Sunday Evenings with the Doctrine and Covenants. Section 132. Part 9: Emma’s Dilemma.

This is part 9 of a series of posts on Doctrine and Covenants Section 132, Joseph Smith’s July 12, 1843 revelation on marriage. See Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Part 6, Part 7, Part 8. The next part in the series is here (part 10).

The next portion of the revelation is explicitly directed to Emma Smith. It commands Emma to join in and receive the doctrine of polygamy, a terrible test for her. Verse 51 has been a puzzling statement since 1843 and there is no definitive information about its meaning.

51 Verily, I say unto you: A commandment I give unto mine handmaid, Emma Smith, your wife, whom I have given unto you, that she stay herself and partake not of that which I commanded you to offer unto her; for I did it, saith the Lord, to prove you all, as I did Abraham, and that I might require an offering at your hand, by covenant and sacrifice.

I see this as reflecting the resolution noted by Clayton, where deeds to various items in Nauvoo were put in her name (see part 1). Joseph may have offered her a divorce with financial guarantees but the revelation negates whatever vs. 51 refers to.[1] Another possibility was the choice of another partner—a kind of polyamory—even “revenge sex” if you will (and see vs. 54). It has even been suggested that this passage refers to suicide as an out. I think that unlikely. Since the offer is styled as an Abrahamic test, I see the securitized divorce as a real possibility. The following verse completes the rescinding of whatever the offer may have been: Emma is to receive Joseph’s other wives, at least the ones who are virtuous. However, verses 54-55 acknowledge the possibility that Emma will take the money and run. The logic here works against “destroyed” as “death” and destroyed was clearly interpreted as excommunication in later administrations (see note 4 in part 8 for example). Verse 55 suggests that if Emma rejects the polygamy program, she yet lives on, but without the benefit of the blessings of sealing.

52 And let mine handmaid, Emma Smith, receive all those that have been given unto my servant Joseph, and who are virtuous and pure before me; and those who are not pure, and have said they were pure, shall be destroyed, saith the Lord God.

53 For I am the Lord thy God, and ye shall obey my voice; and I give unto my servant Joseph that he shall be made ruler over many things; for he hath been faithful over a few things, and from henceforth I will strengthen him.

Verse 53 echoes the uncanonized words offered during Joseph’s visit to Benjamin Johnson’s home in Ramus, Ill. on April 2, 1843. During the visit, he slept with one of Johnson’s sisters, who was a plural wife. He told Johnson he would preach the next day and only Johnson would understand the meaning. The sermon topic: the parable of the talents. (See Joseph Smith Diary, April 2 1843.)

54 And I command mine handmaid, Emma Smith, to abide and cleave unto my servant Joseph, and to none else. But if she will not abide this commandment she shall be destroyed, saith the Lord; for I am the Lord thy God, and will destroy her if she abide not in my law.

The threat of destruction looms. The verse is a curious one, based on the various speculations about vs. 51. While vs. 55 implies that destroyed does not mean death, the deaths of Vinson Knight and Robert Thompson, as Joseph sees them, point to a death penalty as a part of polygamy. What Emma saw in this is not known with certainty but after Joseph’s death, she carefully denied knowledge of the revelation or Joseph’s involvement in polygamy, even when her trusted friend William Marks acknowledged Joseph’s participation. William Law repeated this story:

Well, I told you that she [Emma] used to complain to me about Joseph’s escapades whenever she met me on the street. She spoke repeatedly about that pretended revelation. She said once: “The revelation says I must submit or be destroyed. Well, I guess I have to submit.” On another day she said: “Joe and I have settled our troubles on the basis of equal rights.”[William Law Interview][2]

The next verse may reference the settlement Joseph and Emma announced to Clayton the day after the revelation.

55 But if she will not abide this commandment, then shall my servant Joseph do all things for her, even as he hath said; and I will bless him and multiply him and give unto him an hundred-fold in this world, of fathers and mothers, brothers and sisters, houses and lands, wives and children, and crowns of eternal lives in the eternal worlds.

56 And again, verily I say, let mine handmaid forgive my servant Joseph his trespasses; and then shall she be forgiven her trespasses, wherein she has trespassed against me; and I, the Lord thy God, will bless her, and multiply her, and make her heart to rejoice.

57 And again, I say, let not my servant Joseph put his property out of his hands, lest an enemy come and destroy him; for Satan seeketh to destroy; for I am the Lord thy God, and he is my servant; and behold, and lo, I am with him, as I was with Abraham, thy father, even unto his exaltation and glory.

Verse 57 may allude to the property exchange Joseph ordered Clayton to make, but if so, it is unclear what the instruction here was to accomplish. How the disposition of property would ease the way for an “enemy” is not evident from the text but perhaps property implied some security for possible legal action, and the expenses attached to that. There were other property issues in Nauvoo as well.[3]

Somehow the intent of the text seems a bit jumbled, almost like bits of revelation glued together, either during the three hour dictation, or from memories. Perhaps it was more clear to the principals. In any case, once again I think the unpolished nature of the text echoes other revelation texts prior to their editing for publication. Strong evidence for this aside from the revelation itself is the Manuscript Revelation Books Facsimile Edition of the Joseph Smith Papers. (Initial volume in the Revelations and Translations series. If you decide to purchase any of the JSP volumes, the value of that book great.) Other evidence is presented later.

