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Emma Hale Smith

Emma Smith

Emma Smith, wife of Joseph Smith, was the seventh of nine children. She was a tall, attractive young woman, dark-complexioned, with brown eyes and black hair. Courtesy the Utah State Historical Society.

by Carol Cornwall Madsen

Emma Hale Smith (1804-1879), wife of the Prophet Joseph Smith, was born July 10, 1804, in the Susquehanna Valley in harmony township (now Oakland), Pennsylvania, to Isaac and Elizabeth Lewis Hale, the first permanent settlers in the valley. As the seventh of nine children, Emma spent a happy childhood learning to ride horses and to canoe on the Susquehanna with her brothers, while honing her quick wit among her other siblings. She attended school whenever opportunity permitted, including a year beyond the common grammar school education of her brothers and sisters. Tall and gangly as a youth, she grew to be a stately, handsome, dark-haired woman.

Emma met Joseph Smith when he and his father arrived in Harmony to work for an acquaintance of the Hales, Josiah Stowell (sometimes spelled Stoal). During the two years he worked in the area, Joseph twice asked Isaac Hale for permission to marry Emma, but was twice refused, because he was "a stranger." At age twenty-two, Emma Hale married Joseph Smith on January 18, 1827, in South Bainbridge, New York, without her father's permission, and moved to Manchester, New York, to make her home with Joseph's parents. That experience marked the beginning of a warm, supportive, and enduring relationship between Emma and her mother-in-law, Lucy Mack Smith. Returning briefly to Harmony to collect her belongings, Emma and Joseph were told the Hales's door would always be open to them, despite her father's continuing reservations about the man she had chosen to marry.

In the fall of 1827, Joseph, accompanied by Emma, finally obtained the gold plates from which he was to translate the Book of Mormon. Though never permitted to see the plates, Emma handled them frequently within their protective cover and helped hide them against the violent intrusion of townspeople in New York who sought the plates for the fortune they represented. Harmony offered refuge to Joseph and Emma, and so the young couple fled there, where Joseph hoped to translate the plates without disturbance. He bought a small farm from his father-in-law and engaged in sporadic farming. Emma became the first of several scribes who assisted in the translation. On June 15, 1828, she gave birth to their first child, a boy, who lived only a few hours. When the threats of Harmony residents began to hinder the work there, Emma and Joseph moved to Fayette, New York, where in June 1829 the translation was completed. In March 1830 the work was published in Palmyra, New York, as the Book of Mormon.

On April 6, 1830, Joseph Smith formally organized the Church of Christ, as The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was first known. Emma was baptized at Colesville, New York, on June 28, 1830, but before she could be confirmed a member of the Church the following day, Joseph was arrested "for being a disorderly person and setting the country in an uproar by preaching the Book of Mormon." He was vilified by his captors and subjected to two spurious trials, but was finally released. For the remainder of his life, Joseph would seldom be free of such encounters, and Emma would never again, during her husband's lifetime, know more than temporary respite from the anxiety she felt on that occasion.

Returning to Harmony in July 1830, Emma was the subject of a revelation received by Joseph but addressed specifically to Emma (D&C 25). In it she was designated the "Elect Lady," which Joseph would later explain means one elected "to preside." She was told that her calling was to be a support and comfort to her husband, to continue to act as his scribe, and "to expound scriptures and to exhort the church." She was also commissioned to prepare a hymnal for the Church, which was published five years later. Emma received her long-awaited confirmation in August 1830, almost two months after her baptism.

In August, Joseph and Emma moved back to Fayette, living there until January 1831, when they moved to Kirtland, Ohio. Like many other early converts, Emma was never to see her parents again, nor was she able to effect a lasting reconciliation between her father and husband.

On April 30, 1831, three months after moving to Kirtland, Emma gave birth to twins, both of whom died within hours. Nearby, a friend, Julia Clapp Murdock, wife of John Murdock, died after also giving birth to twins. Unable to care for them alone, her husband asked the bereft Joseph and Emma to raise his twins as their own. This they gladly did, naming the infants Joseph and Julia.

Emma faced continued difficulties during her eight-year residence in Kirtland. To the alarm of original settlers, Latter-day Saint converts swelled the community, inflating land values and creating hardship and dissension both within and outside the Church (see Kirtland Economy). Scarcity of goods plagued the new residents. Emma witnessed again both the abuse and the fierce loyalty her husband and his work engendered. On March 24, 1832, she saw him dragged from the John Johnson house in the night and tarred and feathered by an angry mob. Five days later, she mourned the death of her adopted son, Joseph, from exposure to the cold as a result of mob action. Enduring her husband's frequent absences on Church business, Emma was obliged to support herself and her children by taking boarders into her already crowded quarters, an expedient that she would frequently employ throughout her life.

