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SISTER EMMA'S LAST TESTIMONY:
A CRITICAL ANALYSIS
Charles M. Turner Ph.D.
Prepared for presentation at
AAR, Western Regional Conference,
Golden Gate Baptist Theological Seminary,
Mill Valley, California,
Emma Smith Bidamon (1804-1879), the widow of Joseph Smith, the Mormon prophet, refused to accept Brigham Young's leadership of the Mormon Church. When the Mormons left Illinois in 1846, she remained behind, and eventually joined the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (RLDS Church), a spirited rival of the Utah-based Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS, or "Mormon" Church). In her later years, Emma Smith was denounced by the Utah hierarchy as one who had led her sons astray from their father's religion, and a liar. For example, in 1866, Brigham Young stated,
The sympathies of the Latterday Saints are with the family of the martyred prophet. I never saw a day in the world that I would not almost worship that woman, Emma Smith, if she would be a saint instead of being a devil. . . . [We] would have been exceeding glad if the prophet's family had come with us when we left Nauvoo. . . We would have made cradles for them . . . and would have fed them on milk and honey. Emma is naturally a very smart woman; she is subtle and ingenious . . . . she has made her children inherit lies. To my certain knowledge Emma Smith is one of the damnest liars I know of on this earth; yet there is no good thing I would refuse to do for her, if she would only be a righteous woman.1
The first charge, that of influencing her sons against the Mormon Church contained a large element of truth. Emma Smith's eldest son, Joseph Smith III, served as president of the RLDS Church from 1860 to 1914. Two of his brothers, Alexander and David, joined him in the hierarchy of the RLDS Church. All three vigorously attacked Mormon polygamy, claiming that it had been foisted upon the church by Brigham Young after the death of their father. Their mother's influence—her moral teachings, her refusal to accept Brigham Young's leadership, and her failure to raise her sons actively in the Latter Day Saints' faith—surely helped to mold their later views.
The second charge, that Emma Smith was a liar, stemmed from her adamant denial that Joseph Smith, Jr., authored or practiced polygamy. There are several such denials recorded in letters, diaries and reminiscences of contemporaries who discussed the matter with her,2 but her public denial, published posthumously under the title, "Last Testimony of Sister Emma," is the most notorious such statement.
The idea of the "Last Testimony" germinated early in 1879. RLDS President Joseph Smith III and some key associates discussed the advisability of questioning his mother upon various disputed points of Latter Day Saint history. If such testimony were to be secured, it must be done quickly, for "Sister Emma" was elderly, and her lifespan was drawing to a close. Accordingly, a list of some of the more important questions was drawn up, and Joseph Smith III departed the church headquarters at Piano, Illinois, for his mother's home in Nauvoo, on February 4, 1879.3 The next day, he interview his mother. The record in his journal is quite simple: "Wrote up from mother's recollections."4 He later gave a fuller description of the scene:
Sister Emma answered the questions freely and in the presence of her [second] husband, Major Lewis C. Bidamon, who was generally present in their sitting-room where the conversation took place. We were more particular in this, because it had been frequently stated to us: "Ask your mother, she knows." "Why don't you ask your mother; she dare not deny these things." "You do not dare to ask your mother."
Our thought was, that if we had lacked courage to ask her, because we feared the answers she might give, we would put aside that fear; and, whatever the worst might be, we would hear it…..
