Keepapitchinin, the Mormon History blog » Emma’s Family (Review)

Emma’s Family (Review)

By: Ardis E. Parshall - December 17, 2008

Ronald E. Romig, ed., Emma’s Family. Independence, Missouri: John Whitmer Books, 2008. (

When I was growing up – and heard again from an elderly Latter-day Saint as recently as six weeks ago – the prevailing LDS view of Emma Smith, widow of the Prophet, was that she was, if not quite a bad woman, at least unworthy of praise. She had, according to the popular condemnation, “left the Church, prevented Joseph’s children from growing up in the Church, and helped to start that other church.”

In the past few years books and booklets, fireside presentations, and most recently a movie, have gone to the other extreme, portraying Emma as a sentimental heroine, or a feminist dynamo whose virtues and leadership role in the Church rival that of the Prophet himself.

(Newell and Avery’s Mormon Enigma occupies a more rational middle ground, of course, and remains the best study of Emma in print.)

We’ve heard about Emma from just about everyone but Emma herself.

That changes this week with the publication of Emma’s Family, a compilation chiefly of letters to and from Emma Smith and members of her immediate family, after the Martyrdom.

This is a slim volume (119 p.), reproducing perhaps three dozen letters. This is primary source material, carefully transcribed and proofread to preserve the idiosyncrasies of spelling and punctuation – but unlike the vast majority of editors who take such scholarly care with their source documents, editor Ron Romig (archivist for the Community of Christ) adds not a single footnote with scholarly annotations. (He does occasionally insert a bracketed explanation of an antiquated word.) Often the letters beg for such editorial additions. Adopted daughter Julia Murdoch Smith writes from Galveston, Texas, in 1852, for example, asking her mother to “tell me all about the fuss at Sault Lake for I have never hurd about It,” but there is no editorial comment for non-Utah historians explaining that the “fuss” concerns the runaway Judge Brocchus and company. Emma’s letters written from Nauvoo frequently mention people and events there which are unfamiliar to me (are they familiar to those more grounded in Community of Christ history?)

On the other hand, the text is supplemented with brief biographies of the Smith and Bidamon family members, and heavily illustrated with portraits, sketches drawn by David H. Smith, photographs of buildings and documents, and even illustrations of mid-19th century household furnishings mentioned in the letters and taken from period catalogs.

Altogether, the lack of footnotes – often seen as intimidating by general readers, no matter how cherished they may be by geeky scholars – combined with the abundance of illustrations and a reader-friendly two-column page design, create an object that is likely to be seen as very approachable by non-specialists, the audience I think its editor had in mind. It is very easy to imagine tourists in Nauvoo or visitors to other Mormon sites casually picking up a copy of Emma’s Family, dipping into it here and there, now and then, and enjoying the intimate brush with a close-knit family without the formality and investment of effort that is required for heavier studies.

And what Emma do we see from her letters? Certainly not the sour, “bad” woman of past LDS stereotype, nor the 21st century liberated female of the most recent remodelings.

Instead, I see a living, warm, rounded woman who loved her second husband, Lewis Bidamon.

It was with feelings I cannot describe that I received a letter on the 29th of Dec. bearing the hand writing that I know so well … and the satisfaction I enjoyed in perusing that letter none ever knew, or ever will know, but the truly faithful heart, that has waited in anxious suspence as long as I had, but it was your handwriting, and I knew that you yet lived and remembered me.

I see a mother concerned about her children’s health and proud of the fine traits she saw in them.

I feel very much like objecting to your too close application to your pen. I do not want you to torture your brans too much now, for if you live to be as old as I am [and I believe you] will you will find plenty of use for them, and will want them in a good healthy and active State. So now take care of those brains and do not abuse them, for I think they are composed of better material than some others in this world.

I see a woman with a temper and a spine, yet governed by the rules of hospitality: Writing to Joseph III,

I must tell you about a certain advent we had here one week ago last Tuesday night in the shape of two females announcing themselves as coming from Plano direct from brother Josephs and the moment they said Plano I knew they were your two [vex]turals [vexatious women] you mentioned some time ago they did not throw themselves on the church exactly, but came down on us in the Mansion for a home. I gave them to understand the first evening that it was not convenient or even possible for me to give them imployment or a home … [they] stayed three days and of course I lived and let live and did not comit any very outbreaking sin, but if they had not left after being told to every day I believe I should have commited some [end of document]

I see a woman who guarded the records she felt Joseph Smith had left in her care, with a determination that contributed to her negative reputation in Utah.

I am very thankfull that you are getting along so well with the Manuscrips, and have truely faithful companions to help you. God bless them with the light of his spirit. It is true that not every L.D.S. could be trusted, to coppy them, and I did not trust many of them with the reading of them and I am of the opinion that if I had have trusted all that wished for that privaledge You would not have them in your possesion now.

I also see children who respected their mother and cared for each other. I see wisdom and temperance and honor in Joseph Smith III, replacing some of the prejudices toward “that pretender” that were standard when and where I grew up.

I would dearly love to read a scholarly edition of these letters, one that filled in the context for the Nauvoo people and places that I lack in my background. But until that edition comes along, I am enjoying, as I always enjoy, the personal, intimate view of writers of letters. And because the letter writers in this case are Emma and those who loved her best, I am enjoying getting to know her more directly, without the intervening stereotypes.



