Juvenile Instructor

Emma Smith: My Story (Edited for Content) by David Grua
October 26, 2007, 11:52 pm
Filed under: church movies, David Grua

A few months ago a friend shared with me a rumor concerning a forthcoming movie about the life of Emma Smith, the (first) wife of Joseph Smith, the founding prophet of Mormonism. This movie, he told me, had been approved by the First Presidency and was set for distribution in theaters. I was admittedly skeptical, due to the difficulty inherent in any historical presentation of her life, given the sanitized image that we have of her in the modern church.

Evidence supporting this rumor came earlier this week when another friend sent me the link to the movie trailer. It appears that many, if not most, of the same actors from the 2005 Church-produced Joseph Smith: Prophet of the Restoration will also appear in Emma Smith: My Story. I have it from a good source that while this Emma movie is not directly funded by the Church, the studio has permission to use materials from Joseph Smith: A Really Great Guy, including clips, actors, costumes, sets, and props.

 The trailer seems to follow the narrative of the Joseph Smith movie closely, while fleshing out scenes that were no doubt central to Emma’s life, such as her courtship of JS, her hardships suffered during the Church’s early persecutions, and the deaths of her children. The central theme seems to be her strength as an individual.

However, there does not seem to be any mention of JS’s polygamy and the strain that caused in her relationship with her husband. Neither does it seem that the movie will go past JS’s martyrdom in 1844, thereby ignoring her struggles with Brigham Young, the founding of the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints in 1860, and the subsequent debates with the Utah Church over whether or not JS was a polygamist. I realize that no movie can cover all the important aspects in a person’s life, but these are major events to leave out.

Of course we’ll need to wait until the actual movie comes out to pass final judgment. Despite my complaints, I applaud the Church for supporting these types of historical movies.



“I realize that no movie can cover all the important aspects in a person’s life, but these are major events to leave out.”

I agree. Emma, like just about any historical figure, was a complex character. Bringing in some of that complexity not only makes for a more correct work historically (whether it be a movie, a book, or whatever), but also has the potential to show her as an even more dynamic person than the traditional record shows.

In the end, I think the complexity would help people relate to her better and provide a context for the decisions she made in not moving west, etc.

Emma’s image has long suffered from Brigham Young’s allegations to the present day, and I have sensed a move to rehabilitate her image. However, it seems that this move except in a few cases has focused on emphasizing the positive highlights rather than getting down to the roots of what led her actions.

Just my two cents.

Comment by mormonhistory1830

I had the opportunity to run into Gracia Jones in Special Collections the other day. She was the first Joseph decendent to join the Church way back in the 50’s, and has written several books like Joseph and Emma, Emma and Lucy, and other sanitized works as such. She is the sweetest old lady around, but really likes to (understandably) defend her great ancester.
Anyways, she was the historical consultant for this film, so we started chatting about it for a while. She said that it was filmed simultaneously with the Joseph movie, so you can imagine it to be the same type of vision and production.
Therefore, my question is: Is there room for works like this? We history nerds like to get everything covered and accurate, but is there a place for sanitized history like this, when the whole purpose is to build faith? I am often torn on this issue.

Comment by benjaminp

Mormon History 1830: Given the recent talk concerning “innoculating” the Saints, I can see your point about offering a more complex image of Emma Smith. I think it is possible to present that more nuanced portrait without shocking too many Mormons. Rough Stone Rolling of course comes to mind as a way to do that.

Benjaminp: Thanks for sharing that information about Gracia Jones. I was unaware that she is the historical consultant. I think that you raise a good question about navigating between presenting a complex image that at the same time builds faith. I think it’s possible, but it needs to be done with delicacy.

Comment by David Grua

To speak to your question, Ben, as far as devotional, “faith promoting” things go, I think it depends on what your faith is based on. I don’t think that “sanitized” history is the only history that promotes faith (though it may for the majority). If our faith is based largely on sanitized material, then sanatized material will “promote” that faith. If our faith is based on more historically accurate material, then the same will promote our faith.

I know a student who attended a Church History class taught by one of the most popular lecturers the Religion Dept. has. He said that most students swooned, but he felt there were many distortions and dramatizations of the history that could have been just as easily and upliftingly presented in a more historically accurate fashion. He came away from the experience disheartened. It didn’t “promote” his faith, but his faith was based on something different.