We apologized to our mother for putting the questions respecting polygamy and plural wives, as we felt we ought to do.5
Here, in a few words, was a dramatic scene. The son came to visit his aged mother. He came on a mission he felt he could no longer avoid, but he came with trepidation. He knew he was about to breach a taboo, by questioning her upon this distasteful subject. For nearly nineteen years the son had been denying that his father had been involved in polygamy, but his Mormon antagonists had thrown back in his teeth the challenge, "You were too young to know anything about it. Ask your mother. She knows better." The son knew that he had embarked on his religious course without thoroughly investigating this factual question. Nineteen years before, his moral and spiritual certainty that polygamy was wrong was sufficient to determine his course.6 But the embarrassing factual question had popped up repeatedly: Did the prophet himself proclaim that plural marriage was the will of God (the Mormon claim)? Or was he a libidinous impostor, bent on seducing women under the cloak of religion (the Anti-Mormon claim)? Or was he a fallen prophet, led by pride and lusts into giving false revelations, among them that sanctioning polygamy (the claim of L.D.S. factions such as the Whitmerites and Hedrickites)? The son had to face these questions, which kept pointing back to the factual issue, whether the prophet taught and practiced polygamy. Perhaps there was a nagging doubt, as well, in his own mind. So, the son screwed up his courage and dared to trespass upon forbidden territory. He determined to ask his mother. And having gone this far, his deep-seated integrity (and perhaps his legal training) caused him to have a witness present during the questioning. His stepfather, a self-proclaimed Deist and disbeliever in all organized religion, sat in on the interview. The interview began. The son apologized for the necessity of putting such questions to his mother; to ask them besmirched her honor and the memory of his revered father. Then, rather than plunge immediately into the main issue, he began with some less painful questions.
He asked her about details of her marriage, her children who died in infancy, the writing of the Book of Mormon, and her recollections of Sidney Rigdon.7 At last, he came to the long unasked questions about polygamy:
Q. What about the revelation on Polygamy? Did Joseph Smith have anything like it? What of spiritual wifery?
A. There was no revelation on either polygamy, or spiritual wives. There were some rumors of something of the sort, of which I asked my husband. He assured me that all there was of it was, that in a chat about plural wives, he had said, "Well, such a system might possiblybe, if everybody was agreed to it, and would behave as they should; but they would not; and, besides, it was contrary to the will of heaven." Q. Did he not have other wives than yourself?
A. He had no other wife but me; nor did he to my knowledge ever have.
Q. Did he not hold marital relation with women other than yourself?
A. He did not have improper relations with any woman that ever came to my knowledge.
Q. Was there nothing about spiritual wives that you recollect?
A. At one time my husband came to me and asked me if I had heard certain rumors about spiritual marriages, or anything of the kind; and assured me that if I had, that they were without foundation; that there was no such doctrine, and never should be with his knowledge, or consent. I know that he had no other wife or wives than myself, in any sense, either spiritual or otherwise.8
Some additional questions followed, but the great hurdle had been traversed.
Joseph Smith III had long held two irreconcilable positions. First, he held that his father was not a bad man, in fact was a divinely guided prophet, and therefore could not have taught or practiced something so wicked as polygamy. But when confronted with difficult evidence, tending to the conclusion that his father had taught and practiced plural marriage, he fell back upon a second position, that the truth of the Latter Day Work—the Book of Mormon, the Doctrine and Covenants, the first principles of the Gospel, and the restored church—were independent of the character of Joseph Smith, Jr.9 Even if his father did such things, the deeds were evil, but the Gospel true. But what if the prophet declared, "thus saith the Lord," that polygamy was God's will? There lay the dilemma. If Joseph Smith, Jr., did promulgate such a revelation, either plural marriage was a righteous principle sanctioned by heaven, or the prophet had produced a false revelation which sanctioned wickedness.
Emma Smith Bidamon's testimony relieved her son of lying upon this procrustean bed. The dilemma was resolved. The prophet had taught no such unrighteous principle!
Joseph Smith III departed Nauvoo on February 10th and returned home. On April 30th, his mother passed away. In October, 1879, two RLDS publications, the Saints' Herald (the church's official organ) and the Saints' Advocate (a missionary newsletter), both published the interview of February 5, 1879, under the title, "Last Testimony of Sister Emma."10 The accounts bore the signature of Joseph Smith III.
