Mar 3, 2009

The Validity Of Deathbed Confessions

A few months ago, I was talking to my parents about the movie Emma Smith, My Story, which they had just seen. I haven't yet seen the movie myself, but I was surprised to hear my father express skepticism that Joseph Smith ever practiced polygamy. Since Emma herself denied it -- even on her deathbed -- he seemed to think that there was perhaps some validity to her statement. After all, deathbed confessions are pretty reliable, right? Would someone like Emma actually tell such a big lie on their deathbed?

According to Wikipedia:

"Newell and Avery, in their biography, Mormon Enigma, make the claim that Emma witnessed several marriages of Joseph Smith, Jr. to plural wives. However, throughout her lifetime Emma publicly denied knowledge of her husband's involvement in the practice of polygamy and denied on her deathbed that the practice had ever occurred. Emma stated,

“ No such thing as polygamy, or spiritual wifery, was taught, publicly or privately, before my husband's death, that I have now, or ever had any knowledge of...He had no other wife but me; nor did he to my knowledge ever have.”

Emma Smith claimed that the very first time she ever became aware of a polygamy revelation being attributed by Mormons to Joseph Smith was when she read about it in Orson Pratt's booklet
The Seer in 1853. Her son, Joseph Smith III, became prophet/president of the Reorganization — which gathered many of the Latter Day Saints still scattered across the Midwest and elsewhere. Many of the Midwestern Latter Day Saints had broken with Brigham Young and/or James Strang because of earnest opposition to polygamy. Emma's continuing public denial of the practice seemed to lend strength to their cause, and opposition to polygamy became a tenet of the RLDS church (now known as Community of Christ). Over the years many church historians attempted to prove that the practice had originated with Brigham Young."

Emma Smith is, to me, one of those tragic characters of history. Re-reading some of the parts about her in Bushman's Rough Stone Rolling it's sad to think about how her life was and how it could have been, particularly when she and Joseph seem to have truly loved each other:

"With Joseph gone from her life, Emma withdrew from religion. She was reluctant to talk about Mormonism. Approached by representatives of one of the Mormon churches that sprang up after the exodus, she told them, "I have always avoided talking to my children about having anything to do in the church, for I have suffered so much I have dreaded to have them take any part in it." Her sons grew up believing the Bible and the Book of Mormon but with little knowledge of their father's teachings -- and none about plural marriage. Eventually the reform Mormons who founded the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, made up of Saints who had not gone west, persuaded Joseph III to take the leadership. Emma joined but never took a leading role. She fended off Joseph III's increasingly urgent questions about plural marriage, leaving the impression that her husband had never supported the principle but keeping the door open for the revelation she knew he had received. When asked about the Book of Mormon and Joseph's translation, she professed complete belief. Like the 1844 reform group led by William Law, she believed in the early Joseph whose doctrines conformed to conventional Christianity. Until her death in 1879, the memory she chose to perpetuate for her children was of this milder Prophet rather than the religious revolutionary of the Nauvoo years." (Bushman, Rough Stone Rolling, page 555)

Personally, I find it hard to deny that Joseph Smith ever practiced polygamy. I don't doubt that he kept many things hidden from Emma, at least for a time, but it's hard to imagine that she was totally oblivious to it all -- assuming it even happened, which she asserted it did not. So was Emma's pants on fire? Was she guilty of telling a huge whopper? Or could she have actually believed it herself? Could she have been so hurt, angered and traumatized by polygamy that she, somehow, "blocked it out?" I find it interesting that she "professed complete belief" when it came to the Book of Mormon and its translation, much like all of the witnesses who left the Church or were excommunicated but never denied their testimonies of the Book of Mormon.

How much do you trust a deathbed confession? Why do you think that Emma denied that Joseph practiced polygamy even as she was facing death? Do you think she herself believed what she was saying, perhaps for the reasons stated above? Do you think that she lied out of hurt and anger? Did she just want to protect her children? Or do you think there was any validity to her deathbed confession?


