Monday, July 9, 2012

Understanding Emma Smith's Life by Mark Staker

This is the first post for Emma Smith's Birthday Celebration this week.  I am excited to share the interview I had with Mark Staker who is a Senior Researcher at in the Historic Sites Division of the Church History Library . For the last eight years he has done in-depth research on the life of Emma Smith and her family, and has been involved in the acquisition and restoration of her childhood home in Harmony, Pennsylvania. He is also in the process of writing a biography of Emma Smith's life, which I can't wait to read! When I contacted the Church History Library about having "the expert" on Emma Smith do a post for this celebration I was told that he was the person to talk to. After interviewing him I can see why. His answers reflect a deep understanding of the time period, culture, and place of where Emma lived. I so appreciated his insights into her life and was especially grateful that he was willing to answer my "hard" questions about polygamy and the foundation of the Relief Society. Also, don't forget about the present for Emma Smith this week, I will have a link up at the bottom of all my posts this week so you can share your own posts about Emma Smith or your testimony of The Book of Mormon!

1- How long have you been studying Emma Smith and how did your interest in her get started?

I’ve worked as a curator for the LDS Church for just under twenty years now. But it was not until about eight years ago that I began to look seriously and intently at Emma’s childhood home in Harmony, Pennsylvania, and tried to understand Emma’s life as fully as possible. I’ve spent much of my time in the past eight years trying to understand Emma and her family.

2- What was Emma's early life like before she met Joseph? What sort of young woman was she? What were some of her greatest strengths?

Emma’s family were some of the first white settlers in the Susquehanna Valley, and they lived initially in fairly remote circumstances. There was still an Indian village in their valley when Emma’s parents first arrived. Emma’s father was a “Leatherstocking” and made a living hunting animals in the forest then shipping the meat downriver to the major markets in Philadelphia and Baltimore. Her brothers took lumber downriver. When she was young the family moved from their log home into a nice frame home described as a “mansion” by one visitor. (Homes were all much smaller then and it would not be considered a very large home by today’s standards.) The ceramics and other artifacts recovered in archaeological excavations confirm what we find in tax records and in accounts by their neighbors—the Hale family was well-off by local standards and was one of the wealthy families of the county. Several of her brothers served in local political offices and they provided a respectable voice in the community. There is circumstantial evidence that Emma attended a girl’s finishing school about a mile or so west of her home where a Swedish schoolmaster (who claimed to be a descendant of royalty) taught the girls academic subjects in addition to the traditional subjects taught at other schools such as sampler making, textile production, and homemaking skills. Emma likely learned some Latin, European literature, advanced math, and perhaps philosophy.

Other young women in her valley described in their journals an interest in young men and they spent much of their time courting and socializing. This included long walks to hear piano concerts at neighbors homes, visits to the local taverns where lions and other exotic animals were brought for exhibition. A traveling art exhibit was also enjoyed by those who could afford the steep admission price of $1.00. In short, Emma grew up in a life of refinement, relative ease, and high status. She was, nevertheless, religiously devout and considered of high character and morals. Her family adored her and her neighbors admired her. Two of her sisters named a daughter after her, Roxy Emma Wasson and Emma Diantha Morse.

Perhaps one of Emma’s greatest strengths was her ability to give up the material comforts for what she believed was right. When Emma married Joseph Smith she married someone who had few of the things she enjoyed. He lacked her education. He grew up without life’s comforts. His family did not enjoy the high status and political influence her family held. The girls Emma’s age filled their diaries with discussions of wedding plans with fine cakes covered in sugar plums, ornate ceremonies in their parent’s parlor, and lots of wedding guests from the community. Emma gave all that up to marry the man of her choice. Emma also left all of her extra clothing behind and an assemblage of furniture, cows, and other possessions she had collected before she married Joseph. She did not know if she would ever get those things back.

3- I've always wanted to know more about Emma and Joseph's courtship. How did they meet? Do we know much about how they fell in love or what their early relationship was? Why did Emma's dad not like Joseph so much?