My point is, that I think there is a certain healthiness in promoting faith, whatever that faith may be based on. In the short run, many need reinforcement based on “sanitized” material. There is value in that since the Church, as well as most religious organizations, needs a certain amount of spiritual stability collectively to function. In the long run, though, I think we can only gain as a people by gradually being brought to understand a more historically accurate version of these events and basing our faith on that.

So, is there a place for sanatized history? In my opinion yes. Is it ok to pick holes in it? Also yes. That process also promotes the faith of some, and that’s important too. Those that poke holes, however, like myself, need to constantly remind ourselves that, as David put it, it’s a delicate thing to mess with someone’s religious construct, and great care must be taken.

Bushman’s book has had a mixed reception from the rank and file to the general authorities. It’s his right to produce a work that promotes a type of faith as well as it’s Gracia Jones’ right to produce a work that promotes a type of faith (whether it be her books, her lectures, or her role in this movie). Both have a role. I think, though, that when pitted head to head, each person will have to make personal decisions about which is truer. Eventually, I say again, I think that a sensitive shift from “sanitized” to “more accurate” portrayal of Church history will only benefit us as a people.

I suspect that the “tearing” feeling you feel is the tension between knowing that sanitized history has a place and also believing that a non-sanitized history is ultimately preferrable. At least, that’s what it is for me.

So, do I make better nachos than philosophy? 🙂

Comment by Jared

I wonder if “sanitized history” is the best term for this. It seems like “myth” might be more descriptive. Myth doesn’t set out to portray a comprehensive, detailed picture of what really happened, in detail, but is a narrative organized in a way that is meaningful to its audience. The intention behind most public portrayals of the Mormon myth is to promote faith by stirring the emotions, or, in other words, by creating an environment in which the spirit can witness of truth claims attached to these events. I think we may be wanting this to be something it isn’t, practicing, perhaps, transgenre criticism?

Personally, however, my favorite portrayal to date remains Mormon Enigma. But you really have got to get a whole picture, I think, to put Emma’s difficulties in perspective, and a lot of people just don’t typically put forth the time and effort to gain it. So its left out. Perhaps there is a better way to incorporate it into the myth. I think it could present a deeper, more complex picture. But it would probably take longer than the 15-minute visitor center feature length.

p.s. I don’t really know what a myth is, just wanted to play along.

Comment by stanthayne

Stan: Thanks for playing along. I like the direction that you’re taking this discussion. The problem in my view, however, is the vocabulary that you’re using. Myth has such a negative connotation among ordinary folks that any kind of dialogue that seeks to extend beyond academic circles (or snooty blogs) gets hijacked from the outset.

A term that I think conveys the same or equivalent message as myth is collective memory. Memory, from what I’ve seen, interests both academics and lay people.

I think that we need more discussions concerning how Emma Smith has been represented in Mormon memory since the death of JS. Only then can we situate our current representations of her in a longer, and more informed, chronology. SC Taysom’s 2002 Dialogue article on the memory of JS’s polygamy provides a preliminary investigation into how Mormons from Brigham Young to the 1990s have imagined Emma Smith. But more work needs to be done.

Comment by David Grua

I think further studies regarding the memory of Emma would be very appropriate. I would like to propose a study of the memory of Emma’s hair. Did she really always wear her hair in those curls? While playing chess? Sleeping? Doing the laundry? During the Missouri persecutions? Could Emma’s high maintenance be a significant (and overlooked till now) reason in her not going west with the Brighamites? The dry heat of the Utah desert just wouldn’t support her hairstyle?

Comment by Christopher

For anyone intersted in learning more about Emma Smith, there are a number of biographies of her life. See the list here:


Comment by Swally

Thanks for the list, Bret. Of the books on it, the one that provides the best historical perspective in my opinion on Emma is Mormon Enigma.

Comment by Jared

Is that a new subititle on the Doubleday edition of Mormon Enigma?

Comment by stanthayne

Stan: From what I can tell, the first edition’s (1984, Doubleday) subtitle was Emma Hale Smith, Prophet’s Wife, “Elect Lady,” Polygamy’s Foe . The second edition (1994, Illinois) was simply subtitled Emma Smith .

Comment by David Grua

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