Sunday, October 26, 2014

One Day Emma

I wrote this piece a long time ago.  I was feeling very upset regarding some things happening in the LDS church and expressed myself by imagining what would happen if Emma asked Joseph about smoking and chewing tobacco today?  How would the church respond?  Elements of my own life began mixing in with elements of how the church has responded to people (especially women) over its history including the ERA movement, wear pants to church day, and women's ordination.  The whole story took a life of its own.  Previously I've only shared this privately.

One day after mopping up another tobacco spit covered floor while coughing up lungfulls of second hand smoke, Emma decided something wasn't right.  How could such filthy unhealthy habits be of God?  In this very room the most divine revelations were discussed, creating an absurd contradiction of the most pure and lofty ideals being discussed in a pig sty that she was supposed to clean up after.  She was talking to a friend one day and mentioned that she had decided tobacco just didn't seem to be of God and she would ask Joseph to pray about it for a revelation.  Her friend, who up to that point had been sympathetically listening, suddenly blanched with fright.  "But Joseph is the prophet, if God had meant the church leaders to stop chewing tobacco wouldn't he already have been told?"

Emma replied "But he's never thought about it before.  Smoking and spitting for the brethren is a habit, not a revelation.  Just asking the question couldn't hurt."

But for some reason she never got around to asking, or Joseph was too busy to talk to her.  Word got around though that she had a question in her mind.  Soon her visiting teachers brought it up.  Emma was surprised they even cared, but next thing the visiting teachers were talking up how concerned they were for her spiritual welfare.  "What has not liking cleaning up tobacco spit and breathing in smoke have to do with my spiritual welfare?  I just think I should have a right to have a home not polluted by adult spit up and smoke smell.  This place is hard enough to clean without them spewing all over it.  At least they could actually try not to miss the spittoon part of the time."

"Well, you should know that as a woman you aren't supposed to ask for your rights.  All women in the church know that God hasn't given them the keys to ask for anything for themselves.  Our place is just to quietly accept what we are told."

Emma was confused, what did asking questions and having opinions have to do with spiritual gifts or rights?  And since when was she lobbying for anything?  She just wanted to get Joseph to ask God a question.  Joseph didn't seem to believe her that cleaning tobacco juice and breathing smoke should be any burden at all.  It was supposedly part of her womanly role.  The whole cigarettes are a masculine symbol, cleaning is what women do, so cleaning up the liquid emissions of chewed tobacco as a woman was a symbol of her divine role as a sexual recipient of male emissions from the parts of the man symbolized by the pointy cigarette and fat cigar.  He really needed to stop reading the Freud.  If Joseph wouldn't listen to her then maybe he would listen to God on the subject if he would just ask the question.  After a few heated exchanges about whether she was allowed to ask questions or lobby for her rights her visiting teachers left, and Emma was sure she would never let them bring up the subject again.  The idea of change just scared them too much.

More time passed, and to Emma's surprise more women came to her sympathizing that they also failed to get any spiritual or symbolic benefit from cleaning up tobacco juice off their floors.  They all hated cleaning it, they all hated breathing it.  Many thought that it was their proper burden as women, a cross to carry as called upon by God and the men in their lives.  Many were willing to say it was just wrong.  Some of them even looked up what was known about tobacco from medical journals and it started to be known how unhealthy it was for the men, and how second hand smoke actually increased the chance of miscarriage, hurting their femininity rather than somehow vaguely symbolizing it.  Some didn't care about that and simply wanted to be able to smoke themselves without facing social judgment.  While most would give assent to that idea in theory, given how bad smoking is for you, that opinion was pretty rare to find, but people who thought they knew best talked about it as if it was all women wanted.

Emma's Bishop called her in and told her that since spittoons were in the temple they were obviously of God along with all the tobacco juice on the floor that went with it and she should stop being such a heretic.  Emma felt that spittoons were in the temple because the brethren had put them there, not because God put them there.  She didn't appreciate being called a heretic.  The Bishop wouldn't apologize or even discuss the matter reasonably.  It was for her to obey him, nothing else mattered.  He threatened to take away Emma's temple recommend because she wouldn't accept tobacco as being ordained of God.  Emma dared to let him try and find out what Joseph would say, and decided to ignore the Bishop.

Rumors started to fly in the ward.  People said that Emma wasn't a true believer.  They said that if she wasn't on board with all the doctrinal and non doctrinal assumptions of the church she shouldn't even belong, no matter how much she believed in everything else.  Since it was mainly women who expressed concern about this, members of the church, encouraged by church leadership, started spreading rumors that she and her friends were lesbians.  That was particularly hurtful.  Just because Joseph wanted relations with extra women didn't mean she did.  Not that the consensual relationships between the lesbians she knew had much comparison to the "marry me or God will kill you" or "marry me and you and all your extended family will be guaranteed exaltation automatically just as a reward for your sacrifice" or "you can marry me and your husband, just love both of us" deals that Joseph was cutting.  People started to stop her in the street and yell at her, commanding her in the name of God to stop her anti tobacco campaign.  People called for her to be excommunicated if she ever mentioned the subject again.  One radical even said she and everyone like her should be killed.  The ward's response was much more moderated.  Since she had discussed it in Relief Society and the idea had gained popularity there, the Relief Society was dissolved as a den of heresy.  Emma herself was told she couldn't hold callings until she recanted or if she stopped looking the wrong way- apparently someone told the stake presidents that women wearing the color black meant that they were secretly anti tobacco.  Apparently the fact that Emma was in mourning for her latest dead child didn't matter very much- she looked wrong.

It all came down to that revelation in the church wasn't supposed to come through asking questions.  Or at least not most of the time for day to day stuff.  Revelation came through tradition.  Smoking and chewing tobacco was a traditional activity for men, and since the church represented God's chosen people then all of the traditions of the church were chosen as God's chosen doctrines, along with all the traditional reasons given to explain the traditions.  The traditions had been in place for so long it was assumed that the leaders being in tune with the spirit would have resulted in a revelation already.  No additional knowledge was needed or desired.  Anyone who wanted new knowledge was simply wrong because they violated the doctrine of tradition.  If men didn't smoke, it would be erasing the differences between men and women and that was that.

Eventually, the noise from all the fuss got above the day to day level where tradition ruled, and caused even the leaders to doubt.  Doubt allows sincere questions to be asked in faith, nothing wavering.  Faith and study lead to revelation.  The word of wisdom replaced the word of tradition.  The announcement was proclaimed with a special explanation that it wasn't in response to any social pressures or social movement, but was pure revelation.  Years later, Emma was described as having been right all along with all the leadership of her time being in lock step with her idea of how a husband can respect a wife's clean floor.  Only later scholarship would reveal the Hero Emma was.


  1. Oh, I need to give credit where credit is due. I was inspired by Ursula K. LeGuin's short story "The Rock that Changed Things" when I wrote this, which would probably be obvious to anyone who had read both.

  2. This was really very wonderful to read. I'm glad I am able to read it.