Ep 129 – Bennett Meltdown Pt. 6 Sarah Ann Whitney
On this episode, we begin with a letter Emma Smith wrote to Governor Thomas Carlin reasoning and pleading for exoneration of her husband. Then we get into the complicated and controversial nature of a letter Joseph Smith wrote to his old friends, the Whitney family. We discuss the polygamous marriage of Sarah Ann Whitney to Joseph Smith in July 1842 and how it provides context for the letter to the entire Whitney family.
JS Journal Dec 1841-Dec 1842
Joseph Smith, John C. Bennet, and the Extradition Attempt, 1842
Sarah Ann Whitney
Sarah Ann Whitney Biography
H. Michael Marquardt The Strange Marriages of Sarah Ann Whitney to
Joseph Smith the Mormon Prophet
Did Joseph Smith have sex with his wives?
D. Michael Quinn The Newel K. Whitney Family
Joseph Smith’s letter to the Whitney Family
Music by Jason Comeau http://aloststateofmind.com/
Show Artwork http://weirdmormonshit.com/
Legal Counsel http://patorrez.com/
Shhhhh… Don’t make a sound. Were you followed? Did she see you?! We must be careful, they’re everywhere. Alright, let’s do this…
When last we checked in with Joseph Smith, he was sharing letter correspondence with his new acting Major-General Wilson Law and Emma. Nauvoo was Jo’s kingdom, but he couldn’t be seen in town lest he risk arrest and extradition.
However, Jo didn’t just stay in one place. When he first went into hiding, his uncle John Smith on the Iowa side of the river offered a place of refuge, then it was off to his friend Sayers’ home where Jo hunkered down for a few days. He spent these days writing as much as conversing with Mormon elites showing up from time to time.
The heartfelt letter exchange between Emma and Jo was notable. When Emma had gone to see Jo at Sayers’ farm, she had asked him if she should go meet with Governor Carlin in Quincy. Jo took a few days to think about it and sent the letter telling her that she could sent Carlin a letter, but that meeting with him wasn’t a good idea.
This letter that Emma sent to Governor Carlin is quite remarkable. It doesn’t paint Emma as a concerned wife simply pleading to the Governor to forgive her husband’s sins and exonerate him. It reads as if she wielded power in Nauvoo and was willing to reason with the Governor as an equal, even if Carlin would never see her as an equal. Here’s the letter to which I’m referring, dictated by Emma, written by her secretary, Eliza R. Snow.
To His Excellency Governor [Thomas] Carlin.
Sir— It is with feelings of no ordinary cast that I have retired after the business of the day and evening too, to address your honor. I am at a loss how to commence; my mind is crowded with subjects to numerous to be contained in one letter. I find myself almost destitute of that confidence, necessary to address a person holding the authority of your dignified, and responsible office; and I would now offer, as an excuse for intruding upon your time and attention, the justice of my cause. Was my cause the interest of an individual or of a number of individuals; then, perhaps I might be justified in remaining silent. But it is not! Nor is it the pecuniary interest of a whole community alone, that prompts me again to appeal to your excellency. But dear sir, it is for the peace and safety of hundreds I may safely say, of this community, who are not guilty of any offense against the laws of the Country; and also the life of my husband; who has not committed any crime whatever; neither has he transgressed any of the laws, or any part of the constitution of the United States; neither has he at any time infringed upon the rights of any man, or of any class of men or community of any description. Need I say he is not guilty of the crime alleged against him by Governor [Lilburn W.] Boggs.
