Groundbreaking Emma Smith biographer, a ‘giant’ in Mormon scholarship, dies at 82

Jan. 16, 1941 — Feb. 12, 2023: Linda King Newell’s book brought to life the faith’s first first lady.

Linda King Newell, who co-wrote a landmark biography of Emma Smith, died Feb. 12, 2023.

Before Latter-day Saint culture was awash in movies, sculptures and stories about Emma Hale Smith, it was a bold, almost revolutionary move for Linda King Newell to co-write a positive biography of Mormon founder Joseph Smith’s wife.

For more than 100 years, many members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints spoke in hushed and often hostile tones about their first prophet’s great love — known mostly as Emma — who refused to follow her husband’s immediate successor, Brigham Young, and his band of beleaguered pioneers, to the barren West.

It took the meticulous research of two women, Newell, who died Feb. 12 at 82, and Valeen Tippetts Avery, who died in 2006, to breathe courage and spirit into Emma’s life.

Their 1984 book, “Mormon Enigma: Emma Hale Smith,” provided groundbreaking research on the movement’s origins and practice of polygamy — from a woman’s perspective.

The biography hit the church’s intellectual community like a land mine, exploding myths and rumors about the woman who is heralded in Latter-day Saint scripture as an “elect lady.”

It was “a monumental work of scholarship and a revisionist tour de force,” Latter-day Saint historian Benjamin Park tweeted this week. Newell and Avery “restored agency to Emma’s story and presented her, largely for the first time, as the determined actor she was.”

It also galvanized opposition to the book among church leaders throughout Utah, Idaho and Arizona, who told their flock not to invite the women to speak at Latter-day Saint meetings.

(The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) Emma and Joseph Smith.

Shocked at that news, Newell and her husband, Jack, met with apostle Dallin H. Oaks (now first counselor in the church’s governing First Presidency), who told them: “The image of Joseph Smith in your book undermines members’ faith in his prophetic mission.”

Newell went on to “forge a self-made career as a writer and historian while raising four children in a time and place where there were few role models,” according to her obituary.

“The world of Mormon history lost a giant,” Park tweeted. “Though lacking formal graduate training or faculty appointment, Newell plumbed the depths of sources to recapture the lived experience of LDS women. She made a splash with an essay on Mormon women giving healing blessings, an important reclamation project.”

She also participated in “a rich, though sadly overlooked, dialogue in the 1980s over women and priesthood ordination,” the historian wrote. “Her 1985 essay on the topic is a model for careful scholarship while still exploring feminist interpretations.”

Partnering with her husband, Newell served as co-editor of Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought from 1982 to 1987.

As a writer, Newell penned histories of Millard, Garfield and Piute counties for Utah’s centennial in 1996. On top of that, she was a series editor for University of Utah Press, development director for the Utah Humanities Council, and director of special projects at Deep Springs College in California, where her husband was the president from 1995 to 2004.

She was president of the Mormon History Association, a founding member of the Gun Violence Prevention Center of Utah, and the creator of an artist women’s retreat near Zion National Park, where, according to the obit, one of the residency cabins is named the “Linda King Newell House of Grand Dreams.”

She was “part of a wave of Mormon women seeking to change LDS culture through scholarship and agitation,” Park wrote. “Both Mormons and Mormon studies scholars alike owe a lot to her.”

Newell was “so supportive of me a few years ago when I spoke with her about my goals and hopes to pursue my graduate education,” wrote Charlotte Hansen Terry, who is doing graduate work at the University of California, Davis on religion, race and gender in the American West. “I’m so grateful for her mentorship and her legacy of important historical work. She will be missed.”

Funeral services for Newell are scheduled for Friday, Feb. 17, at 10 a.m. in the Garden Park LDS Ward, 1150 E. Yale Ave., in Salt Lake City.