PROVO, Utah — For years historians thought that when the Mormon church was originally created it followed a particular 19th-century New York statute. But David Stott, an attorney from New York, found that the church was complying with a different set of legal rules. "When seeking out what legally took place on April 6, 1830, historians have assumed the church members tried to form a 'religious corporation,'" Stott said. But they didn't. This doesn't mean The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (then called the Church of Christ) was operating illegally. It does mean, however, that some common assumptions about what happened on April 6 may need to be revised. Stott spoke on Friday, March 12, during the BYU Studies Symposium. He gave a lawyer's perspective on what happened on the day the LDS Church was organized. There were two basic ways to form churches in 1830 in New York. One way was to create a "religious corporation." The other was to form a "religious society." A quick look at the statutory requirements to create a religious corporation might make it seem that was what Joseph Smith Jr., Oliver Cowdery and other believers were doing. After all, a corporation seems to be a good idea — it provides for orderly succession, property management and standard ways of entering into contracts. Stott said to form a religious corporation required an announcement of when and where the church was to be organized, it would take place at a meetinghouse, two elders would preside, a group of trustees would be elected, and it would be certified with a recorded document. Although the April 6 meeting was announced and the meeting place, the Peter Whitmer farm, was a recognized place for the believers to gather, the other requirements don't match. The "two elders" sole purpose in a religious corporation was to preside over the election of trustees — this didn't match the role of the new church's two elders, Joseph Smith and Cowdery — whose authority was over the church. The six original members of the church are never described as being trustees. And, according to Stott, no government document memorializing any incorporation has ever been found. So if the organization of the church wasn't a corporation, where did that idea come from? Doctrine and Covenants 20 states that the church was "regularly organized and established agreeable to the laws of our country." "This made historians look for one specific statute that they could point to," Stott said. But early statements like this could just as easily mean "we organized legally. We organized according to what lawyers call the common law — which is kind of the accepted general practice even though there is not necessarily a statute that governs it." Stott said the most common way to organize a religious group was as a common-law religious society. The model for an organizational meeting to create a religious society wasn't found in the statutes. Instead, the early believers had to look at the practices of other churches. Most religious societies were not new churches but branches of established churches. They each had their own particular way of organizing. Presbyterians, for example, required two ruling elders who gave notice of the meeting, conducted a worship service at the meeting, elected the ruling elders at the meeting, set apart the elders and conducted other ordinances such as baptisms. The type of meeting conducted on April 6, 1830, fits this pattern, according to Stott. Unlike an incorporation meeting — where the whole point of gathering is to elect trustees — the organization of the LDS Church was about choosing two presiding elders. The sacrament was given, ordinations were performed and baptisms were completed. Another indication that the church's first legal status was as a religious society, according to Stott, is there is no mention made of any "incorporation," only of "organizing." The primary concern of Joseph Smith, Stott said, was to organize according to the laws of God. At the same time, it was important to comply with the laws of man. The legal evidence appears to be that the organization was what was known as a religious society — a church that began with six and would one day number in the millions.
BYU Symposium: LDS Church's first legal status