From the Church

How Joseph Smith broke courtroom tradition to find the truth (and other takeaways from his legal records)

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Historian Jeffrey Mahas talks about court documents involving Joseph Smith at the Church History Department during a press conference in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, April 17, 2024. The Joseph Smith Papers is releasing an ebook featuring 200 cases involving Joseph Smith as a plaintiff, defendant, witness or judge.
Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

As an editor assigned to the Joseph Smith Papers’ Legal Records series since 2019, I learned a few things that surprised me. One of the biggest surprises: My fourth great-grandfather, Jonathan Hoopes, appeared before Joseph Smith and the Nauvoo, Illinois, municipal court on a charge of riot in April 1843.

Fellow Nauvoo resident Elizabeth Ann Driggs swore in an affidavit that Jonathan and his son Lewis had “Seriously frighten[ed]” her “in a riotous and Tumultuous Manner” by bringing a horse into her home, forcing her to flee. Few records from the case survive, so we don’t know what could have precipitated this incident. But the Hoopes men challenged the legality of their arrest, and after hearing witness testimony, the court headed by Joseph Smith dismissed the charge.

You can read about State of Illinois v. J. Hoopes and L. Hoopes on Habeas Corpus—and all of the other legal cases in which Joseph Smith was involved as a plaintiff/complainant, defendant, witness, or judge—in a new e-book, Legal Records: Case Introductions. Available for purchase at Deseret Book and on Amazon, it includes historical introductions and summaries of all the cases, a glossary of relevant legal terms, and ten contextualizing essays.

If you want to dig deeper into the thousands of pages of affidavits, subpoenas, trial reports, and other documents those cases generated, you can explore high-resolution images and transcripts, along with the historical introductions and other helpful material, free of charge at (See an example below)

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Extradition requisition. A requisition from Missouri governor Lilburn W. Boggs, demanding the extradition of Joseph Smith and other Latter-day Saints to Missouri, is one of the documents associated with Extradition of Joseph Smith et al. for Treason and Other Crimes. This was the first of three such attempts, all unsuccessful. Historical introductions to the cases are featured in Legal Records: Case Introductions, a new e-book from the Joseph Smith Papers Project.
Courtesy of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum, Springfield, Illinois.

Here are some of the main takeaways from the Legal Records series:

The legal cases involving Joseph Smith would fill a book (and then some).

The online Legal Records series features case files from one hundred and fifty cases heard in the Prophet’s lifetime. Our historians have written introductions to all of those cases and have used other sources to reconstruct the outlines of forty-three more cases for which no papers have survived. If Legal Records: Case Introductions were published as a physical volume, it would be as thick as any of the twenty-seven books in the Joseph Smith Papers print series—even without those court documents.

Joseph Smith wanted to see justice done, even when it wasn’t to his advantage.

In August 1843, Joseph got into a physical altercation with a tax collector near the site of the Nauvoo temple. When the alderman and the justice of the peace Daniel H. Wells stepped in to break up the fight, the Prophet insisted that Wells fine him for his actions. Wells apparently declined, so Joseph accompanied court clerk Jacob B. Backenstos to the home of the justice of the peace Newel K. Whitney, where Backenstos filed a criminal complaint against Joseph.

In at least one case, Joseph Smith broke tradition to let truth prevail.

In 1843, Margaret Kennedy Dana’s husband, Charles, sued physician William Brink over injuries she suffered during the doctor’s treatment of her. Why did Charles bring the suit? Because under the common law doctrine of coverture, Margaret, as a married woman, did not have a legal identity separate from her husband’s. For the same reason, married women normally weren’t allowed to testify in lawsuits. Joseph Smith, who presided over the trial in the Nauvoo Mayor’s Court, let Margaret Dana testify anyway; eventually, he ruled in the Danas’ favor. Interest in the case was so high that the Prophet published his decision in a local newspaper in response to a petition from more than forty citizens—the only time that happened during his lifetime.

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Petition to Joseph Smith. In his role as a justice of the peace in the Nauvoo, Illinois, mayor's court, Joseph Smith presided over a medical malpractice suit, Dana v. Brink. The case was so widely followed that more than forty Nauvoo citizens petitioned him to publish his decision in a local newspaper; it was the only decision he rendered that was published during his lifetime.
Courtesy of the Church History Library, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Salt Lake City.

Joseph Smith spent a lot of time in court, if not in courthouses.

The Legal Records series overview explains that in the first half of the nineteenth century, court was often held in taverns, homes, and other less formal settings. The Nauvoo municipal and mayor’s courts, for example, typically convened in Joseph’s home or store. Similarly, our guide to Joseph’s service as a judge notes that his lack of formal legal education was not unusual for the time. As mayor of Nauvoo from May 1842 until his death two years later, he was a judge in the mayor’s and municipal courts, presiding over approximately seventy-seven cases—about forty percent of the legal cases he was involved in. The records from just over half of those have apparently been lost, so our historians have used entries from Joseph Smith’s journals and other sources to fill in the blanks.

The members of the Legal Records team hope that this series will deepen your understanding of Joseph Smith’s dealings with the law—whether your family tree includes alleged rioters or not.

▶ You may also like: Joseph Smith the poet? Read a rare poem in his own handwriting

Joseph Smith’s Legal Cases

Legal Records: Case Introductions, contextualizes Joseph Smith’s interactions with the law as a plaintiff/complainant, defendant, witness, or judge in approximately two hundred cases between 1819 and 1844. It also offers helpful analyses of the trial of his accused assassins and of the disposition of his estate. Available at Deseret Book and

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