PROVO, Utah — She lost five children in infancy and a sixth when he was 14 months old. Polygamy swirled around her. She was pregnant when her husband was murdered.
Emma Smith left no journals and precious few letters for historians to plumb, but the long and daunting list of hardships suffered by the wife of Joseph Smith, founder of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, ultimately humbled one church historian.
"As a younger professor, I could just go at Emma for different flaws I saw in her life," eminent Brigham Young University church history professor Susan Easton Black said Thursday during a lecture sponsored by the university's Women's Research Institute.
Then Black took on a book project about the wife of Joseph Smith.
"As I have gotten older, I have had more than one occasion to feel humble and to repent of what I have said."
After the luncheon lecture to about 60 students, colleagues and fans at BYU's Kennedy Center, Black said, "We should treat (Emma) with greater kindness in our thoughts and remarks."
Black's book, "Emma Smith: An Elect Lady," was published in 2007. The title of her lecture Thursday was the same, but with a question mark added at the end.
Her conclusion removed that question mark.
First, Black said, Emma Smith was sealed to Joseph Smith, "and sealing powers are real." (Latter-day Saints believe marriages sealed in temples are eternal if the spouses are faithful.) Second, Emma Smith's patriarchal blessing leaves no room for questions.
"It's so fascinating to me," Black said of the blessing, delivered by her father-in-law and the church's first patriarch, Joseph Smith Sr. "There are no ifs. And when the blessing ends, it ends with, 'You will be saved in the kingdom of heaven, even so, amen.' "
For Black, a good deal about Emma was revealed in Feb. 1839, after the governor of Missouri posted an extermination order for the Mormons living there. Joseph was in jail and Emma was forced from their Missouri home with their four little children. She crossed the frozen Mississippi River with Julia, 7, and Joseph III, 6, Frederick, 2, and Alexander, who was 8 months old.
She led them across 200 miles of American frontier from Far West, Mo., to Quincy, Ill., on what has been called the Mormon Trail of Tears.
"The recollection," she wrote to her husband, "is more than human nature ought to bear."
So, Black said, is the loss of six young children. After five years of marriage, she had been the mother of five, but had only one babe in her arms.
"Just that alone says, her heartache trumps mine," Black said. "Maybe some of us can stop and give pause to just that statement."
Emma's letter to Joseph after the Trail of Tears is one of a frustrating few known to have survived. She goes on to mention that she would write more but is sure Joseph will pardon her for not doing so "when you reflect how hard it would be for you to write, when your hands were stiffened with hard work, and your heart convulsed with intense anxiety."
"If for nothing else this speech is worth it for me to describe what I view as one of her finest hours," Black said. "Not only does she get her living children to safety, but she thinks enough about the scriptures, she has placed in her skirts and petticoats, the Joseph Smith Translation of the Bible.
"Who saved that from the mob? It was Emma."
She shared Joseph with the church. A friend once advised the Smiths their family budget would improve if they followed Napoleon's example and had a dinner table big enough for just one. Emma replied, "My husband's a bigger man than Napoleon Bonaparte. He can never eat without his friends."
Joseph said, "That's the smartest thing you've ever said."
The 5-foot-9 woman Joseph described as "large-boned" had a dowery of one cow when she eloped with him in 1827. A woman with a beautiful soprano voice, she collected five hymnals during her lifetime for two churches, was a scribe for 16 pages as Joseph Smith translated the Book of Mormon and became the first president of the Relief Society, the largest charitable women's organization in the world.
Joseph Smith's martyrdom obviously broke her heart. The day after a mob shot and killed him and his brother, their bodies were returned to Nauvoo, Ill., where their families had awaited their return home. Emma at first couldn't bring herself to enter the room to view his body.
Finally, she rushed in and cried, "Have they taken you from me at last?"
Later that fall of 1844, when his grave was moved, a lock of Joseph Smith's hair was removed. Emma Smith carried that lock of hair in a locket she wore the rest of her life, according to Black's book.
Emma's heartaches didn't end there, Black said. Emma remarried three years later, but her second husband, Lewis Bidemon, would cause more pain. He had a child with a mistress in Nauvoo, where Emma had remained after Brigham Young led the bulk of the Latter-day Saints to Utah. (She would join the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.
When the child was 4, she accepted him and her husband's mistress into her home, where she helped care for the boy until her death 11 years later, in 1879.
Prior to her death, her children asked her about their father.
"I believe he was everything he professed to be," she said.
Black did not discuss polygamy in her lecture.
She lamented how little Emma Smith left in the historical record.
"I've always thought," Black said, "she wanted to be private."