SALT LAKE CITY — The thrills of his own groundbreaking historical detective work about Joseph Smith peppered the plenary address President Dallin H. Oaks, first counselor in the First Presidency of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, presented Friday to conclude the 2020 Church History Symposium.
As a law professor, he unearthed an index at the Hancock County Courthouse in Illinois that contained the name of the first defendant in the trial about Joseph Smith’s murder. That led him to a drawer with a large packet of papers labeled “People v. Levi Williams.”
“It was wrapped with a paper band sealed with paste and apparently never opened,” President Oaks said. “I still remember vividly the experience of slitting that paper band with my thumb and having about 50 documents spill out on the table before me. The first thing I saw was the signature of John Taylor on a complaint against nine individuals for murdering Joseph Smith.”
The rest of the papers contained an indictment, subpoenas for witnesses and the names of the jurors.
“There was even a written verdict of not guilty,” he said.
President Oaks shared other origin stories about the book he co-authored with Marvin Hill after that discovery, “Carthage Conspiracy: The Trial of the Accused Assassins of Joseph Smith.”
He also provided more background and conclusions about Joseph Smith from three articles President Oaks published in professional journals and a speech he gave at the Library of Congress.
“Nothing we found cast any doubt on the integrity of the Prophet Joseph Smith,” he added, talking about more than 10 years of research he conducted with Hill for their 1975 book.
The address was presented in the Church Office Building Auditorium. The gathering included President Henry B. Eyring, second counselor in the First Presidency, and Elders Quentin L. Cook and Dale G. Renlund of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles among the audience members.
President Oaks said he drew a lasting conclusion from his first publication in a professional journal, “The Suppression of the Nauvoo Expositor,” published in the University of Utah Law Review in 1965. As a law professor at the University of Chicago, he examined the Nauvoo City Council’s suppression of an opposition newspaper, which he said led directly to Joseph Smith’s arrest as the city’s mayor and his murder at a Carthage jail.
Critics of the Nauvoo City Council’s actions in 1844 have focused on the principle of freedom of speech and the press, but they were understood differently in the United States before the 14th Amendment, which was not adopted for another 20 years.
“The law in 1844, including interpretation of state constitutional guarantees of a free press, offered considerable support for what Nauvoo had done,” he said, adding “Consequently, my article concluded that, ‘The common assumption of historians that the action taken by the (Nauvoo) City Council to suppress the paper as a nuisance was entirely illegal is not well founded.’”
“The lesson I drew from this scholarly research and publication has made me a life-long opponent of the technique of presentism — relying on current perspectives and culture to criticize official or personal actions in the past,” he said. “Past actions should be judged by the laws and culture of their time.”
President Oaks said his most significant writings about Joseph Smith were about bankruptcy proceedings related to a failed steamboat venture, co-authored with Joseph Bentley and published by the BYU Law Review in 1976. The proceeding was still active upon his death, and he did not leave a will.
He had attempted, on bad legal advice, to transfer church property to himself as trustee for the church, President Oaks said. A federal court invalidated the conveyance. The U.S. government and his widow, Emma Smith Bidamon, shared the estate.
“In fairness and equity, these properties belonged to the church when Joseph died. Brigham Young must have felt this. But Emma had a clear legal right under the law of Illinois,” President Oaks said. “She had suffered much deprivation during her marriage and was now left a widow with children to raise. She insisted only on what was legally hers.
“However, it is easy to see why the church in Utah was aggrieved when she used that property to secure legal ownership of the Mansion House and other close-by properties for her and her new husband, Lewis Bidamon.”
President Oaks’ conclusions were more personal when he discussed a talk he gave at the conference held by the Library of Congress in 2005 for the bicentennial of Joseph Smith’s birth.
“The Joseph Smith I met in my personal research was a man of the frontier — young, emotional, dynamic and so loved and approachable by his people that they often called him ‘Brother Joseph,’” he said.
“His comparative youth overarched his prophetic ministry,” he added, noting that the church’s founding leader was 23 when he completed the translation of the Book of Mormon in fewer than 75 working days and that over half of the revelations in the Doctrine and Covenants came before his 25th birthday.
“Revelation is the key to the uniqueness of Joseph Smith’s message,” he told the Library of Congress audience.
President Oaks also spoke about Joseph Smith at a 2013 conference held by the Illinois Supreme Court’s Historic Preservation Commission and the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum about significant legal events in the state’s history.
One of the great legal issues of the 1830s and ’40s was whether the federal government could intervene in state actions against persecuted people or groups, he said.
Missouri tried three times in Illinois courts to extradite Joseph Smith, but he was represented by bold attorneys. One, a future U.S. attorney general, stood for the Latter-day Saint leader before Judge Steven A. Douglas and said he would “proudly spend my latest breath in defense of an oppressed American citizen.”
In another hearing, the U.S. attorney for Illinois called him “an innocent and unoffending man.”
President Oaks finished his talk Friday with a conclusion he drew in that 2013 conference, that Joseph Smith was “a remarkable man, a great American, and one whom I and millions of our current countrymen honor as a prophet of God.”
A transcript of Friday’s address by President Oaks is available at Newsroom.ChurchofJesusChrist.org. It will be part of a book on the Church History Symposium to be published next year.