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Sustaining the Law - Joseph Smith's Legal Encounters Hardcover – February 12, 2014
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While this may come across as hyperbole, this volume presents new
research that shows that "as a defendant, he was never convicted of any
criminal offense" (page xvii). Among other things, it reexamines the
prominent cases that have typically been used as examples where Joseph
was guilty, such as disorderly conduct, the Kirtland Safety Society, and
the destruction of the Nauvoo Expositor press.
The editors of the book have been involved in the forthcoming legal
volumes of the Joseph Smith Papers, and this book is an outcropping of
that project. Its objective is to help the reader understand the complex
legal landscape of the time and how Joseph Smith interacted with it. The
book is made up of 18 papers, some of which are new; some are condensed
and retitled reprints of papers going back as far as 1965. This
collection of papers has been used to teach law students at BYU for the
last eight years. This is the first book to focus exclusively on the
legal aspects of Joseph Smith's life, and there is a sequel now being
The Joseph Smith Papers project has (so far) found documentation for
over 200 cases that Joseph Smith was involved with in some way. Before
this, only around 50 were known. The cases range from debt collections
to criminal matters. In the back of the book is a 54 page legal
chronology listing these legal items along with significant events in
Joseph's life. Following that are biographies of the lawyers and judges
In helping the reader to understand a very different legal environment
that prevailed in the day, there is a glossary of early 19th century
legal terms drawn from the 1839 Bouvier's Law Dictionary. There is also
a list of suggested "Readings on Law, Culture, and Politics in Joseph
Smith's Era." Throughout the book, there are helpful illustrations such
as documents, bank notes, portraits, maps, and diagrams.
One of the ways in which the law was different than today is that the
Bill of Rights only applied to the federal government, and the
Fourteenth Amendment had not yet been added. Also, the court system was
much different, and it - and the laws - varied by state. There was no
law school and "juries reigned almost supreme" (page xv).
One of the interesting cases covered by multiple papers in the book is
that of Maria Lawrence, with whom Joseph Smith was accused of living in
open adultery. Many different possible defenses are detailed (Joseph was
killed before the case was brought to trial so it can only be guessed
how the case would have been handled). Some of the possible defenses
included being protected under federal and state law, not being "open"
adultery, lack of witnesses, and being protected under a Nauvoo
ordinance that was made for Muslims. Unfortunately, an additional
possibility mentioned is a bit weak. It involves medically proving that
the marriage was never consummated. The author of the paper, M. Scott
Bradshaw, admits in a footnote that Brian Hales has shown that it
probably was consummated, but Bradshaw discounts the evidence saying it
is secondhand and from a much later date. I found it somewhat humorous
that, in looking up the reference to volume 2 of Hales' Joseph Smith's
Polygamy, Hales mentions that Gordon A. Madsen (who uses the same
reasoning as Bradshaw) disagrees with him. Hales cites a paper by
Madsen, which is actually included (under a slightly different name) in
this book. Hales also points out that the medical procedure suggested is
not very reliable.
I must mention how much I appreciate that footnotes are used, rather
than endnotes. I really prefer looking at the bottom of the page instead
of having to constantly look at the end of a chapter or the back of a
book, even in cases where the footnotes cover the majority of the page.
And I believe that this is the first book I've seen that references
volumes from the Joseph Smith Papers. Unfortunately, there are a number
of typographical errors throughout the book that detract a bit from the
This is a fascinating book for anyone interested in law, the early
history of the Church, or the life of Joseph Smith. It brings forth new
research that requires history to be reconsidered, which will be of
benefit to the historian as well as the apologist who wishes to counter
claims regarding Joseph Smith's character. Joseph Smith is ultimately
shown to be an honest man who worked within the law of his time to the
best of his understanding.
Mormons instead of the confidence man he was. JS was the type of personality who was narcissistic who needed to control others into
doing his desires and commands. He used the excuse that god was telling him what to do. The authors constantly refer to the so-
called revelations from god. There is no neutral position from these writers--JS is almost always right. JS claimed in the 12th Article of Faith that "We believe in obeying, honoring, and sustaining the law." JS certainly did not include himself in the "we" and he eventually gathered enough dictatorial powers into his person when he controlled Nauvoo, IL where he was mayor, general of the militia, chief justice, head of the Mormon Church. He gave himself, with the consent of the Nauvoo Councel, total economic powers whereby he had a monopoly there to cross the Mississippi River.
