Emma Smith isn’t just an elect lady, she’s a complicated one too. Jenny Reeder, author of First: The Life and Faith of Emma Hale Smith, recently discussed reasons for why that is the case in an interview with From the Desk. Alternatively vilified or considered an hero of the Restoration in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Reeder wanted people to know first and foremost that Emma was a real person, complete with flaws and a very complicated relationship with the Church.
One of the more difficult aspects for members of the Church today to consider was Emma’s complicated relationship with plural marriage and her split from the Brighamite portion of the church. When my wife and I were doing the readings for the “Emma Smith is an Elect Lady” section of Come Follow Me (D&C 25) last year, we decided to read the section of the At the Pulpit that shared thoughts from Emma Smith. When we read her statement that Relief Society members needed “unite to expose iniquity, to search it out and put it away,” I laughed a little because, as I read it, she was targeting polygamy that was being practiced in secret by her husband and other Latter Day Saints. Apparently Jenny Reeder was involved in compiling that section of At the Pulpit and had some concerns about that very issue:
I knew we had to include something from Emma Smith, but unfortunately that meant cobbling together some of her words in the Nauvoo Relief Society minutes—words that in my mind had come to express her disdain for polygamy and the secrecy surrounding the practice.
One day, co-author Kate Holbrook and I met with the general Relief Society presidency to give them information about our project, and I expressed my dismay and anxiety about Emma Smith. Then-president Linda K. Burton looked me in the eye and said, “Jenny, remember, Emma was the elect lady.”
That exclamation, coming from the current “elect lady,” shifted my understanding of Emma. I wanted to see her as a powerful agent, a significant participant in the early church, and a vulnerable woman of her time.
I am grateful that Emma’s words were included in At the Pulpit to get a slight glimpse into what the “elect lady” thought was important to teach about in the Church.
My interest in Emma’s words is part of what intrigues me about the First book. As Reeder explained:
Deseret Book approached me about writing a book on Emma Smith. They wanted me to include as much of her words as possible—and they did not want me to write a “history,” which I found ironic. I accepted the assignment and proceeded to write a history, using as many primary sources as possible, and to write with accuracy and authenticity.
Using primary sources and getting to know people through their own words as much as possible are things that I love to see in books about important people in the Restoration.
Being the Elect Lady, Emma had some important impacts on the Church, some of which were highlighted in the interview. Reeder stated that:
I was most excited to really examine how involved Emma was in the restoration—to give her credit for her contributions, whether that be with the Book of Mormon, or the hymns, or Relief Society, or the temple.
I think we all have a sense of that, but to know how deep those contributions are and what impact they have on the church today. I see Emma as a very significant, multi-dimensional individual, both publicly and privately, and I was excited to share that part of her as well. …
Emma was the first scribe for the Book of Mormon, which I think is significant. I also like to consider Emma as the First Lady—meaning she had a social role as wife of the church president and mayor. She hosted a lot of dinners and events and rode with Joseph and the Nauvoo Legion. I think she had an important public persona. …
We often think that it wasn’t until the Relief Society in 1842 that Emma “expounded scripture” and “exhorted the church,” but surely she accomplished that through her selection of hymns. We must take into account the power she claimed in formulating doctrine through selection of certain hymns, and how that theology changed from 1835 to 1841. The hymnals reveal a specific time and place for religious practice and collective identity and need to be historically contextualized to appreciate their full value. Emma needs to be recognized for her theological contributions with the hymns.
Emma’s role as “elect lady” with the formation of the Relief Society under the direction of Joseph Smith is also extremely noteworthy.
I think we all know the story of the creation of the Relief Society in 1842 Nauvoo with Sarah Kimball, but do we recognize the value of the organization as a partner quorum of the priesthood, as an ancient organization that always existed on the earth when the priesthood was on the earth, and the connection between the Relief Society and the temple?
Do we today realize the female religious authority intended by Joseph Smith to reside in the Relief Society as an independent agent?
Do we understand the inherent power of sisterhood among women, in administering and healing, and in providing relief and saving souls?
This is a salvific sisterhood, and when men and women on a general and a local level understand this, we understand the role of Emma Smith in concert with her prophet husband. King and queen, priest and priestess, prophet and prophetess, president and presidentess, father and mother.
There are, perhaps, more areas that Emma had an impact on than most members realize today. She also went on to have an ongoing impact on the Reorganization (Community of Christ) (including by continuing to select hymns for their official hymnals), though that wasn’t discussed in the interview.
To read more of what was discussed in the interview, follow the link here. There’s quite a bit more to digest from the thoughts that Jenny Reeder shared, including more on Emma’s role in bringing forth the Book of Mormon, why Emma stayed in the Midwest, and more on Emma’s relationship with plural marriage.