By Devery S. Anderson
In August 1842, while Willard Richards was fulfilling some church assignments in New York, he penned a letter to someone “I esteem the dearest on earth, & whose absence I continually feel, but be assured that neither time nor distance, can obliterate those emotions of Love, of friendship, of attachment, to yourself & the cause you have espoused, which are interwoven with my very existence & which grow stronger & stronger every [day].”1
At the time, Richards was married to Jennetta (maiden name also Richards). However, this letter was not addressed to her. It was meant for Joseph Smith, to whom Richards had entirely devoted himself, often (and perhaps tragically) at the expense of Jennetta.
Jennetta and Willard married on 24 September 1838 while Willard was serving a four-year mission in England. However, Jennetta suffered from ill health and was bedridden much of the time. When she and Willard returned to the United States to take up his apostleship, she found the trip almost too much to bear. So Willard left her along with the couple’s son, Heber John, in Richmond, Massachusetts in the care of his siblings. He went on to Nauvoo with plans to retrieve his family the following spring. It was in Nauvoo where he formed his attachment to Joseph Smith, which significantly complicated his marriage—and lasted well beyond it.
Soon after Richards arrived in Nauvoo, Joseph Smith appointed him as both his private secretary and as recorder for the rising Nauvoo Temple, positioning Richards as Smith’s closest confidant. After that, according to Richard Bushman, Richards “virtually shadowed Joseph,” and their friendship deepened dramatically. Richards proved himself a loyal disciple not motivated by any ecclesiastical ambitions; his submissive personality was appealing to Smith who had recently ended a disastrous relationship with his former First Presidency counselor, John C. Bennett, who had become virulently anti-Mormon. And because Richards’s family was still residing in Massachusetts, he could assist the prophet full time.
Only a few days before Richards was called as Smith’s private secretary, Smith had entered into his third Nauvoo polygamous union, having inaugurated the practice eight months earlier. Being a part of Joseph’s inner circle, Richards doubtless became aware of plural marriage very soon after beginning his service.
Joseph would have had little reason to teach Richards and other close associates about plural marriage had he not expected them to take up the practice themselves. Most of them did so, though not without some reservations. Heber C. Kimball, for example, only relented after Smith warned him three times that non-compliance would cost him his apostleship.2
Willard Richards’s initial response to Joseph Smith’s new doctrine is unknown. However, there is some indication that between December 1841 and February 1842, Richards began the practice himself. His second wife was probably Marinda Nancy Johnson Hyde, twenty-six-year-old wife of apostle Orson Hyde.
Since 15 April 1840, Orson had been away from Nauvoo serving missions in England and Palestine. He would not return to Nauvoo until December 1842 after an absence of thirty-two months.3 On 2 December 1841, Joseph Smith received a revelation concerning Marinda, who had been struggling alone for twenty months:
Verily thus saith the Lord . . . go and say unto my servant Ebenezer Robinson and to my hand maid his wife,—Let them open their doors and take her [Marinda] and her children into their house, and take care of them faithfully and kindly until my servant Orson Hyde returns from his mission, or until some other provision can be made for her welfare and safety.4
Robinson immediately moved Marinda into his home at the Times and Seasons building.
On Christmas Eve, Marinda and Richards together attended a dinner for the apostles at the home of Hiram and Sarah Kimball. Though Richards’s diary refers only vaguely to Marinda’s presence, Wilford Wood-ruff noted specifically in his own diary that Richards “waited on Sister Hyde” at the gathering.5 Historian Todd Compton, while not dismissing the possibility of a marriage between the two, believed that the secrecy surrounding Nauvoo polygamy was so tight that “[Richards] would probably not accompany his [plural] wife to a Christmas party.”6 Since both of their legal spouses were away from Nauvoo at the time, their accompanying each other to the dinner may have been perceived simply as a convenience, with no hint of a marriage; indeed, rumors about Nauvoo polygamy had not yet begun.
