BY REBECCA PALMER
BOUNTIFUL — Gordon A. Madsen started his speech about Joseph Smith by pointing out that the first prophet of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was involved in more than 50 criminal cases and at least 235 other court cases during his short life.
“Most of us aren’t aware how much Joseph did with the law,” Madsen said, speaking before a meeting of the Centerville chapter of Sons of Utah Pioneers. “Generally, we chalk it up to persecution and don’t want to know anything else about it.”
By the end of the speech, Madsen’s opinion of Smith’s legal affairs was clear:
“Whether people accept him as a prophet or not,” Madsen said, “you have to concede, once you get the whole record, that he was honorable with dealings with his fellow man inside and outside the church.”
Madsen is a co-editor of the legal editions of the Joseph Smith Papers, and is working with other experts, documentarians and church historians to find all the original writings of Smith that exist today. That project has received endorsement from the National Historical Publications and Records Commission, a division of the National Archives. It will be available for critics of the church and faithful members alike.
Madsen explained that the project is not intended as a history or as persuasion, but as the consummate collection of records.
“Unless you come back to this mine, you don’t have any credibility,” he said. “Here’s the stuff.”
During his speech in Bountiful, Madsen addressed three myths about Smith.
The first is that Smith wasn’t even in Palmyra, New York by 1820, when he reported having the first vision. Documents from an 1818 trial showing Smith and his brother Hyrum prove that untrue, Madsen said.
The second myth involved a time when Smith was charged with glass-looking, which meant pretending clairvoyance in order to defraud people of money.
A man named Josiah Stowell had hired Smith for farm work and treasure hunting on his property but later complained, Madsen said. Stowell was the only complainant who had paid Smith money, but others had called Smith disorderly.
Only three documents exist pertaining to the outcome of the trial, Madsen said. Two come from the niece of the judge, who wrote that Smith was convicted. The third does not show he was convicted.
“Moreover, to comply with the law it would have been ridiculous for him to have been anything but acquitted,” Madsen said.
The third myth was that Smith crept out of Kirtland, Ohio owing $100,000 in debt. Here, Madsen showed copies of the documents in question. In sum, all the court records show $34,460 in complaints against Smith. Of those, $1,577 was discontinued, $22,848 was settled, and $5,000 was paid after the trials. For the remaining $4,000, Oliver Granger, who remained in Ohio, made payments, Madsen said.
The expert explained the $100,000 figure as a misunderstanding by Smith biographer Fawn Brodie Mckay, who wrote “ No Man Knows My History.” Mckay added up the figures from all the complaints, not realizing that some of the claims in those early documents were alternative complaints in case the judge dismissed the original complaint.
The final legal records of Smith’s life show how he was held in jail in Carthage, Ill., before being shot and killed by an angry mob. He knew what was coming, but went anyway because he believed in the law, Madsen said.
That leaves believers with a strong example to follow.
“How many vigilante groups can we form and still claim to be following Joseph Smith? How many efforts can we make to say we need to secede from the union, we need to ignore man’s law because it isn’t to our liking?” Madsen asked. “We can mourn, we can complain, but we do not ignore the law and you see, that’s what distinguishes Joseph Smith from every other charismatic leader in our experience, who generally felt themselves above and beyond the law, unanswerable to man. That’s the difference. That’s the difference.”