“Will God and my Good, True, Loving Husband Be Merciful?” The Secret Love Letters of Joseph F. Smith and Susa Young Gates

By August 26, 2012

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.

Susa continued,

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.

It began,

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.

Article filed under Miscellaneous


  1. I don’t understand the timing — these letters were written when? Not 1906, surely.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — August 26, 2012 @ 12:23 pm

  2. That’s the date written on them. I can go back and check the date on Monday, but the first letter was received and answered in December 1906 and was found in her papers right after a letter that she had written in 1905. Plus, Andrew Jensen wasn’t called as assistant church historian till 1897 and acting church historian till 1900. She also mentions A.M. Musser, who wasn’t called to the church historian’s office till 1902, so they are post-1902 at least.

    Just out of curiosity, what makes you supsicious?

    Comment by Amanda — August 26, 2012 @ 12:32 pm

  3. Paging Taysom.

    Comment by Jacob — August 26, 2012 @ 12:57 pm

  4. On first reading I missed Susa’s own reference to “fourteen,” so I was reading these letters as recording contemporary rather than past events. I couldn’t figure out why you kept referring to ages and events that didn’t jibe with a 1906 date — it’s clear now.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — August 26, 2012 @ 1:03 pm

  5. Ah… I’ll edit it to make it clearer. What I don’t understand, and obviously, can’t know, is if something after happened that. 30+ years is a long time to harbor feelings for someone.

    Comment by Amanda — August 26, 2012 @ 1:09 pm

  6. I’ve never been able to figure out Susa emotionally. She marries young, apparently according to her own feelings, but then doesn’t care to be married and seemingly without a second thought gives up her children from that marriage when her husband divorces her. Then she marries again, and whenever it’s convenient for her to cite how many children she has and what a wonderful mother she must therefore be, she does so … yet it’s Jacob who has almost complete care of the children and the house throughout their marriage. Susa would far rather be steaming off to some international conference to talk about being an accomplished woman and a great mother than to, you know, actually mother. I don’t have any sense at all of where her heart was, except for the part that was utterly loyal to her father.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — August 26, 2012 @ 1:59 pm

  7. I love it– “for dozens of others to read.” I wonder if you underestimate the scope of our readership. Especially when this post could possibly bring in hundreds more. I’m not sure if you said, but were these Susa’s own second copies of the letters that she kept for herself, or were they the actual letters that JFS received? If the latter, then I find it fascinating that he kept them. Anyway, what a find– I can’t wait until these are added to the supplemental materials when we circle back to the Joseph F. Smith curriculum in RS and Priesthood.

    Comment by Andrea R-M — August 26, 2012 @ 3:10 pm

  8. Thanks for sharing these important letters. To me, they represent the millions of mysteries to be found in archives. And of course, the reference to Andrew Jenson is fantastic. There are loads of questions in my head surrounding the history of these letters. Will be excited to see what else you uncover.

    Comment by Robin — August 26, 2012 @ 3:31 pm

  9. Ardis, I try to withhold judgement on Susa. She was woefully unprepared for marriage and admits in her own papers that she had no idea how to keep house or be a proper wife. Her first husband’s alcoholism, certainly didn’t help. In a diary she kept as a missionary in Laie, she refers to her first marriage as “those long, black heavy years.” When she was 17 and still married to Dunford, she found herself unable to support herself and to ask her father for food or money. He gave her a 100 lbs. of flour to last her until she could get on her feet. She lamented at the time that she had never been taught anything useful and that even a washerwoman could support herself but she could not.

    Her marriage to Jacob was much, much happier. And, by the time that she is traipsing off to Germany for an international conference, her youngest is nine. She wasn’t leaving behind an infant. My aunts and uncles took off for business trips all the time. Susa was also well aware and conscious of the cost on her children and worried about it constantly.

    Part of the reason I try to be kind to Susa is she was so hard on herself. Who is to say that her sins are greater than mine?

    Comment by AmandaHK — August 26, 2012 @ 3:49 pm

  10. Andrea, they have received and answer dates on them, which suggest they are his copies.

    Rob, I hope I find more stuff, too, and anything that mentions Andrew Jenson is yours!

    … And to add to the gossip, Susa’s history of her dad mentions that he was particularly fond of the “young and handsome representative of the Prophet’s Family, Joseph F. Smith,” and often brought him over.

