by Sharon Lindbloom
23 April 2018
The Mormon Church talks a lot about happiness. For example, the Church calls its restored gospel “The Plan of Happiness.” LDS leaders have taught that “the very purpose of our lives can be defined in terms of happiness,” and “the things of the earth were created for our happiness.” In the October 2008 General Conference, in his address titled, “Happiness, Your Heritage,” apostle Dieter Uchtdorf said, “Our birthright—and the purpose of our great voyage on this earth—is to seek and experience eternal happiness.”
The Church’s teachings about happiness are often accompanied by the words of Joseph Smith:
“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.”
Joseph Smith’s statement is quite familiar to all Latter-day Saints because it is frequently quoted at General Conferences, in LDS Church lesson manuals, in BYU devotional addresses, and in Ensign magazine articles. What is less-familiar to Latter-day Saints is the context in which Joseph Smith penned these words. As recently pointed out by psychologist Kristy Money,
“Many of us have heard this quote in Sunday School and conference…What we typically don’t hear, though, is that this quote is from a letter from Joseph to teenage Nancy Rigdon asking for her to secretly marry him.” (“Commentary: LDS history of polygamy still used to victimize women,” The Salt Lake Tribune, 10 April 2018)
Consider the historical backdrop of Joseph Smith’s remarks on happiness. It was the spring of 1842. Joseph Smith had already married ten women in addition to his legal wife, Emma, but his polygamy was a well-kept secret. In early April Joseph acted on his “romantic interest” in 19-year-old Nancy Rigdon. He called for Nancy to meet with him at the printing office in Nauvoo (Illinois):
“…upon her arrival Smith greeted her, ushered her into a private room, then locked the door. After swearing her to secrecy,…Smith announced his ‘affection for her for several years, and wished that she should be his…the Lord was well pleased with this matter…there was no sin in it whatever…but, if she had any scruples of conscience about the matter, he would marry her privately.’” (Richard S, Van Wagoner, Sidney Rigdon, A Portrait of Religious Excess, 294-295)
Indeed, the proposal of plural marriage was presented to Nancy as more than a proposition based on “affection.” According to Oliver Olney, a close friend of the Rigdon family, Joseph told Nancy “that he had the word of God for her, that God had given her to him for a wife” (quoted in Van Wagoner, 307, fn 43). In fact, Joseph had been presenting plural marriage to his inner circle of followers as “a direct order from God, a commandment,” since 1841.
Even so, Nancy refused. She would not be persuaded, and eventually “ordered the door opened or she would ‘raise the neighbors’” (Van Wagoner, 295). Nancy went home and, true to her word, told no one what had happened. But Joseph was not willing to accept Nancy’s rejection of his proposal and so dictated a letter designed to change her mind. He began,
“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.”
In a more direct manner, Joseph continued,
“That which is wrong under one circumstance, may be and often is, right under another…Whatever God requires is right, no matter what it is,…Everything 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…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,…unto him that hath not, or will not receive, shall be taken away that which he hath, or might have had…no good thing will I [God] withhold from them who walk uprightly before me, and do my will in all things, who will listen to my voice, and to the voice of my servant whom I have sent…and in the end they shall have joy.” (Essential Joseph Smith, 158-159)
Imagine how Nancy Rigdon must have understood Joseph Smith’s letter, written to her to convince her to accept what seemed to her an illicit proposal of plural marriage. Happiness is the object and design of our existence, he told her, and that happiness would be hers if she kept all the commandments of God, including the one she had just learned about – plural marriage. She shouldn’t worry about her virtue; though Joseph’s proposal might seem wrong, what is wrong under one circumstance is often right under another. No matter what it is, as long as God calls for it (as God ostensibly called for Nancy to marry the already-married Prophet), it is lawful and right and will lead to happiness. These things that seem wrong, if accepted, will actually lead to glory. But she must be careful: Blessings offered and rejected (like her rejection of Joseph’s plural marriage proposal) lead to good things being taken away. If Nancy wants joy in the end, she must listen to the voice of Joseph, the servant God has sent, as Joseph tells her what God requires from her in order to do His will.
Yet even with Joseph’s compelling letter, Nancy Rigdon did not give in. But no longer was she silent. Soon rumors began circulating that Joseph had propositioned Nancy, and that she had refused him. Joseph eventually admitted what he had done, but claimed he was merely trying to determine whether Nancy was a virtuous woman. This turned out to be an odd rationalization on Joseph’s part for, while Nancy refused his advances (being evidence of her virtue), her exceptional reputation was shortly “impugned by an avalanche of slander…Nancy was tagged a ‘poor miserable girl out of the very slough of prostitution.” (Van Wagoner, 299). Nancy endured this treatment for a while, but finally left the Saints in 1844 and moved to Pennsylvania.
This account from Nancy Rigdon’s life puts Joseph Smith’s “essay on happiness” in a much different light from how most Mormons understand it. Rather than being a highly quotable and encouraging doctrinal statement, the letter is really just Joseph Smith’s attempt to coerce a young woman under his spiritual care to go against everything she had ever been taught – and had ever believed. But even Joseph’s threat of the loss of her already-gained spiritual blessings – even his promise for her eternal joy if she would only comply – did not intimidate Nancy into becoming Joseph’s 11th plural wife.
In 1846 Nancy married Robert Ellis, then a member of her father’s newly formed restorationist church, a church that condemned the Mormon doctrine of polygamy. Nancy and Robert began a family and eventually had nine children. The couple lived out their days in Pennsylvania, enjoying 31 years together until Nancy’s death in 1877. Her refusal of Joseph Smith’s proposal of plural marriage notwithstanding, it seems that Nancy found happiness after all.