Thursday, September 30, 2010

Lucy Harris vs. Joseph Smith: The 1829 Proceedings - Analysis


What Have We Gained?

While we do not know the identity of the magistrate, or the date of the trial, we have a better understanding of New York law in relation to the context of the proceedings. Additionally, however, we have a better appreciation for Martin Harris for his bold testimony in defending Joseph Smith, the prophet, and we have better insight as to Lucy Harris' concerns and motivations. By worldly standards, her concerns are wholly founded. She wanted to see the plates and to stop her husband from divesting the family wealth. Both issues are rational from a worldly perspective. Perhaps, if she had exercised faith and had been content with the will of the Lord, she may have received her wish to see the plates similar to Mary Whitmer's experience.98 Instead, she chose a path to alienate herself from her husband and from the establishment of the Lord's kingdom on earth.

As for the magistrate's identity, it is unlikely that we will ever find these proceedings documented in a Justice of the Peace's docket book, since the testimonies were tore up and the case dismissed. However, as subpoenas were issued, there would have been a bill of expenses containing costs for the constable(s) travels and for the judge's time in court, similar to those discovered in relation to Joseph Smith's 1826 trial.99 If such a bill could be found, these details might finally be discovered.

As for the timing of the case, Lucy states that Joseph and Oliver were still in Pennsylvania, which indicates that the trial was prior to June 1829, when they arrived in Fayette, New York.100 Lucy also indicates that it was after Samuel Smith's return home in August 1829. This is clearly an error, however, since she continues to discuss the translation of the Book of Mormon, which was finished by the end of July 1829.101 Joseph indicates that Samuel returned home in late May 1829, however, this becomes problematic considering that Samuel, according to Joseph, was baptized on May 25th.102 If Samuel left Harmony that same day, he would have arrived home on May 27th at the earliest. This leaves very little time for Lucy Harris to gather witnesses, submit an affidavit, have the witnesses subpoenaed, and the trial commence prior to June 1829. Lucy, however, indicates that Samuel was baptized the same day that Joseph and Oliver were, on May 15th.103 If such were the case, this expands the window of opportunity for this trial to have taken place.

Based on the legal details provided above, we note that the Court of Common Pleas commenced in the Lyon's courthouse beginning Tuesday, May 26, 1829 and may have ran through as late as Saturday, June 6th. The Circuit Court would commence the following Monday, on June 8th, for approximately one week. In order to reasonably approximate the date of the trial, based on Lucy and Joseph's accounts, we must assume that Joseph was in Pennsylvania and that it occurred after Samuel's arrival back in Manchester. If Samuel was baptized on May 15th, and left immediately for Manchester, he could have arrived on May 17th. This leaves just over a week for Lucy to coordinate her plan and for the trial to be held in a Justice's court. This, however, is further complicated by the fact that Lucy Smith indicates that Hyrum was present the day of the trial. Joseph indicates that Samuel returned home after being baptized "greatly glorifying and praising God, being filled with the Holy Spirit." Joseph also states that not "many days afterwards, my brother Hyrum Smith came to us to inquire concerning these things..."104 Considering that the travel time between Harmony and Manchester was a minimum of two and half days, Hyrum may have left and returned within a week. It is possible that the trial was held on Friday, May 22, 1829, or perhaps on Monday, May 25th, the day before the commencement of the Court of the Common Pleas.

Lucy's description allows for the possibility that Hyrum arrived home the day of the proceedings. After turning to him for comfort, Hyrum declared to his mother that "we can do nothing, except look to the Lord: in him is all help and strength; he can deliver from every trouble."105 This declaration is, as Lucy explains, full of confidence in the Lord, probably strengthened by the recent revelation received through Joseph to Hyrum while in Harmony (D&C 11).

While this timeline provided does not allow much flexibility, it is based on the available evidence and fits well within the context of the events occurring during this period. The available data points to a court date on Friday, May 22, or Monday, May 25, 1829. Additional research will hopefully turn up some concrete evidence that is necessary for confirming a date and the identity of the magistrate; until then, however, we have to settle for information currently available.

Most important in this study, is the fact that Martin Harris bore testimony in a public court to the truthfulness that Joseph Smith did have the plates, that resisting the truth further would bring damnation to their souls, and that Joseph was a man of integrity. Additionally, we gain better context regarding Lucy Harris' perspective in the matter, and we see the transformation that Martin was going through probably in reaction to the March revelation received (D&C 5). At least in this particular court case Joseph was vindicated, and as a result, the work of the Lord went forward.


98 "Report of Elders Orson Pratt and Joseph F. Smith, New York City, September 17, 1878" The Deseret News, 27/43 (November 27, 1878), 674
99 See for example, "Joseph Smith's 1826 Trial: The Legal Setting" by Gordon Madsen, BYU Studies 30 (Spring 1990):91-108
100 History of the Church, 1:48-49, "Mormonism: Authentic Account of the Origin of this Sect from one of the Patriarchs. Discovery of the Plates. And the Translation of the Book of Mormon. (From the Kansas City Journal, June 5, 1881)," Deseret News, 30/21 (June 22, 1881):334
101 Biographical Sketches, 132, Deseret News 30/21:334
102 History of the Church, 1:44
103 Biographical Sketches, 131
104 History of the Church, 1:44-45
105 Biographical Sketches, 133

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