Appendix: Letter to Nancy Rigdon, circa Mid-April 1842
[JS], Letter, [, Hancock Co., IL], to [, , Hancock Co., IL, ca. mid-Apr. 1842]. Featured version published in “Letters from Gen. Bennett,” Sangamo Journal (Springfield, Sangamon Co., IL), 19 Aug. 1842, vol. 10, no. 52, ; edited by Simeon Francis. Transcription from a digital color image obtained from the Illinois Digital Newspaper Collections, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, in 2017.
The letter was published in the Sangamo Journal, a weekly newspaper printed in , Illinois, from November 1831 to September 1847. Each issue of the Sangamo Journal consisted of four pages with each page containing seven columns. The volume used for transcription is held at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign newspaper library and was digitized in 2013 by the university’s project, the Illinois Digital Newspaper Collections.
On 3 August 1842 , formerly a close associate of JS, forwarded to the editor of the , Illinois, Sangamo Journal the text of a letter he claimed JS wrote to , daughter of 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 . In May 1842 Bennett was excommunicated, and he resigned his position as mayor of , 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 ’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 to be a plural wife. JS’s brother , editor of the newspaper Wasp, denied that JS was the letter’s author. In September the Wasp also printed a statement above ’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 ’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 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 , he would likely have done so in spring 1842. If ’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 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 and involved in JS’s proposal plans. According to Bennett, approached Nancy Rigdon at JS’s behest on 9 April at the funeral of and told her that JS wanted to see her. When Rigdon arrived at the appointed meeting place, 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 included the letter in History of the Saints he stated that the original was in ’s handwriting and that he obtained it from church member .
“Further Mormon Developments!! 2d Letter from Gen. Bennett,” Sangamo Journal (Springfield, IL), 15 July 1842, ; see also “To the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, and to All the Honorable Part of Community,” Wasp, 25 June 1842, –.
Some sources corroborate the story that JS proposed marriage to Nancy Rigdon while others refute it. For instance, John W. Rigdon—Nancy’s younger brother—signed an affidavit decades later confirming that JS approached his sister, while apostleOrson Hyde asserted in 1845 that Nancy Rigdon fabricated the story of a proposal after JS reproved her for immoral behavior. (John W. Rigdon, Affidavit, Salt Lake Co., UT, 28 July 1905, pp. 6–8, in Joseph F. Smith, Affidavits about Celestial Marriage, CHL; Speech of Orson Hyde, 27–28.)
Smith, Joseph F. Affidavits about Celestial Marriage, 1869–1915. CHL. MS 3423.
Speech of Elder Orson Hyde, Delivered before the High Priest’s Quorum in Nauvoo, April 27th, 1845, upon the Course and Conduct of Mr. Sidney Rigdon, and upon the Merits of His Claims to the Presidency of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Nauvoo, IL: John Taylor, 1845. Copy at CHL.
No documentary evidence exists for a marriage between JS and Nancy Rigdon, and both Bennett and John W. Rigdon asserted that Nancy refused JS’s proposal. (Bennett, History of the Saints, 243; John W. Rigdon, Affidavit, Salt Lake Co., UT, 28 July 1905, pp. 3–4, in Joseph F. Smith, Affidavits about Celestial Marriage, CHL.)
Bennett, John C. The History of the Saints; or, an Exposé of Joe Smith and Mormonism. Boston: Leland and Whiting, 1842.
Smith, Joseph F. Affidavits about Celestial Marriage, 1869–1915. CHL. MS 3423.
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. But we cannot keep all the commandments without first knowing them, and we cannot expect to know all, or more than we now know, unless we comply with or keep those we have already received. That which is wrong under one circumstance, may be, and often is, right under another. God said thou shalt not kill,— at another time he said thou shalt utterly destroy. This is the principle on which the government of heaven is conducted—by revelation adapted to the circumstances in which the children of the kingdom are placed. Whatever God requires is right, no matter what it is, although we may not see the reason thereof till long after the events transpire. If we seek first the kingdom of God, all good things will be added. So with Solomon—first he asked wisdom, and God gave it him, and with it every desire of his heart, even things which might be considered abominable to all who do not understand the order of heaven only in part, but which, in reality, were right, because God gave and sanctioned by special revelation. A parent may whip a child, and justly too, because he stole an apple; whereas, if the child had asked for the apple, and the parent had given it, the child would have eaten it with a better appetite, there would have been no stripes—all the pleasures of the apple would have been received, all the misery of stealing lost. This principle will justly apply to all of God’s dealings with his children. Every thing that God gives us is lawful and right, and ’tis proper that we should enjoy his gifts and blessings whenever and wherever he is disposed to bestow; but if we should seize upon these same blessings and enjoyments without law, without revelation, without commandment, those blessings and enjoyments would prove cursings and vexations in the end, and we should have to lie down in sorrow and wailings of everlasting regret. But in obedience there is joy and peace unspotted, unalloyed, and as God has designed our happiness, the happiness of all his creatures, he never has, he never will, institute an ordinance, or give a commandment to his people that is not calculated in its nature to promote that happiness which he has designed, and which will not end in the greatest amount of good and glory to those who become the recipients of his laws and ordinances. Blessings offered, but rejected, are no longer blessings, but become like the talent hid in the earth by the wicked and slothful servant—the proffered good returns to the giver, the blessing is bestowed on those who will receive, and occupy; for unto him that hath shall be given, and he shall have abundantly; but unto him that hath not, or will not receive, shall be taken away that which he hath, or might have had.
“Be wiseto-day, ’tismadnessto defer.
Next day the fatal precedent may plead:
Thus on till wisdom is pushed out of time”
Our heavenly father is more liberal in his views, and boundless in his mercies and blessings, than we are ready to believe or receive, and at the same time is more terrible to the workers of iniquity, more awful in the executions of his punishments, and more ready to detect every false way than we are apt to suppose him to be. He will be enquired of by his children—he says ask and ye shall receive, seek and ye shall find, but if ye will take that which is not your own, or which I have not given you, you shall be rewarded according to your deeds, but no good thing will I withhold from them who walk uprightly before me, and do my will in all things, who will listen to my voice, and to to the voice of my servant whom I have sent, for I delight in those who seek diligently to know my precepts, and abide by the laws of my kingdom, for all things shall be made known unto them in mine own due time, and in the end they shall have joy. [p. ]
Solomon reportedly had “seven hundred wives, princesses, and three hundred concubines.” A passage in the Book of Mormon states that “David and Solomon truly had many wives and concubines, which thing was abominable” and that unless the Lord should “command my people” to “raise up seed unto me,” they must obey the strict law of monogamy. In July 1843 JS dictated a revelation in which the Lord answered JS’s request “to know and understand wherein I the Lord justified my Servents Abraham, Isaac and Jacob; as also Moses, David and Solomon, my Servents as touching the principle and doctrin of their having many wives, and concubines.” The revelation explained that these Old Testament patriarchs and kings married plural wives with divine approval. (1 Kings 11:3; Book of Mormon, 1840 ed., 125 [Jacob 2:24, 30]; Revelation, 12 July 1843, in Revelations Collection, CHL [D&C 132:1, 29–39].)
See [Young], Complaint, 26. The quoted lines of poetry are from “Night the First” of Edward Young’s The Complaint; or, Night-Thoughts on Life, Death, and Immortality, published in London in nine parts (or “Nights”) between 1742 and 1745.
[Young, Edward]. The Complaint: or, Night-Thoughts on Life, Death, and Immortality. Night the First. . . . 2nd ed. London: R. Dodsley, 1742.