Book Review: Mormon Enigma: Emma Hale Smith

Cover for NEWELL: Mormon Enigma: Emma Hale Smith

Written by Linda King Newell and Valeen Tippetts Avery

Review by Eric Johnson

Order a copy from Amazon by clicking here: Mormon Enigma: Emma Hale Smith

Emma Smith (1804-1879) may not be as well-known as her husband, Joseph Smith, Jr. but understanding this woman is important for anyone who desires to have a more complete picture to the Mormon story. In this 1994 book, two female historical researchers—Linda King Newell and Valeen Tippets Avery—tackled the life of the first wife to the founder of the Mormon religion.

The authors explain how, “as a young woman, Emma was physically and emotionally strong, with a streak of independence” (p. 6). These traits remained with her for the rest of her years. When Joseph secretly married Emma, Issac Hale—Emma’s dad—is furious with the news. “You have stolen my daughter and married her,” he thundered at his new son-in-law. “I had much rather have followed her to her grave” (p. 20). When Joseph insisted that he found ancient gold plates in a box buried in a New York hill, “Joseph’s hope of acceptance by Emma’s family” was completely destroyed (p. 24). After the gold plates were discovered, Emma helped Joseph with the “translation” of the Book of Mormon; in fact, her knowledge of the Bible surpassed her husband’s. “Emma recalled that at first Joseph used the interpreters, called the Urim and the Thummim, but later he placed a smooth dark stone in his hat, then put his face in the hat to block the light” (p. 26).

After the church was founded, there were growing pains. One example given by the authors was the “School of Elders,” where Smith often found “himself in a cloud of tobacco smoke.” With the temperance movement in full swing, the authors explained:

“Emma, faced almost daily with ‘having to clean so filthy a floor’ as was left by the men chewing tobacco, spoke to Joseph about the matter. David Whitmer’s account supports Brigham Young’s description: ‘…their disgusting slobbering and spitting caused Mrs. Smith … to make the ironical remark that ‘It would be a good thing if a revelation could be had declaring the use of tobacco a sin, and commanding its suppression’” …the ‘Word of Wisdom was the result” (p. 47).

Probably the issue that most tried Emma was polygamy, also known as plural marriage. Smith’s first wife was teenager Fanny Alger, whom Emma took into her home in 1835. One night Emma went to go look for Joseph and Fanny and found them together in the barn. “She [Emma] looked through the crack and saw the transaction!!!” Then, when Fanny’s pregnancy became obvious, Emma forced her to leave” (p. 66). This caused quite a dissention in the church, with six of the twelve apostles rebelling.

The climax of polygamy took place in Nauvoo. Smith kept the marriages secret from his wife, whose “love for Joseph, together with her own pious upbringing, left no room for such a doctrine” (p. 96). “Emma would eventually know about some of Joseph’s plural wives, her knowledge of seven can be documented conclusively, and some evidence hints that she may have known of others” (p. 98).

When the Relief Society was formed, Joseph used some of the women for secret tools of gaining new wives. “Unknown to Emma, Joseph had already taught these older women the principles of plural marriage. Sometimes referred to as ‘Mothers in Israel,’ they assisted Joseph by contacting women, explain the new order of marriage to them, and occasionally delivering marriage proposals” (p. 109). Deception played a role in Smith’s dealings with the issue. “By employing ‘code words’ the practitioners of the ‘new and everlasting covenant of marriage,’ as taught by Joseph, felt they could publicly deny one thing and privately live by another—and do it with a clear conscience” (p. 113).

When contrasted with her husband, Emma had integrity with “a reputation for fairness and for not indulging in idle gossip” (p. 117). Yet even many of her closest friends lived double lives with her. After all, many of them were married to her husband, or at least know about the affairs; some of their daughters were also married to Smith. “To live as a secret wife to a friend’s husband demanded evasion, subterfuge, and deception. For these sincerely devout and faithful women, their duplicity regarding Emma must have prompted guilt and anxiety” (p. 120). While there is no documentation, Emma was stunned when she found out that her friend Eliza R. Snow was married to Joseph; “evidence leads to the conclusion that some sort of physical confrontation occurred between the two women … Emma is currently reported as having had recourse to a vulgar broomstick as an instrument of revenge.” (p. 134) The beating Snow received apparently “destroyed Eliza’s hopes of becoming the mother of a prophet’s son.” According to Eliza’s nephew, Emma knocked Eliza down the stairs with a broom, which he said caused a miscarriage.