Loyd said...

I believe that Joseph's polygamy was so painful for Emma that she perhaps made herself believe that ti never happened. That mind is a pretty powerful thing.

Joseph's youngest son David Hyrum Smith served a mission to try to convert the 'Brighamites.' While in Utah he came to realize that his dad did, in fact, have multiple wives. He had grown up being adamantly taught that his father did not practice it, and that polygamy was an extremely sinful and evil idea. The truth of his father's polygamy (and that he had been lied to about it) was too much for him and caused a lot of mental instability for him. He spent the last 27 years of his life after his mission in a mental asylum.

Scott said...

A VERY interesting question, especially for LDS people. While we have mountains of evidence (I would say proof) that JS practiced polygamy, a deathbed confession should give you pause for consideration--given the way we praise and laud other confessions. In particular, I refer to the testimony of David Whitmer regarding the golden plates/Book of Mormon.

We have two similar paths--both Emma and David "left" Mormonism, albeit there were different circumstances. Yet on their deathbeds, when Emma denies polygamy, and we assume she was confused, and when David Whitmer says he saw the gold plates, we trump it to the world.


Mormon Heretic said...

I was not aware that Emma denied polygamy on her death bed. One check of the church's genealogy website shows Joseph and 24 of his polygamist wives. See here. You'd think Emma would be listed first, but she is about 5th on the list. Most have actual dates of marriage.

It is pretty well documented that Emma was aware of polygamy, and hated it. Interestingly, DNA evidence has come up empty. To date, there are no confirmed descendants of Joseph through another line. Bushman makes the case that some of the women may have been merely sealed to Joseph, and there were no sexual relations.

There is an interesting episode between Eliza R Snow and Emma. Eliza was living in the Nauvoo House, helping with the hotel. Emma and her got in a fight, and Emma pushed her down the stairs, which may have caused a miscarriage in Eliza. Some believe that the argument was over relations with Joseph. Of course, we'll never know.

Mormon Heretic said...

I see my link didn't work, but you can check it yourself if you type in the name: Joseph Smith and look for marriages from 1840 +- 10 years in the United States.

I found an interesting book called After the Martyrdom: What Happened to the Family of Joseph Smith? It talks about many interviews and affidavits mentioned by Loyd. David Smith was greatly troubled by the polygamy revelations, and these source documents are often cited by historians. David is known in the RLDS church for writing many hymns. It's sad that he ended his life in a mental asylum as Loyd said.

The Faithful Dissident said...

"We have two similar paths--both Emma and David "left" Mormonism, albeit there were different circumstances. Yet on their deathbeds, when Emma denies polygamy, and we assume she was confused, and when David Whitmer says he saw the gold plates, we trump it to the world. Curious"

Yes, it is very curious, Scott.

It's funny how Emma is very revered in the Church nowadays. She's frequently mentioned and praised during RS anniversary socials that I've attended, but really we celebrate such a small portion of her life: the time when she was "an elect lady" and she and Joseph appeared to have a strong marriage. I'm glad that the tone towards Emma has shifted from Brigham's time, when it appears that she was dealt with very harshly, and that Emma is now given the respect I think she deserves. But if we want to get technical, Emma was, really, an "apostate." I hate to use that word, but people have been accused of apostasy for doing a lot less. Emma left the Church (not blaming her), did not go west (I probably wouldn't have either) and repeatedly denied that polygamy ever happened (which she may have consciously and willingly been lying about even on her death bed). Now, that to me sounds like apostasy and she didn't "endure to the end" as most Mormons would define it. So why is she revered now?

MH, I had never actually seen the list of Joseph's marriages. But when I look at his Family Group Record or Pedigree, the only wife showing is Zina Diantha HUNTINGTON. Why is that? And what about all the women who were apparently sealed to him even after he died?

Rick said...

