Joseph Smith, Sarah Ann Whitney, and the Familial Dynamics of Nauvoo Polygamy

[The great people at the Joseph Smith Papers Project keep rolling out newly digitized documents onto the website. Last year they uploaded several new caches from 1843. Included in that bunch was a blessing for Sarah Ann Whitney, a plural wife of Joseph Smith, dated March 23 and written in Smith’s own hand. Very few people were aware that this document existed. This post seeks to briefly explain and partially contextualize the circumstances that led to the blessing’s creation.]

Sarah Ann Whitney grew up knowing and revering Joseph Smith, the Mormon prophet. Her parents, Newel K. and Elizabeth Ann Whitney, were some of Smith’s earliest converts; Newel soon became the second bishop in the church, and Elizabeth was one of the founders of the Female Relief Society. In Nauvoo, the Whitneys were royalty.

It was logical, then, that Newel and Elizabeth were some of the first people Smith told about a new doctrine allowing polygamy. They were at first shocked, but eventually accepting. And then, “laying aside all our traditions and former notions in regard to marriage,” Elizabeth later wrote, they consented “to give our eldest daughter, then seventeen years of age, to Joseph, in the order of plural marriage.” Sarah Ann, their second child and first daughter, was to be wed to the prophet of her youth, a man twenty years her senior.

The sealing between Joseph Smith and Sarah Ann Whitney took place in secret on July 27th, 1842. It is the only polygamous sealing from Nauvoo where participants left a written record of the ritual. This document, framed as a revelation, is perhaps the best insight into the dynastic theology upon which polygamy was based. It was written in the voice of God and directed to Newell Whitney, and instructed him on how to perform the quixotic nuptials between his daughter and Smith. “They shall take each other by the hand,” it explained, “and you shall say you both mutually agree calling them by name to be each others companion so long as you both shall live.” The sealing promised “honor and immortality and eternal life” to the entire Whitney household. Sarah Ann was merely a link in a chain that bound the Smith and Whitney families, an assurance of salvation for Newell and Elizabeth, their ancestors, and even their progenitors. By attaching themselves to the royal lineage of Mormonism’s prophet, the Whitney family found eternal stability.

Smith, in turn, relished the new association. It was a period where he needed moral support. The next month, while he was in hiding to escape extradition charges, Smith wrote a letter pleading for Newel, Elizabeth, and Sarah to come visit him at his secret hideout. Yet he knew the scandal involved, especially if his wife Emma found out. “The only thing to be careful of,” Smith cautioned, “is to find out when Emma comes,” because it “cannot be safe” if she were present. Clandestine relationships during tense situations required secret rendezvous. Smith often wore his emotions on his sleeves, and this letter demonstrated that his lust for kin extended to polygamous families. He certainly knew it was scandalous: Smith urged the Whitneys to “burn this letter as soon as you read it.” Besieged from all sides, Smith was earnest enough to take risks.

But the Whitney family had its own struggles. The decision to seal their daughter to Smith caused Elizabeth great agony. Not only was she Sarah’s mother, but she was a good friend to Emma, with whom she helped organize the Relief Society only a few months previous. Now she was helping orchestrate covert meetings between her daughter and her prophet. She later admitted “how bad she felt when Joseph Smith first broched [sic] the subject to her,” and “how she cried about it but the Prophet at last obtained her consent.” This was an anguishing ordeal. Nor was Elizabeth the only family member to have doubts: Smith asked the Whitney parents to keep the marriage secret from their son Horace, whom Joseph feared would cause “serious trouble.” This was a hard strain on a family that had already sacrificed much for the faith.

But then, of course, there was Sarah herself. Only seventeen years old at the time, and by all accounts well liked by her peers, this was an event that would change the course for her whole life. Even while she was initiated into the Mormon church’s inner circle, and linked forever to the faith’s prophet, she must have known that she risked alienation from everyday life. Could she survive as the secret wife of an already much-married man? There had to be compensation. Six weeks after the secret sealing, and two weeks after Smith’s request for a clandestine meeting, Smith deeded to Sarah a lot of land only one block from his own. It was rare for a woman to own land in Nauvoo, especially a woman as young as Sarah; indeed, it was so rare that whoever filled out the deed had to strike out “his” and write in “hers” to match the inheritor’s gender.[1]

But land would not be enough. Financial security, however tenuous, was one thing, but Sarah’s social life was now exceptionally more complicated. As a secret bride of the prophet, she was not available for courtship on the very eve of entering womanhood. Beyond the disappointment of having no future marital prospects, her single status coupled with a refusal to consider suitors was bound to raise suspicions.

A solution was struck the following spring. Her sister, Caroline, died while giving birth that October, leaving her husband, Joseph Kingsbury, a widower. He was crestfallen and left to raise their young son. But Joseph Smith made the most of the situation: he proposed a civil union between Sarah and Kingsbury. This would officially take Sarah off the market, and in return Smith promised Kingsbury the chance to be sealed to his deceased wife. “Thy companion Caroline who is now dead,” the prophet blessed Kingsbury in late March, “thou shalt have in the first Reserection [sic].” By helping Smith handle a difficult situation, Kingsbury was rewarded by being one of the very first Mormons to be sealed to a deceased spouse. Smith officiated over what Kingsbury later called a “pretended marriage” between him and Sarah the following month.

