A Q&A with Jenny Reeder, author of First, the Emma Smith biography

EmmaJenny Reeder is an historian with the Church History Department of Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. She has a PhD in American history from George Mason University, and is the co-editor, co-author, and contributor to several important volumes, including, The Witness of Women, At the Pulpit, The First Fifty Yearsand Women and Mormonism: Historical and Contemporary PerspectivesDeseret Book recently released her biography, First: The Life and Faith of Emma SmithShe has graciously answered a few questions for us.

First is arranged topically, not chronologically. A number of well regarded biographies have taken this approach, though it is still fairly uncommon. Can you tell us why you chose this format?

My timeline for the book was quite short, and I knew I didn’t have time to do in-depth research and writing required for a complete, chronological biography of Emma’s life. Some of my favorite historical monographs have taken this approach as well, and I’ve always wanted to explore writing topically rather than chronologically. The topical approach allowed me to focus on certain roles and aspects of Emma’s life and explore her biography in chunks that seemed much more manageable to me. I also didn’t want the book to be a boring chronological biography: “then she had a baby who died,” then 50 pages later, “then she delivered twin babies who only lived a few hours.” Then 75 pages later, “then her 14-month-old infant son Don Carlos died.” I thought if I wrote about all of them at once, it would have a greater impact.

I also wanted to dive deeply into plural marriage as a topic. I knew it sort of showed up at several points in her life, and it felt like I could do a better job tackling it all at once. However, I realized that plural marriage didn’t just affect her relationship with Joseph—it spread throughout Relief Society and post-martyrdom and on. Once I could establish a strong yet real relationship with Joseph, I could better explain why plural marriage left Emma feeling betrayed and upset.

I imagine that the comparison of your work to that of Newell and Avery is inevitable. How do you see the spaces inhabited by First and Mormon Enigma? How have things changed in the last nearly forty years between the two projects? Have access to sources changed?

Newell and Avery created a landmark work with Mormon Enigma. It is an incredibly rich biography. Looking at Emma historiographically, I think their book has influenced all academic work on Emma. Mormon Enigma was also researched and written during the second wave of feminism, and this cultural scene certainly influenced the interpretation and analysis of Emma. I learned that their publisher thought their manuscript was too long, so they were told to cut half of their work, which is extremely unfortunate. I would love to read their uncut version. My hat goes off to Linda and Val.

So many things have changed since that book was written. The Church has become much more transparent about its history and has made numerous sources available, most particularly, the Joseph Smith Papers. Using JSP as rich primary source material made the biggest difference between First and other books written about Emma Smith. I owe a tremendous debt to the JSP historians, editors, and web team.

While I did in fact rely on chronologies and relationships and storylines from Mormon Enigma and other books, I focused on primary sources. I found errors here and there in other secondary publications, and to avoid that easy trap, I authenticated everything I wrote with primary or contemporary sources. I followed Val and Linda’s lead in going to Independence, Missouri, to do research at the Community of Christ archive.

Deseret Book is the publisher for accessing the broader Latter-day Saint market. Were there other considerations as you chose your publisher? Did you find any editorial pushback as you worked through the manuscript? What hurdles do you now see in retrospect that you caught you by surprise?

Deseret Book reached out to me and asked me to write this book, so I was beholden to them. I took their request seriously. As DB is, in fact, a devotional publishing house with a church-facing readership, I also reached out to the current general presidency of the Relief Society to hear their thoughts on such a book about Emma. Their responses surprised me: they wanted me to write freely and clearly about polygamy and what happened to Emma after Joseph’s death. I love that they recognize that so many women in the church and on the verge of leaving have legitimate questions, and I wanted to write a book not putting Emma on a pedestal but examining the complexities of her life. I wanted to make Emma real, and in a sense, relieving readers of the binary views of Emma as either the perfect wife of Joseph or the woman who left the church. I was serious and honest and open about her complications.

