Recently, a reader asked if I had a response to the letter written by Joseph to Newel K. Whitney indicating that Joseph was a polygamist and was hiding these relationships from Emma. The following article is my answer to this inquiry.
On August 18, 1842, while in hiding at Carlos Granger’s, Joseph allegedly wrote a letter to the Whitneys with the salutation, “Dear, and Beloved, Brother and Sister, Whitney, and &c.” Many say that the “&c.” in the salutation refers to the Whitneys' daughter, Sarah Ann. Proponents of the position that Joseph taught and practiced polygamy quote excerpts from this letter to prove it was a love letter to Sarah asking her and her parents to visit him in hiding so he could see Sarah. They allege that about three weeks prior to the letter, on July 27, 1842, Joseph gave a revelation to Newel K. Whitney that Sarah was to be his plural wife and that Newel was to marry them. In the supposed revelation the Lord told Newel the very words to use in the marriage ceremony and on that day they were married. So, according to the proponents of this position, the requested visit was so Joseph could be with his new plural wife.
Joseph's critics not only point to this letter (and the alleged revelation) to prove Joseph practiced polygamy but also to show that he was a deceiver, liar, and lustful man. To them, Joseph lied to Emma when he wrote her two days previous to the Whitney letter and closed it by telling her, “Yours in haste, your affectionate husband until death, through all eternity; for evermore” (The Strange Marriages of Sarah Ann Whitney, REVISED EDITION, 1982
by H. Michael Marquardt). To them, Joseph was practicing deception against Emma when he stated in the Whitney letter, “the only thing to be careful of; is to find out when Emma comes then you cannot be safe, but when she is not here, there is the most perfect safty” and “I think Emma wont come tonight if she dont dont fail to come to night.” In addition, when in the letter he requested the Whitneys to burn it as soon as they read it, his critics believe that he was continuing his deception by trying to keep the meeting secret. (Fairwiki.org about the Whitney letter). Thus, according to the supporters of this position, Joseph was requesting a secret rendezvous with his new plural wife because he needed marital companionship from her and he did not want Emma to know about it.
However, close scrutiny of the facts surrounding both the Whitney letter and the alleged revelation indicate this interpretation is not correct..
Facts About the Two Documents
According to chapter 34 of The Essential Joseph Smith, published by Signature Books, the alleged revelation from Joseph to Newel K. Whitney and the letter to Newel, Elizabeth, and Sarah Whitney are maintained in the archives, Historical Department, Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Salt Lake City, Utah. For the revelation, the Joseph Smith's Polygamy Chronology Web page states that it was recorded in the “Original manuscript of Kirtland Revelation Book, Church Historical Department, Ms f 490 # 2." However, in the article "Historical Perspectives on the Kirtland Revelation Book" by John A. Tvedtnes of the Maxwell Institute, this revelation is not listed as being in the book. The oldest revelation in the book was dated November, 1834, which preceded the alleged Whitney revelation by eight years.
For the Whitney letter, an image of a photograph of it is displayed on the “Strange Marriages Of Sarah Ann Whitney” site. This site states the following about the photograph:
Photographs of both sides of the original letter written in the handwriting of Joseph Smith are in the George Albert Smith Family Papers, Manuscript 36, Box 1, Early Smith Documents, 1731-1849, Folder 18, in the Special Collections, Western Americana, Marriott Library, University of Utah, Salt Lake City, Utah.
In chronological order, the first of the two documents is the alleged revelation given by Joseph to Newel on July 27, 1842. As previously stated, it contained the authority for Joseph to marry Sarah Ann Whitney and the words for the marriage ceremony which her father, Newel, was to conduct. The text of this document follows. Please pay particular attention to the italicized parts.
