Jennifer Reeder: Emma Smith—Giving All That Is Required
A thread of complexity is woven throughout the life of Emma Smith. Her love for her husband, the Prophet Joseph Smith, was enduring despite her struggles to understand his participation in polygamy. Her family was the most important thing to her, yet she suffered familial losses over and over again. She gave her all for the gospel of Jesus Christ but chose not to go west with the Saints. Many have asked, “Did Emma fall short?" This week, we talk with Jennifer Reeder, the author of the new biography, “First: The Life and Faith of Emma Smith," about why the answer to that question is no—Emma gave all that was asked of her.
The very thing that tears you to pieces is often the thing that means the most to you.
Jenny's book about Emma Smith.
See Jenny's instagram post when she first started the project here.
The Nauvoo Relief Society Minutes that Jenny worked on: Nauvoo Relief Society Minute Book
Morgan's article about Emma Smith: "What I didn't know: An open letter to Emma Smith"
3:47- “I Think She Is Speaking to Me”
11:33- A Life of Loss and Starting Over
17:13- Did Emma Fall Short?
19:45- “Joseph, Joseph, Joseph”
21:54- Complementary Partners
37:04- Emma’s Family’s Concerns
41:41- Stories of Ongoing Restoration
46:57- What Does It Mean To Be All In the Gospel of Jesus Christ?
Morgan Jones 0:00
I have heard stories of Emma Smith my entire life, but it wasn't until reading Jennifer Reeder’s new book, First: The Life and Faith of Emma Smith, that Emma became a real person to me. And not just a person, but a trusted friend. Someone who, like me, had a lot of feelings and sometimes felt very conflicted. But as I have read this book, I have come to love her and to appreciate her in a way I never did before.
I think this paragraph from the book best sums up what we have to learn from Emma. Reeder writes, "Emma's life was not a smooth trajectory of progress. It was one step forward, two steps backward, then a little to the left. I know what that is like, I am very familiar with that pattern of progression. That makes me love Emma even more deeply. She was complicated and had real struggles like I do. She feared for the health and safety of her children, her husband and herself. She walked across frozen rivers and trod deep in mud as she figured out how to hold it all together. She expanded her definitions of home, family, and relief, something that I too am learning to do with my own situations. At times she was measured and diplomatic, but when pressed, she could become outwardly defensive–even a bit feisty. I believe that she and Joseph talked through a lot of things, not only in their marital relationship, but in understanding his visions and revelations. I like to say that Heavenly Father and Jesus Christ did not give Joseph a handbook binder in the Sacred Grove during the First Vision. Joseph, along with Emma and many others, had to figure out what it meant to restore the Church. Together, they learned how to create Zion, often because they experienced malaria and mud, business failure and loss of property. Ideas, relationships, culture and practices evolved. They did the best they could with what they had in their weeds and thistles of mortality," end quote.
Isn't that true of all of us? We are all just doing the best we can with our weeds and thistles of mortality. It is for this reason that I think we have a lot to learn from Emma and her husband, the Prophet Joseph Smith.
Jennifer, or as you'll hear me call her throughout our interview, Jenny Reeder is a 19th century women's history specialist in the Church history department. She has a PhD in American history from George Mason University and a master's degree in history, documentary editing and archival management from New York University. She co-edited two books, At the Pulpit: 185 Years of Discourses by Latter-day Saint Women with Kate Holbrook and The Witness of Women: Firsthand Experiences and Testimonies from the Restoration with Janice Johnson.
This is All In, an LDS Living podcast where we ask the question, what does it really mean to be all in the Gospel of Jesus Christ? I'm Morgan Jones. And I am so honored to have Jenny Reeder on the line with me today, Jenny, welcome.
Jenny Reeder 3:12
Hi, I'm so excited to be with you today, Morgan.
Morgan Jones 3:15
Well, Jenny, people should know that are listening, that Jenny Reeder is one of my favorite humans on the face of the planet. This is–if you have not met Jenny, this is what you need to know–that after you meet her one time, you could pass her on the corner in Salt Lake and she will say "Love you!" And that is Jenny Reeder.
Jenny Reeder 3:37
It's true. I do love you, Morgan. And I love a lot of people that I meet.
