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