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Thursday, May 21, 2015

Two People Exposed to the Same Facts with Two Different Conclusions: A Response To Denver Snuffer's Post on Emma Smith

It never ceases to amaze me that two different people can be exposed to the same exact stack of evidence, and yet yield two wholly different conclusions.

I write in response to this post:

There are two main points to Denver's post: 1) "Unequivocal condemnation of Brigham Young," and 2) the negative image of Emma Smith is due to fabrications by Young.

I really wish I had adequate time to write this post the way it needs to be written. I can only spare a few short minutes. As usual, while I hope to give breadcrumbs to those who care to inform themselves and form their own conclusions, I'm sure those who are set in their ways of seeing things will find this argument wholly inadequate.

First, let's start on Brigham Young. It really surprises me that Denver would condemn Brigham Young. Analyzing Brigham Young's history, we see someone who, prior to Utah, gave absolutely everything he had to give to the restoration movement. He was left penniless twice, as I recall, and spent years preaching the gospel in foreign lands, leaving behind his family. I have yet to hear anything up to the martyrdom about Brigham Young that does anything but praise his character.

After the martyrdom, what do we have? We see Brigham Young campaigning that the 12 should run the church, then taking power from the rest of the quorum. We see him seize the property of Joseph Smith (more on this later). He set up Utah as his kingdom. He vanquished church members who opposed him to nasty missions in unsettled areas. He may have ordered the mountain meadows massacre (though the evidence is weak), even if only indirectly through the blood oath of vengeance. He expanded plural marriage and had a lot of wives.

All of these things seem offensive to us. It is easy for us to see the results of his actions and proclaim that he was deceptive, manipulative, covetous, etc. But what happens when you try to imagine things from his perspective? Let's start with the martyrdom. Joseph's death left a huge vacuum. Joseph WAS the church. Brigham knew that what they had was a treasure not existent anywhere else in the church. Brigham knew that those around him were too weak to fill the void left by Joseph's death. He knew Sydney Rigdon was a scoundrel due to his abandonment of the cause while Joseph was still alive, but he also knew that Sydney had a smooth tongue and had managed to win the heart of the people to the extent that Joseph could not get the congregation's support when he, the prophet of the restoration, proposed his release. What would you have done? I would have done everything in my power to keep the machine together, and that's exactly what Brigham did. As far as usurpation goes, Brigham was adamant during his life that he would never be what Joseph was. He never tried to be. It was his successors who inflated the role of the post-Joseph president of the church. Brigham was the senior apostle (until Thomas Marsh came back, at least). His position in post-martyrdom wasn't some great usurpation. It was the only solution considering the Nauvoo Stake President's disinterest in governance and the painful alternative of admitting that the dispensation had been lost (in retrospect, humble prayer to God asking forgiveness of their condemnation would have been the optimal resolution of the succession crisis, but even that would have led to questionable results, as I have a feeling the curses promised in D&C 124 were sealed at that point).

What about in Utah? Did Brigham become a king? Of course he did. Again, what would have been a better alternative? The ranks of the Saints were decimated by the post-martyrdom splintering, resulting in many of the 20,000 Saints to remain in Nauvoo or go somewhere else (other than Utah). Brigham Young's saving grace was a new influx of converts from Europe. These people were dirt poor, and were just as likely to have accepted a free ride to the land of plenty in America as they were to have actually accepted the gospel. Brigham was flush with a demographic that consisted of a mix of dirt poor, uneducated European immigrants and lackluster Nauvoo flunkees who had managed to get Joseph and the covenant taken away from them. Moses did not score points for getting the Israelites into Zion. He scored points for keeping the camp together. I don't know of anyone during or since Brigham Young's time that could have pulled that off, except Brigham Young himself.

What about Brigham's polygamy and various other shady things he did or has been accused of? Jesus taught that a bitter fountain can't produce sweet water. Read through the discourses of Brigham Young. Sure, he was wrong on some things. And yet, there is a greater quantity of truth and light in that collection of sermons than I find in the vast majority of anything I read (excepting most scripture and all of what Joseph wrote). How could someone so wicked produce such a quantity of wisdom?

My conclusion on Brigham is that he was a man with weaknesses, just like anyone else, shouldered with an incredible burden and a few misunderstandings of what God and Joseph intended. In a day without the internet, without the Joseph Smith Papers and The Words of Joseph Smith, I see Brigham as a man who was doing his best to carry out what he understood Joseph was trying to do.

Maybe I am wrong.

Now onto Emma. It is very interesting that Denver cites the Emma Smith Lore dialogue paper (here). That is, because most of what it contains actually provides opposing evidence against his points.

The issue of Emma is a very difficult one, but not because of lack of historical evidence. The issue is difficult because in 2015 we find ourselves in a world very different than the 1830s and 1840s regarding the relationship between men and women. It is very difficult for people in 2015 to see things in a historical context in these matters. The very people who are the strongest supporters of Emma are usually those who have the hardest time shedding modern ideas of women to understand history, and thus the people who most need to be convinced are the hardest to convince. But let's try.

I want to start with the poisoning incident, but we can't start there. That incident seems ridiculous and easy to dismiss (as Denver has tried to do) unless we discuss it in the context of other contemporary accounts of Emma's behavior. Let's go to the paper Denver cited about Emma Smith.

