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Defending the Faith: 2 legal tests of Joseph Smith's integrity

Published: Thursday, Aug. 14 2014 3:00 p.m. MDT

Updated: Thursday, Aug. 14 2014 3:00 p.m. MDT

As I’ve noted before, Joseph Smith’s pivotal revelations were often shared by corroborating witnesses (see "Many of Prophet's revelations were shared experiences"). Still, since his personal character is crucial to the credibility of his prophetic claims, critics have predictably sought to undermine Joseph’s reputation since even before The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was organized.

Gordon Madsen has made highly significant contributions regarding historical questions about the Prophet’s character. A former assistant district attorney, assistant Utah attorney general and member of the Utah House of Representatives, he’s now a senior co-editor for the Legal and Business Records portion of the ongoing Joseph Smith Papers project.

Happily, some of his important contributions are conveniently available in a newly published BYU Studies anthology titled “Sustaining the Law: Joseph Smith’s Legal Encounters,” edited by Madsen, Jeffrey Walker and John Welch. For those interested in Mormon history, the book offers rich insights. For any who are particularly interested in the legal history of Mormonism, it’s a treasure trove.

In this column, I will focus on two of Madsen’s significant articles.

His piece on “Joseph Smith’s 1826 Trial: The Legal Setting” first appeared in 1990, in the quarterly journal “BYU Studies.” Now updated, it’s been included in the anthology under the title “Being Acquitted of a ‘Disorderly Person’ Charge in 1826.”

With a single exception, scholars agree that Joseph was never convicted of any of the criminal charges that were often filed against him by his enemies. In several of those cases, in fact, he was officially cleared of wrongdoing. The sole possible outlier is an 1826 trial in South Bainbridge, New York, in which a sworn complaint was brought before Justice Albert Neely alleging Joseph to be a “disorderly person” — a misdemeanor under the relevant laws. Some have claimed that he was convicted of the charge, which proves him guilty of being an “imposter.”

Based on meticulous analysis of the surviving legal documents in their 1826 legal context, however, Madsen concludes that Oliver Cowdery’s later account of the case “had it just about right.” Cowdery, who himself served as a justice of the peace or practiced as a lawyer for roughly a dozen years until his death in 1848, reported that Joseph was “honorably acquitted.”

Madsen’s article “Joseph Smith as Guardian: The Lawrence Estate Case” appeared in the “Journal of Mormon History” in 2010. Now, it’s included in this new book in a somewhat condensed form, as “Serving as Guardian under the Lawrence Estate, 1842-1844.”

Edward Lawrence, a Canadian convert to Mormonism, died at the end of 1839, leaving behind six minor children and a pregnant wife. Joseph agreed to serve as the guardian of the Lawrence estate, but critics have sought to portray his behavior in this role as exploitative, or at least negligent. Now, however, probate documents and court records related to the Lawrence family have been located, and Madsen’s article carefully examines those materials. They permit Joseph’s involvement to be investigated step by step.

Contrary to the negative picture cultivated by critics, Madsen argues that “the record shows that he performed his duty honorably. He did not claim compensation for service as guardian, and he made no claim for boarding Maria and Sarah; he was more generous in expenditures for and to the children and to (those who cared for Maria and Sarah’s siblings) than the law required.” Moreover, he took all the steps that he could in order, when appropriate, to transfer guardianship of the children to John Taylor.

Taken in conjunction with such other important legal-historical investigations as Walker’s 2010 “Mormon Historical Studies” essay “Joseph Smith’s Introduction to the Law,” on which I published a column "Joseph Smith was known as truthful" nearly three years ago, these articles provide specific and substantial support for the good character of the Prophet Joseph. (Walker’s article, slightly modified and now retitled “Standing as a Credible Witness in 1819,” is also republished in this new volume.) Time after time, the criticisms aimed at Joseph cannot withstand examination. In many cases, they actually turn into affirmations of his solid decency and integrity. (Consider, for example, what investigation of the early Hurlbut/Howe affidavits, gathered with the intent of discrediting Joseph and his family, actually discloses about them in my previous column "Were Smiths workers or slackers?")

Readers of this new book, “Sustaining the Law: Joseph Smith’s Legal Encounters," will learn about the organizing of the LDS Church, the Kirtland Safety Society, Missouri land claims, the Prophet’s last days in Nauvoo, how the Book of Mormon copyright was secured, and other historical issues — and will gain enhanced respect for the Prophet Joseph.

Daniel Peterson teaches Arabic studies, founded BYU's Middle Eastern Texts Initiative, directs MormonScholarsTestify.org, chairs mormoninterpreter.com, blogs daily at patheos.com/blogs/danpeterson and speaks only for himself.

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