Thoughts on Lesson Ten

The "Elect Lady" Revelation: The Historical and Doctrinal Context of Doctrine and Covenants 25

Carol Cornwall Madsen
Brigham Young University

In the last anxious hours before the Prophet Joseph Smith left for Carthage in June 1844, his wife, Emma, asked for a blessing. Unable to grant her wish at the time, Joseph instructed her to write out "the desires of her heart" and he would confirm the blessing by his signature upon his return. Among the desires she expressed in her short, self- inscribed blessing was her fervent wish "to honor and respect my husband as my head, ever to live in his confidence and by acting in unison with him retain the place which God has given me by his side."

What unspoken thoughts moved Emma Smith to write those words? Could she have been affirming her belief that God had called her to be the wife and companion of a latter-day prophet? Might she have been thinking of the ordinances she had received with him in 1843, which promised her exaltation and a place by his side eternally? Or, after more than a year of anguishing over the principle of plural marriage, was Emma finally acknowledging that only by acting in concert with Joseph, even on this divisive issue, could she fulfill the revelation given to her fourteen years earlier through her prophet-husband?

These two spiritual documents, the 1830 revelation to Emma Smith, codified as Doctrine and Covenants 25, and her self- written 1844 blessing, of which the quoted passage is only a part, in many ways are companion pieces, each better understood in relation to the other. The enduring influence of the 1830 revelation to Emma is evident in the 1844 blessing, which carries strong echoes of the Lord's words to her fourteen years earlier. The later blessing illuminates not only the importance and reality of the 1830 revelation in Emma's life but also the timeless and universal quality of its content.

Doctrine and Covenants 25 has long been read primarily as a revelation commissioning a hymnbook for the newly organized Church. In recent years more attention has been given to the revelation's injunction to Emma "to expound doctrine and exhort the church" and to define Emma's role as an "elect lady." Less examined have been its points of universal application and its correlation with the 1844 blessing, which this paper will address.

This sacred, personal communication embodies elements of a long tradition of women's personal theophanies. Dating back to the eleventh century, their spiritual autobiographies record these sacred moments. Some of them recount striking religious awakenings or a newly quickened sense of God's overarching love emerging from a variety of spiritual manifestations. These include visions of light in which God's presence is unmistakably felt and spiritual doubts are resolved. Some recount long periods of spiritual struggle and study leading to "a divine change" and a discernment "of the fullness of God" and his divine power in all things. One woman, after living a life of pleasure and luxury, felt her heart unaccountably pierced "by a sudden and immense love of God" which drew her away from her former life and set her on a path of total religious devotion manifest by her service to the sick. An eighteenth-century American woman, Sarah Pierrepont, left no account of a miraculous vision or sudden revelation, but she wrote of occasions when the Spirit seemed to engulf her and she basked in "a glow of divine love" which came from "the heart of Christ into [her] heart in a constant stream, or pencil of light."

Similar experiences, recorded by early Latter-day Saint women in their diaries and journals, also fall within this tradition, the pattern of spiritual enlightenment often the same. For instance, after weeks of fervent prayer to be led to the truth, Elizabeth Ann Whitney felt herself, one night, enveloped in the midst of a cloud from which a voice spoke, saying: "Prepare to receive the word of the Lord, for it is coming." Shortly thereafter Parley P. Pratt brought her the gospel message and she was baptized, becoming one of the earliest and most faithful members of the Church. In a light that illuminated her mind while receiving a healing blessing, Jane Snyder Richards "saw as plainly as if a book was opened before me with it written in it, my need of baptism, if Christ who was sinless needed to be baptized should I hold myself as better than He." Eliza R. Snow, on the night following her baptism, as she later recorded, felt an "indescribable, tangible sensation" that filled her with an "inexpressible happiness" as she saw in a vision a brilliant light from a candle blazing over her feet at the foot of her bed, which signified, she learned in the vision, that "the lamp of intelligence shall be lighted over your path." And Mary Gibbs Bigelow, another early convert, sick and bedridden, thinking she was soon to die, received a vision in which the Savior promised her peace, health, and life long enough to complete the work she was still to do. Such heavenly manifestations moved their recipients to conversion or confirmation of their faith and to lives of service and devotion to Christ. Emma's revelation similarly confirmed her acceptance by God and showed her the way to service in his kingdom.