Verily, thus saith the Lord unto my servant N. K. Whitney, the thing that my servant Joseph Smith has made known unto you and your family and which you have agreed upon is right in mine eyes and shall be rewarded upon your heads with honor and immortality and eternal life to all your house, both old and young because of the lineage of my Priesthood, saith the Lord, it shall be upon you and upon your children after you from generation to generation, by virtue of the holy promise which I now make unto you, saith the Lord. These are the words which you shall pronounce upon my servant Joseph and your daughter S. A. Whitney. They shall take each other by the hand and you shall say, You both mutually agree, calling them by name, to be each other's companion so long as you both shall live, preserving yourselves for each other and from all others and also throughout eternity, reserving only those rights which have been given to my servant Joseph by revelation and commandment and by legal authority in times passed. If you both agree to covenant and do this, I then give you, S. A. Whitney, my daughter, to Joseph Smith, to be his wife, to observe all the rights between you both that belong to that condition. I do it in my own name and in the name of my wife, your mother, and in the name of my holy progenitors, by the right of birth which is of priesthood, vested in me by revelation and commandment and promise of the living God, obtained by the Holy Melchisedeck Gethrow [Jethro?] and others of the Holy Fathers, commanding in the name of the Lord all those powers to concentrate in you and through you to your posterity forever. All these things I do in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, that through this order he may be glorified and that through the power of anointing David may reign King over Israel, which shall hereafter be revealed. Let immortality and eternal life hereafter be sealed upon your heads forever and ever. (Strange Marriages Of Sarah Ann Whitney, REVISED EDITION, 1982
by H. Michael Marquardt, italics added)
The second document, the letter allegedly from Joseph to the Whitneys, was written August 18, 1842, which was 22 days after the alleged revelation. The following text of the entire document comes from the Fairwiki.org article about the letter:
Dear, and Beloved, Brother and Sister, Whitney, and &c.—
I take this oppertunity to communi[c]ate, some of my feelings, privetely at this time, which I want you three Eternaly to keep in your own bosams; for my feelings are so strong for you since what has pased lately between us, that the time of my abscence from you seems so long, and dreary, that it seems, as if I could not live long in this way: and <if you> three would come and see me in this my lonely retreat, it would afford me great relief, of mind, if those with whom I am alied, do love me; now is the time to afford me succour, in the days of exile, for you know I foretold you of these things. I am now at Carlos Graingers, Just back of Brother Hyrams farm, it is only one mile from town, the nights are very pleasant indeed, all three of you come <can> come and See me in the fore part of the night, let Brother Whitney come a little a head, and nock at the south East corner of the house at <the> window; it is next to the cornfield, I have a room inti=rely by myself, the whole matter can be attended to with most perfect safty, I <know> it is the will of God that you should comfort <me> now in this time of affliction, or not at[ta]l now is the time or never, but I hav[e] no kneed of saying any such thing, to you, for I know the goodness of your hearts, and that you will do the will of the Lord, when it is made known to you; the only thing to be careful of; is to find out when Emma comes then you cannot be safe, but when she is not here, there is the most perfect safty: only be careful to escape observation, as much as possible, I know it is a heroick undertakeing; but so much the greater frendship, and the more Joy, when I see you I <will> tell you all my plans, I cannot write them on paper, burn this letter as soon as you read it; keep all locked up in your breasts, my life depends upon it. one thing I want to see you for is <to> git the fulness of my blessings sealed upon our heads, &c. you will pardon me for my earnest=ness on <this subject> when you consider how lonesome I must be, your good feelings know how to <make> every allowance for me, I close my letter, I think Emma wont come tonight if she dont dont fail to come to night. I subscribe myself your most obedient, <and> affectionate, companion, and friend.
The Validity of the Two Documents
I was very disappointed not to find specific information online as to how these two documents were validated as being Joseph's. (If anyone has information as to the validation of these documents, I would appreciate your responding to this blog with that information.) Before we can conclude anything about Joseph's behavior based on these documents, we must be certain that he wrote them. If he did not write them, then certainly they cannot be used to prove he was a polygamist.
Authentication of the Alleged Revelation
There seems to be discrepancies about the written source of the document even though all sources I have found, including Todd Compton's In Sacred Loneliness, agree that the original document is maintained in the archives of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Salt Lake City, Utah. It would be easy to assume that if LDS officials said this revelation came through Joseph, then it did. However, this is not necessarily true. Matthew L. Jockers, Stanford University, wrote the paper “Testing Authorship in the Personal Writings of Joseph Smith Using NSC Classification” which stated:
As Mormon scholar Dean Jessee makes clear in the introduction to Personal Writings of Joseph Smith (Smith and Jessee 2002), Smith's speeches, letters, and even journal entries were frequently written by scribes or written in tandem with one or more of his collaborators. In another article that appears in the pages of the "Joseph Smith Papers" online archive (Jessee n.d.) Jessee writes, "only a tiny proportion of Joseph Smith’s papers were penned by Smith himself." In many of the documents Jessee collected, we see the handwriting of Smith interwoven with the handwriting of his scribes, sometimes side by side in the exact same letter, journal entry, or document.
So, unless the original document is in Joseph's handwriting, which from the above quote is highly unlikely, how do we know that it truly came from Joseph?
The other issue is the one put forth by Richard S. Van Wagoner in "The Making of a Mormon Myth: The 1844 Transfiguration of Brigham Young," Dialogue, Vol. 28, No. 4, Winter 1995, pp.2–3. He states:
The Twelve’s nineteenth-century propaganda mill was so adroit that few outside Brigham Young’s inner circle were aware of the behind-the-scenes alterations that were seamlessly stitched into church history. Charles Wesley Wandell, an assistant church historian who later left the church, was aghast at these emendations. Commenting on the many changes made in the historical work as it was being serialized, Wandell noted in his diary:
I notice the interpolations because having been employed in the Historian’s office at Nauvoo by Doctor Richards, and employed, too, in 1845, in compiling this very autobiography, I know that after Joseph’s death his memoir was “doctored” to suit the new order of things, and this, too, by the direct order of Brigham Young to Doctor Richards and systematically by Richards.
More than a dozen references to Brigham Young’s involvement in transposing the written history may be found in the post-martyrdom record first published in book form in 1902 as History of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. For example, an 1 April 1845 citation records Young saying: “I commenced revising the History of Joseph Smith at Brother Richard’s office: Elder Heber C. Kimball and George A. Smith were with me.”
