The historical record suggests that in at least four cases, Joseph Smith instructed others to burn records, communication, or would-be recipients of communication. Three incidents are tied to polygamy: two are related to a polygamous marriage proposal and the other was regarding a meeting shortly after the polygamous marriage had taken place.
Joseph Smith Papers editors acknowledge these three instances in footnote 6 of the Letter to the Whitneys:
In addition to the need to keep his location secret, JS may have asked that the letter be destroyed because it could indicate his sealing to Sarah Ann Whitney. In two other instances JS may have instructed that letters with connections to the practice of plural marriage be destroyed. (See Young, Diary and Reminiscences, 1; and George W. Robinson, Nauvoo, IL, to James Arlington Bennet, 27 July 1842, in Bennett, History of the Saints, 246.)
Young, Emily Dow Partridge. Diary and Reminiscences, Feb. 1874–Nov. 1883. Typescript. CHL. MS 2845.
Bennett, John C. The History of the Saints; or, an Exposé of Joe Smith and Mormonism. Boston: Leland and Whiting, 1842.
Letter to the Whitneys
The Joseph Smith Papers editors offer this historical introduction to the Whitney letter:
On 18 August 1842, while hiding at Carlos Granger’s home on the outskirts of Nauvoo, Illinois, JS wrote a letter to three individuals, addressing them in the first line of the letter as “Brother and Sister, Whitney, and &c.” In addition to the directly named recipients, Nauvoo bishop Newel K. Whitney and his wife, Elizabeth Ann Smith Whitney, the letter was intended for their seventeen-year-old daughter, Sarah Ann Whitney, who lived with her parents in Nauvoo. On 27 July, three weeks earlier, Newel K. Whitney had sealed Sarah Ann and JS, with Elizabeth Ann Whitney serving as a witness to the sealing. In early August, Adams County sheriff Thomas C. King arrived in Nauvoo with a warrant to arrest JS and extradite him to Missouri. JS attempted to fight the warrant on legal grounds and was released on a jurisdictional question; then, by 10 August, he went into hiding for the next two weeks to avoid the possibility of arrest and extradition.
In his letter, JS asked the three members of the Whitney family to visit him at Granger’s home, instructing them to approach the house covertly. JS’s request for stealth was at least partially intended to keep his whereabouts secret, given the threat of arrest and extradition that initially drove him into hiding and the fact that posses were searching for him in Illinois and Iowa Territory, making him fear for his life. JS’s desire for secrecy also likely arose from his practice of plural marriage, a principle he had shared with only a small group of trusted friends at that time. According to the letter, JS may have wanted to keep knowledge of the Whitneys’ visit from his wife Emma Smith, who had been away from Nauvoo at the time of JS’s sealing to Sarah Ann. JS instructed that the letter be destroyed as soon as it was read, possibly because of his dual concerns of maintaining his safety in hiding and the secrecy of his plural marriage to Sarah Ann.
Although vague, JS’s letter suggests that he needed to address some matters with the Whitneys in person. His urgency may have been motivated by his fear that he would be extradited to Missouri, which led him to contemplate leaving Nauvoo. In the letter, JS mentioned that one reason he wanted the Whitneys to visit was to bless them. This may indicate that he had not been able to fully bestow the blessings promised to Newel and Elizabeth Ann Whitney as part of the 27 July sealing of Sarah Ann to JS. Partial journal entries, apparently written by Newel K. Whitney, were copied in two extant versions of the 27 July 1842 revelation that Whitney used to seal JS and Sarah Ann. The journal entries mirror the language and promises found in the revelation. The first of the entries recorded that on 21 August 1842, Newel and Elizabeth Ann Whitney received blessings granting them and their family part in the “first resurrection,” which Latter-day Saints believed would occur as part of the second coming of Jesus Christ. A week later, on 27 August, at which point JS was no longer in hiding, a second journal entry noted that the couple were rebaptized, confirmed, and blessed with long life, priesthood keys, and “all gifts posessed by my progenitors who held the Priesthood before me anciently.”