Morgan Jones 3:43
Well, I love you as well. And so I'm so excited about this. I want to start out–this podcast has been in my mind a long time coming because 61 weeks ago–I went back and looked on Instagram–61 weeks ago, you posted a picture of your desk on Instagram. And all your caption said was, "My views today, period Emma Smith, period so many ideas." And I replied, and I said, "Wait, I want to know what this is all about." And you replied back and said, "Deseret Book asked me to write a book about Emma. I think she is speaking to me." And ever since then I have wanted to know what you meant by that. So first of all, tell me how this book came about, and did you really feel like Emma was speaking to you?
Jenny Reeder 4:30
You know what–I did. And I was thinking about this this morning and it came about in a really interesting way that I don't think I've talked about anywhere else. So this is premiering on the All In podcast.
Morgan Jones 4:42
We're getting the down-low.
Jenny Reeder 4:45
That's right, I've saved it for you Morgan. So as a historian, I was introduced to Latter-day Saint women's history with the Nauvoo Relief Society minutes.
Morgan Jones 4:56
Jenny Reeder 4:56
And I loved it. I felt like their words were whispering to me. I loved it. I knew a little bit about Emma Smith, I knew that she had not enjoyed the principle of polygamy, and that she had used, sort of the Relief Society, to speak against it. And that kind of bothered me. And I knew that she was in a tight place. And it kind of soured me a little bit to Emma, which is really interesting. And then when I was working on the book At the Pulpit with Kate Holbrook, we knew we had to include Emma, if we were doing 185, discourses of Latter-day Saint women, we had to include Emma, of course, the Elect Lady.
But the only speeches that we could find given by her were little snippets here and there from the Nauvoo Relief Society minutes. And everywhere I read, the Nauvoo Relief Society minutes and Emma, I felt like I could hear her undertone of speaking against polygamy. And it kind of ruined it for me, to be honest. And then one day we were meeting with President Linda Burton of the Relief Society, and talking about the book, and she just said, "You know, Emma Smith was the elect lady." And all of a sudden I felt like all the power of Sister Burton's presidency, and all the power of Emma Smith's presidency. And I realized my perspective completely changed, and I began to see Emma as not a human being expressing her feelings of betrayal or distrust, or anger, but she was a woman called of God. And I wanted to learn more about her. I realized that she did have real feelings and she did have real struggles, just like all of us do. But all of a sudden, I saw her in a completely different light. And I wanted to know more.
Morgan Jones 6:57
So how did you then start writing this book? Deseret Book asked you to do it?
Jenny Reeder 7:03
Yes, they did. Deseret Book asked me to do it, and I jumped at the chance. And as I thought about Emma, I thought about how so many people have so many different perceptions of her, or ideas of her. We know that she didn't come west with Brigham Young. We know that she had a hard time with polygamy. We know that she was the first president of the Relief Society. And we know that she did the first hymnbook. And we know that section 25 is about her. But there's so much more to her.
And as I was reading about her and sort of feeling after her, I realized that I wanted to write a book, and I wanted to write it, not chronologically, but topically. So I chose sort of 10 topics about her life. Her early life with her family, her marriage to Joseph including polygamy, her children, Emma and the scriptures, we know she was a significant part in transcribing and protecting the scriptures, and several others. And I just found Emma to be so embedded in the Restoration. I realized that Joseph could not have been the prophet of the Restoration without Emma, that she was actually an integral part of the Restoration. And it blew my mind because I didn't think I had known that before, how much she was involved in all of it.
Morgan Jones 8:23
Amazing. So I want to–really quickly before we get too far into this–I want to talk a minute about you. So in the book dedication, you write "To Emma, for being a part of my heavenly host, as I have been a part of her earthly host." What prompted you, Jenny, to write that? And while you're telling us this, I would love–I know that this book actually became kind of personal for you. So anything you feel comfortable sharing about that, I'd love to hear.
Jenny Reeder 8:55
Absolutely. So I've had my fair share of health struggles in the past 11 years–gosh, I can't believe it's been that long. I was diagnosed with leukemia in 2010. And I just . . . there were many nights I spent alone in the hospital, and they were long nights. And I thought of my grandfather, who had had a similar experience when he was a young man. But I also started thinking about the women that I was working–this is when I was in graduate school and I was writing a dissertation. And I thought about those women and I suddenly felt like they were near me and they were cheering for me and they were comforting me and they were with me.
