Joseph Smith Polygamy: Emma’s Fury and Joseph’s Martyrdom (Part 1)

Todd Noall

Todd Noall

Source Expert

Todd Noall is an author and religious scholar at Mormonism Explained with a focus on the history and theology of religion.

Fact Checked by Kevin Prince

Joseph Smith Polygamy: Emma Smith’s Personal Struggles and Joseph’s Martyrdom


In June and July of 1843, tensions ran high in Joseph Smith Polygamy and his marriage to Emma Smith after she had tried but failed to embrace the principle of plural marriage earlier that May. And after Hyrum Smith had tried but failed to convince her of the rightness of plural marriage, even with a copy of Doctrine and Covenants 132 in hand records indicate that Emma became, for a time, rebellious, bitter, resentful and angry. In fact, from July through September of 1843, Emma even became confrontational to Joseph’s other wives, trying sometimes successfully, to drive them away from him. In today’s episode of Church History Matters, we dive into the details of this challenging time as well as the reconciliatory place Joseph and Emma ultimately seem to come to on this. We’ll also dig into how Joseph’s practice of plural marriage was a major factor behind the conspiracy, which ultimately led to his martyrdom. I’m Scott Woodward and my co-host is Casey Griffiths. And today we dive into our fourth episode in this series, Dealing with Plural Marriage. Now let’s get into it.

We’re continuing our investigation. The challenging subject that’s plural marriage and its origins in the church. So let’s recap here really fast. A person we spent a lot of time talking about last time was John C Bennett and his links or lack of links to plural marriage. He comes to Nauvoo with an adulterous past. I think he was engaged with a young woman or something like that, or at least he was courting a young woman when it was found out that he actually had a wife who had left him because of his adultery. He had broken up several marriages. Joseph confronted him about that. He pledged that he would do better and be better and that he was a changed man. Joseph liked John C Bennett and many others did. He was a talented force for good in Nauvoo and helped with the Nauvoo charter. He was elected mayor at the beginning of 1842, but then his past sins came back with a vengeance. And he begins to not just engage in adultery, but in what he’s going to call spiritual warfare. And we talked about what that was, this idea that illicit sexual relationships are okay, provided that nobody tells anybody about it. As long as there’s no accuser, it’s not a sin, he taught the women. And so when Joseph Smith found out about this, it’s going to lead to his excommunication and he’s going to leave Nauvoo angry and he’ll publish a bunch of filth against Joseph and the Saints. He’ll write a book just trying to discredit the Saints. He said that Joseph had awakened the wrong passenger in excommunicating him and so that he was going to make sure the Saints suffered and paid for their humiliation of him. 

So he starts to work outside Nauvoo, stirring up problems, making accusations. Meanwhile, in Nauvoo, there’s two people that Joseph Smith is very close to that have varied reactions to plural marriage. We got Hyrum Smith, who learns about plural marriage from Brigham Young, and then Hyrum kind of has to work through his issues, but it seems like Hyrum is accepting of it. He eventually practices plural marriage himself, and it seems like in the context of Section 132, he’s trying to help Joseph and Emma find a meeting of the minds, a way that they can resolve their differences over the issue.

After his conversion to the principal, Hyrum becomes like Joseph’s biggest supporter, and he’s going to be the one that performs a lot of the plural ceilings between Joseph and his later wives. Once he’s in, Hyrum is in on that principle for sure.

A quote here from Brian Hales says, “Hyrum became Joseph’s primary promoter and supporter, performing many of the plural feelings between Joseph and his later wives.” So Hyrum gets on board. And next, we’ve got to talk about Emma. Emma has genuine struggles. We don’t have a lot of information from her directly, but we know that Section 132 is received to try and help them understand the principles of plural marriage. Hyrum acts as an intermediary. Where does Emma eventually end up with all this? 