    Comment by AmandaHK — August 26, 2012 @ 3:50 pm

  11. Amanda, these letters are amazing. The timing of the original “affair,” whatever it was, is also very, very interesting–I’m assuming, based on your telling of the story, that the year was 1870? This the same year that Joseph F. began courting Julina’s (wife #2) younger sister Edna Lambson. The JFS diaries for 1870, available on Selected Collections, contain numerous entries where JFS takes Edna to the theater, though usually with others (can’t remember if SYG is one of them, and I’ll have to look back through my transcription to find the exact dates). Two or three entries contain Hawaiian-language phrases when referring to Edna–ostensibly to throw off any prying eyes (Andrew Jensen wasn’t in the picture yet, but JFS probably didn’t want to betray his feelings for Edna to just anyone at the time).

    The questions you’ve raised in my mind now are whether Edna was a “recover lover”, whether JFS courted Edna and Susa simultaneously in 1870, and what role Susa’s being moved by her father had to do with the whole affair.

    JFS married Edna on January 1, 1871, if my notes are correct.

    Comment by Nate R. — August 26, 2012 @ 5:09 pm

  12. Oh my, my, my! I don’t know much about Susa, but I love learning things from the past that make those who have gone before so real. It’s so easy to think how perfect “they used to be.” In reality, they were people, too, with struggles and desires just like us.

    Comment by Emily — August 26, 2012 @ 10:45 pm

  13. Great post, Amanda. I have a question that’s only slightly related, so please bear with me.

    At what point did “dating/courting/flirting” with someone when you were already married to someone cross a line in polygamy? Did Joseph F. have the option of pursuing when he wanted?

    On a far more unrelated note, I think that Joseph F. had a very handsome mustache, no wonder Susan was entranced.

    Comment by J Stuart — August 26, 2012 @ 11:58 pm

  14. Nate, That’s fascinating. I haven’t read those diaries yet. I’ll have to get to them soon. If there ends up being enough information for something substantive when all is said and done, we should do a joint article or something on Joseph F. and Susa’s lifelong friendship.

    Emily, Susa was definitely human and saw herself as full of errors. She could never forgive herself for some of what she had done.

    Joey, I’m not sure there was a hard and fast rule. I would assume he could have married here if he wanted… but he may have had to wait a year or two. 14 seems young for BY’s daughters to get married (let the deluge of counterexamples begin). JFS also consulted with his wives about who he would marry. According to Julina, he never got married without consulting them and picking out the wife together. If they had said no to Susa, no it would have been.

    That said, it didn’t always work out that way. One of the things that bothered outsiders was the flirting that occurred between older men and young women at dances. Apparently, the other wives often sat nearby scowling.

    Comment by Amanda — August 27, 2012 @ 12:07 am

  15. Fascinating find, Amanda. I don’t have much to add but I greatly enjoyed the post and the comments.

    Comment by Christopher — August 27, 2012 @ 7:04 am

  16. Well, my head is still spinning from this one. My inclination is to proceed very carefully in drawing any conclusions whatsoever. Susa had a flare for the dramatic and her writing seems to swing between being quite closed off and “official” and then gushing. There is no question that she had a lifelong love and admiration for JFS; she mentions it all the time in both private and public writings. So this is a compelling addition to that record, but who knows? She is referring to things that happened–whatever happened or didn’t–35 years earlier and I think we have to take that into account, too. I haven’t found anything in her Hawaii diary or correspondence (1885-89), some of which was written while JFS and Julina were there with the Gateses, that in any way gives off a sense of her having feelings for him, as in, you know *feelings.* I would want to know what was going on in 1906 that might have triggered a resurgence (or reinvention) of old feelings.It’s not only men who have mid-life crises!

    Above all, what interests me in these letters is SYG’s propensity, compulsion almost, to construct and control the narrative of her own life. She is very deliberate about what she says and doesn’t say, in almost every setting, and the fact that she expresses fear about the letters being read by historians–but then writes them anyway–I suspect she wanted them in the record.

    Incidentally, I’ve looked at the diary she kept in 1870 as they were traveling to St George and after she arrived. If I remember correctly, it cuts off just a few weeks before her marriage to Dunford, and it appears to me that there was material that was taken out. And her lengthy letter describing her divorce trial was clearly written for public consumption. (Ardis, you need to look at that one if you doubt her feelings about losing her children.) From early on, Susa Young Gates seems to have considered herself a public figure and she was very conscious of how she would be represented.

