The Real Housewives of Nauvoo



This past March I was lucky enough to attend the Midwest Pilgrimage in Nauvoo with a group of friends. The keynote speaker was Linda King Newell who coauthored the book Mormon Enigma: Emma Hale Smith.  Having her there to tell stories and share insights made history come alive for me. Most of the Smith family buildings are owned and run by the RLDS faith, now known as the Community of Christ.  Our COC guide, Lachlan, took us on private tours of the properties. One of my favorite parts of the tours would be when Linda and Lachlan differed in their interpretation of events.  For example while touring the Mansion House, someone asked Linda if Emma really pushed Eliza down the stairs. She explained the various accounts, weighed the sources, and concluded that it was probably true. “But maybe she wasn’t pushed,” she said. “It’s possible that Emma grabbed her by the hair and yanked her down.” Lachlan cleared his throat, and I thought, uh oh, dueling scholars, dueling Mormonisms, surely he’s not going to attribute something scandalous to his faith’s matriarch. Lachlan went on at some length to describe how Emma could not have thrown Eliza down stairs because the witness saw it from the parlor, and as we could see, the stairs weren’t visible from that room.  Pause.  “In all likelihood the incident took place at the Homestead and it was Eliza PARTRIDGE that got pushed, not Snow.” Wow.

 I returned to Boston and devoured Mormon Enigma (which is insightful and accessible—read it if you haven’t) and developed a deep affection and respect for Emma. When I finished it, I felt like I’d just finished a huge telenovella. I know I should love Eliza too. She did many wonderful things, wrote some decent hymns, but I can’t get past the secret polygamy stuff. I am holding a grudge.  If that makes me a bad Mormon feminist, so be it.  You don’t marry your BFF’s husband behind her back. Badly done, Eliza. Badly done. I emailed my crafty, etsy buddy Libby who attended Pilgrimage with me and said we should have worn t-shirts that said either “Team Emma” or “Team Eliza.” So of course Libby did just that. And our group was pretty much split as to who wanted which shirt.  The first time I wore mine my brother’s kids were visiting and my 10 year-old niece asked what it meant. I debated how to respond, what facts to share. I mentioned the controversy over polygamy, Brigham’s anger at her refusal to join “Team Brigham” as the church struggled to agree on a successor to Joseph, but mostly I took time to share stories that show Emma’s unbelievable capacity for love and resilience. 

Here’s my favorite example of Emma’s goodness: while her second husband, Louis Bidamon never took other wives, he had lovers and fathered a child with a young widow, Nancy Abercrombie. She had other children and couldn’t manage the baby. Emma, at 60, took the child into her home and cared for him.  After a while she hired the mother to work in their home  so that Nancy could be with her son. Before her death, Emma made Louis promise to marry Nancy so that the boy would have a proper family.  Now that is one Elect Lady.

When it comes to Church history, do you feel strongly about anybody? Would you be a “Team Joseph” or a “Team Brigham” in terms of leadership style? Any “Team Rigdon” folks out there?



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15 Responses

  1. Rachel says:

    I really love this post, Heather, but I am also really divided, because I love both Emma and Eliza.

    Mormon Enigma is a deeply beautiful book, and it warmed my heart to Emma over and over again. I admire the patience with which she moved multiple times in terrible circumstances. I admire the tenderness with which she cared for those who were sick, and the immense hospitality with which she made room for them in her home. I admire the power with which she taught, and the courage with which she stood against polygamy. I admire the grace that she poured out to nearly everyone.

    I was disappointed in Eliza when I read those polygamous marriage portions, but feel so much gratitude for her for her hymn on Heavenly Motherhood and for taking (and preserving) what we now know as the Nauvoo Relief Society Minute Book. (It is gold.)

  2. Sarah says:

    Mormon Enigma introduced me more to Emma and Eliza — I knew just small parts of them while researching Mormon history. And I found a lot to like about each woman from it and a lot to criticize too. And isn’t that great, though? That a well researched and written history can humanize historical figures, instead of putting them on pedestals or even deifying them?

    The polygamous history pains me. I am still reconciling how it all went down with faith.

    • Sarah says:

      Oh and I find it interesting that it seems between Joseph and Brigham, they were who the church needed at the time (leadership style wise). I may not agree w a lot of Brigham’s points but I do feel he helped bring the church into an organized entity. And Joseph, well…the restoration was needed and I think, from what I’ve read, his personality really helped that along, in terms of membership and revelation.

