Setting the Record Straight: The Joseph Smith Legal Papers
John W. Welch, BYU law professor and editor of the Joseph Smith Papers , spoke to those in attendance at the J. Reuben Clark Law Society (JRCLS) conference of the Joseph Smith Papers’ influence on history.
The Joseph Smith papers are a collection of journal entries, revelations and translations, written history of the LDS church, administrative records, and legal documents that are an "essential resource for scholars and serious students of the life and work of Joseph Smith, early Mormonism, and nineteenth-century American religion," according to josephsmithpapers.org. Welch spoke about the legal papers he helped uncover that are apart of this collection.
Welch announced to the audience that unbeknownst to many, Joseph Smith was involved in over 200 lawsuits. Welch felt the more he researched and analyzed these cases, the better his understanding of Joseph Smith became.
“A legal river and sometimes a torrent ran through the life of Joseph Smith,” Welch said.
Jeffrey N. Walker, an associate managing editor of the Joseph Smith Papers, and Kelly Schaeffer-Bullock, a “star student” in Welch’s course on the project, spoke along with Welch at the conference on Friday, Feb. 12th.
All three speakers included stories about Joseph Smith’s relationship to the law, discovered in their research. These stories not only created a better understanding of his life, but have also dispelled many false rumors about Joseph Smith. For example, many reputable historians have said that Joseph Smith illegally performed marriages in Ohio. The project was able to recover that not only did Joseph Smith understand the statute concerning marriage, but was also compliant with the law.
Welch explained that one of the most important things about this project was the ability to “set the record straight” through their work.
“Many say Joseph Smith was lawless, which is erroneous,” Welch said. “[The Project] allowed us to see that Joseph Smith did not abuse the law. We are in a position now to legally set the record straight.”
“With these documents we are able to fill in the gaps,” Schaeffer-Bullock said.
Walker said that much of the project involves understanding the law in Joseph Smith’s day, which is dramatically different from the modern legal system. Schaeffer-Bullock, who did a lot of the research, expressed gratitude at being able to is thankful to take Welch’s course and participate in this “massive academic undertaking.”
“Because of this course, my research abilities were expanded far beyond the abilities of the average law student,” Schaeffer-Bullock said. “Every time you step into the classroom… You feel like you’re on the cutting edge of discovery.”
Walker feels that this work will benefit future generations who want to know and better understand Joseph Smith. He found that through his experience editing the Joseph Smith Papers, he was able to appreciate Joseph’s Smith relationship with the law – though the legal system often treated him and his family unfairly.
“Lawyers can become a cynical group… an unfriendly group, but it never seemed to taint Joseph,” Walker said. “He was a great lawyer because he not only knew how to be a lawyer but knew how to forgive when the lawsuit was over.”
Welch recommended the audience visit josephsmith.byu.edu to learn about Joseph Smith’s day-to-day activities.
Written By: Lisa Anderson