When copies of the Saints' Advocate reached Utah, there was a swift reaction. At this time, the Utah church was fighting a war on two fronts to defend its practice of plural marriage. On one front, RLDS missionaries in Utah were attacking the morality of polygamy, and its historical connection with Joseph Smith, Jr. On the other front, federal authorities were gradually tightening the legal noose of anti-polygamy laws. To counter the claims of RLDS missionaries, Utah Apostle Joseph F. Smith had for some years been collecting affidavits of plural wives of Joseph Smith, Jr.; those who had been taught the principle by Joseph Smith, Jr.; those whom he had sealed in polygamous marriage ceremonies; and those who had witnessed him cohabiting with one or another of his plural wives.11 To counter federal attempts at suppressing polygamy, the Mormon leadership cited the First Amendment's guarantee of the free exercise of religion. Plural marriage, they reasoned, was an integral part of their religion, and was, therefore, constitutionally protected.12
Sister Emma's "Last Testimony" threatened both positions. Apologetically, it strengthened RLDS claims to be the true church. Legally and politically, it undermined the argument that plural marriage was an integral part of the religion of Latter Day Saints.
Apostle Joseph F. Smith—cousin and long-time antagonist of Joseph Smith III—led the Mormon counter-attack. He submitted a lengthy letter to the church paper, the Deseret Evening News, replete with sworn affidavits contradicting the whole of Sister Emma's Last Testimony, insofar as it related to plural marriage. Joseph B. Noble swore, in his affidavit, that the Mormon prophet had taught him the principle of plural marriage in 1840 and had affirmed that an angel from heaven commanded him to practice the principle. Benjamin F. Johnson swore that the prophet taught him the principle in 1843, entered into plural marriage with Johnson's sister, counseled Johnson's widowed mother to enter into a plural marriage, and secretly cohabited with two of his plural wives at Johnson's residence. Apostle Lorenzo Snow swore that the prophet taught him the principle in 1843, and that his sister, Eliza R. Snow, was sealed to the prophet as a plural wife. John Benbow swore that the prophet taught him the principle in 1843 and housed one of his plural wives at Benbow's house. Two of Joseph Smith, Jr.'s plural wives—the sisters Eliza M. Partridge Lyman and Emily D. Partridge Young—testified that they were sealed to the prophet in 1843, in the presence of Emma Smith. Lovina Walker, niece of Emma Smith, swore that in 1846, her Aunt Emma told her that she had witnessed the sealing of four young women to Joseph Smith, Jr., as plural wives, including Eliza and Emily Partridge. Apostle Joseph F. Smith wrote that these affidavits asserted "quite as strong claims for belief" and presented "a much better appearance of veracity" than Sister Emma's Last Testimony. His numerous witnesses were, for the most part, still living and could be cross-examined, while "Sister Emma" was dead and was "represented as denying facts which it can be abundantly proven, were well known to her." In death, her son was making her to assume "hazardous and untenable ground." Such a denial should have been publicized years ago, he reasoned, if true.13
Joseph F. Smith's letter was followed in the same issue by one from Eliza R. Snow, the most prominent woman in the Mormon Church:
If what purports to be her [Emma's] "last testimony" was really her testimony, she died with a libel on her lips . . . and in publishing that libel, her son has fastened a stigma on the character of his mother, that can never be erased. . . . Even if her son ignored his mother's reputation for veracity, he better had waited until his father's wives were silent in death, for now they are her living witnesses of the divinity of plural marriage . . .. [Joseph Smith III had] through a sinister policy [branded his mother's name] with gross wickedness—charging her with the denial of a sacred principle which she had heretofore not only acknowledged but acted upon—a principle than which there is none more important cormprised in the gospel of the Son of God.14