  1. Thanks for the review, Ardis; sounds like a great collection.

    I was blessed to be raised by a mother who taught me to love Emma, so I have been happy to see the adoration shift in my lifetime.

    Comment by Ben — December 17, 2008 @ 1:15 pm

  2. Thanks Ardis. I had no idea this was coming out.

    Comment by BruceC — December 17, 2008 @ 1:21 pm

  3. Thanks very much for this, Ardis.

    I remember very few direct statements about Emma, just sort of an undertone of disapprobation. Except for one day in a history class at BYU, where her name came up (don’t ask how–it was a class on the American Revolution), and one student almost erupted in condemning her. His explanation, after he had calmed down: he had been raised in the Reorganized Church, had then converted to LDS, and his memory was that she was venerated, worshipped almost, by the RLDS, just as certain other religionists venerate or worship Mary. So, his almost violent reaction wasn’t so much against Emma, but against what he saw as the RLDS treatment of her.

    As you say Ardis, a book like this, that allows us to see the human being behind the symbols, has got to help.

    Comment by Mark B. — December 17, 2008 @ 1:23 pm

  4. Ron has also, this year, released another title – edited in the same fashion as the Emma book – Martin Harris’s Kirtland.

    Check out the sample pages for both titles:

    Comment by Reed Russell — December 17, 2008 @ 2:20 pm

  5. So, Ardis, does the book reproduce facsimiles of the letters? Or is it just a transcription of the letters? Either way, it sounds very interesting. Thanks for the review.

    Comment by Hunter — December 17, 2008 @ 3:15 pm

  6. Hunter, they’re transcriptions, although a photograph of a single letter is used as an illustration. Everything possible has been done to make this material accessible to an interested non-specialist — well, except for modernizing the spelling and punctuation. Preserving the original spelling, which is easily comprehensible, adds that antique flavor that most of us love.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — December 17, 2008 @ 4:12 pm

  7. Thanks, Reed; that gives a very good feeling for the friendly page layout I was trying to describe. My edition is apparently different from that pictured, though — mine has no maps, and the photos of Emma appear on various pages rather than clustered on a single page.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — December 17, 2008 @ 4:18 pm

  8. Hmmm – strange. My copy is a 2007 second edition with the picture cluster of Emma on page 9.

    Comment by Reed Russell — December 17, 2008 @ 8:41 pm

  9. Thanks, Ardis. I just received my copy from Ron a few days ago, so have not had time to read it yet. The photograph of Lucy Mack Smith was quite a startler to me – looking much different from the standard Piercy engraving which we usually see in publications. The Community of Christ naturally has many texts and images which are not so familiar to those of us who were raised in the Utah Church. I think this book, designed for distribution at their visitor centers, should be a valuable addition and enlargement to our perspectives.

    Comment by Rick Grunder — December 17, 2008 @ 10:56 pm

  10. Thank you so much for sharing this! It’s good to hear about titles like this whose research is very respected.

    Comment by Michelle Glauser — December 18, 2008 @ 2:31 am

  11. Thank you for the book review and all the notes in the comments. The amazon page for Emma’s Family has a nice sample of selections from the book including several photographs.

    Comment by Researcher — December 18, 2008 @ 7:45 am

  12. Okay – that clears up the confusion.

    Ron has written two Emma books in the past two years:

    Emma’s Nauvoo and Emma’s Family.

    Sorry, Ardis – initially, I confused your review with the earlier book. The Whitmer Book site has yet to be updated with this new release.

    Comment by Reed Russell — December 18, 2008 @ 9:11 am

  13. John Whitmer is publishing some very interesting and handy items lately. This book appears to follow suite. I agree with your assessment of the footnotes, Ardis. A major slight to scholars, but probably less overwhelming for those not familiar with critical history.

    Comment by J. Stapley — December 18, 2008 @ 9:23 am

  14. Ha! Reed, I looked at the webpage you pointed to and noticed that my copy had a different cover design … and didn’t even notice the difference in title! Some researcher I am.

    So that makes at least three entries in this series. I like this one very much and think commenters will, too, if you accept it for what it is, while still hoping for an eventual edition of the letters with all the geeky footnotes we love.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — December 18, 2008 @ 9:54 am

  15. Hi guys, I missed this review earlier. Thanks, Ardis, for the very informative review. As you’ve realized in the comments, Ron’s edited two Emma books in addition to Martin Harris’s Kirtland. Part of the problem is that the cover of the second book Emma’s Family, ended up printing much closer in color to the first, Emma’s Nauvoo, than I originally thought it would. They’re too close and you don’t immediately see the different picture and title. We’re going to be releasing a new version of Emma’s Family that changes the cover color to either blue or green to make the difference more apparent.

    I love annotated books too. As a history nut, I love to lose myself in the footnotes and context. (And if someone is working on a manuscript like that, John Whitmer Books is interested in publishing it.) But as you’ve surmised here, the goal of this series is to get primary sources into the hands of non-scholars. The short lenght, the images and the look are designed to invite regular people — for example, tourists visiting Nauvoo — to take back a souvenir that connects them to actual history.

    That said, even though tourists and other non-specialists are a big target for the series, this is still good history and I’m glad that real buffs like you also find a lot to enjoy.

    Comment by John Hamer — March 2, 2009 @ 10:06 am

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