A month later, on 28 January, Smith received another revelation that would directly affect both Willard and Marinda: “Verily thus saith the Lord unto you my servant Joseph, go and say unto the Twelve, that it is my will to have them take in hand the Editorial department of the Times and Seasons . . . .”7
According to Ebenezer Robinson, on 4 February, Richards, acting on Smith’s behalf, bought the Times and Seasons building and everything inside, forcing Robinson to leave his editorship and his home. Nearly fifty years after the event, Robinson recalled that he had been unable to find another residence by the time the transfer occurred. “Just before night I notified Willard Richards that they would need to give me a little more time to find a place to move to. He replied, ‘you must get out to-night or I will put you in the street.’” Once Robinson had vacated,
Willard Richards nailed down the windows, and fired off his revolver in the street after dark, and commenced living with Mrs. Nancy Marinda Hyde, in the rooms we had vacated in the printing office building, where they lived through the winter.8
Quite soon after it would have begun, rumors of the connection between Richards and Marinda Hyde made their way to John C. Bennett who publicized them, referring wryly to “Dr. Richards, who is so notorious for Hydeing in these last days.”9
Whatever the relationship between Willard and Marinda, the pair facilitated an attempt by Smith to marry Nancy Rigdon, daughter of Smith’s First Presidency counselor, Sidney Rigdon.
In a letter written on 2 July 1842 to the Sangamo Journal and published on 15 July, John C. Bennett claimed that Smith had asked for his assistance in procuring Nancy Rigdon as a plural wife, but that Bennett had refused. So Smith devised a new plan. On 9 April, Marinda approached Nancy at a funeral and informed her that Smith wanted to see her “on special business” at the Times and Seasons building. When Nancy arrived, Smith was away working at his store, but Richards was there. “Miss Nancy,” Richards said, “Joseph cannot come in today; please call again on Thursday.” Nancy next went to see her boyfriend, Francis M. Higbee, and sought his advice on the matter. Bennett said he learned of this appointment and urged Smith to be careful.
Bennett then warned Higbee of Smith’s intent, and encouraged him to go to Nancy “and warn her of the infernal plot.” Higbee conveyed the information to Nancy, and she went as scheduled.
“Joe was there, and took her into a private room, LOCKED THE DOOR, and commenced by telling her that he had long loved her, and had asked the Lord for her, and that it was his holy will that he should have her.” When he tried to kiss her, Nancy rejected Smith’s advances and threatened to “alarm the neighbors if he did not open the door and let her out.” Smith obliged, but Marinda Hyde soon found Nancy and tried to persuade her to reconsider. Plural marriage had “looked strange to her [Marinda] at first, but she [Nancy] would become more reconciled on mature reflection. Miss Rigdon replied, ‘I never shall.’”
In a final attempt to persuade Nancy to marry him, according to Bennett, Smith dictated a letter to her through Richards. Smith later went to the Ridgon home where he denied that any advances or attempts to marry Nancy had occurred. “But she told him he was a cursed liar, and that he could not face her to it. Joe then made a full acknowledgement of the whole affair. All the family, and many other persons were present.”10
Though Bennett’s report has its bias, many of its main elements were confirmed by both friendly and unfriendly sources. In his sixth letter, published 19 August 1842, he produced a transcription of the letter Smith had dictated for Nancy Rigdon, it being in Richards’s handwriting. It begins: “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.” Then, to justify his plural marriage proposal, Smith said:
That which is wrong under one circumstance, may be, and often is, right under another. God said, though 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 understand the order of heaven only in part, but which in reality, were right, because God gave and sanctioned by special revelation.11
The original of Smith’s “Happiness” letter has never been found and the authenticity of Bennett’s transcript was challenged. However, a letter Richards wrote to Jennetta a few months earlier, in February 1842, lends the transcription some authenticity and gives insight into the state of their long-distance marriage.
