Exonerating Joseph Smith

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A couple of years ago, while travelling through Salt Lake City, my parents and I took a brief tour of the Church History Museum. One thing that struck me as odd was the exhibit “Joseph Smith: Prophet of the Restoration1, specifically the details about Joseph Smith’s death and the lack of information regarding the circumstances which put him in jail.

It has always been my understanding that when Joseph Smith was murdered, he was in Carthage Jail waiting trial for his order to destroy the printing presses of the Nauvoo Expositor (wikipedia, original text), but according to one of the couple missionaries at the museum, he was there under the charge of treason.

It turns out, both charges are related. Smith had originally been charged and exonerated of “inciting a riot” with regard to the printing press situation but due to public outcry the Illinois governor, Thomas Ford, ordered that he be arrested and tried again—violating the United States constitution by putting Smith in double jeopardy.

Several days before his death, the charges were changed from “inciting a riot” to “treason” for his declaration of martial law in Nauvoo. Was this change of charges legal? Whether legal or not was Joseph Smith posthumously exonerated for the charge of treason?

In my mind, if he has been exonerated of all wrongdoing, the church should put up a statement saying so in the Church History Museum and on their website. If he hasn’t, is there some reason?

1 The exhibit details can be found at josephsmith.net.

13 thoughts on “Exonerating Joseph Smith

  1. I’m not a lawyer, but I’d say the case against Joseph Smith would be hard to make.

    I find it hard to connect treason with a Mayor declaring Marshall Law. It’s not like he was declaring independence.

    Assuming his case is easy to make, why is it important to clear his name? Or why not?

  2. Dallin H. Oaks has a lot to say about the matter. I don’t have a ready web link, but he has discussed at length the matter of the destruction of the Nauvoo Expositor press from his perspective as a former state supreme court justice. In a nutshell, he says that according to the state of constitutional law in 1844, Joseph had a strong case and likely would have been exonerated.

    It’s also important to note that the Nauvoo City Council had debated what to do about the Expositor for a couple days after the first issue ran and chose this course of action only after consulting with a number of lawyers on the issue.

    Joseph Smith wasn’t sitting in Carthage merely for the Expositor’s fate. The enemies of the church were truly out for blood in the months leading up to that point, and it colors every action during that period on all sides. Joseph and the City Council thought the Expositor’s rhetoric could get people killed and folks within and without Nauvoo were lining up for the chance to do the killing. Governor Ford got involved in the matter specifically because the locals made little secret of the fact that they were out for blood, and he was trying to avert all-out war.

    At any rate, it wasn’t the destruction of the Expositor that led to Joseph’s death. If that hadn’t had that big debate as a pretense to get him locked up within range of the mobbers’ muzzles, there would have been some other awful outcome the summer of 1844.

  3. “Joseph had a strong case [re: the destruction of the Nauvoo Expositor] and likely would have been exonerated.”

    He WAS exonerated in that case. But what about the case of treason, the new charge that was thrown at him?

    Is it within the Mayor’s discretion to declare martial law?

    As for “the Expositor’s rhetoric”, didn’t it turn out that the Expositor was actually telling the truth about Joseph and his many wives? Correct me if I’m mistaken, but isn’t that when the Church was first thrown out of the closet as a polygamist sect?

    I read the Expositor’s words as the last option for a group of devoted saints that were devastated at a Prophet partaking in ventures that they couldn’t understand and didn’t believe were right.

    They had the kind of reaction that you might find modern LDS folks taking were they to discover President Thomas S. Monson secretly taking more than one wife. If we think about what it would be like to be in their situation, can we really blame them?

  4. The bottom line is that while Mr Smith on the one hand used the constitution for his own protection from extradition in 1842 he tore up its freedom of speech in 1844, he also says in the BOM that no King will rule America yet said nothing when his own council of 50 declared him to be the king t o sit on the throne promised to Jesus Christ.It also seems a remarkable coincidence that he died the same year as Mr Millers prophecy that King jesus would return
    proved to be in error.

  5. “The bottom line is that while Mr Smith on the one hand used the constitution for his own protection…”

    I don’t think that’s the bottom line. In fact, I think you’re missing the point.

    The point being: is Joseph Smith deserving of an official pardon for the crime(s) he was accused of committing?

    What are your thoughts, dear readers, guilty as charged or innocently accused? Or is it a case that the church believes Joseph Smith is above the law?

