Emma's Sacrifice in Her Twilight Years

By Pamela Price

Emma in Her Twilight Years, by Nancy Harlacher

Emma in Her Twilight Years
By Nancy Harlacher

This portrait was painted from an actual photograph which was donated to Price Publishing Company. The painting of Emma and her shawl brings to mind the twilight years of Emma Smith Bidamon—the “elect lady” of the Church, who played such a prominent part in the Restoration Movement of the 1830s.

After Joseph’s death, Emma Smith remained in Nauvoo and kept possession of the Mansion House hotel, the Homestead, and the unfinished Nauvoo House. She married a “new citizen”—one of those who moved into Nauvoo after the Saints left—named Lewis Crum Bidamon, who had served as a major in the Illinois militia. The family operated a hotel in the Mansion House, and Emma’s sons and their stepfather worked the Joseph Smith farm a few miles southeast of Nauvoo.

As Emma’s sons, Joseph III, Alexander, and David married and had families, they all lived on the properties which Joseph and Emma had owned. Into this loving family were born many grandchildren who loved Grandmother Emma, and upon whom she bestowed her love and talents. For almost ten years Emma enjoyed this most pleasant condition—and then the Church work necessitated the moving of her sons and their families to Plano, Illinois, where the new Church headquarters were located. This left Emma to grieve their departure.

Several of the grandchildren left records of their love for Grandmother Emma. There is the story of Emma Josepha, the oldest, who was called “Emma J.” by the family. Her home was at the Homestead with her parents, Joseph III and Emmeline Griswold Smith, but she preferred to be with her grandmother because her mother Emmeline was frail and often bedfast, and had four children younger than Emma J. to care for while they lived in Nauvoo (see Buddy Youngreen, Reflections of Emma, Joseph Smith’s Wife [Orem, Utah: Grandin Book Company, 1982], p. 69). There was much to interest Emma J. at the Mansion House, and her parents saw she was happier there, so she lived a block away at her grandmother’s as long as the family lived in Nauvoo.

The other grandchildren loved their grandmother also, and found the hotel which she managed an alluring and delightful place to be. And why not? Her home was in the hotel to which many people came from near and far. No doubt the children sat spellbound and listened to these interesting vistors tell great adventure stories.

Among them were riverboat crewmen and river travelers, pioneers going west, and many missionaries of the Church—such as W. W. Blair, Jason Briggs, Zenos Gurley, Charles Derry, and Mark Forscutt. They all told thrilling stories! The children learned much about the Church as they listened to those missionaries, their Grandmother Emma, and their own fathers and mothers talk and testify of the wonders of the gospel and of old Nauvoo.

There were the fun times too. The Mansion House had over twenty rooms, and some of them were vacant. In the unrented rooms the children played hide-and-seek. There were other wonderful places to play—such as the unfinished Nauvoo House which they found as inviting as an abandoned castle. East of the Nauvoo House was the large brick barn with stalls for over fifty horses, and the old carriage which Joseph Smith, Jr., and Emma had owned. Vida E. Smith, daughter of Emma’s son Alexander and his wife Elizabeth Kendall Smith, declared:

The old barn was a “jolly place.”

There our fathers romped when boys, and there as children we played, taking curious journeys in the wreck of the old carriage with the ragged old seats, crowded with travelers as when of old they carried other children along the winding river roads. (Vida E. Smith, “Three Historic Old Nauvoo Homes,” Autumn Leaves 19:303)

Equally thrilling were many old abandoned houses close by—some elegant brick homes of the Saints who had left the once beautiful city. Vida continued, “These [old houses] often furnished places for wild games of hide and seek” (Vida E. Smith, “Biography of Alexander H. Smith,” Journal of History 5:49 1). Vida is remembered by the Saints everywhere as the author of the “Old, Old Path.”

Another wonder for the children was the nearby Mississippi River. In a day in which there were no airplanes, no cars, and few trains, there were many boats on the mighty river for them to watch. With their fathers and uncles, they fished and went for boat rides. Along the marshy banks they captured frogs and turtles, chased rabbits, and watched cranes, ducks, and other waterfowl feeding near the shore. They threw pebbles, making them skip across the water. Yes, the river furnished much pleasure.

