“That the Law of the Land May Be Magnified”: Joseph Smith’s Legal Papers and the 1834 Hurlbut Case

By David W. Grua

For most of Joseph Smith’s life, the law frequently demanded his attention. It was often a source of annoyance, as his enemies used legal proceedings to harass him, but he also increasingly used the law as a source of protection. For more than a century, most of the legal documents produced for Joseph Smith’s cases were buried in courthouses and archives, but beginning in the 1960s, dedicated attorneys and historians began scouring repositories seeking to reconstruct Smith’s interactions with the law. Their efforts resulted in the identification of more than 200 cases in which he was a plaintiff, defendant, witness, or judge. These cases were tried in courts located in New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Missouri, Illinois, and Iowa Territory. While this number does not approach the total number of cases of a practicing attorney such as Abraham Lincoln, it is nevertheless substantial for someone whose livelihood was not made in the courtroom.

In 2015, The Joseph Smith Papers began publishing a digital edition of images and transcriptions of the legal documents produced for these cases as part of the Legal, Business, and Financial Records series. Project historians write short introductions that place each case in its historical and legal context. Following the introduction, a calendar of documents tracks the texts, both extant and non-extant, produced for each case. When completed, this series will be an indispensable entrée into a significant dimension of Joseph Smith’s life as well as the broader legal culture of the United States in the nineteenth century.

For example, in State of Ohio v. Hurlbut, Joseph Smith turned to the law to defend himself from Doctor Philastus Hurlbut, an excommunicated Latter-day Saint who had spent several months that year searching for negative information on Smith in New York and Pennsylvania. Upon his return to Kirtland, Ohio, Hurlbut (Doctor was his given name, not his profession) began lecturing on his findings and reportedly boasted that “he would wash his hands in Joseph Smith’s blood.” Joseph Smith filed a complaint before a Kirtland justice of the peace alleging that Hurlbut had threatened his life; this led to Hurlbut’s arrest. In January 1834, Smith and other church leaders prayed “that the Lord would fill the heart of the Court with a spirit to do justice, and cause that the law of the land may be magnified in bringing him to justice.”

The introduction for State of Ohio v. Hurlbut on josephsmithpapers.org succinctly summarizes the subsequent legal proceedings before the Kirtland justice of the peace and the Court of Common Pleas in Geauga County, Ohio. On 9 April 1834, the judge of the latter court “held that ‘the said complainant [Joseph Smith] had ground to fear that the said Doctor P. Hurlbut would wound, beat or kill him, or destroy his property as set forth in said complaint.’” The judge ordered Hurlbut to enter into a recognizance to keep the peace generally and toward Joseph Smith specifically for six months, as well as to pay the court costs and a $200 fine. A relieved Joseph Smith dictated to his scribe that the court’s decision “was in answer to our prayer for which I thank my heavenly father.”

For more information on State of Ohio v. Hurlbut and other cases, see the Legal, Business, and Financial Records series at josephsmithpapers.org.