When the Law Fails: Joseph Smith and the Persecution of the Mormons

Dr. Richard Bushman, Professor of History Emeritus at Columbia University and award winning author, discusses how weak minorities best respond when the law abandons them by taking the example of the Mormon’s own history.

LDS scholar Joseph Bently examines the many legal trials that Joseph Smith had in his lifetime. There are many common misconceptions about these trials that are spread by anti-Mormons.

Joseph Bentley clears these up and presents the facts of these trials. Some condemn Joseph Smith for being involved with any legal trial, but it must be remembered that Jesus Christ Himself, a perfect being, was also falsely accused.

This presentation was made at the FAIR Mormon conference in 2008:

Joseph was involved in 175 trials.   50 cases he had to defend, as a result of criminal charges.

Joseph’s first trial at age 20 was for a misdemeanor in 1826.  This was a year before Moroni’s visit.  The trial took place in Harmony, PA.   In court records, Joseph was referred to as a “glass looker” (not the formal charge, but part of the description).  The charge was a form of disorderly conduct.  “For falsely pretending to recover lost goods.”

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Josiah Stowell home in Afton, NY.

He was arrested.  Posted bail.  Jumped bail.  Rearrested.  Was allowed to escape.  All this related to being hired by Josiah Stowell to find buried treasure.  Eventually, Joseph encouraged Stowell to give up this pursuit.

Josiah’s nephew brought the charges, thinking Joseph had not lived up to his obligations.  Stowell vindicated Joseph.  This might have been the closest that Joseph came to a conviction.


Joseph, however, found Emma at this time, as he was staying at the Hales’ home.  After rumors of Joseph’s legal trouble, Emma’s parents disowned her.  She never saw them again.

Only a few suits were brought against Joseph in NY.   66 were brought in Ohio during the seven years the Saints lived there.  More than anywhere else.

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The biggest legal challenge and business failure of Joseph’s life was the Kirtland Safety Society.  The banking license was denied at the last minute.  The suit came, as a result of operating a bank without a license.  Eventually (25 years later), the RLDS Church gained possession of the Kirtland Temple.

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In Missouri, ironically, very few suits were brought.  The reason is simple:  the enemies of the Church simply took action on their own through vigilante justice.

A three-month span in late 1838 led to the worst parts of Missouri history.  This culminatined in the Boggs-issued Extermination Order.  Following this, Joseph and the entire First Presidency was jailed.  First in Richmond.  Then in Liberty.  Brigham led the mass evacuation east to Quincy.

1840: possibly the best year of Joseph’s life.  No lawsuit all year.  They received the Nauvoo Charter.  They never used the Nauvoo Legion, but had it ready.  They had the right of habeas corpus: the right to bring the accused for a second examination.  A little city state was created in Nauvoo.