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?