But the 1830 revelation for Emma was different from these personal communications from the heavens. Preceding the introduction of patriarchal blessings in the Church by three years, its form and content were very much their prototype. It was received through an intermediary, it declared to Emma that she was one of the elect, or of the Abrahamic covenant and lineage, and its promises and foretellings were conditional on her faith and obedience. Why, then, we might ask, was this individual spiritual guide included in a book of scripture for all Latter-day Saints?

The answer might possibly lie in its distinctiveness from the patriarchal blessings it prefigured. First, Emma was the prophet's wife, and any blessing given to her was therefore distinctive. More specifically, like the other revelations that make up the Doctrine and Covenants, the revelation to Emma came directly from God through his prophet, not through a patriarch, bishop, or other ecclesiastical leader. Moreover, unlike personal revelations, patriarchal blessings, or even some of the other personally directed revelations in the Doctrine and Covenants, it concludes with these significant words, which Joseph Smith repeated years later to the Relief Society in reference to the revelation: "And this is my word unto all." Thus, in significant ways, it transcends the merely personal, fitting the parameters of scripture and thereby acquiring permanence, authority, and universality. While its specifics are addressed to Emma, its principles are applicable to all.

And what was God's message to Emma and, by implication, to the Church? The revelation's sixteen verses address four essential aspects of Emma's life: her actions and desires, her relationship to her prophet-husband, her responsibilities to the Church, and her relationship with the Lord. In his consistent pattern of promise for performance, the Lord tells Emma in the revelation precisely what he expects of her as a Latter-day Saint and in return promises her aid in fulfilling those expectations. Though verses 4 and 10 appear to be mild rebukes, they could also be read as appeals for trust and faith in his divine will: "Murmur not because of the things which thou hast not seen, for they are withheld from thee and from the world, which is wisdom in me in a time to come" the Lord tells Emma in Doctrine and Covenants 25:4. He may have been referring only to Emma's regret at not having seen the gold plates, though she had held them, protected them, and acted as scribe in their translation, but he may also have been alluding to the tumultuous experiences Emma had endured since her marriage to Joseph three years earlier. The attempts by gold-seekers to wrest the plates from Joseph, the harassment during their translation, the mobs who interfered with Emma's baptism, the unwarranted arrest of Joseph the same night, as well as the alienation of her parents, the loss of home and roots, and the death of her first child, all gave Emma a harsh introduction to the life of a prophet's wife. An early lesson from these experiences was that only patience and trust in God's wisdom and often inscrutable purposes would sustain her through the difficult times. Then in verse 10 the Lord counsels Emma, in what certainly must be one of the most oft- repeated commands in Christian literature, to "lay aside the things of this world and seek for the things of a better," surely a call to keep perspective on the uncertainties her life offered. But her compliance to these two admonitions would not go unaided. "Lift up thy heart and rejoice," he encourages her in verse 13, "and cleave unto the covenants which thou hast made." Only a month earlier, Emma had entered into the covenant of baptism, which promised her that if she would "serve [the Lord] and keep his commandments," he would in turn "pour out his Spirit more abundantly upon [her]" (Mosiah 18:10). Furthermore, before another month passed, at her long- delayed confirmation she would receive the gift of the Holy Ghost, an additional source of solace and guidance.

At the time of the revelation Emma had just turned twenty-six and Joseph was not yet twenty-five. They were relatively inexperienced and unsophisticated young people who had been given momentous responsibilities. A supportive and trusting relationship would be crucial to the fulfillment of their respective callings. Its reciprocal nature is explained in verses 5 and 9 of the revelation. Emma was counseled to comfort and console her prophet-husband in his times of affliction and to continue to assist him when needed in his ecclesiastical duties as scribe (v. 5). In turn, she was promised Joseph's support with the Church, presumably to enable her to fulfill the mission to which the Lord had called her (v. 9). The import of this counsel became clear as circumstances challenged Joseph and Emma's efforts to fulfill their obligations to each other. While Joseph's support gave legitimacy and significance to Emma's assignments in the Church, her support of Joseph eased the burden of his calling. But the merging of their marital and ecclesiastical relationships often created an emotional kaleidoscope alternating joy with sorrow, peace with anxiety, trust with suspicion, and unity with doubt. For equilibrium, the Lord urged Emma to maintain her spirit of meekness and let her soul "delight in [her] husband, and the glory which [would] come upon him" (v. 14). To enjoy these blessings, he warned, she must "beware of pride" (v. 14).