What of the charge that Joseph Smith III waited until after his mother's death to publish the "Last testimony?" Did he deliberately file away the testimony until after her demise, when she could not be cross-examined? Or was it a matter of accident, rather than policy? Joseph F. Smith and Eliza R. Snow both assumed that the Last Testimony had been withheld as a matter of policy, for safety, and to lend an air of finality to the statement. Eliza R. Snow implied that the whole story might have been put in his mother's mouth by her designing son, Joseph Smith III. Unfortunately, neither Joseph Smith Ill's journals nor his letters reveal the reason for the delay. However, there are certain inferential reasons for believing that the posthumous publication may have been accidental. Upon his return to Piano, President Smith was almost immediately involved in the hectic activity incidental to moving the Herald Office into new quarters.15 Then came all the round of activities associated with the annual conference, held at Piano, beginning April 6, 1879. The conference was not long concluded when the fateful telegram arrived on April 20th, calling him back to Nauvoo, because his mother was passing away.16 She died on April 30th. There simply was very little time to prepare the matter for the press between February 4 and April 30, 1879. That such a crowded schedule was a factor is suggested by the additional delay of five months before the Last Testimony appeared in print.17
Is the printed text of the "Last Testimony of Sister Emma" trustworthy? Lawrence Foster, in one of the better recent studies of polygamy, states that how the text was edited is unclear.l8 While it is true that the printer's manuscript has gone the way of its kind, the original notes of the interview are extant and can easily be compared with the published account.19 These original notes consist of two pages of questions and eight pages of answers. Most of the questions are in ink, and apparently were prepared beforehand. Two additional questions, in pencil, are added at the end, apparently having come up in the course of conversation. The answers, in pencil, bear typical marks of having been written while another spoke. Words are crossed out; there are interlineations, abbreviations, and other signs of having been written in haste, to keep pace with the spoken word. Both questions and answers are in the unmistakable hand of Joseph Smith III.
Comparison of the published version with the longhand notes reveals close correspondence between the two. There is no indication of editorial liberties having been taken. The most significant change, in the printed version, is the rearrangement of the rambling discussion into a more coherent sequence. In substance, the printed version faithfully represents the notes.
There are several other reasons for believing that the Last Testimony accurately reflects the actual interview. First, the controversial assertions made in it are consistent with statements Emma Smith Bidamon made to others. Second, the interview was conducted in the presence of her husband, L. C. Bidamon, who lived until 1891, and never contradicted the truthfulness of the interview. Third, however stubborn Joseph Smith III may have been on the subject of polygamy, he was no liar; a fabrication would have been out of character.
Turning from the text of the Last Testimony to its contents, why did "Sister Emma" refuse to tell the truth about polygamy? The problem is compounded by her reputation for veracity. George Edmunds, Jr., a non-religious lawyer who befriended Emma Smith after the Mormon exodus from Nauvoo—and who was convinced that the Mormon prophet had taught and practiced polygamy—was asked to explain this very discrepancy, toward the end of his life. He told his interviewer, in emphatic terms, "I tell you, sir, no man could look Emma Smith in the face and tell a lie! She would detect it at once, and he knew it!" The interviewer then asked, "Judge, if Emma Smith was the kind of woman you say she was, how do you account for her statement that her husband had had nothing whatever to do with polygamy...?" The old man replied, with an odd smile, "That's just the h—- of it! I can't account for it nor reconcile her statements with what I had been led to believe. Nevertheless, she was just the kind of woman I have said she was."20
A strong clue to her motives is found in her reaction to her second husband's infidelities. L. C. Bidamon fathered an illegitimate son by a widow, Mrs. Nancy Abercrombie. While never acknowledging that her husband had fathered the child, she took the boy into their home and raised him. In an autobiographical sketch of his mother, Joseph Smith III recalled, that if his mother "ever did suspect her husband in this unfortunate business, neither her own children nor any one else ever knew it, so strong was her self control and her sense of right under conditions of suspicion only."21 Faced with infidelity on the part of her husband, she maintained her dignity by steadfastly refusing to acknowledge that anything was amiss. In the case of her denials of Joseph Smith, Jr.'s involvement in polygamy, such stern-willed determination to maintain her dignity undoubtedly played a role.
Recently published material from William Clayton's diaries shows that Emma Smith vigorously opposed her husband's practice of polygamy, during his lifetime, and when confronted with the revelation on polygamy, declared that she did not believe a word of it.22 Moral revulsion and a sense of personal betrayal by her husband were two fundamental motives for her opposition to plural marriage.
