Question: How do critics of the Church portray Joseph Smith's letter to the Whitney family as a "love letter"?

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Question: How do critics of the Church portray Joseph Smith's letter to the Whitney family as a "love letter"?

Critical treatments of the letter: Was this a "love" letter to Sarah Ann?

Did Joseph Smith write a private and secret “love letter” to Sarah Ann Whitney? Was this letter a request to Sarah Ann's parents to bring her to Joseph? Was Joseph trying to keep Sarah Ann and Emma from encountering one another? Certain sentences extracted from the letter might lead one to believe one or all of these things. Critics use this to their advantage by extracting only the portions of the letter which support the conclusions above. We present here four examples of how the text of the letter has been employed by critics in order to support their position that Joseph was asking the Whitney's to bring Sarah Ann over for an intimate encounter. The text of the full letter is then examined again in light of these treatments.

Critical presentation #1

Consider the following excerpt from a website that is critical of the Church. Portions of the Whitney letter are extracted and presented in the following manner:

... 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 friendship, 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. ... 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. Joseph Smith.
—’’Rethinking Mormonism’’, “Did Joseph Smith have sex with his wives?” (Web page)

This certainly has all of the elements of a secret “love letter:” The statement that it would not be safe if Emma were there, the request to “burn this letter as soon as you read it,” and the stealthy instructions for approaching the house. The question is, who was this letter addressed to? The critics on their web site clearly want you to believe that this was a private letter to Sarah Ann.

Critical presentation #2

Here is the way that Van Wagoner presents selected excerpts of the same letter. In this case, at least, he acknowledges that the letter was addressed to “the Whitney’s,” rather than Sarah, but adds his own opinion that it “detailed [Joseph’s] problems in getting to see Sarah Ann without Emma's knowledge:”

My feelings are so strong for you since what has pased lately between us ... 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 succor ... the only thing to be careful is to find out when Emma comes then you cannot be safe, but when she is not here, there is the most perfect safety.
—Richard S. Van Wagoner, Mormon Polygamy: A History, 48.

Critical presentation #3

This version, presented by George D. Smith, presents excerpts from the letter which makes it sound like Joseph was absolutely lusting for the company of Sarah Ann. Smith even makes Napoleon Bonaparte a Joseph Smith doppelgänger by quoting a letter from the future Emperor to Josephine of their first night together:

"I have awakened full of you. The memory of last night has given my senses no rest. . . . What an effect you have on my heart! I send you thousands of kisses—but don’t kiss me. Your kisses sear my blood” (p. xi). George Smith then claims that a “young man of ambition and vision penned his own letter of affection to a young woman. It was the summer of 1842 when thirty-six-year-old Joseph Smith, hiding from the law down by the Mississippi River in Illinois, confessed:"

Smith then compares the excerpts from Napoleon's letter above to portions of the Whitney letter:

My feelings are so strong for you . . . come and see me in this my lonely retreat . . . now is the time to afford me succour . . . 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.
—George D. Smith, “Nauvoo Polygamy: We Called It Celestial Marriage,” Free Inquiry [Council for Secular Humanism] 28/3 (April–May 2008): 44–46.

Critical presentation #4

Finally, we have a version which acknowledges the full contents of the letter...but only after presenting it in the manner described above numerous times. The author eventually provides the full text of this letter (150 pages after its comparison with Napoleon). Since there are no extant "love letters" from Joseph Smith to any of his plural wives, the mileage that the author of Nauvoo Polygamy..."but we called it celestial marriage" extracts from the single letter to the Whitney's is simply astounding:

  • "[i]t was eleven years after the Smiths roomed with the Whitneys that Joseph expressed a romantic interest in their daughter, as well." (p. 31)
  • "recommended his friend, whose seventeen-year-old daughter he had just married, should 'come a little a head, and nock…at the window.'" (p. 53)
  • "Emma Hale, Joseph's wife of fifteen years, had left his side just twenty-four hours earlier. Now Joseph declared that he was "lonesome," and he pleaded with Sarah Ann to visit him under cover of darkness. After all, they had been married just three weeks earlier. (p. 53)
  • "As will be seen, conjugal visits appear furtive and constantly shadowed by the threat of disclosure." (p. 63)
  • “when Joseph requested that Sarah Ann Whitney visit him and ‘nock at the window,’ he reassured his new young wife that Emma would not be there, telegraphing his fear of discovery if Emma happened upon his trysts.” (p. 65)
  • "Three weeks after the wedding, Joseph took steps to spend some time with his newest bride." (p. 138)
  • "It was the ninth night of Joseph's concealment, and Emma had visited him three times, written him several letters, and penned at least one letter on his behalf…For his part, Joseph's private note about his love for Emma was so endearing it found its way into the official church history. In it, he vowed to be hers 'forevermore.' Yet within this context of reassurance and intimacy, a few hours later the same day, even while Joseph was still in grave danger and when secrecy was of the utmost urgency, he made complicated arrangements for a visit from his fifteenth plural wife, Sarah Ann Whitney." (p. 142)
  • "Smith urged his seventeen-year-old bride to 'come to night' and 'comfort' him—but only if Emma had not returned….Joseph judiciously addressed the letter to 'Brother, and Sister, Whitney, and &c." (p. 142-143)
  • "Invites Whitneys to visit, Sarah Ann to 'comfort me' if Emma not there. Invitation accepted." (p.. 147)
  • "As if Sarah Ann Whitney's liaison were not enough…another marriage took place…." (p. 155)
  • "summer 1842 call for an intimate visit from Sarah Ann Whitney…substantiate[s] the intimate relationships he was involved in during those two years." (p. 185)
  • “his warning to Sarah Ann to proceed carefully in order to make sure Emma would not find them in their hiding place.” (p. 236)
  • "Just as Joseph sought comfort from Sarah Ann the day Emma departed from his hideout…." (p. 236)
  • "Elizabeth [Whitney] was arranging conjugal visits between her daughter, Sarah Ann, and [Joseph]…." (p. 366)

One must assume that this is the closest thing that the author could find to a love letter, because the "real" love letters from Joseph to his plural wives do not exist. The author had to make do with this one, despite the fact that it did not precisely fit the bill. With judicious pruning, however, it can be made to sound sufficiently salacious to suit the purpose at hand: to "prove" that Joseph lusted after women.

The full story

In contrast to the sources above, Compton actually provides the complete text of the letter up front, and concludes that "[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." [1]

What parts of the Whitney letter do the critics not mention?

As always, it is helpful to view the entire set of statements in content. Let's revisit the entire letter, this time with the selections extracted by the critics highlighted:

Nauvoo August 18th 1842

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 wi 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.

Joseph Smith

So, let’s take a look at the portions of the letter that are not highlighted.

Dear, and Beloved, Brother and Sister, Whitney, and &c.—

The letter is addressed to “Brother and Sister Whitney.” Sarah Ann is not mentioned by name, but is included as “&c.,” which is the equivalent of saying “and so on,” or “etc.” This hardly implies that what follows is a private “love letter” to Sarah Ann herself.

Could this have been an appeal to Sarah's parents to bring her to Joseph? In Todd Compton's opinion, Joseph "cautiously avoids writing Sarah's name." [2] However, Joseph stated in the letter who he wanted to talk to:

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;

Joseph wants to talk to “you three,” meaning Newel, Elizabeth and Sarah Ann.

Notes

  1. Todd Compton, In Sacred Loneliness: The Plural Wives of Joseph Smith (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1997), 350. ( Index of claims )
  2. Todd Compton, In Sacred Loneliness: The Plural Wives of Joseph Smith (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1997), 349. ( Index of claims )