The binding force of that counsel united Joseph and Emma in a supportive and truly complementary relationship for most of their seventeen years together. Joseph's letters to her express affection and confidence. Though few of Emma's letters to Joseph remain, the anxiety and urgency evident in her published letters to Illinois Governor Thomas Carlin, pleading against Joseph's extradition to Missouri, along with her boldness in daring to interfere with the processes of law, certainly testify of her willingness to be more than a comfort and consolation. One can only wonder why the strength of their union was not sufficient for Emma to accept plural marriage, a principle accepted in faith by so many other devoted couples. Perhaps, for Emma, it was because of that unity, the oneness that had so characterized their relationship, that she was unable to open it to others. Could Emma's reluctance to share her prophet- husband be a manifestation of the pride she had been warned against? Did her faith falter only in this final test when the sacrifice claimed too much of her own identity? The answers remain elusive.

But the revelation called for Emma to do more than support and assist Joseph. There were specific tasks for her to perform that would benefit the Church, in preparation for which her time was to be given "to writing, and to learning much" (v. 8). One assignment was "to make a selection of sacred hymns" (v. 11). By this mandate the Lord sanctioned music as an appropriate form of religious worship. Hymn texts have long been a medium to express religious thought and emotion, and the birth of Mormonism evoked a wide range of both, from the millennialist fervor of the poems of Parley P. Pratt and the doctrinal assertions of Eliza R. Snow to the joyous affirmations of W. W. Phelps. Now these and other poetic testimonies would become part of LDS worship.

It took two years for Emma to complete the hymn selection, and another three passed before the hymns were printed in a single volume. From July 1830 to April 1832, when the selection process was completed and W. W. Phelps was instructed to correct and publish the hymns, Emma worked despite a growing antagonism toward the Church in Kirtland and a series of personal tragedies. Through them all, she persisted in fulfilling this assignment of the Lord. Her mother-in-law observed that during this time "her whole heart was in the work of the Lord and she felt no interest except for the church and the cause of truth."

Finally, in June 1832, The Evening and the Morning Star began printing Emma's selection of hymn texts described as "Hymns, selected and prepared for the Church of Christ, in the last days." The destruction of Phelps's press in 1833 suspended the printing of hymns and other Church publications. Until then, thirty-eight hymn texts had appeared in either the Star or its successor, the Latter Day Saints' Messenger and Advocate. But in 1835 the Church council instructed Phelps to continue his work with Emma, and early in 1836, the first LDS hymnal finally came off the press, entitled A Collection of Hymns for the Church of the Latter Day Saints. The 127-page hymnal contained ninety hymns, approximately forty of them written by LDS authors, primarily Phelps himself. Emma's preface drew on the words of the 1830 revelation, affirming that "the song of the righteous" was "a prayer unto God" and suggesting that the hymnal was only a beginning effort "till more are composed or we are blessed with a copious variety of the songs of Zion."

A second, more problematic, commission of the Lord to Emma in the revelation was "to expound scriptures, and to exhort the Church, according as it shall be given thee by my Spirit" (v. 7). With only a few exceptions, no religious denominations at that time gave public platforms in mixed congregations to women. Tradition and contemporary ideals of feminine propriety were powerful agents in defining a woman's appropriate public behavior, and preaching in public was not a feminine occupation in the nineteenth century. These social strictures, however, did not affect the small, informal Church meetings, characteristic of LDS worship from its beginnings. In Nauvoo, women regularly addressed the mixed Church gatherings in one another's home for a Sunday or weeknight prayer, blessing, or cottage meeting. Along with the men, they bore testimony, expounded doctrine, and read scriptures to the assembled members. They prophesied, spoke in tongues, and blessed one another. Emma often accompanied Joseph to such meetings. Few could have been more conversant with Mormon doctrine than Emma Smith or had more incentive to expound its truths.

The patriarchal blessings of other women during this period admonished them, also, to instruct one another, mentor the young in gospel principles, and "encourage and strengthen" others in the faith. One so blessed was Phebe Woodruff before she left on a mission to England with her husband, Wilford. Brigham Young promised her that she would be "looked up to as A mother in Israel for council and for Instruction." He granted her "power & wisdom to teach the truth to thy friends and thy se[x]," and guaranteed that she would "not be at a loss for Ideas & words in [her] teaching."

