Joseph Smith and legal issues

(Redirected from Joseph Smith/Legal issues)

Articles about Joseph Smith

Joseph I. Bentley, "Legal Trials of the Prophet: Joseph Smith's Life in Court"

Joseph I. Bentley,  Proceedings of the 2006 FAIR Conference, (August 2006)
From my years of research and work on the Joseph Smith Papers Project, I have gained a deeper appreciation of Joseph’s achievements, despite intense and unrelenting adversity. Among his other tribulations was the fact that his ministry was shadowed by many persistent legal prosecutions. Anyone who has been through even one lawsuit knows how all-consuming it can be. It can demand your time, assets, body and mind.

So far we’ve found over two hundred total suits involving Joseph Smith–whether as a defendant, plaintiff, witness or judge. (Yes, as Mayor of Nauvoo, he was also a Justice of the Peace and Chief Magistrate of the Nauvoo Municipal Court.) That makes an average of about fourteen cases per year. As best we can tell, he endured an average of one lawsuit per month during most of his ministry!

Brigham Young said that he had to defend himself in forty-eight criminal cases, including many personally involving Brigham–but that Joseph was never convicted in any of them. We believe that this count of criminal cases against him is quite accurate. We’ll focus mainly on some criminal charges that took his liberty, his assets and ultimately his life. Knowing that not once was he found legally guilty of any charges against him has strengthened my own faith and regard for Joseph Smith–the man and the Prophet. This is a unique way to tell the history of the Church through lawsuits and court records.

From the time of his First Vision, Joseph said he got used to “swimming in deep water.” This was also true of his experience with the law. The Lord told him at the start of his ministry: “Be patient in thine afflictions for thou shalt have many. But endure them, for lo I am with thee, even unto the end of thy days.”1 Also: “Be firm in keeping the commandments … and if you do this, behold I grant unto you eternal life, even if you should be slain.“2 Finally: “And even if they do unto you as they have done unto me, blessed are ye, for ye shall dwell with me in glory.”3 These verses connected him to the Lord himself. But how is that for a mission call?

The legal charges and trials of Joseph began almost before his ministry began, and they continued for many years after it ended.

Click here to view the complete article

∗       ∗       ∗

How many times was Joseph Smith involved with legal issues?

"Joseph Smith was persecuted in courts of law as much as anyone I know. But he was never found guilty of any crime, and his name cannot be tarnished in that way"

It seems that Joseph Smith was constantly involved with legal issues during his life. How many times was Joseph involved in such matters and what were their nature?

Concluded one author:

Joseph Smith was persecuted in courts of law as much as anyone I know. But he was never found guilty of any crime, and his name cannot be tarnished in that way.[1]

Entire books have been written on the legal history of the Church in its early days.


Wrote a leading scholar of Joseph's legal history:

Joseph Smith believed that his enemies perverted legal processes, using them as tools of religious persecution against him, as they had been used against many of Christ's apostles and other past martyrs. Although he often gained quick acquittals, numerous "vexatious and wicked" lawsuits consumed his time and assets, leading to several incarcerations and ultimately to his martyrdom. Beginning soon after his ministry began and continuing throughout his life, Joseph Smith was subjected to approximately thirty criminal actions and at least that many civil suits related to debt collection or failed financial ventures.[2]


After the Church moved to Kirtland, Ohio, in 1831, several religious-based charges were prosecuted against Smith and other LDS leaders, but were dismissed on the grounds listed following each charge: assault and battery (self-defense), performing marriages without a valid license (one was procured), attempted murder or conspiracy (lack of evidence), and involuntary servitude without compensation during the Zion's Camp military crusade to Missouri (won on appeal). In turn, Church leaders successfully instituted charges and recovered damages for assaults occurring while they were acting in a religious capacity. However, the financial Panic of 1837 swamped the Prophet and others with civil debt-collection litigation. Worse still were suits for violating Ohio banking laws when the Kirtland Safety Society Anti-Banking Company (see Kirtland Economy) failed soon after it was organized in 1836 without a state charter. Charges of fraud and self-enrichment were raised but not proven; a jury conviction was appealed, but Joseph Smith left Ohio for Missouri before it was heard.[2]


