Emma Smith’s last testimony is used to support the narrative that Joseph Smith’s translation of the Book of Mormon was miraculous, particularly that he didn’t have a book or manuscript to read from, and that he could not have concealed a manuscript from her.1
Question. What of the truth of Mormonism?
Answer. I know Mormonism to be the truth; and believe the Church to have been established by divine direction. I have complete faith in it. In writing for your father I frequently wrote da y after day, often sitting at the table close by him, he sitting with his face buried in his hat, with the stone in it, and dictating hour after hour with nothing between us.
Question. Had he not a book or manuscript from which he read, or dictated to you?
Answer. He had neither manuscript nor book to read from.
Question. Could he not have had, and you not know it?
Answer. If he had had anything of the kind he could not have concealed it from me.
However, Emma’s witness of the Book of Mormon follows directly after her testimony on polygamy:
Question. What about the revelation on polygamy? Did Joseph Smith have anything like it? What of spiritual wifery?
Answer. There was no revelation on either polygamy or spiritual wives. There were some rumors of something of the sort, of which I asked my husband. He assured me that all there was of it was, that, in a chat about plural wives, he had said, “Well, such a system might possibly be, if everybody was agreed to it, and would behave as they should; but they would not; and besides, it was contrary to the will of heaven.” No such thing as polygamy or spiritual wifery was taught, publicly or privately, before my husband’s death, that I have now, or ever had any knowledge of.
Question. Did he not have other wives than yourself?
Answer. He had no other wife but me; nor did he to my knowledge ever have.
Question. Did he not hold marital relations with women other than yourself?
Answer. He did not have improper relations with any woman that ever came to my knowledge.
Question. Was there nothing about spiritual wives that you recollect?
Answer. At one time my husband came to me and asked me if I had heard certain rumors about spiritual marriages, or anything of the kind; and assured me that if I had, that they were without foundation; that there was no such doctrine, and never should be with his knowledge or consent. I know that he had no other wife or wives than myself, in any sense, either spiritual or otherwise.
If we accept that Joseph Smith practiced polygamy2 then it seems we can conclude the following about Emma (and Joseph):
- Emma was lying. She knew the truth and was willing to mislead her interviewers.
- Emma was telling the truth: she was naive about the actions of her husband or Joseph was adept at hiding his actions and information from her (or some combination).
Historians recognize that people may be truthful about some events or facets of events they are reporting on and less truthful (or dishonest) about other events, so we should be cautious about necessarily coupling the truthfulness of her recounting (i.e., she may have been honest in one statement and dishonest in the other). Regardless, if we accept that Joseph was practicing polygamy, then it seems reasonable to condition our confidence in Emma as a reliable witness on the creation of the Book of Mormon, at least to some degree. Based on her denial of Joseph Smith’s polygamy we can be reasonably confident that Emma was either at least capable of lying or, alternatively, that she was naive about her husband’s actions or that Joseph was adept at hiding information from her. Any of these possibilities may weaken our confidence in her statements about Joseph Smith’s abilities or other events surrounding the dictation.
In any event, because several of Joseph Smith’s other compositions (e.g., letters) from around that time are extant, it is possible to directly assess the accuracy of Emma’s statement regarding Joseph’s writing ability.