Indeed it does seem entirely superfluous for me, or any one of his friends in this place, to testify his innocence of that crime; when so many of the citizens of your place, and of many other places in this State, as well as in the Territory; do know positively that the statement of Governor Boggs is without the least shadow of truth; and we do know, and so do many others, that the prosecution against him, has been conducted in an illegal manner; and every act demonstrates the fact, that all the design of the prosecution, is to throw him into the power of his enemies; without the least ray of hope, that he would ever be allowed to obtain a fair trial, and that he would be inhumanly and ferociously murdered; no person having a knowledge of the existing circumstances, has one remaining doubt: and your honor will recollect that you said to me that you would not advise Mr Smith, ever to trust himself in Missouri. And dear Sir, you cannot for one moment indulge one unfriendly feeling towards him, if he abides by your council. Then sir, why is it that he should be thus cruelly pursued? why not give him the privilege of the laws of this State. When I reflect upon the many cruel and illegal operations of Lilburn W. Boggs, and the consequent suffering of myself and family; and the incalculable losses and suffering of many hundreds who survived, and the many precious lives that were lost; all, the effect of unjust prejudice and misguided ambition, produced by misrepresentation and calumny, my bosom heaves with unutterable anguish.
(Jo didn’t do it, but Boggs totally deserved it)
And who, that is as well acquainted with the facts as the people of the city of Quincy, would censure me, if I should say that my heart burned with just indignation, towards our calumniators, as well as the perpetrators of those horrid crimes. But how happy would I now be to pour out my full heart in gratitude to Gov. Boggs if he had rose up with the dignity and authority of the cheif executive of the State, and put down every illegal transaction, and protected the peaceable citizens, and enterprising emigrants, from the violence of plundering out-laws, who have ever been a disgrace to the State, and always will, so long as they go unpunished. Yes I say, how happy would I be to render him not only the gratitude of my own heart, but the cheering effusions of the joyous souls of fathers and mothers, of brothers and sisters, widows and orphans, who he might have saved by such a course, from now drooping under the withering hand of adversity, brought upon them by the persecutions of wicked and corrupt men.
(Now Emma goes on to appeal to Carlin’s logic. Jo was the head of the people and without him they’re lost.)
And now may I entreat your excellency to lighten the hand of oppression and persecution, which is laid upon me and my family, which materially affect the peace and welfare of this whole community; for let me assure you that there are many whole families that are entirely dependant upon the prosecution and success of Mr Smiths temporal business for their support. And if he is prevented from attending to the common avocations of life, who will employ those innocent, industrious poor people and provide for their wants.
(Now Emma appeals to his kindness he’d expressed at various times to her and Jo.)
But my dear sir, when I recollect the interesting interview, I and my friends had with you when at your place, and the warm assurances you gave us of your friendship and legal protection, I cannot doubt for a moment your honorable sincerety; but do still expect you to consider our claims upon your protection from every encroachment upon our legal rights as loyal citizens as we always have been, still are, and are determined always to be a law abiding people;
(Emma goes on to make an appeal to Carlin’s sense of justice. Jo wasn’t anywhere near Boggs when he was shot, how could he possibly be guilty of attempted murder?)
and I still assure myself that when you are fully acquainted with illegal proceedings practised against us in the suit of Gov. Boggs you will recall those writs which have been issued against Mr Smith and [Orrin Porter] Rockwell, as you must be aware that Mr Smith was not in Missouri, and of course he could not have left there; with many other considerations which if duly considered will justify Mr Smith in the course he has taken.
(This is when it turns to the final heartsell, a great way to cap off the letter.)
And now I appeal to your excellency as I would unto a father, who is not only able but willing to shield me and mine from every unjust prosecution. I appeal to your sympathies and beg you to spare me, and my helpless children. I beg you to spare my innocent children the heartrending sorrow of again seeing their father unjustly drag’ed to prison or to death. I appeal to your affections as a son and beg you to spare our aged mother,— the only surviving parent we have left,— the unsupportable affliction of seeing her son, who she knows to be innocent of the crimes laid to his charge, thrown again into the hands of his enemies who have so long sought for his life; in whose life and prosperity she only looks for the few remaining comforts she can enjoy. I entreat of your excellency to spare us these afflictions and many sufferings which cannot be uttered; and secure to yourself the pleasure of doing good, and vastly increasing human happiness; secure to yourself the benediction of the aged and the gratitude of the young and the blessing and veneration of the rising generation.
