What President Oaks has learned from 50 years of writing about the Prophet Joseph Smith

As a law professor at The University of Chicago in the 1960s, President Dallin H. Oaks began conducting legal research on the murder trial of the assassins of Joseph Smith, a trial almost entirely unknown in Church history. 

He drove to the Hancock County courthouse in Carthage, Illinois, and found a large packet of documents indexed by the name of one of the defendants in the trial — a packet which had been sealed and apparently never opened. 

Recounting this story during the BYU Church History Symposium on Friday, March 13, President Oaks described records he discovered after opening the packet: John Taylor’s signature on a complaint against nine individuals for Joseph Smith’s murder, the indictment, subpoenas for witnesses, names of jurors and the written verdict of not guilty. 

“We have a book,” President Oaks eagerly told Marvin S. Hill, a historian and BYU professor with whom President Oaks co-authored the book “Carthage Conspiracy” published in 1975. Hill died in 2016. 

The first counselor in the First Presidency told his audience in the Church Office Building Auditorium in Salt Lake City that, for 10 years, he and Hill “scoured libraries and archives across the nation to find every scrap of information about those involved in the trial.” Nothing they found cast any doubt on the integrity of the Prophet Joseph, he said.

Shortly before the book was submitted to the publisher, a strong impression led President Oaks to the last piece of information they needed: an additional set of minutes on the trial testimony. He found the highly authentic notes of the Church’s scribe, George Watt, in the Church archives after being led to them by an entry in a book behind his desk at BYU. 

“To me, that experience is cherished evidence of how the Lord will help us in our righteous professional pursuits, when we seek guidance and are sensitive to the promptings of His Spirit,” President Oaks said. 

President Oaks has written about the Prophet Joseph Smith in various capacities for more than 50 years. During his symposium address titled “Writing about the Prophet Joseph Smith,” he shared what he has learned while being guided by inspiration in researching several of his written works about the Prophet of the Restoration. 

The Nauvoo Expositor and ‘presentism’ 

When Joseph Smith was serving as mayor of Nauvoo, the Nauvoo City Council destroyed the press, scattered the type and burned copies of the Nauvoo Expositor, a newspaper that opposed the Church. Suppression of that newspaper led “directly to the arrest and murder of Joseph Smith,” President Oaks said. 

Professor G. Homer Durham, later a Church historian, referred to this action as “the great Mormon mistake.”

President Oaks’ interest in this subject was sparked in 1958 with inspiration to examine briefs of the 1931 case Near vs. Minnesota. In this case, the U.S. Supreme Court reversed the action of a state court for the first time in a case involving freedom of speech and press. The facts of the case involved official suppression of a newspaper, just like the Nauvoo Expositor.

Modern criticism of the Nauvoo Council’s action has been based on those freedoms being applicable to the states under the 14th amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

“However, that amendment was not adopted until 20 years after the Nauvoo suppression,” President Oaks said. “The law in 1844, including interpretation of the state constitutional guarantees of a free press, offered considerable support for what Nauvoo had done.”

This experience taught President Oaks to oppose “presentism,” which he described as “relying on current perspectives and culture to criticize official or personal actions in the past.” He said, “Past actions should be judged by the laws and culture of that time.”

Joseph Smith’s bankruptcy and property at death

President Oaks said his most significant work was a 50-page article on Joseph Smith’s bankruptcy proceeding, co-authored with Joseph Bentley and published in the BYU Law Review in 1976.

"Joseph Smith, Jr.," by Danquart Anthon Weggeland
“Joseph Smith, Jr.,” by Danquart Anthon Weggeland Credit: Intellectual Reserve, Inc.

Researching legal proceedings in Illinois state and federal courts, President Oaks and Bentley learned why the Church received nothing from the property Joseph held in trust for the Church at the time of his death (reasons included bad legal advice and his application for bankruptcy being blocked by a large creditor). 

