Maxwell Institute Podcast #131: An Elect Lady, with Jennifer Reeder
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From acting as a scribe for the translation of the Book of Mormon to founding the Relief Society, Emma Hale Smith was a key figure in the Restoration. She was also her husband’s anchor and the love of his life. But how much do we really know about her role, teachings, and leadership?
Drawing upon letters written by Emma to Joseph and to many others, along with minutes from Relief Society meetings and other artifacts, this book sketches a more complete portrait of this elect lady. It allows each of us to become personally acquainted with Emma as we learn more about her essential work as a leader, a wife, and a mother in the early days of the Church.
Today’s guest is Dr. Jennifer Reeder, who wrote a biography of Emma Smith, entitled FIRST: THE LIFE AND FAITH OF EMMA SMITH from Deseret Book. Dr. Reeder will be delivering the Neal A. Maxwell Institute Lecture on November 13 at 7 PM at the Hinckley Alumni Center at BYU. Make plans to attend her lecture! And follow us on Instagram at @BYUMaxwell.
Joseph Stuart: Welcome to the Maxwell Institute Podcast. I’m Joseph Stuart. From acting as a scribe for the translation of the Book of Mormon to founding the Relief Society, Emma Hale Smith was a key figure in the restoration. She was also her husband’s anchor and the mother of the President of the reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Joseph Smith III. But how much do we really know about Emma Smith, her role, teachings, and leadership?
Today, we’re going to learn from Dr. Jennifer Reeder, who wrote a biography of Emma Hale Smith entitled First: The Life and Faith of Emma Smith from Deseret Book. Dr. Reeder will also be delivering the Neal A Maxwell lecture on November 13, at 7 pm in the Hinckley Alumni Center at BYU. Please make plans to attend her lecture. And be sure to follow us on Instagram at @BYUMaxwell. Jennifer Reeder, welcome to the Maxwell Institute Podcast.
Jennifer Reeder: I’m so excited to be here! And I’m so excited to be with you. I love the Maxwell Institute, and I love our topic for today.
Stuart: We’ve been looking forward to hearing you speak about Emma Smith for a long time. When was the first time that you began to think about Emma Smith in an academic context?
Reeder: I had just finished a master’s degree in Human Communication at Arizona State University, and I was working as a research assistant for Carol Madsen and Jill Durr. And I started working on what is now the first 50 years of Relief Society. This is back in 2001 so, oh, do the math friends that’s 20 years ago! Whew! And I… that’s when I first really came to know Emma Smith or came to understand the role she plays specifically with the Nauvoo Relief Society. I read Mormon Enigma. And I had a particular sense of who she was, in the sense that she seemed to be a little defiant and a little…what’s the word? Like she just sort of took control of the Relief Society and used it for her ends, particularly regarding polygamy.
Stuart: Would you say that that’s a fair assessment?
Reeder: I think that’s the…Yeah, I do. I think that’s the assessment that Mormon Enigma gives us. And I also think it’s curious- now that I’ve done so much more work on her- to really look at the historiography because nothing was published about her until the 1980s. And that was 100 years after she died, which blows my mind. But I think so much of that comes from this idea or perception of her shared by Brigham Young after he came to Utah and his tension and, and anger with her, and the way that filtered down in so many different ways, but it lasted how many generations? And so I think part of that was just the way, as a church, as an institutional history and memory, we’ve thought of her. When I was working on At The Pulpit with Kate Holbrook, we knew we had to include a discourse by Emma Smith. And of course, the only written discourse we could find were little bits and pieces in the Nauvoo Relief Society minutes.
Stuart: And they’re often summaries right? They’re not even her words quoted?
Reeder: Yeah, I mean, that’s fair. It’s always filtered through…Eliza R. Snow is the Secretary. But it’s also a working meeting, so it’s not like she gives a full discourse. It’s like they’re having a conversation, a dialogue if you will. It’s a public discourse. So, and it’s not one woman. It’s a lot of women. And so that’s why you kind of get snippets here and there, but because I had read Mormon Enigma, it made me really think that everything she said was anti-polygamy in a sort of an underhanded way. And you can certainly read the Nauvoo Relief Society minutes that way. But one time Kate and I were meeting with the General Relief Society Presidency, Linda Burton, and Carol Stevens, and Linda Reeves at the time, and we were talking about At The Pulpit, and Sister Burton, President Burton, said something about how, well, Emma was an elect lady. And it just hit me in a way that I had never thought of before- that an elect lady, President Burton, was telling me Emma was an elect lady. And I decided I really wanted to see past that anti-polygamy rhetoric that had been so prevalent in the literature and in the memory and thought.
