Linda King Newell & Valeen Tippets Avery
Mormon Enigma: Emma Hale Smith, 2nd ed.
(University of Illinois Press, 1994), 394 pages, paperback, ISBN 0-252-06291-4
The Thorn in Joseph's Side
Written by two LDS women — one (Avery) a history professor and the
other (Newell) an independent writer in Salt Lake City, this award-winning* biography of the first
wife of Mormon founder Joseph Smith, Jr., is the fruit of nine years of extensive
research, and has been well-received by Mormon scholars, including the late BYU historian
The authors tell us in their introduction that they have written, "neither to
support nor to dispute doctrine," and they cite the words of General Authority
Brigham H. Roberts to express their guiding philosophy for treating the facts: "to
frankly state events as they occurred, in full consideration of all related circumstances,
allowing the line of condemnation or justification to fall where it may
The book's title expresses the fact that for many Emma's legacy has come down through
history as an enigma: though a model of the virtuous, supportive and submissive wife, Emma
rose up in revolt against the doctrine of polygamy, which she found personally odious, and
in direct conflict with the Book of Mormon. She stubbornly opposed Joseph at every
turn in his attempt to practice and teach plurality of wives. The authors present a
mountain of evidence to dismiss the negative picture of Emma as strong-willed and shrewish
— a caricature spawned by Brigham Young, who deeply resented Emma's adamant rejection
of polygamy, and feared the refusal of the slain prophet's widow to make the journey to
Utah would harm the vulnerable sect.
It is striking to learn that while Emma was polygamy's tireless foe, she was neither a
prudish nor judgmental woman. The book documents that Emma was a personal witness to
Joseph's infidelity with 19-year-old Fanny Alger during their years in Kirtland, Ohio, and
yet, she was ever willing to forgive her husband for this and other sexual indiscretions.
What she did find intolerable, however, was Joseph's attempts to build an elaborate
doctrinal justification for the violation of the monogamous marriage bed. While Emma Smith
is the central character in this book, it also marshals damning evidence against the
duplicitous character of her first husband. In Nauvoo, 38-year-old Joseph repeatedly used
the claim of divine revelation to coerce teenage girls to become his wives. Surely a more
self-serving string of revelations would be difficult to imagine. One cannot avoid the
irony in the fact that on the very night before the arrest that would lead to his brutal
murder, Joseph was secretly plotting to use his fugitive status as an occasion for a
period of protracted cohabitation with several of his young plural wives. And all the
while he was writing labored expressions of intimacy to the unsuspecting Emma.
The implications of the evidence for our estimate of Joseph Smith's character are
sobering. In the words of Lavina Fielding Anderson, editor of the Journal of Mormon
the [Newell and Avery] biography of Emma Hale Smith was deeply disturbing to me for the
documentation it provided about Joseph Smith and the origins of polygamy . . . . Let me be
specific. I was shocked and disgusted to discover that Joseph Smith marrried a
fourteen-year-old girl, fully consummated that marriage, and concealed it from Emma. My
image of "prophet" did not accommodate this kind of behavior. I could not begin
to find holy motives for such behavior ("The Garden God Hath Planted: Explorations
Toward a Maturing Faith," in Sunstone, October 1990, 26-27).
At least in respect to polygamy, subsequent Mormon history has vindicated the character
and convictions of Emma over those of Joseph. The Church finally abandoned the practice in
1890, 11 years after Emma's death.
— Luke P. Wilson
Enigma won the 1985 Mormon History Association's Best Book Award and
the 1985 John
Whitmer Association (RLDS) Best Book Award.