Kingsbury was not the only person to receive assurances from Joseph Smith, as Sarah also required extensive support. It had been seven months since she had been sealed to the prophet. Perhaps the young bride felt regrets, especially when she turned eighteen on March 22nd. Though just entering adulthood, in many ways she had already sacrificed much of her future life on behalf of her family. Was she destined to live her life as a sacerdotal martyr? The day after her birthday, therefore, at the same meeting where Smith and the extended Whitney family agreed upon the “pretended marriage,” Sarah received a blessing that reaffirmed the significance of her ritual the previous summer.[2]

The blessing promised Sarah that, due to her attachment to the prophet, God would “crown her with a diadem of glory in the Eternal worlds.” But the promises were not restricted to herself. If she remained committed to the new covenant, “all her Father[‘]s house Shall be Saved.” This was a heavy assurance. Perhaps taking into account her brother Horace, whom they were still worried would be enraged with the clandestine union, the blessing promised that “if any [of the family] Shall wander from the foald [sic] of the Lord they shall not perish but Shall return.” Due to her sealing to Smith, Sarah’s entire family was guaranteed salvation, including those who fell away from the faith. In an era where Americans of all denominations worried about the state of their own soul, the whole Whitney dynasty was promised a heavenly reward. Perhaps Sarah’s sacrifice was worth the cost.[3]

Screen Shot 2017-10-15 at 11.26.45 PM
Joseph Smith’s blessing of Sarah Ann Whitney, in Joseph Smith’s handwriting. Please click on the link above to see a high-resolution scan on the Joseph Smith Papers website.
Hearing the blessing was not enough–Sarah wanted it in writing. Perhaps that would make it feel more real. Early Mormons believed in a literal Book of the Lord, after all, where written records inaugurated eternal heavenly rewards. Whether by his own volition or at Sarah’s request, Smith penned the blessing on a intricate stationary that included an ornamental shape and subtle yet defined borders. Given the prophet rarely wrote anything in his own hand, this was indeed a rare document. For Sarah, it was likely sacred–the only tangible evidence she had for the many metaphysical promises.[4]

Sarah cherished the document enough that it remained within her family’s possession for nearly a century. To the Whitneys, both those in Nauvoo as well as those who came after, it was prophetic and authoritative proof of their family’s election. To Sarah, though, it must have felt bittersweet: it represented both the life she gave up, as well as the many lives she might have saved.

Polygamy in Nauvoo was a harrowing ordeal. Especially for those women who risked their reputation, stability, and future in order to secretly enter these secretive plural unions, it must have seemed impossible to find a sense of strength. To a large extent, they lacked both power and control over their own lives. Sarah Ann Whitney’s blessing document, however, represents the type of assurance they fought for in return. Sarah made sure she had a receipt for her sacrifice. As such, her blessing is a document imbued with the deep tensions that pervaded the culture in which it was constructed.


[1] While the land deed states that the property cost one thousand dollars, a figure slightly higher than most plots sold that year, it is very unlikely that Sarah herself paid that amount. It is possible that Sarah’s parents provided the money, or that Smith merely covered it himself but desired not to leave a paper trail.

[2] I conclude that it was at a meeting on March 23, 1843, that Joseph Kingsbury and Sarah Ann Whitney agreed to be civilly wed based on the fact that both received significant blessings that day. In response to their concession, they were each promised what they desired: Joseph would be sealed to his deceased wife, and Sarah was assured salvation for her whole family. This meeting, in other words, reaffirmed the promises made to the Whitney family during the marriage ritual the previous summer.

[3] This blessing likely served the basis for the famous refrain of Orson F. Whitney, Sarah Whitney’s nephew: “The Prophet Joseph Smith declared-and he never taught more comforting doctrine-that the eternal sealings of faithful parents and the divine promises made to them for valiant sevice int he Cause of Truth, would save not only themselves, but likewise their posterity. Though some of the sheep may wander, the eye of the Shepherd is upon them, and sooner or later they will feel the tentacles of Divine Providence reaching out after them and drawing them back to the fold. Either in this life or in the life to come, they will return.” This passage was frequently quoted by LDS leaders for decades, but has recently been challenged by Apostle David A. Bednar, who claims it does not accurately reflect Joseph Smith’s thinking. Perhaps the release of this 1843 document, which ties the idea to Joseph Smith’s own hand, will lead to a resurgence of the theory.

[4] Without examining it in person, and until the great JSP editors do more work, I can’t tell whether the paper on which the blessing was written was originally designed that way or if someone, like Sarah, carefully trimmed the page and sketched the borders. I look forward to someone performing a deep analysis of this just-released document, hopefully drawing from the tools of material culture. Though not nearly as ornate, the blessing slightly reflected Wilford Woodruff’s journal entry detailing his own family’s salvation when his parents and siblings were baptized:

Entry from Wilford Woodruff’s diary detailing his family’s conversion and baptism. This image comes from the frontispiece of Laurel Ulrich’s new book, A House Full of Females.

One Comment Add yours

  1. H. Michael Marquardt says:

    Thanks for your writing Ben. I first published on the sealing in 1973. The March 1843 blessing was printed in the 2013 printing of The Rise of Mormonism: 1816-1844, in the chapter on Sarah Ann Whitney. Nice to have a copy of the handwritten document. One correction to note 2. The name Sarah Ann Young should be Sarah Ann Whitney.


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