"Happiness is the object and design of our existence."
Or is it?
You've probably heard this 'happiness' quote before; it is attributed to Joseph Smith and comes from the so-called "Happiness Letter."
Over the years the Happiness Letter has been used as an apologetic for the Church's practice of polygamy (it was written to Nancy Ridgon). But this Post is not about polygamy.
No, I want to address the most famous part of the letter that we frequently hear in Church: "Whatever God requires is right, no matter what it is."
Hold on; how gullible are we? Let's think through the logical implications of this doctrine; let's dissect it and see what's inside of it before we jump on the bandwagon.
Because . . . what if Joseph didn't write the Happiness Letter?
What if we've all been duped?
(Copy of History of the Church 5:134)
Well, this is embarrassing: the compilers of the History of the Church included the Happiness Letter in Volume 5, pages 134-135, attributing it to Joseph Smith.
The embarassing part is the fascinating caveat the editors included (no, this is not the Babylon Bee; I am serious). Take a look at how they editorialized the Letter:
"It is not positively known what occasioned the writing of this essay; but when it is borne in mind that at this time the new law of marriage for the Church — marriage for eternity, including plurity of wives under some circumstances — was being introduced by the Prophet, it is very likely that the article was written with a view of applying the principles here expounded to the conditions created by introducing-said marriage system."
Well, we learn a couple of interesting things from this editorialization. Foremost, we learn a lot about the editors' bias. Remember, the History of the Church was first published in 1858 during the golden age of plural marriage in Deseret. So of course they made it all about polygamy even though the Letter never mentions it!
Secondly we learn that no one knows the actual provenance of this letter that was apparently written in 1842. So how did the Happiness Letter get attached to Joseph Smith?
Hello, Mr. John C. Bennett, so good of you to join us.
This doesn't explain how the Happiness Letter became so famous and gained the hearts of the members of the Church. I mean, who even reads the History of the Church (except for boring history buffs)?
We must look elsewhere; but if I were a betting man, I would guess the Letter ended up in the seminal work of Joseph Fielding Smith, Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith (1976).
Aha! Indeed, it did. We find the letter on page 255-256 of TPJS.
And the rest is history. The quote is taught in General Conference; it is found in correlated Church lesson manuals; you will hear it at BYU devotionals and see it peppering the Ensign and Liahona.
After all, the Latter-day Saints are such a happy people, aren't we? The Happiness Letter has almost become our mantra. We must prove to the world how true our Church is by the smiles painted on our faces. No one can be as happy as we are, when joy is a fruit of the Spirit, right?
And since this gem is attributed to Joseph Smith and is quoted in the approved curriculum, it has been swallowed like a camel. But has anyone paused and asked the question, "Is it true?"
Well, according to The Joseph Smith Papers, the answer is . . . maaaaybe?
Joseph Smith Papers to the Rescue?
Last night I read the Happiness Letter and was unable to tell whether Joseph had written it based on the language of the Letter (which sounded to me like the Prophet but I couldn't be sure).
A lot (I mean, a lot) of quotes attributed to the Prophet are probably not his.
For example, as a missionary in Paris, France, we were required to memorize and quote at every Zone Conference the following quote by the Prophet:
"The Standard of Truth has been erected; no unhallowed hand can stop the work from progressing; persecutions may rage, mobs may combine, armies may assemble, calumny may defame, but the truth of God will go forth boldly, nobly, and independent, till it has penetrated every continent, visited every clime, swept every country, and sounded in every ear, till the purposes of God shall be accomplished, and the Great Jehovah shall say the work is done."
(History of the Church, 4:540)
I would wager those are not Joseph's words (though they might capture his sentiments). According to those who study such things, the vocabulary and syntax in that quote are not consistent with Joseph Smith's parlance.
But you know who LOVED to use the word "calumny?" W.W. Phelps.
Anyway, last night as I pondered and prayed about the contents of the Happiness Letter, I asked myself if it mattered if Joseph Smith wrote it; after all, if the ideas are true, who cares who spoke them?
Since this isn't a true crime podcast, I am not going to hide the ball from you. I'll tell you what The Joseph Smith Papers says about the Happiness Letter.
(I love the commentary in The Jospeh Smith Papers. For the comedy, I mean.)
Now, the editors of the JSP didn't have enough confidence in the authenticity of the Happiness Letter to include it in Volume 9 of Documents, proper. So that alone tells us the provenance is sketchy.
But because of the Church's historical investment in Joseph's polygamy and the ideas contained in the Letter, the editors did something unusual: they stuffed the Letter into an Appendix.
Hmmm. Editors today can't get away with exposing their bias as easily as they did in 1858.
Perhaps they think we are easily fooled?
Appendix: Letter to Nancy Rigdon, circa Mid-April 1842
Here are 10 Facts we know for certain about the Happiness Letter:
1. The Happiness Letter was published on 19 August 1842 in the Sangamo Journal in Springfield, Illinois.
2. The letter was sent to the newspaper by John C. Bennett as part of a larger correspondece Bennett wrote.
3. This was John C. Bennett's sixth letter to the Sangamo Journal attacking Joseph Smith.
4. Bennett had been excommunicated several months earlier for sexual promiscuity.
5. No one has ever discovered the original letter; we only have what the newspaper printed from Bennett's letter.
6. Bennett copied the letter and sent it the newspaper as corroborating evidence of his claim Joseph had tried to woo Nancy Ridgon as a plural wife.
7. The only thing connecting Joseph Smith to the letter was Bennett's statement to the newspaper identifying Joseph Smith as the author and Nancy Ridgon as the recipient.
