During the 17 years of their marriage, Joseph and Emma Smith endured many hardships. Joseph traveled extensively for the Church and was often obliged to find safety among friends to avoid angry mobs or numerous legal harassments. While he was away, Joseph and Emma wrote consistently to one another, and though only some of those letters have survived, their content and the context in which they were written tell a powerful story. Despite the extraordinary and challenging circumstances Joseph and Emma suffered on behalf of their faith, the deep and abiding love they felt for each other and for their children never failed them.
Joseph frequently wrote of his love and affection for Emma and his children. “The thoughts of home, of Emma and Julia, rush upon my mind like a flood and I could wish for a moment to be with them,”1 Joseph wrote from New York in 1832. In another letter he wrote, “My heart is entwined around yours forever and ever.”2 In 1838, while being held prisoner in Independence, Missouri, he began a letter, “My dear and beloved companion of my bosom in tribulation and affliction.”3 He keenly felt the sacrifice of being absent from his family. He wrote to Emma: “If you want to know how much I want to see you, examine your feelings, how much you want to see me. … I would gladly walk from here to you barefoot and bareheaded … to see you and think it great pleasure, and never count it toil.”4
Joseph was concerned for Emma’s welfare. When necessity required him to take a trip to New York in 1832 while Emma was expecting their fourth child, he wrote: “I feel as if I wanted to say something to you to comfort you in your peculiar trial and present affliction. I hope God will give you strength that you may not faint. I pray God to soften the hearts of those around you to be kind to you and take the burden off your shoulders as much as possible.”5
About two years later, while marching westward to Missouri with Zion’s Camp, Joseph was gratified to hear from Emma that all was well at home. In response to her letter, he wrote, “I sit down in my tent to write a few lines to you to let you know that you are on my mind and that I am sensible of the duties of a husband and father. … The few lines you wrote … gave me satisfaction and comfort.”6
Emma did not always have notice before Joseph was forced to leave home to escape illegal arrests or mob action. “I cannot tell you my feelings when I found I could not see you before you left,” she wrote on one such occasion in 1837, “yet I expect you can realize them.” His unexpected flight worried their family as well. “The children feel very anxious about you because they don’t know where you have gone.” Her reliance on God, she often noted, provided her comfort at such times: “I verily feel that if I had no more confidence in God than some I could name, I should be in a sad case indeed, but I still believe that if we humble ourselves and are as faithful as we can be, we shall be delivered from every snare that may be laid for our feet.”7
Emma’s letters deeply touched Joseph. On one occasion he wrote, “I hope you will continue to communicate to me by your own hand, for this is a consolation to me to converse with you in this way in my lonely moments.”8 On another, he wrote, “I received your letter, which I read over and over again; it was a sweet morsel to me.”9
The separations that caused Joseph and Emma such anxiety for each other’s welfare extended to their concern for their children. While in prison in Independence, Joseph wrote: “Those little children are subjects of my meditation continually. Tell them that Father is yet alive.”10 Later that month he wrote: “O God, grant that I may have the privilege of seeing once more my lovely family. … To press them to my bosom and kiss their lovely cheeks would fill my heart with unspeakable gratitude.”11
When measles afflicted one of the boarders in her Kirtland, Ohio, home, Emma was particularly anxious. “Neither of your little boys have ever had them,” she wrote Joseph in 1837 and then poignantly added: “I wish it could be possible for you to be at home when they are sick. You must remember them, for they all remember you, and I could hardly pacify Julia and Joseph when they found out you were not coming home soon.”12
In 1839 Joseph once again was obliged to learn of his children’s welfare by letter. This time Emma had cheerful news for Joseph. She was clearly happy in the company of her children, difficult as their circumstances were, and pleased to report that only three-year-old Frederick was ailing at that time. Baby Alexander, just a year old, “is one of the finest little fellows you ever saw in your life. He is so strong that with the assistance of a chair he will run all around the room.”13
Her letter only whetted Joseph’s desire for more news. “Write to me a long letter,” he responded, “and tell me all you can and even if old Major [the family dog] is alive yet and what those little prattlers say that cling around your neck.”14
Joseph often fretted that his children would forget him. “I want you [to] not let those little fellows forget me. Tell them Father loves them with a perfect love, and he is doing all he can to get away from the mob to come to them,”15 he wrote to Emma while he was in Liberty.
