Emma Smith/Brigham Young
This page is based on an answer to a question submitted to the FAIR web site, or a frequently asked question.
In the October session of General Conference 1866, Brigham Young made these comments:
- ..."To my certain knowledge, Emma Smith is one of the damnedest 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; but she will continue in her wickedness. Not six months before the death of Joseph, he called his wife Emma into a secret council, and there he told her the truth, and called upon her to deny it if she could. He told her that the judgments of God would come upon her forthwith if she did not repent. He told her of the time she undertook to poison him, and he told her that she was a child of hell, and literally the most wicked woman on this earth, that there was not one more wicked than she. He told here where she got the poison, and how she put it in a cup of coffee; said he 'You got that poison from so and so, and I drank it, but you could not kill me.' When it entered his stomach he went to the door and threw it off. he spoke to her in that council in a very severe manner, and she never said one word in reply. I have witnesses of this scene all around, who can testify that I am now telling the truth. Twice she undertook to kill him. [Utah Historical Quarterly, vol. 48, Winter 1980, 82]
What can you tell me about this?
And, why did Emma and Brigham Young seem to not get along?
The animosity between Brigham Young and Emma had multiple grounds: personal, religious, and financial. Brigham, for all his strengths, had little patience for anyone who would betray the prophet, which he perceived Emma doing on multiple levels. This made the poisoning accusation plausible for him. The episode seems to have been a family quarrel between Joseph and Emma—two mortals living in something of a fishbowl, under enormous pressures and strains.
Emma certainly made errors in judgment, as do we all. Her judgment lies in God's hands, not in ours or Brigham Young's.
If Brigham Young had one constant character trait, it was his absolute faithfulness to Joseph Smith. Brigham had very little patience for those who demeaned or rejected Joseph; the difficulties that Joseph experienced with Emma can only have frustrated the loyal Brigham.
Following Joseph's murder, Emma refused to go west with the Saints. She seems, among other things, to have been worried about providing for her children, as well as protecting them from the violence which had claimed Joseph. Emma and Brigham also disagreed about which parts of Joseph's estate were personal property, and which belonged to the Church.
Brigham also doubtless considered Emma dishonest and a liar because she continued to insist that her husband had never taught the doctrine of plural marriage. So adamant was Emma on this point that the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints held it as an article of faith, and Emma's children never accepted the idea that Joseph had instituted plural marriage. Given that Brigham was blamed by Emma for being the inventor of plural marriage, he probably felt rather ill-used by her. Brigham, after all, saw Emma as fighting against the man Brigham revered as the Prophet, and he knew that Emma knew that Joseph taught plural marriage.
Finally, Brigham was Joseph's successor, and Emma challenged that succession by supporting her son, Joseph Smith III, as the 'proper' leader, and as one who would not teach the hated doctrine of polygamy (which Emma falsely claimed Brigham had foisted on the Church).
Richard Bushman writes of the poisoning accusation:
- Through the late fall and winter of 1843 and 1844, Joseph and Emma's relationship broke down only once. During Sunday dinner on November 5, Joseph became ill, rushed to the door, and vomited so violently that he dislocated his jaw. "Every symptom of poison," Richards noted in Joseph's diary. That night at the prayer meeting, Richards, wrote in code that Joseph and Emma did not dress in the usual special clothing, a sign they were too much at odds to participate. The next day, Richards wrote that Joseph was "busy with domestic concerns." Years later, in the anti-Emma atmosphere of Utah, Brigham Young spoke of a meeting where Joseph accused his wife of slipping poison into his coffee. Brigham interpreted Emma's refusal to answer as an admission of guilt.. Though there probably was an argument, the poisoning accusation was unfounded. Joseph was susceptible to vomiting anyway. He had even dislocated his jaw while vomiting once before; and five weeks after the 1843 dinner episode, he was sick again, vomiting more violently than ever. During this last bout, Joseph said gratefully, "My wife waited on me."
Furthermore, Brigham and Emma did not agree on the disposition of Joseph's estate. Illinois law at the time held that no church could hold more than ten acres of property, and so much of the church's properties were held in Joseph's name. At the same time, much of the Church's debt was held by Joseph as a private citizen—thus, Emma was liable for Joseph/the Church's debts, but had a less clear claim on the Church's lands that Joseph held as Trustee-in-Trust.
This difficult situation was complicated by the immense demands on Brigham Young's time. He delegated a great deal of the Church's interaction with Emma to Almon Babbitt, a man greatly lacking in tact:
- Almon Babbitt's air…bordered on the pompous...Babbit provided Joseph with legal advice that resulted in the destruction of the Expositor, then he refused to help when Joseph was jailed in Carthage saying, 'You are too late. I am already engaged on the other side.'
- Either Brigham Young was not aware of Babbitt's propensity for alienating those around him or, like Joseph before him, he overlooked his faults because he needed his legal knowledge. In the future Brigham would have his own falling out with Babbitt and the rift would become so widely known that, when Indians killed Babbitt on the Western plains in 1856, Eastern newspapers erroneously reported that Brigham had ordered him killed.
- In the meantime, Emma assumed that because these men represented the Twelve they acted on direct orders from Brigham. And Brigham, his relationship with Emma strained at best, did not bother to separate the inflammatory rhetoric of Babbitt's letters from the less dramatic probabilities. Babbitt would make Brigham's requests to Emma sound abrupt and thoughtless, and her responses to him selfish and defensive.
- [note] “Memoirs of Joseph Smith III (1832–1914),” ed. Mary Audentia Smith Anderson, The Saints Herald (2 April 1935): 431–434.
- [note] Richard L. Bushman, Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling (New York: Knopf, 2005), 498.
- [note] See discussion in Linda King Newell and Valeen Tippetts Avery, Mormon Enigma: Emma Hale Smith, 2nd edition, (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1994), 199–209. ISBN 0252062914. ISBN 978-0252062919. The laws against churches holding property is discussed on page 258.
- [note] Joseph Smith, History of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 7 volumes, edited by Brigham H. Roberts, (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1957), 6:660. BYU Studies link
- [note] Linda King Newell and Valeen Tippetts Avery, Mormon Enigma: Emma Hale Smith, 2nd edition, (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1994), 230. ISBN 0252062914. ISBN 978-0252062919.