Hey guys, so Joseph Smith was killed in June of 1844. Today we’re going to talk about a letter purportedly written by his wife, Emma, to the editor of the New York Sun in 1845. The letter has some pretty intense things to say, but the most shocking is this: “I must now say that I have never for a moment believed in what my husband called his apparitions and revelations, as I thought him laboring under a diseased mind….”
Now, if Emma really wrote this, that’s quite the bombshell. The first place I learned about this letter was from the Instagram account of a rather disgruntled former member of our faith, where the letter was unfortunately treated as entirely true. But let’s slow down, do some research, and see if there happens to be more to this story than meets the Instagram.
Previous to the publication of this “Emma” letter, the Sun had published some of the views of a New York Latter-day Saint named James Arlington Bennet. The Emma letter was a response that challenged some of Bennet’s views. When the Emma letter arrived at the Sun, they took it to Bennet, who initially concluded that it was authentic.
Unfortunately, the original Emma letter is nowhere to be found, so things like handwriting analysis are out the window. But what we do have is a record of how Emma Smith responded after seeing this letter in print. Her biographers noted, “Emma’s reaction was immediate. Conveyances between Nauvoo and New York usually took from ten days to three weeks, but only 11 days after the 9 December issue of the Sun was off the press, Emma fired this letter to Bennet at Long Island:”
“General Bennett, Sir: The apology I have to offer for addressing you at this time is the unexpected appearance of a letter published in the New York Sun of Tuesday Morning, December 9. I never was more confounded with a misrepresentation than I am with that letter, and I am greatly perplexed that you should entertain the impression that the document should be a genuine production of mine. How could you believe me capable of so much treachery, as to violate the confidence reposed in me, and bring your name before the public in the manner that letter represents? If you thought I had committed such a breach of trust, you certainly valued my integrity much less than I did yours. Should you be now satisfied that I am not unworthy of your confidence you will please give me your opinion, if any you have formed, as to what quarter I am to look for the author of that forgery. By so doing you will greatly increase my obligations. Yours with great respect, Emma Smith.”
Bennet had this private letter published in the January 25, 1846, issue of the Sun. With it, he remarked: “The following letter is offered for publication in strict justice to Mrs. Emma Smith, of Nauvoo, who appears to have no knowledge of the author of the letter published by you some time since in her name.” In addition to this private letter to Bennet, Emma also wrote directly to the New York Sun. The Sun never published this denunciation, but it did appear in the Times and Seasons: “To the editor of the New York Sun; Sir: I wish to inform you, and the public through your paper, that the letter published Tuesday morning, December 9th, is a forgery, the whole of it, and I hope that this notice will put a stop to all such communications. Emma Smith.”
That’s enough for me. There are some people who try to piece together a scenario in which Emma actually did write the letter but then for some reason, immediately denied it … but I really just don’t feel the need to even go there. It raises more questions than answers, and it seems to me that Emma did everything that could be reasonably expected to repudiate what had been published about her.
It’s true that after Joseph died, she did not affiliate with any specific Latter-day Saint sect for a long time — but she was still a believer, and later joined the Reorganized Church, led by her son, Joseph Smith III. This New York Sun letter was also denounced multiple times by that church’s paper, the Saints’ Herald. One later issue says, “We suggest that Mrs. Smith was the best judge as to whether the letter to the New York Sun was or was not a forgery. We know personally that she stated frequently while living that she wrote no such letter; that it was a forgery.”
I think Joseph Smith Papers Archivist Sharalyn Howcroft said it well: “When Joseph was alive, frequently newspapers denounced him as a charlatan. After his death, the throng of rumor-mongering, false accusations, and besmirching of character that had hounded him in the press turned to his widow.”
So if Emma didn’t write the letter, who did? Well, the prevailing theory is that James Arlington Bennet orchestrated the plot. That was the conclusion Church leaders came to, and it seems to be the conclusion that Emma herself eventually came to. He was an ambitious man, and my best guess is that he was trying to widen the rift between Emma and the Quorum of the Twelve, and gain some visibility among the Twelve by setting himself up as a courageous defender of the truth by giving himself some claims to respond to, which he did in a piece published in the Sun before Emma’s denial came through.
That said, Bennet did deny being involved and instead came to blame it on certain “Methodist Priests.” We don’t have time to dive deep into all of the evidence pointing his way, but if you want to learn more, I’d suggest you check out chapter 16 of this book, which goes into detail. It may have been him, or maybe it was someone else. “But,” as the Saints’ Herald noted in 1902, “no matter by whom the forgery was executed, it was a dastardly act.”
Check out the resources in the YouTube description for more info on this topic. I put those there for a reason. It’s important to do your homework before uncritically believing some of the stuff you find online. And of course, don’t forget to have a great day.
- See “Mormon Enigma: Emma Hale Smith, prophet’s wife, ‘Elect lady,’ polygamy’s foe, 1804-1879,” by Linda King Newell & Valeen Tippetts Avery, pgs. 221-226: https://bit.ly/3xlFsYk
- “New Light on the Sun: Emma Smith and the New York Sun Letter” by Linda King Newell & Valeen Tippitts Avery (very similar to “Mormon Enigma”: https://bit.ly/39tL0Z4
- “Times and Seasons” (Jan. 15, 1846) in which Emma’s denial was published (pg. 1096): https://bit.ly/3xvCcK6
- “James Arlington Bennet and the Mormons,” via BYU Studies: https://bit.ly/3b4JqwZ
- Bennet’s response to “Emma’s” letter, pub. Dec. 19, 1845, in New York Sun: https://bit.ly/3mUYAI2
- Letter from James Arlington Bennet to Brigham Young, Nov. 18, 1845. States that Emma is against the Twelve (the date of this letter is two days before the date on the forgery sent to the New York Sun): https://bit.ly/3xXrFsL
- For additional letters sent to and from James A. Bennet, type “James Arlington Bennet letters” into the search bar here: https://catalog.churchofjesuschrist.org/search. You can filter results to only see those letters available digitally.
- “Joseph Smith’s Presidential Platform” via Dialogue Journal (some discussion of James Arlington Bennet here): https://bit.ly/3bkwhQw