Practical considerations also entered into the equation. Nauvoo was something of a mecca for Mormons and curious non-Mormons. These visitors naturally would stop at the Mansion House, the hotel run by the Bidamons. In the face of repeated questions on the subject, Emma Smith Bidamon naturally developed some standard, terse denials to all the distasteful inquiries about an episode she preferred not to discuss.23 In the 1840s and 1850s, there was the practical matter of shielding her growing children from the evil practice; denial seemed the simplest method of accomplishing this goal. After 1860, there was the matter of not undermining the apologetic position of the RLDS Church vis-a-vis the Mormons of Utah. Protecting herself, her children, and her church, were all practical reasons for her policy.
How can one account for the false nature of Sister Emma's Last Testimony, given her reputation for honesty? Why did the motives, cited above, overcome her deep-seated integrity? Three possible explanations suggest themselves.
First, psychological or physical factors may have altered her memory of the past. The passing of time, failing memory, or psychological denial may have altered her recollections. In a similar case of historical misstatement in old age, RLDS Church Historian Richard P. Howard suggested that "the endless nuances of the polemic process" distorted the memory of one caught up in it, "encouraging anomalies in statements over time and under tumultuous conditions."24 But this will hardly explain Emma Smith's denials spanning several decades.
Second, the Last Testimony may contain truthful incidents designed to mislead, half-truths, ambiguous language, and term-switching.25 The accounts of the prophet's denials of polygamy are probably true, taking place before 1843, when he first spoke to his wife about it openly. The statement that there was "no revelation" and that there were "no other wives" may be a way of saying, "There was no true revelation," and, "There were no true wives but myself." The phrase, "that ever came to my knowledge," may be akin to Emma Smith Bidamon's refusal to acknowledge Nancy Abercrombie's affair with L. C. Bidamon.
Third, and last, the denials of polygamy in Sister Emma's Last Testimony may be regarded simply as lies. However much the prophet's first wife may have justified her answers as technically true but semantically evasive, the bald fact remains that, by design, they conveyed to the reader or listener an idea which was false. In the case of a woman noted for her integrity, only extremities could have driven her to such dissimulation. In the case of the hateful doctrine of plural marriage, Emma Smith Bidamon faced just such an extremity. The truth was too painful, too dangerous, and too wicked, in her eyes, to testify to, even as she approached death, in 1879.
1 Brigham Young, Address, October 7, 1866, Brigham Young Papers, Archives Division, Historical Department, Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Salt Lake City, Utah, as cited in Valeen Tippetts Avery and Linda King Newell, "The Lion and the Lady: Brigham Young and Emma Smith," Utah Historical Quarterly 48 (Winter 1980): 82.
2 See her statements to Jason W. Briggs in "The Basis of Polygamy. No. 5. Examination of the So-Called Revelation of July 12th, 1843, Continued," The Messenger of the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints 1 (April 1875): 23; Edmund C. Briggs. "A Visit to Nauvoo in 1856," Journal of History 9 (October l916): 461-462; Henry A. Stebbins, "In the Dark and Cloudy Day,"' Autumn Leaves 30 (October 1917): 497; "Reminiscence of Sister N. J. Tharpe," Journal of History 11 (January 1918): 120; Buddy Youngreen, Reflections of Emma; Joseph Smith's Wife (Orem, Utah: Grandin Book Company, 1982), p. 67.
3 Saints' Herald 26 (October 1, 1879): 289.
4 Joseph Smith III, Journal, February 5, 1879, P2, J108, Library-Archives, Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, Independence, Missouri (henceforth cited as RLDS Archives).
5 Saints' Herald 26 (October 1, 1879): 289.
6 Joseph Smith III, autobiographical chapter, in Edward W. Tullidge, Life of Joseph the Prophet (Plano, Illinois: Board of Publication of the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, 1880), pp. 756-775; Joseph Smith III, The Memoirs of President Joseph Smith III (1832-1914); A Photo-Reprint Edition of the Original Serial Publication as Edited by Mary Audentia Smith Anderson and Appearing in the Saints' Herald (November 6, 1834-July 31. 1937), ed. Richard P. Howard (Independence, Missouri: Herald Publishing House, 1979), pp. 70-77.