    Comment by LisaT — August 27, 2012 @ 10:16 am

  17. Goodness. These two letters provide some complexity to Susa Gates’ possible motivations for her involvement in the Genealogical Society of Utah.

    Amanda, in the title and first paragraph you say “…Love Letters of Joseph F. Smith…” and “…letters between Joseph F. Smith and Susa Young Gates…” Do you have anything from Joseph F. Smith? I’m not seeing anything in these letters that would provide proof that he had any reciprocal feelings for Susa. The only thing Susa mentions in Smith’s letter that might not have been strictly business was the sentence, “Write nothing others may not read,” and that statement provides all kinds of plausible and real deniability on Smith’s part.

    I have no reason to defend Joseph F. Smith in particular since the practice of polygamy led to all sorts of complicated situations, but I am currently working in the Young Women organization and a number of the girls have complex lives involving father absence including divorce, mental illness, and extensive church service. I actually warned the girls a few months ago — it was somehow pertinent to the lesson — that those complexities might make them more susceptible to excessive emotional attachments to older men. It wouldn’t be difficult to see that in Susa Young Gates, first as a fourteen-year-old, and then over time.

    So, my suspicion as I read these excerpts is that Smith was trying to be kind to someone he had to interact with extensively in social, professional, and religious settings, and perhaps he had a tender place in his heart for that young teenage girl who had had such a crush on him, but at the same time he may have kept these letters to protect himself in case of any potential allegations.

    Comment by Amy T — August 27, 2012 @ 10:37 am

  18. Above all, what interests me in these letters is SYG?s propensity, compulsion almost, to construct and control the narrative of her own life. She is very deliberate about what she says and doesn?t say, in almost every setting, and the fact that she expresses fear about the letters being read by historians?but then writes them anyway?I suspect she wanted them in the record.

    Loved this, Lisa.

    Comment by Ben P — August 27, 2012 @ 10:47 am

  19. Lisa, fascinating. I eagerly await your book on Susa!

    Ben, I loved that statement, too, and agree with Lisa that we can’t know exactly what happened. I would guess, though, that something did happen when she was fourteen. What brought up these feelings 30+ years later, I have no idea. At times, she seems to be needling him or at least teasing, but there also seems to be something behind the teasing.

    Amy T – I haven’t read Joseph F.’s letters to Susa, but I think you are being a bit harsh on Susa. There seems to have been a rebuff or an end to the relationship when she was 14, but there’s no indication that she maintained an intense unrequited love for Joseph of the type that would have required him to worry about allegations or to have to continually keep her at arm’s length. I would also suggest that the statement that begins with “God knew…” gives an indication, but not absolute proof, that something happened.

    I would also push you on the statement that girls who have a history of their father’s being absent because of divorce, mental illness, or extensive church service might be more susceptible to infatuations with older men. As someone who has a history of divorce and mental illness in her family, the statement took me a bit back and seemed a bit presumptuous. Statistically, it might be true, but I would be careful about applying to any one particular person or case.

    Comment by Amanda — August 27, 2012 @ 12:22 pm

  20. I’m just lamenting the lack of a LIKE button on JI.

    I would like to heartily endorse such a button and would like to LIKE JStewart’s comments about that JFS beard and this post and comments in general. Thanks AHK!

    Comment by JanieceJ — August 27, 2012 @ 1:35 pm

  21. Harsh on Susa Young Gates? Not I! Most of what I know about Susa Gates is from reading the history of the Utah Genealogical Society, and I definitely don’t know whether she had any psychological or psychiatric difficulties. Even if she did, that’s no reason to be harsh toward her. (And it is great that she has such a valiant defender in you, Amanda. : ) I do think, however, that although it’s interesting and amusing to consider that her letters could indicate an affair, it’s possible to read an entirely different conclusion out of them.

    Comment by Amy T — August 27, 2012 @ 1:50 pm

  22. Amy — I haven’t assumed an affair — a flirtation, a crush, yes, but an affair, no — affairs involve sex, and I wouldn’t assume what Susa did or didn’t do. In fact, based on her statement that she hopes God will help her keep true to covenants, that she didn’t have sex with him or an affair.

    I may have read your comments unfairly, but the statement about the children of divorce, mental illness, etc. really put me off. And, it was in light of those statements, that I thought you were reading her unfairly.