The organization of the Relief Society in 1842 provided Emma Smith with the public setting most conducive to the fulfillment of her assignment. At its initial meeting, Joseph Smith proposed that the sisters should "elect a president to preside over them." After Elizabeth Ann Whitney nominated Emma, she was elected by the nineteen other women present. Joseph then read the 1830 revelation, explaining that at the time it had been given, Emma had been "ordained to expound the scriptures to all and to teach the female part of the community." Though she met with the Society only from March to October in 1842, when it adjourned for the winter months, and again for just four meetings in March 1844, Emma was clearly its head and moving spirit.

She took her calling to exhort the sisters seriously and immediately set about instructing them to purify their own lives and help in creating a virtuous community. She urged them to extend their compassionate service to all distressed Saints and to draw around them protective bands of unity. The Relief Society was to save souls as well as relieve the poor, Joseph counseled, and Emma advised the sisters in this important obligation. "Each member should be ambitious to do good," she urged, "deal frankly with each other, watch over the morals, and be very careful of the character and reputation of the members of the Institution etc." To this end, Emma zealously acceded to Joseph's charge to assist in "correcting the morals and strengthening the virtues of the community" and "to reform persons . . . and by kindness sanctify and cleanse [them] from all unrighteousness." Ferreting out iniquity was a delicate task, but Emma, with the help of her counselors, endeavored to fulfill Joseph's charge. Like that of hundreds of female moral reform associations throughout the country, all bent on exposing evil, one of the Relief Society's aims was to cleanse the Church of any wrongdoing. Noting their reluctance to be moral caretakers, Emma lamented that "the sisters are not careful enough to expose iniquity; the time had been when charity had covered a multitude of sins," she said, "but now it is necessary that sin should be exposed." Her commitment to "uphold virtue" and "put down transgression" dominated the final meetings of the Relief Society in March 1844 in which she used her authority as president to denounce the false doctrine of "spiritual wifery," a counterfeit of the revealed doctrine of plural marriage, and warn the sisters to guard against it and "any other improper practice."

In contrast to the controversial nature of the Relief Society's moral purity campaign was Emma's equally emphatic desire that the sisters clothe themselves in Christian service. "Seek out and relieve the distressed," she urged, and she counseled them to give help and material aid to one another, invoking the Spirit by blessing one another when needed for healing, for comfort, for childbirth, and for spiritual support and guidance. If the sisters needed a model of selfless service Emma could provide it. In this benevolent charge, Emma's actions far outweighed her words. From the Kirtland days, when she and Elizabeth Ann Whitney prepared a "love feast" for the poor, Emma, so often a beneficiary of the compassion of friends, was the first to extend it to others. Her compassion and hospitality in Nauvoo were legendary. Her home was often a sanctuary for the homeless, the orphan, the sick. Lucy Walker and her siblings were only a few of the dozens of individuals who came under her protective care. Virtually orphaned at their mother's death, because their father was abroad on a mission, the Walker children were offered a home with the Prophet and Emma. "Our own father and mother could scarcely have done more," Lucy noted when her younger sister died. "The Prophet and his wife introduced us as their sons and daughters. Every privilege was accorded us in the home. Every pleasure within reach was ours."

Emma's counselors were also exemplars to the sisters. Elizabeth Ann Whitney, then a stranger to Emma, opened her home to Emma and Joseph when they arrived in Kirtland, almost destitute, and Sarah Cleveland, also a stranger at the time, gave Emma and her children refuge in Quincy when she fled from the Missouri persecutions, leaving her husband still imprisoned in Liberty Jail. It is little wonder that Emma turned to these women for her closest associates and advisers in the new organization.

Another persistent theme in Emma's exhortations to the Relief Society was her appeal for unity. "Measures to promote union in this society must be carefully attended to," she urged the members at the outset. As the membership dramatically increased, Emma was even more urgent in her plea for unity. "We shall have sufficient difficulty from abroad," she presciently warned in August 1842, "without stirring up strife among ourselves and hardness and evil feelings, one towards another etc." This call to "circle the wagons," she was saying, was to guard themselves more against an encroaching disloyalty to Joseph and disunion within the Church than against threats from the outside.