Joseph lived a long day’s ride northeast of Emma when they courted and he would have needed to stay overnight in her valley when he visited. It is likely Emma’s parents provided a place for him to stay, probably the log home where Emma was born which remained standing at least until 1829. He would likely have gone over the back roads across Ocquago Mountain to court Emma so he could avoid paying the toll road expenses to use the turnpike. Most of Emma’s neighbors took that back road north to Colesville when they traveled. It was customary for young men in the region to bring nuts, raisins, and other treats to the young women they courted and every young man wrote letters to a young woman. Because Emma could later say Joseph did not know how to write a well-worded letter at that point, it is clear he wrote her letters as well. The stagecoach came through South Bainbridge and Colesville twice a week heading south to Harmony and so Joseph could well have sent a few letters each week to Emma. Emma’s brothers and sisters married locals and moved within sight of their parents. Emma’s father listed as the first reason he was opposed to Joseph the fact he was “a stranger.” After Emma married her family made great effort to encourage her to live in their valley. This seems to support a concern about Joseph living elsewhere. Isaac also was apparently concerned about Joseph’s religious experiences. Emma’s mother was a Shouting Methodist and would have heard stories of similar religious experiences in her own congregation, but Emma’s father was more skeptical and had some involvement with Methodists as well as Quakers but was generally a Deist—denying the miraculous aspects of religion. These seem to be the major concerns he had with Joseph. He was not particularly concerned about Joseph’s involvement with the Josiah Stowell search for an abandoned silver mine because he had been heavily involved in the enterprise himself.

4- I have always been so impressed with Emma's relationship with her mother-in-law Lucy Mack Smith and the obvious love and respect that they had for each other. How did their love and relationship develop? Did they have a special connection right from the start or was it something that grew over time? What made their relationship unique?

When Emma first married Joseph, her mother-in-law welcomed her into the Smith family. Emma, nevertheless, still struggled initially. The Smith family worked very hard and it was an adjustment for Emma. Neighbors said she would come over and cry, noting she was in a “hard place.” It was not easy. At the same time, Lucy was a confidant, forceful woman who directed her own household and it was difficult for Emma to adjust to living under another roof. It appears she had been in charge of the kitchen in her parent’s household and was used to managing affairs at home. It was an adjustment for her to fit into the Smith family. Lucy was patient and loving. Emma returned that love and as circumstances changed over the years she sought to care for her mother-in-law’s needs. Caring for each other perhaps contributed to their relationship, but they also shared trials and difficulties together and these may have strengthened their bond. Because Emma always stood by Joseph in trying times, Lucy would naturally appreciate the devotion to her son.

I don’t know if their relationship was unique. It was certainly uncommon in some respects. That Emma would be drawn to her husband’s family was typical of the period. Today men are usually more involved in the families of their wives that was the standard in the early 19th century. Women were typically (but not always) drawn into their husband’s family in what is called a “patrilocal” pattern. Joseph’s move away from his family so that Emma could return home to hers not long after their marriage was not typical and reflects both the love Joseph had for Emma and the initial difficulty she had leaving the valley where she was born and raised. Lucy reflects great admiration for Emma in her later years. The two women had shared homes from time to time and lived in very close quarters with each other for many decades. Undoubtedly that close interaction helped foster a close relationship. Sadly, Emma did not have the same relationship with her own mother. She wrote a very tender letter to her mother shortly before Joseph died that indicated she had not heard from her parents since she left the Susquehanna Valley. She gives the names and ages of each of her children. One would think that her mother would have at least been interested in her grandchildren, and perhaps Emma thought she might still be since her father had recently died when she wrote the letter. She may have hoped to reconnect with her mother at that point.

5- In D&C 25: 11 the Lord tells Emma to "... to make a selection of sacred hymns, as it shall be given thee, which is pleasing unto me, to be had in my church." This commandment was given in July of 1830, not long after the church was organized.  How did Emma-- whose life was anything but calm and slow-- actually compiled this hymn book. How many years did it take her to do it? How did she collect and choose the songs she included? Did she face any challenges in getting it published? 

The valley where Emma grew up was intently interested in hymns and hymn writing. The local newspaper regularly published hymns written for its pages. These hymns were typically published anonymously and I have not been able to tie any of them to Emma. One hymn was written by a female identified as E. H. but it appears from the introduction that she came from another village in the county. Although it is not clear if Emma ever wrote any of her own hymns, her calling was not to write hymns but to select them. She grew up as a Shouting Methodist where the hymn tradition was very important to worship service. Her family later recalled she had a beautiful singing voice and there is some suggestion she had a particular gift for singing. Joseph may have done pretty well himself. His father taught singing and it was an important trait emphasized during the first decades of the nineteenth century. We usually emphasize the first hymnal published in Kirtland. But it is clear that hymns were sung in the early Church before that hymnal was published, and it is likely that Emma played a role in directing the development of those hymns first sung.