And the more that I learned about Emma, the more that she became a part of that heavenly host that was with me. And it wasn't just that first bout with leukemia, I had it three or four times and had a couple of bone marrow transplants. So I did spend quite a lot of time in the hospital, but I felt like I was . . . my life was being preserved for a certain purpose, and part of that is this book. And it's been a privilege to be a part of that. And there have been times where I would have questions where I didn't understand something. I personally really struggled with the polygamy part, I'll be honest, it's really hard for me to understand that for my 21st century perspective,
Morgan Jones 10:21
Jenny Reeder 10:21
And so I really, I really wanted to see it from her perspective. And she didn't leave a journal, she didn't leave a lot of her life, sketch, or reminiscences. She didn't do any of that. And so I really had to sort of pick through whatever I could find. I tried to use as many primary sources as possible. But there were times when I would just ask her, as if she were sitting next to me. And I would say, "How do you want me to write this? I want to write this in the right way. I want to write this in a way that's fair to you, and that's fair to the people that you love. And I want to do it right."
And every once in a while, I would wake up in the middle of the night and have a little idea or a little frame . . . shift of perspective, a frame shift, and realize it felt like she was sort of guiding me, or I would find a little nugget in the letter that she wrote to her son years after Joseph, her husband, passed away. And I felt that like, I just felt like I was being guided. And I felt like at the same time, she was doing that for me, because she wanted her story to be told correctly.
Morgan Jones 11:32
I think it's so . . . you did such a good job in this book. First of all, for those that have not had a chance to read any of it yet, I think it is so meticulously sourced that the people reading feel complete confidence in what they're reading, which I think is important when you're talking about somebody who is as complex a character as Emma. But I also think that you do such a good job of giving us a sense of–despite the fact that you acknowledge that it was hard to write about her and to get a sense for where she's at on stuff, because sometimes she's up and sometimes she's down. And I think we get that, but also, that's something that all of us can relate to.
Sometimes we're up and sometimes we're down. And sometimes we understand something, and sometimes we don't. And so I love, there's a quote in the book where you say "Emma's life was not a smooth trajectory of progress. It was one step forward, two steps back, then a little to the left." And then you said, "I know what that is like. I'm very familiar with that pattern of progression that makes me love Emma even more deeply. She was complicated and had real struggles like I do. She feared for the health and safety of her children, her husband and herself."
And so I think one thing that I really appreciated was that you see kind of this internal battle within Emma, wanting so hard to be supportive and to be what Joseph needed her to be, but also really struggling with some things. So, would you agree with that, first of all, and secondly, what do you think we learn about Emma or about ourselves from observing that?
Jenny Reeder 13:17
I 100% agree with that. I think that, for example, in Section 25 that was given to Emma in 1830, she's told a couple of things, she's given a couple of specific assignments. And one of those assignments is to select hymns for the hymn book. And this is something that a woman has never done before. Well–let me take that back, I'm not 100% sure, but it's not a popular thing for women to do. It's usually a man who edits hymn books.
And so she starts collecting hymns, she comes from a rich Methodist background, and she loves to sing. But she also recognizes that members of the Church, of the early Church, all come from different religious backgrounds. And so she starts collecting hymns from Methodists and Baptists and Congregationalists, and all kinds of different backgrounds. And she starts sending them to William W. Phelps who's in Independence, she's in Kirtland at the time, and he's the one with the press, and he's the one that's going to publish the book.
And he publishes some of them in the newspaper The Evening and the Morning Star. But then we know that in 1833, in July, a mob attacked his printing establishment and destroyed his press and destroyed all of the work that he had done. And Emma had to start all over again–she lost everything. And that happens all the time in her life. The handbook wasn't printed actually until 1836. That's six years after she was given that instruction. But then she did another one in 1841, and she's trying to do another one in 1843, but that's just one example.
She was also the first scribe for Joseph as he translated the Book of Mormon. And she was with him in those early days when he was still trying to figure out this whole gift of translation. And then she was pregnant and had a really tough pregnancy. And Martin Harris came, he was like a gift, a magical gift, that came and could take some of that burden off of Emma. And he worked with Joseph for several months, and then he left, and he took with him–after several days of persuasion–he took with him what we call today, the 116 pages of the manuscript. And the day after he left, Emma had her baby, and the baby only lived an hour or so and Emma was very close to death herself.
She struggled for two weeks, and Joseph was by her side. But when she finally came to, she realized. . . she was able to realize, and she asked Joseph, "Where's the manuscript?" And he said, "I don't know, I've been with you this whole time." And she said, "You need to go find it. My mom will take care of me, you go find it." So she sent Joseph to Palmyra to find Martin Harris and discover that he had lost the manuscript and he was devastated.
And first of all, he was devastated that he had let down God and this gift of revelation that he had been given. But then secondly, he said, "What am I going to tell Emma?" Emma was the one who has started this off, Emma was the one who helped them ease into the gift of translation and figure it out, and so that's another loss for Emma as well.