Richards’s journal entries during his first five months in Nauvoo, as well as one letter from Jennetta to Willard, reveal that Willard wrote or sent Jennetta one letter per month on roughly similar dates: 20 September, 19 October, 19 November, and 19 December 1841, and again on 22 January 1842. The dates he may have sent later letters are unknown due to a gap in Richards’s personal diary between 23 January and 1 July 1842. The only exception is one surviving letter dated 26 February. Another undated letter also survives. Unfortunately, only one of Jennetta’s letters to her husband written during this time is currently extant.12 From this letter, dated 16 and 20 January 1842, and from the two surviving letters from Willard, it is clear that Jennetta was lonely, suffering from wavering faith, and fearful that she might be tempted toward infidelity. Willard noted in his diary on 22 January that he “interpreted [a] dream—Mailed a letter to Jennetta.”13 Although the letter the entry refers to has not survived, he refers to Jennetta’s dream again in his undated letter, which appears to have been written after mid-March, 1842.14 Willard writes:
My Dearest Jennetta, I am sorry you did not understand the Interpretation of your dream. the statement was you would be tempted, not that you would give way & wrong me or break your vow. No! and instead of my believing you guilty of any criminal act, I never had a jealous thought of you God knows. No. Never! . . . the interpretation was from God, as a warning to beware of Temptation therefore set your heart at rest about my fears of you.—I am sorry you should ever have had any feelings you have experienced about it. banish them.—there is no occasion. I believe you would rather die than do wrong in such a matter. but the devil is cunning. & all are liable to Temptation. Jesus not excepted and—The dream you mention in your last, is not good, neither is it from a good source. so you need not give yourself any uneasiness about [it].15
This letter was likely written only six weeks after the date that Robinson said Willard and Marinda began living in the Times and Seasons building, which brings up the question—what had Willard told Jennetta about plural marriage, if anything? Was she fully informed and consenting, or had she heard rumors and begun to fear for Willard’s faithfulness? Could her dream have been a manifestation of those worries? Many scenarios are possible since in both letters Willard makes veiled references to polygamy. For example, from the 26 February letter,
If you will cling to me, and seek my happiness to the end I will bring you into the kingdom & your friends & mine. There are many things recorded of the old patriarchs and prophets which have seemed bad to us. which if we knew the reasons thereof and the order of God[,] would appear right.16
And later in the same letter:
I love my sisters as well as ever & my Jennetta better too, and if I had a thousand such dear friends I could love them all. Why[?] because my heart is true, expansive as Eternity.—Could I see you I could explain ma[n]y things I did not know when I left you. The grand secret of the Gospel is this, for us to live by every word of the lord. To live by revelation, present Revelation, do what God requires of us, & not what he required of somebody else. If you will do right in all things God will shew you ma[n]y things by his spirit.
What these lines mean about the understanding between Richards and Jennetta concerning polygamy is unclear, but they do make the existence of Smith’s purported letter to Nancy Rigdon likely, especially since the letter was reported to have been in Richards’s hand. Marked similarities stand out between the two documents.
Joseph Smith to Nancy Rigdon: “That which is wrong under one circumstance, may be and often is, right under another.”
Willard to Jennetta Richards: “To live by revelation, present Revelation, do what God requires of us, & not what he required of somebody else.”
Joseph Smith to Nancy Rigdon: “Whatever God requires is right, no matter what it is, although we may not see the reason thereof till long after the events transpire.”
Willard to Jennetta Richards: “There are many things recorded of the old patriarchs and prophets which have seemed bad to us[,] which if we knew the reasons thereof and the order of God would appear right.
It is clear from Willard’s letter to Jennetta that he was familiar with the language and concepts found in the Nancy Rigdon letter, which helps to verify its authenticity. Reciprocally, the Nancy Rigdon letter helps confirm that Willard was indeed referring to plural marriage in his letter to Jennetta.