  3. Em says:

    I’m torn too, for exactly the reasons Rachel shared. We wouldn’t have a single officially sanctioned word about Heavenly Mother if it weren’t for Eliza, but that secret polygamy stuff? Hmm. On the other hand, the Relief Society needed BOTH women to exist — one to found it, one to resurrect it.

    I don’t think I’d be team Brigham. I think he had the necessary vision and strength to shepherd a mass exodus and plan a city that would be far larger than the people of his time could have imagined. But I’m not sure I can proudly say “rah rah Brigham” because of how he treated women.

  4. Emily U says:

    Reading Mormon Enigma made me see both Emma and Eliza as somewhat victims of Joseph. Emma for obvious reasons. Eliza because who knows, maybe Joseph made her promise not to tell. She must have felt enormous pressure to say yes to marrying him, since he was the prophet and all. Maybe she felt torn up about it, who knows. I’m not on team Joseph or team Brigham because I’m a bit disgusted with them both. And a bit admiring of them both.

  5. Rachel says:

    My husband’s family is all on team Orson Pratt, their ancestor. (Especially in relation to Brigham vs. Orson.) I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard some iteration of, “If a Sunday School teacher taught Brigham today, he’d be kicked out.” I am pretty sure they are all referring to Adam-God theory.

  6. CG says:

    Great Post! That book is continuously on my nightstand and I refer to it often. My sympathies lie with Emma (which is ironic because Eliza is buried in SLC right next to Brigham Young, and my old apartment was no less than 15 feet from them!) I digress-
    Both women were smart, strong-willed, and stubborn. Qualities that made them good leaders and partners, but I, too, can’t get over the polygamy. Not much of what Eliza did sits well with me. She was courageous in writing about our Heavenly Mother, but…that’s all I got. She, also, not only married Joseph, she married Brigham, as well. Why? Dunno. I mean, she was already sealed to a one prophet.
    I will never be able to comprehend all that Emma went through as a woman, mother, and wife. She suffered right along her husband, as well as far, far away from her husband (literally and figuratively), and she bore Joseph’s burdens, as well. She lost children, managed Joseph’s family, finances, business ventures, and assets, put up with many of Joseph’s antics, failed ideas/endeavors, even his successful ideas/endeavors, and tolerated a back-seat position in his life and revelations. She did it all with more patience than I think is humanly possible… Go Team Emma!


  7. EmilyCC says:

    I love Mormon Enigma so much. I’m just in awe of the authors and their research (and I love that they were in the thick of raising children as they worked on this project in their respective states).

    I can’t decide. Eliza does seem a little austere at times, and I do feel like Emma is still such an enigma.

    I think I’ll be on Team Emmeline!

  8. MDearest says:

    I admire Eliza and decline to judge her. Admiring Emma is much easier, especially when you read about the choices she made and the things she endured. What a wife. What a mother. What a friend and citizen. What a loving woman. Every time I read the account of her and Louis Bidamon’s illegitimate child, I get chills of heroine worship.

    I guess that makes me Team Emma.

  9. April says:

    I love Eliza and Emma both but I harbor all kinds of ill feelings toward Brigham and Joseph, which is awkward, since I end up teaching a church lesson on Joseph at least annually. I usually focus on boy Joseph. I like the teen prophet version of Joseph Smith a lot more than the grown-up who coerces women into joining his harem with talk about flaming swords and whatnot. (If you don’t like Emma or Eliza, I guess the good thing about our male-centered curriculum is that you’re unlikely to ever have to teach about either of them.)

    I do get defensive over Emma. I feel like she is frequently vilified to protect Joseph and Brigham. Since church members (who aren’t me) love and revere Joseph and Brigham, they assume that they were right abut everything, and so any disagreement Emma had with either of them is discounted as “not following the prophet” instead of weighed on the merits of Emma’s own ideas.

  10. Heather says:

    My new goal during Gospel Doctrine is to insert an Emma comment into every lesson. It’ll make me a more informed participant since I’ll have to have a clue about the lesson ahead of time. Whether or not Emma was well behaved, she should be included in our history.

  11. Meg Stout says:

    I think Linda Newell and Val Avery were deeply steeped in the Mormon History group think of their day. That group think portrayed Joseph as highly sexed, Emma as intolerably oppressed, the rest of the women as hussies, and the men as sheep (or wolves).

    There is a completely different way to view the events related to Joseph Smith and polygamy. I believe Emma and Eliza loved and respected each other.

    If anyone fell down a staircase in view of Charles C. Rich, I think it was Eliza in the Red Brick Store at the end of the school term. No other set of stairs fits the tales told.

    I’m blogging about this over at Millennial Star – posts go up every Monday. You can search “Meg Stout Faithful Joseph” to find it, if you want.

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