So it really is one step forward and two steps backward. And I think that's just so real. That's just so mortal. It's just so . . . what we all experience, whether it's with kids or with work, or with school, whatever it is, we all experienced that. And I think it helps us to know that Emma was not a perfect person, that she was real too, and that her struggles finally worked out. And that ours can too, as we continue and persevere.
Morgan Jones 17:14
Yeah, I want to ask you, Jenny, just because you just said that, like you said her struggles, did work out. And I think that that's something that there are, like you said, people that are critical of Emma for not going west with the Saints, people that think that in the end, it didn't work out, and that maybe she fell short in some way. How would you respond–after having worked on this book and spent this time with Emma–how would you respond to those people?
Jenny Reeder 17:46
You know, as I mentioned earlier, at first, I was one of those skeptics. I really was like, "Oh . . . things would have been so different if Emma had come and the Relief Society has continued and . . ." all of that stuff. But I think that I learned so much about her, and I think a lot of it comes from actually section 25. In that section, the Lord tells her in the first couple of verses that He is her father, she's His daughter, and that she will receive an inheritance, if she continues in the path of virtue–those are in the first couple of verses.
And then later, he tells her at the end that she will receive a crown of righteousness, and if she is obedient, she can come where He is. So I found this amazing account of the end of Emma's life. And it comes from a couple of different sources, one of it is from her son, Joseph, the third. One of it is from . . . one account is from another man who was close to her and knew her well.
But she had a dream a few days before she died, and she dreamed that Joseph came to her and took her to a beautiful mansion. And in the mansion was a nursery. And in the nursery was one of her sons that had died at the age of 14 months, Don Carlos in Nauvoo, and she was so excited. She picked up her son and she turned to Joseph and she said, "What about the rest of them?"–she lost several children, and he said, "Emma, you will have them all." And then she turned around and she saw the Savior, she saw Jesus Christ.
And to me that is indication that she did live her life and walked in the path of virtue. That she did receive an inheritance and that crown of righteousness that was promised to her. And then right before she died, the last words that she said, were "Joseph, Joseph, Joseph" and her daughter Julia was with her and thought that she wanted her son, Joseph the third. But they realized soon that she was talking about her husband, Joseph, and that he had come for her.
I think that's really interesting, and it's really tender and beautiful. Also, because she did have a really hard time with Brigham Young. And they had a tense relationship, I would say. Both of them were highly committed, deeply committed to Joseph Smith. Both of them loved him. Brigham Young was very concerned as the president of the Quorum of the Twelve, after he died, to preserve the Church. Emma, as the wife and mother of Joseph and his children, was very concerned about preserving his family. And sometimes those intentions were at odds.
But it's interesting when Brigham died in 1877, about a year and a half before Emma did, his last words, were also, "Joseph, Joseph, Joseph." And I think that's a beautiful testimony to people who were committed to the Prophet, and who . . . who loved him and wanted his efforts to succeed, and had different paths and understanding how they could succeed. Brigham with the Church and Emma with their family and with their children. So I think it's . . . I think it's indication that she really, truly lived up to the teachings that the Lord had taught her and that he encouraged her to do.
I don't think it means that she was perfect, by any means. Thank goodness, because I'm not either. But I think it means that she really did put her whole heart into it and make an incredible effort. And that was all that was required of her.
Morgan Jones 21:46
Which is such a beautiful thought, right? That that's all that's required of us, is our best effort. I love . . . you talk about how Emma talked through a lot of ideas with Joseph and Joseph talked through a lot of his ideas with Emma. And you mentioned to me beforehand that you think that he talked to her about all kinds of things. So what suggests that, and what should that teach us about the role of a spouse?
Jenny Reeder 22:18
I love their relationship, and I actually think it's a really progressive relationship. I think that Joseph was a very visionary man, and he understood the . . . he understood things that people of his time may not have understood. He saw his companion as his companion, not just the woman who bakes beautiful meals, and could host dignitaries and diplomats at the drop of a hat, or who could ride with him in the Nauvoo Legion–I love that she had excellent horse-riding skills that she learned from her brothers as a child, and she was a great partner for Joseph for that.
