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?
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