A Tale of Two Emmas

Libbie Grant
9 min readJun 22, 2022

In the 1990s, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints began a campaign of revisionist history, seeking to overhaul the image of one woman: Emma Hale Smith, first wife of founder and prophet Joseph Smith.

Years ago, when I first had the idea of writing a novel about the founding of the Mormon religion, I told my mother about all the books I’d been reading on Latter-day Saint history — biographies and accounts of dramatic events such as the Missouri War and the Haun’s Mill massacre. Like me, my mother had once been an active member of the church, but had since drifted away from our religion. I knew she’d find my latest idea for a novel intriguing.

“Are you reading that book about Emma?” she asked.

I wasn’t aware of any book about Emma Hale Smith, the first wife the religion’s founder, Joseph Smith, Jr. I told her so, and she exhorted me to find it and read it, insisting it would be my favorite of all the books on my list

“I still remember that biography,” she said, “though it must have been ’85 or ’86 when I finally got my hands on it. It was hard to come by, back then. You couldn’t just order a book on Amazon like you can today, and have it shipped right to you.”

She explained that none of the bookstores within a hundred miles of our small, Mormon-majority town would carry this mysterious volume. It was considered too scandalous, too shocking for church members’ consumption.

“When I finally managed to get a copy, your grandparents were so mad,” she went on. “They thought it was just about the worst thing I could do, to read about Emma. I’m sure the fact that I was reading that book was a big story all across town, but I didn’t care. I thought it was too interesting; I refused to put the book down.”

I suggested she might have misremembered the topic. Surely the scandalous biography she’d read had been No Man Knows My History, the biography of Joseph Smith — a book so notorious that most faithful Latter-day Saints still won’t read it, decades after its publication.

But Mom was absolutely certain. The book in question had focused entirely on Emma.

No institution — not even the LDS church — was safe from feminism’s scouring tide.

With a little more digging, I discovered the book in question. Its original title was Mormon Enigma: Emma Hale Smith, Prophet’s Wife, “Elect Lady,” Polygamy’s Foe, and it had been written by two faithful LDS authors, Linda King Newell and Valeen Tippetts Avery, in the early 1980s. (Nowadays, it’s simply called Mormon Enigma. I like the ring of the original title, however.)

“I don’t understand,” I told my mom. “Why would Emma’s biography have been scandalous back then?”

Mom explained that the church she’d grown up in had been a different institution from the church I’d known. “Emma was not respected back then. Not at all. That biography had made her look too sympathetic. It got a little too close to the truth about Joseph and polygamy — and everything else he’d put Emma through, even before the polygamy started.”

She told me that in her church, Emma had often been presented as the prime example of everything a woman shouldn’t be — shrewish, cold, and opposing her husband’s designs. Emma had been so recalcitrant, the old narrative went, that God had been forced to issue a commandment to her by name — a rare occurrence in LDS tradition — warning that if she didn’t bend to Joseph’s will, she would be condemned for all eternity.

“We were taught to despise Emma,” Mom said. “You never heard her name mentioned unless it was a warning, and whenever someone mentioned her, you could feel a tension go through the whole church, like everyone’s guts were clenching.”

I’d been in church with my parents when Emma’s name was invoked as a specter of dread. But I’d been too young to notice that change in the atmosphere.

By the time I was a teenager in the 1990s, my parents had divorced and had largely withdrawn from religious life. I still attended church regularly, however. I was curious about the history of my family’s faith and seeking answers to the big questions in life, as young adults often do.

In the 90s, I — along with a whole new generation of Latter-day Saints — became acquainted with an entirely different First Lady of the faith. Through church-approved lesson plans, fiction published by the church-owned imprint Deseret Books, and even a saccharine (if well-made), high-budget film called “Emma Smith: My Story,” the younger set knew Emma as unfailingly loyal to Joseph, even while their marriage was rocked by the edict of polygamy — which Joseph never wanted, of course; he was only being tested by the same God who’d required Abraham to sacrifice his beloved son.

You can actually see the church-approved representation of femininity morphing before your eyes.

After that conversation with my mother, I began to wonder what could have caused such a dramatic change in the church’s depiction of Emma.

The church has always been chameleonic. Its tradition of doctrinal flexibility dates back to the earliest days — to Joseph Smith himself, who sought and obtained revelations directly from God whenever conflicts arose within the body of the church.

I don’t say this as an accusation — nor even as criticism. I believe dogmatic approaches to life are more harmful than beneficial. Willingness to reassess old ways and change with the times is a great strength in any institution. The LDS church has a well-documented history of re-shaping its narratives to accommodate shifts in the broader culture. The two most obvious examples are the church’s abandonment of plural marriage in 1890 (a response to the Edmunds-Tucker Act of 1887, which prohibited polygamous Mormon men from voting in federal elections) and the revocation, in 1978, of church rules forbidding Black men from holding the priesthood and Black women from serving in the temple. This latter change was a direct response to the Civil Rights Movement and the hard-won advancements Black Americans had made over the two preceding decades.