On the topic of polygamy, here are some stories the article refers to about Emma's behavior:
-She probably first learned Joseph's practice in Kirtland with Fanny Alger, who she saw being sealed to him as she was spying on him.
-She actively preached against it's practice in Nauvoo.
-When she learned that Eliza R. Snow, who was living with the Smiths, was married to Joseph, she pushed her down the stairs of the Nauvoo house (Eliza was purportedly pregnant with Joseph's child and miscarried as a result).
-When she learned that Joseph had married a girl named Flora, and had gifted her a gold watch as a token, she accosted the girl to get her to give her the watch.

Although modern articles portray Emma as "always by [Joseph's] side, always loving,
and forever brave", we get a very different picture from contemporary sources [Note: it is true that at a very old age Lucy said positive things about Emma. To be clear, Emma had taken care of Lucy financially in a time when no one else was alive among her posterity to do so. That was a kind thing to do, and Lucy was correct in pointing it out].

William Clayton's journal and the journals of Joseph Smith reveal constant troubles with Emma. Joseph had to "reprove her for her evil treatment." Joseph had to deal with her oscillating loyalty. At one point she approved of his taking plural wives, but then changed her mind. The following contemporary account by Clayton is not an anomaly: "she abused him much & also when he got home, he had to use harsh measures to put a stop to her abuse but finally succeeded." Joseph publicly rebuked Emma at least once, resulting in her tears. Those around Joseph were very familiar with Emma's constant attacks on him and what he had to go through to endure it patiently and in accordance to D&C 121. Perhaps my favorite evidence of the status of Joseph's approval of Emma comes in looking at the timeline of sealings. Although Joseph married Emma first, he was not sealed to her for years afterward. The sealing to Emma occurred after the sealing of many other wives to Joseph, and only occurred after she (briefly) accepted plural marriage and gave her endorsement to Joseph.

Hyrum was the one who was responsible for the writing out of the revelation on plural marriage. He thought that being able to read God's word on the subject would appease Emma. Joseph laughed at him, and said he didn't know Emma very well. Hyrum took the revelation to Emma, and she went ballistic. Emma was so upset about about it that, when Joseph finally told her she could burn the revelation on plural marriage, she refused to even touch it with tongs. Finally Joseph had to burn it himself just to appease her.

The article discusses the possibility of Emma's having something to do with Joseph's return from Nauvoo. Remember that Joseph said that in coming back across the Mississippi, he was breaking God's commandment and knew he would die, having no protection from God for the first time since he started the ministry. His reason? He said if his life was of no worth to his friends, it was of no worth to him. Emma was among a small group of those who wanted him to come back. It is unsure (no one knows what the letter said, only that Joseph was angered by reading it) if Emma was among several members of the Council of 50 that called him a coward for leaving.

As for Emma not coming to Utah, I disagree with Denver when he says she would have found plenty of financial and other support there from members. This is not historically substantiated. Remember that a) Emma actively railed against plural marriage. She knew Joseph had practiced it, and lied about it. Those who knew she was a liar would not help her, and wouldn't want her around. b) Joseph was about to declare bankruptcy before his death. After his death, Emma was saddled with debt. What's more, it was not personal debt, per se, but debts Joseph had acquired in his office as president of the church. How many members came to her aid even before the exodus from Nauvoo? Why would support magically roll in had she gone to Utah? Finally, why exactly were the Saints so reluctant to support Emma? Could it be that in a small city where the president of the church was also the speaker in church every Sunday, as well as the mayor of said city, that practically everyone knew of Emma's treatment of Joseph? Could it be that they weren't very forgiving of what they had seen? (Alternate hypothesis: they were greedy, which is substantiated by their lack of building the temple, treatment of the poor in the Nauvoo exodus, etc.). In short, Emma stayed in Nauvoo because she was broke, and because she detested plural marriage.

Now we finally get to the poisoning incident. Quoting from the article:

Joseph's diary entry of 5 November 1843, describes becoming suddenly ill while eating dinner and vomiting so violently that he dislocated his jaw and "raised fresh blood." He believed he had been poisoned, but recovered enough to attend a "prayer meeting in the hall over the store" that evening.24 This was a meeting of the "quorum of the anointed" — those who had received their endowments — and most likely the "secret council" in which, according to Brigham, Joseph accused Emma of trying to poison him. Joseph's diary records that he and Emma did not dress for the prayer circle that night. Significantly, members did not customarily participate in the prayer circle if they had hard feelings against anyone else in the group.
Whatever had occurred  that day was significant enough that Joseph did not want to participate in the circle with Emma that night. The diary reads that "domestic concerns" occupied his next morning. Now, did Emma try to kill him, as Brigham said? Probably not. Could she have intentionally fed him rancid food to make him ill? This is, in my opinion, very likely. This is a women who was willing to attack ladies she barely knew over the suspicion they were engaged in plural marriage with her husband. She pushed a pregnant lady down the steps over jealousy. She regularly berated her husband in public and private until all around him were very aware of it. She would rather have a revelation of God burned than repent and receive the word of God. Do you really think she would hesitate to serve some off pork to her husband to watch him suffer?

Why does this matter?
On Brigham: I would like to think that God can look past our weaknesses and still appreciate the good we do, when we act in accordance with the best of our knowledge.
On Emma: There are a lot of false ideas that are attempted to be implemented in modern marriages that are based on fabrications to spin Emma's life in a positive way. As for me, I hold no grudges against Emma. Knowing the character of Joseph from the stories we have, I have no doubt that he has not ceased in forgiving Emma and doing whatever he could to appease her, as this is what he did throughout his life. That doesn't mean we ought to hold up Emma as some kind of light or some kind of example to follow. It is ok that a man affected the restoration without support (except in the beginning) from a woman. We don't need to invent a sidekick in that scenario to appease modern needs for so-called gender equality.