7 Part of the impetus for the interview was provided by James T. Cobb, a Salt Lake City liberal, with whom Joseph Smith III was in correspondence. Cobb questioned many details of the traditional account of Mormon origins, theorizing that Sidney Rigdon and Joseph Smith, Jr. were co-conspirators in a religious fraud. Shortly after interviewing his mother, Joseph Smith III wrote to Cobb, triumphantly announcing that her testimony demolished Cobb's theories about Rigdon and the Book of Mormon. See Joseph Smith III to James T. Cobb, February 14, 1879, Joseph Smith III Letterbook #2, P6, RLDS Archives.
8 Saints' Herald 26 (October 1, 1879): 289.
9 Joesph Smith III, Memoirs, p. 71; Joseph Smith III to A. W. Dennett, March 10, 1886, Joseph Smith III Letterbook #4, P6, RLDS Archives.
1O Saints Herald 26 (October 1, 1879): 289-290; Saints' Advocate 2 (October 1879): 49-52.
11 Danel W. Bachman, "New Light on an Old Hypothesis: The Ohio Origins of the Revelation on Eternal Marriage," Journal of Mormon History 5 (1978): 21, n.6.
12 Leonard J. Arrington and Davis Bitton, The Mormon Experience; A History of the Latter-day Saints (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1979), p. 180.
13 "Joseph the Seer's Plural Marriages. His Wife Emma's Consent Thereto," Deseret Evening News. October 18, 1879.
15 Saints' Herald 26 (April 1, 1879): 104.
16 Joseph Smith III, Journal, April 20, 1879, P2, J108, RLDS Archives.
17 See Joseph Smith Ill's editorial lament about his pile of correspondence awaiting answers, Saints' Herald 26 (May 15, 1879): 153, "...we just ache for a thinking machine into which we could toss the entire pile, turn the crank and then get the solutions, decisions and answers, all nicely written out and neatly labelled ready for use."
18 Lawrence Foster, Religion and Sexuality: Three American Communal Experiments of the Nineteenth Century (New York: Oxford University Press, 1981), p. 307, n. 86.
19 The untitled notes are found in P19, f40, RLDS Archives.
20 Joseph Smith III, Memoirs, p. 277.
21 Joseph Smith III, untitled Biographical Sketch of Emma Hale Smith, p. 23, P13, f2302, RLDS Archives. (Portions of this sketch, not including the material here cited, appeared in Recollections of the Pioneers of Lee County (Dixon, Illinois: Inez A. Kennedy, Publishers, 1893).—Additional details of the affair are found in Joseph Smith III, Memoirs, p. 305, and Valeen Tippetts Avery and Linda King Newel I, "Lewis C. Bidamon, Stepchild of Mormondom," Brigham Young University Studies 19 (Spring 1979): 384-385.
22 Clayton's Secret Writings Uncovered; Extracts from the Diaries of Joseph Smith's Secretary William Clayton (Salt Lake City: Modern Microfilm Company, 1982), pp. 20, 24.
23 Youngreen, Reflections of Emma, pp. 41, 67.
24 Richard P. Howard, "Responses," John Whitmer Historical Association Journal 1 (1981): 29. He thus explains inaccuracies in James Whitehead's testimony in the celebrated Temple Lot Case, in 1892.
25 Maureen Ursenbach Beecher has pointed out that in the spring of 1844, Emma Smith, president of the Relief Society in Nauvoo, conducted a series of meetings with the Mormon women in which she delivered a "double-talk indictment of plural marriage, a coded but unmistakable opposition to the practice which her husband was ever more widely promulgating. Her design was to oppose polygamy, not openly, but through the use of veiled language. Similar semantic sleight of hand may be involved here. See Maureen Ursenbach Beecher, "The 'Leading Sisters'; A Female Hierarchy in Nineteenth Century Mormon Society," Journal of Mormon History 9 ( 1982): 33.