Early Illinois Women

Emma Hale Smith (1804-1879), First President of Relief Society

Emma Hale Smith
(oil painting)

The Carthage Jail
where Joseph & Hyram Smith were assassinated in 1844

Emma Hale Smith

Emma Hale Smith, wife of Joseph Smith, was the first president of one of the world's largest and oldest women's organizations, the Relief Society of the Mormon Church.

Emma Hale was born in Pennsylvania in 1803, fifteen years before Illinois became a state. About 1825, Joseph Smith, Jr., boarded at the home of Emma's father Isaac Hale. Joseph propose marriage to Emma, but Isaac Hale refused to give approval. Emma and Joseph returned to Joseph's home state of New York, where they married in 1827.

About the same time, Joseph earnestly began to pursue revelations of the Book of Mormon. Joseph's revelations and teachings became the foundation of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. Joseph became the head of the Church. In 1830, Emma was assigned the task of compiling the group's first hymnal.

During the next decade, Joseph, Emma, and the Mormon believers moved from New York to Kirtland, Ohio, to western Missouri, and in 1839, to Nauvoo, Illinois. Several other locations became home for short periods of time. The moves were made to escape violent conflict with non-Mormon neighbors.

Those years were certainly trying times for Emma. In addition to the moves and threats of violence and Joseph's arrests, several of Emma and Joseph's children died in infancy or as young children. Emma is believed to have held strong influence in the business affairs of the household. She took boarders into the home to provide additional income. In 1842, she visted Governor Carlin of Illinois and attempted to persuade the governor of the illegality of prosecution of Joseph by the state of Illinois.

The Mormons built Nauvoo into one of the largest cities in Illinois. In 1842, Joseph, as head of the Mormon church, established the Relief Society to assist the sick and the poor. Emma was the first president of this society initially composed of about 20 women. Emma claimed at the time "We are going to do something extraordinary". By 1997, the society boasted a membership of almost 4 million and continues the original mission to aid the sick, poor, and others in need.

Friction between the Mormons, their neighbors and the government of Illinois escalated. The animosity culminated in June 1844 with the assassination of Emma's husband, Joseph Smith and his brother Hyram Smith. Following the assassinations, leadership of the church transferred to Brigham Young. Young led the Mormons out of Nauvoo and westward to Utah.

Emma did not agree with the new doctrines of the Mormon Church. She believed Joseph's son Joseph Smith III should lead the church, and she did not support plural marriage. Emma did not join the migration to Utah. She remarried in 1847 to a non-Mormon named Lewis Bidamon. Emma raised her children in Nauvoo, joined the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. Emma died in Nauvoo in 1879.


  1. Avery, Valeen Tippetts and Linda King Newell. (1996) "The Lion and the Lady: Brigham Young and Emma Smith" in Kingdom on the Mississippi Revistied: Nauvoo in Mormon History.Edited by Rodger D. Launius and John E. Hallwas , University of Illinois Press, Urbana and Chicago.
  2. Jack, Elaine L. (1997) "A Small Stone", 167th Annual General Conference of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints.

Contributing Library:

Macomb Public Library, Macomb, Illinois

Return to Main Page
This page last updated: Friday, 24-Sep-1999 12:59:43 CDT

Copyright Notice