SANDY — An Ohio court "got it wrong" when it convicted early Mormon leaders Joseph Smith and Sidney Rigdon for illegally running a controversial financial institution in 1837, says a Mormon apologist.

The Mormon leaders were running the Kirtland (Ohio) Safety Society Anti-Banking Company, but the 1816 law they were convicted under was not in force in 1837, said R. McKay White, a lawyer and an economist, during a presentation at last week's 11th annual Mormon Apologetics Conference presented by the Foundation for Apologetic Information & Research.

When the Kirtland Safety Society couldn't get a bank charter, it reorganized itself as an "anti-banking" institution and issued private notes. The 1816 law prohibited private institutions from doing this.

White quoted several newspapers from 1837 to show the 1816 law was no longer being enforced by the time the Safety Society was organized. In an interview after his presentation, White explained further that the Ohio State Legislature did not print the 1816 law in its official book of statutes in 1824.

White told the conference participants that multiple institutions throughout Ohio ran similar operations without being prosecuted under the 1816 law.

"Now why weren't they, when Joseph Smith and Sidney Rigdon were?" White said. "It couldn't be because of religious persecution. Well, it was. It was intended to get Joseph out of town, and it worked."

Joseph Smith and Sidney Rigdon had appealed the conviction, but ended up fleeing Kirtland for fear of their lives. The appeal was never heard.

The FAIR conference on Mormon apologetics was last week at the South Towne Exposition Center in Sandy.

e-mail: mdegroote@desnews.com