Since the emphasis was on her selecting hymns rather than writing them, it is likely the earliest hymns sung were well known to most of the members and were selected from popular hymns of the day. By the time the Saints moved to first publish Joseph’s revelations in 1833 there may have been some discussion of making hymns available in a published format as well but nothing was done toward that goal until the Doctrine and Covenants was available in 1835. W.W. Phelps began writing hymns and publishing them in the newspaper as perhaps an indication that Emma (or Joseph) had recommended developing their own hymn tradition to reflect distinctive Latter-day Saint doctrines. Because Phelps and other members wrote early hymns and no known hymns by Emma are found, scholars have often emphasized the role others played in developing the first hymnal. Since Emma was charged with making a selection of hymns, I think she may well have played the final selecting role in that first hymnal. She later went on to develop another hymnal for the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints in her later years and clearly played a central role in developing that volume. There is no information of which I am aware that sheds light on how Emma went about selecting songs. Did she collect a large number of possibilities and then winnow down from there? Did she recommend songs that were particularly meaningful to her? I don’t know.

6- As I've read and studied about Emma Smith's life I have discovered that there is a lot of confusion, speculation and gossip about her life in Nauvoo and her and Joseph's practice of polygamy. I was wondering if you might be willing to help me understand a bit more about what she went through, the choices she made, and the consequences of them. I'd especially be interested if you might be able to lend a little bit more light about D&C 132: 51-56 and what would have been going on in Joseph's and Emma's lives at this time. It is a passage of scripture that has always confused me, mostly I think because I don't understand the history of the context in which it was given.

Polygamy is a fascinating subject, and one that played a significant role in Emma’s spiritual life during the Nauvoo period and perhaps earlier. Much more is written on the subject than is really known about it, however. Many members in Nauvoo knew very little of the doctrine, even many of the inner circle of Church leaders later acknowledged knowing nothing on the subject until 1841-1842, and even fewer knew actual details of practice. Such basic facts as Joseph’s marriages to other women were often recorded in shorthand, cryptic wording, or not at all. Complicating this lack of data were some genuine disagreements about what occurred. One of Emma’s sons would later write a “Last Will and Testament” just after Emma died where he stated she claimed Joseph never practiced polygamy. Emma is often hit hard because of this and accused of lying. Others accused Emma of lying long before her son published that statement. When Brigham Young said the harsh things he did about Emma almost twenty years before her death, it was right after Emma’s sons had visited Salt Lake City and were attempting to attract converts in part by condemning polygamy and claiming Joseph never taught it. It was in this context that Brigham Young accused Emma of being one of “the damndest liars that ever lived on this earth.” Since when Emma’s oldest son published a Last Will and Testament right after her death claiming she had never spoken on the subject earlier but finally indicated Joseph had never practiced plural marriage, Emma could not have lied to her sons about polygamy when they claimed Joseph never taught it during their 1860s mission. It appears that at some point, either earlier, later, or both, Emma was misrepresented and unfairly credited with saying things she had not said. This was also true immediately after her husband Joseph was killed when the national newspapers came out claiming Emma had acknowledged Mormonism was all a sham. She countered that claim by writing a letter indicating she had never said any such thing and someone was crediting her with something she had not said. She was not able to do the same thing about marriage claims because she was likely never aware such claims were made.

 In short, because what few details we know about polygamy in Nauvoo were sharply disputed by the very individuals who knew most about the subject, it is unlikely we’ll ever get a good picture of what really occurred. Only new, significant sources will help us resolve the picture. This is particularly the case with the verses in D&C 132 that you’ve asked about. Emma did not comment on the revelation. Neither did Joseph ever explain what was meant. His nephew Joseph F. Smith later said that Section 132 was written in a specific context to address specific issues and if it had been written for the entire Church it would have been a very different revelation than we currently have. What we know about the context is that the revelation was specifically directed to Emma and the information in that revelation was specifically focused on her.

6- I have always been fascinated about the organization of the first Relief Society and Emma's role as it's first president. It must have been an incredible time to be a woman in the gospel. What were some of Emma's roles and responsibilities as the first Relief Society president and what type of work were the early Relief Society sisters engaged in?