Not every chapter in the book deals with crimes or alledged crimes. The publication and securing the copyright for THE BOOK OF
MORMON was certainly no crime but I would state that the entire claim regarding the burial and finding of the so-called golden plates
could constitute a crime under New York laws regarding disorderly persons or jugglers finding buried treasure. JS's motive in the
pretense of the golden plates being a history of the Israelites in America (Nephites) and the surviving Lamanites (the American
Indians) was to make a profit by duping his victims. JS started his criminal career as a glass-looker who pretended he could see
buried treasure under the surface of the earth and he was paid for it. He never found any such treasure and there were enough
witnesses who could testify to his scam. He was brought to a preliminary hearing in 1826 at South Bainbridge, NY at the court of Albert
Neely, Jr. where Peter Bridgeman accused him of this scam. Here Gordon Madsen claims that JS was acquitted. Nothing could be
further from the truth. The court only had the power to determine whether there was enough evidence to try JS of the crimes of which he
was accused. There was no trial. Either the judge decided that JS was too young or he let JS go on his own recognizance. The
documents show that there was enough evidence to charge JS as a con-man and that Constable De Zeng had a mittimus (warrant) "to
take him" (arrest JS). The full story can never be known in the absence of documentation. JS was later charged with the same crimes
in the same town in 1830. Madsen claims that JS was acquitted but the defense claimed that the statute of limitations had expired
which is not the same as "not guilty."
One of the most serious charges against JS was in Ohio where he created the Kirtland Safety Society Bank (later the anti-bank) without
the required Ohio state license. Jeffrey Walker claims that he did not need the required license to create the bank (or whatever one
calls it) but Walker calls it a private joint stock company and therefore legal. Walker never mentions the fact the JS had hundreds of
thousands of dollars worth of notes printed with the name of the bank on it and JS did not have the required amount of gold specie to
back up these paper notes. Eventually JS and Signey Rigdon were found guilty and fined each $1000. The guilt of JS is in his act to
flee Ohio and the law and he headed to Missouri where indeed JS would find himself in a lot of legal trouble. There Governor Boggs
was wrong to drive out the Mormons or exterminate them but the JS apologists never mention that Sidney Rigdon (with JS's blessings)
called for the extermination of apostates and enemies (and their families) of Mormonism.
The history in Illinois and especially Nauvoo gives a deep insight into the power grab of JS who could not tolerate opposition and
exposure of the marriage crimes which violated the Illinois marriage and bigamy laws. William Law and others created the NAUVOO
EXPOSITOR and exposed JS's violations of the bigamy laws which made if illegal to marry a second person when the first spouse had
not died or been divorced from. It was a felony to marry a second wife or husband, knowing the first one was still alive. That person
(in this case JS) could be sentenced to at least 2 years and/or fined $1000 (Criminal Code of IL: 11th Division, Section 118). We now
know that JS had several dozen other wives.
More important is the order of JS and the Nauvoo Municipal Council to the town marshal to destroy the NAUVOO EXPOSITOR which
had published its first edition exposing what JS was doing and what he intended to do. JS simply could not tolerate opposition or
being exposed of his polygamous activities. The printing press was destroyed and the type scattered and as many published pages
being burned. Dallin Oaks tries to make the case it was legal for the Council to declare the EXPOSITOR as a nuisance since their
claims might lead to a Mormon mob going after the newspaper. Oaks states that the destruction of the press was illegal but it should have been closed down. Oaks made a major error in only quoting Article VIII, Section 22 of the 1818 Illinois Constitution which basically states that "printing presses shall be free to every person . . . and every citizen may freely speak, write, and print on any subject, being responsible for the abuse of that liberty."
Dallin Oaks never mentions Section 23 of Article VIII which states that "in all indictments for libels the jury shall have the right of
determining both the law and the fact, under the direction of the courts in other cases." There was no trial of the owners of the
EXPOSITOR or a jury decision. The destruction of the newspaper was decided by JS and his cronies on the Council which was illegal
under the Illinois Constitution. It was one of the last illegal actions on the part of JS and shows that he had no respect for the laws of
the state and that in his own mind, he was the law. It would lead to his death at Carthage jail.