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Emma Became Press Target after Joseph’s Death

Written by R. Scott LloydCreated: 21 November 2010

SALT LAKE CITY — In the aftermath of the martyrdom of Mormonism’s founder Joseph Smith on June 27, 1844, his widow Emma vociferously denied spurious press reports that she was renouncing the religion he led. But the intermingling of Joseph’s personal and church obligations resulted in tension between Emma and the surviving leadership of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Sharalyn D. Howcroft, archivist with the LDS Church History Department’s Joseph Smith Papers Project, discussed this topic Thursday at the fifth and final lecture in a monthly Women’s History Lecture Series offered by the Church History Library. She spoke to a capacity audience in the auditorium of the Church Office Building in Salt Lake City.

“When Joseph was alive, frequently newspapers denounced him as a charlatan,” Howcroft said. “After his death, the throng of rumor mongering, false accusations and besmirching of character that had hounded him in the press turned to his widow.”

For example, in December 1845, the New York Sun published a letter allegedly from Emma denouncing Mormonism and its leaders; editor James Arlington Bennett claimed it was genuine.

“The letter culminated with its most injurious statement: ‘I must now say that I never for a moment believed in what my husband called his apparitions and revelations, as I thought him laboring under a diseased mind,'” Howcroft said.

“Informed that this letter was in print, Emma promptly shot off a letter to Bennett, exclaiming, ‘I was never more confounded with a misrepresentation than I am with that letter, and I am greatly perplexed that you should entertain the impression that the document should be a genuine production of mine. How could you believe me capable of so much treachery as to violate the confidence reposed in me and bring my name before the public in the manner that letter represents?”

She made a public announcement that the letter in the Sun was a forgery. Her denial was never published in the Sun, but it was printed in the church’s newspaper, the Times and Seasons, at the church’s headquarters city of Nauvoo, Ill.

In addition to dealing with haranguing by the press, Emma had to focus her efforts on securing her and her children’s financial interests from her husband’s estate, Howcroft said. This was complicated by the state of her husband’s financial and business papers, she added.

The church appointed Joseph as its trustee, Howcroft explained. “Creating a church trustee in effect consolidated the church’s assets. It also provided a vehicle to compensate Joseph Smith and his family for their extensive property losses experienced in the Missouri persecutions.”

At Joseph’s death, however, there was confusion over what papers among his effects represented personal or church business, she said.

This confusion was evident as early as July 1844, when William Clayton as agent for the trustee visited Emma, Howcroft said. Clayton subsequently said, “There is considerable danger, if the family begins to dispute about the property, Joseph’s creditors will come forward and use up all the property there is. If they will keep still, there is property enough to pay the debts and plenty left for other uses.”

During a question-answer session following the lecture, Howcroft was asked about evident rancor between Emma and Brigham Young, Joseph Smith’s successor. She said that it appears something happened about 1850 that exacerbated the tension between the two. The mutual resentment seems to worsen from that point, she said, and one has to wonder how much his 1860s statements about 1840s events were influenced by that increasing tension.

“I question to what degree … the rise of Joseph Smith III to the presidency of the RLDS Church influenced how Emma and Brigham perceived each other,” Howcroft said.

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