In 2 Nephi 2, we read, “For it must needs be, that there is an opposition in all things.”
When it comes to relationships, having opposite personality traits can sometimes be a point of conflict or stress. But historian Jennifer Reeder, author of the new biography, First: The Life and Faith of Emma Smith, said that the opposite qualities and characteristics possessed by Emma Smith and her husband, the Prophet Joseph, made them complementary to one another. Reeder says that in her study of Emma’s life, you consistently see the couple pushing, pulling, and stretching in their relationship with one another. And yet, the final words on Emma’s lips before she passed, nearly 35 years after her husband’s assassination, were “Joseph, Joseph, Joseph.”
Read more from Reeder about what made the Smiths a complementary couple in the excerpt below or in a full transcript from the episode here. You can also listen to this episode of All In in the player below or by clicking here.
Morgan Jones: 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: 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 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 complementary 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. 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: 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: Oh, my gosh, Morgan, I hadn't thought about it that way. You are brilliant. I love it.
Morgan Jones: No, I’m not.
Jenny Reeder: Yeah, you are. Because you know what that makes me think of…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 [as] a deterrent in their relationship, but really a complementary 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. 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 . . . 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 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.
Drawing upon letters written by Emma to Joseph and to many others, along with minutes from Relief Society meetings and other artifacts, this book 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. First: The Life and Faith of Emma Smith is available now at Deseret Book stores and on deseretbook.com.