But I think that they talked through things. I know that at one point, when her sons interviewed her at the end of her life, she told them that she gave Joseph many suggestions. And she said, "He usually gave heed to what I suggested,” so I love that. They had a very complimentary relationship. When she really struggled with polygamy, they would often take some time, the two of them and go ride their horses out into the country or spend time together so that they could talk and get on the same page. And we know that from Joseph's journal, his clerk would keep his journal and write about his daily activities and Emma was a huge part of that. When Emma was sick, or when Emma was concerned, Joseph would sit down and talk to her and would take care of her, just as she did for him, and that was a really beautiful relationship.
I know when they first moved to Commerce, which later became Nauvoo, Illinois, that a lot of people got sick because it was such swampy land, and they probably got malaria from the mosquitoes. But as Joseph went around, caring for the Saints, Emma did the same. They worked together to do that. And she was always by his side. She attended events with him, and she made him look good, I think.
Morgan Jones 24:25
Well, I think, you know, I wrote that piece last week after I read your book. And one thing that struck me was when she's talking and she says the thing about, "It was grievous to a lot of people that she had any influence over him." And that, to me, I was like, oh, what would it be like to be her and feel like people look down on her and thought that he shouldn't listen to her, and I think that would be so battle, you know?
Jenny Reeder 25:02
Yeah, I think it was. And even going back to Section 25, one of the verses–in one of the verses, the Lord tells Emma that her husband's first duty was to the Church, and that the Church would support them, and he would support . . . Okay, these are the exact words, "he would support her in the Church." And I think that's really significant.
Also because I think we can read that another way, and read it that he would support her in her Church responsibilities. Of course, she later becomes the general Relief Society President–The Relief Society President. I love the term that they use, the “Presidentess” of the Relief Society, and this is a new thing. Joseph said that the Church wasn't fully organized until that Relief Society was organized. And he really saw the women's organization as a companion to the priesthood.
I think it's interesting too, because in the early days, Emma was often Joseph's only sounding post, his only ear, and pretty soon, Martin Harris comes and Oliver Cowdery comes and others come and sort of take that place. But I don't think Emma ever lost her ability to have a conversation with Joseph. And I sometimes wonder if she saw him giving revelations to all of these men in the months and years leading up to her own revelation. And she asked him for a revelation, and he gave it to her. So they had later in Nauvoo, as Joseph developed his ideas of priesthood, and I'm sure that Emma was a part of that discussion at home, that he began to see the priesthood and the temple as restoring the covenants of Abraham, the House of Israel.
And he saw Emma as an integral part, just as Abraham and Sarah worked together, he realized that he and Emma needed to work together. And I think . . . I love that we see these power couples all over in the scriptures. There's Adam and Eve, and I see a lot of the same things that Joseph and Emma went through, as Adam and Eve. And how powerful and important Eve was to Adam, I see the same thing in Emma and Joseph, and same with Abraham and Sarah. And I feel like that's the priesthood and the temple priesthood, the patriarchal priesthood that he saw and understood, and he realized that the only way that that could happen was with Emma, and with the women. That the priesthood wasn't complete without the women.
Morgan Jones 27:36
I love that you brought up the Abrahamic Covenant, because I . . . honestly Jenny, have never heard a clearer description of the motivation behind or the thought behind polygamy better than I had in First. I think you did such a good job of outlining kind of just where it was all coming from. And I know that this is something that you studied a lot. You mentioned that you struggled to understand polygamy, but then I think it's interesting that you said, you know, that it bothered you that in those Nauvoo Relief Society minutes that you could feel like an undertone from Emma related to polygamy, which is interesting only because I think that's a struggle, an internal struggle, even for you, hundreds of years later. So, what do you wish people better understood about polygamy, or what are the biggest things that you feel like you learned as you kind of dug into this?
Jenny Reeder 28:41
I'm glad you brought that up, Morgan, because that was one of–I think that was probably the hardest part for me, was to understand polygamy and understand how it all fit together. I don't know, by this point, I had become very sensitive to Emma. And I could see why she would feel betrayed or lose trust, particularly with the polygamous relationships that she wasn't aware of. And they included some of her dear friends and her Relief Society sisters, and she didn't understand all of it.
And so I really did struggle to try to figure out what polygamy was all about and why it was so important. And I think one thing that's really important, I think, we as Latter-day Saints in the 21st century tend to look at polygamy as one big blob that we don't necessarily understand, but we know that happened. But I think we need to tease it out a little bit more and realize that Joseph's practice of polygamy was very different from Brigham Young's practice of polygamy. Joseph was very concerned–he was still also trying to figure this out. And I think that it was hard for him and we can read all about how it took him years to finally practice polygamy. And then an angel came with a sword and all of that, telling him he would lose everything if he didn't do it.
