Question: Was Joseph Smith found guilty of being a "con man" in 1826?

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Question: Was Joseph Smith found guilty of being a "con man" in 1826?

Claims about Joseph being found guilty of being a "con man" in court usually revolve around either a misunderstanding or misrepresentation of Joseph's 1826 court hearing

Claims that Joseph was a "juggler," or "conjurer" were a common 19th century method of dismissing his prophetic claims via ad hominem. Modern-day claims about him being found to be a "con man" are simply the same attack with updated language, usually bolstered by a misunderstanding or misrepresentation of Joseph's 1826 court hearing.

Joseph's tendency to assume the best of others, even to his own repeated detriment, also argues for his sincerity. One might legitimately claim that Joseph was mistaken about his prophetic claims, but it will not do to claim that he was cynically, knowingly deceiving others for his own gain.

Claims about Joseph being found guilty of being a "con man" in court usually revolve around either a misunderstanding or misrepresentation of Joseph's 1826 court hearing:

Even if one rejects Joseph's claims to divine revelation or special abilities, his conduct still does not match that of a "con man"

  • Con men seek out their marks; Joseph was approached for his help by those who had heard about him
  • Con men travel from place to place, staying one step ahead of the law while defrauding their marks; Joseph was known locally and remained in his local area

Brant Gardner noted:

One very subtle but very important aspect of all of the dealings of the village seers is their relationship with their clients. The true cunning men and wise women were fixtures in the community. They received clients; they did not seek them out. In the cases reported about Sally Chase, her clients came to her. We have four descriptions of Joseph as this kind of village seer; and in each case, the client came to him with his problem....[T]hose who were searching for treasure invited the adept, but the cunning man or wise woman did not actively seek their employ.[1]

Broader character traits that argue against the "con-man hypothesis"

When Joseph's career is examined more broadly, there are other factors which argue for his sincerity. Arguably one character trait which gave Joseph repeated trouble was his willingness to trust others and give them the benefit of the doubt. His striking ability to accept people at face value, never doubting that their motives were as pure as his own, has many exemplars. The case of W.W. Phelps is one.

Phelps had betrayed Joseph and the Church during the Missouri persecutions, and contributed to Joseph's confinement in Liberty Jail. His signature was on the petition that resulted in the extermination order which led to the Saints' murder and dispossession. After receiving a penitent letter from Phelps, Joseph quickly responded

I must say that it is with no ordinary feelings I endeavor to write a few lines to you… I am rejoiced at the privilege granted me… when we read your letter—truly our hearts were melted into tenderness and compassion when we ascertained your resolves… It is true, that we have suffered much in consequence of your behavior… we say it is your privilege to be delivered from the powers of the adversary, be brought into the liberty of God's dear children, and again take your stand among the Saints of the Most High, and by diligence, humility, and love unfeigned, commend yourself to our God, and your God, and to the Church of Jesus Christ…

Believing your confession to be real, and your repentance genuine, I shall be happy once again to give you the right hand of fellowship, and rejoice over the returning prodigal…

"Come on, dear brother, since the war is past, For friends at first, are friends again at last."[2]

So it was that Joseph, while willing to do almost anything―from taking up arms, to petitioning presidents, to launching a campaign of disinformation―to protect the revealed Restoration and the Latter-day Saints, repeatedly opened himself to abuse and worse because of his apparent inability or unwillingness to think the worst of someone in advance of the evidence. Joseph assumed that all men were as purely motivated as he was. “It takes a con to know a con,” and Joseph wasn’t a con.[3] If he had been cynically exploiting others, he would have tended to ascribe his own base motives of deception and taking advantage to others, and probably would have been more cautious. But, he did not. Elder B.H. Roberts, a seventy and historian, noted years later that:

[Joseph Smith had] a too implicit trust in [men's] protestations of repentance when overtaken in their sins; a too great tenacity in friendship for men he had once taken into his confidence after they had been proven unworthy of the friendship.…[4]

A prime example of this phenomenon is the case of John C. Bennett. Soon after Bennett's baptism in Nauvoo, Joseph received a letter reporting Bennett's abandonment of wife and children. Joseph knew from personal experience that "it is no uncommon thing for good men to be evil spoken against,"[5] and did nothing precipitous. The accusations against Bennett gained credence when Joseph learned of his attempts to persuade a young woman "that he intended to marry her." Joseph dispatched Hyrum Smith and William Law to make inquiries, and in early July 1841 he learned that Bennett had a wife and children living in the east. Non-LDS sources confirmed Bennett's infidelity: one noted that he "heard it from almost every person in town that [his wife] left him in consequence of his ill treatment of her home and his intimacy with other women." Another source reported that Bennett's wife "declared that she could no longer live with him…it would be the seventh family that he had parted during their union."[6]

When confronted with the evidence privately, Bennett confessed and promised to reform. He did not, though Joseph did not make his sins public until nearly a year later.[7]

To learn more: John C. Bennett

Other examples of misplaced trust include George M. Hinckle, who sold Joseph out to the Missouri militia (resulting in his near-execution and his imprisonment in Liberty Jail) and William Law, who would help publish the Nauvoo Expositor, a newspaper which called for Joseph's death and contributed to the martyrdom.

To see citations to the critical sources for these claims, click here


  1. Brant A. Gardner, The Gift and Power: Translating the Book of Mormon (Greg Kofford Books, 2011), 82.
  2. Joseph Smith to William W. Phelps, "Dear Brother Phelps, 22 July 1840, Nauvoo, Illinois; cited in History of the Church, [citation needed]:162-164. [citation needed]/1.html&A={{{start}}} Volume [citation needed] link
  3. On the evident sincerity of Joseph in his personal writings, see Paul H. Peterson, "Understanding Joseph: A Review of Published Documentary Sources," in Joseph Smith: The Prophet, the Man, ed. Susan Easton Black and Charles D. Tate (Salt Lake City, Utah: Deseret Book Company, 1988), 109–110.
  4. Brigham H. Roberts, Comprehensive History of the Church (Provo, Utah: Brigham Young University Press, 1965). GospeLink (requires subscrip.)
  5. "To the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, and to All the Honorable Part of the Community," Times and Seasons 3 no. 17 (1 July 1842), 839. off-site GospeLink (requires subscrip.)
  6. History of the Church, 5:35-37. Volume 5 link
  7. For more details, see a discussion of the entire complex Bennett period here in PDF.

Further reading and additional sources responding to these claims