When the Saints in Missouri, like those in Kirtland, began experiencing the hostility of earlier settlers, Emma helped gather supplies for the men of Zion's Camp, who accompanied Joseph to Missouri to assist the beleaguered members there. She also provided room and board for builders of the temple in Kirtland and shared her means with new converts flooding into the area. With the assistance of William W. Phelps, she completed the first edition of the hymnal before the dedication of the Kirtland Temple in 1836, fulfilling the charge given her by revelation in 1830. She also gave birth to two more sons, Joseph (later known as Joseph III), born November 6, 1832, and Frederick Granger Williams, born June 20, 1836, both of whom lived to manhood.

In 1838, as relations with their Kirtland neighbors deteriorated and the Church experienced increasing internal difficulties, Emma followed her husband and other members to Missouri to consolidate the Church in one central location. Emma, Joseph, and their three children joined the settlement in Far West, the new center of the Church, and Emma gave birth to another son, Alexander Hale, on June 2, 1838. Missourians, however, continued to resist the LDS incursion, resentful of their growing political power. When feelings erupted into widespread violence and an order from the governor expelled the Mormons, they turned eastward to Illinois, leaving their Prophet imprisoned in Liberty Jail (see Missouri Conflict). While her husband languished there through the winter of 1838-1839, Emma, with two babies in her arms and two at her skirts, walked across Missouri, finally crossing the frozen Mississippi to refuge in Quincy, Illinois, carrying the manuscript of her husband's translation of the Bible hidden in pockets in her clothing. From there she wrote to her husband of the trials she had endured, but vowed that she was "yet willing to suffer more if it is the will of kind heaven" (Joseph Smith Letterbook, Mar. 7, 1839, HDC).

While Emma suffered physical deprivation, harassment, and mob violence in New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Missouri, the emotional and spiritual challenges she experienced in Nauvoo, Illinois, where the Church finally established itself, had more than personal ramifications. She and Joseph moved into a small house near the southern edge of the new town, later building a home they called the Mansion House, which also served as an inn or hotel for travelers. During the next five years, Emma gave birth to three more sons, losing one at birth and a second at eighteen months to a fever. Her last child, David Hyrum, was born November 17, 1844, five months after her husband's murder.

At the inception of the Female Relief Society of Nauvoo in 1842, Emma was elected president of the organization. As the Elect Lady, she was to preside "during good behavior" and "as long as [she] shall continue to fill the office with dignity" (Record of the Female Relief Society of Nauvoo). From March until October, Emma presided regularly and Joseph frequently attended, counseling the women on the charitable mission of the society and how they would "come in possession of the privileges, blessings, and gifts" associated with the priesthood (HC 4:602). Emma pressed for vigilance in watching over the morals of the community and diligence in succoring the poor. She saw the organization grow from a charter membership of twenty women to more than 1,100 at the end of the first year.

The following year, Emma became the first woman to receive the Endowment, an ordinance that would later be administered to all worthy members in the temple then under construction in Nauvoo. Joseph Smith had earlier introduced these ordinances to some of his closest associates, and before his death as many as sixty-five men and women would receive them, with Emma officiating for the women. Joseph did not live to see the completion of the temple, and Emma chose not to participate during the brief period when temple ordinances were administered there before the Saints' exodus from Nauvoo in 1846.

The suspension of the Relief Society in 1844, only two years after its organization, was later attributed by John Taylor to Emma's opposition to plural marriage or polygyny (more commonly, polygamy) and concern over her use of the society to preach against it ("Minutes of the General Meeting," [of the Retrenchment Association], July 17, 1880, reported in the Woman's Exponent 9 [Sept. 1, 1880]:53-54). The practice had been privately disclosed as a Church principle in 1840, and Emma's ambivalence enabled her husband to act on her brief acceptance of the doctrine long enough to take additional wives. But her rejection of the principle soon became paramount. Loyal to her husband for seventeen years through all the vicissitudes that his mission had entailed, Emma Smith was unable, at the end, to make the sacrifice that the doctrine of plural marriage required. She struggled between her faith in her husband's prophetic role and her aversion to a principle that he, as Prophet, had been instructed to institute.