You have to know your way around the website. There is a ton of duplication there, and when I did my search, it pulled up 75 Joseph Smith's (Alabama, Conn, etc--obviously these are the wrong ones.)

Here's what did.

(1) go to
(2) type in Joseph Smith in the name fields
(3) Under "Life Event", click "Marriage"
(4) On Year, type 1840
(5) On "Year Range" type "+ of - 10 years"
(6) On Country, click "United States"
(7) Click Search

You will get a list of 75 names. Click #6. It says "Nauvoo, Hancock County, Illinois". You'll see the list of 24 wives there. The first 3 have no dates, The next 4 were from 1842-3. (Joseph died in 1844.) The next 2 are after his death, etc. The key to remember is he died in 1844.

As for women sealed after he died, I like what Bushman says. Some thought it would help them get into the celestial kingdom. But certainly there were 15 wives while he was alive (according to familysearch, which I view as pretty reliable on this subject.)

Interestingly, Jane Manning James, a black mormon who knew Smith well, wanted her own endowment. She approached every prophet from Brigham Young to Lorenzo Snow, but they all refused. They did, however, seal her to Joseph and Emma as a servant. After the 1978 revelation, she finally got her endowment.

The Faithful Dissident said...

How can someone be sealed to someone else as a servant? I've never heard of that. Was it like being sealed as a child to parents?

Mormon Heretic said...

The saints did all sorts of strange things in the early days of the church, such as getting baptized multiple times.

Jane Manning James was not a slave, but Joseph and Emma hired her as a servant. Slaves were often considered part of the family. The Sealing of Jane to Joseph and Emma would have been very similar to having a child sealed to the parents. On my priesthood ban post, Margaret Young related the following about Jane.

In the 1830’s, Jane Manning James joins the church in Buffalo, NY, and then walks the entire distance from there to Nauvoo. She received poor reception by Nauvoo saints (“with much rebuff”), but Joseph was very welcoming and hospitable. He offered to adopt her as a child into the Smith household. She declined because she didn’t understand the implications. If she had accepted, it is likely that she would have received temple ordinances as part of the Smith family. Brigham Young and other church leaders declined to let her receive temple ordinances, but she was sealed posthumously to Joseph as a servant. Her temple work was completed shortly after the revelation in 1978.

She outlived Brigham, so I'm not sure which prophet authorized this posthumous sealing.

Anonymous said...

I find it perfectly reasonable to think that in her last moments she clung to some shred of the personal dignity that had been denied to her in her life with Smith. What's more, as a mother she could have been trying to shield her son from the scandal. Perfectly understandable. After all, she'd had years of protecting Smith's image by keeping her secrets.

Consider. This was not an embarrassing moment in a history almost 2 centuries old for Emma. It was a personal wound. However she dealt with the personal betrayal is hers to decide and not ours to pass judgment or to require validation for our own doubts or fears from her.

Mormon Heretic said...

Yes, Anonymous, you bring up a good point. Emma went through so many trying things in her life. It would be hard for anyone to have lived in her shoes, and who knows how we would have reacted.

The Teacher said...

I think Emma became, understandably, a very conflicted person. She firmly believed that Joseph was a prophet who translated the Book of Mormon through revelation. She stood by him through many trials, and we cannot really question her loyalty to him. On the other hand, I think it is almost impossible to believe that she was unaware of Joseph's teachings regarding polygamy and at least some of his polygamous marriages. In fact, most of the evidence indicates that she clearly knew of polygamy and was violently opposed to it, although she may have attempted to accept it at different times.

In my view, Emma's denials of polygamy were motivated largely by loyalty to Joseph and her children. She wanted to shield Joseph’s memory and her children's lives and reputation from what had become a very controversial practice, and one she opposed. Although I am speculating, I believe she thought hiding the truth about polygamy was the lesser of two evils.

Emma was presented with a very complicated set of circumstances and trials. It should not surprise us that she responded in a complicated way. There is no way for us to judge her, given our limited knowledge.