When the Latter-day Saints were still in Kirtland, Ohio, and the Kirtland Safety Society had recently collapsed—ending their hopes of using the financial institution to create a Zion society in which there were no poor—a group of members got together and formed what they called a “Relief Society.” It appears this organization was an attempt to consecrate properties for the common good of the members of the organization. Among the interesting details of this organization is the fact that men and women were included on the list of members when at the time men were the only ones acknowledged by the law as the owners of property. (There were exceptions for widows, etc., of course.) I know a lot has been written about female benevolent societies and the relationship between the Nauvoo Female Relief Society organization and those benevolent societies, but I get the sense that the NFRS organization was intended to accomplish much more than its name may suggest. Of course the first Female Relief Society members were involved in such things as providing textiles and other things for those working to build the kingdom (such as temple builders), but the sources suggest they were expected to accomplish much more than this. Others have done much more research on the origins of the Nauvoo Female Relief Society than I have and so I would recommend going to those sources for additional insight. I know that in the next year or two several significant books that shed more insight into the organization of the Relief Society are scheduled for publication.

7- The other part of Emma's life that has always confused me was why the Relief Society was eventually disbanded. Did that happen before or after Joseph Smith's death? Do we know the reasons? Do we have any idea about how Emma felt about that?

My understanding is that the Relief Society was never really disbanded. After Joseph died meetings were no longer held because of other pressing issues and the eventual flight of most of the members. Emma never expressed her thoughts about the organization or its demise. When the Reorganized Church was established, however, she never pressed to reinstate the organization, apparently believing it had already accomplished its original purpose.

7- I remember once reading a remark by someone who said that Emma Smith's picture didn't deserve to be hung up in the Relief Society room because she hadn't been faithful enough and didn't cross the plains with the Saints. It has surprised me to see that even today, with all that we know about Emma and her life, that there is still a lot of hostility towards her and confusion about her life and her role in the gospel. If you had been standing next to this woman when she made this remark about Emma what would you have told her?

It is hard for me to evaluate “faithful enough” and what is necessary for someone’s picture to be placed on a wall or not. Emma’s portrait currently hangs in the Church History Museum in Salt Lake City as one of the presidents of the Relief Society. Certainly each of the presidents of the Relief Society have contributed significantly to the organization and deserve to have their portraits hung somewhere. Emma fills a unique role among women in the Church. She was there at the Hill Cumorah when Joseph Smith retrieved the plates. She served as his first scribe and taught him how to pronounce the names as he first read them, explained the intricacies of Jerusalem’s walls as Joseph surprisingly asked about it as he translated, felt the plates rustle underneath her tablecloth while cleaning the house but did not look underneath the cloth because she was asked not to, walked through the snow during a Missouri winter with her children and no husband, and provided solace for Joseph while he languished in prison.

The evidence is overwhelming that if there had been no Emma to support Joseph Smith along the way, he could not have accomplished what he did. We owe to Emma, in part, the foundation of our Church. When Joseph Smith was killed, his brother Hyrum died as well. Samuel died a few days later. But I get a sense that Emma died on some level at the same time. She became a martyr to the cause as well. Today we can diagnose things such as post-traumatic stress disorder that were never even thought of in Emma’s day. Because we are not in a position to judge the trials that others experience and how well they weather through those trials, I don’t think we are in a position to determine whether Emma was “faithful enough” or not. Does Emma’s portrait deserve to be hung in the Relief Society room when Belle Spafford’s portrait is not hung despite the latter’s many decades of service to that organization? I don’t know. Perhaps Emma’s portrait is more deserving of a place in the foyer besides that of Joseph Smith as his associate in founding The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. She played a fundamental role in providing the place, means, and some of the tutoring for the translation of the Book of Mormon; she played a central role in establishing our hymnal which is also considered scripture; all the temple endowments for women trace their lineage back to Emma as the one who first provided that saving ordinance for women; and she endured countless hardships so that Joseph would have more time to produce revelations, direct affairs of the Church, and preach to the Saints.

9- I understand that you have been working to help restore Emma's early childhood home and a few other historical sites that were important places in Emma's life. Could you tell us a bit more about those projects and what visitors might expect to see and experience when they go?

I have spent a number of years trying to understand the nature of the log home where Emma was born in 1804 and the frame home that her family built less than a decade later in the same area. It has been an interesting process and I’ve learned a great deal about the Hale farm and the Isaac and Elizabeth Hale family in the process. I’ve also worked to understand the Joseph and Emma Smith home that once stood nearby. In the not distant future all of this research may help us better celebrate the events of Church history in Pennsylvania more fully.

