"For the word of the Lord is truth, and whatsoever is truth is light..."

Legal Trials of Joseph Smith

by Joseph I. Bentley

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.

The first charge of being a "disorderly person" involved treasure hunting for hire, brought against him at South Bainbridge, New York, in 1826 by a disgruntled Methodist preacher related to Josiah Stowell, Joseph's employer. When Stowell refused to testify against him at the trial, Joseph was discharged. In July 1830 in the same venue, Joseph was tried and acquitted by another magistrate on charges of "being a disorderly person, of setting the county in an uproar by preaching the Book of Mormon, etc." (HC 1:88). The trial ended at midnight. The next day, he was seized and tried in neighboring Broome County on the same charges, as well as charges of casting out a devil and using pretended angelic visitations to obtain property from others. Following a twenty-three-hour trial involving some forty witnesses, Joseph was again acquitted (HC 1:91-96).

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.

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.

Finally, election-day violence between Mormons and non-Mormons erupted at Gallatin in Daviess County, Missouri, on August 6, 1838. Joseph Smith and others called on Justice of the Peace Adam Black to obtain an "agreement of peace" from Black to support the law and not attach himself to any mob. This resulted in Joseph Smith's and Lyman Wight's being arrested, based on an affidavit alleging riot and assault by them, while obtaining the writs from Black (HC 3:61). Smith and Wight appeared before Judge Austin King and were ordered to appear at the next hearing of the grand jury in Daviess County (HC 3:73).

On October 25, 1838, Moses Rowland, a Missouri state militiaman, was killed at the Battle of Crooked River in a clash with a company of Saints who were attempting to rescue three kidnapped brethren. Upon hearing of this engagement, coupled with other reports, Governor Lilburn W. Boggs issued his infamous Extermination Order. Joseph and other leading Saints were arrested, and received a preliminary court hearing before Judge Austin King in Richmond, Missouri, on November 12-29, 1838. Joseph Smith and some other defendants were confined for four and a half months in Liberty Jail pending a grand jury indictment on such charges as murder, arson, theft, rebellion, and treason. While en route to stand trial in a more impartial venue, Joseph and others were allowed to escape, thereby preventing widespread official embarrassment on the part of the state.

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 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.

The Prophet's final use of habeas corpus came after his arrest in June 1844 by a county constable for inciting a "riot" by ordering suppression of the Nauvoo Expositor. This action climaxed a series of lawsuits between the Prophet and several apostates, who had charged him with perjury and adultery; he had countercharged with perjury, assault, defamation, and resisting arrest. After a subsequent trial on the merits and his acquittal in Nauvoo, the governor persuaded the Prophet to let himself be arrested and tried again for the "riot," this time in Carthage, where he was incarcerated without bail on a new charge of "treason" for declaring martial law and ordering out the Nauvoo militia to keep peace. Joseph Smith's enemies charged that he was going on the offensive against citizens of Illinois. Two days later, he and his brother Hyrum were killed by a mob in disguise. (See Martyrdom of Joseph and Hyrum Smith)

Even after death, legal trials involving the Prophet continued. Of sixty potential assassins named before a grand jury, nine were indicted and five stood trial at Carthage for the murder of Joseph (a separate trial was to follow for the murder of Hyrum). After a six-day trial, all defendants were acquitted in June 1845 for insufficient evidence. The final legal indignity to Joseph Smith and the Church in Illinois was a series of federal court decrees in 1851 and 1852 that liquidated all remaining personal and Church assets held by Joseph Smith during his lifetime, in order to discharge an 1842 default judgment. He had guaranteed a promissory note to the federal government in an early Nauvoo business transaction; when the note was unpaid, a succession of lawsuits followed, forestalling his efforts in bankruptcy and prompting charges of fraud and misconduct. Although plagued by bad advice and misfortune in business matters, the Prophet was never found guilty of any misconduct.



Firmage, Edwin B., and Richard C. Mangrum. Zion in the Courts: A Legal History of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1830-1900. Urbana, Ill., 1988.

Gentry, Leland H. "A History of the Latter-day Saints in Northern Missouri from 1836 to 1839," pp. 167-85, 352-401. Ph.D. diss., Brigham Young University, 1965.

History of the Church, Vol. 1, pp. 88-96, 377, 390-493; Vol. 2, pp. 85-450; Vol. 3, pp. 55-465; Vol. 4, pp. 40-430; Vol. 5.

Madsen, Gordon A. "Joseph Smith's 1826 Trial: The Legal Setting." BYU Studies 30 (Spring 1990):91.

Oaks, Dallin H. "The Suppression of the Nauvoo Expositor." Utah Law Review 9 (Winter 1965):862-903.

Oaks, Dallin H., and Joseph I. Bentley. "Joseph Smith and Legal Process: In the Wake of the Steamboat Nauvoo." BYU Law Review 3 (1976):735-82; repr. BYU Studies 19 (Winter 1979):167.

Oaks, Dallin H., and Marvin Hill. Carthage Conspiracy. Urbana, Ill., 1975.

Walters, Wesley P. "Joseph Smith's Bainbridge, N.Y., Court Trials." Westminster Theological Journal 36 (Winter 1974):123-55.



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