The Faithful Dissident said...

I agree that we can't really judge Emma. I admire her very much, even more so after reading Rough Stone Rolling, and can only attempt to fathom what life was like for her. I just find it interesting that she is held in such high regard even though she was an "apostate" in some respects.

I wonder whether Emma herself considered Joseph a fallen prophet because of polygamy. No way to ever know of course, but it's interesting to wonder about.

Laura said...

After watching the movie you referenced, I was outright pissed off that the movie completely ignored polygamy. In the movie, when her daughter asks about polygamy, I think Emma replies with something like "What good would come from talking about it ?" How could a movie that claims to be historically accurate, leave out one of the most defining events of her lifetime?? Surely something so painful and difficult would have affected her actions in every other aspect of her life and should be worthy of discussion.

Instead of telling the truth, they would have us beleive that she was a dutiful, trusting wife who never questioned her husband's behavior. We don't get to see her human reactions and emotions.

I have nothing in common with that Emma. The Emma I want to know about is the one who may or may not have shoved another woman down the stairs because she was marrying her husband. Now that's the Emma I wanna learn about - instead of this unrealistic ideal image who never really existed. I want to get to know about how the real Emma fought and argued with her husband every time he announced a new marriage proposal. I wanna know her, because quite honestly, we'd have a lot more in common.

The Faithful Dissident said...

Very well put, Laura. I wonder how Emma would feel about that chapter of her life being glossed over or entirely omitted from books and movies that are supposed to tell about her life.

Mormon Heretic said...


I understand your point, and I too wish that the church didn't whitewash history. But, I don't understand why you are "pissed off."

If you look at FD's post, the movie seems to mirror Emma's reaction on her death bed. In RSR, Emma has periods of contempt and reluctant acceptance toward polygamy. Emma didn't enjoy talking about polygamy--she even hid it from her sons. I think her reticence is well-represented in the movie. In that sense, the movie portrays her feelings quite accurately. I think she would prefer to keep the polygamy and Eliza issues in the closet, rather than expose all the dirty laundry for the world to see.

Laura, would you be proud to be depicted inducing a miscarriage by shoving another woman down the stairs? If it was you in the movie, wouldn't you prefer to be shown as a dignified woman, rather than an obnoxious brawler? In today's world, Emma would have been arrested for at least manslaughter for injuring another woman's fetus? Are you saying this is Emma's true character--baby killer? I seriously doubt you would want this dirty laundry aired about you, if you were Joseph's first wife.

Please realize that this Eliza incident is more rumor than fact--we have no idea really what the fight was about, but we do have evidence of a marriage with Eliza. There is ZERO evidence that Eliza was pregnant--just the speculation of scholars. The fight could have been over any issue, and we can't really be sure that Eliza didn't lose her balance on her own, in the heat of an argument. There were no eyewitnesses of the event.

I don't think that unreliable rumors should be part of a "historically accurate" movie. Yes, the producers certainly ignored some history, but I think they brought up some interesting things, like the "curse of Eve", and Emma writing her own blessing for Joseph to sign. Neither of these are part of the official history of the church, and could have been left out of the movie as well. Perhaps you should write your own blessings from now on, and submit them to your patriarch for approval.... How well do you think that would go? Yes the prophet Joseph thought it was ok.

The Faithful Dissident said...

I agree with MH that it's wise to steer away from rumours and speculation in a movie that's supposed to be historically accurate. Since I haven't seen it yet, my mom has been telling me about it and she seems to remember Emma saying in the movie something like "it was very hard on us, it was the hardest thing we had to do, but he was commanded of the Lord."

But is that an accurate representation either?

Laura said...

MH -

I think you misunderstand my frustration. As an LDS girl, growing up in the church, I was taught the example of Emma as evidence of being a strong woman. She is glorified in Relief Society as being faithful, obedient, everything a good mormon wife should be.

