A few days ago, I requested the Scott Kenney Papers at the University of Utah’s special collections. Inside Box 3 were some letters between Joseph F. Smith and Susa Young Gates written in 1906. I assumed that they would be about the manifesto or Susa’s recent trip to Germany. I opened the box and began to read one of the letters.
It began with a paean to Joseph F. Smith as one of the world’s great religious leaders:
Thou art a poet, an artist, a musician. A musician because the best and highest expression of the great masters finds an echo in thy soul. The great paintings are alive to you; and your words, written and spoken, often betray the very soul of poetry. The precious note I have of yours breathes poetry in every line. It is too precious to me for other eyes than mine, even to rest upon.
At first, I thought that Susa had simply developed a deep and lasting friendship with Joseph, but the next line caught me off guard. I have written you a hundred letters recently (in my mind!) but your last sentence of caution sunk deep in my heart.
As a former teen girl who had had secret crushes of my own, I was immediately suspicious, and I wasn’t disappointed.
When I think of who and what you are — one of the greatest historical characters of this Church and of this world – and when I remember that some day every scrap of your own writing, as well as all letters written to you will be eagerly searched for historical purposes, — I am simply frightened out of all further speech. Why, brother mine, I have been to you out of the very care of my heart! And when, in fancy, I see men like Bro. A.M. Musser, or Andrew Jensen poring over these letters of mine, heavens above me! What a thought! But that last sentence of yours sounds in the very ears of my soul! “Write nothing others may not read.” Dearly beloved, this shall be my very last “care of my heart” letter. But, even if I draw close the door into the chamber of my soul, that chamber closed fast since I was a girl of fourteen [ed. mark]—, it will be there! Eternity is not far away!
At this point, I was blown away. Susa, the gossipy, brash, absent-minded feminist who angered most of her friends and had a difficult time dealing with the rules society had placed upon her, had had a school girl crush — a flirtation? An affair? — with Joseph F. Smith when she was fourteen. I continued reading the letter hoping for juicy details, but I was foiled by Andrew Jensen, the Church Historian. She continued but was cautious in her letter, lest historians, find out too much.
Oh if you knew what an inspiration your true, wise friendship has been to me, these past few years. For I am not so strong, so wise, so true, as I wish I were. And sometimes — daring thought — I fancy that you are sufficiently interested in me to remember me in your prayers. Not in a general way — but sometimes, when you are alone, and praying for your dearest and best! Ah, the thought of such a thing humbles and exalts me at the same time. Such a thought makes me willing to bear all other troubles and afflictions, while it makes me fearful but I cannot be worthy of such divine friendship. Were you ever afraid of your own heart?
Dont you think this letter better be destroyed? Think of Andrew Jensen, and be merciful!
This is the very last care of my heart letter
After reading the letter, I was interested. One of the women with whom I have always identified in Mormon history had just confessed to having had something going on with JFS at the age of 14. Susa and I have always shared certain characteristics. I am a gossip who constantly makes mistakes and feels the need to repent of the things I have said and done. If Susa would have come across this letter, she would have run into the house of her nearest friend, whether it was Charlotte Perkins Gilman or Florence Dean, to share the juicy details. I had to go to the Church History Library and thus, was prevent from reading the next letter in the series, but I woke up early the next morning just to see what it contained. I, again, would not be disappointed.
There! There’s a letter to leave for Bro. Andrew Jensen to study!
Jacob cant be here for the Daughter’s Ball, alas; he is away so much. If he should be, he has already received an invitation to go. I would not neglect him, even for you!!!
Please destroy that letter, and forget and forgive it. It should never have been written. God in Heaven knew, and no one else should ever have known. Let it be buried away forever. I am your true, good sister, and the hourly prayer of my heart is to keep me in purity and truth to all the holy covenants I have made. Sometimes, your inspired words — as in that wondrous illuminated sermon in the Temple Thursday morning — pierces my heart with a keen sense of my unworthiness and my danger. Then I suffer!
I suppose I should hardly even write this to you; but you are so good, so high-minded and pure, that you will understand. Having said so much, let me close this matter forever between us. Am I forgiven and still your sister? And I often wonder, will God and my good, true, loving husband be merciful also? They will, when they know how I have suffered and struggled — and how good like you have been?
…Will you destroy this and the “other” letter?
After reading the second letter, several things became clear:
1. Andrew Jensen ruined my life as a historian by forcing Susa to self-edit. Imagine what she would have written if he hadn’t been poring over their letters.
2. Something definitely happened between Susa and JFS when she was a young teenager.
3. I would never know exactly what. There is nothing more of the correspondence that occurred between Susa and Joseph F. in either of their papers. The letters he he sent to her were likely destroyed either by Susa or by the prophet himself. What we are left with is a historical riddle.
When Susa was fourteen, Joseph F. was thirty-two years old. He had already married Julina Lambson and Sarah Ellen Richards and divorced his first wife Levira. He was no longer the tempestuous young man who had participated in the Great Cat Massacre in Hawaii (see my previous JI post: http://www.juvenileinstructor.org/joseph-f-smith-and-the-great-hawaiian-cat-massacre/), but had matured into a dutiful husband and father. What happened between them we will never know. Later that year, Brigham sent Susa and her mother to live in St. George. The explanation given is usually that Susa had helped her older sister Dora elope with her young lover and that Brigham sought to reign in his daughter and her mother by removing them from Salt Lake’s busy social scene. Whether a developing affection for an older man had anything to do with Brigham’s decision is pure speculation. Whatever happened we shouldn’t be too hard on Susa. We’ve all been in situations where we have met someone, been attracted to them, and thought, if only circumstances were different. Sometimes those can mature into deep and lasting friendships. Other times, they just cause people pain. Susa’s experience seems to have been a mixture of both — she obviously continued to love Joseph F. even though she knew that she had made other covenants and loved her husband deeply, but there is a wistfulness and sense of regret to her writing. She still had feelings for Joseph.
Susa’s letters also raise questions about what the role of the historian is. She obviously didn’t want her relationship with Joseph F. to be part of history. Should historians respect those desires? Of what importance, if any, are the feelings she kept hidden? Have I sinned in posting these letters on a public blog, for not only Andrew Jensen to read, but dozens of other people as well?
Hopefully, Susa and a loving God will be merciful.