Law and Joseph Smith


Joseph Smith faced much persecution during his life. He was the victim of many vexatious lawsuits. Gordon A. Madsen, a retired attorney explained some of those lawsuits on Wednesday Aug. 17 during Campus Education Week at BYU. He said between March 1834 and November 1839 there were 45 civil lawsuits filed.

One such legal experience was in regards a written article of agreement for buying and transferring land in Harmony, Pa. Brother Madsen said Joseph purchased a building from Isaac Hale, Emma’s father, at the cost of $200. Mr. Noble, a merchant in Harmony, extended credit to Joseph. Brother Madsen noted that merchants often acted like bankers in small towns. It was disputed that Joseph did not pay it off his debit. The judge said that it was satisfied and Joseph later sold the land for $300.

“This one of the very few instances where Joseph made some money,” Brother Madsen said.

Other lawsuits involving Joseph Smith continued in Ohio. Brother Madsen recounted one that involved Philastaus Hurlbut, who apostatized from the Church and was charged with threatening the life of Joseph Smith. Mr. Hurlbut was tried and found guilty. The court ordered him to pay a peace bond and “to keep the peace and specifically to leave Joseph Smith unmolested.” Bond was posted at $200 but there was also a $112.50 court cost. Mr. Hurlbut left town and then the bondsmen were nervous because they were going to be stuck with the cost The sheriff tried to collect the court cost but the notice came back that said “No property found.”

Emma’s father wrote an affidavit in Pennsylvania, claiming Joseph had married Emma against his consent and took her out of state to get married and that he engaged in a profession for hunting treasure, for which he did not approve. Joseph was 21 years old and Emma Hale was 22 when a justice of the peace in New York married them. Brother Madsen said that state line was also the town line and the couple were of legal age to get married and Mr. Hale had “zero” say in the matter.

Even with these charges plus more, Joseph had allies who testified to his character. Once such person was Orlando Saunders, a neighbor of the Smiths in Palmyra, N.Y., who issued a statement in 1881: “I knew all the Smith family well … they all worked for me many a day; they were very good people; Young Joe (as we called him then), he worked for me, and he was a very good worker; they all were. … They were the best family in the neighborhood in case of sickness; one was at my house nearly all the time when my father died; I always thought them honest.”

In Section 104 of the Doctrine of Covenants, the Lord tells Joseph to dissolve the United Firm (United Order) and divide up the business assets. He noted that Newel K. Whitney “took a bath” financially but didn’t complain about the loss of his personal money but said “Joseph Smith said it must be done.”

When the prophet left Ohio he appointed Oliver Granger to settle the affairs of the Church. Brother Madsen said that a clerk of the court was noted as telling an agent that all debt was paid.

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