Stuart: Yeah, so you mentioned the historiography, which is sort of the history of what’s been written about history. So, for Emma Smith, there are so few biographies that have been written. And you, you had this moment, how did you end up writing a biography of Emma for Deseret Book?
Reeder: So actually, this is an interesting story. It started out with the Church’s Historian’s Press Editorial Board. I’m on that board, and in a meeting, I think it was Deseret Book that has asked the board if someone here at the Church History Department could do the papers of Emma Smith. And it was an interesting meeting because they were talking back and forth about how well, there aren’t that many papers, which is true, but also that we don’t have anyone that could have done it. Which I thought was ironic, because I was like raising my hand jumping up and down and then the church historian at the time was oh, we don’t want to deal with all her polygamy issues. And so it was decided that the Church Historian’s Press wouldn’t do something like that. So Deseret Book came to me personally and said, “Would you write a book on Emma Smith?” Which I, of course, jumped at the opportunity. It was interesting, though, because the woman that I was working with, the product manager at Deseret Book said, “Now we don’t want a history.” And I was kind of like, okay, and then my head thinking, but you knew what I was when you picked me up. I am, in fact, an historian.
Stuart: With a Ph.D. in history.
Reeder: Right! And I work as a historian, and I will write a history. So everything… I was so careful to make sure everything was accurately annotated.
Stuart: So with the encouragement of Deseret Book, with them approaching you to do this, you set out and collect new primary sources, you read everything else that’s been written, and we have First: The Life and Faith of Emma Smith here with us today. And in the first chapter, you write that Emma Hale was no stranger to wilderness and that she had a supportive, eventually successful family. How did her family upbringing shape her life?
Reeder: Oh, I think her family upbringing totally shaped her life. I think that they had a very, first of all, they were a very close-knit family. Her father and mother were among the earliest settlers in the area of what was then known as Harmony, Pennsylvania, in the Susquehanna River Valley in Pennsylvania. And it literally was a wilderness. I mean, they lived in a rough-hewn log cabin, or Emma lived until they were able to have the means to build a fine house. And her dad was a hunter. In fact, it was really difficult to farm in Harmony just because of the trees, and the river, and the deep, the hills, there wasn’t a lot of farming space and things weren’t successful at farming. So her dad was a hunter, so he actually hunted and shipped things down the river. Anyway, their family was a very tight-knit family, and her siblings when they married, they stayed in the area. And while some of them, some of her sisters, married men that were uneducated, as was Joseph, Joseph presented a different situation in the sense that he had started a new religion. Had some religious ideas that were different than the norm at the time there in Harmony.
Stuart: And I think that it’s actually important to keep in mind here, too, that we as Latter-day Saints today are like, “Wouldn’t it be great to have Joseph Smith in your life to think about this?” But Joseph Smith hadn’t accomplished anything yet. And someone who’s starting a new religion isn’t necessarily going to get the benefit of the doubt when you come home to meet the parents of the person that you’re interested in pursuing.
Reeder: Right. I think her dad was also worried about him being able to provide for his daughter. He also recognized the fact that they probably wouldn’t necessarily stay in Harmony like his other children had, and that he wouldn’t be able to help his daughter, as well, as a father figure. Her mother also was a very significant woman in her life. She helped her learn how to nurse and use the herbal remedies around. She taught her to cook and to be a host in so many different ways. Her brothers taught her how to canoe in the river and how to ride horseback and she was an excellent horse woman. She, there in Harmony, was able to start her own dairy. So she had some business acuity, she knew how to run a business and how to manage things.
Stuart: If I were hearing this for the first time, I would think “Emma is bringing a lot to the table that maybe Joseph Smith isn’t”. And so again, trying to think about this as an outsider perspective, we can understand why Emma’s family reacted the way that she did, but did Joseph ever seem like he had any issues or that he was threatened with Emma’s, not only abilities, but her education and her social standing.