After submitting the first draft to DB, my project manager came back and asked me to include more of Emma’s own words, like her journal. I explained to them that there weren’t many sources using Emma’s words, and there certainly was no journal. Can you even imagine how cool that would have been? It was really important to me to be as authentic and accurate as possible. I mined every single surviving letter between Emma and Joseph, Emma and her adult children, Emma and Illinois governor Thomas Carlin, and even Emma and her second husband Lewis Bidamon. In so doing, I felt I better understood Emma.

DB keeps a strong hand over choosing the title and the cover, and in my case, they asked me to use chapter titles that reflected the “first” idea. I thought I’d push it a little bit with the chapter on Emma and her covenants and ordinances when I named the chapter, “First Priestess.” Emma was, after all, the first woman to be endowed with her temple ordinances. Not a word was said! I think DB is actually becoming a little more liberal these days.

Emma Smith seems to have been rehabilitated as a hero of the Restoration. Many readers may not remember the older reticence. Can you help situate Emma within Latter-day Saint culture? Does your book address and/or help change any popular narratives?

Emma’s relationship with Brigham Young was tense at best. The fact that she stayed in Nauvoo did not help the narrative created by Brigham Young, John Taylor, and even others such as Eliza R. Snow. Some not-so-complementary things were said by Young about Emma, and those ideas and perceptions sank deep into the Mountain Saints’ collective conscience. It didn’t help when Joseph Smith III and some of his brothers proselytized in Salt Lake City for the Reorganized Church, claiming that their father never practiced polygamy. As a result many Utah Latter-day Saints went on the defense, as they continued to do with impending federal anti-polygamy legislation. Several women published affidavits claiming to be married to Joseph Smith. Zina Huntington Young even claimed her relationship with Joseph was “in every sense of the word.”

But do we really know what that means? Is it the same in 1841, or in 1880, or in 2021? Memory and usable past provide an additional layer of complexity in understanding Emma and in understanding the taut relationship between the Mountain Saints and the Prairie Saints. Stories in Utah emerged about Emma pushing Eliza R. Snow down the stairs and causing a miscarriage, also preventing her from never bearing children. In 2018, a new source broke at the Church History Symposium, claiming that Eliza had been raped in Missouri. Later that year, the movie Jane and Emma came out, presenting Emma in an entirely non-racist light. While perhaps predating the Me Too and Black Lives Matter movements, all of these depictions certainly reflect contemporary perspectives and require unpacking. Writing about Emma required examination of historiography, of presentism, and of careful thought.

When the Relief Society prepared celebrations of their fifty-year jubilee anniversary in 1892, the presidency and board planned to hang portraits of Joseph Smith and Eliza R. Snow on the pipes of the tabernacle organ. They also prepared a large floral key, representing the key Joseph turned to the women. A heated discussion arose about whether to include a portrait of Emma, since she had not continued with the Mountain Saints. Emmeline B. Wells took the matter to then-president Wilford Woodruff, who responded, “you tell anyone who has any problem with including Emma to come talk to me.”

The late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries have begun to depict Emma as a hero. That she was requires no debate. That she was a complicated hero with struggles and concerns proves that like her husband, Emma was, in fact, a “rough stone rolling.”

Among history nerds, there are cases of people declaring that they are “Team Emma,” or “Team Eliza.” I’ll confess to being bothered by that, but history is personal for so many of us, often mediating connections to God and to others. Is Emma necessarily a polarizing figure? Can she be on the same team as folks that took different paths?

People often ask me who my favorite church history person is. I feel like that is asking someone who their favorite child is. They are all so different and lovable and aggravating in so many different ways at different times. I’ve realized, though, that the more I come to understand and know a historical person, the more I usually want to advocate for them, to tell their stories in a more complete, whole way. While some claim that Emma was and is polarizing, I believe that at the same time, she is a gatherer, a uniter. Both Emma and Joseph are central to so many fragmented groups, and when we share our common history, we can be gathered together in significant ways.