Respectfully your most obedient— Emma Smith.—
Sir I hope you will favor me with an answer
It is quite the letter. Emma was no silent partner of the prophet, she was a contributing piece to the Mormon history puzzle. Even though her husband had told her to not meet with Carlin, she penned this amazing letter and sent it to Carlin by way of William Clayton as messenger. Clayton presented the letter to Governor Carlin and Judge Ralston on the 19th of August 1842.
According to Jo’s journal, Carlin was impressed by the contents of the letter. He’d never received a letter like this before from a prominent woman pleading to exonerate her husband. Apparently though, he was quite amazed. What Carlin told Clayton in this meeting is important, and we’ll talk about why after reading the passage out of Joseph’s journal.
The Govr. read the letter with much attention apparently and when he got through he passed high encomiums on sister Emma and expressed astonishment at the judgement and talent manifest in the manner of her address, He presented the letter to Judge Ralston requesting him to read it. Gov. Carlin then proceeded to reiterate the same language as on a former occasion viz. that he was satisfied there was no excitement any where but in Nauvoo “amongst the Mormons themselves” all was quiet and no apprehension of trouble in other places so far as he was able to ascertain.
That is interesting isn’t it. Carlin told William Clayton that the excitement in the country and Jo’s fears of arrest and extradition were only in the minds of the Mormons in Nauvoo, essentially telling them that nobody else cares about what’s going on. Whether or not he said that is important. Governor Carlin was in a tight spot. He had Governor Reynolds on his back to extradite Jo and the rising of anti-Mormon rhetoric all putting pressure on him to arrest Jo and turn him over. However, this was right before mid-term elections, Carlin’s seat was up. He had to treat the Mormons favorably or he’d never be reelected. But, if he sided with the Mormons, he’d make enemies within the senate chambers.
Beyond that, there were so-called anti-Mormons sending him letters every day and knocking on his door for him to march the state militia to Nauvoo and put the prophet in chains. The outrage felt against the prophet of the church was a Nauvoo phenomenon based on the allegations made by Bennett’s exposes that Jo was committing adultery. The outrage against Joseph Smith, however, was felt by thousands of people outside Nauvoo because a despot was growing ever-stronger, assassinating public officials, and attempting a complete overthrow of the government, all under the garb of religious fanaticism. Dependent upon who you were, what your religion was, or where you lived, you may be mad at Jo for different reasons. The next passage in Jo’s journal documenting what Carlin told William Clayton reveals that the outrage wasn’t only in Nauvoo as the previous passage had indicated.
He afterwards stated when conversing on another subject that “persons were offering their services every day either in person or by letter and held themselves in readiness to come against us whenever he should call upon them, but he never had had the least idea of calling out the Militia neither had he thought it necessary. There was evidently a contradiction in his assertions in the above instances and although he said “there was no excitement but amongst the~~m~~ Mormons” it is evident he knew better. He also said that it was his opinion that if president Joseph would give himself up to the Sheriff he would be honorably acquited and the matter would be ended; but on Judge Ralston asking how hee thought the president could go through the midst of his enemies without voilence being used towards him and if acquited how he was to get back? the Gov. was evidently at a loss what to say but made light of the matter as though he thought it might be easily done.
What Clayton reported to Jo about this interaction reveals that Governor Carlin was torn. It would have been easiest for him if a vigilante mob found Jo and lynched him in the streets. However, Jo was in hiding and safe within the confines of his kingdom and his closest elites wouldn’t betray him, not yet anyway. Whatever happened to Jo, Carlin always had to be at an arm’s length to plausibly deny any part in the arrest or death of Joseph Smith. If it could be assumed by any Mormons that Jo felt the wrath of law as a result of Carlin’s actions, he’d never be elected again while he represented the Mormon voting bloc. But, what does it look like on a Governor’s reputation to have a sovereign uprising of religious fanatics in your constituency and have to call out the state militia to put it down? Carlin was completely stuck. However, if Jo happened to be in town and found by an enemy mob and lynched which could never be tied back to Carlin, maybe the problem solves itself. So, Carlin telling Clayton that Jo had nothing to fear may have had some ulterior motives.