Whether or not the story of a miscarriage is true—the authors of the book seem to doubt it—“the incident between Emma and Eliza forced the issue of plural marriage into the open. Emma could no longer believe that Joseph was not involved, and he could no longer deny it. Emma had not acted with violence before; now her determined opposition might show up again with unexpected force. Joseph resolutely tried to bring Emma around” (p. 137).

He worked overtime trying to convince his wife of the spiritual benefits of polygamy. “For two months, from March to May, Joseph appears to have talked with Emma about plural marriage. He apparently used their rides together to teach her the necessity of the endowment and sealing. There is no evidence that she ever opposed him on any doctrine but plural marriage. Convinced that it was necessary for her salvation and essential to their continued relationship, she may have decided to compromise with Joseph. In May 1843 she finally agreed to give Joseph other wives if she could choose them” (pp. 142-3). For his first polygamous wives, she picked two sisters, Emily and Eliza Partridge; however, Joseph did not tell her that he had already married them two months earlier! So, with Emma in attendance, he married them again in a ceremony. A few days later, Emma was sealed to her husband for time and eternity. It didn’t take very long before “Emma began to talk as firmly and urgently to Joseph about abandoning plural marriage as he had formerly talked to her about accepting it” (p. 145).

On July 12, 1843, Hyrum Smith told his brother Joseph to write the revelation down. “You do not know Emma as well as I do,” Joseph said. “The doctrine is so plain,” Hyrum responded. “I can convince any reasonable man or woman of its truth, purity, and heavenly origin.” Joseph wrote the revelation down and Hyrum took it to Emma. When asked how it went, Hyrum said, “I have never received a more severe talking to in my life. Emma is very bitter and full of resentment and anger.” Joseph put the paper in his pocket, saying, “I told you you did not Emma as well as I did.” By the late summer of 1843, the majority of Emma’s friends had either married her husband or given him their daughters. This caused Emma to become more “isolated from her friends and associates, and through the next four years, this isolation would become more and more acute” (p. 147).

The revelation on plural marriage, which became D&C 132, included threats to Emma if she did not “receive all those that have been given unto my servant Joseph.” Later in the passage, it said, “And I command mine handmaid, Emma Smith, to abide and cleave unto my servant Joseph, and to none else.  But if she will not abide this commandment she shall be destroyed, saith the Lord.”

The relationship between Joseph and Emma was caustic, to say the least. On Sunday, November 5, 1843, Joseph became sick at dinner, making him vomit so violently that he dislocated his jaw and “raised fresh blood.” Later that night, he was able to attend a meeting, which would be unthinkable if poison was really used. However, Brigham Young explained twenty-two years later that Joseph had accused Emma and “called upon her to deny it if she could… He told her that she was a child of hell, and literally the most wicked woman on this earth, that there was not one more wicked than she.” The authors write, “Evidence suggests that Joseph indeed accused Emma of poisoning his coffee… Apparently Joseph believed at the time that Emma poisoned him, but strong evidence suggests that his self-diagnosis was mistaken and, therefore, so was his accusation of Emma” (p. 164).

Joseph Smith was killed at the Carthage Jail on June 27, 1844. Despite their differences, the murder of her husband was not something that Emma desired. When she saw his body in the casket, “she kneeled down, clasped him around his face, and sank upon his body…. ‘Joseph, Joseph,’ she said, ‘are you dead? Have the assassins shot you?’ … Have they taken you from me at last!” Dimick Huntington even claimed that Emma asked Joseph to forgive her (p. 197).

Soon afterwards, Brigham Young took control of the people and eventually moved the majority of the Latter-day Saints west to Utah. Brigham and Emma did not see eye-to-eye. One conflict was Young’s acceptance of polygamy, which was always a sore subject. “She believed her husband had been a prophet but that his revelation on polygamy did not come from God, and therefore she broke no commandment by rejecting it” (p. 272). When the Saints left, Emma stayed behind in Navuoo. In early 1847, she and Lewis Bidamon began a relationship that eventually ended in marriage later that year. Bidamon was not a religious man—he called himself a “deist” in 1842—and was someone who did enjoy his liquor. Probably a good description of him was “pagan.”

Besides that, Bidamon had a similar trait to Emma’s first husband. A woman named Nancy Abercrombie came to live with the family, and in 1859 she gave birth to an illegitimate child. Then, in the fall of 1863, Abercrombie became pregnant again and gave birth to Charles Bidamon the following spring. While we do not know the father of the first child, the father of Charles was . . . Lewis Bidamon. The fight seemed to have left the almost 60-year-old Emma’s spirit. “While she left no record of her personal feelings, her subsequent actions indicate that with personal courage she accepted the facts as they existed and apparently did not dwell on them with rancor. That she opposed plural marriage but accepted Lewis’s infidelity seems puzzling” (p. 276).

