What is Emma Smith’s greatest accomplishment?
Jennifer Reeder smiled at the question and shared the first thought that came into her mind.
“That she survived,” she said.
The simple response is not intended to diminish the role and influence of the first Relief Society president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and the person responsible for compiling its first hymnal. But it begins to offer some insight into the complex life of Emma, church founder Joseph Smith’s beloved wife, who Reeder calls the “first woman of the Restoration” in her new book, “First: The Life and Faith of Emma Smith.”
The story of Emma Smith’s life is not easily told. A deeper dive is necessary to provide greater understanding, Reeder said, a 19th-century women’s history specialist in the Church History Department of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
“My goal in writing this book was to recognize how complicated Emma is and also how real she is,” the author said. “For me, understanding that complication makes me feel better and like I also have a part to play, even if my life is complicated. And if I don’t do everything perfectly, or if I slip up or have hard feelings, it helps me to know that she did too.”
Reeder wrote “First” using the Joseph Smith Papers and as many primary contemporary sources as she could find. Emma left behind some correspondence but no journals. Many authors and filmmakers have sought to tell her story over the years.
“I tried to use as many of Emma’s words as I can,” Reeder said.
Reeder sat down with the Deseret News to discuss the project, misunderstandings about Emma, what she has learned about Emma’s views on polygamy, the historical figure’s most charitable act and other interesting facts.
Why write about Emma?
Reeder was working on the publication, “At the Pulpit: 185 Years of Discourses by Latter-day Saint Women,” a few years ago when the church’s former Relief Society general president, Linda K. Burton, said something that caused her to see Emma in a new light.
“It was something we all know, but it was ‘Emma is an elect lady.’ (Doctrine and Covenants 25) Hearing her say that ... stopped me and made me want to look at Emma in a different way. I thought differently about her,” Reeder said. “It wasn’t like I shifted, it was like I expanded my view of her.”
Reeder jumped at the opportunity to write a book on Emma when Deseret Book gave her that chance a few years ago.
“I wanted to try to understand the feeling I had in Sister Burton’s office a little more deeply and a little more widely,” she said.
Emma’s decision to remain in Nauvoo and not follow the church west after her husband’s death might be the biggest misunderstanding people have about her, for a couple reasons, Reeder said.
One is that Emma had lived her adult life moving from place to place and house to house, crossing frozen rivers and walking in lots of mud and snow. She finally gained a sense of stability and a place to raise her children when she moved into the Mansion House in Nauvoo.
“If she did go west, she didn’t know how she was going to provide for her children or if she would ever have that stability that she had grown up with,” Reeder said.
Another insight comes from the Lord’s revelation to Emma in Doctrine and Covenants 25:6, which counsels her to “go with him (her husband Joseph) at the time of his going.” Emma followed Joseph as the church moved from New York to Ohio, Ohio to Missouri, and from Missouri to Illinois.
“After Joseph died, she saw that as also staying with Joseph in his staying,” Reeder said. “Even though his spirit wasn’t in his body, she needed to be close to him.”
Abrahamic test of plural marriage
Having done the research, Reeder believes Joseph and Emma discussed different thoughts and ideas when plural marriage was first introduced.
“I really believe that to him and her, at the beginning, it was like this expansion of the House of Israel, bringing everyone possible into that house and into that Abrahamic covenant, where they would have posterity as the sands of the sea and the stars in the sky,” she said.
Problems with understanding polygamy emerged when some individuals learned about the practice and focused instead on expanding intimate marital relationships. Then Emma learned that her husband was sealed to several women without her knowledge, including some of her dear friends, Reeder said.
“I think that is what raises feelings of betrayal in Emma,” she said. “Surely there’s a sense of betrayal in that.”
The tension reached a breaking point in July 1843 when Hyrum Smith, Joseph’s brother, shared with Emma a revelation that became Doctrine and Covenants section 132. The revelation, which wasn’t published until 1876, was directed to Joseph and Emma and carries a private tone.
“I don’t know that it was meant to be public. I think it was a private thing,” Reeder said. “When we look at it we see Emma and Joseph being taught about this Abrahamic sacrifice.”
Both husband and wife were in “hard places,” the historian said, with Joseph commanded to practice plural marriage and Emma feeling betrayed.
“Be we all know what happens when things aren’t kept open and honest in a relationship,” Reeder said. “So they really had to work through that.”
Despite her challenges, Emma was known to be a generous and charitable person who welcomed many less fortunate people, including single women and orphans, into her home over the years.
“She wanted people to feel comfortable and feel part of a family,” Reeder said.
Emma’s most charitable act may have come after she wed Lewis Bidamon, her second husband. Bidamon had an affair with a younger woman named Nancy Abercrombie and fathered a son named Charles.
Abercrombie was unable to care for the child, so Emma welcomed him into her home and raised him as one of her own. When Abercrombie failed to find work, Emma gave her employment in the Mansion House.
Abercrombie later cared for Emma as her nurse in her final days. Before she died, she called Bidamon and Abercrombie to her bedside and made them promise to get married after she died so Charles could be raised as a legitimate son.
“I think Emma is just naturally a very charitable person,” Reeder said. “But I think it’s also her way of sort of reconciling polygamy. We know that Joseph never had children with any of his other wives. We know that Emma was pregnant with Joseph’s son when he died. So we know they had a good relationship at the end. I think that’s beautiful.”
Interesting notes and fun facts
Emma Smith’s brothers taught her how to ride horses when she was growing up in the Susquehanna River Valley.
Later in life, Emma used those equestrian skills to warn Joseph about impending danger to the gold plates and ride with him as he mustered the troops of the Nauvoo Legion. Together, they also enjoyed horse rides when they needed to get away from their busy home, which was often full of visitors and lacking for privacy.
“Oftentimes she and Joseph would ride their horses out into the country so they could have private discussions and conversation,” Reeder said. “Those skills that her brothers taught her served her well throughout her life.”
Emma also knew how to entertain party guests, was knowledgable when it came to business and politics and was dedicated to caring for her children and extended family, Reeder said.
When she was older, Emma gained a sweet reputation among the neighborhood children for her delicious cookies.
Reeder hopes readers will come away from “First” with appreciation for Emma on a “deeper level.”
“They will see, like I said before, how complicated her life was, and how hard it was,” she said. “Yet she continued to stand and support Joseph, and the church, until the end of her life.”