That this revision, or censorship, of the official history came from Brigham Young is evidenced by an 11 July 1856 reference in Wilford Woodruff’s diary. Apostle Woodruff, working in the church historian’s office, questioned Young respecting a “p[ie]ce of History on Book E-1 page 1681-2 concerning Hyr[u]m leading this Church & tracing the [A]aronic Priesthood.” Young advised, “it was not essential to be inserted in the History & had better be omitted.” Woodruff then queried him about “Joseph[s] words on South Carolina” (see D&C 87; 130:12-13) which had recently been published in the Deseret News . Young said he “wished it not published.” Years later Elder Charles W. Penrose, a member of the First Presidency, admitted that after Joseph Smith’s death some changes were made in the official record “for prudential reasons.”
Because of the many scribes used to pen Joseph's works and because of the credibility problem of the LDS historians of the post-Joseph era, it is most difficult to be sure of the authenticity of this alleged revelation. And if we cannot be sure of its authenticity, how can we use it as proof that Joseph both taught and practiced polygamy?
Authentication of the Letter
Even though a photograph is available for viewing, the Whitney letter also has authentication issues. Since this letter was allegedly written by Joseph while he was in hiding, I seriously doubt that he would have dictated it to a scribe to write. Thus, if it is from Joseph, odds are that it should be in his handwriting. As indicated above, the “Strange Marriages Of Sarah Ann Whitney” site states the letter is in Joseph's handwriting. However, the site gives no indication as to how they know that to be true other than the photograph of the letter is maintained by the Marriott Library, University of Utah, Salt Lake City, Utah. Chapter 34 of The Essential Joseph Smith, published by Signature Books and Todd Compton's In Sacred Loneliness ( p. 719, V.) state the original document is maintained in the archives of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Salt Lake City, Utah. However, the writers of both of these works do not address how they know it is Joseph's handwriting. Has the handwriting of the letter from the original or the photograph been authenticated as Joseph's handwriting by outside, professional experts? In addition, how do we know the original letter is not a forgery like those produced by Mark Hofmann? Until a complete, independent, and unbiased validation of this document has been done, how can we draw any conclusions from it about Joseph's motives or behaviors?
Analyzing the Alleged Revelation
After reading both of the complete documents, it is obvious to me that the interpretation of the Whitney letter as a love letter depends on the validity of the alleged revelation and whether or not Sarah Ann was a plural wife of Joseph. Without these two events, it is a real stretch of one's imagination to interpret the Whitney letter as anything other than a letter between very good friends.
Some of the text along with the circumstances of the alleged revelation make it very questionable to me. According to the Remembering the Wives of Joseph Smith site, Sarah Ann Whitney was Joseph's sixteenth wife including Emma. Fourteen times previous to Sarah Ann he had allegedly entered into a plural marriage and all of these women were still living. In addition, this site indicates that in the following fifteen months he entered into an additional eighteen plural marriages after Sarah Ann. This means that after allegedly marrying Sarah Ann, he was less than half done and would continue marrying plural wives at the average rate of a little more than one a month. This scenario gives me a problem with a sentence in the alleged revelation which states "You both mutually agree, calling them by name, to be each other's companion so long as you both shall live, preserving yourselves for each other and from all others and also throughout eternity..." (italics added). If this alleged revelation was given by God, He would have known that Joseph had fifteen wives previous to Sarah Ann and would have another eighteen after her. He would have known that Joseph could not (because of his previous wives) and would not (because of his future wives) preserve himself only for Sarah Ann. In addition, if God was authorizing Joseph's polygamy, He would not have made a statement which restricted his involvement to one wife and excluded his involvement with his previous and future wives. Also, since a main purpose of polygamy was to obtain a greater reward in eternity, why would God restrict Joseph to a marital relationship with only one wife "throughout eternity." On the other hand, if Joseph created this alleged revelation for his own benefit, knowing about his previous wives and his desire for future wives (averaging more than one a month) he would not have restricted his marital activities to only Sarah Ann. Therefore, from this sentence alone in the alleged revelation, I do not believe this document came from God or that it was created by Joseph.
Questionable Subject Agreement
From my reading of Joseph's revelations in the Doctrine and Covenants, I have never noticed the subject agreement to be incorrect. Admittedly, I have not studied each revelation for this purpose, but I have never noticed one while studying a revelation for meaning. I attribute this to God's impeccable understanding of all languages and that He always knows who He is talking to and what He is saying. However, in the above alleged revelation the subject agreement is incorrect. Through Joseph, God is supposedly telling Newel what he is to say when conducting the marriage ceremony between Joseph and Sarah Ann. In the words Newel was to use, a reference was made to Joseph as "my servant Joseph." This means that during the service Newel, by command of God, would reference Joseph as "my servant Joseph" which would communicate the meaning that Joseph was Newel's servant. God would have known that when Newel was addressing Joseph, he should state something like "God's servant Joseph" and not "my servant Joseph" as is stated in the alleged revelation. This little discrepancy is an indication that this document was not God given but was created by man.
