(To see Cal Grondahl’s cartoon that goes with this post, click here.) In the biography, “Mormon Enigma: Emma Hale Smith,” a visit to Nauvoo from Hannah Tapfield King, a Salt Lake City Mormon, to the widow of Joseph Smith is related: “Mrs. King found … “Her mind seemed to me to be absorbed in the past and lost almost to the present … neither does she seem to desire to form any intimacy. … She did not even seem to respond to kindness, but she looked as if she had suffered and as if a deep vein of bitterness ran through her system. I felt sorry for her. ...”
As condescending as Tapfield King’s recollections were, they were kinder than Brigham Young’s, who frequently railed against Joseph Smith’s wife, describing her to Reorganized LDS Church missionaries in 1863 as “a wicked, wicked woman and always was. …” Emma loathed Young perhaps equally. Both polygamy, a doctrine that Emma clearly detested, and disagreements over the resolution of ecclesiastical matters and business dealings involving the wounded Nauvoo church and martyred prophet resulted in permanent animosity between the two.
Emma Hale Smith Bidamon has been rehabilitated in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The crowning occurred several years ago with the release of a film, “Emma Smith: My Story,” which captures the humanity and compassion of Joseph Smith’s widow but pointedly ignores the disagreements and heartaches that left her estranged from Mormonism and an opponent of the Utah LDS Church. Last week, I read “Mormon Enigma: Emma Hale Smith,” the almost 30-year-old biography by Linda King Newell and the late Valeen Tippetts Avery. In light of the slow but steady efforts of transparency by LDS leaders over the past generation it’s almost quaint to recollect that it took a meeting with LDS apostles to lift a mid-1980s ban on having the authors speak to wards and stakes about the biography. When I was a kid Emma Smith was spoken of with a touch of sadness, as a person who had fallen away from the Gospel but would one day receive her full blessings, nevertheless.
Even today, there’s much of Emma Smith that remains an enigma to Mormons. Reading her biography, watching her film, that realization sticks. We know that she married Major Lewis Bidamon a few years after the martyrdom. The film “Emma Smith: My Story,” is eager to inform that 20 years after their marriage, the major, through adultery, fathered a child that Emma eventually raised as her own, even having the mother work in her home. However, if you read “Mormon Enigma,” one learns that Emma’s compassion was extended to her husband. The adultery did not extinguish the pair’s love for each other. In fact, shortly before Emma Bidamon died, she urged her husband to marry the boy’s mother after her death, a request that the major honored.
It’s impossible not to connect Emma’s capacity to forgive her second husband with her recollections of the polygamy that swirled through Nauvoo in the final years of Joseph Smith’s life. As the authors of “Mormon Enigma” relate, her husband was duplicitous to her, repeatedly “starting” and “stopping” polygamy, promising one thing one day and being caught in a lie another day. This is not a condemnation of the Prophet Joseph Smith, who believed that he was commanded, on the threat of death, to initiate polygamy in the new church.
But despite occasional vacillations, Emma strongly opposed it. She endured humiliations, learning that women she provided charity to within her own home, including Eliza Snow, had intimate relations with her husband. As the leader of the new “Relief Society,” she would teach lessons on fidelity between husband and wife to audiences full of women secretly living polygamy. The strength that allowed her to cope with these trials was learned early in her life. As the authors note, “… as a young woman, Emma was physically and emotionally strong, with a streak of independence. ...”
Emma never ceased to love her first husband, nor disbelieve in the Book of Mormon or Joseph Smith’s restored gospel of Jesus Christ. Given what she endured, it’s not surprising that she would forgive her second husband for an offense she must have regarded as similar to offenses committed by her first husband.
If there is a theme to Emma Hale Smith’s life in “Mormon Enigma,” it’s one of endurance and sacrifice. Emma sacrificed her parents mere months after the Mormon Church was formed. That is related in the film, but the biography adds the information that her embittered father, Isaac Hale, contributed information against her husband in “Mormonism Unvailed,” the very first anti-Mormon book.
The degree of anger, and violence, against Joseph Smith and the young church is related as effectively in “Mormon Enigma” as it is in “Rough Stone Rolling,” Richard Bushman’s biography of Joseph Smith. Whether in Kirtland, Far West or Nauvoo, there was something about the LDS faith, its bloc of members, and its charismatic first prophet that elicited passions — pro and con — beyond the norm. Whether it was Doctor Philastus Hurlburt, former apostle William McLellin, or former Nauvoo insiders John Cook Bennett or William Law, the disagreements that led them to leave the church resulted in angers that cried out for violence against Smith, his church and its members, leading to murders, spats between armed men, and forced expulsions. In fact, it was a common newspaper editor, Thomas Sharp, of Warsaw, Illinois, who is chiefly responsible for whipping up the sentiment that led to the murders of Joseph and Hyrum Smith. Their martyrdom did not satiate his anger. Years later, when the Nauvoo temple was torched, Sharp, who likely arranged payment for the arson, described it as a “benevolent act,” recounts “Mormon Enigma.” (In another anecdote from “Mormon Enigma,” Emma encounters the detestable McLellin — part of a mob — stealing valuables from her home. When Emma asked why the former apostle is stealing, he replies, “Because I can.”)