Jo had what information he needed concerning Carlin’s true alignment. To conclude that entry in his journal:
He took great care to state that it was not his advice that Mr Smith should give himself up but thought it would be soonest decided. It appeared evident that we have no great things to expect from Carlin as it is evident he is no friend. He acknowledged his ignorance of the law touching the case in plain terms.
After Emma wrote this letter she went to Jo and told him that he’d be safest in town where she could keep an eye on him. Accordingly, Jo was moved back to Nauvoo on August 18th or 19th.
As recounted by Newel and Avery in their fantastic book on Emma, Mormon Enigma.
This same day Emma learned that Harmon T. Wilson, the sheriff from the county seat at Carthage, had come to Nauvoo in disguise and had taken lodging in the Davis tavern. A rumor reached Emma that Carlin was ready to issue a new writ and that Joseph’s hiding place was known. She slipped out of her home in the dark of night and made her way with the faithful Derby to the Sayers farm to warn Joseph. Emma and Joseph and Erastus Derby left the Sayers place immediately and traveled unnoticed to Carlos Granger’s house in Nauvoo, where in spite of the hour they were “kindly received and well-treated.” Emma returned home reassured that Joseph was safe.
Jo remained here in the basement of the Granger home for a few days, as it was safe. His first day in hiding there in Nauvoo, Jo penned a curious letter.
To put this letter into context, we need to understand that Emma was at all times fighting to keep her husband safe. She couldn’t be seen acting too out of the ordinary by the sheriff who still had a close eye on her or she would lead him to Jo. Emma couldn’t spend any time with Jo with only a few minor exceptions. The other side of that coin meant that Jo couldn’t spend any time with his usual echelon of sycophants fawning over his every word. In his mind, through no fault of his own, he was the victim of persecution and forced out of his home and regular duties by mobocrats. Of course, we know that everything happening to him was purely a result of his own actions, but Jo was the hero of his own narrative and he said it best when he famously stated that No Man Knows My History.
Needless to say, Jo eventually got lonely. This is the letter to some of his earliest Mormon converts and friends from the earliest Kirtland days of Mormonism. You’ll find a link to this in the show notes. It’s one of the few letters Jo actually wrote himself instead of dictating, you’ll see why.
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 [Granger’s], Just back of Brother Hyrams [Hyrum Smith’s] 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 intirely by myself, the whole matter can be attended to with most perfect saf[e]ty, I <know> it is the will of God that you should comfort <me> now in this time of affliction, or not all at all now is the [p. ] 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> get the fulness of my blessings sealed upon our heads, &c. you wiwill pardon me for my earnestness 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 to night if she dont dont fail to come to night, I subscribe myself your most obedient, <and> affectionate, companion, and friend.
Yeah, so Emma had been working to keep the church running in Jo’s absence, had written a letter to the Governor of the state on his behalf, was taking care of the kids, and even helped sneak Jo back into town from his previous hiding place. Yet, as soon as she turns her back, he sends a letter to the Whitneys asking them to come meet him in the middle of the night and make sure they aren’t seen by Emma when they get there.
To put this into deeper context, I quote again from Mormon Enigma p. 125
The following day, August 18, 1842, Joseph wrote another letter (the letter we just read). Three weeks earlier, on July 27, in the presence and with the consent of Elizabeth Ann, Newel K. Whitney had performed the marriage ceremony uniting their seventeen-year-old daughter Sarah Ann to Joseph. Now, from the Granger home, Joseph addressed a letter to…. (reprints a few extracts from the letter we read. The paragraph concludes with this) No entry was made in Joseph’s history for this day.