Sarah Ann's Immediate Response is Questionable
Another issue I have with this alleged revelation is its timing in relation to the date of the marriage. Orson F. Whitney (the nephew of Sarah Ann Whitney) stated about Sarah Ann in The Contributor, Vol. 6, No. 4, January 1885, p. 131:
This girl was but seventeen years of age, but she had implicit faith in the doctrine of plural marriage, as revealed to and practiced by the Prophet, was of celestial origin. She was the first woman, in this dispensation, who was given in plural marriage by and with the consent of both parents. Her father himself officiated in the ceremony. The revelation commanding and consecrating this union, is in existence, though it has never been published. It bears the date of July 27, 1842, and was given through the Prophet to the writer's grandfather, Newel K. Whitney, whose daughter Sarah, on that day, became the wedded wife of Joseph Smith for time and all eternity. (Strange Marriages Of Sarah Ann Whitney)
I find it very hard to believe that on July 17, 1842, a 17-year-old woman received a revelation that she was to become a plural wife of 36-year-old Joseph Smith, Jr. and with no hesitation she married him on that same day. In Todd Compton's analysis of the above statement he indicates that her acceptant state of mind about embracing polygamy may have been a "family tradition that has idealized the story." But he goes on to say that her father and mother and Joseph had instructed her in this doctrine prior to her alleged marriage to Joseph on the date of the alleged revelation (In Sacred Loneliness, p. 348). Yet his references to support this notion are unclear. Even if she was the most serious-minded and obedient child, her thoughts at age 17 of having to marry a 36-year-old man with 15 other wives would have been very scary, if not repulsive, to her. At age 17, with her whole life ahead of her, she was being required to sacrifice all of her dreams to participate in a new doctrine, that was only taught in secret, so her family could be assured of eternal life. And this new secret doctrine would require her at 17 to embrace sexual behavior that had been previously taught to her by her parents and society as being immoral. Keeping this in mind, I find it a bit contrived that she was so convinced of the truth of this doctrine that as soon as the alleged revelation came, she obeyed it and was married on the same day.
My wife's great, great grandfather and family followed Brigham Young west to Utah after Joseph's death. In the 1860s their daughter was in love with a young man and was desirous to be married to him. However, a Bishop decided that she was to be one of his plural wives. This thought was so repulsive to her that her entire family and her fiance's family fled Salt Lake City under cover of darkness with wagon wheels and horse hooves padded so as to leave unnoticed. As the story goes, they feared being caught and killed. They risked all so that their daughter would not have to participate in polygamy. And this was after polygamy had been taught and practiced openly for years as a doctrine of God brought forth in revelation by His Prophet Joseph (LDS D&C 132). Thus, is it probable that another young woman with less instruction and exposure to this doctrine, Sarah Ann Whitney, embraced it so thoroughly that on the day the alleged revelation was given to her father, she was not only ready to obey it, but did? I just do not believe so. If the document had been received and she had been given time to come around to this position, then it would be more feasible. But to receive such a life- and morality-changing command and to completely obey it the same day, to me is way outside of normal human behavior for this circumstance and as such gives question to the validity of this event.
Elizabeth's Autobiography Omitted Reference to the Alleged Revelation
The most important issue I have with this alleged revelation is the portion of Elizabeth Whitney's autobiography printed in the The Women of Mormondom, pages 368–369, by Edward W. Tullidge, 1877. When reading her statement, it is not so much what she says that casts great doubts upon the validity of the alleged revelation, but what she does not say. Even though it is lengthy, I am including the entire quote from this book so that no one thinks I purposely left anything out. Please pay particular attention to the parts I have italicized.
A very proper one to speak here is Mother Whitney, for it was her husband, Bishop Whitney, who preserved the revelation on polygamy. Speaking of the time when her husband kept store for Joseph (1842-3), she says: "It was
during this time that Joseph received the revelation concerning celestial marriage; also concerning the ordinances of the house of the Lord. He had been
strictly charged, by the angel who committed these precious things into his keeping, that he should only reveal them to such ones as were pure, and full of integrity to the truth, and worthy and capable of
being entrusted with divine messages; that to spread them abroad would only be like casting pearls before swine; and that the most profound secresy was
to be maintained, until the Lord saw fit to make it known publicly through his servants. Joseph had the most implicit confidence in my husband's uprightness
and integrity of character, and so he confided to him the principles set forth in that revelation, and also gave him the privilege of reading and making a copy of it, believing it would be perfectly safe with him. It is this same copy that was preserved in the providence of God; for Emma (Joseph's wife), afterwards becoming indignant,
burned the original, thinking she had destroyed the only written document upon the subject in existence. My husband revealed these things to me. We had always been united, and had the utmost faith and
confidence in each other. We pondered upon the
matter continually, and our prayers were unceasing that the Lord would grant us some special manifestation concerning this new and strange doctrine. The Lord was very merciful to us, revealing unto us his power and glory. We were seemingly wrapt in a heavenly vision; a halo of light encircled us, and we were convinced in our own bosoms that God heard and approved our prayers and intercedings before him. Our hearts were comforted, and our faith made so perfect that we were willing to give our eldest daughter, then seventeen years of age, to Joseph, in the order of plural marriage. Laying aside all our traditions and former notions in regard to marriage, we gave her with our mutual consent. She was the first woman given in plural marriage with the consent of both parents. Of course these things had to be kept an inviolate secret; and as
some were false to their vows and pledges of secresy, persecution arose, and caused grievous sorrow to
those who had obeyed, in all purity and sincerity, the requirements of this celestial order of marriage. The Lord commanded his servants; they themselves did not comprehend what the ultimate course of action would be, but were waiting further developments from heaven. Meantime, the ordinances of the house of the Lord were given, to bless and strengthen us in our future endeavors to promulgate the principles of divine light and intelligence; but
coming in contact with all preconceived notions and principles heretofore taught as the articles of religious faith, it was not strange that many could not receive it. Others doubted; and only a few remained firm and immovable."