By 18 August, JS had been in hiding for more than a week, with little opportunity to be outside and with visits from only a few trusted people. JS had a gregarious personality, which probably made his seclusion difficult, and the letter emphasized his loneliness. While most of the letter was directed to all three members of the Whitney family, some sentiments appear to be particularly intended for Sarah Ann and suggest that JS wanted to spend time with his recently married plural wife.
JS wrote the letter himself. Before it was delivered, William Clayton added the date and location. Since JS intended the letter to remain private and to be destroyed once read, it was likely hand delivered to the Whitneys by a trusted courier, possibly Clayton. Though the fact that the letter was kept and passed down in the Whitney family indicates they received the letter, JS’s journal contains no entry for 18 August, and it is unclear whether the proposed visit occurred. On 19 August, JS returned to Nauvoo but remained in hiding. He spent the next three days in the dry goods store he owned in Nauvoo before returning home.
Letter to Newel K., Elizabeth Ann, and Sarah Ann Whitney, 18 August 1842, (emphasis added):
Dear, and Beloved, Brother [Newel K. Whitney] and Sister, [Elizabeth Smith] Whitney, and &c. [Sarah Ann Whitney]—
I take this oppertunity to communi[c]ate, some of my feelings, privetely 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 pased lately between us, that the time of my abscence from you seems 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 whom 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 [Granger’s], Just back of Brother Hyrams [Hyrum Smith’s] farm, it is only one mile from town, the nights are very pleasant indeed, all three of you come 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 all at all now is the [p. ] 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 known to you; the only thing to be careful of; is to find out when Emma comes then you cannot be safe, but when she is not here, there is the most perfect safty: 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 get the fulness 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 dont dont fail to come to night, I subscribe myself your most obedient, and affectionate, companion, and friend.
Emily D. P. Young, Deposition, Temple Lot Transcript, Respondent’s Testimony, part 3, page 350, question 22. As presented by Brian Hales on his page Joseph’s Proposals (last retrieved 2020-02-06)1 (emphasis added):
Well it run along for a good while, — I don’t know just how long, and there was no opportunity of saying anything to me more than he had, and one day he sat in the room alone, and I passed through it and he called to me or spoke to me, and called me to him, and then he said that he had intended to tell me something, but he had no opportunity to do so, and so he would write me a letter, if I would agree to burn it as soon as I read it, and with that I looked frightened, for I thought there was something about it that was not just right, and so I told him that I would rather that he would not write to me, — that he would not write me any letter, and then he asked me if I wanted him to say any more, and I said yes, that I did not want to hear anything more about it at all, for I had got a little frightened about it.
Also mentioned in her diary and reminiscences (pg 1):
When I was eighteen years or nineteen old Joseph said to me one day, “Emily, if you will not betray me, I will tell you something for your benefit.” Of course I would keep his secret, but no opportunity offered for some time, to say anything to me. As I was passing through the room where he sat alone, he asked me I would burn it if he would write me a letter. …
Nancy Ridgon’s proposal from Joseph Smith is related in Bennett’s The History of the Saints (an antagonistic source with some wild claims but that still may be accurate in other regards). On page 246:
[After Rigdon repulsed Smith’s proposal, went to her father’s house, and summoned Smith] … He came. She told the tale in the presence of all the family, and to Smith’s face. I was present. Smith attempted to deny it at first, and face her down with the lie; but she told teh facts with so much earnestness, and THE FACT OF A LETTER BEING PRESENT, WHICH HE HAD CAUSED TO BE WRITTEN TO HER, ON THE SAME SUBJECT, the day after the attempt made on her virtue, breathing the same spirit, and which he had fondly hoped was DESTROYED, …
Aware of the plot on his and Hyrum’s life, Joseph urged William Clayton to send the records of the Kingdom of God (aka, council of Fifty) away with someone faithful, burn them, or bury them. From the Tanner’s summary of Ehat’s notes2:
Saturday June 22. Joseph whispered and told me either to put the r. of K. into the hands of some faithful man and send them away, or burn them, or bury them. I concluded to bury them, which I did immediately on my return home.
Acknowledgement: Emily Partridge deposition h/t missedinsunday here