What Emma Smith’s death says about her love for the gospel and for Joseph, according to one Church historian

by | May 28, 2021

It’s been tricky for Jennifer Reeder, Women’s History Specialist in the Church History Department, to research the life of Emma Smith. The wife of the Prophet Joseph Smith didn’t keep a journal that we know of and didn’t leave many personal writings. But as Reeder studied the life of Emma for the book First: The Life and Faith of Emma Smith, she was able to put many of the puzzle pieces together.

In a new episode of the Latter-day Saint Women podcast, Reeder discussed some of her findings about Emma’s life with hosts Karlie Guymon and Shalyn Back. The episode covers how Emma was a woman of strength and character who was essential to the Restoration of the gospel.

Even as a young girl, Emma was a person of faith. Listeners may be surprised to learn that similar to Joseph, Emma had an experience praying in a grove when she was only 7 or 8 years old. And although she did not see the Father or Jesus Christ in that moment, it may have made her more open to believing Joseph’s experience, Reeder explained.

The historian also shared how Emma and Joseph complemented each other in their marriage. Reeder described how Emma’s education gave Joseph confidence in learning about scripture; she taught him how to pronounce “Sariah” and affirmed that there were walls around Jerusalem when the question arose for him. Emma also handled business matters when Joseph was out of town and they talked through things and worked together.

But plural marriage is one aspect of Emma’s life that was difficult both for her and for people today to understand. In fact, it’s something Reeder herself even struggled with, and there weren’t many contemporary records for her to refer to in her research.

“Joseph was told that this practice needed to be confidential or secret or sacred, and people that did write about it would write about it in code, so it's kind of hard to put those pieces together. But I do know this, that Emma was an integral part to Joseph's thought processes and developments of ideas and his sparks of revelation. And I really believe that this came from an understanding of the Abrahamic Covenant and the House of Israel. . . . I think that that trouble arose when there was a lot of gossip going on. Because it was supposedly kept confidential, pieces would come out here and there as it would anywhere in any town, in any ward or congregation,” Reeder said.

But there are several facts that lead Reeder to believe Joseph and Emma worked through their struggles, including the fact that Emma was pregnant before Joseph died. Additionally, when he left for Carthage, she asked her husband for a blessing. Although he didn’t have time to give her one, Joseph told her to write down a blessing and said he would sign it. Reeder recounts part of that blessing, where among other things Emma wrote, “I desire with all my heart to honor and respect my husband ever to live in his confidence by acting in unison with him.”

► You may also like: The opposition that made Joseph and Emma Smith’s marriage special

When asked how Emma was able to keep moving on with her life when she faced so many difficult challenges, Reeder said she has always been struck by photographs of Emma in her later years. In those photos Emma has a droopy eye, and Reeder believes it’s “indicative of the troubles she’s been through.” There’s even a story, Reeder said, of one of Emma’s granddaughters asking why Emma smiled with her face but not her eyes. And yet despite her trials, Emma held on.

“I think the thing, though, that kept her going were her covenants. I really do. I love looking at Section 25, which was revelation [given] from the Lord to Emma pretty quickly after her baptism and before her confirmation. There was a period of great persecution, and so they weren't able to confirm her immediately after her baptism. But in that revelation, the Lord refers to her baptism and says that . . . [she is His] daughter. And He calls her by name, and He says that [she] will have part of [His] inheritance. And at the end of the section He says [she] will have a crown of righteousness as long as [she lays] aside the things of the world and [cleaves] unto [her] covenants,” Reeder said.

After Section 25 of the Doctrine and Covenants was received, Emma received a patriarchal blessing from Joseph Smith Sr. which included more promises building upon that revelation. Emma’s death also showed what was in store for her in the next life, Reeder explained.

“A few days before she died, a nurse recorded a dream that [Emma] had. In the dream, Joseph came for her and took her to a beautiful mansion. Inside the mansion was a nursery, and there was a cradle with an infant in the cradle, and it was her son Don Carlos, who had died in 1841 in Nauvoo at the age of 14 months. And she was so excited.

“She picked up her baby. And she held him and she said, ‘Joseph, what about the others?’ And he said, ‘You'll have every single one of them.’ And then she turned and behind her, she saw the Savior Jesus Christ, which I think is so beautiful,” Reeder said.

The year was 1879, and it had been decades since the Saints went west with Brigham Young, but this moment speaks volumes about her dedication to the gospel and her love for her husband, Reeder continued.

“I believe this dream shows her redemption, that she has in fact cleaved to her covenants, and that she has in fact been true to Joseph and to her children and to her understanding of who God is. The last words that she uttered before she died were, ‘Joseph, Joseph, Joseph.’ And I think that that insinuates that he had come for her and that they continued to share this beautiful relationship, despite its troubles and its feelings of betrayal or misunderstanding or lack of communication. That they forgave each other and that they loved each other so much.”

Listen to the full episode on the Latter-day Saint Women podcast.

Featured image: Deseret Book

Image titleFrom acting as a scribe for the translation of the Book of Mormon to founding the Relief Society, Emma Hale Smith was a key figure in the Restoration. She was also her husband's anchor and the love of his life. But how much do we really know about her role, teachings, and leadership? Drawing upon letters written by Emma to Joseph and to many others, along with minutes from Relief Society meetings and other artifacts, First: The Life and Faith of Emma Smith sketches a more complete portrait of this elect lady. It allows each of us to become personally acquainted with Emma as we learn more about her essential work as a leader, a wife, and a mother in the early days of the Church.

Danielle christensen

Danielle Christensen

Danielle is a features writer and editor for LDS Living. Previously, she served as web producer for Church News, where she managed its website and social media platforms. Danielle is a graduate of Brigham Young University in English and has been published with Deseret News, Church News, BYU Magazine, and Spires Intercollegiate Arts and Literary Magazine. Follow her on Twitter with the handle @danielleechris.

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