A copy of the Nancy Rigdon letter exists in Joseph Smith’s letter book under the heading “Joseph Smith’s letter to Nancy Rigdon” and is assigned a date of January 1842. If that date is correct, then Richards would have taken its dictation before writing Jennetta in February. Other sources imply that the Nancy Rigdon letter was not written before 9 April, because the “happiness” references were meant to mirror similar phrases used by Sidney Rigdon in his sermon at the funeral where Marinda Hyde first approached Nancy Rigdon. But even if the Nancy Ridgon letter was not written until the time Joseph first began proposing to Nancy, he may have already been using such language and concepts to convince the Twelve to accept plural marriage.
It is clear in Richards’s 26 February letter to Jennetta that he had enthusiastically accepted the idea of plural marriage and wanted to prepare Jennetta for the practice, even though she was enduring both loneliness and a wavering faith at the time. It seems to me that when Richards declared “if [he] had a thousand such dear friends [he] could love them all” because his “heart is true, expansive as Eternity,” he was speaking not in theory but from experience, though I cannot conclude this definitively.
Richards had been away from Jennetta since August 1841—more than six months—but he seemed to be trying to buy a little more time in Nauvoo when he wrote:
Joseph says he has been searching all his life time to find a man after his own heart, in all things, that he could trust with his business, & he has found him. who do you think it is? Dr Richards. Will not this compensate for the loss of his company a little while my love?
But by late spring, Jennetta’s loneliness had taken its toll. It was probably around mid-June that Joseph Smith received a letter from her. Though the letter does not survive, it is clear from brief references to it in Smith’s response, dated 23 June 1842, that Jennetta accused Smith of keeping Willard so busy that he could not break away to fetch her. Joseph assured her that Willard was “a man in whom I have the most implicit confidence and trust[.] You say I have got him[;] so I have[,] in the which I rejoice, for he has done me great good and taken a great burden off of my shoulders since his arrival in Nauvoo[.] never did I have greater intimacy with any man than with him[.]”
Smith assured Jennetta that Willard would be on his way to Massachusetts “in a few days” to bring her to Nauvoo. And, indeed, on Friday, 1 July, Richards left Nauvoo and arrived in Richmond two weeks later on 14 July. One can only imagine Jennetta’s joy at reuniting with her husband after an absence of a year. The reunion was tempered, though, when Willard found Jennetta still suffering from severe illness.17
However, she was well enough that after a week, Jennetta and Willard left Heber John in the care of Willard’s brother, William, and started for New York where Willard was to raise money for the Nauvoo Temple, though he also did damage control in the wake of John C. Bennett’s anti-Mormon lecture tour. At least twice, Richards ran into Bennett in the street and Bennett soon left New York.18
Afterwards, Willard and Jennetta returned to Richmond, picked up Heber John, and headed to Nauvoo. If Jennetta had harbored any ignorance about Richards’s conversion to polygamy, it was dispelled on 26 October when, according to Richards’s journal, the small family stopped in St. Louis. According to family lore, Richards talked there with Stephen Longstroth, a British convert he had known in England, about marrying two of Longstroth’s daughters.19
And indeed on 18 January 1843 in Nauvoo, Richards married sixteen-year-old Sarah Longstroth and her fourteen-year-old sister, Nanny—the marriages being performed by Joseph Smith. Whatever had occurred between Richards and Marinda Hyde the year before, these 1843 marriages mark Richards’s officially recognized initiation into polygamy. However, the Longstroths returned to St. Louis before the marriages were consummated.20
Jennetta bore a daughter nine months after these weddings. A year and a half later, on 26 March 1845, the family sat for daguerreotype artist Lucien Foster. Clair Noall, one of Richards’s biographers, described the image in a letter to Fawn Brodie: “The Nauvoo picture shows Willard with his neckerchief slightly awry, his hair somewhat tumbled, a crease between his brow, a worried look on his face. Jennetta, in this picture, appears sad; her little boy . . . is standing close to her, and she has her arm around Willard’s shoulder as though to say ‘He is mine.’ Heber John always maintained that his mother died of a broken heart.”21
Indeed, Jennetta died three months later on 9 July 1845. She was twenty-seven.
1. Willard Richards to Joseph Smith, 9 August 1842, Joseph Smith Collection, Ms 155, box 3, fd 1, Church History Library.
