Gerrit Dirkmaat writes article disputing Joseph's authorship of the "Happiness Letter."

Academic / Technical Report
Gerrit Dirkmaat

Gerrit Dirkmaat, "Searching for 'Happiness': Joseph Smith’s Alleged Authorship of the 1842 Letter to Nancy Rigdon," Journal of Mormon History 42, No. 3 (July 2016): 94-119

Journal of Mormon History
Gerrit Dirkmaat, Joseph Smith, Jr.
Reading Public

“Happiness is the object and design of our existence, and will be the end thereof, if we pursue the path that leads to it; and this path is virtue, uprightness, faithfulness, holiness, and keeping all the commandments of God.” This teaching attributed to Joseph Smith is one of the most well known and oft quoted. Many members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints see this teaching of their founding prophet as a succinct and beautiful statement, not only giving the purpose of humankind’s creation, but also a simple explanation of how that happiness can be achieved. It has been quoted in firesides and talks, in Sunday school lessons, and in apologetic writings. Yet despite the nearly ubiquitous acceptance of this teaching, historical inquiry and examination of the source of this teaching and its provenance has generally been superficial and insufficient.

Many would be surprised to learn that the source of this iconic Joseph Smith teaching was perhaps one of Smith’s greatest adversaries, John C. Bennett.

. . .

Despite its popularity, however, it presents special problems of provenance and authenticity to historians. These problems compound the difficulty with which the document can be contextually understood. In effect, historians cannot demonstrate with certainty that Joseph Smith wrote the letter, as they can with other Joseph Smith documents.

. . .

As those reasons can only be met with speculation, a measure of caution should be employed when assigning authorship. Rather than attributing it casually and definitively to Joseph Smith, historians and theologians, Mormons and non-Mormons alike, should be aware of the questioned provenance when using the document and draw measured rather than expansive conclusions. Simply put, if this were any other document, historians would greatly question the claims of authorship for the reasons that will follow.

. . .

It is simply not responsible to assert that the “Happiness Letter” was definitively authored by Smith when no original letter exists nor do any contemporary Mormons attribute it to him. Historical inertia has caused the document to be regarded as definitively Joseph Smith’s rather than careful evaluation. Responsible historians should, after weighing the evidence, treat the letter, its contents, and its purported context very carefully. They should draw very measured and qualified conclusions when using the document either as a representation of Joseph Smith’s doctrinal teachings or as context for Joseph Smith’s practice of plural marriage in Nauvoo rather than relying on the presuppositions of an earlier age of writers, historians, apostates, or apologists.

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