What does this letter mean? There’s a lot to tease out of it and historians are all over the place about what the true intent of this letter is. Unfortunately, the intent isn’t readily apparent when the letter is read in its entirety. Was this a love-letter from Jo to Sarah? Well it was addressed to the entire Whitney family and a booty calls are really awkward with Sarah’s parents there. But they had both consented 3 weeks earlier to Jo taking their daughter as one of his wives, so maybe it’s not completely crazy to infer a booty call was the purpose of this letter.
Maybe Jo was just really lonely and wanted some good long-time friends as company while in hiding. That seems to comport with him saying “the time of my absence 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,” But, if this is just a letter about Jo wanting the company of the three Whitneys, why did he ask them to avoid Emma and burn the letter after reading? That can be explained by the fact that Emma was being tailed by the Sheriff in hopes she’d lead him to Jo’s hideout. Also, the letter told Jo’s location, a paper trail, of course he’d want it burned.
If Jo was just seeking companionship with some of his closest friends, why was it only the Whitneys he invited. Also, why was it necessary to tell them that he has a room entirely to himself and the whole matter can be attended to with most perfect safety? And if they were just coming to visit an old friend, why did he also have to tell them that he knows it’s the will of God that they should comfort him in this time of affliction or not at all? What’s with the sense of urgency and invoking the will of God to convince them to make the trip? Why would they need to be convinced of this?
Those questions may be answered by the fact that Jo was on the run from the law and the Whitneys would understandably fear for their lives in the presence of a fugitive of 2 different states, a little forceful coercion deemed “the will of God” may have been necessary to convince them. That with the secret knock that Newel was to use to signal to Jo that it was friends on the other side of the door, it makes sense.
However, when we read Jo’s intentions with writing the letter in the first place, just having the company of the Whitneys to hang out and chat for a while seems a little too light. Jo says he’s communicating the information in the letter to them “privetely… 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:”
Those are some strong feelings for people who were simply friends. Granted, the Whitneys and Smiths go way back to the earliest days of the church in Kirtland. In fact, Newel Whitney was the first person Jo and Emma met when they arrived in Kirtland in early 1831 and began forging a close relationship with the Whitneys. Jo and Emma were 26 and 28 respectively at this time, little Sarah was 5 years old. Had young Alvin Smith survived when he was born to Emma, he would have been just 2 years younger than Sarah when Jo and Emma first met her.
This is what D. Michael Quinn wrote of their first exchange from a December 1978 article about the Whitney family, published by the church currently on lds.org. You’ll find a link in the show notes:
Young Newel grew up only a few miles from the birthplace of Joseph Smith, who was ten years his junior, yet the two first met as grown men, far from the Vermont of their childhood. In February 1831 the Prophet Joseph Smith entered Newel K. Whitney’s store in Kirtland, Ohio, and exclaimed to the startled proprietor, “Thou art the man!” Newel protested that he did not know this stranger, then heard life-changing words: “I am Joseph the Prophet. You prayed me here; now what do you want of me?”
It was true that he had “prayed” the Prophet there. Although few of America’s millions—less than ten percent—belonged to any church after the end of the American Revolution, many sought religious truth. Newel and his wife, Elizabeth Ann Smith, were among them. Members of no church, they earnestly studied the Bible, tried to live Christian teachings, and engaged in private devotions. Shortly before the organization of the Church in 1830 and about two years before that meeting with Joseph Smith, the Whitneys joined the Campbellites, forerunners of the present Disciples of Christ. With Sidney Rigdon, they subsequently left the Campbellite group in an effort to live with all things in common, as the early Christians had done.
