Emma Hale was born in Harmony Township, Susquehanna County, Pennsylvania, the seventh child of Isaac Hale and Elizabeth Lewis Hale. Emma first met her future husband, Joseph Smith, in 1825. Smith lived near Palmyra, New York, but boarded with the Hales in Harmony while he was employed in a company of men hired to unearth an abandoned silver mine. Although the company was unsuccessful in finding the suspected mine, Smith returned to Harmony several times to court Emma. Isaac Hale refused to allow the marriage because he disapproved of Smith's occupation. On January 17, 1827, Smith and Emma eloped across the state line to South Bainbridge, New York, where they were married the following day. The couple moved to the home of Smith's parents on the edge of Manchester Township near Palmyra.
On September 22, 1827, Joseph and Emma took a horse and carriage belonging to Joseph Knight, Sr., and went to a hill now known as the Hill Cumorah where Joseph said he received a set of golden plates. This created a great deal of excitement in the area. In December 1827, the couple decided to move to Harmony, where they reconciled—to some extent—with Isaac and Elizabeth Hale. Emma's parents helped her and Joseph obtain a house and a small farm. Once they settled in, Joseph began work on the Book of Mormon with Emma acting as a scribe. She became a physical witness of the plates, reporting that she felt them through a cloth, traced the pages through the cloth with her fingers, heard the metallic sound they made as she moved them, and felt their weight. She later wrote in an interview with her son, Joseph Smith III: "In writing for your father I frequently wrote day 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." In Harmony on June 15, 1828, Emma gave birth to her first child—a son named Alvin—who lived only a few hours.
In May 1829, Emma and Joseph left Harmony and went to live with David Whitmer in Fayette, New York. While travelling there, they saw an elderly man walking alongside the road. After offering him a ride, the man declined, saying that he was headed to Cumorah. He then disappeared suddenly. Joseph identified the man as the angel Moroni. Later, in Fayette, Joseph finished work on the Book of Mormon, which was published in March 1830.
On April 6, 1830, Joseph and five other men established the Church of Christ.
Emma was baptized by Oliver Cowdery on June 28, 1830, in Colesville, New York, where an early branch of the church was established. During the next weeks, Joseph was arrested, tried and exonerated in South Bainbridge for "glass looking" based on the state's vagrancy law. Shortly thereafter, Joseph reported a revelation which instructed her to "murmur not" but also comforted her with the assurance, "thy sins are forgiven thee, and thou art an elect lady, whom I have called." The revelation goes on to state that Emma would "be ordained under [Joseph's] hand to expound scriptures, and to exhort the church" and further authorizes Emma to "make a selection of sacred Hymns" for the church.
Joseph and Emma returned to Harmony for a time, but relations with Emma's parents broke down, and the couple went back to staying in the homes of members of the growing church. They lived first with the Whitmers in Fayette, then with Newel K. Whitney and his family in Kirtland, Ohio, and then into a cabin on a farm owned by Isaac Morley. It was here on April 30, 1831, that Emma gave premature birth to twins, Thaddeus and Louisa; both babies died hours later. That same day, Julia Clapp Murdock died giving birth to twins, Joseph and Julia. When the twins were nine days old, their father, John, gave the infants to the Smiths to raise as their own. On September 2, 1831, the Smiths moved into John Johnson's home in Hiram, Ohio. The infant Joseph died of exposure or pneumonia in late March 1832, after a door was left open during a mob attack on Smith.
On November 6, 1832, Emma gave birth to Joseph Smith III in the upper room of Whitney's store in Kirtland. Young Joseph (as he became known) was the first of her natural children to live to adulthood. A second son, Frederick Granger Williams Smith (named for a counselor in the church's First Presidency), followed on June 29, 1836.