I believe that the revelation "concerning celestial marriage" referenced by Elizabeth Whitney in her autobiography is what is known today as Section 132 of the LDS Doctrine and Covenants. She indicates that a copy of the document was kept in safety by her husband Newel and that the original document was burned by Emma, which events are commonly known to be associated with the document on celestial marriage that became Section 132 of the LDS Doctrine and Covenants. Allegedly this revelation was dictated by Joseph on July 12, 1843. When reading Elizabeth's statement above, we must keep in mind that her daughter Sarah allegedly married Joseph a year earlier on July 27, 1842—the same date that Newel Whitney, Sarah's father, allegedly received a revelation from God through Joseph authorizing Sarah's and Joseph's plural marriage and dictating the marriage ceremony which Newel was to use to marry them that day. This alleged date of marriage is confirmed by affidavits obtained from both Sarah and Elizabeth in 1869. (I will discuss these affidavits a little later.)
I have read and re-read the above statement by Elizabeth trying to find some reference to the alleged revelation requiring Newel to perform the plural marriage ceremony between his Sarah and Joseph. However, I can find none. All references to a plural marriage revelation are to the one allegedly dictated by Joseph on July 12, 1843. She associates Newel's and her experience as to the validity of polygamy with this revelation and not with the one allegedly given to Newel a year earlier authorizing the plural marriage of Sarah and Joseph. In addition, she associates Sarah's marriage to the 1843 revelation and not to the alleged July 27, 1842 revelation given to Newel upon which date Sarah was allegedly married to Joseph.
To me, both Elizabeth's omission of acknowledging the alleged 1842 revelation to Newel and her associating the beginning of their plural wife experience to the 1843 revelation is very strong indication that the earlier revelation to Newel, authorizing the plural marriage of Sarah and Joseph, did not occur. To the Whitneys, the revelation to Newel would have been a very important revelation and worthy of inclusion in Elizabeth's autobiography. It is the one, not the "Section 132" revelation, that told them plural marriage was of God. It indicated to them that it was acceptable to God for Sarah, their beloved daughter, to obey "this new and strange doctrine" (to quote Elizabeth) and enter into a plural marriage with Joseph. Because this revelation required Newel and Elizabeth to allow their 17-year-old daughter to participate in a unorthodox system of marriage thought by society to be wicked, it is the revelation given in 1842—not the one given in 1843—that would have caused Newel and Elizabeth to seek and receive a testimony of its truth. It was the revelation given to Newel in 1842, not the one in 1843, that was the first written revelation authorizing plural marriage and setting a precedent for the marriage ceremony that was to be performed. And yet, Elizabeth did not mention this important revelation in her autobiography about the authority for the practice of polygamy and their involvement with this system of marriage. She was detailed in her account and very proud that her daughter "was the first woman given in plural marriage with the consent of both parents," yet she failed to mention the 1842 revelation and associated these actions with the 1843 revelation which occurred a year after the date of Sarah's alleged plural marriage to Joseph. Because of the importance to the Whitneys of the alleged revelation to Newel, her omission of it in her above statement was a result of more than forgetful thinking. The only possible explanation is that the alleged revelation to Newel on July 27, 1842, never occurred. If it had, Elizabeth would have mentioned it in her autobiography as the basis for their belief in plural marriage. And if that revelation did not happen, neither did the marriage.
Analyzing the Letter
For the purpose of analyzing the contents of the letter, I am going to assume that Joseph wrote it even though, as discussed above, further authentication may need to be done in this area.
If you believe that Joseph was a polygamist and married Sarah Ann Whitney on July 17, 1842, then it is easy to construe some of the contents of the letter as a "love letter" requesting his new wife to visit him. Although, the entire letter is more difficult to view in this manner than many of the briefer excerpts quoted by various authors that run together the "convicting" sentences and leave the other parts out. However, if you believe Joseph was not a polygamist and did not marry Sarah Ann Whitney, then such an interpretation of the letter is a real stretch of imagination. Standing alone, the letter gives no proof that Joseph was a polygamist or that he was married to Sarah Ann Whitney.
Statements in the Letter used to Support the Position that Joseph Practiced Polygamy
The statements in the letter which authors point to as "proof" of Joseph's polygamy and marriage to Sarah are:
...my feelings are so strong for you since what has pased lately between us, that the time of my abscence from you seems so long, and dreary, that it seems, as if I could not live long in this way: and <if you> three would come and see me in this my lonely retreat, it would afford me great relief...