Jo and Emma were really close friends with the Whitneys. Would deep friendship alone explain the wording he used and the petition to the Whitneys to keep it secret? That doesn’t seem to explain everything in my mind. He even referenced “what has pased lately between us” which must have been an allusion to the sealing 3 weeks prior. If this was merely a friendly meeting, why would he remind them of what had transpired recently between them?
A lot has been written about this letter. A lot has been written about Sarah Ann and Jo’s marriage. You’ll find a bunch of links in the show notes for further reading if you’re interested, including a 1973 pamphlet from friend of the show, Michael Marquardt. This marriage represents one of the better-documented of early polygamous marriages which exhibits Jo’s methods. Let’s dwell on the Whitneys briefly to understand the relationship dynamic that facilitated this letter, and we’ll return to the letter with a little more context.
Helen Mar Kimball provided a bit of context concerning how Jo propositioned the Whitneys to take their teenage daughter to be his wife. This was reported in the 1 March 1883 Women’s Exponent in Utah.
Bishop Whitney was not a man that readily accepted of every doctrine, and would question the Prophet very closely upon principles if not made clear to his understanding. When Joseph saw that he was doubtful concerning the righteousness of this celestial order he told him to go and enquire of the Lord concerning it, and he should receive a testimony for himself.
The Bishop, with his wife, who had for years been called Mother Whitney, retired together and unitedly besought the Lord for a testimony whether or not this principle was from Him; and they ever after bore testimony that they received a manifestation and that it was so powerful they could not mistake it. The Bishop never afterwards doubted, and they willingly gave to him their daughter, which was the strongest proof that they could possibly give their faith and confidence in him as a true Prophet of God.
Helen also added how Sarah was willing, but that she had to hide the marriage from her brother, Horace. Jo apparently knew that Horace wouldn’t be alright with Jo marrying his teenage sister and Jo sent him on a mission to the east. Just think of the twisted set of family relationships in jeopardy with this marriage. By their own account, Newell and Elizabeth were willing to let Jo take their teenage daughter to be his polygynous wife, likely given him without Sarah’s consent or fully-informed knowledge, yet they had to hide it from Horace Whitney, her brother. This is what Helen added, which leads us to believe that Sarah was willing, and that her mother wasn’t aware of the situation, which contradicts another statement from Sarah’s own mother that we’ll read in a minute.
Sarah Ann took this step of her own free will, but had to do it unbeknown to her brother [Horace Whitney], which grieved her most, and also her mother, that they could not open their hearts to him. But Joseph feared to disclose it, believing that the Higbee boys would embitter Horace against him, as they had already caused serious trouble, and for this reason he favored his going East, which Horace was not slow to accept. He had had some slight suspicions that the stories about Joseph were not all without foundation, but had never told them, nor did he know the facts till after his return to Nauvoo, when Sarah hastened to tell him all. It was no small stumbling-block to him when learning of the course which had been taken towards him, which was hard for him to overlook. But Joseph had always treated him with the greatest kindness from the time he came to live in his father’s house in Kirtland.
However, that was a later reminiscence from a second-hand account. Mother Whitney herself spoke of the situation concerning Jo and the proposition to her daughter. This account, published in the Women’s Exponent nearly 40 years after the fact as well, is quite revealing.
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 [D&C 132], and also gave him the privilege of reading and making a copy of it [with Joseph C. Kingsbury as copyist], believing it would be perfectly safe with him. … 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; He revealed 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.
What kind of parents would give their teenage daughter to a middle-aged man in marriage?! Is that what you’re thinking? Are you thinking that only because I said it? What could possibly convince them that it was okay to do this, knowing full well what kind of life it may lead to? Beyond that, Newel Whitney himself performed the marriage ceremony between them, using the exact words in the spell Jo told him to say. This is considered an uncanonized revelation because Jo takes on role of mouthpiece of God. He begins with promising that Jo’s proposition is of God, articulates covenants that God is making with Newel should he go through with marrying his daughter to the prophet, and then go to the actual words of the ritual.