8. The letter was undated, unaddressed, and unsigned.
9. Bennett later said, when he published his History of the Saints (not to be confused with the History of the Church)that the letter was given to him by Francis M. Higbee (you probably recognize the name: Higbee was an editor of the Nauvoo Expositor and hated Joseph Smith; on Higbee's oath, the warrant to arrest Joseph was issued that led him to Carthage Jail).
10. Joseph's brother, William, as the editor of the Nauvoo Wasp, denied the letter was Joseph's and printed a statement from Sidney Rigdon stating, "Mr. Smith denied to me the authorship of that letter."
Now pretend you're a Church historian. How would you characterize this letter?
Oh boy, here we go.
Dishonor the Prophet
You know, for claiming Joseph Smith was such a great prophet and all, the Church sure makes him out to be an awful and serial liar.
Wo unto the liar, for he shall be thrust down to hell.
(2 Nephi 9:34)
But it's okay for Joseph to lie, isn't it, because "whatever God requires is right, no matter what it is."
How terribly convenient! What a wonderful hermeneutic with which to justify any sort of sinful behavior and credit God for it. No better trump card.
And so the Church, with what I find to be supreme irony by asking its members if they strive to be honest in all their dealings, makes Joseph the poster child of "lying for the Lord."
a. "JS's authoriship of this letter is uncertain."
b. "Contemporaneous evidence discredits other allegations in Bennett's Sangamo Journal letters."
c. "Some debate exists among historians about the authenticity of this purported JS letter."
Case closed, right? If you were on a jury, would you convict Joseph of writing this letter, based on the evidence?
I didn't think so.
Yet the Church Historian's Office isn't so sure. They included the letter in their Appendix and give it credence.
Just in case, you know, Joseph really was a liar.
"Whatever God Requires is Right"
The notion that "whatever God requires is right" is appealing. It just makes sense, doesn't it?
I mean, God can't be wrong, can He? If God is requiring it, then it must be "good" since He only works for the good of His children.
But . . . but. This isn't about God at all. Surprise! It never really was. It is about getting others to do what you want them to do, using God as your wing-man. This is about who gets to speak for God.
If the Catholic Pope told you God wanted you to commit adultery and created a ritual to make it official, promising you eternal life if you obeyed, would you?
Well, that's not a good example unless you're Catholic. Let's say the President of the Church called you into the temple and told you that there's a secret, higher ordinance you need to receive to be saved . . . would you believe him?
Mentally, when most members of the Church hear this quote, they're thinking, "Whatever the prophet says is God's will, so it must be right." Well, that changes things.
Because people argue over what God thinks is right and wrong all the time; even prophets do not always agree; and we have seen prophets be wrong in the past (think: November 2015 Policy of Exclusion).
So when someone says, "Whatever God requires is right," we should be asking, "Who gets to decide whether it is God requiring it, or someone (or something) else?"
God gets blamed for a lot of nonsense. It is the #1 way we take His name in vain; leaders do it when they teach for doctrine the commandments of men.
So the real question is how do we know whether something is "right?" How do we know if something comes (in fact) from "God?"
Let me tweak the quote in order to make my point:
"Whatever God requires is right"
* should be rendered *
"Whatever is right is what God requires."
Do you see the subtle difference?
Come Now, Let us Reason Together
We have certain physical and spiritual faculties that allow us to discern whether something is of God or whether something is right.
The problem, perhaps, is that we don't exercise our ability to reason very much anymore because once an authority figure has spoken, "the thinking has been done." The science is settled. Sit down.
So our spiritual brains have atrophied in the presence of hive-mind.
It shocks me all the time because the scriptures present a God who is quite willing to have a discussion with us; it is not a one-way street. He's talkative and approachable; just think of the Lord on the Road to Emmaus spending the day chatting about the scriptures with some friends.
I love Job's declaration:
I would speak to the Almighty, and I desire to reason with God.
But when we go around proclaiming "whatever God requires is right," I wonder if we're opening ourselves to being deceived, what with all the seducing spirits and deceiving devils abroad.
There are instances we've seen, tragic choices that have been made, by people who believe they are doing what God "requires" (such as in the case of the Lafferty murders).
A lot of harmful, evil things have been done in the name of "God" ― things that are objectively, eternally wrong!
If I Only Had a Brain
I want to suggest that God has equipped us with several tools with which to discern what is right ― not by appealing to authority, but through the gifts of the Spirit, as follows:
In Doctrine and Covenants it says:
I will tell you in your (1) mind and in your (2) heart, by the Holy Ghost, which shall come upon you and which shall dwell in your heart.
Now, behold, this is the spirit of revelation.
Don't forget this unfailing guide:
I will impart unto you of my Spirit, which shall enlighten your mind, which shall fill your soul with joy;
And then shall ye know, or by thisshall you know, all things whatsoever you desire of me.
Did you notice the importance of the "mind" in these scriptures? God gave us a brain, people!
Reason and rationality are gifts we've been given by God; they do not compete with, but complement, divine inspiration; together they reveal the word and will of God.
Perhaps the simplest rule-of-thumb is this one:
And that which doth not edify is not of God, and is darkness.
That which is of God is light.
So before we run around invoking God's name in our attempt to justify our beliefs or positions ("Got to marry me another wife 'cause that's what God requires, cuz'"), let's take a step back.
"The things of God are of deep import; and time, and experience, and careful and ponderous and solemn thoughts can only find them out. Thy mind, O man!"