Joseph Smith couldn’t have known as a teenage boy that his desire to be forgiven of his sins and to join the right church would have led him to spend so much time in courtrooms before his death at age 38. He was involved in legal cases in five U.S. states and one U.S. territory.
He defended the Church’s right to exist and its right to own property. He defended himself, his family, and members of the Church against threats on their lives and livelihoods. He defended against libel and slander from those who didn’t believe in the Church or simply didn’t like him.
As reported by Willard Richards, Joseph Smith once gave an explanation of the U.S. Constitution and its empowerment of the people. “The Constitution is not a law but empowers the people to make laws,” Joseph said. “The Constitution is not law to us— but a provision to make laws. Where it provides that no one shall not be hindered from worshipping God according to his own conscience, is a law.”
Read more: 50 years of BYU Law School: An inside look at the charge to teach laws of man in the light of God’s laws
Detractors of Joseph Smith belittle him for his lack of education. Some claim he couldn’t have translated the Book of Mormon. The same lack of education could have precluded him from legally defending himself and the newly restored Church, but he studied hard and prayed harder. After one particular case where the court moved in favor of Joseph Smith after his life was threatened, Joseph said the outcome “was in answer to our prayer for which I thank my heavenly father.”
In a way, Joseph Smith’s learning of the law was a way to apply the Savior’s teaching during His earthly ministry to, “Render to Cæsar the things that are Cæsar’s, and to God the things that are God’s” (Mark 12:17). He learned earthly law and heaven’s laws and used both to better the situation of the restored Church.