Emma Smith’s ‘Elect Lady’ predecessors

As part of a discussion on the gospel topics essay on Women, Temple and Priesthood, I looked briefly at Emma Smith as an “Elect Lady” who was to be “ordained” by Joseph Smith to expound and exhort (D&C 25:7). I’ve since looked a bit more of the idea of an Elect Lady in the 18th and 19th centuries, in particular two other “Elect Ladies” in American religion who preceded Emma. Their religious movements shared a number of curious parallels to Joseph Smith and Mormonism which would emerge five decades after their establishment.

Jemima Wilkinson

Jemima Wilkinson

Jemima Wilkinson

In 1776 at age 18, Jemima Wilkinson claimed a series of visions when seriously ill, and “passed to the angel world” stating “that her body was reanimated by a spirit whose mission was to deliver the Oracles of God to mankind.” After her “resurrection” she received “a new name which the mouth of the Lord had named” which was “Universal Friend” or “Public Universal Friend.” She considered herself the “Second Messenger” with Jesus being the first.  She predicted the second coming on April 1, 1780 and saw a sign in the darkened sun of May 18, 1780.

In 1790, the religious reformer and her “Society of Friends” made a “group exodus” to flee from the “wicked world” to the western frontier of New York to build a “New Jerusalem” among the Indians which became the largest white settlement in western NY. In 1816, the Smith family would settle just 22 miles north west of her communal society with the first Mormon branches surrounding Wilkinson’s communal settlements.[1]

As a forerunner to the second coming, she felt compelled to publicly preach her message, a taboo for a female in the late 18th century. She believed women should “obey . . . God rather than men” and that there was no male, nor female in the Lord. Masculine & feminine pronouns were dropped, and her followers blurred male and female fashion.

Her prophesying and faith healing proved too controversial, and she was publicly stoned in Philadelphia. Soon after, the Friends began a “group exodus,” from the wicked world to become the first white settlers in the wilderness of Western New York.

She encouraged, but did not require celibacy among her group, was clairvoyant, taught pacifism, abolitionism, and observed the Sabbath on Saturdays. She rejected original sin, and felt children needed to reach an “age of responsible discretion” before they could responsibly exercise “free will”. Her primary counselor was a woman, but men also participated in leadership. Her manner of dress “gave her a singularly masculine look” making her “sexually ambiguous.” Some of her followers saw additional powers in Wilkinson, for example some thought she could walk on water.

She believed they were living “in time” because Jesus would return soon. [3] In 1819, three years after the Smith family settled to the north, she “left time” and her body was walled up in a cellar in Jerusalem while her community grieved the death of their “Elect Lady.”[4]

Ann Lee

In an English prison in 1770, Ann Lee had a vision revealing the truths of God to her. She “saw Adam and Eve engage in the very transgression that led to the fall of all mankind.” Horrified by their sexual union, she had a vision of the Lord: “But in the midst of my anguish, Christ appeared to me, comforted my soul and commissioned me to preach the gospel of the stainless life.” The masculine looking Lee had become terrified of sex, as she had difficulties with pregnancies and had lost her four young children. Her followers went to great lengths to remain celibate and resist sexual urges, and some believed that once “they arrived at this state of perfection they might marry spiritual wives, from whom were to proceed holy children, which were to constitute the New Jerusalem or millennium.”

Ann Lee

Eldress Anna White, convert to Shakerism

She was chosen by her “Society of Friends”[5] as “Mother in spiritual things,” calling herself “Ann, the Word” and “Mother Ann.” Her followers believed she was infused with “Christ” and that she spoke from the “Christ spirit” within her. They believed God first appeared as the male Jesus, followed by the female Ann Lee, making her the Second coming of Christ, the female counterpart of Jesus.

A 1774 revelation directed her to America where she settled in New York state. Lee was apparently inspired by the same “Dark Day” as Jemima Wilkinson in May 1780, and she began outward proselyting in America. Her communal “Zion” groups practiced gifts of the spirit including singing in tongues, healing, and revelation. Their teachings included equal rights between men and women, an apostasy and a restoration of the “the only true living gospel on earth”, a restoration of keys, preaching to the “world of spirits,” dietary restrictions (vegetarianism, and later coffee, tea & pork), “eternal increase” (eternal progression), that the American constitution “in the providence of God, was to make way and room for the first opening and establishment of the gospel.” They believed “they had entered the latter day glory, which had so long been the subject of prophesy [sic].”[6]


Both Ann Lee’s United Society of Believers in Christ’s Second Appearing and Jemima Wilkinson’s Society of Friends came of age in New York State and were key elements of the religious experimentation of the time. Though from different religious roots[7], the androgynous Wilkinson and Lee were both called “Elect Lady” –prophetesses of their religious traditions, delivering their messages of restoration, sexual purity, the divine feminine, and female equality. Going against the religious sensibilities of the time, they exercised female religious leadership in a patriarchal culture as part of the end times.