...all three of you come <can> come and See me in the fore part of the night, let Brother Whitney come a little a head, and nock at the south East corner of the house at <the> window; it is next to the cornfield, I have a room inti=rely by myself, the whole matter can be attended to with most perfect safty...
...the only thing to be careful of; is to find out when Emma comes then you cannot be safe, but when she is not here, there is the most perfect safty: only be careful to escape observation, as much as possible...
...burn this letter as soon as you read it; keep all locked up in your breasts, my life depends upon it.
...I think Emma wont come tonight if she dont dont fail to come to night.
If the alleged revelation and marriage to Sarah Ann were not true, all that can be learned from these portions of the letter is:
- Joseph's friendship with the Whitneys was very strong,
- he was lonely and anxious to see them,
- they should keep this letter secret (burn it),
- they should use utmost caution in meeting with him in secret,
- keeping the meeting secret will insure their safety, and
- for their safety they should not meet with him when Emma is there.
It is only the alleged revelation and marriage to Sarah Ann that interprets these parts as a "love letter." Without the "polygamy" issue, this is just a letter between very good friends from one who is in hiding and wants to remain hidden for both his safety and that of his friends.
Admittedly, the part about Emma is very curious. Why would Emma's presence, without the polygamy interpretation, make it unsafe for the Whitneys? Fairwiki.org gives a good answer to this question. However, they do not follow this rationale through to their conclusion because they finally interpret the letter in light of the alleged revelation and marriage. Fairwiki.org states:
The Prophet was in hiding as a result of the assassination attempt that had been made on Missouri governor Lilburn Boggs. On the 16th of August, 1842, while Joseph was in hiding at the Sayer's, Emma expressed concern for Joseph's safety. She sent a letter to Joseph in which she noted,
There are more ways than one to take care of you, and I believe that you can still direct in your business concerns if we are all of us prudent in the matter. If it was pleasant weather I should contrive to see you this evening, but I dare not run too much of a risk, on account of so many going to see you. ([LDS] History of the Church, Vol.5, Ch.6, p.109)
It is evident that there was concern on Emma's part that Joseph's hiding place would be discovered because of all the people visiting Joseph, particularly if they were in the company of Emma. Joseph wrote the next day in his journal,
Several rumors were afloat in the city, intimating that my retreat had been discovered, and that it was no longer safe for me to remain at Brother Sayers'; consequently Emma came to see me at night, and informed me of the report. It was considered wisdom that I should remove immediately, and accordingly I departed in company with Emma and Brother Derby, and went to Carlos Granger's, who lived in the north-east part of the city. Here we were kindly received and well treated." ([LDS] History of the Church, Vol.5, Ch.6, pp. 117-118)
Without the predisposition that Joseph was a polygamist and had recently married Sarah Ann, this position logically explains why he wanted the Whitneys to come when Emma was not there. Both Joseph and the Whitneys would be safer if they visited when Emma was not there because she could be followed by authorities wanting to arrest Joseph. Even if Emma was not followed, her presence in addition to some of Joseph's other friends would be a certain tip-off to anyone watching the house that Joseph was indeed hiding there.
The necessity of Joseph's hiding place remaining a secret could explain why he wanted the Whitneys to burn the letter. This would prevent it from falling into the wrong hands which would allow his hiding place to be revealed. In addition, the need to protect his whereabouts would explain the secrecy he requested of Newel in contacting him at his hiding place by knocking "at the south East corner of the house at <the> window; it is next to the cornfield, I have a room inti=rely by myself, the whole matter can be attended to with most perfect safty..." Possibly, Joseph wanted Newel to be very careful in his approach to his hiding place in case it was being watched by authorities. Joseph's assurance to Newel that he had a room by himself was indication that their visit would be private and safe.
Other Problems with the "Love Letter" Theory
Even if one believes Joseph was a polygamist, brought forth the revelation to Newel, and married Sarah Ann Whitney, this letter still has problems being interpreted as a "love letter" to Sarah. Again, Fairwiki.org does a good job explaining this position. In their conclusion they state:
Critics would have us believe that this is a private, secret "love letter" from Joseph to Sarah Ann, however, Joseph wrote this letter to the Whitney's, addressing it to Sarah's parents. The "matter" to which he refers is likely the administration of ordinances rather than the arrangement of some sort of private tryst with one of his plural wives. Why would one invite your bride's parents to such an encounter?
The categorizing of the purpose of this letter as a "love letter" is wishful thinking on the part of those who believe Joseph was a polygamist. As indicated above, Joseph certainly would not invite his new wife's parents to come with her to a private room so he could be with her as her husband. Thus, the loneliness expressed in the letter had to be for friendship from those of like faith and not for a new plural wife. In addition, their meeting was also for another purpose as indicated in the letter:
..one thing I want to see you for is <to> git the fulness of my blessings sealed upon our heads...
Joseph wanted to give his friends a spiritual blessing for which, as expressed in the letter, it was important to "have a room inti=rely by myself, the whole matter can be attended to with most perfect safty...."
Other Evidences in the Sara Ann Whitney Case
Discrepancies in Affidavits and Statements
At the Strange Marriages of Sarah Ann Whitney site we find the following affidavits by Sarah Ann and her mother Elizabeth regarding her alleged plural marriage to Joseph Smith, Jr.:
AFFIDAVIT OF SARAH A. KIMBALL
Territory of Utah }
County of Salt Lake.}ss.
