By Elbert A. Smith
Emma, the Elect Lady
This painting is the familiar portrait of Emma Smith painted at Nauvoo, Illinois in 1843.
Emma Smith, wife of the Prophet, was the daughter of pioneers, Isaac and Elizabeth Hale, whose ancestors came from England and settled in Plymouth, Massachusetts, in 1634. Her pioneer experiences in New York State with her father and mother prepared her to an extent for the hardships she had to endure throughout her life.
Her first tragic experience was that her family cast her off when she married young Joseph Smith, January 27, 1827. She was then twenty-two, and he twenty-one years of age. She could not be married in the parental home so they journeyed to the home of Squire Tarbell in South Bainbridge, Massachusetts, where they were married.
Giving her hand to the young Prophet Joseph she might have taken the vow that Ruth made to Naomi: “Whither thou goest, I will go: And where thou lodgest, I will lodge, thy people shall be my people, and thy God my God: Where thou diest, will I die, and there will I be buried.”
Those vows she kept and her body lies buried by the side of her husband. She was baptized in 1830 by Oliver Cowdery and even then under threat of mob violence. Her service to the Church might be said to begin with a period as scribe for Joseph in the translation of the Book of Mormon plates. She said that “hour after hour” she wrote while he dictated from the plates. The following is her testimony as published in the Saints’ Herald many years later and in Church History, Volume 3, page 357.
My belief is that the Book of Mormon is of divine authenticity—I have not the slightest doubt of it. . . . Though I was an active participant in the scenes that transpired, and was present during the translation of the plates, and had cognizance of things as they transpired, it is marvelous to me, “a marvel and a wonder,” as much so as to anyone else.
Emma was commissioned by revelation to prepare the first hymnbook published by the Church. It was published in 1835 and was used at the dedication of the Kirtland Temple. We have two copies only in the Church library. There were ninety hymns, including such old favorites as “Redeemer of Israel,” a hymn that we always sing at the opening session of General Conference; and also “How Firm a Foundation, Ye Saints of the Lord.” So Emma Smith was a pioneer in our hymnology as in other fields.
To Emma Smith was entrusted the care of the manuscript of the Inspired Version of the Bible. While Joseph Smith was at work on the preparation of the Inspired Version promise was given, “Thou shalt ask, and my Scriptures shall be given as I have appointed, and they shall be preserved in safety” (Doctrine and Covenants 42:15). That promise was kept. Emma guarded the manuscript of the Inspired Version through many, many perils. She surrendered it in 1867 to the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, which the Lord evidently had preconsidered as a place of safety.
She was president of “The Nauvoo Female Relief Society” organized in 1852. It was the first of our organizations for women, the beginning of departmental work in the Church, and said to be one of the first organizations of women in the United States. She announced as part of the program of this organization to “Seek out and relieve the distressed, be ambitious to do much good, deal frankly with each other, and watch over the morals and characters of the members” (Centennial Year Book 1930, page 25).
Emma Smith served the Church publicly, but pre-eminently her stewardship was in homekeeping and her ministry to her husband and her sons. That was her cherished stewardship. As stated in Doctrine and Covenants, Section 24, she was called “The Elect Lady,” and her major assignment was to comfort and help her husband. He bore witness to her ministry in that line on an occasion when he was hiding out from his enemies on an island in the Mississippi River where she visited him at night. He wrote:
What unspeakable delight, and what transports of joy swelled my bosom, when I took by the hand . . . my beloved Emma—she that was my wife, even the wife of my youth, and the choice of my heart . . . again she is here, even in the seventh trouble—undaunted, firm, and unwavering—unchangeable, affectionate Emma. (RLDS History of the Church 1:120}
Emma Smith knew mob violence in Ohio, in Missouri, and in Illinois. When Governor Boggs issued his extermination order that all Latter Day Saints must leave Missouri or be exterminated, she was caught up in the flight, as recorded in Pioneer Women of Lee County, Illinois.
