Brigham Young University professor Daniel Peterson recently wrote an article for the Deseret News presenting evidence for the exemplary personal character of Mormonism’s founder, Joseph Smith. In “Defending the Faith: 2 legal tests of Joseph Smith’s integrity” Dr. Peterson discusses Joseph Smith’s three-year responsibility toward the Lawrence sisters and their sizable estate as legal guardian. Dr. Peterson explains:
“Edward Lawrence, a Canadian convert to Mormonism, died at the end of 1839, leaving behind six minor children and a pregnant wife. Joseph agreed to serve as the guardian of the Lawrence estate, but critics have sought to portray his behavior in this role as exploitative, or at least negligent. Now, however, probate documents and court records related to the Lawrence family have been located, and [LDS researcher Gordon] Madsen’s article carefully examines those materials. They permit Joseph’s involvement to be investigated step by step.
“Contrary to the negative picture cultivated by critics, Madsen argues that ‘the record shows that he performed his duty honorably. He did not claim compensation for service as guardian, and he made no claim for boarding Maria and Sarah; he was more generous in expenditures for and to the children and to (those who cared for Maria and Sarah’s siblings) than the law required.’ Moreover, he took all the steps that he could in order, when appropriate, to transfer guardianship of the children to John Taylor.”
Dr. Peterson asserts,
“Time after time, the criticisms aimed at Joseph cannot withstand examination. In many cases, they actually turn into affirmations of his solid decency and integrity.”
As usual, there is more to this chapter in the Prophet’s life than Dr. Peterson chose to discuss in his short article. Allow me to fill in some of the missing pieces, provided by LDS author Todd Compton from his landmark book, In Sacred Loneliness: The Plural Wives of Joseph Smith.
Sarah (14) and Maria (17) Lawrence became orphans under the law when their father died, even though their mother, Margaret, was still alive. In June of 1841 Joseph Smith stepped forward to become the legal guardian (as required by law) for the family. By early 1842 Margaret had remarried to Josiah Butterfield, a Mormon man in good standing with the Church. For the next year Josiah and Margaret worked unsuccessfully to regain guardianship of the estate and the girls. History of the Church records that in March of 1843 “Josiah Butterfield came to [Joseph’s] house and insulted [Joseph] so outrageously that [Joseph] kicked him out of the house, across the yard, and into the street.”
In late spring of 1843 Joseph married both Sarah and Maria, bringing his number of wives to 24. Apparently Joseph’s legal wife, Emma, knew about his marriages to the Lawrence sisters, but she did not know about his earlier marriages to the Partridge sisters (Emily and Eliza). So when Emma demonstrated, via her willingness to accept the Lawrence sisters, that she had become more agreeable to plural marriage, Joseph took the opportunity to marry the Partridge sisters again – this time with Emma’s consent.
Joseph married another nine women over the following few months; he stopped taking new wives in November 1843. In the spring of 1844 disaffected Mormon William Law, a longtime friend of the Lawrences, filed a lawsuit against Joseph Smith for adultery in the case of Maria Lawrence — making Joseph’s secret marriages to the Lawrence sisters public knowledge. As noted by Todd Compton,
“In response [to the lawsuit], Smith flatly denied polygamy in a speech delivered on May 26: ‘What a thing it is for a man to be accused of committing adultery, and having seven wives, when I can only find one.’” (History of the Church 6:411)
The public pressure mounted and, as Dr. Peterson notes, Joseph Smith took steps to transfer guardianship of the Lawrence estate to John Taylor. But the transfer never actually happened (in fact, just three weeks before Joseph was killed, an Illinois justice of the peace notarized a certificate stating Joseph was the guardian of the Lawrences).
After Joseph’s death on June 27, 1844, the Lawrence sisters tried to get what remained of their inheritance from the Smith estate, but they had no success. All of Joseph’s property (with which the Lawrence estate had been comingled as allowed by law) was in the name of his legal wife, Emma, and she was not willing (or maybe not able) to pay back the funds.
In the end, perhaps feeling a measure of responsibility, William Law used his own funds to pay the Lawrence sisters the money Joseph Smith rightly owed them.
Does this episode from Joseph Smith’s life demonstrate his “solid decency and integrity” as Dr. Peterson would have us believe? When the dust settles around this affair, the Prophet’s handling of the funds from the Lawrence estate may have been done within the bounds of the law. Joseph may have been generous in his distribution of Edward Lawrence’s money for Edward’s children’s care. But Joseph Smith added the young Lawrence sisters to his entourage of illegal wives; he lied to his wife, Emma; he physically assaulted Josiah Butterfield in an argument about the Lawrence estate; he lied to his followers (and the world); and he heartlessly denied 33 women who had sacrificed much to become his plural wives — in order to save his own skin. Is all of this to be overlooked because Joseph did not submit a claim demanding to be paid for the “boarding” of his plural wives?
After examining the facts, when it comes to integrity, Joseph Smith fails the test.