Benjamin E. Park: The Nauvoo crisis that continues to shape the modern LDS Church

(photo courtesy Excel Entertainment) Danielle Deadwyler and Emily Goss portray Jane Manning and Emma Smith, respectively, in the upcoming feature film tentatively titled, Jane & Emma.

Most members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints are aware of Emma Smith’s difficulties during the Nauvoo period, which resulted in her choosing not to move west under Brigham Young’s leadership. Yet few understand how crucial her actions were to central practices and ideas of the LDS Church, including how modern Mormons view gender, marriage and the importance of dissenting voices.

When Russel M. Nelson held his inaugural press conference as the new prophet and president of the global church on Jan. 16, 2018, he was asked about the role of women in the church, especially concerning the apparent discord between their commitment to patriarchal authority and the world’s increasingly egalitarian culture.

Nelson responded that there is a scriptural verse that says that “before the foundation of the world women were created to bear and care for the sons and daughters of God and in doing so they glorify God.” The eternal plan set out for humanity, in other words, designates the primary role of women to be mothers.

Though he didn’t specify it, the quote comes from the scriptural passage Doctrine and Covenants (D&C) 132, verse 63, a revelation that Joseph Smith dictated on the morning of July 12, 1843. And though most members of the faith know that revelation as the scriptural basis for eternal marriage — one of the foundational ideas of the church — few understand the tumultuous circumstances in which it was recorded, particularly that it was in response to Emma Smith’s agitation.

The years that immediately preceded that 1843 morning were some of the toughest in Joseph and Emma’s marriage. At the heart of the conflict was Joseph’s evolving conception of plural marriage, in which righteous priesthood holders could be “sealed” to multiple wives.

At first, Joseph was too afraid to inform Emma of the practice, and he hid his growing number of unions from her. Finally, in spring 1843, she relented and allowed him to be “sealed” to two sets of sisters — a decision she immediately regretted once she learned more about the nature and scope of these marriages. (By that summer, Joseph was sealed to over 30 women.)

Once again in a bind, and prompted by his brother, Hyrum, Joseph dictated a 3,300-word revelation that provided theological validation for plural marriage. Emma, unmoved, denounced the doctrine as heresy and redoubled her opposition. Their relationship was only salvaged once Joseph promised not to take on any more wives.

Yet Emma’s continued and consistent resistance to the practice had several lasting implications. Most immediately, her public denouncements fanned a growing anti-polygamy flame within the city, prompting more dissenting opposition as well as institutional denials.

The larger impact came much later, as the July 1843 revelation on plural marriage, which was only created because of Emma’s opposition, was one of the very few polygamy documents from the Nauvoo period.

Another contemporary document, and the only one written in Joseph’s own hand, was created in March of that year at the prompting of another plural wife, the teenager Sarah Ann Whitney.

Therefore, while much of what we know about polygamy in Nauvoo comes from later reminiscences or complicated sources, the few bedrock documents only exist because of women’s agitation.

Further, D&C 132 also contains some of the most direct statements concerning eternal gender roles in LDS scripture, including those verses that Nelson drew from in his press conference. And as the juxtaposition between these patriarchal ideals and contemporary gender values is increasingly stark, there is a growing divide between traditional LDS teachings and contemporary ideas concerning gender.

This tension has in turn prompted a string of outspoken feminists anxious to reform their community. Sonia Johnson’s push for the Equal Rights Amendment, the September Six authors’ invocation of feminist scholarship and Kate Kelly’s challenge to the male-only priesthood have all resulted in public fights and excommunications yet have also forced the church to consistently — if silently — adjust in order to stop losing members.

So, while many Mormons may continue to highlight the actions of leading men like Joseph while marginalizing those of women like Emma, the history reveals that the voices of women have played a crucial role.

The circumstances that resulted in D&C 132 therefore exemplify both the limits and potential for dissenting voices within the Mormon tradition. Emma Smith, as well as her ideological descendants who inherited her reformist legacy, continue to poke and prod the faith and its leaders, even as they face institutional punishments.

While the fate of the modern LDS Church continues to be in flux, especially with regard to gender roles, what remains consistent is that female voices will always play a crucial, if often overlooked, role.

(Photo by Mike Hoogterp) Benjamin Park | assistant professor of history at Sam Houston State University, and the author of "Kingdom of Nauvoo: The Rise and Fall of a Religious Empire on the American Frontier."

Benjamin E. Park (@BenjaminEPark) teaches American religious history at Sam Houston State University and is author of the new book, “Kingdom of Nauvoo: The Rise and Fall of a Religious Empire on the American Frontier” (W.W. Norton/Liveright).