But the way that he went about it was very carefully and very thoughtfully and very confidentially. When he did invite a woman to practice plural marriage or to be sealed to him, he did so asking them to covenant to keep this confidential, or sacred, or quiet or secret, even. And that is so different than the way that Brigham Young practiced polygamy. In 1852, polygamy became very public in Utah Territory. And pretty soon the whole world knew about the Mormons practicing polygamy, as was seen in newspapers and federal anti-legislation against the practice. But it was different in Nauvoo.
And I think–I really think that Joseph and Emma were the same in the sense that they welcomed people into their home and into their family. Oftentimes, orphan children would be brought to their home and Emma would raise them as if they were her own, and they did become a part of their family. And there were women that she was close friends with Eliza R. Snow, who was never married. And Zina Young, who was married, but didn't have the most priesthood faithful husband.
And I think that Emma probably understood what Joseph was trying to do in expanding his family network and bringing these women into a priesthood family, a priesthood chain, and connecting them all into this grand House of Israel. I think she understood that, and I think she accepted it. But, when the gossip started, because it was confidential, and because it's really hard to keep anything confidential, there was a lot of gossip, and a lot of people took advantage of that.
We know the story of John C. Bennett from Saints, and other men who tried to manipulate women into having sexual relationships with them, using the name of Joseph. And also just the idea of the sex part of it, I think, was really disturbing to Emma, as it would be disturbing to anyone else. I think it's really interesting, though, that Joseph did not have children with any of his plural wives, and that Emma was indeed pregnant when Joseph died, so I think for me, the sex part of it was really the hardest part, especially the confidentiality and sneaking around and stuff like that, and I can see how that would completely tear Emma apart. But I also can see how it would tear Joseph apart because he knew it would tear Emma apart.
Morgan Jones 33:04
I think one thing that struck me as I read, and I love to . . . Jenny, mad props to you, because as I went through First, there were a couple times where I was like, okay, well, that's the part about polygamy. And then I would get to another chapter, and there would be more, and I was like, oh, so this is like a thread throughout. And I think it was. It was a big part of their lives together. It was a big part of Emma's life, and something that she was constantly grappling with, and it bled into her life with her children. It bled into her service as a Relief Society President and all of those things.
But I think one thing that struck me was that Emma was so important, like you said, so embedded in the Restoration of the gospel, and I think I looked at it and I was like, sure, she has a lot of weaknesses, but I think those weaknesses maybe were strengths in the eyes of the Lord. Like He knew that with those things that might be weaknesses come these wonderful strengths. And so what do we learn about that from Emma? And how can that maybe be encouraging to us? Because we also have strengths and weaknesses.
Jenny Reeder 34:26
Oh, my gosh, Morgan, I hadn't thought about it that way. You are brilliant. I love it.
Morgan Jones 34:31
No, I’m not.
Jenny Reeder 34:33
Yeah, you are. Because you know what that makes me think of, I mentioned sort of a connection between Adam and Eve and Joseph and Emma, and I think about what Lehi teaches us about Adam and Eve that there must needs to be opposition in all things. And what we learned about strengths and weaknesses in the book of Ether from Moroni, and I see that embodied in this relationship of Joseph and Emma.
I see the fact that she was better educated than he was–not a deterrent in their relationship, but really a complimentary ability to work together, and I think it's beautiful. I see that her deep devotion to her family is incredible. And that's actually what Joseph wanted, and what he taught her. As much as it–it's funny, the very thing that tears you to pieces is often the thing that means the most to you. And it's that Abrahamic sacrifice, where Abraham had to sacrifice this son that he had waited, like . . . I don't know, a lot of years to have. And I think it was the same with Emma.
And I think that happens time and time again, when Joseph is sent to Liberty jail, and they're separated, and you see that tension and that loss in their letters. Their correspondence is so beautiful. And it's one of the one things that we do have in Emma's writing and Joseph's writing, and we can see that push and pull in their relationship. But it's also the strength that she gives. She was also much more business minded than Joseph was, she ran a dairy in Harmony. And when Joseph was gone–he wasn't great with money in the first place–and he trusted everyone, which is awesome, and Emma had more of a discerning mind and a discerning ability to see that and to see that problems would arise and to kind of rein Joseph in a little bit, especially in Kirtland, and even in Nauvoo, as they worked through some tricky financial events.
But I love that opposition, because that pushing and pulling and stretching–I love the stretching that really makes it work.