    Comment by Amanda — August 27, 2012 @ 2:10 pm

  23. The excerpts shared were quite interesting. However, I hope the readers, whose knowledge and understanding far exceed mine, will permit a couple of observations gleaned over the past 60 years: 1) Prominent figures receive very unusual mail from many quarters. It is prudent to file them. AND…. 2) The only love that truly lasts is unrequited love.

    Comment by Roger — August 27, 2012 @ 7:18 pm

  24. Roger, I hope for the sake of my marriage that you aren’t right about only unrequited love lasting. 😉

    Comment by AmandaHK — August 27, 2012 @ 7:35 pm

  25. My initial response to the discovery of the Susa Young Gates(SYG)1906 letter to Joseph F. Smith (JFS) is a moderate ho-hum, although it is certainly interesting. The two were lifelong friends, and SYG’s longstanding, open, fawning adulation of JFS, who was a counselor in the First Presidency to Susa’s father for 11 years, is well-known. Given SYG’s position as a powerbroker, such a letter does not seem surprising at all. As for the reference to age 14, my guess is that she had a young girlhood crush on JFS, which came to an abrupt end when was banished for whatever reason to St. George in 1870. It seems preposterous to think that anything serious or sexual ever went on between the two. SYG was adamantly opposed to polygamy, for herself that is, although she defended it vigorously in her writings pre-Manifesto. Being a plural wife of JFS in this lifetime is something she probably would never have considered. A close corollary in my mind occurred with my own mother, who grew up in southern Arizona. As a youngster she was wildly in love with Spencer W. Kimball, a local stake leader at that time. She says tongue-in-cheek that she would have married him in a heartbeat, but there were 3 huge problems: he was already married, he was 13 years older than she was, and he was her cousin!

    Comment by Romney — August 27, 2012 @ 11:01 pm

  26. Romney, I thought your comment about her being a power broker and thus, more likely to send such a letter was interesting. Why would that make her more rather than less likely to send such a letter? And, although I agree we can’t tell what happened between them, and I doubt that sex actually occurred, why would it be preposterous. People have sex outside of marriage all the time. As one of my advisors said at my prelims, most people who claim to be monogamous, actually aren’t.

    Comment by AmandaHK — August 28, 2012 @ 6:42 am

  27. Amanda, I should say that I am very sympathetic to SYG, who is my wife’s great grandmother. Virtually all of the 108 boxes of SYG papers at the Church History Library were donated by my mother-in-law, Lurene Gates Wilkinson (LGW), who unexpectedly found them in the garage of her father, Franklin Young Gates (FYG), last surviving child of SYG, after his death. (It was thought they had been lost.) Interestingly, LGW was personal secretary to SYG the last year of SYG’s life (1932-1933); LGW is still alive at 97.
    I think SYG curried favor with and flattered a lot of powerful figures, many of whom could help further her career. (Of course, she locked horns with a fair number also.) I think that SYG tried very hard, as Lisa has said, to cnstruct her own history, or at least the interpretation of it. When her father died, SYG was only 21, and her life was a mess–divorced, with two children, and her father, who had wielded such great power, gone. I think she spent a great deal of her life trying to burnish the Young name, make her father proud of her, and bury the mistakes of her early years. It never hurts to let the president of the Church know you think he is wonderful!

    Comment by Romney — August 28, 2012 @ 8:09 pm

  28. This is all very fascinating and perplexing reading because of Susa’s elusive/aloof writing and we will probably never know what really took place between JFS and Susa.

    Comment by Non historian Janet K — September 2, 2012 @ 1:57 am

  29. […] Secret love letters from an early-20th century Mormon leader. […]

    Pingback by Sunday Morning Medicine | Nursing Clio — September 2, 2012 @ 9:49 am

  30. Amanda–
    After a quick glance through JFS’ 1870 diary, I’m certain he does not mention Susa at all, by name. However, he did travel quite a lot with other church leaders, visiting various settlements throughout the Mormon West, and it’s possible that Susa and/or her mother accompanied BY on one of the trips.

    It’s also possible that JFS gave Susa a priesthood blessing in September, if we read into this diary entry from Sunday, Sept. 18, 1870: “Called on Lucy B. Young and administered to a sick girl with D. McKenzie & A. Pyper.? Perhaps this sick girl was Susa? And yet JFS did not bother to write down her name for some reason. The mystery continues.

    Comment by Nate R. — September 2, 2012 @ 3:55 pm


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