President Oaks also gained insight into strained relations between Emma Smith and Brigham Young. 

Though “in fairness and equity” these extensive properties belonged to the Church when Joseph died, a federal court decree determined they were technically owned by Joseph and therefore subject to Emma’s marital rights and the claims of creditors. The consequence of such was devastating for the Church, which had no resources to move West.

“But Emma had a clear legal right under the law of Illinois. … She only insisted on what was legally hers,” President Oaks said.

He continued, “It is easy to see why the Church in Utah was aggrieved when (Emma) used that property to secure legal ownership to the Mansion House and other close-by properties for her and her new husband, Lewis Bidamon.”

Revelation and the Book of Mormon

Commemorating the 200th anniversary of Joseph Smith’s birth in 2005, the Library of Congress partnered with BYU in a two-day conference. President Oaks was invited to represent the Church and presented a paper titled “Joseph Smith in a Personal World.”

President Oaks highlighted the Prophet’s personal qualities, such as his endearing “native cheery temperament” and how the Saints often called him “Brother Joseph.” He also emphasized Joseph’s comparative youth — receiving the First Vision at age 14 and translating the Book of Mormon at age 23. 

“Revelation is the key to the uniqueness of Joseph Smith’s message,” he told the audience in 2005. “Joseph Smith affirmed by countless teachings and personal experiences that revelation did not cease with the early apostles, but that it continued in his day and continues in ours.”

President Oaks said what he remembers best about that event is what the nine non-Latter-day Saint scholars did not say about Joseph Smith’s translation of the Book of Mormon.

Only one speaker, Professor Robert V. Remini of the University of Illinois, mentioned the Book of Mormon more than referring to it by name. Emphasizing the short time it took Joseph to translate, Remini said, “As a writer, I find that feat absolutely incredible. Sixty days! Two months to produce a work running over 600 pages and of such complexity and density. Unbelievable.”

Joseph Smith and the U.S. Constitution

In 2013 President Oaks was invited to introduce Joseph Smith at a conference sponsored by the Illinois Supreme Court’s Historic Preservation Commission and the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum in Springfield, Illinois. 

The conference focused on historical and constitutional developments in Illinois, including Joseph Smith’s extradition cases, which (like slavery) involved the great current issues of state versus federal power. 

President Dallin H. Oaks shares a laugh with President Henry B. Eyring on March 13, 2020, at the Brigham Young University Church History Symposium in the Church Office Building Auditorium in Salt Lake City.
President Dallin H. Oaks shares a laugh with President Henry B. Eyring on March 13, 2020, at the Brigham Young University Church History Symposium in the Church Office Building Auditorium in Salt Lake City. Credit: Intellectual Reserve, Inc.

During that conference address, President Oaks quoted a few statements from Joseph Smith concerning the U.S. Constitution. 

“I am the greatest advocate of the Constitution of the United States there is on the earth,” Joseph Smith said. “In my feelings I am always ready to die for the protection of the weak and oppressed in their just rights.”

The U.S. Constitution protected Joseph Smith and his people in his extradition cases in Illinois. “In a nation struggling to balance the rights of majority and minority, the courts [in those cases] acted to protect a persecuted prophet from what would probably have been his death in that state,” President Oaks said. 

President Oaks concluded his address in Salt Lake City with the same words he shared in Springfield in 2013:

“Joseph Smith’s character was perhaps best summed up by men who knew him best and stood closest to him in Church leadership. They adored him. Brigham Young declared, ‘I do not think that a man lives on the earth that knew [Joseph Smith] any better than I did; and I am bold to say that, Jesus Christ excepted, no better man ever lived or does live upon this earth.’

“One does not need to agree with that superlative to conclude that … [he] was, indeed, a remarkable man, a great American, and one whom I and millions of our current countrymen honor as a prophet of God.”

A transcript of President Oaks’ address is available at Newsroom.ChurchofJesusChrist.org.