It seems like from the existing records that we have that May 1843 was a big month. That was the happiest month perhaps in Joseph Smith Polygamy and life. Maybe that’s overstating it. But certainly in Nauvoo during this challenging time, because Hyrum comes on board and Emma comes on board to plural marriage, she does her best. She makes a sincere attempt to participate in plural marriage. We don’t know exactly what letter to try, but we do know that in May 1843, she’s going to give Joseph Smith four wives, the Lawrence sisters and the Partridge Sisters, Emily and Eliza Partridge, Maria and Sarah Lawrence. One of his wives, Lucy Walker, says that Emma was well aware that he associated with them as wives within the meaning of all that word implies. And that is where it becomes super difficult for Emma. We discussed this right as she started to actually share her husband physically. Even after the very first night Joseph spent with Emily Partridge. Emily says that after that, “Emma turned against us. She would never allow us to live with him.” She was always kind of paranoid when they were alone together. It just crushed on Emma’s tender soul. This idea of sharing. She tried so hard, but it didn’t work. In fact, one observer said during this time that the face of Sister Emma was not a happy one, and her treatment of these plural wives was that of an unhappy, soured and jealous woman. You can understand the difficulty of sharing your husband, right? This is just so hard. So yeah, her acceptance of this was short lived. May was good, but in June it starts to wane. On June 23rd, Joseph told William Clayton that Emma had treated him coldly and badly and that he knew she was disposed to be revenged on him for something. She thought that if he would indulge himself, she would too. What does that mean? That she was going to indulge herself since Joseph was indulging himself? And I tend to agree with Brian Hill’s on this when he argues that Emma wasn’t threatening to somehow go live her own version of plural marriage or anything like that, but that she’s threatening to divorce Joseph and perhaps remarry or to publicly expose him. Joseph Smith said something like that that Emma had said. If he wouldn’t give up his plural wife, she would bring him up before the law. So maybe that’s what she meant by I’ll indulge myself, too. Suffice it to say, there’s some serious tension that’s being built up just a month after she had accepted the principal. There’s tension building in the marriage.

And this is the context where in July 1843, Hiram’s trying to intercede. He’s trying to help Joseph and Emma come together. That’s why he asks for the revelation that becomes section 132. And all of these reminiscences, too, we should state, are colored by the fact that many of these people that share them, William Clayton, Emily and Eliza Partridge, are still angry and upset with Emma Smith over her reaction to this. Yeah, so the story is always told that Hiram goes to Joseph and says, “If you’ll give me the revelation, I can convince any reasonable person of its truth and purity.” And Joseph says, you don’t know Emma as well as I do. William Clayton says Hyram took the revelation to Emma. Hyram came back and said she was very upset. At which point Joseph said, I told you didn’t know Emma as well as I do. Yeah, it’s this point that it seems like they have a serious discussion and figure out how to stay together and move forward. 

Clayton said that after section 132, I mean, that backfired big time. The words he used were that she appeared very rebellious. He said she was bitter, full of resentment and anger. So they sit down and have serious talk. William Clayton recorded to negotiate some kind of agreement. And I think last episode we talked about the first part of that agreement, but not the second. So let’s talk about that. 

So the first part, just to recap, was that they seem to agree that Joseph needs to obtain Emma’s permission going forward before marrying any new plural wives. That this marriage is going to work. You need to tell me, Joseph, and we need to get permission before marrying any new wives. You’ll remember that Section 132 instructed Emma to forgive Joseph his transgressions, which, you know, among other things, probably included Joseph hurting Emma’s feelings by not telling her about some of the plural marriages. Yeah, I know. It’s emotionally complex. It’s theologically complex. Joseph is, in some ways, waiting for Emma to have a soft heart about this so he can tell her everything. But now, you know, after that kind of spot of sunshine in May, things are getting cloudy again. But it seems to all come out right here. They’re really sitting down and saying, how are we going to make this work? They sit down and have it out with each other and kind of hash it out together. And yet you feel for both of them, right? 