“Emma Smith, the Elect Lady” by artist Theodore Gorka. This painting depicts a real event from LDS history, when Emma nursed many critically ill church members during an outbreak of malaria at Nauvoo, Illinois.

I figured the answer to Emma’s strange duality must have its roots in a broader social movement. My investigation took me first to the demographics of the church, where I discovered that around 1985, the church experienced its greatest growth in the whole of the 20th century. Membership increased by nearly 9% in the mid-80s, dwarfing growth rates for most preceding decades.

But that precipitous rise in membership was followed by a plunge over a steep cliff. By 1988, growth had more than halved at 4%, and by 1992 — when Emma’s reform was well underway — growth barely stayed above 3%.

By 1988, surely church leadership recognized the coming crisis. And at the dawn of the 90s, there could be no denying its cause. The third wave of feminism had crashed over western culture. Riot Grrls stalked the streets of mainstream America, the number of women in the Senate tripled (yet still remained in the single digits), and the word “bitch” was transformed from insult to battle cry. No institution — not even the LDS church — was safe from feminism’s scouring tide.

Leadership scrambled to re-frame Mormonism as a faith that could co-exist with these rapidly changing ideas about gender and women’s place in society. Today, you can even observe this remarkably hasty change yourself, thanks to a magnificent YouTube archive called Hard-to-Find Mormon Videos. The playlist called “Dramas and Entertainments 1991–2015” is especially instructive. You can actually see the church-approved representation of femininity morphing before your eyes.

Katherine Nelson portrays the title character in “Emma Smith: My Story” (2012)

In videos from the early 80s, young female characters wrestle with questions of marriage inside or outside the faith, in or out of the Temple, as if the particulars of marriage are the greatest concern a woman will ever face. By the mid-90s, however, female characters are questioning whether to pursue higher education or get married — and then, as the 21st century opens, higher education is presented as a given, even a necessity for any modern mother and wife.

The changes in young women’s appearance is still more telling of the cultural pressures the LDS church faced from third-wave feminism. In earlier films, women and girls are dressed in conservative, female-coded fashions — long skirts and dresses, soft colors — and styled with long hair. As the march of feminism progresses, however, young women are suddenly wearing jeans with dark-colored, tighter-fitting tops, and sporting boyishly short haircuts in defiance of the church’s long-established preference that LDS women must adopt a modest and unmistakably feminine presentation.

I came of age during this era of tomboyish, college-aged LDS girls wrestling with the question of whether to obtain a master’s degree before settling down to have lots and lots of babies. And I don’t think it’s any coincidence that Emma Hale Smith underwent her personality makeover in this era of blue jeans and pixie cuts.

The church hoped to weather the onslaught of third-wave feminism by offering a more permissive, more egalitarian front to the broader culture. Ceasing to slander Emma Hale Smith — who, after all, helped build and sustain the early church in countless ways — was perhaps the church’s biggest concession to the advance of third-wave feminism.

Of course, Emma’s transformation went farther than historical documents support. She was altered almost overnight from hateful shrew who opposed the Prophet to a long-suffering martyr, endowed with inexhaustible patience, boundless love for Joseph Smith, and a rock-solid commitment to the restoration of the Gospel that would see her through a series of trials dire enough to break the spirit of any ordinary woman.

In reality, I think Emma must have been more complex than that. Surely she was as nuanced in her feelings about Joseph’s evolving church as any human would be. She was no saint, but neither was she a sinner. She was simply a woman caught up in events that were largely beyond her control, struggling to protect her children — and her own heart — as best she could while the world she knew went mad around her.

I read Mormon Enigma from cover to cover, and as my mom had predicted, I found it more useful than almost any other resource. In fact, it was Emma’s biography that helped me find the best way to tell the story of the birth of Mormonism. I decided I would frame my novel through Emma’s point of view, restricting the reader to what Emma knew, what she experienced, what she thought and felt.

The result is The Prophet’s Wife — a work of fiction, but in its ambiguous portrayal of this little-known historical woman, perhaps it contains more fact than the church’s Janus-like depiction of Emma Hale Smith — now a villainous enemy of God, now a faithful martyr for her husband’s religion.

I feel certain the real Emma existed somewhere between those two distinct poles, in the gradient between the church’s stark black and white. She was undoubtedly kind and cruel, bitter and warm, loving and deeply wounded.

Just about every real woman is.

Libbie Grant is a bestselling author of literary fiction. Her work has shortlisted for the Washington State Book Award and the Willa Literary Award. Her latest novel, The Prophet’s Wife, tells the story of the origins of the LDS church through the eyes of Emma Hale Smith, the first wife of founder Joseph Smith. Find her work at LibbieGrant.com.



Libbie Grant

Libbie Grant is a writer from the PNW. Her most recent novel is The Prophet’s Wife, a literary exploration of the founding of the Mormon faith. libbiegrant.com