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Mormons Forbid Female Biographers of Smith’s Wife to Address Church

Times Religion Writer

Two women who wrote a biography of Mormon founder Joseph Smith’s first wife say they have been barred from speaking about their research at church meetings although the book has won two Mormon prizes for history.

Linda K. Newell, who wrote “Mormon Enigma: Emma Hale Smith” with Valeen T. Avery, said church authorities “decided to remove the possibility that anyone might interpret our occasional speaking at (Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter-day Saints) meetings as (amounting to) church endorsement of the book.”

Church officials at the Salt Lake City headquarters did not respond this week to inquiries from The Times about the restriction.

Told by Her Friends

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Newell, of Salt Lake City, said that she learned indirectly of the ban from friends and could only find the reasons when she met, at her request, with two members of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, the church’s top managerial body.

She said the two officials did not dispute the contents of the book, but they said that it conflicted with traditional interpretations of Joseph Smith--"particularly in regard to the initiation of polygamy in the early LDS church and therefore challenged the faith of some Latter Day Saints.”

Avery, a historian with Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff, said in a separate interview that their book illustrates how Smith was “dishonest with Emma, sometimes taking his friends’ daughters or wives as his wives. Joseph comes across in the book as a human being with flaws in his character.”

Before the Golden Plates

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Smith married Emma Hale in 1827 shortly before he said he obtained golden plates that inspired the Book of Mormon. Smith started the new religious movement in New York State with the publication of his book and the organization of the church in 1830.

By 1841 Smith was teaching his closest followers that taking more wives in so-called “plural marriages” was part of God’s plan and two years later he told Emma, the authors said.

Historians have disagreed on how many women Joseph married before his death in 1844. The late Fawn Brodie of UCLA said it was 48. Newell and Avery wrote that “Emma’s knowledge of seven can be documented conclusively, and some evidence hints that she may have known of others.” After years of conflict and controversy with outsiders, the church announced in 1890 that it was no longer sanctioning polygamy.

Book Wins Awards

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“Mormon Enigma,” in its fourth printing since publication last fall by Doubleday, was cited as the best book of 1984 by the Mormon History Assn. and was co-winner of the David W. and Beatrice Evans Award for excellence in Mormon and Western biography. The latter award presentation was made at church-owned Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah.

Nevertheless, Mormon Church leadership in recent years has attempted to put distance between its traditional teachings and the increasingly frank writings of Mormon scholars, often based on some surprising manuscript discoveries. The current controversy over early documents indicating a folk magic cast to the story of Mormon origins, however, is unrelated to the Emma Hale Smith biography.

Newell, who said she and Avery remain church members in good standing, reported that she is appealing the speaking ban because of the manner in which it was imposed.

No Explanation Given

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“No one had any explanation as to why, as lifetime church members, neither Val nor I had been informed officially of this decision or been given an opportunity to speak in our own behalf. By not informing us, established church rules of due process were ignored,” said Newell, who with her husband co-edits Dialogue, a Journal of Mormon Thought.

Mormon historian Thomas G. Alexander, director of the Charles Redd Center at BYU, said he found the speaking ban “very disturbing.” Alexander said he believed church authorities could have made their point differently to members that the book was not church-endorsed.

“It could have been handled with a letter to stake (local) presidents that this was not an official publication of the church and that members were free to read it and decide for themselves,” he said. “I wouldn’t object if the church sent out a letter of that sort on a book of mine.”

Article Leads to Ban

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A recent short article in the BYU alumni magazine about the book award at BYU apparently led to the ban, rather than anything said by Newell or Avery to church groups.

Avery said she has been sitting “very quietly” in the back during church services for almost two years. Newell said she did not speak about the book at services and only occasionally at women’s relief society meetings and at informal church gatherings.

“While there are aspects of Mormon history that are troubling,” Newell said, ". . . we can learn from history only if we know it, and we have to know the mistakes as well as the good.” Avery said that church officials were concerned more about how Joseph Smith was depicted than what could be known about Emma. Newell said that they wrote about Joseph in the way he affected Emma and women who were her friends. “Mormons, like most Americans, are not used to reading their history from a woman’s viewpoint,” Newell said.


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