Be it remembered that on this nineteenth day of June, A.D. 1869, personally appeared before me Elias Smith, Probate Judge for said county, Sarah Ann Kimball, who was by me sworn in due form of law, and upon her oath saith that on the twenty-seventh day of July, A.D. 1842, at the city of Nauvoo, county of Hancock, State of Illinois, she was married or sealed to Joseph Smith, President of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, by Newell K. Whitney, Presiding Bishop of said Church, according to the laws of the same regulating marriage, in the presence of Elizabeth Ann Whitney her mother.
Sarah A. Kimball.
Subscribed and sworn to by the said Sarah Ann (Whitney) Kimball, the day and year first above written.
E. Smith, Probate Judge.
(Joseph Fielding Smith, Blood Atonement and the Origin of Plural Marriage, [Salt Lake City, Utah: The Deseret News Press], p. 73., italics added)
AFFIDAVIT OF ELIZABETH A. WHITNEY
Territory of Utah }
County of Salt Lake.} ss.
Be it remembered that on this thirtieth day of August, A. D. 1869, personally appeared before me, James Jack, a notary public in and for said county, Elizabeth Ann Whitney, who was by me sworn in due form of law, and upon her oath saith that on the twenty-seventh day of July, A. D. 1842, at the city of Nauvoo, county of Handcock, state of Illinois, she was present and witnessed the marrying or sealing of her daughter Sarah Ann Whitney to the Prophet Joseph Smith, for time and all eternity, by her husband Newel K. Whitney then Presiding Bishop of the Church.
E. A. Whitney.
Subscribed and sworn to by the said Elizabeth Ann Whitney the day and year first above written.
James Jack, Notary Public.
(Andrew Jensen, Historical Record, Vol. 6, May 1887, pp. 224-226.)
However, both Newel K. Whitney and Elizabeth Whitney stated differently in October, 1842—just a little over two months after their daughter allegedly entered into a polygamous marriage with Joseph Smith, Jr. The Times and Seasons, October 1, 1842, published the following statement signed by twelve men including Newel K. Whitney:
We the undersigned members of the church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints and residents of the city of Nauvoo, persons of families do hereby certify and declare that we know of no other rule or system of marriage than the one published from the Book of Doctrine and Covenants, and we give this certificate to show that Dr. J. C. Bennett's "secret wife system" is a creature of his own make as we know of no such society in this place nor never did. (Times and Seasons 3 [October 1, 1842]: 939–940)
The Times and Seasons, October 1, 1842, also published the following statement signed by nineteen women of the Ladies Relief Society including Elizabeth Whitney:
We the undersigned members of the ladies' relief society, and married females do certify and declare that we know of no system of marriage being practised in the church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints save the one contained in the Book of Doctrine and Covenants, and we give this certificate to the public to show that J. C. Bennett's "secret wife system" is a disclosure of his own make. (Times and Seasons 3 [October 1, 1842]: 940)
So, how can it be that two months after the alleged plural marriage of Sarah Ann Whitney to Joseph Smith, Jr. her parents signed and published a statement in the widely circulated Times and Seasons that they "know of no system of marriage being practised in the church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints save the one contained in the Book of Doctrine and Covenants" (Times and Seasons 3 [October 1, 1842]: 940)? Yet, 27 years after the alleged marriage Elizabeth signs an affidavit attesting to the marriage and some 35 years after the alleged marriage she writes her thoughts about the event as published in The Women of Mormondom, pages 368–369, by Edward W. Tullidge, 1877. Even Sarah's affidavit is discrepant with her parents' statements in the Times and Seasons. In her affidavit, also made 27 years after her alleged plural marriage to Joseph, Sarah stated, "she was married or sealed to Joseph Smith, President of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints ... according to the laws of the same regulating marriage...." Thus, Sarah stated that her marriage to Joseph was according to the marriage laws of the Church. However, her parents stated in Times and Seasons that those Church laws did not support polygamous marriages. They said that other than "J. C. Bennett's 'secret wife system,'" the only marriage system known within the Church was the one taught in the Doctrine and Covenants, which was a monogamous system of marriage. The statements published in the Times and Seasons are in direct opposition to both affidavits of marriage, Elizabeth's autobiography, and the alleged revelation itself.
With all due respect to the Whitneys, they were lying somewhere. The first scenario is that Newel and Elizabeth lied in their Times and Seasons statement to cover up the alleged revelation and Sarah's alleged marriage to Joseph. The second scenario is that they told the truth in their Times and Seasons' statement but Sarah and Elizabeth lied in their affidavits 27 years later, and Elizabeth lied in her autobiographical reflections 35 years later. Most Mormon history authors support the first scenario. I support the second. However, before I can give my reasoning, I need to discuss a little about the nature of the statements made by the Whitneys.