Reeder: You know, I think that we don’t have record of that, which I think is interesting. And I think that he was impressed with her. And when Moroni told him at his annual appointment on the Hill Cumorah that he needed to bring the right person with him, his first thought, of course, was his brother Alvin. And that was before he’d even met Emma. But then when he was given one more chance, and he sought revelation in his seer stone, and he saw Emma Hale, and he had known her by that time, and they had developed a close friendship, and he was impressed with her. In that sense, I think Joseph was a pretty brave person, but I think he was also a little bit scared of Isaac Hale. I know that Josiah Stoll was really influential in getting them together. And Joseph Knight, who was a neighbor of Josiah Stoll, was also influential in getting them together. And sent the wagon that brought Emma, and helped them with transportation and other things. And they spent their honeymoon in Josiah Stoll’s home. So they were, I think, really influential in providing the competence and the means for Joseph to really pursue this relationship.
Stuart: Right, because Joseph doesn’t come to the relationship having a ton of money, or having land, right, with Hamilton flashing through my mind right now. And this is at a time when something called coverture takes place, could you explain coverture for us?
Reeder: So coverture comes from a French word, which means to cover or to be covered. And the culture of the time really enforced this idea of women not being their own citizens, but being covered by their fathers, or by their husbands. So there, they could be protected, I guess it’s a nice way of putting it. So for example, women didn’t own anything, including land and other items. So when Emma did marry Joseph, they moved to Manchester, New York, she sent a letter to her father asking if she could get her things. She had to get permission to get her cows and some of the other things that she had owned as a single woman. And he, in fact, did give it to her. So I… I think it’s also interesting that they, she was a bit progressive in the sense that later on, she pretty much ran any kind of family business that she and Joseph had because she knew how to do it. When they owned the red brick store, for example, in Nauvoo, and they had to stock the store, and they would go to St. Louis to do that. And Joseph couldn’t go to Missouri, because he would be extradited. So she would go and make all the purchases. So we see her really as this incredible and interesting progressive woman of business, propriety, and of business acumen. She also was able to get property from Joseph before he died, he put his half share of the steamboat in her name. One of the things that really shows us this is when he did die, Emma was really concerned about how she was going to provide for the family, she literally had to go to Carthage and fill out paperwork to become the guardian of her children, which was part of that coverture law. But also, she was worried because so much of the Smith family finances were intertwined with the church’s finances. And once she was able to establish a trustee and trust, and determine what property she owned- namely, the homestead, the Smith homestead, and the Mansion House- was she able to feel comfortable and that she could provide for herself and her children.
Stuart: So in addition to these economic responsibilities and economic talents that she had, you also write that she and Joseph had an emotional contract to each other that was pretty progressive for their time. What do you mean by that?
Reeder: I love this. I think this is a great question. And I think it’s particularly great in the sense that, she was able to do so much for Joseph that he wasn’t able to do for himself. She had a much broader education. She actually knew the Bible better than Joseph, she could help as his scribe answer his questions and how to pronounce the name Sariah. Or that there were walls around the city of Jerusalem. And she… she did that in a way that really complimented him. He was a visionary man, he was able to see things. She was not a visionary person in the sense that she did not have heavenly visitations. But she was able to put things into words and to textualize Joseph’s vision. And she was such a key part of that. And I love that.
Stuart: I do too. I also love that Emma Smith has Doctrine and Covenants 25 directed to her, or the revelation later known as Doctrine and Covenants 25, in part, which she’s declared to be an elected lady, as you mentioned earlier, but also that she is asked to compile a hymn book. And it said that she has all these talents. But canoeing doesn’t come much to help out when it comes to putting together a hymn book. So how did this stretch or magnify her abilities as she went about putting together the first Latter-day Saint hymn book?
Reeder: I mean, we don’t really know that Joey, she may have gone canoeing and sung songs.
Stuart: I would like to think so. Girls’ camp songs, personally.
