The Elect Lady: Emma Hale Smith

Authors’ original spelling has been retained, following standard historical practice. See reasons for spelling variations in “Nineteenth-Century Spelling,” Ensign, Aug. 1975—including uncertain spelling conventions and spelling as an expression of personality.

In April of 1879, Joseph Smith III, eldest son of the Prophet Joseph and Emma Smith, received a telegram from his brother Alexander. “Joseph,” the message said, “if you expect to see mother alive, come quick.” 1 Alexander and Julia, an adopted sister, greeted him when he arrived in Nauvoo on the evening of April 21. Joseph recorded in his journal: “Found my mother still living but very feeble, it does not seem that she could long survive. … Alex here at Nauvoo, Julia in care of mother.” 2

During the next few days Alexander wrote to his wife: “Mother is gradually failing. … We are simply waiting the end, and it seems to be near, only God knows how near. I think sometimes I have passed through the worst, yet I know how hard it will be to give mother up.” 3 In the pre-dawn of 30 April 1879, with these two sons at her side, Emma Hale Smith Bidamon died.

One hundred years have passed since Emma’s children watched her life slip away. In many respects, that century has left a historical vacuum surrounding Emma Smith. Honored as the first president of the Relief Society, remembered for her efforts in compiling the original Latter-day Saint hymnal, and revered as the wife of the Prophet, Emma’s role during the period of the establishment of the Church covered an even wider range of experiences.

Emma’s first act of support for Joseph Smith was marrying him in spite of her father’s firm opposition. Joseph, who had just turned twenty-one loved Emma Hale; her willingness to marry him under difficult circumstances affirmed her belief in his spiritual experiences. She was twenty-two, a school teacher, and her clear soprano voice was heard in the religious services that the Hale family attended in Harmony, Pennsylvania. Tall and slim, with dark hair and dark eyes, and a clear olive complexion, Emma had a ready wit—a natural ease with other people. She became a valuable asset to Joseph as the events of his life demanded frequent social occasions.

When Joseph took his new bride home to Manchester to meet his family, the Smiths welcomed her warmly. Emma soon discovered that life with Joseph was neither tranquil nor dull. She accompanied Joseph to the Hill Cumorah on the dark night when he received the gold plates, keeping a careful watch below as the young Prophet climbed the terrain to meet the angel Moroni. In the months that followed, as speculators and gold-seekers harassed the Smiths, Emma helped keep secret the places where the plates were hidden. Once she rode a stray horse, a supple hickory branch wrapped around its neck, to Macedon, New York, where Joseph worked, to warn him of a gathering mob.

Also in the setting of Joseph’s boyhood home, a close and lasting friendship developed between Emma and her husband’s mother, Lucy Mack Smith. Lucy said of Emma:

“She was then young and being naturally ambitious and her whole heart was in the work of the Lord and she felt no interest ex[cept] for the church and the cause of truth. Whatever Her hands found to do she did with her might and did not ask the selfish question shall I be benifited any more than any one else. If Elders were sent away to preach she was the first to volunteer her services to assist in clothing them for their journey and let her own privations be what they might.” 4

Unable to carry out his work in Palmyra, Joseph moved with Emma from the Smith home in New York to a small farm near the Hales’ home in Harmony. Here Emma gave birth to their first child. This son did not live through his first day.

Harmony was also the setting for most of the translation of the Book of Mormon, and Emma occasionally acted as scribe for Joseph. The Lord recognized Emma’s efforts during this period and gave a revelation through Joseph to her (D&C 25). The only revelation directed entirely to a woman, it entitled her the “elect lady” and commissioned her “to make a selection of sacred hymns, as it shall be given thee, which is pleasing unto me, to be had in my church” (D&C 25:11).

When Emma traveled to Kirtland, Ohio, with Joseph early in 1831, she was pregnant again. The excitement engendered by the first gathering of the Saints was tempered by grief: the twins who were born that April lived only a few hours. Not far from Kirtland in the little town of Orange, Julia Clapp Murdock died after bearing another set of twins. Her husband John approached Emma and Joseph with a request that they adopt the babies. They took the children as their own, naming them Joseph and Julia.

The following winter the couple and their children took up residence at the John Johnson farm in Hiram, Ohio. There Joseph continued to work on the inspired translation of the Bible. One evening he rested on a trundle bed, comforting little Joseph who, with his sister, suffered from a severe case of measles. Emma slept nearby with Julia. Suddenly an angry mob poured into the room. They dragged Joseph out into the cold night where they beat and tarred and feathered him. In the confusion, the mob had also pulled the covers from the sick baby and exposed him to the frigid winter air. Emma comforted the children as she waited, not knowing if her husband would return alive. Joseph recorded the incident as follows:

“When I came to the door I was naked, and the tar made me look as if I were covered with blood, and when my wife saw me she thought I was all crushed to pieces, and fainted” (History of the Church, 1:263).

