NAUVOO, ILL. — Joseph Smith was “a remarkable man, a great American and one whom I and millions of our current countrymen honor as a prophet of God,” Elder Dallin H. Oaks declared Sept. 23 on the eve of a dramatization in the Illinois state capital of the Prophet’s legal contests.
Elder Oaks of the Quorum of the Twelve spoke on the topic “Behind the Extraditions: Joseph Smith, the Man and the Prophet” in an hour-long address at the Church’s Nauvoo Visitor's Center attended by members of the state’s legal community and others from Illinois, Utah and elsewhere.
“This evening’s program combines two important topics: habeas corpus and Joseph Smith,” noted Elder Oaks, a former law clerk to U.S. Supreme Court Justice Earl Warren and a former Utah Supreme Court justice.
“As a young professor more than 50 years ago at the University of Chicago Law School, I published three law review articles on habeas corpus. But I will here focus primarily on Joseph Smith. I am a lifelong student of his life, his work and the times in which he lived, especially in Illinois.”
Not until the end of the Civil War would the Bill of Rights in the U.S. Constitution begin to be extended to the states, Elder Oaks noted. “Therefore, during Joseph’s life, fundamental First Amendment rights like the free exercise of religion and freedom of speech and press only restrained the federal government. During Joseph Smith’s lifetime, individual states had to define and regulate such rights at the local level.”
Joseph came face-to-face with that reality when he sought help in getting redress for the damages his people had suffered in being driven from Missouri under an extermination order issued by the governor of that state, Elder Oaks said. With his political career rooted in states’ rights, U.S. President Martin Van Buren’s position was “unfortunately predictable” when he gave his famous response, ‘Gentlemen, your cause is just, but I can do nothing for you,’” Elder Oaks observed.
“It was not surprising that when Joseph Smith ran for the U.S. presidency in 1844, one of the planks in his platform was to strengthen the federal government’s ability to ensure justice and redress for all citizens and to ensure that the Constitution was applied equally to the states,” he said. Controversial though his position was at the time, it ultimately became the law of the land “and a critical component in America’s democracy,” he added.
It was in the environment of dynamic tension between between federal and state governments and the will of the majority while protecting minorities that Joseph lived and guided the Church, Elder Oaks said. “This was a period in which the high promises afforded by the United States Constitution were tested by the often violent actions of frontier people.”
The Prophet became a student of the Constitution, he said, and championed it as “a glorious standard founded in the wisdom of God.”
“Joseph Smith’s intellectual understanding of the protections afforded by the writ of habeas corpus justifies admiration by any student of the law,” Elder Oaks declared.
But Joseph’s most lasting contribution to the world comes from the insights he received in his capacity as a prophet, Elder Oaks noted. “Though few people know of Joseph Smith’s intellectual statements about the Constitution, millions know and read his revelatory statements about it.”
Joseph affirmed by teaching and personal experiences that revelation did not cease with the early apostles and that it is a reality for everyone, Elder Oaks observed.
“Revelation is the foundation of our Church doctrine and governance, and it is also fundamental to personal conversion, personal decision-making and the ways we understand and apply the inspired texts we call the scriptures,” he explained.
While it is common for critics of the prophet to label him as “ignorant” due to his lack of access to the learning of his day, perhaps it is time for educated non-believers to pose the question a biographer posed about George Washington, “Where did his genius come from?” Elder Oaks said. “I see the answer to that question as revelation from God.”
Such revelation led him to teach his people to use the law to fight injustice and to trust in the Constitution, he observed. “And so the people sought redress in the courts. They followed him.”
Brief introductory remarks were given by James R. Thompson, Illinois governor from 1977 to 1991. He is now the chair of the Illinois Supreme Court Historic Preservation Commission.
“The general purpose of these special events, the first of which we’ll hear tonight, is to examine historical trials, to raise awareness of modern-day issues. Our history guides us and it can’t be separated from current public policy,” he said. “The law guides us in our everyday lives and relationship between law and history is important, not only to study, but even more important to disseminate to the people of our state. Our events today in Nauvoo, tomorrow in Springfield and next month in Chicago help explain a complex issue, habeas corpus, inherited from the common law in medieval times.”
Elder Oaks began his speech on a humorous note as he recalled his first meeting with Gov. Thompson. Elder Oaks was a young professor at the University of Chicago Law School appointed by an appellate court to represent a defendant convicted of burglary. Mr. Thompson was the prosecutor in the case.
“Hoping to impress a panel of apparently uninterested justice, he drew upon the Victor Hugo novel Les Miserables, calling his client “a sort of 20th century Jean Valjean.”
“As Mr. Thompson came to the lectern, the presiding judge, whom I had thought uncomprehending, welcomed the prosecutor with these words: ‘I presume you are Monsieur Javert.’”