In Missouri, most actions against the Latter-day Saints were extralegal, brought by non-Mormon vigilantes prejudiced against the Saints' opposition to slavery, their collective influx, and Smith's religious teachings concerning modern revelation and the territorial establishment of Zion in Jackson County. Civil magistrates routinely refused to issue peace warrants for Mormons or to redress their personal injuries or property damage. For example, despite being beaten and tarred and feathered and having the printing office destroyed, the LDS printer was awarded less than his legal fees and the Presiding Bishop received "one penny and a peppercorn." All three branches of state government seemed paralyzed or supportive of mob action, as the Saints were repeatedly dispossessed and expelled from county to county.[2]


In 1838-1839 the Saints settled in Nauvoo, Illinois, after their wrongful expulsion from Missouri. To avoid the "legal" persecutions suffered in earlier states, they obtained a liberal Nauvoo city charter for Nauvoo, which granted broad habeas corpus powers to local courts. These helped to free Joseph Smith and other Latter-day Saints when they were sought on writs by arresting officers from outside of Nauvoo. In 1841 state judge Stephen A. Douglas set aside a Missouri writ to extradite Joseph for charges still pending there, and in 1843 a federal judge did the same for a similar requisition after the alleged shooting of then ex-governor Boggs. However, the increasing use of the writ of habeas corpus by Nauvoo magistrates, preempting even state and federal authority, escalated distrust among non-Mormons who felt that Joseph Smith considered himself above the law.[2]

Does Doctrine and Covenants 98:4-11 instruct Latter-day Saints to disobey secular law?

The revelation is telling the Saints to support honest and wise men as leaders, not to disobey the law

The quote is from D. Michael Quinn, and is his interpretation. The revelation is not telling the Saints to "disobey secular law and civil leaders"—it is telling them to "befriend" the law of the land, and seek to support "honest men and wise men" as leaders.

4 And now, verily I say unto you concerning the laws of the land, it is my will that my people should observe to do all things whatsoever I command them.
5 And that law of the land which is constitutional, supporting that principle of freedom in maintaining rights and privileges, belongs to all mankind, and is justifiable before me.
6 Therefore, I, the Lord, justify you, and your brethren of my church, in befriending that law which is the constitutional law of the land;
7 And as pertaining to law of man, whatsoever is more or less than this, cometh of evil.
8 I, the Lord God, make you free, therefore ye are free indeed; and the law also maketh you free.
9 Nevertheless, when the wicked rule the people mourn.
10 Wherefore, honest men and wise men should be sought for diligently, and good men and wise men ye should observe to uphold; otherwise whatsoever is less than these cometh of evil.
11 And I give unto you a commandment, that ye shall forsake all evil and cleave unto all good, that ye shall live by every word which proceedeth forth out of the mouth of God. (D&C 98꞉4-11)

Joseph Smith's 1826 trial

Summary: Tried and acquitted on fanciful charge of being a “disorderly person,” South Bainbridge, Chenango County, New York. New York law defined a disorderly person as, among other things, a vagrant or a seeker of “lost goods.” The Prophet had been accused of both: the first charge was false and was made simply to cause trouble; Joseph’s use of a seer stone to see things that others could not see with the naked eye brought the second charge. Those who brought the charges were apparently concerned that Joseph might bilk his employer, Josiah Stowell, out of some money. Mr. Stowell’s testimony clearly said this was not so and that he trusted Joseph Smith.

Claimed mismanagement of the Lawrence estate

Summary: Joseph Smith was appointed the guardian of two daughters, Maria and Sarah Lawrence, and their inheritance. He later married them in plural marriage. The evidence shows that Joseph Smith faithfully discharged his legal duties, despite the claims made by some nineteeth-century and modern critics.


  1. Joseph I. Bentley, "Legal Trials of the Prophet: Joseph Smith's Life in Court," (2006 FAIR Conference presentation). (Key source)
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 Joseph I. Bentley, "Smith, Joseph: Legal Trials of Joseph Smith," in Encyclopedia of Mormonism, 4 vols., edited by Daniel H. Ludlow, (New York, Macmillan Publishing, 1992), 3:1346–1347.