Not all was harmless, perfect play, however. Sometimes they got into trouble, as all children occasionally do. There was the day that Elbert A. Smith, son of David and Clara Hartshorn Smith, who was about three years old at the time, threw Grandfather Bidamon’s “heavy iron” hoe into the river to see if it would float. It did not, and little Elbert got into trouble. At another time he and a cousin his age, Don Alvin, son of Alexander, upset the chicken coop, letting out the hen and baby chicks. Grandfather Bidamon saw what they had done and asked the boys to explain how the chickens got out. They tried to convince him that “the hen must have kicked the coop over,” and they were both in trouble (Elbert A. Smith, On Memory’s Beam [Independence, Missouri: Herald Publishing House, 1946], p. 24).

When the children came in from play, they knew where to find Grandmother’s cookie jar. It was never empty, and the cookies (not too sweet, but filling) reminded them of her love. Emma was an excellent cook who baked lots of bread and fried delicious doughnuts. There was always plenty of butter for the children’s bread, and cool milk for drinking, for Emma arose at four o’clock each morning and went to the barn to milk the cow.

Emma was an exceptionally good gardener who raised delicious vegetables and beautiful flowers. The children followed her to the garden to plant, hoe, and harvest. They tramped with her across the broad lawns, fields, and old abandoned gardens of Nauvoo, gathering herbs—for Emma was skilled in making medicine from herbs.

But most of all there was the spiritual aspect which drew the children to Emma. She taught them by example. They heard her sing the Church hymns while she worked and in family worship. They heard her testimonies as she was questioned about the Church by those who visited or rented rooms. They listened to her testify in the prayer services which were held in the dining room of the Mansion House, in the Brick Store, and in the homes of the Saints (see Journal of History 5:271).

Eventually the call came for Emma’s sons to work for the Church at the headquarters in Plano, Illinois. One by one they moved away. Emma visited Plano, and sometimes her sons or members of their families returned to Nauvoo for a short while, but they never stayed permanently. (See Vida E. Smith, “Biography of Alexander H. Smith,” Journal of History 5:64.) Being separated from them after so many years of closeness was a real sacrifice, which Emma made for the Church she loved so much.

Vida Elizabeth Smith was ten years of age when her family moved from Nauvoo the last time. Her mother, Elizabeth, had been an orphan girl at Nauvoo. When Elizabeth was fourteen she became Emma’s foster daughter. She called Emma “Mother,” lived at the Mansion House, and later married Emma’s son, Alexander. They continued to live at the Mansion House until they felt God was calling them elsewhere. The family moved to Plano, and later back to Nauvoo. Vida tells of that final goodbye on their last move when the Church Headquarters were moved to Lamoni, Iowa. She wrote:

The bright, sunny, April day [in 1876] was closing down. The children were trooping through the hall of the Nauvoo House to where grandma stood spreading “pieces” [of bread] for the hungry little band. . . . [My] mother [Elizabeth] sat wearily in the big rocker, tears of parting already shining in her eyes, although she thought the night lay between her [and her foster mother, Emma] and the last good-bye. The rooms at the Mansion looked sadly lonely, and as grandmother stooped to tie a stray bonnet string or press into tiny hands a well-sugared biscuit, there was the tremor of sadness in the dear old hands, and the brown eyes overflowed. Soon they would all be gone, and how they would be missed. . . . We were swept out of the loving arms of our grandmother, and from the brow of the hill I recall looking back to grandmother standing with her hands shading her eyes from the western sunlight, a pathetic droop to the whole beloved figure. . . . We were thus suddenly whisked away from the old home and grandmother.

The setting sun gleamed in a thousand gay lights on the windows of the old homes, and touched the waters to a molten sea as we passed beyond . . . and left the childhood home for ever, and never again did my mother look upon the cherished friend of her life, her foster mother, and ideal mother-in-law. . . . It left the grandmother so lonely. For father and mother there were new scenes and unique experiences . . . for grandmother the lonely days and sad memories in the old town. (Journal of History 6:29-30)

Vida’s younger sister, Emma Belle, remembered:

When we left Nauvoo . . . we went by boat. And when on the boat we went by the Nauvoo house. There was Grandma [Emma] at the window waving a tablecloth and as long as we could see her she waved to us a farewell. Mother [Elizabeth] said Watch children for we’ll never see her again. Poor mother wept so she could not see [Grandma Emma waving]. (Gracia N. Jones, Emma’s Glory and Sacrifice: A Testimony [Hurricane, Utah: Homestead Publishers and Distributors, 1987], p. 174)

Emma lived for nineteen years after she went to Amboy with Joseph III in 1860, and joined the fellowship of the Saints who had reorganized the Church. During her twilight years she made whatever sacrifice was required.

She was indeed an Elect Lady!

Prints of this painting are available in various sizes for purchase at the Restoration Bookstore or from our online store.