Virtual RS/PH #20 – A Heart Full of Love & Faith: The Prophet’s Letters to His Family

Hawkgrrrlburdens, Charity, children, faith, families, history, Humor, joseph, LDS, love, marriage, Mormon, mormon, Mormons, polygamy, Priesthood, prophets, questioning, religion, smith, women 12 Comments

This lesson discusses the written correspondence Joseph sent to Emma during his frequent absences.  IMO, this is a tough lesson for many reasons, so read on to see how you would make the most of it. 

The main difficulties with this lesson are:

  1. Lack of context.  The letters (snippets) are presented without any context of the rocky relationship that existed between Joseph and Emma.  Although his polygamy was a sore topic with many ups and downs, none of that is mentioned to contextualize the relationship in the letters.  There were other points of discord between them that are also not mentioned.  It only references things like where they were and whether Emma was pregnant at the time or if a child had been sick.
  2. No doctrine.  There is no doctrinal content whatsoever, just snippets of letters.
  3. “Gag me with a spoon” factor.  Like all letters from this era, the language is flowery and exaggerated.  The style of writing is clichéd and designed to obfuscate meaning through emotionalism rather than to communicate directly and clearly.  What’s next?  A walk through “Cupid’s Grove” with Abigail and John Adams?  I know this kind of stuff is really appealing to some people; it’s just not my thing.  I’m sort of glad we quit signing letters “Your humble servant.”
  4. Weak Application.  The letters are personal with no inherent universal application.  That, coupled with the ambiguous state of the Smith marriage (which is neatly avoided), and the nature of letters from this period (the sentimentality) greatly reduces their applicability.  Likening the scriptures unto ourselves is one thing; likening letters between Joseph and Emma to ourselves is much more difficult, especially with no meaningful context (although in this case, the context would probably make it even more meaningless to current lay members).

There are a few hints at the on-and-off strain in the relationship:

  • “And as to yourself, if you want to know how much I want to see you, examine your feelings, how much you want to see me, and judge for yourself.”  (1839)
  • “O Emma, … do not forsake me nor the truth, but remember me.”  (1838)

My favorite snippet, that seems much very folksy and personable.  He had a real fondness for that dog:

  • “I want you to try to gain time and write to me a long letter and tell me all you can and even if old Major is alive yet and what those little prattlers say that cling around your neck.”  (1839)

Difficulties are naturally presented in highly emotional ways with a religious persecution spin.  There is a desire for the stories to be recast in a way that motivates further religious and familial devotion; for example:

  • “Tell them I am in prison that their lives might be saved.”  (1839)

I’ve read a lot of things written in this time period, and I have to wonder.  The following frankly sounds like an oblique reference to a conjugal visit:

  • “I take the liberty to tender you my sincere thanks for the two interesting and consoling visits that you have made me during my almost exiled situation. Tongue cannot express the gratitude of my heart, for the warm and true-hearted friendship you have manifested in these things towards me.”  (1842)

The questions provided in the lesson are not tremendously helpful either, but here is the direction I would take it to maximize personal applicability (sticking to the questions in bold).  The below is straight from the manual, except where indicated:

  • Briefly review this chapter, noting Joseph Smith’s feelings toward Emma and their children.  What does his example teach about how we should speak and act in our families?  (Don’t write down anything negative?  Don’t express your true feelings in letters?  Accentuate the positive?) What can we learn from Joseph and Emma Smith’s efforts to write to one another and to see one another?  (Very little since there is no context and only one side to the conversation). What are some things you have done to show family members that you love them?
  • The Prophet Joseph told Emma that he was “a true and faithful friend to [her] and the children forever,” and he thanked her for her “warm and true-hearted friendship” (pages 242, 246). What can husbands and wives do to nurture their friendship? (Well, if I’m right about the conjugal visit . . .  But seriously, folks.  I think this is a helpful question, and I would just let the sisters discuss.)
  • In his letters, Joseph Smith showed trust in Emma, expressing confidence that she would make good decisions and do all she could to take care of the family (page 245). How might such expressions of trust influence the relationship between a husband and a wife?  (You could say he was expressing confidence in her ability to take care of the family in his absence, or you could say he was reminding her of her duties.  Given that he was largely absent, his instructions seem custodial to me and would probably tick me off.  Still, you could just throw out this question to the group about how you can build trust in a marriage, regardless of whether his letters are a good example of that.) How can we build trust in our marriages?
  • Read the Prophet Joseph’s message to his children in the second paragraph on page 246. How might it have helped his children to receive this news?  (It made it clear to them that the thing that stood between them and their loving father was the mob.) During times of trial, what can parents do to show their children that they have faith in God?
  • Review Joseph Smith’s expressions of trust in God found on pages 243–46. Identify several of these expressions that are particularly touching to you.  How can you apply these truths in your life? (Since this is not presenting “truth,” so much as faith, I would repurpose the question to “How can trials strengthen your faith in God?” which I realize is too broad and a lot like the last question.)

Since there is not a lot of meat here (which could be the upside of this lesson–it’s different from the other lessons), I will mention a few other lesson ideas I’ve seen bandied about (all of which sound pretty good to me at filling the allotted time):

  • Have a man come in to read the letter snippets so people can hear them in a “Joseph” voice.  He could even tie his tie in a bow and put his shirt collars up in true 1830s fashion, if you are daring.
  • Print the snippets out on old-style parchment paper with a seal and have sisters read them aloud.  A little crafty for my taste, but you could do it.
  • Take time at the end of class to write a letter to loved one(s) sharing your faith, love, and trust.  Perhaps a little “precious,” but again, there’s time here to be filled.

That is the best I’ve got, gang.  Let me know your thoughts on what you think works best for this lesson.

Comments 12

  1. Well, having had this lesson today, I have to agree with your points completely. Granted, your lesson was certainly better than ours. Our instructor isn’t the most interesting guy in the world, so all the problems with teaching this lesson were at least double.

    I did almost bring up Josephs polygamy during our discussion, but I didn’t.

  2. I agree with you on this one. I was having that “gag me with a spoon” feeling all through RS today. I was also thinking about the conflict in their marriage and the lack of any doctrinal content.

    Your humble servant,


  3. I also agree with your points here. This lesson is probably the most ‘up in the air’ lesson of all the teaching of presidents series.

    But the church is very good in leaving out any problems they had, which they obviously did have and a lot of them.

  4. Well, having taught the lesson today, we had discussions about how when you write it often helps you to channel honesty and precision, how you progress from feelings you might consider love to friendship, equality, trust and sharing faith, and how that communicates from spouse to child to grandchild.

    There is a lot that can be found in the lesson, though it is some work. It was an interesting choice of quotes and an interesting lesson, but I think more people would benefit from the underlying issues of how they need to express themselves, how it helps to write letters, and how friendship, equality, trust (rather than second guessing) and support are important in nurturing a relationship, as is the sharing of spiritual strength and belief.

  5. Yeah, the conjugal visit quote struck me, as well. It actually is one of my favorite quotes from any prophet, since it makes them seem even more human and normal than they already do from everything else.

  6. Ok Hawk and others,

    Apparently this lesson will be taught in our ward next week. I know this because today a new member of our ward asked me to portray Joseph in Relief Society by reading most of these excerpts. I was too shocked at being asked to play Joseph that I numbly said yes. They’ll have me go sans tie and all the rest with one of those white sashy tie things he supposedly wore.

    So what’s your oratorical advice? Which words should I accent? When should I cast the elderly sisters a knowing glance? Should I research the dialect of New England in Joseph’s day to get his twang just right?

    Do I bring in a teen girl from Young Women to illustrate the Joseph/Emma dilemma?

    (Ok, that was bad, I shouldn’t have typed that, bad John!)