One last thought about text structure. The nature of the revelation suggests that its present form results from the fusion of several texts/issues that developed over time.

Next time: the justified Joseph, espousing virgins, and, sex.

[1] The day following the revelation, Clayton had an interview with Joseph and Emma:

This A.M. J. sent for me. & when I arrived he called me up into his private room with E[mma]. and there stated an agreement they had mutually entered into they both stated their feelings on many subjects & wept considerable O may the Lord soften her heart that she may be willing to keep and abide by his Holy Law

[2] On William and Emma, see Lyndon Cook, “William Law, Nauvoo Dissenter.” Law’s interview appears in The Salt Lake Tribune, (July 31, 1887). See also Bushman, Rough Stone Rolling Chap. 29.

Emma’s reputation in Utah suffered over her reluctance to embrace plurality. For example, William Thompson left (ca. 1854) a statement about a visit to the Mansion during lunch on July 9, 1843:

I had some business with him; he and his family was eating dinner, Sister Emma, Mother Smith & Young Joseph was present & some others that I did not know. Brother Joseph and Emma was talking about the Mornings Sermon. Emma said that he had made some statements that the Brethren & Sisters thought aplied to her that was not very complimentary she said she wanted him to apologise or explain in the afternoon after some talk backwards & forwards Between Joseph Emma & others at the Table, Bro Joseph Looked at me where I was sitting In the south part of the house he said Looking at me at the same time pointing his finger at Emma & said that there woman was the greatest Enimy I ever had in my Life. yes said he again that there woman was the greatest Enemy I ever had in all my Life & my Bro Hyrum was always my best friend

Extant notes for the morning sermon of July 9 don’t seem to touch on Emma in any obvious way but it’s possible that on the ground Nauvoo context saw it differently. It is more likely that Thompson was in error about the date. On July 16, Joseph preaches to the effect of enemies in his household. Williard Richards assigned the remark to Parley Pratt and/or stake president William Marks.

[3] It was the threat of such expense and the allied threat of jail time over monetary issues that caused Joseph Smith and Sidney Rigdon to flee Kirtland in 1838. On financial issues in Kirtland, and the Grandison Newel threat, see Mark Lyman Staker, Hearken, O Ye People (Draper, UT, 2010).


  1. I don’t always have a lot to add, but am thoroughly enjoying the series.

  2. J. Stapley says:

    ….and I will bless him and multiply him and give unto him an hundred-fold in this world, of fathers and mothers, brothers and sisters….

    I’ve wondered if this is a riff on Mark 3:31-35. Orson Hyde clearly uses them in his explication of his diagram, and I’ve though this is maybe where he picked it up. It would be an interesting expansion if so.

  3. Thanks, Julia. J., interesting thought. The idea that sealing is transitive makes the idea of “relatives” complex.

  4. This is very interesting. I was not aware of the use of “destroyed” to mean anything other than basically “going to hell.” Knowing there was some basis for literal “death” to be feared (why I didn’t make that connection, I can’t say; there’s plenty of evidence both modern and early church), and also for financial security is helpful, although it definitely doesn’t warm me to polygamy at all, particularly the strong-arming Emma suffered.

  5. Not wise to hide your property in consecration! Polygamy was definitely tricky all around in Nauvoo. Just as hard in Utah, but different dynamics.

  6. Clark Goble says:

    J. Stapley, didn’t some early Mormons use the parable of the talents to explain polygamy? Admittedly a disturbing use of that parable given that it really does move towards women as property even if the people wouldn’t have said they meant it that way.

  7. RockiesGma says:

    I think “destroy” means just what the Lord said. If He meant kinder, gentler meanings He would have used those words. Do it, or be destroyed. But it pretty much destroyed my ancestors lives anyway, though they gave it all they had. It’s a destructive lifestyle unless you have certain personality characteristics not common or desirable to most women. It’s painful, full of sorrow, and a bunch of other hurts. So I think “destroy” is pretty much the correct word and meaning either way a woman goes. It benefits men, but has almost no redeeming value or worth to a woman in time or eternity.

  8. J. Stapley says:

    Yep, JS himself…in fact WVS hits on that in this post. And agreed quite problematic. The Levirate wife was perhaps the greatest NT locus of discussion.

  9. Clark Goble says:

    Whoops. Yeah it is in this post. Sorry – read way too many posts last night trying to catch up and I couldn’t remember who said what where. LOL.

  10. In your analysis of verse 51, where Emma is commanded to “stay herself and partake not of that which I commanded you to offer unto her,” I was hoping to read a little more elaborate description of your explanation 1. You know, about the theory that this offering may have included William Law, as a husband to Emma Smith, as compensation for Joseph’s plural wives.

    I do not know of the reliability of the documents, but supposedly William Law wrote a letter in which he explains the following:

    “Joseph offered to furnish his wife, Emma, with a substitute for him, by way of compensation for his neglect of her, on condition that she would forever stop her opposition to polygamy and permit him to enjoy his young wives in peace and keep some of them in her [mansion] house and to be well treated, etc.”

    Apparently, William Law opposed, or Joseph changed his mind, which explains the resulting verse commanding Emma to abstain herself.

    This theory may not be the strongest, but I think there is at least some documentation that could perhaps be linked to the issue.

  11. Manuel V, I think I more or less covered the possibility of this kind of compensation, but I think, as you say, the evidence is weaker than other alternatives.

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