Joseph also shared with Emma his thoughts on how to raise their children properly. “Do teach them all you can that they may have good minds,” he counseled her. “Be tender and kind to them; don’t be fractious to them, but listen to their wants. Tell them Father says they must be good children and mind their mother. My dear Emma, there is great responsibility resting upon you in preserving yourself in honor and sobriety before them and teaching them right things to form their young and tender minds that they begin in right paths.”16
Of great concern to Joseph was how Emma felt about his status as a prisoner. “Dear Emma,” he wrote, “do you think that my being cast into prison by the mob renders me less worthy of your friendship?” He wanted to make certain his children understood the purpose behind his incarceration. “Tell them I am in prison that their lives might be saved.”17
Emma’s three visits to Joseph in Liberty Jail and her own horrific flight from Missouri to Quincy, Illinois, only intensified her feelings of separation. Her patient suffering, her unremitting anxiety, her fears for the future, and her irrepressible love for Joseph found voice in the long letter she wrote when she reached safety in Quincy. “The walls, bars, and bolts, rolling rivers, running streams, rising hills, sinking valleys, and spreading prairies that separate us and the cruel injustice that first cast you into prison and still holds you there, with many other considerations, places my feelings far beyond description,”18 she lamented.
Later in the same letter she wrote: “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. But the reflection is more than human nature ought to bear, and if God does not record our sufferings and avenge our wrongs on them that are guilty, I shall be sadly mistaken.”19 Despite how this injustice weighed on her, Emma could still say to Joseph, “I shall live and am yet willing to suffer more if it is the will of kind heaven that I should for your sake.”20
Joseph too felt overwhelming feelings as he faced imprisonment in Missouri. “O Emma,” he pleaded, “do not forsake me nor the truth, but remember me; if I do not meet you again in this life, may God grant that we may meet in heaven. I cannot express my feelings; my heart is full. Farewell, O my kind and affectionate Emma. I am yours forever, your husband and true friend.”21
Joseph and Emma continued to endure separations, loneliness, and fear, particularly during the days leading to the final scene in Carthage. Joseph wrote the last letters of their surviving correspondence. On June 23, 1844, as Joseph sought safety across the river against the gathering fury of a determined mob, he promised Emma, “If God ever opens a door that is possible for me, I will see you again.” His hope, he explained, was to “get to the city of Washington”22 to seek relief for the Latter-day Saints.
But this was not to be. Two days later, having returned to Nauvoo, where he was arrested and taken to Carthage, the always-solicitous Joseph assured his wife that “when the truth comes out, we have nothing to fear.”23 Even on the ill-fated day of June 27, 1844, Joseph again wrote reassuringly to Emma. “There is one principle which is eternal,” he declared. “It is the duty of all men to protect their lives and the lives of their households whenever necessity requires, and no power has a right to forbid it. Should the last extreme arrive [meaning his death], but I anticipate no such extreme,” he emphatically assured her, “but caution is the parent of safety.” His final request of Emma was to “give my love to the children and all my friends. … May God bless you all.”24
And thus their correspondence ended. The history books show the complexities in the lives of these two extraordinary people. But it is the private conversations of their letters to one another that convey the deep human dimension of their relationship. Though the surviving letters are few in number, they reveal the abiding love and concern Joseph and Emma felt for one another and their children, their unwavering faith in God’s overruling hand, and their commitment to fulfill the monumental mission to which they had been appointed. And finally, their letters vividly portray the personal struggles and sacrifices such commitment exacted.