Reeder: Right? Of course, girls camp songs, but actually she did attend Methodist camp meetings. And so she was really aware. And she… this is a time of the Second Great Awakening, and there’s a lot of expression of worship, and she was known for her soprano voice, and she attended Methodist singing schools in her hometown. So music was not a strange thing for her. The strange part was that women did not compile hymn books. So she had a unique task given to her, I think, it shows that the Lord had a progressive vision. Joseph had a progressive vision, and that Emma had a progressive understanding of how to accomplish that vision. And I loved the way that she compiled hymns from a lot of different sources. From Baptist hymnals, Methodist hymnals, Unitarian hymnals, Congregationalist hymns. And these could have been, like I said, from hymnals or also from newspapers, where hymns were often printed in the newspaper. So by the time they’re actually trying to put together the hymnal, she’s living in Kirtland, William W. Phelps is the publisher living in Independence, and she would send him hymn texts to print in the hymnal. And while he was preparing that hymnal, he would just put them in the newspaper the Evening and the Morning Star which was distributed among all the Saints. But it’s so interesting if you think about it, what else is in the Evening and the Morning Star? Revelations and history of the church. And so, placing hymns in that context makes them holy. It makes them significant, not just little ditties to sing, or girls camp songs- although we love them. But it made them significant part too, I think of her charge to expound scripture and exhort the church.
Stuart: I love that you say that, I think that it also just creates a material record of what she’s doing. Because this is something that, you know, as a historian of women’s experiences, especially women’s religious experiences, they often get forgotten, because they’re seen as insignificant. Which of course, is wrong, but also, the types of records that women leave behind aren’t always the same kinds of records that men leave behind. And so, when we have the opportunity to see, yes, a woman is thinking and making theology and printing it in the newspaper through creating a hymn book, that’s something that we should celebrate.
Reeder: I think it’s also significant that she really contributed to this idea of Latter-day Saint or Church of Christ theology. I mean, the hymns that she chose, reflect the, reflects the idea of building Zion, of Jesus Christ, and of the restoration. And in the sense, when you have a congregation singing those hymns together in a worship service in a worship format, she is influencing that. And that is huge! I don’t think we give her enough credit for that.
Stuart: No, certainly not. And I think that also even in ways outside of explicit religious context, where they’re being sung, of course, in Section 25, says that a prayer of the righteous is a prayer to God. But I also think about my neighbor who is not a Latter-day Saint, but on Pioneer Day comes to our ward parade, and takes part and has been known to sing Come Come Ye Saints as part of the July 24th celebration. And so I just think about the ways in which there’s so many ways that people practice religion. And this is a little bit of nerdery for/to religious historians. But there’s so many different ways to practice one’s faith. And we should celebrate the ways that we can find that.
Reeder: Absolutely. My grandmother was a convert to the church, she grew up in southeastern Arizona. And we always call her a songbird because she always had a song. We had a tire swing at, or she did, in a cherry tree at her house, and she would push us and sing us songs. I mean, they were songs from her childhood, and her mother, my great-grandmother, she grew up in the Church of Christ, which is different than the early Latter-day Saint Church, but in their church, they sang, but not with any accompaniment. So when she sang in church, and I would sit by her, she would always sing very loudly, and I loved it! I loved that that was her form of expression.
Stuart: We’re speaking with Dr. Jennifer Reeder about her book First: The Life and Faith of Emma Smith. She is also going to be delivering the annual Neal A Maxwell lecture, which we’ll talk about more at the end of the podcast.
At the formation of the Relief Society for the church, she’s named the President, or she’s named presidentess, and you use the term presidentess. Why did you choose that term?
Reeder: You know, that’s the 19th-century term that she… that they used at the time. I love the way in the 19th century, they were able to make feminine, what are generally masculine terms. So we have the president and the presidentess. You have the priests and the priestess. So that was actually a term that she was given at the first Relief Society meeting. I think it’s significant too because Joseph’s whole intent was to create a partner quorum, or group, or order of the priesthood that allowed women to participate in similar ways in the building up of the church and the salvation of souls. And in the needs of the community and providing relief. I love that he said the church was never fully organized until the Relief Society was organized. But I also love that he wanted to create the Relief Society after the order of the priesthood, which meant there would be a president and two counselors. And that’s exactly what they did. They created this presidency with Emma Smith, her dear friend, Sarah Cleveland, and her other dear friend, Elizabeth Ann Whitney. One thing that I think is interesting with these ladies is, when Emma and Joseph moved to Kirtland in 1831, that the Whitney family took them in and cared for them. When the Whitney family came destitute to Nauvoo, the Smith family took them in and cared for them. And even before that, when Emma and her four children were coming across the frozen river to Illinois, and Joseph was in Liberty jail, the Cleveland family took them in. So I think there’s this incredible relationship among these women of caring for each other and providing relief for each other and literally saving each other from the elements. And I love that.
