma, but it is vital to recognize the complexity of her life. She was a woman of her time, as was her husband, and we must take into account the historical context. But she was also a progressive woman who saw Joseph’s vision for women in the church and interpreted it and actualized it to the best of her abilities.

What would Jenny Reeder ask Emma Smith if she could go back in time?

As I wrote the book, I worried about getting things wrong. I was scared of meeting Emma Smith in the next life and have her shake her finger at me for getting something wrong.

I have a million questions to ask her:

  • Tell me about plural marriage?
  • Did you ever peak at the plates under the linen cover?
  • Have you come to a reconciliation with Brigham Young and Eliza R. Snow—and if so, what was that process?
  • Did you keep a journal, and if so, what happened to it?
  • What do you see as your role in the restoration?
  • What advice would you give to women in the church today?

About the author

Jenny Reeder is a historian at the Church History Department of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. She specializes in nineteenth-century women’s history. In addition to writing First: The Life and Faith of Emma Smith, Reeder has also published At the Pulpit: 185 Years of Discourses by Latter-Day Saint Women and The Witness of Women: Firsthand Experiences and Testimonies from the Restoration.

Further reading

Emma Hale Smith resources

By Jerry Winder

History geek. Seeker of truth. Believer.

One reply on “The Remarkable Legacy of Emma Smith”

Did Emma ever accept plural marriage?? If she opposed it, why don’t we have a record of it. Did she ever accept Brigham Young as the Church leader. Did they ever correspond after the death of J. Smith??

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