The Nature of Affidavits and Statements
So, are the affidavits made by Sarah and Elizabeth and Elizabeth's biography statement more reliable for telling the truth than Newel's and Elizabeth's statements in the Times and Seasons? According to Todd Compton in the prologue to his book, In Sacred Loneliness, affidavits and biographies are very good evidence. He states:
What criteria can be used to evaluate whether a woman's marriage to Joseph Smith (during his lifetime) can be reliabley documented? In 1869 Joseph F. Smith, countering Reorganized Latter Day Saint Church (RLDS) denials of Joseph Smith's polygamy, had Joseph Smith's living widows sign affidavits documenting their marriages to him. An affidavit is very good evidence. A woman mentioning in a journal or autobiography that she married the prophet is also good evidence, as is a close family member's or friend's testimony or affidavit or reminiscence, especially if he or she supplies convincing detail, anecdotal or documentary. (page 1, italics added)
However, with all due respect to Mr. Compton, I do not necessarily consider affidavits, journals, and autobiographies very good evidence. The reason why is that they are personal statements made without penalty for lying. Unless an affidavit is part of a court proceeding, there is no penalty for perjury. The only thing official about a notarized affidavit outside of a court proceeding is that the notary verifies that the person who is making the statement has provided sufficient proof that they are the person they allege to be. The two affidavits above, as well as all the affidavits obtained by Joseph F. Smith mentioned by Mr. Compton above, fall into this category. They are merely a person's statement—true or false. Likewise, a person's journal or autobiography falls into the same category—it is their personal statement, true or false. Only a statement which is made in a court of law under penalty for perjury and which withstands cross examination can be assumed to have a high probability of truthfulness. Thus, the affidavit made by Sarah and the affidavit and biography statement made by Elizabeth have no more inherent truthfulness than the signed statements by Newel and Elizabeth in the Times and Seasons. At face value, they are on equal footing as to the probability of their truthfulness.
Evaluating the Whitneys' Affidavits and Statements
There are some considerations that I believe weigh in favor of the 1842 Times and Seasons statements being the truthful ones. First, they were made publicly with the corroboration of twenty-nine others. This lends credibility to their statements. Second, they were made very close to the time of the events they addressed. Usually statements made close in time to the event referenced are the most accurate because the person's memory has not been faded by time, and their interpretation of the events has not been influenced by other opinions. Third, the statements regarding the alleged plural marriage between Sarah and Joseph were made many years after that alleged event. In addition, they were made by those involved in polygamous activities at a time when it was important to the LDS Church to justify the doctrine of polygamy. As stated by Todd Compton above, "In 1869 Joseph F. Smith, countering Reorganized Latter Day Saint Church (RLDS) denials of Joseph Smith's polygamy, had Joseph Smith's living widows sign affidavits documenting their marriages to him" (ibid.). Actually, by that time, there had been a sustained three-year missionary effort to Salt Lake City and other parts of Utah by the Reorganized Church. Many LDS joined the Reorganization but soon left the area for Idaho or the Mid-West. Alexander Smith was there in 1866 and again in 1869 with his brother David. During this missionary effort, both of these sons of Joseph Smith, Jr. (and cousins of Joseph F. Smith) defended their father and spoke against polygamy to the LDS priesthood (including Brigham Young and Joseph F. Smith) and members of the LDS Church (RLDS History of the Church 4:427–553). Because of their success and the high regard for Joseph Smith, Jr. in the LDS Church, this challenge from Joseph's sons must have brought considerable pressure upon the leaders of the LDS Church as well as those involved in polygamy to "prove" the position that their practice of polygamy came directly from Joseph Smith, Jr. himself. Such pressure to prove that Joseph was the originator of polygamy brings into question for me the validity of their affidavits and statements. Fourth, as previously discussed, Elizabeth's autobiographical statement in The Women of Mormondom omits reference to the alleged revelation to Newel in 1842 authorizing the plural marriage of Joseph and Sarah and associates all their celestial marriage involvement with the alleged 1843 revelation, which came one year after Sarah's alleged plural marriage to Joseph. This failure of Elizabeth to mention in her autobiography such an important event in the lives of the Whitneys indicates to me that both the revelation and the marriage did not occur. Because of these reasons, I have to give credibility to Newel's and Elizabeth's statements in the Times and Seasons as being true rather than to Elizabeth's later affidavit and statement as well as to Sarah's later affidavit.
To interpret the Whitney letter as a love letter from Joseph to Sarah Ann Whitney, the validity of the previous alleged revelation to Newel K. Whitney and Joseph's plural marriage to Sarah Ann would have to be established. Without the occurrence of these two events, the letter becomes merely a request from Joseph to his good friends, Newel and Elizabeth Whitney, for a visit. As presented above, the need for validation of the author of the revelation, discrepancies within the revelation, the grammatical structure of the revelation, the immediate response of 17-year-old Sarah Ann to the revelation, the Times and Seasons statements of Newel and Elizabeth, and the discrepancies in the later affidavit and biographical statement of Elizabeth and affidavit of Sarah Ann cast serious doubts about the validity of the alleged July 27, 1842, revelation to Newel and the subsequent plural marriage on that date of Joseph and Sarah Ann Whitney. Thus, in my opinion, there was no such revelation and no such marriage, which makes the letter nothing more than just a communication between friends.