Stuart: I do too because religion is always practiced in relationship with one another. And sometimes those relationships aren’t as easy as at other times. And one example in Emma Smith’s life may be the revelation that’s now canonized as Doctrine and Covenants 132, in which Joseph Smith is laying out the theological impetus, or purpose for practicing plural marriage. That’s a very personal revelation in that, it’s not just the voice of the Lord, but it’s also addressing fairly intimate details of Joseph and Emma Smith’s life. How did she react to hearing Section 132? And what do you think that it represented for her?
Reeder: 132 is an interesting section. And I think you’re right, Joey, I think it’s very similar to section 25, in the sense that it was addressing both Joseph and Emma. And I think that Joseph had received the revelation much earlier than when he wrote it down. Hyrum and Newell K. Whitney and other men at the time highly persuaded him to present it to Emma in the hopes that Emma would see this as a revelation, like so many other revelations, that she would accept Joseph’s need and command to practice this revelation.
Stuart: Well, I think that this is also a very interesting way of thinking that, oh, if I just lay out the case, logically, something that has intense emotional and spiritual direction is just going to make sense. And that isn’t always the case.
Reeder: Right. No, and I think Joseph knew that. In fact, Hyrum said, you know, write it down, I’ll take it to Emma, I’m good. I’ve got a great relationship with her. We’re good friends, and I think she’ll listen to me. And Joseph said you don’t know Emma like I know Emma. So when Hyrum did in fact, take it to Emma, we know that she was, in fact, very upset about it. And I think part of it may be because she knew a little bit about it. She had certainly heard the gossip and the slander that had occurred with John C. Bennett. She had learned about how Joseph had been sealed to some of her best friends, and she didn’t even know it. And I think she felt completely betrayed, and I think Joseph knew she would have felt betrayed. And that was his concern with it. I also think it’s interesting when you take a deep dive into Section 132, that you do get that connection, or that idea of restoration and of Abrahamic sacrifice, and the, the covenant of Abraham, and the house of Israel, and all these other things. But I think that those lofty principles or ideas didn’t address Emma’s personal concern in her relationship with her husband, other than tell her that she was not being a faithful wife.
Stuart: This goes a little bit far afield, but Latter-day Saints always seem pretty confused that if they explain polygamy, and why they believe it, why other people aren’t just like, oh, well, okay, that makes sense. And I think that we’re seeing that a little bit here, where it’s that, we forget that religious, we just talked about how it is communal, or it’s about the social bonds that we have. But it’s also intensely personal. As you know, Emma is the Relief Society president, there are women in the Relief Society who are sealed at Joseph Smith,
Reeder: Or their daughters are sealed to Joseph.
Stuart: Or other women in their household. Yeah, who are sealed to Joseph or to others. And I can only imagine the confusion that I would feel there. You wrote something that I think is, is really insightful. You say: ”Suddenly, for Emma, the idea of celestial sociality within sealed networks of friends and family, turned to include the possibility of sexual activity sharply dividing her from her husband, rather than expanding their family network.” And what I took from that, is that she seemed to understand and embrace this logical explanation of polygamy, or plural marriages, or the sealing ordinances.
Reeder: It’s tricky because right,
Stuart: That doesn’t mean that once it became- actually to borrow a phrase from Dietrich Bonhoeffer- the phraseological became the real, right. That’s when it became very different for her.
Reeder: Well, and I think the other thing is, as you were trying to come up with the word to use, we don’t even know what word Joseph Smith used. And it’s tricky. We know he didn’t use plural marriage. And we know he didn’t use polygamy. We know at one point, he used spiritual wifery, but then that word was sort of commandeered by John C. Bennett. And so, we don’t even know the language he used. And I think that makes it hard too, simply because there are no records of that.
Stuart: Also, with both of us having been mentored and taught by Kathleen Flake, she would want us to say that Joseph never called it plural marriage, specifically.
Reeder: Right, well, then the other thing about section 132 is there’s some pretty sharp direction given to Joseph, in the sense that he needs to get the approval of his first wife, Emma, and he hasn’t done that. And so it’s, it’s a little bit of condemnation for Joseph as well. And I really believe that that section, that revelation, was never intended for public understanding.
Stuart: And for what it’s worth. Joseph F. Smith, when it was canonized, said pretty much the same thing. You can read more about that in Brittney Chapman Nash’s recent book talking about polygamy also from Deseret Book.
