Why do we reverence Emma?

No, really. Why do we reverence Emma? There are plenty of other women in the early church who are admirable, yet who didn’t fall away. Why does she get such special attention and devotion?

Is it because of her close relationship with Joseph? Oliver Cowdery had a close relationship with Joseph (admittedly not as close). He fell away over doubts regarding Joseph’s call (including issues with plural marriage). And HE CAME BACK. Yet, there is not 1/5 of the time spent in discussion of Oliver Cowdery as there is of Emma (statistics made up to emphasize my point).

Is it because she is a women? One with a section of the Doctrine & Covenants devoted to her (and a couple more chastising her)? Again, there are other early church women who didn’t fall away. Why isn’t Liz Lemon Swindle being paid money to paint their posthomous portrait?

What has Emma done to get all of this good press? Why does she continue to get it now?

(ps. I’m not actually an Emma hater and I do hope those two crazy, mixed-up kids work it all out. I just don’t understand all the praise heaped upon this woman whom we all admit didn’t make the right choice in the end (assuming that we aren’t RLDS)).

12 Replies to “Why do we reverence Emma?”

  1. Emma is complex. There is no question that the current love is novel…there was not much in the 19th century. I don’t know, but I wouldn’t be surprised if her popularity is a result of us wanting to cast Joseph in a monogomous light. Posted by J. Stapley

  2. I give it!Probably the same reason we don’t call her Eliza Snow Smith as she was wont to be called at the later portion of her life. There is no question she was revered during the first part of the 20th century. It is just that she was (hushed tones) a plural wife.But she spoke in tongues, blessed and anointed by the laying on of hands, and was otherwise challenging to modern conceptions.Maybe we like Emma because she hated (never accepted?) polygamy. Posted by J. Stapley

  3. Growing up in the Church in the ’60s, 70s and ’80s, it seems I knew as much about Oliver as I did about Emma, which wasn’t much. My point is, my memory tells me about the same amount of emphasis was placed on both. I do recall being told of the great love between Joseph and Emma. Perhaps the emphasis on Emma has changed since then. But it wasn’t until I read “Mormon Enigma” a few years ago that I really learned anything substantive about her.In fact, I recently found a book in my Grandmother’s collection written I believe in the ’70s indicating, among other erroneous claims, that Emma finally accepted polygamy in total. Of course, I can’t find the darn book right now. 🙁 It was called something like “Judge Me Dear Readers,” and was basically a fluff piece with nothing substantive in it whatsoever. The book did not claim to be a scholarly historical treatment; in fact, it was only about 1/2 inch thick. But it did claim to be factual, which it was not.My point is, when I was growing up I wouldn’t say Emma got good press. In fact, she was rather a taboo subject once we went on to discuss BY and the Mormon trek to Utah. Jaynee

  4. That’s interesting. I only became aware of the church really in the mid 80’s but I also believe the obession with Emma is a fairly recent development. Should we understand it as a shift in Church marketing?  Posted by John C.

  5. If it’s a shift in church marketing, it was needed. LDS leaders made her out to be a villain in the decades following the move west, and I’m glad to see a correction to the dark and negative portrait they painted. Outside of their 1984 biography, Valeen Tippetts Avery and Linda Newell King did much to rehabilitate her image and make her a sympathetic figure. See, for instance, their article on her in the September 1979 Ensign. In a church that emphasizes the importance of marriage and family, Emma, as the wife of THE prophet–the first lady of the church, if you will–is an ideal choice as an object of reverence if we are looking for heroes. Some aspects of her life are problematic but understandable to many as they contemplate having to face the prospect of life in a plural marriage or crossing the plains as a widow, and there is certainly much to admire and respect in her history.  Posted by Justin

  6. Justin, I agree that Emma faced hard choices (including ones that I will never have to face). As stated above, I am not an Emma hater. I do not begrudge her the choices that she made either. My point is that there are plenty of other women in the early church whom we could hold up as examples of faith who do not present the problems that she does. For instance, Eliza R. Snow-Smith. Is a possible shift in emphasis from Eliza to Emma (which J implies) acceptable because the problems that Emma presents are less problematic today than the ones Eliza does? If you believe that Nauvoo doctrine was inspired, Eliza was certainly the more faithful of the two. Posted by John C.

  7. Emma likely holds a special place in LDS history due to her marriage to Joseph Smith.But I think that Eliza is a figure to laud. I note that the Smith Institute has been promoting  Eliza recently. Perhaps the appearance of a biography of Eliza R. Snow in the next few years will raise her profile a bit. Posted by Justin

  8. If I am reading Tippets and Avery correctly, Eliza was very insensitive to Emma’s agony over Joseph’s polygamy, especially when it came to Eliza’s relationship to Joseph.For believers, I understand this looks like a flaw in Emma’s behavior. But franky, I find Eliza’s behavior thoughtless. This, combined with her maudlin poetry, has put me off ERS. I acknowledge, however, she is still an eminent historical figure in Mormonism, and should be studied, discussed and, for believers, revered.Jaynee

  9. Actually, Jaynee, I agree with you. It seems much more like a flaw in Eliza’s behavior than in Emma’s. One would think she could have been a tad more sensitive.  Posted by John C.

  10. I don’t know so much that there had been an intentional shift away from Eliza and to Emma in terms of which early LDS women we as Church members were to revere- It just seems a couple of things happened around the same time.1. Official Church discouragement of discussion of certain toppics too often. Heavenly Mother. Why women don’t have the priesthood, etc. So in many ways, discussing many of the things that made Eliza someone to revere may have seemed like pulling a Maxine Hanks.2. Attempts at reconciliation and greater relations with the RLDS Church along with more popular scholarship countering the idea that Emma was to be looked down on. The Truman Madsen talks on the Prophet Joseph in which he says in a few different places that we are often too hard on Emma. This sentiment seemed to be around by many before that, and there certainly wasn’t the hatred or attacking of Emma that had seemed to come from BY- but it seems there was still a feeling that Emma had screwed up up seriously and clearly failed. It seems that popular scholarship and statements of Church leaders tried to counter that quite a bit in the early 90s. Posted by Mike

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