Comments

  1. Thanks J. for giving Jenny space to talk about her book.

    And thanks Jenny for writing such a touching and spectacular biography of Emma!

  2. A great, informative exchange. Thanks.

  3. I have great admiration for Jenny Reeder. She is great at everything she does. Thank you

  4. Kevin Barney says:

    I was hoping for something like this. I especially wanted some perspective on Mormon Enigma. Well done.

  5. I really enjoyed “First” and felt it was a great follow up to “Mormon Enigma”. The clarity Jenny Reeder’s fine research brought to Emma Smith increased my admiration for Emma’s role in the founding of the religion that I love.

  6. I had in my mind for years it was Emma and her son who started the Reorganized Church. I learned from Jenny Reeder that is not quite correct. Can Jenny help us understand who started the Reorganized Church if Emma and her son did not?

  7. Adele, you should look up Jason W Briggs as he was a major influence in the genesis of the splinter group that formed around the early doctrine of the LDS Church but rejected some of Joseph Smith Jr’s later teachings including polygamy. William Marks who was Stake President of the Nauvoo Stake at the time of Joseph and Hyrum’s deaths and attempted a claim to the Presidency of what would become the Utah Church eventually aligned with Briggs, Zenas H Gurley, and William W Blair in the view that the New Organization of the Church should be led by a direct descendant of Joseph Jr. This group

  8. lastlemming says:

    The biography of Joseph Smith III by Roger Launius gives a good overview of how the Reorganized Church got started. Turns out there were dozens of congregations throughout the Midwest that never gathered to Nauvoo and didn’t follow the Nauvoo saints to Utah.

  9. Thank you for your help. And thanks to Jenny Reeder who helped correct my thinking.

  10. How would we view an apostle who denied that blacks were ever restricted from the priesthood — taught such to their children, told them and the world that any contrary teaching was a pack of lies and then died maintaining that fact even though they knew it was true? I know how many regard those who claim racism was never a factor — but what about those who actually knew about something tangible then denied it, calling everyone else involved an immoral liar?

    Emma was a great saint who played a key and still fully unknown role in the restoration. But there are also many platitudes given that gloss over the ultimate failure of hers to keep herself and her children close to the body of the church. She clearly wanted nothing to do with plural marriage, to the point of lying about it and lying about others. Those lies were very costly, particularly at a time when the world was very hostile to the Saints in Utah. Many children, mothers, and fathers suffered, certainly not all on account of her, but her denial surely carried weight that placed multigenerational burden on the Utah Saints.

    There’s no way around the historical analysis of her deceit. And I can’t blame her for that. I would likely obscure private and hurtful things from the world too if everyone was poking into my private life and it was the source of much sorrow.

    In the final analysis, I’m confident the Lord loves her and is forgiving. She did much good in her life and ministry from an eternal perspective, to say nothing of the many she blessed in mortality. I can’t help but think of Peter and his brief denial and Emma and her lifelong one. I wish that Emma had the same opportunity as Peter. But for many reasons, the last of them societal, that was probably not likely.

  11. sammy, that’s not particularly pertinent to Dr. Reeder’s excellent biography of Emma (though it does discuss her declining to go west, as well as the various antipathies between Brigham Young and Emma).

    But more than that: I’m absolutely unconvinced that you (or I, for that matter) have any standing to judge Emma. And also, that take on her strikes me as a late-19th-century/early-20th-century one. The church has entirely moved away from its demonization of Emma and it’s odd that apparently some of that harmful sentiment still exists.

Trackbacks

  1. […] a book not putting Emma on a pedestal but examining the complexities of her life,” Reeder told By Common Consent blogger Jonathan Stapley. “I wanted to make Emma real, and in a sense, relieving readers of the binary views of Emma as […]

  2. […] a book not putting Emma on a pedestal but examining the complexities of her life,” Reeder told By Common Consent blogger Jonathan Stapley. “I wanted to make Emma real, and in a sense, relieving readers of the binary views of Emma as […]

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