Reeder: Yeah, absolutely. It wasn’t even published in the Doctrine and Covenants until Orson Hyde included it in 1876. And so I think that changes a little bit too, how we view that section in
terms of the canon of the church.
Stuart: Emma is constantly in a position where she has to balance her private and public lives. She’s married to the prophet, but she’s also president of the Nauvoo Relief Society. Do you think that there was an effect, positive or negative, that she constantly had pressure both at home and in church spaces?
Reeder: Absolutely. In fact, one of my favorite things about section 25, is that in 1830, Emma was told by the Lord in verse nine, (what we call verse nine today) thou needest not fear for thy husband shall support thee in the church. For unto them is his calling. And I think, really, we can look at that in a couple of different ways. She understood that his activity and responsibility and duty was the church. But I think if we also read it, your husband shall support you in the church, meaning as president of the Relief Society, she too had a significant role and responsibility. So I think it kind of goes both ways. I think you’re totally right, Joey. In fact, I really believe that their home was… had a revolving door. That they had people coming in and out whether that was for church business, or civic business, that there wasn’t a lot of privacy for Joseph and Emma. And again, like her brothers taught her how to ride horseback, they would often ride horseback- Joseph and Emma out into the countryside. And that’s where they were able to have their private conversations. The church and the city were so entrenched in their family private lives, that they really had to figure out how to take time for themselves.
Stuart: And I think that’s something that we can all learn from too, which is that it’s important to set boundaries in this way.
We are speaking with Dr. Jenny Reeder, the author of First: The Life and Faith of Emma Smith from Deseret Book, who will also be delivering the Neal A Maxwell Institute lecture on November 13th.
And, skipping forward a little bit, after Joseph Smith is assassinated, Brigham Young, and Emma Smith, as you mentioned earlier, don’t totally get along in the aftermath here. They both have different things that they’re trying to accomplish. Can you tell us what’s going on between Brigham and Emma?
Reeder: I think it may have started even earlier than the martyrdom. I think that Emma’s charge to create a hymn book in 1830, led her to create this first hymnal in 1836. And then there was a call to create a second hymnal in Nauvoo, I mean, they’d only printed 1000 copies. And by this time, it had grown so much. So Brigham Young was there when the council was talking about that. And then he went on his mission to England, where he decided it would cost too much to import hymn books from America, and they would just print their own hymn book. And that communication was crossed where Joseph was trying to tell him “No, this is Emma’s responsibility”. And Brigham had gone ahead and created what is known today as the 1841 Manchester Hymnal. And so I think, even from that, sort of crossing of responsibilities might have been tricky for Emma. But I also think that she and Joseph had a totally different relationship than, for example, Brigham and his wife, who at the time was Marianne Young. His first wife, Miriam had died. Marianne Angel Young was a very introverted person, where Emma was a very extroverted person. Marianne never even joined the Relief Society. And he never attended a meeting of the Relief Society. So I don’t think he understood, he, I don’t think he had a clear understanding of the importance of this organization and of the importance of women. I think he saw Emma as an aggressive, assertive woman that threatened him and his role as President of the Quorum of the 12, especially with Joseph. They were both competing, Emma as the wife of Joseph, and Brigham as the president of the Quorum of the 12 apostles. So there was that tension that went on. I think there was also tension in a lot of different ways after the martyrdom, where we see Brigham Young effectually shut down the Relief Society in 1845. He saw that as threatening, particularly to his leadership. It’s interesting though because Emma totally withdrew, she totally became isolated and, and introverted after the death of her husband. And part of that was because she didn’t want to fight anymore. She was done. Brigham Young set up guards around the mansion house where she was living with her children. That just felt claustrophobic to Emma, and she actually moved back to the homestead for a while.
Stuart: I think that this is important to keep in mind, which is that these were two people, both doing their best to honor Joseph Smith’s memory, and to do what they could in the aftermath of a traumatic event. Now, I’m not a psychologist, but I can easily see how the murder of your husband would cause you to have anxiety and depression, and especially having children and being pregnant at the time. Not totally knowing what you’re supposed to do next. And in Brigham Young’s case, trying to rally the church together trying to maintain the church. And so while that doesn’t excuse their treatment of each other, we in the present can recognize that good people trying to do good things aren’t necessarily going to be able to communicate well or agree on what the overall goal for something is.