I'm not saying that she wasn't all of those things. She probably was. But maybe she was also stubborn, jealous, and dare I say hostile at times. Is that so bad? I don't think I know a person who hasn't exhibited those qualities at some point or another (myself included). My point is, she was human. Knowing that she had real human emotions and weaknesses doesn't diminish her life. It makes me respect her even more. Because after everything she'd been through, she still could not deny her testimony of the BOM.

Watching the movie, you'd think she took it all without so much as a murmur, and that just isn't true. We know that she argued with Joseph about it often, then quickly repented and asked for his forgiveness. We know that it had a deep impact on her life, else why would she have fought so hard to suppress the truth on her deathbed? In a movie that claims to tell "her story", it completely ommits the event that caused her probably the most pain. It doesn't make sense to me.

What I meant to say in my last post - and perhaps didn't do a very good job - is that I'd just like to see a more complete picture of her, weaknesses and all.

How much easier might it be for women to find strength in her true charachter - an imperfect charachter who struggled at times and who had doubts - instead of trying to hold ourselves to an impossible standard which never really existed.

Papa D said...

Generally, I think deathbed "confessions" are fairly reliable - IF they are what we would consider to be "confessions". Iow, when someone has denied something previously but admits it on their deathbed, I believe those statements generally are accurate.

Emma's situation is very different, however. It's not a "confession" at all. At most, it's a deathbed reiteration - meaning it's no change from something said previously. In that case, I don't think there's any reason to give it any greater degree of reliability than it had previously.

The Teacher said...

Faithful: Have you read "Mormon Enigma" by Tippets and Avery? It was one of my gateway books into Mormon history. I think Emma is one of the most intriguing characters in our past.

I have very much enjoyed this thread. I hope you don't mind if I link to it on my blog.

The Faithful Dissident said...

Papa D, I agree that "confession" isn't really the appropriate term in this case. I thought about that as I was writing the post, but couldn't come up with a better term. :) Perhaps "witness," or even "testimony" is more fitting? For her to deny the practice of polygamy in her final "witness" is something that would usually deserve as much credence as a "confession," but no one really buys it, including me, because of all the evidence that polygamy did occur. And as you said, it was more of a reiteration of what she had already said, but I'm starting to think that perhaps Emma really believed what she said. If, on the other hand, she purposely lied even on her deathbed, the woman had guts. :)

Teacher, thanks for linking to this post. I haven't read that book you mention. I'm sure I would find it interesting, but books about Mormon history aren't exactly in high demand in Norway's libraries. :) Amazon is great, but it's pricey to get books shipped here.

Mormon Heretic said...


(Warning: self-promotion) There is a great post over at Mormon Matters dealing with mormon history in general that I think you'll find interesting. It isn't directly related to Emma, but similar to this discussion.

I don't believe The producers of the Emma movie set out to do a Ken Burns style documentary. Usually people in history are venerated. Few people know (or want to know) that Abraham Lincoln really wanted to ship all slaves back to Africa--not exactly an "I have a dream" civil rights position. Columbus was a genius explorer, but such a vindictive leader that some of his men led a mutiny against him. The governor of Hispaniola refused to help him on his last voyage, despite Columbus dire circumstances, because he hated Columbus that much. Columbus probably should have died from lack of resources, but was resourceful enough to survive.

Of course, you can have historians view the same facts differently. Will Bagley has his negative view of MMM, Richard Turley has a positive view of it. As I understand it, Juanita Brooks is more objective than both, though her research is now quite dated. Nobody can really write an unbiased history.

It seems to me your frustration is more rooted in an emotional reaction to history, than an intellectual reaction. Yes, we all have weaknesses, Emma included. If only we could get Ken Burns to do Emma's story....

Laura, I too share your frustration with correlated history. I did another post on MM about Joshua, and was accused of "an unholy war against holy scripture" and "making the sacred, mundane." I think church leaders fear that too much talking about past leaders' weaknesses, make them no longer worthy of emulation.