Helpful friends spent the rest of the night scraping the sticky tar from the Prophet, and he recovered from the foray. But eleven-month-old Joseph’s condition worsened and within a few days he died. Emma and Joseph buried the fourth of their five children.

On 6 November 1832 a son was born who lived. His parents happily named him Joseph Smith III. Two days later, the Prophet and his brothers were chopping and hauling wood when three men walked up and introduced themselves. They were Brigham and Joseph Young and their cousin, Heber C. Kimball. After the initial conversation, they accompanied Joseph to his home on the second story of the Gilbert and Whitney store. There Emma, still confined to bed with her new baby, first met the man who would succeed her husband in leadership of the Church.

Three and a half years later, Emma gave birth to another son. They named him Frederick Granger Williams Smith after Joseph’s close friend and counselor in the First Presidency.

In Kirtland Emma worked with other women, helping gather supplies for the men who marched to Missouri with Zion’s Camp. She took in boarders during the building of the temple, and, with the expert help of William Wines Phelps, saw the publication of the first hymnal. But tensions within the Church flared and hostility from without became rampant, forcing Joseph to flee Ohio for his safety. Emma followed with the children, Julia, Joseph, and eighteen-month-old Frederick. She was again pregnant as they made their way to Missouri; Alexander Hale Smith was born at Far West on 2 June 1838.

Five months after his son’s birth, the Prophet Joseph entered a jail cell in Missouri. Mobs harassed Emma and broke into her home while her husband was held prisoner in Liberty Jail. They did not, however, destroy Joseph’s valuable papers—among them his translation of the Bible—which were kept safe by his scribe, James Mulholland. James’ sister-in-law, Ann Scott, wrote:

“Bro. Mulholland requested me to take charge of these papers, as he thought they would be more secure with me, because I was a woman, and the mob would not be likely to search my person. Immediately on taking possession of the papers, I made two cotton bags of sufficient size to contain them, sewing a band around the top ends of sufficient length to button arount my waist; and I carried those papers on my person in the day-time, when the mob was round, and slept with them under my pillow at night … I gave them to sister Emma Smith, the prophet’s wife, on the evening of her departure for Commerce.” 5

Emma and her young children fled Missouri with other Church members following Governor Boggs’s extermination order (see History of the Church, 3:175). When the Saints surveyed the frozen Mississippi River, they discovered the ice was not thick enough for the travelers to cross in their wagons. Instead, they walked scattered out over the ice. Emma carried Frederick and Alexander; Julia and Joseph III clung to her dress. 6 Strapped under her skirts were the bags that Ann Scott had sewn containing the only copy of the Prophet’s translation of the Bible.

Safe in Quincy, Illinois, Emma wrote of her ordeal to Joseph who was still confined in the Liberty Jail:

“Was it not for … the direct interposition of divine mercy, I am very sure I never should have been able to have endured the scenes of suffering that I have passed through … but I still live and am yet willing to suffer more if it is the will of kind Heaven, that I should for your sake. … No one but God, knows the reflections of my mind and the feelings of my heart when I left our house and home, and almost all of everything that we possessed excepting our little children, and took my journey out of the State of Missouri, leaving you shut up in that lonesome prison.” 7

By spring Joseph made his escape from Missouri and again joined his family. Once more the hopeful Saints gathered to build a safe home. This time they chose a site nestled in a bend of the Mississippi River. Joseph and Emma moved into an old homestead house in the new city of Nauvoo. Emma immediately began caring for the sick Saints desolated by fevers and illness. The two-story log structure housed many more persons than Joseph and Emma and their four children; the homeless had a way of finding the Smiths’ door. Emma’s welcome made no distinction among family, friends, or strangers.

Neither did death distinguish between persons. Emma’s eighteen-month-old son, Don Carlos, named for Joseph’s brother, died 15 August 1841 from the fevers that ravaged many families in the early Nauvoo period. Another son was stillborn the following year.

Joseph’s concern for Emma during times of tragedy and crisis are evident in his journal entries and letters to her. He reflected on the qualities he loved in his wife:

“My beloved Emma—she that was my wife, even the wife of my youth, and the choice of my heart. … Oh what a commingling of thought filled my mind for the moment, again she is here, even in the seventh trouble—undaunted, firm, and unwavering—unchangeable, affectionate Emma!” (History of the Church, 5:107.)

Of the many letters Emma and Joseph exchanged during their seventeen years of marriage, sixteen of Joseph’s and five of Emma’s are preserved. 8 Their correspondence reveals much about their relationship: Joseph’s homesickness for his wife and children, their interest in each other’s well-being, Emma’s frustration with some of Joseph’s business affairs, their faith in the Lord and in Joseph’s mission, and their deep respect and love for each other. In almost every letter to Emma, Joseph referred to her as “my dear wife” or “my dear, affectionate Emma.”