  6. Hi Kim,
    Thanks for your e mail, my last one was actually a generalised response for anyone interested in the subject -just one of the range your site covers, so let me clarify where mine is.
    Looking at the times Mr Smith lived in I find it interesting that William Millers failed March and April 1844 dates, arguably gave two clear warnings about the day/year method being just as unreliable as we now know Ushers exhaustive conclusion of the 4004 BC date is-unless of course you prefer the fundamentalist view. Had he heeded those warnings and stuck with the simple Sanctuary cleansing context of Dn 8: for his conclusion, he could have even avoided the great disappointment altogether.
    Looking for a more reliable method of study has identified for me what appears to be the rise of Iran as a fundamentalist state and its ongoing role as part of a major sacrifice in the last major event before the Kingdom all believers are looking for is finally established -in whatever form it is destined to be. Should this continue to be the case it will prove this method by the Bibles own rule ‘if it comes to pass’ and also prove that Joseph Smiths claims as far as establishing the Kingdom in 1844 is concerned, was a premature one.Taking a lesson from the past I’ll just wait and see.

  7. Jeff, you asked whether it was in the prerogative of the Nauvoo mayor to proclaim martial law. I don’t have a complete or well researched answer, but what I do know is that the Nauvoo city charter granted truly extraordinary powers to the city government, creating what practically amounted to a city-state within Illinois. The most visible example of this is the existence of the Nauvoo Legion, which was authorized by that charter. How many instances are there of a city being authorized to raise its own militia? I can think of only this one. Since the mayor was the commander of the Legion (and had a lieutenant general’s commission!) and since the militia functioned under the city government, it seems to me that the power to declare martial law was inherent in the charter. However, the charge of treason (which I have not researched) seems to indicate that Governor Ford thought otherwise, or at least found it convenient to claim otherwise.

  8. …afterthoughts while waiting…

    ‘he also says in the BOM that no King will rule America yet said nothing when his own council of 50 declared him to be the king to sit on the throne promised to Jesus Christ’…
    Jesus said his chosen would share his throne…

    This week Mr Obama had somthing to say about the world watching Iran.

  9. Do you have a reference? I have to admit I have NEVER seen anything said about Joseph Smith becoming a ‘king’. The only King I worship and that Joseph Smith worships is Jesus Christ.

    I don’t recall Christ saying anything about sharing His throne, only His kingdom.

  10. Hi Kim I suggest you begin with Rev 3;21 and cross refference from there, please let me know how you get on as your Bible may be worded a little different from those I have so far read

  11. Mr Smith and Rev 3:21 -both sides of the story
    Joseph Smith, Jr. From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia:-

    In March 1844, Smith organized a secret Council of Fifty, a policy-making body based on what Smith called “Theodemocracy”[131] and which was in effect a shadow government.[132] One of the Council’s first acts was to ordain Smith as King of the Kingdom of God. And, as if they had just organized an independent state, Smith and the Council sent ambassadors to England, France, Russia, and the Republic of Texas.[123] In April, Smith predicted “the entire overthrow of this nation in a few years.”[133] My comment ‘he also says in the BOM that no King will rule America yet said nothing when his own council of 50 declared him to be the king to sit on the throne promised to Jesus Christ.’

    Afterthought: Mr Smith has so far been correct in saying that no King will rule America, if one here also considers the difference in a literal Kingdom on Earth, and the spiritual Kingdom of God about which Rev 3:21 may in the light of Rev 21:22-23, Heb 12:22-23 be referring to, it comes down to if Mr Smith was one of the overcomers Jesus words Refer to, ‘him that overcometh will I grant to sit with me in my throne even as I also overcame and am set down with my father in his throne’..KJV…then Mr Smith had no need to explain anything about his crown Rev 3:11

    When in the fundamentalist mindset it becomes all to easy to highlight the negatives about Joseph Smith’s short and very full life yet how many of us can look forward to leaving anything like the legacy he left or reaching as many people with the gospel as he did? It becomes too easy when considering things we don’t understand or disagree with to also forget all believers are under the same obligation to try and understand others – that’s if we want to be understood by the spirit of Christ … and how many of us I wonder would feel comfortable about our own ‘old’ lives being as closely examined as Joseph Smiths continues to be?

    The scribes and the Pharisee’s were fundamentalist in there belief’s but Jesus left no doubt about how wrong they could be about the scriptures, my one reservation about the LDS message today is how they often refuse to accept any other church has any authority to preach and no authority to even Baptise, yet given that Jesus corrected his own disciples when they objected to a strange disciple -Lk 9: 49-50 – because he was not a member of there own small group, Mormons who today, talk like those student disciples of Jesus did -before they were baptised by the spirit at Pentecost- need to hear what he said rather than what the present day LDS Church prefers them to believe. Mk 9: 38-40 – if they really want to be one with the spirit as Jesus taught rather than as a religion teaches. The ‘overcomers’ Jesus is talking about is those who having been baptised for repentance in water, then pass the whole way through there baptism by fire as they are trained as disciples up to the same standard they reached on the day of Pentecost. Acts 2: Mt 3:11-12

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