I'm not saying I agree with this line of reasoning, just stating what others see. I agree with you--making Emma human makes her triumphs even more significant. Perhaps your "pissed off" comment cam off stronger than you intended.

Jen said...

I am grateful that the movie about Emma didn't focus on her "bad side" or weaknesses because I think if we know anything at all about her, we know that she suffered greatly in relation to Joseph's wives. If I was Emma I would hope that the fact that I dealt with the situation the best I knew how would be focused on publicly and not the days where I felt like raging and hurting someone. How many of us want to be remembered for our bad days? Any woman that loves a man like Emma loved Joseph is going to feel deep pain and sorrow, as well as betrayal and jealously over a situation like hers. The conflict within her had to be so severe and as every woman knows (and many men as well), women have to get their feelings out or it can get really ugly. I am sure Emma had some really bad days and did and said things she regretted and some that maybe she didn't, but that is the way it is for all of us. If you are a woman and love deeply, you can understand to a certain extent how severe that conflict would be within you and you can't help but respect Emma for doing the best she could. As faithful and dedicated as Emma was to the Lord and Joseph, can you imagine feeling all those negative feelings and trying to pair them up with the idea that it came from the Lord? Who do you go to when your two main sources of comfort are seemingly betraying you in the deepest of ways? No...Emma does not need to be seen in her weakness, for it is clear that whatever manner she released those feelings and emotions, it was necessary and it did not make her any less of an elect woman. To me, it is the right thing to not focus on her weaknesses in relation to that topic. I believe that she reacted like any woman would have and we can focus on the many good things she did and not remember the struggles she had....that is the least she deserves. That's just one woman's opinion.

Mormon Heretic said...


I just found out about a timeline about blacks and the priesthood. There's a link about Jane Manning James being sealed to Joseph. See

chris said...

I'm really struggling with the fact that Joseph Smith married and had sexual relations with women who were already married (polyandry), including Orson Hyde's wife. I called Dr. Susan Easton Black about my concerns, and she replied that the women had their agency to choose whether or not they married Joseph, but when the prophet tells you that the Lord has decided you should marry him, what is a woman to do?

I also mentioned to Dr. Black that my great-grandmother, John Taylor's sister, was sealed to Joseph Smith by her son-in-law, President Joseph F. Smith, while she was living. Dr. Black replied that over 500 women have been sealed to Joseph.

I am active in the Church. My husband is a bishop, and I have been a ward and stake RS president, but I struggle with Joseph's polyandry.

The Faithful Dissident said...

Hi Chris,

Thanks for your comment.

I think it's safe to say that it's something that most of us struggle to understand. I'm not exactly sure how to deal with it either, but I've come to the personal conclusion that Joseph Smith took polygamy too far. I'm not saying he was a fallen prophet, because in order to be a fallen prophet, I think that one needs to willfully and intentionally go against God's will, which I don't believe JS did. I personally believe that he did what he believed (at least at the time) what God wanted him to do. Whether he was deluded or misinterpreted something, I don't know. I think perhaps a combination of the two. For me, it doesn't take away from the other things he accomplished as prophet. But it does affect how much trust I put into any human being, prophet or not. And although it may be true that those women married to Joseph had their agency, it doesn't mean as much when one is under extreme pressure to "obey the prophet" and being subject to feelings of guilt and fear about disobeying and then having to face God. And Emma didn't really have agency to decide whether he took another wife or not since it appears that she was kept in the dark about polygamy, at least in the beginning.

But one thing that I've always found curious is why JS has no known descendants from any of his wives, except Emma.

chris said...

Very insightful comment. I know it is easy to become caught up in the mistakes of others, including Joseph Smith,and forget their many strengths. Thanks for your blog and your testimony. It strengthened mine.

Mormon Heretic said...

FD, I just did a post that included some of Emma's denials of polygamy just after Joseph died. I think you'll find them interesting in my Part 4 on Sidney Rigdon.