Reeder: Yeah, I do also think it’s interesting that they continue to sort of speak poorly of each other even at a distance, when Brigham was in Utah. But I think it’s also important to note that at the death of both of them, the last words- both of them said Brigham and 1877 and Emma in 1879- was “Joseph, Joseph, Joseph.” They were both believers in Joseph’s role as a prophet and as a man of God.
Stuart: This is in part what makes it difficult, though, is, as you noted, Brigham Young’s feelings become the predominant feelings among Latter-day Saints. So, between the saints going west in 1846, and the founding of the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, how did the Latter-day Saints in Utah, “Brigham-ites” as they were called by folks in the reorganized church, how did they feel about Emma?
Reeder: So I think, though, there’s not a lot of documentation. This is before the Relief Society was reorganized, and before the women’s exponent was started. I think most of the rhetoric comes, in fact, from Brigham Young, where he speaks, and his words are recorded in the Deseret News and in the Journal of Discourses years later. And he doesn’t have great things to say. We do in the Deseret News in the 1850s, have some of the Nauvoo Relief Society minutes are recorded, but they’re also edited and altered. And I think that’s significant. But we don’t really get a woman’s reaction to Emma, or memory of Emma until after it’s been very clear that she has denied polygamy and her sons have gone on missions to Utah. And there’s also this anti, this federal anti-polygamy legislation going on that requires them in their idea, to speak up and speak out against Emma, when they understand that she has denied that polygamy ever happened. Many of the wives of Joseph in Utah write affidavits and publish them in the newspaper, and try to explain that Emma was incorrect.
Stuart: I think what’s difficult about this is, one, that these women who Emma may or may not have wanted, sealed to her husband are the ones speaking out and giving sworn affidavits- so legally admissible evidence that they are swearing to tell the truth that they were the wives of Joseph Smith- but also that again, she’s perpetually caught in the middle between church members and this memory of Joseph Smith. But now it’s between two churches, one that their son, her and Joseph’s son, Joseph III is the president of. Do you think that she felt in the middle? Is that something that you think that she recognized?
Reeder: No, absolutely. In fact, I think again, this shows Emma’s commitment to her family, and to her children. And she had never told them about polygamy and their father practicing it. And I think over the years, and as the Reorganized Church developed, particularly on this premise of Joseph, not having practiced polygamy, that she just got deeper and deeper into this. I’m also really struck by the way Joseph’s practice of polygamy is so different than Brigham’s practice of polygamy. Joseph kept it very private and confidential and sacred and asked people not to speak of it, where Brigham made it very public. And I think for Emma, she was respecting her husband, but also it was sort of a mark of embarrassment or shame. And she didn’t know how to tell her sons that they may have half brothers and sisters, although we know today through DNA evidence, that there were no other children from other wives with Joseph. But I think it was also, it was, it was, a sense of protection for her children to grow up and to feel safe, and to know that she would care for them and that there was no one that was going to compete for their property, or inheritance, or land or anything.
Stuart: Well, I think even just as a parent wanting to create a pristine memory of another parent who was murdered. It’s not like Joseph Smith packed up and left of his own guard.
Stuart: She wanted them to have a relationship and a memory of their father that would sustain them. That they would know that you love them.
Reeder: Yeah, he was a respectable man. She had grown up in a respectable family in Harmony, Pennsylvania, and she had done everything that she could. And they finally had a respectable home, and some… some stability, and she was able to provide for them. And I think that was so important to her after years of loss, and moving, and losing children along the way.
Stuart: Now, there’s so much to read in First: The Life and Faith of Emma Smith by Dr. Jennifer Reeder, but we’re going to skip forward until shortly before Emma’s death. You write, “A month later and shortly before Emma’s death in March 1879, the son of Thomas Marsh, a close friend of Joseph and Emma, visited Nauvoo. When he asked Emma if Joseph had been a polygamist, she broke down and wept and excused herself from answering directly. She reasoned that her son Joseph was the leader of the Reorganized Church. At that time, she’d deemed it
more important for her to support Joseph III, whose church was partly founded on the idea that his father did not practice plural marriage. And perhaps it was important to her for the Reorganized Church to stand untarnished or without the ‘blemish of polygamy and grafted on Mormonism’ by the stain of the Utah saints.” How did it feel when you found the record of Thomas Marsh’s conversation with Emma Smith? That wasn’t something that I had ever heard before.