After Joseph's martyrdom in June 1844, Emma unfortunately became a symbol of the dissension within the Church. Unable to condone continuation of the practice of plural marriage or the leadership of Brigham Young, who supported it, and ambivalent about the proper line of succession to her husband, Emma made her first priority after her husband's death the preservation of an inheritance for her five living children. Distinguishing Joseph's personal property from that of the Church defied easy solution, however, and involved Brigham Young and Emma Smith in a series of complex and often bitter legal entanglements. Brigham Young, as president of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles and steward of the Church, claimed all that he felt rightfully belonged to its members. Emma Smith, as guardian of Joseph's children, just as vigorously claimed their share, to which she had contributed throughout her marriage to Joseph. Unable to reach an amicable solution and unwilling to accept plural marriage even in principle, Emma elected to remain in Nauvoo with her family while Brigham Young led the majority of Church members to the Rocky Mountains in 1846. On December 23, 1847, Emma Smith married Lewis Bidamon, a non-Mormon, further estranging her from the Church, to which she had once been known as the Elect Lady. Bidamon assisted Emma in raising her five children and remained her companion until her death in 1879 in Nauvoo.

In 1860, Emma's eldest son, Joseph Smith III, after four years of refusal, accepted the invitation to serve as prophet and first president of the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. It was offered by a group of men who formerly had been members of the Church, many of whom had left to follow James J. Strang for a time. As a group they chose not to go west with the body of the Church. Emma, who had heretofore rejected connection with any of the splinter Mormon groups, was admitted into membership in 1860. In his acceptance speech, Joseph III firmly rejected polygamy as a practice of the new church, and Emma denied that her husband had participated in the practice.

Still devoted to her mother-in-law, Emma cared for her until Lucy died in 1856. The Prophet's mother had always admired Emma. "I have never seen a woman in my life, who would endure every species of fatigue and hardship, from month to month, and from year to year," she wrote, "with that unflinching courage, zeal, and patience, which she has ever done" (Smith, pp. 190-91).

Emma Smith Bidamon's final years in Nauvoo were family-focused and private. She shared the Nauvoo House, her final home, with relatives and friends and basked in the love and care of her children and grandchildren. She continued to live her life with genteel qualities, meeting adversity and difficulty with grace and equanimity. She was polite to the "Utah Mormons" who occasionally visited, but was firm in her decision to remain apart from them.

Though Emma was publicly criticized by Church leaders for her failure to remain faithful to her husband's mission, she was sympathetically remembered by some of her former Nauvoo friends. Many of them, unlike Emma, had found the courage to accept the doctrine of plural marriage. "I know it was hard for Emma, and any woman to enter plural marriage in those days," wrote Emily Partridge Young, a plural wife, "and I do not know as anybody would have done any better than Emma did under the circumstances" (Woman's Exponent 12 [Apr. 1, 1884]:165).

In 1892 at the jubilee celebration in Salt Lake City of the founding of the Nauvoo Relief Society, a motion to hang a life-size portrait of Emma Smith in the Tabernacle brought mixed responses from the Relief Society board members. To settle the question, Relief Society president Zina D. H. Young took the matter to Church President Wilford Woodruff, who replied that "anyone who opposed it [hanging the portrait in the Tabernacle] must be very narrow minded indeed" (Emmeline B. Wells Diary, March 11, 1892, HDC). Fifty years had softened bitter memories, and Emma Smith could once again be honored as a leader of women and remembered for the essential part she had played in the restoration of the gospel and the support she gave her Prophet-husband through the difficult years of his ministry.

(See Daily Living home page; Church History home page; People in Church History home page)

Illustrations of Emma Smith

emma smith and hyrum
Emma with her son David Hyrum Smith, born in November 1844, five months after the martyrdom of Joseph Smith.

emma smith, elect lady
Emma Smith, the Elect Lady, by Theodore Gorka (1981, oil on canvas, 7' x 10'). Emma Smith often cared for the sick, as when a malaria epidemic struck Commerce (later Nauvoo), Illinois. Her son Joseph Smith III wrote, "I remember that Mother filled her house with the sick who were brought to her from near and far, giving them shelter, treatment, and nursing care."



Newell, Linda King, and Valeen Tippetts Avery. Mormon Enigma: Emma Hale Smith. Garden City, N.Y., 1984.

Smith, Lucy Mack. History of Joseph Smith. Salt Lake City, 1958.

Youngreen, Buddy. Reflections of Emma, Joseph Smith's Wife. Orem, Utah, 1982.

Encyclopedia of Mormonism, Vol. 2, Emma Hale Smith

Copyright 1992 by Macmillan Publishing Company

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