2. Stanley B. Kimball, Heber C. Kimball: Mormon Patriarch and Pioneer (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1981), 94–96.
3. See Myrtle Stevens Hyde, Orson Hyde: The Olive Branch of Israel (Salt Lake City: Agreka Books, 2000), 114–149 for an account of Orson Hyde’s two-and-a-half-year mission away from Marinda and Nauvoo.
4. Smith diary, 25 January 1842, referring back to the 2 December 1841 revelation, in Andrew H. Hedges, Alex D. Smith, and Richard Lloyd Anderson, eds., Joseph Smith Papers: Journals, Volume 2: Dec. 1841–Apr. 1843, vol. 2 of the Journals series of The Joseph Smith Papers, edited by Dean C. Jessee, Ronald K. Esplin, and Richard Lyman Bushman (Salt Lake City: Church Historian’s Press, 2011), 37.
5. Scott Kenney, ed., Wilford Woodruff’s Journal, 9 vols. (Midvale, UT: Signature Books), 2:143–44.
6. Todd Compton, In Sacred Loneliness: The Plural Wives of Joseph Smith (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1997), 238.
7. Hedges, Smith, and Anderson, Journals, Volume 2, 38.
8. The Return 2 (October 1890): 346–47. Robinson wrote a piece for the Times and Seasons announcing his departure from the newspaper, and offered no hint of displeasure over the situation. In the same issue, the new editor wrote a short article praising Robinson, his dedication, and stellar performance while editor of the publication. See Ebenezer Robinson, “Valedictory,” and Editor, “To Subscribers,” in Times and Seasons 3:8 (15 February 1842): 695–96. The new editor of the publication was Joseph Smith, though his assistant, John Taylor, did most of the day-to-day editorial duties. It is not clear which one actually wrote the second of the two letters cited above.
9. John C. Bennett, The History of the Saints; or, an Exposé of Joe Smith and Mormonism (Boston: Leland & Whiting, 1842), 241–43.
10. John C. Bennett to the editor, 2 July 1842, Sangamo Journal, 15 July 1842.
11. John C. Bennett to the editor, 3 August 1842, Sangamo Journal, 19 August 1842.
12. Willard Richards diary, 20 September, 19 October, 30 November, 19 December 1841, and 22 January 1842, Willard Richards Papers, Ms 1490, box 1, Church History Library; Jennetta Richards to Willard Richards, 16 and 20 January 1842, Joseph Grant Stevenson, ed., Richards Family History, 5 vols. (Provo, UT: Stevenson Genealogy, 1991), 3:223–28.
13. Richards diary, 22 January 1842.
14. Richards, who had been present during the formation of the Nauvoo Relief Society on 15 March, noted in this letter that “The priesthood is for the Sisters as well as for the brethren.—the blessings which await you are without bou[n]ds” (Willard Richards to Jennetta Richards, undated, Ms 23042, Church History Library).
16. Willard Richards to Jennetta Richards, 26 February 1842, Ms 23042, Church History Library.
17. Richards diary, 1–14 July 1842; Richards to Smith, 9 August 1842.
18. Richards diary, 19 August 1842; James Gordon Bennet to Joseph Smith, 16 August 1842, Smith Collection, Joseph Smith, History of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 7 vols. (Salt Lake City: Deseret News Press, 1902–12) 5:112–14.
19. Richards diary, 30 October 1842; Stevenson, Richards Family History, 3:279.
20. Stevenson, Richards Family History, 3:279.
21. Claire Noall to Fawn Brodie, 22 December 1943, Noall papers, Ms 188, box 2, fd 11, Special Collections, Marriott Library, University of Utah, Salt Lake City, Utah. For a recent treatment of Jennetta’s life, see Susan Evans McCloud, “‘My Soul Rejoices at the Thought’: Jennetta Richards Richards (1817–1845),” in Women of Faith in the Latter Days, Volume One: 1775–1820 (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 2011), 286–99.