Joseph Smith and legal issues

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Joseph Smith and legal issues

Question: 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]

Question: Did Joseph Smith mismanage the estate of two orphans, Maria and Sarah Lawrence by marrying these sisters polygamously in order to use the marriage to enrich himself?

The account presented is given by a bitter apostate: The courts found that Joseph's conduct had been appropriate

Note: This wiki section was based partly on a review of G.D. Smith's Nauvoo Polygamy. As such, it focuses on that author's presentation of the data. To read the full review, follow the link. Gregory L. Smith, A review of Nauvoo Polygamy:...but we called it celestial marriage by George D. Smith. FARMS Review, Vol. 20, Issue 2. (Detailed book review)

It is claimed that Joseph Smith mismanaged the estate of two orphans, Maria and Sarah Lawrence. Joseph also married these sisters polygamously, and it is suggested that he also used the marriage to enrich himself. [3]

The account presented is given by a bitter apostate—offered nearly forty-three years after the fact—exclusive precedence over contemporary court documents, which demonstrate that the courts found that Joseph's conduct had been appropriate.

G.D. Smith reports that William Law charged Joseph with

fiduciary neglect of his teenage responsibility, Maria Lawrence. Reviewing his own actions forty years later, Law concluded that Joseph was not the only one who had taken advantage of a defenseless girl. Emma, he believed, was equally complicit. . . . With Hyrum Smith’s death, William Law, the other bondsman for the Lawrences, felt acutely the responsibility he bore, ultimately reimbursing Joseph’s $3,000 worth of expenses charged to the estate—the amount Joseph had claimed as the value of room and board (pp. 438–39).

Repeating error

By accepting Law’s account, G. D. Smith commits many of the same errors present in Todd Compton’s In Sacred Loneliness. However, even before the publication of Compton’s book, Gordon A. Madsen had presented data showing the falsity of Law’s charges. Compton has the excuse that Madsen’s material was unpublished when his book went to press and only available from a presentation made at the Mormon History Association in 1996. More than a decade later, G. D. Smith makes the same errors, though with no hint of the exculpatory evidence available from the primary documents. [4] He even cites Madsen’s materials but tells the reader nothing about their contents. [5]

Ignoring other sources since Compton

G. D. Smith has apparently not paid attention to what the FARMS Review reported on this topic either, since

most of what Law said about the estate itself was incorrect. . . . Madsen’s paper quoted the will, under which Maria and Sarah would share equal parts of the estate with several siblings, but the distribution was not due during the life of their widowed mother, who was entitled to her share of annual interest on the undivided assets. . . . Between 1841 and early 1844, Joseph Smith charged nothing for boarding Maria and Sarah, nor did he bill the estate for management fees. Furthermore, in mid-1843, the probate court approved his accounts, including annual interest payments to the widow, as required by the will. . . . Gordon Madsen’s overall point was that the Prophet met his legal responsibilities in being entrusted with the Lawrence assets. There is no hint of fraud. [6]

Following William Law regardless

But rather than respond to this material or describe Madsen’s conclusions, G. D. Smith merely follows the hostile William Law. Madsen further informed me that there was never any “cash” in the estate delivered to Joseph, and certainly not the “$8,000.00 in English gold” that Law would later claim. [7]

The bulk of the estate was in promissory notes owed by fellow Canadians to the Lawrences. Law was well aware of this since he and his brother Wilson were hired by Joseph to collect some of these debts. Joseph’s accounts provided the probate court list payment to “W. & W. Law” in such cases. At one point, Joseph “sent William Clayton to Wilson Law to find out why he refused paying his note, when he brought in some claims as a set-off which Clayton knew were paid, leaving me no remedy but the glorious uncertainty of the law.” [8] It is not clear whether this was Law’s own note or one owed to the Lawrences. Certainly the estate was never liquid, and it is likely that not all of the notes had been collected before Joseph’s death. [9]

To portray Joseph as “us[ing] celestial marriage as a means to access . . . [a] fortune” (p. 439) is to ignore virtually all the primary sources.

Question: 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 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.

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  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.
  3. Todd Compton, In Sacred Loneliness: The Plural Wives of Joseph Smith (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1997), 478-479. ( Index of claims ); William Law, cited in “Dr. Wyl and Dr. Wm. Law,” Daily Tribune (Salt Lake City), 13 July 1887, 6.
  4. Compton, In Sacred Loneliness, 475, 742–43; this is discussed in Anderson and Faulring, “Joseph Smith and His Plural Wives,” 90. Compton replies in Compton, “Truth, Honesty and Moderation,” noting the difficulties that he had in accessing Madsen’s as-yet-unpublished findings. In preparation for this review, I spoke with Madsen, who told me that when approached by Compton, he felt his materials were not yet ready for distribution. Madsen believes a responder to his 1996 presentation at the Mormon History Association conference at Snowbird, Utah, placed some rough notes on the presentation in the library (Madsen to Gregory L. Smith, personal communication, 21 November 2008).
  5. G. D. Smith, Nauvoo Polygamy, 196 n. 137, cites “Gordon Madsen, ‘The Lawrence Estate Revisited: Joseph Smith and Illinois Law regarding Guardianships,’ Nauvoo Symposium, Sept. 21, 1989, Brigham Young University, copy in possession of Todd Compton; see Sacred Loneliness, 474–476.” Strangely, this paper was not cited by Compton, nor is Madsen’s work mentioned on the pages cited by Smith. Compton’s actual discussion of Madsen’s research is restricted to endnotes on pages 742–746: “Madsen, Gordon. ‘Joseph Smith as Guardian: The Lawrence Estate.’ Paper given at Mormon History Association, May 18, 1996. . . . I have followed Madsen as closely as possible from my notes, but do not have his written argument and citations.” The FARMS Review (cited in main text above) also provided some of Madsen’s data in a review of Compton’s work, which G. D. Smith likewise ignores. G. D. Smith’s reference to 1989 instead of 1996 may be related to an event reported in the Ensign: “William Law’s recollection of how Joseph Smith, as guardian of the Lawrence children, cheated them and him is full of errors, claimed Gordon A. Madsen. All the court records pertaining to the guardianship and Joseph Smith’s management of the Lawrence estate still exist. They show that virtually all of Law’s claims are mistaken.” (“Nauvoo Symposium Held at Brigham Young University,” Ensign, November 1989, 109–11). Madsen told me that he had never given an address about the Lawrence estate until his 1996 MHA presentation, while his 1989 talk focused on the Austin King hearing in Richmond, Missouri, not the Anderson estate. In any case, Madsen’s research nowhere corroborates G. D. Smith’s version (GL Smith, personal communication as above).
  6. Danel W. Bachman, "Prologue to the Study of Joseph Smith's Marital Theology (Review of In Sacred Loneliness: The Plural Wives of Joseph Smith)," FARMS Review of Books 10/2 (1998): 105–137. off-site
  7. “Dr. Wyl and Dr. Wm. Law,” Daily Tribune (Salt Lake City), 13 July 1887, 6; see also Compton, In Sacred Loneliness, 742.
  8. Joseph Smith, History of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 7 volumes, edited by Brigham H. Roberts, (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1957), 6:350. Volume 6 link
  9. FairMormon thanks to Gordon A. Madsen, who was gracious enough to review GL Smith's draft of the Lawrence material. He also provided GL Smith with the information in this paragraph. Any mistakes or misapprehensions remain ours, and he is not responsible for these conclusions. Madsen’s manuscript on the Lawrence estate is currently (as of Dec 2008) in preparation for publication.