“I have many more things I could like to write but have not time.” Thus wrote Emma Smith in a letter to her husband, Joseph Smith. I wish she did have the time! Jennifer Reeder’s biography of Emma Smith — First: The Life and Faith of Emma Smith — left me wanting even more of Emma’s words. Emma Smith was a remarkable woman, and Reeder clearly feels a deep affection for her subject, despite their chronological separation of roughly one and a half centuries. Reeder isn’t blind to Emma’s flaws, but neither does she judge. Despite the fact that Emma left much less of a written record than her spouse (“Emma did not leave a journal or even much correspondence”), Reeder plumbs the depths of what record there is to paint a rich portrait — in Emma’s own words wherever possible — of a woman who was the “first” in many roles in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, as the title of the book implies.
Rather than a traditional, origins-to-legacy biography, Reeder opts for a thematic approach, taking the reader through each of Emma’s major roles in her life and in the early Church: her marriage to Joseph Smith, her mothering both of her own children and serving as a mother figure to many other children in the community, her business experience and political activism, her roles as the first “presidentess” of the Church’s women’s organization (the Relief Society), the first scribe to Joseph Smith’s scriptural translations, and the assembler of the Church’s first hymnal (and at least two more hymnals after that).
Reeder is careful to separate her speculation (based on her expertise and the historical record) from what is actually documented. The word “may” appears time and again: Emma may have been thinking this or she may have been feeling that. While we as readers might wish to know the inner goings on of Emma with greater certainty, Reeder’s honesty in this regard is refreshing. While she mentions some of the stories told about Emma in Utah after other members of the Church migrated there while Emma remained in Nauvoo, Reeder is careful to separate reminiscences (which “often reflect the time they were written, rather than the actual moment”) from concurrent accounts of events.
While I believe anyone interested in this essential actor in the early years of a modern religious movement could enjoy and would learn a great deal from this book, the primary audience is clearly believing members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Reeder makes references to the atonement of Jesus Christ, and she takes the prophetic role of Joseph Smith at face value. She engages Joseph’s practice of polygamy and Emma’s discomfort with the practice but treads carefully in this area. Yet she also treats Emma’s role in another church after Joseph’s death (the Re-organized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) with great respect.
I knew something of Emma’s life before reading (okay, listening to) this book (mostly from Doctrine and Covenants 25 and from biographies of Joseph Smith), but I cannot overstate how much I learned from seeing Emma in the starring role in this biography. I hope to read it again so that the life of this “elect lady” (as she is referred to in Latter-day Saint scripture) can rest upon my mind and heart.
Thank you for the review. I heard Reeder speak on a podcast and greatly enjoyed it. One fascinating story was about Vesta Pierce Crawford, a granddaughter of Emma’s second husband, Lewis C. Bidamon, who was raised in the Utah church, and became an editor of Relief Society Magazine in the 1950s, and interviewed Emma’s surviving grandchildren, and wrote a biography of Emma, which was never published, but is in the BYU archives.
The big question about this biography, does it add anything substantial to Mormon Enigma, one of the great LDS biographies? How is it different?
I also appreciated the thematic approach and acknowledgement of difficult subjects. Emma continues to amaze.
Andrew, thanks for sharing that. I’d love to read that unpublished biography! Reeder has a nice interview out on the By Common Consent blog today which discusses differences between her book and Mormon Enigma.