While in Kirtland, Emma's feelings about temperance and the use of tobacco reportedly influenced her husband's decision to pray about dietary questions. These prayers resulted in the "Word of Wisdom". Also in Kirtland, Emma's first selection of hymns was published as a hymnal for the church's use. It was also in Kirtland that the collapse of Joseph's banking venture, the Kirtland Safety Society, led to serious problems for the church and the family. On January 12, 1838, he was forced to leave the state or face charges of fraud and illegal banking.
Emma and her family followed and made a new home on the frontier in the Latter Day Saint settlement of Far West, Missouri, where Emma gave birth on June 2, 1838, to Alexander Hale Smith. Events of the 1838 Mormon War soon escalated, resulting in Joseph's surrender and imprisonment by Missouri officials. Emma and her family were forced to leave the state with the majority of Latter Day Saints. She crossed the Mississippi River which had frozen over in February 1839. Of these times, she later wrote:
Emma and her family lived with friendly non-Mormons John and Sarah Cleveland in Quincy, Illinois, until Joseph escaped custody in Missouri. The family moved to a new Latter Day Saint settlement in Illinois which Joseph named "Nauvoo." On May 9, 1839, they moved into a two-storey log house there which they called the "Homestead." A year later, on June 13, 1840, Emma gave birth to a son, Don Carlos Smith, named after his uncle, Joseph's brother. Both Don Carlos Smiths would die the next year. The Smiths lived in the homestead until 1843, when a much larger house, known as the "Mansion House" was built across the street. A wing (no longer extant) was added to this house, which Emma operated as a hotel.
On March 17, 1842, the Ladies' Relief Society of Nauvoo was formally organized as the women's auxiliary to the church. Emma became its founding president, with Sarah M. Cleveland and Elizabeth Ann Whitney as her counselors. According to the minutes of the founding meeting, the organization was formed to "provoke the brethren to good works in looking to the wants of the poor, [search] after objects of charity [and] to assist by correcting the virtues of the female community". Shortly before this, Joseph had initiated the Anointed Quorum—a prayer-circle of important men and women in the church that included Emma.
Rumors concerning polygamy and other practices erupted into the open by 1842. Emma was involved in campaigns to publicly condemn polygamy and deny any involvement by her husband. (Joseph's participation in polygamy was a closely guarded secret at the time.) Emma authorized and was the main signatory of a petition in summer 1842, with a thousand female signatures, denying Joseph Smith was connected with polygamy. As president of the Ladies' Relief Society, she authorized the publishing of a certificate in October 1842 denouncing polygamy and denying her husband as its creator or participant. In March 1844, Emma published:
We raise our voices and hands against John C. Bennett's 'spiritual wife system', as a scheme of profligates to seduce women; and they that harp upon it, wish to make it popular for the convenience of their own cupidity; wherefore, while the marriage bed, undefiled is honorable, let polygamy, bigamy, fornication, adultery, and prostitution, be frowned out of the hearts of honest men to drop in the gulf of fallen nature.
In June 1844, with the publication of the Nauvoo Expositor by disaffected former church members, the press was destroyed by the town marshal on orders from the town council (of which Joseph was a member), which set into motion the events that ultimately led to his arrest and incarceration in the jail in Carthage, Illinois. While he was there, a mob of about 200 armed men stormed the jail in the late afternoon of June 27, 1844, and both Joseph and his brother, Hyrum, were killed.
Joseph's death threw both the church and Emma's family into disorder. Emma was left a pregnant widow—it would be on November 17, 1844, that she gave birth to David Hyrum Smith, the last child she and Joseph had together. In addition to being church president, Joseph had been trustee-in-trust for the church. As a result, his estate was entirely wrapped up with the finances of the church. Untangling the church's property and debts from Emma's personal property and debts proved to be a long and potentially dangerous process for Emma and her family.
The church itself was left with no clear successor and a succession crisis ensued. Emma wanted William Marks, president of the church's central stake, to assume the church presidency, but Marks favored Sidney Rigdon for the role. After a meeting on August 8, a congregation of the church voted that the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles should lead the church. Brigham Young, president of the Quorum, then became de facto president of the church in Nauvoo.
