This lesson discusses the written correspondence Joseph sent to Emma during his frequent absences. IMO, this is a tough lesson for many reasons, so read on to see how you would make the most of it.
The main difficulties with this lesson are:
- Lack of context. The letters (snippets) are presented without any context of the rocky relationship that existed between Joseph and Emma. Although his polygamy was a sore topic with many ups and downs, none of that is mentioned to contextualize the relationship in the letters. There were other points of discord between them that are also not mentioned. It only references things like where they were and whether Emma was pregnant at the time or if a child had been sick.
- No doctrine. There is no doctrinal content whatsoever, just snippets of letters.
- “Gag me with a spoon” factor. Like all letters from this era, the language is flowery and exaggerated. The style of writing is clichéd and designed to obfuscate meaning through emotionalism rather than to communicate directly and clearly. What’s next? A walk through “Cupid’s Grove” with Abigail and John Adams? I know this kind of stuff is really appealing to some people; it’s just not my thing. I’m sort of glad we quit signing letters “Your humble servant.”
- Weak Application. The letters are personal with no inherent universal application. That, coupled with the ambiguous state of the Smith marriage (which is neatly avoided), and the nature of letters from this period (the sentimentality) greatly reduces their applicability. Likening the scriptures unto ourselves is one thing; likening letters between Joseph and Emma to ourselves is much more difficult, especially with no meaningful context (although in this case, the context would probably make it even more meaningless to current lay members).
There are a few hints at the on-and-off strain in the relationship:
- “And as to yourself, if you want to know how much I want to see you, examine your feelings, how much you want to see me, and judge for yourself.” (1839)
- “O Emma, … do not forsake me nor the truth, but remember me.” (1838)
My favorite snippet, that seems much very folksy and personable. He had a real fondness for that dog:
- “I want you to try to gain time and write to me a long letter and tell me all you can and even if old Major is alive yet and what those little prattlers say that cling around your neck.” (1839)
Difficulties are naturally presented in highly emotional ways with a religious persecution spin. There is a desire for the stories to be recast in a way that motivates further religious and familial devotion; for example:
- “Tell them I am in prison that their lives might be saved.” (1839)
I’ve read a lot of things written in this time period, and I have to wonder. The following frankly sounds like an oblique reference to a conjugal visit:
- “I take the liberty to tender you my sincere thanks for the two interesting and consoling visits that you have made me during my almost exiled situation. Tongue cannot express the gratitude of my heart, for the warm and true-hearted friendship you have manifested in these things towards me.” (1842)
The questions provided in the lesson are not tremendously helpful either, but here is the direction I would take it to maximize personal applicability (sticking to the questions in bold). The below is straight from the manual, except where indicated:
- Briefly review this chapter, noting Joseph Smith’s feelings toward Emma and their children. What does his example teach about how we should speak and act in our families? (Don’t write down anything negative? Don’t express your true feelings in letters? Accentuate the positive?) What can we learn from Joseph and Emma Smith’s efforts to write to one another and to see one another? (Very little since there is no context and only one side to the conversation). What are some things you have done to show family members that you love them?
- The Prophet Joseph told Emma that he was “a true and faithful friend to [her] and the children forever,” and he thanked her for her “warm and true-hearted friendship” (pages 242, 246). What can husbands and wives do to nurture their friendship? (Well, if I’m right about the conjugal visit . . . But seriously, folks. I think this is a helpful question, and I would just let the sisters discuss.)
- In his letters, Joseph Smith showed trust in Emma, expressing confidence that she would make good decisions and do all she could to take care of the family (page 245). How might such expressions of trust influence the relationship between a husband and a wife? (You could say he was expressing confidence in her ability to take care of the family in his absence, or you could say he was reminding her of her duties. Given that he was largely absent, his instructions seem custodial to me and would probably tick me off. Still, you could just throw out this question to the group about how you can build trust in a marriage, regardless of whether his letters are a good example of that.) How can we build trust in our marriages?
- Read the Prophet Joseph’s message to his children in the second paragraph on page 246. How might it have helped his children to receive this news? (It made it clear to them that the thing that stood between them and their loving father was the mob.) During times of trial, what can parents do to show their children that they have faith in God?
- Review Joseph Smith’s expressions of trust in God found on pages 243–46. Identify several of these expressions that are particularly touching to you. How can you apply these truths in your life? (Since this is not presenting “truth,” so much as faith, I would repurpose the question to “How can trials strengthen your faith in God?” which I realize is too broad and a lot like the last question.)
Since there is not a lot of meat here (which could be the upside of this lesson–it’s different from the other lessons), I will mention a few other lesson ideas I’ve seen bandied about (all of which sound pretty good to me at filling the allotted time):
- Have a man come in to read the letter snippets so people can hear them in a “Joseph” voice. He could even tie his tie in a bow and put his shirt collars up in true 1830s fashion, if you are daring.
- Print the snippets out on old-style parchment paper with a seal and have sisters read them aloud. A little crafty for my taste, but you could do it.
- Take time at the end of class to write a letter to loved one(s) sharing your faith, love, and trust. Perhaps a little “precious,” but again, there’s time here to be filled.
That is the best I’ve got, gang. Let me know your thoughts on what you think works best for this lesson.