Morgan Jones 37:03
Absolutely. I want to come back, you mentioned family and how important that was to Emma. And I was amazed as I went through the book, how many things I didn't know about Emma. And so there are things we've heard a lot about, like her losing multiple children. But even then, I had no idea, Jenny, how many children she lost. And I also didn't realize that one of her adult children ended up in a mental institution. I also had no idea that she never saw her parents again from 1830 on. And you could say like, oh, well, maybe she wasn't close to her parents–clearly, that was not the case. And she named multiple of her sons right after her brothers. And so to have that separation from her family of origin had to be so hard. And so what were some of the most surprising things to you, as you as you dug into her life?
Jenny Reeder 38:04
Yeah, she did love her family and her family was actually very close and very tight. And she learned so much from them. I mentioned she learned–her brothers taught her how to, how to ride horses and how to canoe in the Susquehanna River. Her mother taught her a little bit about herbal remedies, and about cooking and how to host people. And these are all skills that Emma learned later in her life.
And she loved her father. She loved her father so much. And she . . . as a young child, the family story goes that she was a child in a Methodist Sunday school and her father was not a believer. And they told them–they taught their children to go into the woods and pray out loud. And so she did, about at the age of about seven or eight, she went and prayed in the woods for her father that he would find Christ. And he was a hunter, and he happened to come upon her–sometimes when I hear that I think, oh, please don't go hunting in the woods when children are praying.
Morgan Jones 39:06
Jenny Reeder 39:10
Right? So he, but he overheard her prayer, and he immediately experienced this conversion and they were very close. He loved her. He loved her so much that he was concerned about her and her marriage to Joseph and this new religion that he hadn't, he was very slow to accept religion in the first place, but then he was very worried about where this new religion might take her. And he could tell that Joseph was not a good provider in the financial way. And so he was worried about that.
And so when Joseph and Emma left harmony in 1830, in the fall of 1830, she never saw her parents again. In fact, she didn't even write to them. And years later, in Nauvoo, her nephew, her sister, and her family had moved to Illinois not too far away. And her nephew came and gave her word that her father had died. And I think that just broke her heart. And she immediately sat down and wrote a letter to her mother. And it had been years. And she told her mother all about the children that she had and who had died and who had survived and who she adopted, and life in Nauvoo, and she wanted her mother to come so badly to Nauvoo. But her mother was too frail at that time. And she stayed in Harmony and passed away.
So her parents were both actually buried next to her oldest son, which I think is a really sweet and tender thing. But she–as soon as she learned about the doctrine of baptisms for the dead, she was baptized for her family. And I love that she made every effort to restore that family of origin. And then years later, many of her siblings did move into Illinois, the area, and she was able to connect with them again, that was really important to her. And I see that too, with her own children. And I wonder, I don't know, there's no source for this, but I wonder about the stories she told them of her childhood. They lived in Nauvoo, they lived next to the Mississippi River, just like she had grown up next to the Susquehanna River. And I wonder if she told them stories about growing up. Her sons were really interested in horse riding and loved that part of their mother.
Morgan Jones 41:41
Jenny, I wondered as I went through this, because obviously the focus of this book is on Emma, but Joseph is just as much in it. How has learning about Emma increased your testimony in Joseph Smith as the Prophet of the Restoration, and how is it increased your testimony of the reality of the Restoration of the gospel that it took place and continues to take place?
Jenny Reeder 42:09
I love that question. You have good questions, Morgan. I think that I learned that Joseph's role as prophet was really an ongoing process. That he was trying to figure it out as he went along. I often say that when Heavenly Father and Jesus Christ appeared to him in the Sacred Grove, that they didn't give him a handbook and a binder of how to run the Church, that he literally had to figure it out. And I think the fact that Emma was part of that, and that Emma influenced him, and that Emma strengthened him shows to me that he was a rough stone rolling, and that he did have to learn, and that we all do. That we all–I love how President Nelson's called this the continuous restoration, and that we all have a part in that.
It's not just a one-time event that happened in 1820, with the First Vision, or on April 6, 1830, with a formal organization of the Church, or even with the Kirtland temple, or the Nauvoo temple. We see this as a progression all along. And again, it's not always a straightforward progression. Sometimes it goes backwards a little bit. Sometimes things change a little bit.
