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A first lady for a new faith : MORMON ENIGMA: EMMA HALE SMITH by Linda King Newell and Valeen Tippetts Avery (Doubleday:$19.95; 394 pp.)

February 03, 1985|David Johnston | Johnston , a Times staff writer , was once a Mormon elder's quorum president

Emma Hale Smith, the first of Mormon Church founder Joseph Smith's dozens of wives, is the subject of this full-length biography. She is a fascinating subject, in large part because of her implacable opposition to the now-discarded Mormon doctrine of "plural marriage" and her split from the main body of Mormons after her husband's assassination in 1844.

The authors open in 1927, as Emma Hale elopes with Joseph Smith, a young man who had been digging for gold in the hills of western New York state. Her father detested Smith.

After this logical start, Linda King Newell and Valeen Tippetts Avery quickly falter. They fail to focus on their subject; their writing is pedestrian, and they pad their book with insignificant details gathered during eight years of research.

Early on, the authors digress to repeat the worn tale involving Martin Harris, one of Joseph Smith's early patrons when Smith said he was translating the Book of Mormon from an ancient language inscribed on golden plates.

Anxious to have man verify God's work, Joseph Smith copied some of the ancient symbols for Harris. The authors--ever vigilant in their search for minutiae--note that Joseph Smith arranged the characters vertically on an unlined sheet of paper, eleven by eight inches in size, using brown ink.

"According to Harris," the authors write, a Columbia professor "pronounced the characters authentic and correctly translated and gave Harris a certificate. When Harris told him divine intervention was involved, he (the professor) took the statement back and tore it up. . . ."

The authors make no effort to tell us the scholar's side of the story. In this, as in many other matters great and small, they rely solely on the official version of events taught by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, of which both Newell and Avery are members in good standing.

Not until Page 97 do the authors get around to Emma's reactions to Joseph Smith's pronouncements about The New Order of Marriage, as polygamy was known.

Smith took 27, 48 or 84 wives according to other sources cited by the authors, who do not attempt to set the record straight.

Only here and there do the writers timidly and indirectly hint that some truth may exist other than official truth. Consider one-time Smith confidant Oliver Cowdrey, the man who claimed having seen the golden plates before an angel took them into the heavens: In 1838, a Church tribunal excommunicated Cowdrey for charges including "falsely insinuating that (Joseph Smith) was guilty of adultery." The authors never examine the validity of Cowdrey's charges.

Perhaps Smith promulgated the notion of polygamous marriage because he was a promiscuous fellow and he knew that his followers would not tolerate extra-marital escapades. Instead of examining this prospect, however, Newell and Avery just state what Mormons generally believe, to wit: "The majority of faithful Mormons would give little consideration to Joseph's own physical drives or other charges . . . they would maintain simply that God commanded plural marriage through Joseph Smith."

Mormons believe that the God of this planet inspired America's Founding Fathers to create our democratic government so that Joseph Smith could restore His one true church. This suggests a question: How could a God who planned so carefully to restore His church let His prophet take a first wife so opposed to His divine plan of plural marriage?

Like dozens of interesting and important questions about Emma Hale Smith, answers will not be found in this book.

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