And what’s interesting historically is after this agreement that in Joseph Smith Polygamy, he needs to obtain Emma’s permission before marrying anyone else, he only marries two more women total. Melissa, a lot later on in September of that year, and then Fanny Young in November of that year. And that’s it. And during the last eight months of Joseph’s life, he is not going to marry any additional wives. Brian Howells suggests that they kind of settle into a kind of monogamy. At least they live monogamous, lived together and have, you know, a semblance of a monogamous marriage, even though there are these other wives. Which I think in another way helps answer the question, why didn’t Joseph have children with these other wives? I think the strain that’s being placed on their marriage here is that Joseph is just okay to keep the principle the best he can without endangering the marriage with him and Emma. And I think they settle on what appears to be kind of a monogamous way of living, even though there are other women that he’s sealed to. And that’s really interesting.

Another wrinkle to that would be he does have one more child, but it’s with Emma. Yeah Emma is pregnant while Joseph goes to Carthage jail. And Emma’s reaction to Joseph Smith’s death is just devastating. You know, someone comes to her and says, your suffering will be your crown. After Joseph is killed, she turns to them and says, My husband was my crown. So the fact that they’re having another baby together, a little David Higham is born after Joseph is killed, and that she’s so devastated when Joseph is finally murdered, suggests that they do reach a point of reconciliation. They might not have ever agreed on plural marriage, but their marriage was in a good place when Joseph goes to Carthage.

But Emma’s concerns weren’t just sharing her husband. Her second term of negotiation had to do with her own well-being. And this frames a lot of concern over Emma’s financial status, how she’s going to provide for herself, how she’s going to provide for her kids. Not only is a factor here, but in her later dealings with Brigham Young and the 12 when they take over leadership of the church. 

The second demand, or agreement that their reach is that to financially provide for Emma and to assure that if anything ever happened to Joseph or to their marriage, that Emma would be able to provide for herself and children. So if Joseph has many wives, with every wife that he takes, each of those wives could have legal claim upon Joseph’s estate in the event of his death. Right. Which would leave Emma with little or nothing. So only hours after Emma had rejected Section 132, William Clayton recorded that, “Joseph told me to deed all the unencumbered lots to Emma and the children. He appears much troubled about Emma,” William says. And then the next day Clayton recorded that, “Joseph called me up into his private room with Emma and there stated an agreement they had mutually entered into. They both stated their feelings on many subjects and wept considerably.” And then Clayton writes, “Oh, may the Lord soften her heart that she may be willing to keep and abide by his holy love.” 

So two days after this, it’s official. Clayton recorded that he made a deed for half the steamboat called the Maid of Iowa from Joseph to Emma, and he also deeded to Emma over 60 city lots. So now Emma is going to have some financial security no matter what happens to Joseph and no matter what happens to their marriage. So Joseph is yielding to this part of the agreement to try to keep this marriage together, whatever it would take. 

And so, number one, Joseph’s got to ask permission before he marries any other wife. Emma’s got to approve. Number two is that Emma needs to have some self sufficiency in the case of Joseph’s death or the dissolution of their marriage, so that she could be financially taken care of and take care of the children.

And again, that threat is picked up after Joseph’s death. It seems like a lot of the break between Emma and Brigham Young and the 12 is over property that could belong to the church but belong to Joseph. Like the Joseph Smith translation ends up with Community of Christ over the LDS Church and not our church because Emma refuses to hand them over. There’s just a real concern of hers, especially after his death, that am I going to be financially okay? Am I going to be able to take care of myself and my family Now? I think she’s being selfish here. This is a totally understandable thing for sure. But it’s part of the the story of what’s going on in this marriage. That’s right. We should mention our sources, William Clayton, who was Joseph’s personal secretary at the time, he’s very close to the situation. He draws up some of the papers and we trust him here. 

There’s also other people that talk about Emma’s opposition, like Eliza, our SO who’s very close to Emma, but is also married to Joseph Smith. You know, in most of her writing later on in her life, she cites her name “Eliza R. Snow Smith”.