Verily thus saith the Lord unto my se[r]vant N. K. Whitney the thing that my se[r]vant Joseph Smith has made known unto you and your Famely [Family] and which you have agreed upon is right in mine eyes and shall be crowned upon your heads with honor and immortality and eternal life to all your house both old & young because of the lineage of my Preast [Pirest] Hood 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 se[r]vant Joseph [Smith] and your Daughter S. A. [Sarah Ann] Whitney. They shall take each other by the hand and you shall say:
you both mutu[al]ly agree calling them by name to be each others companion so long as you both shall live presser[v]ing yourselv[es] for each other and from all others and also through [o]ut all eternity reserving only those rights which have been given to my servant Joseph [Smith] by revelation and commandment and by legal Authority in times passed [past].
“If you both agree to covenant and do this, then I give you S. A. [Sarah Ann] Whitney my Daughter to Joseph Smith to be his wife to observe all the rights betwe[e]n 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 Priest Hood vested in me by revelation and commandment and promise of the living God obtained by the Holy Melchizedek Gethrow [Jethro] and other of the Holy Fathers commanding in the name of the Lord all those powers to concentrate in you and through to your po[s]terity for ever
all these things I do in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ that through this order he may be glorified [glorified] and [that] through the power of anointing Davied [David] may reign King over Iseral [Israel] which shall hereafter be revealed let immortality and eternal life henc[e]forth be sealed upon your heads forever and ever.
That is the entirety of it. And this is exactly what had happened 3 weeks before this letter was sent while Jo was in hiding. Newel and Elizabeth had gained all the blessings for eternity the prophet had promised if they gave him their eldest teenage daughter, who was literally half his age, in marriage. Now, Sarah Ann Whitney, possibly by her own desire, but obviously coerced in ways we can’t imagine, was to observe all the rights between her and Jo that belong to that condition of marriage. The coercion is terrifying. The promises a person who claims to speak for god can make, and what they gain by those promises…. I mean…. Whenever somebody asks what Joseph Smith had to gain by lying about the Book of Mormon or his divine mandate, teenage brides and undying fealty from her parents who willingly gave their eldest daughter to Jo sure looks like a win for him from where I’m standing.
With all that context in mind, let’s look back at a few passages in the letter Jo sent to the Whitneys while in hiding which sent us down this rabbit hole in the first place.
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 have a room intirely by myself, the whole matter can be attended to with most perfect saf[e]ty, I <know> it is the will of God that you should comfort <me> now in this time of affliction, or not all at all now is the [p. ] time or never,… keep all locked up in your breasts, my life depends upon it, one thing I want to see you for is <to> get the fulness of my blessings sealed upon our heads, &c. you ~~wi~~will pardon me for my earnestness on <this subject> when you consider how lonesome I must be,…
What was this meeting? What was the purpose of it? What was the purpose of the utmost secrecy and the demand to burn the letter after reading? What happened once the letter was sent? Unfortunately, those are all questions up for grabs and ripe for speculation. The letter is just cryptic enough that the intent isn’t readily apparent. It may be that it doesn’t require any deeper reading to understand. Jo was lonely and asked some of his oldest friends to come hang out with him for a night. He plead for secrecy to avoid being discovered by the sheriff so as not to be arrested and extradited. Elizabeth and Newel Whitney had yet to obtain the sacred sealing ordinance and Jo thought while he was in hiding a good time for the Whitneys to “git the fulness of my blessings sealed upon [their] heads”. No record exists of whether or not they went to the prophet that night, but records of three days later exist when Newel and Elizabeth were officially sealed together. This portrays a Joseph Smith who was lonely and scared that he would be arrested and killed; he wanted that camaraderie the Whitneys had given him for over a decade by this point. Conservative estimations are best in history, but what about wild speculations?