  7. My dear Hawk and commenters –

    It was with no little degree of satisfaction that I read your post of the 9th inst., just received. I would inform you that I am well at present, and feel to express my joy, not only in your long-awaited news, but also in those thoughts which you set forth relative to the difficulties in the lessons taught during divine service – in which the various communications of General Smith to Mrs. Smith were entertained and considered. Were we to press the furthest bounds of propriety in such matters, I think that we might still wonder at such proceedings, not knowing all the particulars from which said communications of Gen. Smith arose. Indeed, as one who has been obliged to read so many letters of this sort on a regular and continuous plan for many years, I congratulate you on your observations – adding that among the many blogs which I have perused in recent times, your post and comments have perhaps excelled all others. I cannot therefore but agree in nearly all which you have said, and beg you to believe me to be

    Your most humble & affect. servt.,


  8. Love the last reply – fantastic job Rick. I taught this lesson today and didn’t read your post until after I had taught. Interestingly enough, I taught almost exactly what you suggested! This is my first time teaching RS in a long time (recent stake reorganization = new wards = new callings), I read the lesson and kept thinking “pretty soon they are going to get to the point” and the lesson never got to a point! Arrg! I wasn’t going to teach “love and harmony in the Joseph and Emma household” so I went with the questions at the end. We had a really good discussion on cultivating friendship among spouses (and extended family members), showing respect and trust in family relationships, and how we show our children to have trust in God.

    I hope all the other lessons are easier than this one!


  9. Rick – love it! BIG grin.

    Jill – thanks for your note. That gives me a little more confidence going into this one. I agree that focusing on the here and now is the only way to go.

    John – I suppose you could add an “if you know what I mean” or “that’s what she said” to the conjugal visit quote. But you might not be invited back.

  10. hawkgrrrl,

    It’s been years since I heard “gag me with a spoon.” That was one of my favorite 80’s phrases and I’m glad to see you are trying to bring it back!

  11. It is with a sad heart and a weak stomach that I take up pen and paper to address hawkgrrrl and the rest of the relief society/priesthood classes. If only I had read hawkgrrrl’s missive before going to class I may have been more prepared and less likely to have subjected myself to the “spoon” – or better yet, if our instructor had read hawkgrrrls comments. They were great. I’ll have to admit I was unaware that Gen. Smith was such an amorous monogamist and am somewhat at a loss as to how to confront my wife’s response to the lesson: “How can he say such things to Emma and then go off and visit all those other women?” No wonder the church has announced that it will take 30 volumes and maybe as many years to fully explain Joseph’s history.

    We know that Joseph shared his affections with women other than Emma; this letter to Sarah Ann Whitney may give some pause and smile with his plight

    “On Thursday, August 18,1842 just after Emma’s departure, writing in his own hand, Smith urged his seventeen-year-old bride to “come to night” and “comfort” him – but only if Emma had not returned. It is not clear who the courier was-presumably not Emma – but Joseph judiciously addressed the letter to “Broth, and Sister, Whitney, and &c.” The letter itself leaves no doubt who “&c.” was. The complete text reads as follows.”
    From the forthcoming book: _Nauvoo Polygamy . . . “but we called it celestial marriage”_

    “Nauvoo August 18th, 1842.

    Dear, and Beloved, Brother and Sister, Whitney, and &c. –
    I take this opportunity to communi[c]ate, some of my feelings, privately 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 passed lately between us, that the time of my absence from you seem 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 who 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, [and] all three of you 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 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 now in this time of affliction, or not at [a]ll[.] 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 know to you; the only thing to be careful of; is to find out when Emma comes [because] then you cannot be safe, but when she is not here, there is the most perfect saf[e[ty: 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 fullness of my blessings sealed upon our heads, &c. You will pardon me for my earnestness 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 to night[.] if she don’t[,] don’t fail to come to night. I subscribe myself your most obedient, and affectionate, companion, and friend.
    Joseph Smith” _Personal Writings of Joseph Smith_ edited by Dean C. Jessee. pp 566-7

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