The Question of Emma Smith


In my experience, the most committed Latter-day Saints are also the ones most willing to have conversations about faith. In those conversations, we highly recommend that born-again Christians ask questions that are respectful, genuine, and incisive. Let me suggest one:

Does it bother you that Emma Smith left the LDS Church?

For those outside the LDS Church, the question is counterintuitive. But for those inside, it’s provocative. In fact, I have a friend whose journey out of the LDS Church and into biblical Christianity began with this very thought. Let’s explore why.


Emma Hale (1804–1879) eloped with Joseph Smith to become his first wife. The couple had 11 children, 2 that were adopted and 6 lost tragically in infancy. Although Emma played a prominent role in early LDS development, her contempt for plural marriage became widely known and resulted in a break with the LDS Church’s second president, Brigham Young.

Further, the LDS Canon mentions Emma by name at multiple points. D&C 25 identifies her as “an elect lady” (v. 3), commands her to support Joseph’s preaching (v. 6), and encourages her to compile “a selection of sacred hymns” (v. 11). D&C 132 commands her (through the prophetic voice of her husband) to accept Joseph’s plural wives (v. 51), to cleave to Joseph alone (v. 54), and to forgive him as a condition of her own salvation (v. 56). After Joseph’s murder in 1841, Emma resisted Brigham Young’s ascension to the prophetic office and chose to remain in Nauvoo, IL. Later, she remarried a man named Lewis Bidamon, a non-Mormon, in a ceremony performed by a Methodist minister. And in 1860 she joined her son, Joseph Smith III (Joseph and Emma’s oldest son) in establishing a non-polygamous, rival denomination called the RLDS Church1. She passed on April 30, 1879 at the age of 74 never having been reconciled with the Utah-based branch.

A Provocative Question

So, why would it bother Latter-day Saints that Emma left the LDS Church? Two reasons suffice.

First, Emma’s departure creates a problem of trust, for it contradicts the placid picture frequently painted for LDS children. For example, in a recent Primary worksheet entitled “A Faithful Girl Named Emma,” Mark Staker writes, “When she was 21, a hard-working and intelligent young man named Joseph Smith came to live at the Hale home. Emma Hale had a good character and a quick wit. She was a virtuous young woman. No wonder she and Joseph chose each other as husband and wife!” Later, he adds, “Emma loved her husband, Joseph, all his life and did many things to support him in his important work of restoring the Lord’s gospel.”

We certainly don’t expect Dr. Staker to explore the entanglements of polygamy to Primary-aged children. But when LDS young people hear only glowing folklore, it’s jarring to encounter the bare facts. Emma and Joseph eloped over her father’s objections; she was the first of many wives for the “hard-working and intelligent young man” found guilty of fraud in a New York court the very year they married. Emma both resented Joseph’s polygamy and frequently lied about it in public to protect her husband’s image. Emma turned away from “the only true and living church upon the face of the whole earth” (D&C 1:30) and, therefore, came dangerously close to committing “personal apostasy” as the LDS Church defines it.

Second, the story of Emma Smith unveils a problem of magnitude for she was no ordinary LDS woman. She was Joseph Smith’s first wife, the first President of the Relief Society, a scribe for the Book of Mormon, and a designer for holy Temple garments. That she left is an indictment on Brigham Young’s entire venture.

When Latter-day Saints combine these two points, they tend to start asking other questions. What did Emma know? Why wasn’t I told this before? What else hasn’t been told to me? Once a Latter-day Saint starts asking these sorts of questions, a path to truth suddenly emerges.


Born-again Christians aren’t responsible to make sense of the Joseph-and-Emma tale. It’s our job to pose the question, yes, but more importantly, to listen graciously to the answer and shepherd our LDS friends to a better way. The best discovery is self-discovery. May we be faithful in helping Latter-day Saints discover God’s truth for themselves.


  1. The acronym stands for “Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.” This branch later renamed itself the “Community of Christ” in 2001.