News Release

President Oaks Shares Experience of Writing About Joseph Smith

Former Utah Supreme Court justice has written about the Prophet in various capacities for more than 50 years

President Dallin H. Oaks has invested a fair amount of time over the past five decades researching and writing about the life of Joseph Smith, the first prophet and president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. From his initial research in 1958 to today, the first counselor in the faith’s First Presidency says he has felt inspired and uplifted all along the way.


“Joseph Smith’s character was perhaps best summed up by men who knew him best and stood closest to him in church leadership,” President Oaks said Friday, March 13, 2020, at the Joseph Smith-themed 2020 Church History Symposium at the Church Office Building Auditorium in Salt Lake City. “They adored him. Brigham Young declared, ‘I do not think that a man lives on the earth that knew [Joseph Smith] any better than I did; and I am bold to say that, Jesus Christ excepted, no better man ever lived or does live upon this earth.’ One does not need to agree with that superlative to conclude that … [he] was, indeed, a remarkable man, a great American, and one whom I and millions of our current countrymen honor as a prophet of God.”

Through his decades of research into Joseph Smith’s life, President Oaks also knows Joseph quite well. His speech Friday focused on his various writings, which include a book, three articles in professional journals, and a speech from a scholarly conference in Illinois. See the transcript of Friday’s talk. The symposium focused on Joseph Smith because this spring marks 200 years since the Prophet’s First Vision of Deity.

Suppression of the Nauvoo Expositor

President Oaks’ first area of study (which culminated in his first scholarly article as an associate law professor at the University of Chicago) examined the legality of Joseph Smith carrying out the order of the Nauvoo City Council on June 10, 1844, to destroy the press of a dissident newspaper (the Nauvoo Expositor).

President Oaks learned that the modern criticism of the suppression of that press was rooted in the principle of freedom of speech and of the press, found in the 14th Amendment of the United States Constitution — an amendment that was ratified two decades after the events in Nauvoo. His article concluded that the assumption that the Nauvoo City Council’s action was illegal “is not well founded.” His research was published in 1965.

“The lesson I drew from this scholarly research and publication has made me a life-long opponent of the technique of presentism — relying on current perspectives and culture to criticize official or personal actions in the past,” said President Oaks, who served as a justice on the Utah Supreme Court from 1980 to 1984. “Past actions should be judged by the laws and culture of their time.”

‘Carthage Conspiracy’

“Carthage Conspiracy” is President Oaks’ sole book on Joseph Smith. Published in 1975, its focus is the trial of the Prophet’s accused assassins. President Oaks described receiving divine help while researching the book — first by finding documents about the trial’s first defendant and later by happening upon an important manuscript of testimony from the trial in Carthage (the city in Illinois where Joseph and his brother Hyrum were jailed and murdered by an armed mob in 1844).

“That experience is cherished evidence of how the Lord will help us in our righteous professional pursuits when we seek guidance and are sensitive to the promptings of His Spirit,” President Oaks said.

The Prophet Joseph Smith’s Bankruptcy and Property at Death

President Oaks co-authored an article about Joseph Smith’s complicated bankruptcy proceeding for Brigham Young University (BYU) Law Review in 1976 (he was president of BYU from 1971 to 1980). Among other things, this study provided new insights on the strained relationship between Emma, Joseph’s wife, and Brigham Young, Joseph’s successor as leader of the Church.

“I have concluded that the different positions of Emma and Brigham on who should own the properties that Joseph sought to convey to the Church in 1842 can be summarized as follows,” President Oaks said. “In fairness and equity, these properties belonged to the Church when Joseph died. Brigham Young must have felt this. But Emma had a clear legal right under the law of Illinois. She had suffered much deprivation during her marriage and was now left a widow with children to raise. She insisted only on what was legally hers.”

See the transcript of Friday’s talk for more detail on this section.

Library of Congress Speech

President Oaks participated in a 2005 conference at the Library of Congress during the 200th anniversary of Joseph Smith’s birth. Representing the Church, President Oaks’ topic was “Joseph Smith in a Personal World.”

“The Joseph Smith I met in my personal research was a man of the frontier — young, emotional, dynamic, and so loved and approachable by his people that they often called him ‘Brother Joseph,’” President Oaks said in that 2005 address, which is now part of a book of essays from that conference. “His comparative youth overarched his prophetic ministry. He was 14 at the time of the First Vision, 21 when he received the golden plates, and just 23 when he finished translating the Book of Mormon (in approximately 60 working days). Over half of the revelations in our Doctrine and Covenants were given through this prophet when he was 25 or younger. He was 26 when the First Presidency was organized, and just over 33 when he escaped from imprisonment in Missouri and resumed leadership of the Saints gathering in Nauvoo. He was only 38 and a half when he was murdered.”

Legal History Conference in Illinois

At a 2013 conference that focused on the three failed legal attempts to extradite Joseph Smith from Illinois to face criminal charges in Missouri, President Oaks spoke about the man and the prophet behind those extradition cases.

In one of those hearings, Joseph was represented by Justin Butterfield, at the time, the highest-ranking lawyer in Illinois. “I do not think the defendant ought under any circumstances to be delivered up to Missouri,” said Butterfield, as quoted by President Oaks. “It is a matter of history that he and his people have been murdered and driven from the state. He had better been sent to the gallows. He is an innocent and unoffending man.”

See the transcript of Friday’s talk for more detail on this section.

The 2020 Church History Symposium program is available at

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