Joseph was in hiding from his enemies in 1842 when he wrote to Emma: “If I go to the Pine country, you shall go along with me, and the children; and if you and the children go not with me, I don’t go. I do not wish to exile myself for the sake of my own life. … It is for your sakes, therefore, that I would do such a thing. … I am not willing to trust you in the hands of those who cannot feel the same interest for you that I feel.” (History of the Church, 5:104.) Emma replied immediately: “I am ready to go with you if you are obliged to leave and Hyrum says he will go with me. … If it was pleasant weather I should contrive to see you this evening, but I dare not run too much of a risk. … Yours affectionately forever.” (History of the Church, 5:110.)

The risk Emma was reluctant to take was not to her own safety but to his, for her presence may have revealed Joseph’s hiding place.

The tumultuous events of the last few months before Joseph’s death put additional strains on Emma and Joseph. Yet, love and consideration are evident.

Joseph wrote three anguished letters to Emma in the period immediately preceding the martyrdom. His last was at twenty minutes after eight, 27 June 1844—the morning of his death. “Give my love to the children,” he wrote. “May God bless you all.” 9 Later that same day a raging mob killed Joseph, leaving Emma with three sons, their adopted daughter Julia, and an unborn son. 10

When Mormon wagons crossed the Mississippi and headed west in 1846, Emma was not with them. Instead, she took her family upstream 160 miles to Fulton, Illinois. There she spent the winter with friends, returning to Nauvoo when the anti-Mormon mobbing and persecution subsided. Emma was no longer the living Prophet’s wife, and the Relief Society organization over which she had presided had been disbanded. 11

Frail and old, the Prophet’s mother, Lucy Mack Smith, also remained behind. She lived nine more years, much of that time in Emma’s care. The years had in no way diminished the admiration the two women had for each other. Lucy wrote:

“I have never seen a woman in my life who would endure every species of fatigue and hardship, from month to month, and from year to year, with that unflinching courage, zeal and patience, which she has ever done.” 12

Lewis C. Bidamon, one of the new citizens of Nauvoo, courted Emma the year following the exodus. At the time, Lewis did not claim membership in any church, although he had been raised a Lutheran and helped establish the first Congregational church in Canton, Illinois, where he lived before the death of his first wife. They were married 23 December 1847, and the union lasted thirty-two years.

Emma lived the rest of her life in Nauvoo; there she raised her five children in the Mansion House, where she had lived with Joseph. In 1871 Emma and Lewis moved to the newly completed Riverside Mansion, built on the unfinished foundation of the original Nauvoo House. 13 There Emma died 30 April 1879.

Emma lived thirty-five years beyond the death of the Prophet Joseph Smith. Through those years she maintained a home for his children, faced the normal problems of life with grace and gratitude, and received love and appreciation from those who knew her. There is much to admire and respect in the life of the “elect lady.”

[illustration] Illustrated by Richard Brown

Valeen Tippetts Avery, a homemaker, serves as Laurel adviser in the Flagstaff Arizona Third Ward.

Linda King Newell, a homemaker, serves as a Sunday School teacher in the Garden Park First Ward, Salt Lake City.

Show References


  1.   1.

    Zion’s Ensign, 31 Dec. 1903, Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints Library-Archives, Independence, Missouri. (Hereafter cited as RLDS Archives.)

  2.   2.

    Joseph Smith III Journal, 21–22 Apr. 1879, RLDS Archieves.

  3.   3.

    Vesta Crawford, “Notes from Audentia,” microfilm copy in Church Hist. Dept. Archives, unpaginated.

  4.   4.

    Lucy Smith, preliminary ms, (as quoted in Donna Hill, Joseph Smith, The First Mormon, Garden City, New York: Doubleday, 1977, p. 348).

  5.   5.

    F. M. Cooper, “Spiritual Reminiscences—No. 2. In the Life of Sister Ann (Scott) Davies, of Lyons, Wisconsin,” Autumn Leaves (Jan. 1891), vol. 4, no. 1.

  6.   6.

    Vesta Crawford, “Notes,” unpaginated.

  7.   7.

    Emma Smith to Joseph Smith, 7 Mar. 1839, Joseph Smith Letterbook, Church Hist. Dept. Archives.

  8.   8.

    Some of Joseph’s existing letters are holographs; the rest are either in the handwriting of various scribes or are copies.

  9.   9.

    Joseph Smith to Emma Smith, 27 June 1844, RLDS Archives. Copy in LDS Church Hist. Dept. Archives and Utah State Historical Society.

  10.   10.

    David Hyrum Smith was born 17 Nov. 1844, almost five months after his father was killed.

  11.   11.

    The last minutes of the Nauvoo Relief Society were recorded 16 Mar. 1844. See “A Record of the Organization and Proceedings of the Female Relief Society”, Church Hist. Dept. Archives. It was ten years before the women reorganized the Society.

  12.   12.

    Lucy Smith, Joseph Smith, The Prophet, 1853 ed., repr. New York: Aron Press and The New York Times, Religion in America Series, 1976.

  13.   13.

    Tradition has Emma and Lewis moving into the Riverside Mansion in 1869. A letter from Joseph Smith III to Emma Smith (RLDS Archives) places the date in 1871.