Through all these trials, Emma Smith endured. The trials led to the early deaths of several of her children. Fleeing mobs, she led her family over frozen rivers to safety, visited her husband in jails, took in LDS refugees, and frequently handled business matters in her husband’s frequent absences. “Mormon Enigma” details a quiet, determined stoicism and a self-confidence among Emma that led to her easily taking responsibility and leadership of the newly formed Relief Society. As noted in “Mormon Enigma,” LDS women provided testimonies and blessings for the sick. As “Mormon Enigma” notes, Joseph Smith did not seem to disapprove of these priesthood-parallel activities by the Nauvoo women.
After her husband’s death, “Emma stayed aloof from public debate over the question of leadership in Nauvoo,” write the authors of “Mormon Enigma.” She probably favored Nauvoo stake president William Marks, who opposed polygamy (and sealed his own fate when he defended the exiled Sydney Rigdon). As the authors note, there had been no serious disagreements between Emma and Brigham Young prior to the martyrdom. However, the business dealings, resolution of church assets and debts (Joseph Smith died leaving Emma $70,000 in debt) and squabbles over the Nauvoo holdings, including the hotel, initiated the animosity between Emma and Young.
Polygamy sealed the separation. The Utah Mormons, eventually called
Brighamites,” resented Emma for not following the main body of Saints to Utah. Her re-marriage to Bidamon, a non-Mormon, was akin to blasphemy to Young and others.
Emma, in turn, resented Young for maintaining polygamy in the church. It was a doctrine that Emma eventually regarded as false, and likely she blamed it as the chief cause of her husband’s death. After a brief hiatus from Nauvoo, she returned to the city, placated anti-Mormons, such as Sharp, who regarded her with suspicion, and resumed her life, taking care of her children, regaining control of meager but needed assets in Nauvoo, taking care of her slain husband’s ailing mother, Lucy Mack Smith, and marrying Bidamon, who despite his infidelity apparently enjoyed a loving relationship with Emma and her children. He was referred to as “Pa Bidamon.”
As the authors note, Emma regarded her oldest son, Joseph Smith III, as an heir to her first husband’s ecclesiastical honors. She supported the founding of the Reorganized LDS Church and her eldest living son assuming its leadership. Living in Nauvoo, as “Mormon Enigma” notes, she greeted “Brighamite” visitors from Utah cordially, but retreated to a cooler atmosphere if they wished to debate Mormonism with her.
Late in her life, she had to deal with the mental illness of her youngest child, David Hyrum, born a few months after his father was martyred. The realization that plural marriage in Nauvoo had been a reality, something David Hyrum apparently learned while on a RLDS mission to Utah, may have exacerbated pressures to his already-ailing mind.
In her later years, Emma denied completely the existence of polygamy in Nauvoo. This further angered Utah Mormons, who knew she was not telling the truth. Newell and Avery posit that Emma may have been using code words to separate polygamy from “the true order of marriage,” which they note, LDS leaders who secretly practiced polygamy once used. In any event, her denials were accepted by her sons, including Joseph III, although they certainly later discovered the truths of polygamy in Nauvoo. As the authors note, the RLDS leader received letters from the hectoring McLellin on his father’s polygamous past, telling Joseph III that his mother Emma could verify them.
Emma Smith, the movie, barely spends 30 seconds discussing polygamy. It’s like a spot easily wiped away. But, despite the best efforts of “Mormon Enigma” and other research, how polygamy led to Emma Hale Smith Bidamon’s life after her husband died still leaves much to be discovered. Certainly, her many experiences before Nauvoo, including helping her husband translate a significant portion of The Book of Mormon, motivated her positive reactions to persecutions and caused pro-and-con turmoil after the introduction of a church doctrine that repelled her.
In short, what we know of Joseph Smith’s wife is that she was a compassionate woman, a leader, with a stoic independence who endured much without losing her essential humanity and ability to react, love, and reform unfortunate situations. She merits her current rehabilitation in Mormon circles and we need to learn more about this fascinating woman, and consider that in the case of polygamy, she was correct 45-plus years before the LDS Church leadership on the subject.