10- Is there anything else you would like to share about Emma or your work?

Sometimes when Joseph Smith dictated his history he talked about events in which he was involved as “I” did this, or “I” did that without mentioning the significant role Emma played in these same events. This was a common way of responding in the early nineteenth century. It did not mean that Joseph felt Emma had not contributed to an event—such as Book of Mormon translation—but that Emma was considered an extension of Joseph. Sometimes the identity of women was so subsumed in that of their husband in the nineteenth century that they go unnoticed. The author Mrs. Schuyler van Rensselaer, for example, is really Mariana Griswold van Rensselaer. But her identity was tied into that of her husband as was typical of the period. For Emma this was much more the case. Joseph came to recognize in Nauvoo that even his exaltation was tied to that of his wife. He could not return to live with God again without being sealed to his wife. We naturally focus on Joseph because he was the source of revelation from God, but Emma was so much a part of Joseph that she shared in much of what he accomplished. According to one of his associates, Joseph was told by Moroni that he could not recover the plates unless he married Emma and brought her to the hill with him. After Joseph married Emma he was able to receive the plates at his next visit with her accompanying him along the way. Thankfully she agreed to leave behind family, friends, all her possessions, and any dreams of a life of ease she may have fostered to join Joseph on the journey. We are all blessed because of it.

Thank you Mark for the privledge of intervieiwing you. I learned so many new things about Emma and you have given me some beautiful ideas to think about. I look forward to reading your book when it is finished! 

Also, if you would like to link to your own post about Emma Smith or share your testimony of the Book of Mormon for Emma's birthday gift you can link up to it below. The blog hop will be on all of my posts this week so you are welcome to join in any time.  


  1. Excellent questions, Heather -- and truly fascinating answers! Thank you for this wonderful interview that sheds some very interesting new insights into the life of our beloved Emma, whom I sincerely respect.


    1. I also respect Emma a great deal, and I really love this interview. Emma should be revered for what she went through, and for her part in founding the Church.

      It surprises me whenever I hear of Emma being criticized by modern Mormons. Unlike many other LDS women, she had to face polygamy with no prior expectation of it. That is no small matter. It was simply unleashed upon her by God, and so I don't judge her for the painful & often violent reactions she had to it. I also certainly do not judge her for remaining in the midwest or joining the Reorganized Church instead of joining the trek to Utah. She did what she thought was right, and anyone who dares to judge her is just a tourist with a typrwriter.

    2. This was wonderful! Thank you so much! I am thrilled to hear that a biography of Emma and more information on the founding of RS will be forthcoming!

  2. During our date night on Friday night (which involved hanging out in a fort we built in our bedroom after the kids went to bed), my husband and I were going through a list of questions for couples to ask each other. One of the questions was "If you could have dinner with any person from history, who would it be?" I choose Emma Smith because I admire and identify with her a lot, but am saddened by all of the confusion and unanswered questions about her. This interview offered some excellent insights. Thank you so much for doing it!

  3. I'm sorry to pop back in again... I keep thinking of the reference to Belle Spafford in this interview. Could you offer some insight? Did Sister Spafford leave the church?

    1. Ashlee, I was wondering about that too. I'm not sure what he meant. I will try to ask him.

    2. Ashlee, Here is what he explained when I emailed him. I think I was just thinking that he was saying her picture wasn't up in the RS building on Temple square but he was just referring to RS rooms in general in the church.

      "I should have been clearer in my comments about Belle Spafford. I admire Sister Spafford greatly. She served as General Relief Society President from 1945 to 1974 as the longest serving president in that position ever. I wish she were honored more and remembered for her service, and that is what I was getting at with my comment. What I was trying to say was that while Emma deserves to have her portrait hung in the Relief Society room as the founding president of that organization, there have been many other faithful women who have sacrificed and given much in their own terms that also deserve to have their portraits hung in the local wards as well. I don’t want this comment to diminish in any way Emma’s contributions. ( I suggested in my earlier comments for your blog that I think Emma shares some responsibility for the production of the Book of Mormon and the founding of the Church and should be honored as such.) It was more of a offhanded comment to suggest while we should honor and love Emma we can’t forget the other great souls who have contributed so much along the way."

    3. Thank you for the clarification! And I agree with his assessment!

  4. Do u know when marks book will be out?