Emma Hale Smith Bidamon remains an enigma to most Mormons

(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.




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23 Responses to Emma Hale Smith Bidamon remains an enigma to most Mormons

  1. D. Michael Martindale says:

    Interesting. I consider Emma to be quite understandable, and I think she remains an enigma to some Mormons only because they have this preset worldview they have to stuff everybody and everything into.

  2. D. Michael Martindale says:

    There are so many fascinating stories in history that we never hear. Everything surrounding Joseph Smith and the aftermath of his life, and also I’m reading up on the times of Christ and finding amazing stories that were going on before, during, and after the events recounted in the Gospels and Acts–events that make us understand the Gospel events like we never did before.

    It makes me wish I had multiple lifetimes to tell them all. Maybe I need to start believing in reincarnation.

    • Doug Gibson says:

      Thanks D. Michael, I agree that we don’t have sufficient time on earth to study and understand all we wish to better comprehend. I hope that one day we’ll have a biography that focuses exclusively on Emma’s post-martyrdom life.

  3. Kathy T. says:

    I think she used to be judged rather harshly and I just don’t take that view. I think her accomplishments are remarkable and few people have ever gone through the numerous hardships she took on and dealt with.

  4. Carrie Presnell says:

    Enigma is a good word. I have always felt she was grossly misunderstood. For example, Lucy Mack Smith never did move West, and no one ever talks about that or questions her motives. I think the expectation was that Emma would demurely and unquestioningly follow the new leadership. When she didn’t, she became a pariah of Mormon society.

  5. Kathy T. says:

    I think Emma and Brigham, they had a lot of similarities in strength of personality and sometime that works well together and sometimes it is like fire and ice. I don’t blame her for deciding she was not going west. Mary Fielding Smith decided she was and I admire that as well. Regardless, they both did a lot of what they did on their own.

  6. Steve Eccles says:

    Val Avery also wrote an excellent bio on David Hyrum Smith. We actually had a hymn he wrote the lyrics in an early hymnal. It was called “An Unknown Grave.” Interesting stuff.

  7. Lasvegasrichard says:

    The thing about Emma that has been ignored , is that she was complicit in the entire fraud of the BoM and Joseph Smith .

  8. “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.”

    She didn’t fall away from the Gospel. If she followed this restored gospel that Joseph Smith taught, she never had the Gospel. The Gospel of Christ that Paul the Apostle preached was never lost.

    What devastation this early “church” brought. Womens lives torn apart. Marriages torn apart. Hearthaches. Murders. But more than that, it has led millions to disregard the Gospel that saves from judgement and to follow a gospel that is no gospel at all and leads to destruction.


    • DougH says:

      “The Gospel of Christ that Paul the Apostle preached was never lost.”

      Luther, Calvin, and any number of other Protestant founders certainly thought it was. That was the point of Protestantism, after all.

      • The point of Protestant founders was that what was written in the Scriptures that were available to the Roman Catholic church wasn’t the message being preached to the common people who didn’t have access to those Scriptures.
        The Protestant Reformation made it possible for the Scriptures to be translated into the common language, making it possible for the common people to know the truth.

        Joseph Smith committed the same atrocity the Roman Catholic church committed, just in a different way. The Roman Catholic church had the Scriptures, but lied to the people about what was contained in them. Joseph Smith lied to the people about the validity of the Scriptures and maligned the Word of God. Both of these acts have destroyed the lives of millions.

        Mormon teaching still maligns, discredits and marginalizes the Scriptures (and if you want to argue that point, anyone has access to the internet and can explore lds sites to find this to be true), causing the destruction of many.

        Here is the issue: Man is fallen and has nothing to offer God and nothing to expect from God except judgement. “Who has ever given to God that God should repay him?” We are by nature objects of wrath. Our righteousness is as filthy rags to Him. “Since they did not know the righteousness that comes from God and sought to establish their own, they did not submit to God’s righteousness.” Through obedience to the law, you are trying to establish your own righteousness, that God will not accept from you. “Therefore, no one will be justified in His sight by observing the law.” Now here is the righteousness that God demands, His righteousness, “Christ is the end of the law so that there may be righteousness for everyone who believes.”

        The only righteousness that God will accept from anyone is the righteousness of Christ. Jesus went to the cross to pay the penalty for our sin, to take out of the way what seperates us from our God, and credits to our account His righteousness.

        For anyone to think they will approach God on their own merits…that will be the most disastrous mistake they have ever made.


        • Rockgod28 says:

          We are in agreement.

          No one can gain eternal life without Jesus Christ. Period. End of story.

          Keeping the commandments is pointless if not based upon the merits and grace of Jesus Christ. The Son of God has given us the way to eternal life. It profits no one to be a “good” person on their own. We are always dependent on the savior’s mercy.

          However mercy can not rob justice? How can you claim to have faith in Christ by not following his commandments? The devils know Jesus is the son of God. Yet they are not saved by that knowledge. Neither are those that profess a belief in Christ then disobey his commandments enduring in his mercy saved.

          So yeah. We are in agreement as we strive to keep the commandments to show our faith in Jesus Christ to endure in his love.

