Book Notes: Sustaining the Law: Joseph Smith’s Legal Encounters

05.08.2014 | Blair Hodges

The Joseph Smith Papers project is so fruitful that some scholars are harvesting fruits from particular volumes before they’ve even been published. Such is Sustaining the Law, a collection of papers addressing the legal side of Joseph Smith’s multifaceted life. The book’s three editors began its compilation while working on the Joseph Smith Papers Project’s Legal and Business Records series and while crafting a course on Joseph Smith and early American law at the J. Reuben Clark Law School at Brigham Young University.

Editor John W. Welch’s introduction articulates the overriding theme of Sustaining the Law: “One cannot come to grips with the life of Joseph Smith without studying his more than two hundred encounters with judges, lawyers, judicial procedures, legal transactions, and legal principles” (ix). The eighteen contributions attempt to reap a reciprocal harvest here, in which Joseph Smith’s experiences cast light on the wider American legal scene of the nineteenth century while the context of nineteenth-century American law casts light on the life of Joseph Smith. Like most collections of previously published papers, this volume includes some great benefits and a few drawbacks.

Benefits:

-A  chronology of Joseph Smith’s legal cases, from his birth in 1805 to the 1850 case brought by the United States against Smith’s estate regarding nonpayment of a loan which was used to purchase a steamship in Nauvoo.

-An appendix featuring biographical descriptions of lawyers and judges involved in Smith’s currently known cases.

-A basic glossary of legal terms used in the nineteenth century, some of which are still used today in a different sense than in Smith’s day.

-Four never-before-published pieces that draw on the work being done on the Legal and Business Records series of Joseph Smith Papers.

In addition to these extras, many of the articles themselves will introduce members of the LDS Church to some of the more difficult aspects of Joseph Smith’s history, including polygamy and Smith’s public disavowals of such, Smith’s being put on trial as a “Glass Looker,” and his errors in the process of establishing a copyright for the Book of Mormon that made him legally vulnerable. Readers will come away with a better appreciation for the United States Constitution and its shifting status and use in the early days of the American experiment. It will be especially interesting to see scholars wrestle with Welch’s new piece on Smith’s views of the Constitution.

Drawbacks:

-Several of the articles and the introduction present more of a homiletic perspective than is perhaps necessary when discussing Smith’s legal experiences. Some of the pieces spend more time on the question of whether Smith’s actions were “good” or “bad” than is necessary in a volume like this.

-While several pieces may have something new to say to the wider academy, more pieces will be interesting chiefly to Mormons (Joseph Smith testifying as a young man in a court case regarding a pair of horses purchased by Joseph Sr., for instance). On the other hand, it can spur researchers to pay greater attention to this corner of the Church history garden.

-The book has some typographical problems and  uneven referencing practices. David Grua avoids using the problematic History of the Church as a primary source, for example, while other contributors don’t mind uncritically relying on it. This is likely due to the fact that many of the articles were written before the Joseph Smith Papers Project’s publications became widely available.

Overall, Sustaining the Law is a well-crafted book at a good price. It provides a nice glimpse into the sort of work expected to grow from the forthcoming Legal and Business Records series of the Joseph Smith Papers, but it remains to be seen whether the fruit is fully ripe just yet. Researchers of Joseph Smith in his legal context may want to wait until the actual Joseph Smith Papers volumes appear in the future. Those publications will make it easier to evaluate essays like those in Sustaining the Law.

Gordon A. Madsen, Jeffrey N. Walker, John W. Welch, eds. Sustaining the Law: Joseph Smith’s Legal Encounters. Provo, Utah: BYU Studies, 2014. 563 pp., with index. $24.95 hardcover.