But we see that in our Church today. We see the way things change. We have two hour Church now, instead of three hour Church, we have ministering instead of visiting, teaching and home teaching. And these are all things that show that the Lord is so aware of our times and our needs, currently, and in the moment. And I'm so grateful that we have that flexibility. Because I think we all need that flexibility. And it makes me so grateful to realize that Heavenly Father is aware of me and He's aware of my efforts and my attempts, however feeble they are, or however grand they are, both of the–all of those attempts are super important to the overall Restoration.
Morgan Jones 44:16
For sure, I love that so much, and I want to come back to something that you write in the book, you say, "Restoration is a recovery, even a resurrection. The spirit of restoration is not locked in one moment in time. It is a story of resilience and strength in the latter-days, and we all play a part of the Restoration." And then you say "This is the story of Emma." So Jenny, how is Emma Smith's story a story of restoration?
Jenny Reeder 44:51
That's a . . . I love this topic. I think Emma helps us to see beyond just the specific moments that we always talk about in Church history. I think she enables us to look at the whole person of Emma, and the whole story and the dark shadows and the bright lights. Because again, it's that opposition that makes everything work. It's the paradox that makes everything work. And I think that Emma's story is a story of restoration.
Because I think all of our stories are a story of restoration. I think we all experience mortality. And we're all sort of surprised by it when our bodies don't work perfectly, or when our relationships break up, or don't go the way that we want them to, or family members make different choices, or we make different choices, or we don't get into the graduate program we wanted to, or we don't get the job that we wanted to, and life just doesn't turn out the way that we had intended.
I think it was the same for Emma, and I see the way that she picks up those broken pieces and does the very best that she can with those broken pieces. Even though she lost so many children, she dearly loved the ones that she had, and she dearly loved the ones that she brought into her home. And I think that was probably an effort to make up for the ones that she lost. I think that was her effort out of restoration. And I think that gives us hope too, in the sense that we too, can pick up our pieces and put them back together or maybe put them back together in an entirely new way. Emma lived a life of loss. But she also lived a life of purpose and of beauty. And I think that is the perfect example of restoration, she did what she could with what she had.
Morgan Jones 46:56
So well said. Jenny, what would you say Emma Smith teaches us about what it means to be all in the Gospel of Jesus Christ?
Jenny Reeder 47:05
That's a really great question too, Morgan. I think part of it is that . . . that long haul, that you have to look at her whole life, not just the bits and pieces, not just the times where she was angry at Joseph, or when she was angry at Brigham, but the whole thing and the way that she raised her children and the way that she loved them, and the end of her life. Dante talks about in the Divine Comedy, about the importance of reading the whole story so that we know how it ends.
And I think it's the same with Emma. When we see the end of her life, we see that she was indeed "all in." That she was so committed. That she believed the scriptures. She said in an interview with her sons at the end of her life in February of 1879, that she was an active participant. That she believed her husband to be a prophet and that his work was divine. I love that she even says that it was marvelous to witness all of this, that it was a marvel and a wonder, which I think is also–going back to those early revelations that her husband gave to Joseph Smith Sr. and to Oliver Cowdery, and Hyrum Smith, that "A marvelous work and a wonder was about to come forth." She saw that at the end of her life, too. And she was all in. And things didn't turn out the way she wanted them to all the time–but she always believed. And I think that is the important story that we can learn from Emma to see all the way to the end.
Morgan Jones 48:43
Jenny along with that, what does it mean to you? And I would imagine that's a big part of it, but what does it mean to you to be all in the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
Jenny Reeder 48:54
To me, to be all in in the Gospel of Jesus Christ means to see it through. To realize that we're in the middle sometimes, or we're in the in-between sometimes, and it's hard to see the other side.
When I was struggling with cancer, and then I would get to a place where I was much better, I would tell my friends that were back in the struggle part, I would say, "It gets better, just hold on." And I've learned from that, that it does get better. That we are stuck in the middle, we're in between, but that if we hold on and see it through, and if we're all in, then we too can receive that crown of righteousness and that inheritance and that we can be in the presence of our Heavenly Father, just like Emma was.
Morgan Jones 49:46
Jenny, thank you so much. I am so appreciative to you for the work that you put into this book. Like I said, it's really taught me a lot and changed my perspective on some things and I just couldn't be more grateful and so thank you so much.
Jenny Reeder 50:01
Thank you, Morgan. It's one of my favorite things to talk about. So thank you for the opportunity.
Morgan Jones 50:08
We are so grateful to Jennifer Reeder for joining us on today's episode. You can find First on deseretbook.com now. A huge thank you, as always, to Derek Campbell of Mix at Six studios for his help with this episode, and thank you so much for listening. We'll be with you again next week.