Emma Smith: My Story

Reviewed by Bill McKeever

When I first saw the billboards along Interstate 15 advertising Emma Smith: My Story, I wondered how much of “Emma’s story” was going to actually be told. When the trailers for the film started airing on local Salt Lake television stations and I saw that much of the film appeared to be left over footage from Joseph Smith: Prophet of the Restoration, I had no illusions that this was going to be another sanitized version of Mormon history. After viewing it, my suspicions were confirmed.

My Story begins with a voiceover by an adult Julia Murdock Smith, the adopted daughter of both Joseph (Nathan Mitchell) and Emma Smith (Katherine (Nelson) Thompson). The uncredited actress portraying Julia says,

“After father went to Carthage, mother never smiled with her eyes. Somehow I think she already knew he wasn’t coming back. He was killed a few days later. Mother was a widow with five small children when Lewis Bidamon first came to call. He could never take father’s place in her heart, but he was good to us all, and for 20 years he and mother shared a marriage of affection. Then, when mother was 63 years old, she discovered a painful secret.  Lewis had betrayed her with a woman half her age. They had a son, and when the woman could no longer care for the boy, she brought him to mother.”

This opening line prepares the audience for a retelling of the difficult life Emma faced, first as the wife of Mormonism’s founding prophet, and later as the wife of an adulterous husband.  However, Bidamon’s infidelity gets only a quick mention and is small in comparison to Smith’s simultaneous “marriages” to several women, some of whom were not much older than the children he fathered with Emma. But the film makes no such comparison. Instead, it focuses more on the struggles Emma went through while her husband was being persecuted for being God’s prophet, called to restore “true Christianity” back to earth.

The film is set around a conversation between Julia and her now twice-widowed mother Emma (Patricia Place). As they reminisce, flashbacks of Emma’s life with Joseph are highlighted. As previously mentioned, much of My Story was shot while making Prophet of the Restoration, a film that was “produced under the direction of the First Presidency” and debuted during the 200th anniversary of Smith’s birth in 2005. Prophet of the Restoration gives the impression that Joseph and Emma had a harmonious marriage during the Nauvoo period (1839-1844). This was not true. Smith’s polygamy and the lies he told to cover it up placed a heavy strain on their marriage. Prophet of the Restoration completely ignored the polygamy issue, while My Story mentions it only briefly. In the last few minutes of the film, Julia broaches the topic with her elderly mother.

Emma: Life is like the river Julia. Sometimes it sweeps you gently along, sometimes the rapids come out of nowhere.

Julia: The revelation on plural marriage was one of those rapids, wasn’t it, mother? How can you ignore something that hurt you so much?

Emma: I don’t speak of it, but I have never ignored it.

Julia: Then why the silence?

Emma: What good would speaking of it do? It flew in the face of everything that was dear to us - all that we meant to each other.

Julia: Then why did you allow it?

Emma: Because it was the price of faith. God commanded and Joseph obeyed. It nearly broke both of our hearts.

Julia: Some say that there were other reasons. They say father was a fallen prophet.

Emma: People say all kinds of things, but Julia I know better. Joseph taught what God revealed, nothing more. He sealed that witness with his life.

This conversation reflects more of the wishful thinking of faithful Latter-day Saints than it does Emma’s true feelings. If Emma thought the doctrine of plural marriage was really revealed and commanded by God, her lifelong distain and outright denial of the practice says otherwise. Richard D. Launius, author of Joseph Smith III Pragmatic Prophet, remarked:

But whatever vacillation toward polygamy Emma Smith may have exhibited during her husband's lifetime quickly changed to stouthearted defiance after his death. After 1844 Emma adamantly denied her husband's involvement in the practice and proved a very difficult opponent of Young's attempts to expand the practice in Nauvoo between late 1844 and the exodus of most of the Saints in early 1846. The two individuals’ differences over this issue created terrific distrust, which later turned to hatred. On one occasion in Utah, for instance, Young remarked to his followers about Emma, ‘Joseph used to say that he would have her in the hereafter, if he had to go to hell for her, and he will have to go to hell for her as sure as he ever gets her’” (p.35).

In an article titled, “Nauvoo Roots of Nauvoo Polygamy, 1841-1846: A Preliminary Demographic Report,” George D. Smith notes:

“Any discussion of resistance to polygamy is incomplete if it does not mention Emma Smith's reluctance to accept co-wives. Joseph’s plural marriage revelation went so far as to threaten her with destruction if she did not comply. She responded by reportedly throwing the written revelation into the fire. After Joseph Smith died, she consistently denied that her husband had ever practiced polygamy. According to Lucy Meserve Smith, Emma ‘bore testimony to me that Mormonism was true as it came forth from the servant of the Lord Joseph Smith but said she the Twelve had made bogus of it. She said they were living with their [plural] wives and raising children and Joseph never taught any such doctrine.’ Eventually Emma Smith allowed the majority of Mormons under the leadership of Brigham Young to migrate west without her. She later became a member of the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, headed by her son, Joseph Smith III” (Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought, Vol.27, No.1, pp.25-26).

George Smith’s last sentence is worthy of comment. The film ends with the notion that Emma hoped to be with her family in the next life, yet this alleged conversation between Julia and Emma takes place long after Emma distanced herself from Brigham Young and the LDS Church. Tenth Mormon President Joseph Fielding Smith described the RLDS Church, of which she was a member, as a cult (Doctrines of Salvation 1:284). The Mormon Church does not recognize the RLDS Church (now known as the Community of Christ) as having authority from God. While Mormons who watch this film might feel warm and fuzzy when it comes to Emma’s desire to be with her family, Mormon doctrine denies her such a hope since she is considered an apostate.

Prior to its public release, the Deseret News quoted Paul Savage, one of the producers of My Story:

“The film doesn't attempt to treat every aspect of early LDS history in a technically accurate way, he said, including scenes where Joseph Smith is translating the Book of Mormon. ‘We’re looking to portray Emma’s role in those events, her beliefs and convictions,’ rather than tackling ‘certain issues that just are too complicated to present in a film format’” (“Docudrama highlights faith of Emma Smith,” April 11, 2008).

I entered the theater not expecting much from My Story, so I can’t say I was disappointed. My Story proved what I’ve believed all along; it is impossible to tell the Mormon story in a positive light without leaving out a lot of information.