Winter shut in early, and when the fleeing pilgrims reached the Mississippi River it was frozen over, and Mrs. Smith carrying her two youngest with the older boy and the little girl clinging to her dress crossed the mighty river to Quincy, Illinois, on foot, weary, heartbroken, and sad.
The darkest hour in Emma Smith’s whole life came following the tragedy at Carthage when the body of her husband and that of his brother Hyrum were brought back to the old Mansion House which had been her home for a period of about two years.
She was urged by the Mormons to go west with them to Utah. Her father’s family relented and invited her to forget all about the Church and come back to the parental home. She did leave Nauvoo briefly for a place of safety then said, “I have no friend left but God, and no place to go but home.” So she returned with her children to the old Mansion House in Nauvoo and there reared them—Joseph, Alexander, and David—in the faith of their father.
Tributes to Emma Smith
She defied the spirit of mob violence that remained in Nauvoo, and lived there and won the praise, honor, and respect of her neighbors. My father and mother were married and went to live in the Mansion House, in one wing of the old house in which Emma Smith still lived and was a moving spirit. She ministered there to her children and grandchildren. I regret that I was so young when my father and mother left Nauvoo that I have no personal recollection of my grandmother Emma. I know by my mother’s testimony that I shared in her gentle ministry.
There are many recorded tributes to her memory. One of them was written by my mother. A daughter-in-law is sometimes critical of her mother-in-law, but my mother many years later wrote: “I look back with pleasure to the time spent with Mother Bidamon. In her steadfast faith she was an inspiring example.” (Emma Smith was married on December 27, 1847, to Major Bidamon.)
In reverse a mother-in-law is sometimes critical of a daughter-in-law. But Lucy Smith in her book, already mentioned, gave this tribute to her daughter-in-law.
I have never seen a woman in my life, who would endure every species of fatigue and hardship, from month to month, and from year to year, with that unflinching courage, zeal, and patience, which she has ever done; for I know that which she has had to endure—she has been tossed upon the ocean of uncertainty—she has breasted the storms of persecution, and buffeted the rage of men and devils, which would have borne down almost any other woman. It may be, that many may yet have to encounter the same—I pray God that this may not be the case; but should it be, may they have grace given them according to their day, even as has been the case with her.
A stepson sometimes has trouble with his stepmother. But Charles Bidamon, son of Major Bidamon, bore this tribute to his stepmother Emma, as published in The Saints' Herald, July 12, 1941.
I was taken into the home of Emma Smith Bidamon in 1868 at the age of four years, and was considered as one of the family up to and including the year of her death. . . . She was a person of very even temper. I never heard her say an unkind word or raise her voice in anger or contention. She was loved and respected by the entire community. . . . A noble woman, loving and beloved.
Emma Smith’s Final Offering
The final offering that Emma Smith made to the Lord and to the Church came when her sons were matured and ready for service. God came knocking at her door three times.
First he came knocking at the door and said to her: “Where is Joseph? He who is called to preside over the Church?“ Emma replied, “Here is Joseph.” She went with him to Amboy to see his calling approved and to see him ordained.
Secondly the Lord came knocking at her door and said: “Where is Alexander who is to be one of the Apostles and presently Presiding Patriarch of the Church?“ Emma replied. “Here is Alexander.” And last of all the Lord came knocking at the door and said, “Where is David, born after his father was killed?” And giving the last of the trio, Emma said, ‘‘Here is David.’’ And David presently became a member of the Presidency and the writer of many of our hymns. He was known as the “Sweet Singer of Israel.”
Thus Emma made her offering complete without any reservations. Her work was done, and the “Elect Lady” rests in peace (Excerpts from The Saints' Herald, July 20, 1955, pp. 13, 17).
Prints of the above painting of Emma Smith are available in various sizes for purchase at the Restoration Bookstore or from our online store.