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What I didn’t know: An open letter to Emma Smith

Image courtesy of the Church History Museum

Author’s Note: This letter is in large part the result of pondering First: The Life and Faith of Emma Smith, Jennifer Reeder’s new biography of Emma Smith. Sources mentioned in the letter are attached where appropriate, and I'm grateful to Reeder for guiding me to nearly all of the them. An additional thanks to this week’s Don’t Miss This video for introducing me to the text of the blessing Emma wrote for Joseph to sign prior to learning of his passing at Carthage.

Dear Emma,

I’ll be honest, I’m not sure how the connection between heaven and earth works, but I’m hoping that somehow you can read this letter. As you probably know, this week in Come, Follow Me, we’ve been studying Doctrine and Covenants 25, which I am sure you recognize as the revelation given to you through your husband. Between my personal study, helpful Come, Follow Me resources, and reading Jennifer Reeder’s new biography about your life, I have found myself thinking a lot about you. 

I’ve learned things this week I never knew about your life, and I know I’m not the only one. As my coworker put it after her own study, “I feel like I know Emma so well, but I learned so much I didn’t know. And I realized maybe I don't know her at all.” 

There is a song that was written about you, maybe you’ve heard it, that asks, “How much can one heart take?” And this week as I’ve studied, I’ve asked myself that question over and over again. Of course, we know you were Joseph’s first love. We also know that as your life together went on, the more you realized that he was not exclusively yours—not only did he belong to the Church, but the Lord instructed him to practice plural marriage—something that no longer has a part in our faith. 

We know that you struggled to accept that plural marriage was in any way divinely directed, and as a result, experienced a great deal of anger and feelings of betrayal. This is something I have known most of my life–but what I didn’t know?  How much you fought those feelings of resentment and how much you wanted to understand. I didn’t know how much you took the fall, often blaming these feelings—feelings most of us would feel—on your own shortcomings and weaknesses. 

In First, Reeder’s biography about you, she recounts the fact that you told Maria Jane Johnston, a young woman working and boarding at the Mansion House, “The principle of plural marriage is right, but I am like other women, I am naturally jealous hearted.”1 According to the statement from Johnston, you also admitted the need to be humble and repent. 

Prior to this week, I knew you asked for a blessing right before Joseph left for Carthage and that he told you to write down the blessing you would like to receive, with the understanding that he would sign it when he returned. But I didn’t know that you actually did it; you wrote down the blessing you wanted to receive—a blessing Joseph never got the chance to sign. This blessing made me feel like I know you more than I have in the past because it displays your character so beautifully. You wrote, “I desire the spirit of God to know and understand myself that I might be able to overcome whatever tradition or nature that would not tend to my exaltation in the eternal worlds. I desire a fruitful, active mind, that I may be able to comprehend the designs of God, when revealed through His servants without doubting.”2 

To me, an internal battle is evident in your words—a battle between your desire to rise above your hurt while also feeling heartbroken that seems to have continued your entire life. As Reeder writes, “It is not easy to ascertain Emma’s reactions, because they changed over time and there are no contemporary sources in her own words.” And while it seems clear that you were aware of Joseph’s participation in the practice of polygamy, you never acknowledged that participation publicly. Though you denied it many times, one month before your death, the son of Thomas Marsh visited Nauvoo and asked if Joseph had been a polygamist, Reeder writes that you “broke down and wept,” excusing yourself from answering the question.3 

Toward the end of your life, Joseph T. Buckingham, the editor of the Boston Courier, commented that you had “a countenance of sadness,” while your granddaughter commented that you had sad eyes and “deep sorrow” in your heart.4

And yet, my mind returns to what you wanted in that final blessing you requested of Joseph, “I desire with all my heart to honor and respect my husband as my head, to ever live in his confidence and by acting in unison with him to retain the place which God has given me by his side.” 

We have all heard the statement where you said that Joseph Smith “could neither write nor dictate a coherent and well-worded letter, let alone dictate a book like the Book of Mormon.” But I think few of us realize that was a part of your final testimony—given long after Joseph had passed and you had chosen not to go west with the Saints. And yet, in that final interview, you still said that as an active participant in the Restoration, what transpired was still “marvelous” to you. You reaffirmed once more you had “not the slightest doubt” of the divine authenticity of the Book of Mormon. You stood by your testimony of the Restoration to the very end.5

Reeder dedicated her book to you with the following words: “To Emma, for being a part of my heavenly host, as I have been part of her earthly host.” Over 140 years have passed since you passed away, and I’m hoping that maybe this is the year we recognize that you are a hero we all could be a little bit more like. Maybe this is the year, as we’re all studying the Doctrine and Covenants, that you get the credit you deserve. Regardless, I hope that, along with Reeder, you will count me among that earthly host as well.  

Again, I’m not sure how the connection between heaven and earth works. But if you’re reading this, I hope you know that there are a good number of us down here who would like to be more like you, and a lot of people who are so grateful for every sacrifice you made, for your example, your dedication, and your character which caused you to seek self-improvement so many times when it would’ve been easier to blame your circumstance on external factors. 

In the end of that final interview, you were asked an interesting question: Did you and Joseph quarrel? Your reply is telling, not only of your marriage but of the way you thought the world perceived your role in the Restoration. You said, “There was no necessity for any quarreling. He knew that I wished for nothing but what was right; and, as he wished for nothing else, we did not disagree. He usually gave some heed to what I had to say. It was quite a grievous thing to many that I had any influence with him.” 

And I wonder if you wondered what we would think today. Would we also consider your influence grievous? 

Emma, your fingerprints are all over this Church. They are seen in the Relief Society, the organization for which you were the first president, which is now the largest organization of women in the entire world. They are seen in the hymns of the Church, which the Tabernacle Choir—one of the most famous choirs in the world—has performed across the globe. Your fingerprints are seen as women exhort and teach, something that remains uncommon in many religions and in many parts of the world.  

We are proud of who we are and proud that you came before us. There is nothing grievous to us about your influence on your husband or your influence on the Church. Instead, we thank you for paving a path that at times was without a doubt treacherous, scary, lonely, and confusing. 

Emma, we don’t know how you did it, but I think I speak for millions worldwide when I say, we are so glad you did. 

With love,


This article was originally published by LDS Living in March 2021.

  1. Maria Jane Johnston Woodward, statement, Joseph F. Smith, Correspondence CHL
  2. Emma Smith, blessing, 1844, CHL. The full blessing is included in First.
  3. Lorenzo Snow to Francis M. Lyman, 10 Aug. 1901. Correspondence to the First Presidency, v. 36, CHL.
  4. J. T. Buckingham, Boston Courier (Jul. and Aug. 1847); See Gracie N. Jones, "My Great-Great-Grandmother, Emma Hale Smith," Ensign, Aug. 1992.
  5. "Last Testimony of Sister Emma," Saint's Herald, Vol. 26, No 19 p. 289. 1 October 1879.

First: The Life and Faith of Emma Smith

From 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, 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.

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