When Charles was four, he was given to Emma because the struggling Abercrombie could no longer take care of him. Years later, the boy feferred to Emma and said, “I was raised in her home and knew what kind of woman she was…. She was a person of very even temper. I never heard her say an unkind word, or raise her voice in anger or contention…She had a queenly bearing, without the arrogance of a queen” (p. 276)

In 1879, Emma was interviewed by the Herald newspaper.  One question dealt with polygamy. Her response: “There was no revelation on either polygamy or spiritual wives,” she said. “No such thing as polygamy, or spiritual wivery, was taught, publicly or privately, before my husband’s death, that I have now, or ever had any knowledge of.” When she was asked if her husband had any other wives, she replied, “He had no other wife but me; nor did he to my knowledge ever have.” When asked if Joseph had marital relations with others, she said, “He did not have improper relations with any woman that ever came to my knowledge” (p. 301). It was obvious that Emma felt that she had to protect the image of not only her husband but the father of her children. After all, Joseph Smith III was the leader of the Reorganized Church that was based in Independence, MO.

Plural marriage was the issue that haunted Emma for most of her adult life. In 1883, Emily Partridge wrote, “After these many years I can truly say; poor Emma, she could not stand polygamy but she was a good woman and I never wish to stand in her way of happiness and exaltation. I hope the Lord will be merciful to her, and I believe he will. It is an awful thought to contemplate misery of a human being. If the Lord will, my heart says let Emma come up and stand in her place. Perhaps she has done no worse than any of us would have done in her place. Let the Lord be the judge” (p. 309).

Although Mormon Enigma: Emma Hale Smith received several awards from LDS sources when it came out in 1984–including the “Best Book” award from both the Mormon History Association and the John Whitmer Historical Association as well as the $10,000 Evans Biography Award administered at that time by BYU–it soon lost favor as those in power finally understood that the book shed an unfavorable light on Joseph Smith. Apostle Dallin H. Oaks personally told the authors that “your book represents a non-traditional view of Joseph Smith,” which he felt could damage the faith of church members (Anderson, Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon History, “A History of Dialogue, Part Three, Summer 2002, vol 35, no 2, p. 45).

Oaks had the audacity to tell the authors: “My duty as a member of the Council of the Twelve is to protect what is most unique about the LDS Church, namely the authority of priesthood, testimony regarding the restoration of the gospel, and the divine mission of the Saviour. Everything may be sacrificed in order to maintain the integrity of those essential facts. Thus, if Mormon Enigma reveals information that is detrimental to the reputation of Joseph Smith, then it is necessary to try to limit its influence and that of its authors” (found in the book Inside the Mind of Joseph Smith: Pschobiography and the Book of Mormon, Introduction, page xliii, footnote 28. This quote comes from Newell’s “The Biography of Emma Hale Smith,” 1992 Pacific Northwest Sunstone Symposium, audiotape #J976).  Banning the authors from speaking in local LDS wards, even if it was temporary, was an unfair punishment. As of 2002, Mormon Enigma is still not allowed to be cited in any official LDS publication ((Anderson, Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon History, “A History of Dialogue, Part Three, Summer 2002, vol 35, no 2, p. 47).

What is most important when reading any biography is answering the following questions: Is the research accurate? And does it match with truth, regardless of image? Truth and reality trump image every single time. From my understanding and considering the sources used by the authors, I must say that Mormon Enigma is a worthwhile read. The authors do a good job of describing the Mormon story from the perspective of Joseph Smith’s wife. And just as the Mormon leaders fear, the villain in this story is Joseph Smith, Jr. The vicitm? Emma Hale Smith. 


For other reviews on manuals, books, and videos, click here.

For an extensive Viewpoint on Mormonism series on this book that were recorded from May 6-July 18, 2013, click on the following links:  Part 1  Part 2  Part 3  Part 4  Part 5 Part 6  Part 7  Part 8  Part 9  Part 10  Part 11  Part 12  Part 13  Part 14  Part 15  Part 16  Part 17  Part 18  Part 19  Part 20  Part 21  Part 22  Part 23  Part 24  Part 25  Part 26  Part 27  Part 28  Part 29  Part 30  Part 31  Part 32  Part 33  Part 34  Part 35  Part 36  Part 37  Part 38  Part 39  Part 40  Part 41  Part 42  Part 43