  9. TT says:

    I enjoyed this article. I do know nearly as much about Emma as I would like. My critique is for the article itself. I find your concluding statement incongruous with published LDS doctrine: “…in the case of polygamy, she was correct 45-plus years before the LDS Church leadership on the subject.” You seem to reference the Manifesto in a way that Emma was right all along, and that members of the Church should never have been practicing polygamy in the first place. I would direct anyone to the Church’s Official Declaration 1, and especially to read the heading. It clearly states that “Following a revelation to Joseph Smith, the practice of plural marriage was instituted…” It continues, “After receiving revelation, President Wilford Woodruff issued the following Manifesto…” Very simply, the Lord revealed to one of His prophets to start this practice, and later revealed to a different prophet to stop this practice. There is no fault finding, apology, or discreditation of the first revelation. There is no basis to support the supposition that Church leadership was wrong for decades and finally corrected themselves. Just because the Church’s practices eventually aligned with Emma’s personal beliefs, this does not validate her views as correct before the Church leadership. In fact, I would say it clearly shows she was not correct during for those 45-plus years.

    • TT says:

      Edit for the second sentence: “I do not know nearly as much about Emma as I would like.” –adding the word ‘not’

    • Michael says:

      Yep, that last run-on sentence in the original piece is the true enigma.

      Just exactly what was Emma “correct about” on the topic of polygamy? Was she right when she lied about it for the last half of her life? Was she right when she said Brigham Young invented the entire concept? Was she right when she said she never heard anything about it being practiced in Nauvoo?

      Has the author ever read the Manifesto? Maybe before asserting that Emma was right, he should familiarize himself with what the Manifesto actually says and means.

      I didn’t ever doubt that Emma was a good woman who did her best to keep her family together under difficult circumstances, but what does that have to do with her outright lies about the practice of polygamy or the ultimate rightness or wrongness of the practice, which was given up mostly as a result of intense governmental pressure?

  10. R Allen says:

    Polygamy was both the best and worst thing that happened to the LDS church. My ancestors were all polygamists. Utah was an agrarian society in a wilderness. Despite the obvious negatives of polygamy, the human capital it provided and the vast untapped agricultural resources in this wilderness resulted in both an acceleration of wealth and a much larger population willing to spread the Kingdom of God. Polygamy was astonishingly successful on both those accounts. This is best described in an Orson Whitney poem as follows:

    The wilderness, that naught before would yield, Is now become a fertile, fruitful field. Where roamed at will the fearless Indian band, The templed cities of the Saints now stand. And sweet religion in its purity Invites all men to its security.There is my home, the spot I love so well, Whose worth and beauty pen nor tongue can tell.

    • Bob Becker says:

      The poem sounds like an LDS version of the imper34564532ialist hymn “From Greenland’s Icy Mountains.”. Worth noting too that it blandly assumes that the wilderness was not a “fertile, fruitful” land and that the “fearless Indian bands” were, before the Mormon migration, wholly without religion. Neither assumption is valid.

      P.S. TY for posting the poem. It was new to me.

  11. Rockgod28 says:

    Thank you for the article.

    Emma had a difficult life as the wife of Joseph. Of this there is no doubt. It is also true that Joseph had to be chastened severely to convince him to practice polygamy he was very uncomfortable with by an angel with a sword. Why?

    Well that is a good question. It is a practice and custom that makes Mormonism appear weak from a political and social point of view. Unlike most practices of Mormonism from faith, baptism, repentance, priesthood and temples the practice of polygamy along with the ban of the priesthood are not explained by revelation. They are also both opposites. Polygamy was revealed to be practiced by revelation with no explanation. The priesthood ban was the opposite of no revelation, proper procedure on policy, yet never clarified or rectified by revelation for over 100 years.

    Polygamy was practiced by Abraham and others. Emma disliked it a lot. I can understand her point of view even if I disagree with it. Maybe that is the point.

    Emma while in Nauvoo was finally starting to get a handle on life. She established a home, a store and community with the saints. It was a life similar to her parents life. It was familiar, comfortable and she could have peace.

    Instead from her point of view Joseph seemed to be stirring up trouble with polygamy and a run for the president. While she wouldn’t have a problem with the latter, the former seemed to cause the foundations of her life to take away her world, her life.

    So when Joseph’s life was threatened, when he asked her to leave it all behind to go West, she couldn’t do it. She loved her home, they seemed safe in Illinois, home to future president Abraham Lincoln, wht wouldn’t the governor protect him as he promised.

    So she choose Nauvoo, her house instead of fleeing West to rebuild one more time. Her husband was murdered and his brother. The leadership fell to Brigham. He needed to go, she wanted to stay. Thus the problems.

    At the end of her life it is a testament to the character of Joseph Smith that the name she called out, her last words, were for her first husband, Joseph.

    As Latter-Day Saints we acknowledge her sacrifices and more importantly that just like her husband an imperfect human being. She made mistakes, just as we do.

  12. Diane Kulkarni says:

    This section of the D & C reveals the struggle for power within the Smith household. Imagine for one minute how you’d feel and let Emma have her day.

  13. Zen Wordsmith says:

    Hats off, and deep gratitude to [Emma], who, despite the enigma, layed the “blueprint harmonics” to what we know in latter days as the Relief Society. {circa’ 1842}.
    Emma withstood the [same gender sealings] or “couplings” in Christian LDS Temples, we know today as the {Uncle Ordinance}. Known simple in those days as “fellows to fellows”.
    On her death bed, it is reported that Emma declared unto the notoriety of the day that: “…No such thing as polygamy or spiritual wifery, was taught, publicly, or privately [before] my husbands death… that I have now, or have had any knowledge of…He had no other wife but me, nor did to my knowledge ever have…”

    Partial Source: “Out of the Bishops Closet”
    [Anthony Feliz] ™Alamo Square Press

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