So if Emma’s kind of rebellious and infuriated and angry in July of 1843, when they come to this agreement after Hyram, bless his heart, tried to be peacemaker, then what happens at the end of that month and then in August and then in September, is that Emma now starts to still angry, but now she’s going to start getting confrontational with Joseph’s other wives. We have account of at least three instances. So the first is Eliza R. Snow in July. Yeah, she’s going to confront Eliza R. Snow and we know that after their confrontation, Eliza is going to abruptly leave Nauvoo for a while to go live with her sister about 25 miles outside of Nauvoo.

Might I add, the William McClellan letter where they talk about Fanny Algar also makes the accusation that Eliza was pregnant with Joseph’s child, and Emma pushed her down the stairs. Now that is patently false. Brian Hales and Locke McKay went to the house they were living in, which is still there, and actually, like, took photographs, measured the stairs, and it was physically impossible for that to have occurred. That did not happen. And I don’t want that slur to be on Emma Smith’s name or on Eliza R. Snow. 

Eliza leaves the city. She goes and lives with her sister. But neither Eliza nor Emma ever bring that up. It’s from this third hand account that William McClellan, who wasn’t even there right. Brings up. And so we need to take that story and just kind of stamp it out because it makes Emma look bad, it makes Eliza look bad, and it’s frankly just not true. It’s physically impossible based on the home that they were living in at the time. 

There’s also an account in August of the next month. Emma confronts another one of Joseph Smith Polygamy wives named Flora Woodworth, and Emma demands that Flora give her back the gold watch that Joseph had given to her after they were sealed earlier in the spring of that year. According to one account, she does give it back and then Emma stomps on it and breaks it. Flora’s then going to marry another man like the next day, and we’re not sure if that’s because Emma told her to do something like that or somehow she was angry or rebellious. But it’s a nonmember guy. She just marries them like the next day after Emma confronts her. We’re not sure what to make of that. And that same month of August, William Clayton recorded that Emma had resisted the principle of plural marriage in total, like totally resisting now, and that Joseph worried that she would obtain a divorce and leave him. You mentioned flash forward things are going to end okay. Things are going to end well between Joseph and Emma at his death. They’re going to be pregnant and she is completely devastated by that loss. But before there’s this season. Things haven’t gotten better yet. We’re going to get there. But in August, things are maybe at their fever pitch. 

September, it continues in this way. Emma is going to expel the Partridge Sisters from their home. Emily said that Emma wanted them to leave the city, which they didn’t do. Emily also said that “Emma wanted us to immediately divorce, and she seemed to think that all she had to do was say the word and it would be done. But we thought different,” Emily said. We looked upon the covenants. We had made a secret. But Emily goes on to say that Emma confronted Joseph so hard about this when Emily’s in the room that Joseph said fine. And he shook Emily’s hand. And Emily understood that to be, you know, kind of the end of their marriage. At least that’s what she says in one account. 

So Emma’s now confronting the wives and trying to get them to move out of town and get out of the way. And there was even a young man that she told Eliza Partridge that she should let him take her on a little buggy ride. She’s trying to play matchmaker with some of Joseph’s wives. So July, August, September, that’s when it’s at its worst. But in October, things start to turn better.

Things calmed down. William Clayton records that on October 19th, Joseph began to tell me that Emma was turned quite friendly and kind. We’re not sure what happened, but by October she’s calmed down as she actually begins working by Joseph Side, helping to administer temple ordinances like washing and anointing to the sisters of the church. And things seem to be on the up and up with them. There’s only kind of one last thing that persists, and that is that as president of the Relief Society, Emma Smith continues to use her position to advocate against plural marriage, both privately and publicly. One instance, I think is worth mentioning as far as publicly goes, there had been some efforts in February of 1844 to really slander a lot of the men and women of Nauvoo. Some people were accusing Joseph and other church leaders and some of the women in novel of being involved together in some sort of prostitution ring or something like that or. Being involved in Bennett’s spiritual life system. Hyrum Smith had been accused by a guy named Erasmus Bostwick, and he had been fined 50 bucks for slandering Hyram Smith and other women in the city. And this really provoked Emma. Phelps was approached by somebody, and it appears to be Emma, to draft an epistle or like a resolution which was edited by Emma after he drafted it. And after that, this epistle, which they’re going to call the Voice of Innocence, she goes and holds four meetings of the Relief Society, two Saturdays in a row on the ninth and 16th of March, 1844. They read the Voice of Innocence and then ask the Relief Society Sisters to adopt it, to try to stop the slandering that was going on, in our view. Well, here’s just an excerpt from the preamble: “Curse the Man that Preys upon Female Virtue. Curse the man that slanders a woman. Let the righteous indignation of insulted innocence and virtue spurn him from society. Let the dignity of the mothers of Israel kick the bloodthirsty pimp from the pail of social communion and let the timid daughters of Nauvoo dread such canker worms more than the pestilence, the walk of the darkness, and shun them as the serpent on the land and the shark in the sea. My God, is there not female virtue and valor enough in this city to let such mean men die of the rot? That the sexton that’s a grave digger may carry their putrid bodies beyond the limits of this city for food, for vultures and eagles.” That’s intense language. 