Emma Smith

Joseph Smith’s vision for the newly formed church in July 1830 was just beginning to unfold. It is important to consider the “Elect Lady” revelation to Emma in the context of time and place. The time was during the second great awakening, and the place was the burned over district where religious experimentation was common place, including Wilkinson and Lee’s established movements from the first great awakening. Smith’s new church would go on to adopt aspects common to both religious movements. But at this point in time, he had just published the Book of Mormon, formed a new church, and while fleeing from mobs who had broken up a meeting to confirm Emma and others, had an angelic vision having to do with authority (authorial vision).[8]

Emma Smith

Emma Smith

Five years later, he inserted a detailed description of the vision into previously written revelation, describing the experience as a restoration of Melchizedek Priesthood by three ancient apostles.[9] Contemporary evidence from the time of the vision, and the doctrine of authority of the church in the early 1830s shows little, if any impact from of a restoration of Melchizedek Priesthood as later depicted.[10]

Upon returning to Emma from his arrest, escape and authorial vision, he dictated a revelation with God calling Emma His “daughter” who is to “walk in paths of virtue.” Perhaps as a prerequisite for her call and to underscore her baptism, God forgives her sins, and says He has called her to be “an elect lady.” She is to “be ordained” to “expound scriptures, and to exhort the church.” Some men had previously been ordained, but Emma was the first woman. Both Wilkinson and Lee were each considered the daughter of God,[11] focused on sexual purity, and were called Elect Ladies who expounded scripture to their churches. Emma’s title was apparently significant, as it would be expanded to “Elect Lady daughter of God” and also “Electa Cyria”[12]

Just months after the creation of the new religion, as the confirmation of Emma’s baptism was thwarted, Joseph had a focused direction for his small band of followers. He had just commissioned his brother as the first missionary a few days earlier, believing in large scale conversions of both gentiles and Lamanites who together would build a New Jerusalem and welcome in the second coming. But that seemingly straightforward path developed twists and turns as events and challenges inserted themselves into Joseph’s path. I personally am left wondering how much of the roles of Ann Lee or Jemima Wilkinson were originally envisioned for the new Elect Lady, as well as any relationship between Smith’s authorial vision and the elect lady revelation.[13]

[1] The Society settled on the western side of Seneca Lake, spreading east to Canandaigua Lake. The Whitmers settled 22 miles to the north east, at the north end of Seneca Lake in Fayette, and Smith’s to the north west. The Colesville branch would be to the south east. I found references to Friends living as far north as Gorham, although there may have been Friend settlements further north. Distance calculated with Google Maps walking directions from Palmyra, NY to “Gorham, NY” is 21.5 miles, and 33 miles to the center of the Friend settlements (Penn Yan). The Smiths may have travelled through these communities when travelling south.

[3] Stafford C. Cleveland (editor), “History and directory of Yates County : containing a sketch of its original settlement by the Public Universal Friends, the lessee company and others, with an account of individual pioneers and their families ; also of other leading citizens ; including church, school and civil history, and a narrative of the Universal Friend, her society and doctrine,” The Yates County Chronicle, Penn Yan, N. Y. 1873; Jill Wilkinson, “Jemima Wilkinson – Notable Women Ancestors”, Ancestory.com (http://www.rootsweb.ancestry.com/~nwa/jemima.html); Sharon V. Betcher, The Assumption of Jemima Wilkinson, Journal of Millennial Studies, Summer 1999

[4] Compare Joanna Southcott, a prophetess in England, was not buried until she began to smell because her followers were awaiting her resurrection.

[5] A Quaker reference used by both Lee and Wilkinson

[6] Thomas Brown, An Account of the People Called Shakers, (1814), cited in Grunder, Rick, Mormon Parallels: A Bibliographic Source, 76; Backman, Milton V. American Religions and the Rise of Mormonism, Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1965; Lawrence Foster, Women, Family, and Utopia: Communal Experiments of the Shakers, the Oneida Community, and the Mormons (Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 1991).

[7] Although both came from Quaker roots and had a brush with the New Light Baptists

[8] There are several possible dates for the vision. See Ben Park, “Dating the Melchizedek Priesthood Restoration” Juvenile Instructor ( http://juvenileinstructor.org/dating-the-melchizedek-priesthood-restoration/). Vogel and Bushman date it a few days after July 4th, 1830 (Vogel, Dan, Early Mormon Documents, Appendix B: Chronology, 1771-1831).

[9] The details were retroactively inserted into the revelatory record. See Vogel, Dan. Joseph Smith: The Making of a Prophet. Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 2004, p. 519-523.

[10] For example, authority as described in Section 24 (the first revelation after his authorial vision, which immediately precedes the Elect Lady revelation) talks of expounding scripture, confirmations (which were occurring before his vision) declaring the gospel, exorcisms (which are already occurring) healing, including against poisonous serpents and other poisons (evidence of belief according to the New Testament). He is to curse those who reject him by cleansing his feet. It closes by mentioning those previously ordained, but says nothing about re-ordaining them to the Melchizedek priesthood.

[11] The revelation points out that all who receive the gospel are sons and daughters of God. If Smith had Wilkinson or Lee in mind, he could be raising his church members to their status. Smith would teach that his devote followers would be deified in the 1840s. For Wilkinson as daughter of God, see for example, New England Magazine: An Illustrated Monthly, Volume 26, p. 391. Lee was considered the female counterpart of Son of God, making her the Daughter of God.

[12] ‘“A special “revelation” at this time made Smith’s wife “the Elect Lady Daughter of God,” with the high-sounding title of “Electa Cyria.”’, Frederick G. Mather, “The Early Days of Mormonism,” Lippincott’s Magazine (Philadelphia) 26 (August 1880): 198-206, 211., as cited in Dan Vogel, Early Mormon Documents. Mather based his article on interviews with Palmyra residents Orlando Saunders & John H. Gilbert and others. See also The Utah Weekly Reporter, Vol. I. #14, Corinne, UT, Saturday, July 24, 1869, “A Mormon Sensation” (http://utahgentiles.com/gentiles/Beadle/Beadle-Reporter2.htm). “Electa Cyria” represents a more literal translation of the New Testament Greek of the King James “Elect Lady” (2 John 1).

[13] Twelve years later, Joseph would found the Female Relief Society where Emma was elected its president. Joseph declared this fulfilled the 1830 revelation of Emma as an “Elect Lady” because she had been “elected” the Relief Society’s president.


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