Speculation exists all over the map about this. Historian George D. Smith went so far as to draw a parallel between this communication and that of Napoleon to his lover Josephine after their first night together. The parallels are interesting, but the situations are so fundamentally different that it seems an exercise in futility. An anonymous contributor to Mormonism Research Ministry postulates it was a love letter from Joseph to Sarah and instructed Newel to bring her to Joseph for a conjugal visit. Newel had performed the marriage ceremony 3 weeks prior so that’s not out of the realm of possibility. To think that Elizabeth and Newel thought there wasn’t a sexual dynamic to this marriage is simply laughable.
Todd Compton did a great job dealing with it in the book In Sacred Loneliness. “"[t]he Mormon leader is putting the Whitney's in the difficult position of having to learn about Emma's movements, avoid her, then meet secretly with him" and that the "cloak-and-dagger atmosphere in this letter is typical of Nauvoo polygamy."
Newell and Avery in Mormon Enigma skip speculating on the content or intent of the meeting and merely speculate that Emma had no idea of the marriage.
“This letter clearly indicates that Emma was unaware of Joseph’s marriage to Sarah Ann. Newel Whitney recorded that Joseph gave them a blessing three days later on August 21. The evening after Joseph wrote the letter he went home under cover of darkness and spent the night with Emma, returning to his hiding place after conducting some business the next day.”
That’s interesting isn’t it. If Jo told the Whitneys to make sure they don’t show up when Emma is home for the sole purpose of escaping discovery by the Sheriff, him going home and staying with Emma the next night sure reveals he either got sloppy or that secrecy for that reason was never a matter of consideration when initially writing the letter.
All of these speculative lines fit within the bounds of the evidence and share the constraints of all Mormon history. The constraints of Mormon history may be limiting historians from reaching the most accurate conclusions though. We don’t know what lived inside Joseph’s mind. We don’t know what went through his mind late at night with his head on his pillow staring up at the ceiling. We don’t know what he talked about with his closest confidants beyond what has survived in documentary form.
But, because nobody knows his history, it’s up to us to construct it as best we can, which means speculating within the bounds of the evidence available to us. My speculation? Jo was a contrarian to his culture in many ways. Maybe he invited all three of them over for some playtime. His new wife he’d known since he was five times her age and two of his closest friends he’d known and lived with repeatedly for over a decade. If Joe Smith was the sexual revolutionary people claim him to be, why is that only limited to him having one on one encounters with polygynous wives? A party animal like him running a criminal empire with his own army; maybe having all three Whitneys over for a night wasn’t far out of the ordinary. Plus, we usually had some anointing oil mixed in situations like this, you know, various Mormon elites meeting in a small room and seeing the face of God. Elizabeth even said that the family was “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.” Maybe Jo really did “git the fulness of my blessings sealed upon [their] heads.”
Hand wave. Scoff. Joseph Smith never had drug-infused orgies with members of Mormon leadership, that’s contrary to the gospel! Yes, because Jo’s actions never ran counter to mainstream Protestantism, did they? I know the available evidence doesn’t come anywhere near proving that and this is terrible speculation by academic history standards. But, since we’re all lost in the realm of pure speculation concerning this mysterious meeting, shouldn’t we open up all possible lines of speculation? I’ve never seen any historian claiming this as a possible explanation for the events of that night. It may be complete speculation, but you can’t say it’s implausible. If Mormon historians are happy with claiming the Book of Abraham as a legitimate translation of the Kirtland papyri as historically plausible, I’m happy to live in this world of my own historical plausibility.
Why would such a claim be controversial or laughed out of Mormon history academia? Jo is a lot of people’s sacred cow. Their model of Joseph Smith operates only within very tight confines of what they think a pious religious leader would do. But, if I’ve learned anything of Jo in all my studies, he didn’t like being told what to do, and that includes by the culture and religious milieu in which he lived. Is it presentist to confine him to those boundaries? Is that good history? I guess the question is, how revolutionary to you want your revolutionary prophet to be?
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