Finally, how did the 1830 revelation define Emma's relationship with the Lord? Was it unique, or can principles be extrapolated to all believers? The first three verses of the revelation set forth the primary elements of that relationship. First, the Lord claims Emma as a daughter because of her "willingness to accept the gospel, " a condition applicable to all who desire to be sons and daughters of God. Second, he covenants with her, promising her eternal blessings in return for obedience and faith, another universal principle. Finally, he forgives Emma her sins, personally validating the efficacy of her recent baptism, and receives her into the circle of the "elect," who are those, he explains elsewhere, who "hear my voice and harden not their hearts" (D&C 29:7).

Emma, like others of the elect, had proven her faithfulness even before mortality and through the "covenant of grace" was permitted to enter this life at a time and place that would bring her into contact with the gospel. But being of the elect also carried responsibilities, foreordained missions that varied with each individual, according to God's purposes. A passage in Joseph Smith's private journal for 17 March 1842 affirms that definition: "Elect meant to be Elected to a certain work," a broad definition of the term. The Prophet then noted that Emma fulfilled this part of the 1830 revelation when she was elected president of the Relief Society, the specific work to which she had been "previously ordained." In the Relief Society minutes of that date, however, he seemed to narrow the meaning, indicating that "elect lady" specifically meant "elected to preside," a term presumably applicable to any woman who presided. Certainly that was how the term was applied in later years. In that same meeting, John Taylor confirmed Emma's earlier blessing from Joseph, also declaring her to be "a mother in Israel" who was "to look to the wants of the needy, and be a pattern of virtue." In referring to the 1830 revelation, he said he "rejoiced to see this Institution organized according to the law of Heaven . . . according to the revelation" previously given to Emma "appointing her to this important calling." His words suggest that the organization of the Relief Society facilitated the fulfillment of Emma's call as an elect lady.

The final element that defined Emma's relationship with the Lord is the fifteenth verse of the revelation. "Keep my commandments continually," he told her, "and a crown of righteousness thou shalt receive. And except thou do this," he cautioned, "where I am you cannot come" (D&C 25:15). In that passage Emma was taught a fundamental principle of the gospel, that God's blessings are obtained only by obedience to the laws upon which they are predicated (see also D&C 130:20-21). This principle underlies every command and blessing the Lord expressed to Emma in the revelation, which was as complete and certain a personal guide to Emma Smith, the Latter-day Saint, as it was a special calling to Emma Smith, the wife of the Prophet.

Despite the years between them, the 1844 blessing reads, on several points, like a reprise of the 1830 revelation. It repeats, expands, and develops several of the themes introduced in the earlier document, reflecting the seasoning of fourteen years. Perhaps more than her words and actions in those final mercurial years before the Prophet's death, the 1844 blessing is the best index to Emma's mind and spirit at that time and the enduring effect of the 1830 revelation upon her.

Besides her "deepest desire to act in unison with Joseph and retain her place by his side," a remarkable statement in view of the events of the preceding months, Emma made several other self-revelatory requests of the Lord in that 1844 blessing. She expressed a "craving for wisdom" that she would not do or say anything she would regret; she desired the Spirit of God and a fruitful mind that she would be able "to comprehend the designs of God, when revealed through his servants without doubting;" she sought wisdom to rear her children to be "useful ornaments in the Kingdom of God;" and prudence to care for her body that she would live to perform "all the work that [she] covenanted to perform in the spirit world;" and, finally, she asked for "humility . . . that she might rejoice in the blessings which God has in store for all who are willing to be obedient to his requirements."

Were these the words of a prophet's wife hoping only to retain her place with him, or could they have been a penitent's recovenant with God? Perhaps they were both. As a glimpse into the heart of Emma Smith on the eve of her husband's death, this final blessing, I believe, expresses an intense desire to reconnect with the 1830 revelation that gave her a blueprint for her life. If the words of the blessing can be taken as a measure of her soul at that moment, they testify of Emma's longing to feel the approbation of the Lord and spiritual union once again with Joseph.

Though documenting the spiritual journey of just one woman, the 1830 revelation and its companion blessing can well serve as spiritual markers for all who seek to be in tune with the Lord and in harmony with the Church. "This is my voice unto all," the Lord said at the close of the revelation to Emma. Perhaps we should read it as God's voice to all.

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