So Erasmus Bostwick is kind of the one that seems to have spurred this on. But it seems that John C Bennett and his copycats are out there still really just causing trouble in others still. One of the resolutions, though, catch this language, “Wherefore will the marriage bed undefiled is honorable. Let polygamy. Bigamy, fornication, adultery and prostitution be frowned out of the hearts of honest men to drop in the gulf of fallen nature. Where the worm die is not and the fire is not quenched. And let all the saints say amen.”

So after reading that, the women then took a vote on who would be willing to receive the principles of virtue and keep the commandments of God and uphold Emma Smith Specifically in putting down iniquity. And the meeting minutes say it was received unanimously. And then Emma Smith said that her determination was to do her duty effectually in putting down transgression. So, yeah, this is more broadly against sexual immorality and all the various perversions that are possible. But I think it’s just interesting that on the list, she made sure to include polygamy. And so that’s a kind of a public example. There’s some private examples. John Taylor says that the AMA came to his wife, Leonora, and tried to talk her out of getting involved in Joseph Smith Polygamy

Let me emphasize here, too, that the women that are entering into plural marriage don’t see it as adultery or a shameful no. For instance, Emily Partridge, after Emma told them that she wanted them to divorce, Joseph said, We thought differently. She writes, We looked upon the covenants we had made as sacred. And so, yeah, there’s definitely not only a big difference between Emma and Joseph, but between Emma and the other women who didn’t see themselves as committing sin. They saw themselves as living a covenant commandment from God. Lots of tension going on here.

We can wrap up this part of today’s episode with maybe a summary from Brian Howells I thought was nice. We can’t plug his books enough, can we? They’re so good. This is from volume to page 138. He summarizes kind of this whole period this way. He said, “In the fall of 1843, Emma experienced a short lived change of heart regarding plural marriage that with compromises on both sides, evolved into an outwardly stable, monogamous lifestyle for the couple. In the months after their explosive confrontation in July 1843 over the revelation and celestial marriage,” he continues, “it appears that Emma’s challenges in relation to plural marriage were unique among all of the polygamous wives in Nauvoo.” And I love his point here, he says, “Because the revelation came through her husband, she was distinctively positioned to second guess some, if not all, of the motives behind it. Accordingly, her proximity to the revelation giver demanded greater faith than that required of any other wife in a plural marriage. The historical record indicates she continually strove to accept plural marriage, despite her vacillations. Unquestioned is Emma’s devotion to Joseph and his return devotion to her. Despite the surrounding marital whirlwind to which they were exposed.”

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By Todd Noall, Source Expert

Todd Noall is an author and religious scholar at Mormonism Explained with a focus on the history and theology of religion.

Fact Checked by Mr. Kevin Prince, Source Expert

Kevin Prince is a religious scholar and host of the Gospel Learning Youtube channel. His channel has garnered over 41,000 subscribers and accumulated over 4.5 million views. Mr. Prince also created the Gospel Learning App, a reliable platform where individuals seeking truth can access trustworthy answers to religious questions from top educators worldwide.

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