Joseph Smith Papers gives historical background to the Happiness Letter; throws caution on Joseph's authorship.

The Joseph Smith Papers

Joseph Smith, Letter to Nancy Rigdon, circa mid-April 1842, "Historical Introduction," The Joseph Smith Papers website, accessed June 16, 2022

The Joseph Smith Papers
Nancy Rigdon, John C. Bennett, Sidney Rigdon, Elias Higbee, Phebe Brooks Rigdon, The Joseph Smith Papers, Joseph Smith, Jr., William Smith, Willard Richards
Nancy Rigdon

On 3 August 1842 John C. Bennett, formerly a close associate of JS, forwarded to the editor of the Springfield, Illinois, Sangamo Journal the text of a letter he claimed JS wrote to Nancy Rigdon, daughter of Sidney and Phebe Brooks Rigdon. Because JS’s authorship of this letter is uncertain, the letter is presented as an appendix to this volume rather than a featured document. The Sangamo Journal published the letter, embedded in a letter from Bennett himself, in its 19 August 1842 issue. Bennett’s letter, written on the Erie Canal aboard the steamboat Nassau, was the sixth epistle he sent to that newspaper attacking JS and the Latter-day Saints. In May 1842 Bennett was excommunicated, and he resigned his position as mayor of Nauvoo, Illinois, amid charges of sexual promiscuity and other scandalous offenses. After his expulsion from the church was publicized the following month, Bennett launched a vitriolic campaign to disparage JS, which included sending the series of letters to the Journal. In the second of these communications, dated 2 July, Bennett claimed to have intimate knowledge of JS’s attempts to court Nancy Rigdon as a plural wife—a marital system Bennett referred to as “spiritual wifery”—and described a letter that JS purportedly wrote to Rigdon to explain the doctrine and justify the proposal. Bennett further reported that the letter was in the hands of Rigdon’s friends and that both he and Rigdon’s father, Sidney, had read it.

Because contemporaneous evidence discredits other allegations in Bennett’s Sangamo Journal letters—and in his subsequent book, History of the Saints; or, An Exposé of Joe Smith and Mormonism, which appeared in early November 1842—some debate exists among historians about the authenticity of this purported JS letter. As in the cases of most of his verifiable plural marriages, JS was silent about this issue—neither confirming nor denying either his authorship of the letter or the allegation that he approached Nancy Rigdon to be a plural wife. JS’s brother William Smith, editor of the Nauvoo newspaper Wasp, denied that JS was the letter’s author. In September the Wasp also printed a statement above Sidney Rigdon’s signature claiming that “Mr. Smith denied to me the authorship of that letter.” However, Rigdon’s statement implied that such a letter did exist. Rigdon cryptically reported that his daughter Nancy declared that “she never said to Gen. Bennett or any other person, that said letter was written by said Mr. Smith, nor in his hand writing, but by another person, and in another person’s hand writing.” Although this particular letter’s authenticity is contested, JS both wrote and offered to write similar letters of explanation about the principle of plural marriage to other prospective spouses.

If the text was derived from an authentic letter or a copy thereof in Bennett’s possession, neither the original letter nor an early manuscript copy has been located. The earliest extant version is the one printed in the Sangamo Journal, reproduced here. Bennett published the letter again in his History of the Saints, and it was also reprinted in other newspapers that were circulating his Sangamo Journal letters at the time, including the New York Herald. Aside from the version in the New York Herald, which included JS as the signer and Rigdon as the recipient, none of the 1842 printed versions or later handwritten copies based on them include a signature, address, or date. However, in introducing the text in both the Sangamo Journal and his book, Bennett identified JS as the author and Nancy Rigdon as the recipient. In addition to being unaddressed, the letter contains no language explicitly tying its content to plural marriage, though it can certainly be read as a discreet introduction or invitation to the practice. If JS proposed that Rigdon become his plural wife, she refused his invitation.

If JS composed the letter and sent it to Rigdon, he would likely have done so in spring 1842. If Bennett’s general chronology of JS’s proposal to Rigdon is reliable, then the letter had to have been written after 16 March 1842, as Bennett claimed he tried to dissuade JS from approaching her on the grounds that both JS and Rigdon’s father were Master Masons (both JS and Sidney Rigdon were raised Master Masons on 16 March). Similarly, if Bennett is to be believed, the letter had to have been written at the latest by 2 July, on which date Bennett wrote to the Sangamo Journal that he saw the letter. The timing can likely be further narrowed to sometime in mid-April if Bennett was indeed present in Nauvoo and involved in JS’s proposal plans. According to Bennett, Marinda Nancy Johnson Hyde approached Nancy Rigdon at JS’s behest on 9 April at the funeral of Ephraim Marks and told her that JS wanted to see her. When Rigdon arrived at the appointed meeting place, Willard Richards met her and rescheduled the meeting with JS for Thursday (14 April). Bennett continued his narrative by saying that JS proposed to Rigdon on that day and promised to write her, which he said JS did “in a few days thro’ Dr. Richards.” This timing—and the possibility of JS’s authorship in general—may be partially corroborated by cryptic entries scribe Willard Richards made in JS’s journal for 12 and 13 May 1842, which refer to “certain difficulties or surmises which existed” between JS and Sidney Rigdon and private discussions between the two men.

Though his letter to the Sangamo Journal did not include any provenance information or explicit physical description, when Bennett included the letter in History of the Saints he stated that the original was in Willard Richards’s handwriting and that he obtained it from church member Francis M. Higbee.

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