Relations between Young and Emma steadily deteriorated. Emma's friends, as well as members of the Smith family, were alienated from Young's followers. Relations between the Latter Day Saints and their neighbors also declined into near open warfare, and eventually Young made the decision to relocate the church to the Salt Lake Valley. When he and the majority of the Latter Day Saints of Nauvoo abandoned the city in early 1846, Emma and her children remained behind in the emptied town.
Nearly two years later, a close friend and non-Mormon, Major Lewis C. Bidamon, proposed marriage and became Emma's second husband on December 23, 1847. Bidamon moved into the Mansion House and became stepfather to Emma's children. Emma and Bidamon attempted to operate a store and to continue using their large house as a hotel, but Nauvoo had too few residents and visitors to make either venture very profitable. Emma and her family remained rich in real estate but poor in capital.
Unlike other members of the Smith family who had at times favored the claims of James J. Strang or William Smith, Emma and her children continued to live in Nauvoo as unaffiliated Latter Day Saints. Many Latter Day Saints believed that her eldest son, Joseph Smith III, would one day be called to hold the same position that his father had held. When he reported receiving a calling from God to take his father's place as head of a "New Organization" of the Latter Day Saint church, she supported his decision. Both she and Joseph III traveled to a conference at Amboy, Illinois and on April 6, 1860, Joseph was sustained as president of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, which added the word "Reorganized" to the name in 1872 and is presently known as the Community of Christ. Emma became a member of the RLDS Church without rebaptism, as her original 1830 baptism was still considered valid.
Emma and Joseph III returned to Nauvoo after the conference and he led the church from there until moving to Plano, Illinois in 1866. Joseph III called upon his mother to help prepare a hymnal for the reorganization, just as she had for the early church.
Major Bidamon renovated a portion of the unfinished Nauvoo House hotel (across the street from the Mansion House) and he and Emma moved there in 1871. Emma died peacefully in the Nauvoo House. Her funeral was held May 2, 1879 in Nauvoo with RLDS Church minister Mark Hill Forscutt preaching the sermon.
The first Latter Day Saint hymnal, which was compiled by Emma, came off the press in 1836 (possibly late 1835) at Kirtland, Ohio. It was titled A Collection of Sacred Hymns, for the Church of the Latter Day Saints and contained 90 hymn texts, but no music. More than half of the texts were borrowed from Protestant groups, but often changed slightly to reinforce the theology of the early church. For example, Hymn 15, changed Isaac Watts's Joy to the World from a song about Christmas to a song about the return of Christ (see Joy to the World (Phelps)). Many of these changes and a large number of the original songs included in the hymnal are attributed to W. W. Phelps.
Emma also compiled a second hymnal by the same title, which was published in Nauvoo, Illinois in 1841. This contained 304 hymn texts.
When her son Joseph III became president of the RLDS Church, she was again asked to compile a hymnal. Latter Day Saints' Selection of Hymns was published in 1861.
Linda King Newell and Valeen Tippetts Avery, in their biography, Mormon Enigma, make the claim that Emma witnessed several marriages of Joseph Smith to plural wives. However, throughout her lifetime Emma publicly denied knowledge of her husband's involvement in the practice of polygamy and denied on her deathbed that the practice had ever occurred. Emma stated,
Emma Smith claimed that the very first time she ever became aware of a polygamy revelation being attributed to Joseph Smith was when she read about it in 1853 in Orson Pratt's booklet The Seer. Many of the Latter Day Saints who joined the RLDS Church in the midwestern United States had broken with Brigham Young and/or James Strang because of opposition to polygamy. Emma's continuing public denial of the practice seemed to lend strength to their cause, and opposition to polygamy became a tenet of the RLDS Church. Over the years, many RLDS Church historians attempted to prove that the practice had originated with Brigham Young.