Was Joseph Smith an Abusive Husband? A review of Mormon Enigma

By Linda King Newell and Valeen Tippets Avery

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

By Bill McKeever

The following was originally printed in the Sept-Oct 2009 edition of Mormonism Researched. To request a free subscription, please visit here

Mormon media outlets tend to always portray Joseph Smith as a man of virtue with very few faults. For many members, Joseph Smith is a man’s man, a person who always thinks of others and rarely ever himself. However, Mormon authors Linda King Newell and the late Valeen Tippetts Avery have written a remarkable book that gives readers a unique insight into how Emma Hale Smith lived (and endured) as the wife of the Mormon prophet. While many written articles and films feature Emma as one bearing the brunt of brutal behavior brought upon her husband by unbelieving mobs and disenchanted members, rarely does one ever see how Emma was treated by the very man who was looked upon as God’s servant, chosen to restore true Christianity to earth.

Mormon Enigma: Emma Hale Smith was first written in 1984 but its candor was not received well by the LDS leadership. The authors note that after its publication, they “were prohibited from speaking about any aspect of religious or church history in any LDS Church, related meeting or institution.” This ban was eventually lifted ten months later after Linda Newell “successfully petitioned church leaders to reconsider the prohibition.” It isn’t difficult to understand why LDS leaders reacted defensively. Historical honesty undermined the image they worked so hard to protect. Smith is not only seen as a sinful human being, but a sinner that is often unrepentant and uncaring.

The authors begin their tome by retracing the historical steps that drew Emma and Joseph together. They speak of his discovery of the “seer stone” while digging a well for Willard Chase, and his early years as a “money digger” working for Josiah Stowell. They recounted Emma’s father, Isaac Hale’s dislike for Joseph and tell how Hale gave a “thundering refusal” when the young couple asked his permission to marry. When such a blessing was not forthcoming Joseph and Emma eloped and were married on January 18, 1827.

Joseph Smith’s incessant lying, and the humiliation she experienced in front of her peers, would certainly qualify as mental anguish by today’s standards. Much of this revolved around the practice of plural marriage, known in Mormon circles as celestial marriage. As I have often said, you cannot separate the practice of plural marriage from the practice of deception.

Mormons disagree as to who became Smith’s first plural wife. Some say his relationship with the young Fanny Alger was nothing more than an adulterous affair, while others insist Alger was the first of many marriage relationships.

It is well documented that Emma never liked the doctrine of plural marriage so it is reasonable to understand why she was not invited to the marriage of her husband to Louisa Beaman.

“Joseph kept his relationship with Louisa Beaman secret from all but a select few. He also kept it secret from Emma. His earlier attempts to begin the practice in Kirtland had presented severe trauma for Emma, and Joseph knew that she would not willingly share him with another woman” (p. 95).

Emma was indeed an outspoken opponent of plural marriage. She was one of several who voiced her disapproval of a morning sermon given by her husband in 1841 that the authors say “tested the water for this new order of marriage.” That evening Smith tried to minimize his earlier message by saying it was something slated for the future.

“But the ‘future’ would be for the general membership. Not only had Joseph already taken plural wives, but over the next few months he would initiate the practice among a handful of his most trusted followers” (p.96).

One of those trusted followers was 23-year-old Elizabeth Rollins Lightner. Smith’s proposal to Lightner also came with a promise of salvation should she accept. When Lightner asked if Emma knew about her, “Joseph neatly sidestepped the issue with an incomplete answer: ‘Emma thinks the world of you’” (p.101). Lightner agreed to Smith’s proposal, despite the fact that she was already married. She became one of at least ten polyandrous relationships enjoined by Smith.

In the chapter titled “In Search of Iniquity,” Newell and Avery retell the story of the Relief Society, a women’s auxiliary formed by Smith on March 17, 1842. Nineteen women made up the core of this new group. Emma was elected its first president and she in turn, selected Elizabeth Ann and Sarah Cleveland as her counselors. She also chose Eliza Roxey Snow as her secretary. Three months later two of these women, Sarah Cleveland and Eliza Snow, secretly married Joseph Smith. At the time, Sarah (53) was already the wife of John Cleveland.

Emma’s ignorance of her husband’s affairs placed her in very embarrassing situations. The authors note that on one occasion Emma brought to the attention of the Society the name of Clarissa Marvel who was accused of “telling scandalous falsehoods on  the character of Prest. Joseph Smith.” They note that “there must have been silent consternation among a few in the group who were privy to the teaching of celestial marriage. Joseph’s plural wife Louisa Beaman sat in the meeting as did Sarah Peake Noon and Vilate Kimball” (p.108). Apparently oblivious to her husband’s behavior, Emma hoped to bring Clarissa to repentance.

Newell and Avery concede that Smith and his Twelve Apostles lied to disguise and keep secret the practice of plural marriage. “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). Sadly, Emma was a victim of this deception as rumors of sexual impropriety linked to her husband whirled about the Mormon community.

The minutes of a Relief Society meeting notes Emma saying “that heinous sins are among us—that much of this iniquity was practiced by some in authority, pretending to be sanctioned by Pres. [Joseph] Smith. Mrs. Prest. continued by exhorting all who had erred to repent and forsake their sins—said that Satan’s forces were against this church—that every Saint should be at the post” (pp.114-115).

The authors note that “until Emma could be obedient to Joseph and give him plural wives, she could not participate in the endowment ceremonies, yet he taught her that the endowment was essential for exaltation” (p.140).

There is no denying that Joseph Smith brought upon his wife severe humiliation over the polygamy issue. One can possibly understand why a man would cause others to suffer in order to cover up personal sin. It is much more difficult, however, to excuse a man of continual, unrepentant lying in order to hide sexual affairs from his wife, especially while claiming to be a prophet of God.  That Smith would use his power to threaten his wife with eternal consequences should she not fall in line is simply unconscionable.

Mormon Enigma—Emma Hale Smith is definitely a fascinating read. The fact that it is written from a female perspective makes it all the more significant.


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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