Reeder: I think it’s interesting that there are so many people from the West that come to visit Emma on their travels to the east or on missions, or whatever. They always stop and want to visit with her and want to learn her side, obviously, because there were sides. And I think that by this point in her life, she was old, and she knew what was true, and she cracked. And we see a little bit of the inner Emma. We see that she was a person that had a lot of sorrow and had born a sense of betrayal, and had born a lot of loss and fate, and had born a lot of loss, and post-traumatic stress, we can even say in today’s language. So I think maybe something happened with this particular conversation that we have record of. There may have been other conversations that we don’t have record of. But for some reason, this hit her in a very intimate, significant way. And she was able to express some emotion about it after putting up that protective shield for so long.
Stuart: Two more questions. Not related to the book, which is called First: The Life and Faith of Emma Smith from Deseret Book by Dr. Jennifer Reeder. The first is you’re going to be delivering the Neal A. Maxwell lecture on November 13th, at 7 pm at BYU, what are you going to be speaking about?
Reeder: I am really excited to pick up some pieces of my next book publication which stems from my dissertation. I want to look at material culture and the sort of creation of a usable past. But I want to weave it in with my own personal life as a disciple scholar, and how I’ve sort of come to that understanding of what the gospel means to me as a scholar. One of my chapters in my book is about hair art or hair wreaths. And I think that was particularly interesting to me because I wrote it at a time when I was literally bald. I had leukemia. Being bald was one of the hardest parts, I had no idea of why it was so hard. It just made me so vulnerable. And for some reason, I loved the scriptures that talk about how not a hair of our heads will be lost. And I believe that, and I love how these women used hair. And this is a thing that’s popular across the nation, but also in Europe, Queen Victoria had always had a lock of Prince Albert’s hair around her neck, as Emma did of Joseph’s hair. But there’s something significant about that form of memory and remembrance. And so I’m going to talk about that. And I’m going to talk about these items that sort of display our disciple-scholarship.
Stuart: Wonderful. So please mark your calendars for that again, November 13th, at 7 pm at the Hinckley Alumni Center at BYU. And then one last question that we try and ask all our guests: What are three of the best books turned on the idea that we should learn out of the best books from section 88 of the Doctrine and Covenants that you would recommend to our audience?
Reeder: You know, right now, I am reading Sarah Osborne’s world by Katherine Brekus. And I love it. It reminds me of another book that’s very similar. Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s Midwife’s Tale. And I think it’s incredible because these women, Katherine Brekus and Laurel Ulrich look into the lives of Sarah Osborne and Martha Ballard and these diaries and writing, personal writings, and are able to tease out the meaning of so many different pieces and understanding. It’s like this micro-history that I’m so interested in. So I’m loving those books. And I think the third book, I have to say, is First 50 Years of Relief Society. I worked as a research assistant on that book for over 10 years. And that is where I sort of felt the whisperings of these women of Emma and Eliza and Emeline… Their names all started with E. But I felt them whispering to me that they wanted to be found, and they wanted to be recognized and they wanted to be understood for the great and mighty work that they did. In an interview at the end of her life, Emma said that she was an active participant, and that this was a marvel and a wonder to her. And I think it is so important for us to remember that these women did so much, and to recognize what they did and acknowledge that and give them credit for that, but also to recognize that today as women that we need to be active participants in this marvel and wonder.
Stuart: The name of the book is First: The Life and Faith of Emma Smith by Dr.
Jennifer Reeder, who will be delivering the Neal A. Maxwell lecture at Brigham Young University on November 13th. Thanks for joining us on the Maxwell Institute podcast today, Jenny.
Reeder: Thanks. It’s always fun to talk about things I love.
Stuart: Thank you for listening to the Maxwell Institute Podcast. Could you do us a favor and recommend this show to others, review and rate the podcast on Apple Podcast or other podcast providers or share the episode on social media? Thanks so much, and have a blessed week y’all.
The views expressed here and in Maxwell Institute publications are those of the individual authors and do not necessarily represent the views of the Maxwell Institute, Brigham Young University, or The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
“Seek ye diligently and teach one another words of wisdom; yea, seek ye out of the best books words of wisdom; seek learning, even by study and also by faith.” (D&C 88:118)