The 1834 Hurlbut Trial and the Finding of the Book of Mormon

By February 18, 2008

From January 13-15, 1834, the State of Ohio held a preliminary hearing, ostensibly to determine if anti-Mormon Doctor Philastus Hurlbut had in fact threatened the life of Joseph Smith. After hearing several witnesses, the justice of the peace determined that there was sufficient evidence that a threat had occurred, and the case was set for the following April. But the JP also allowed for testimony on far more than just the alleged threat. The First Presidency wrote not long after the hearing to the Saints in Missouri that the trial included an investigation of “the merits of our religion.”[1] It appears that the JP heard testimony concerning Hurlbut’s research on the Soloman Spalding manscript and even had Joseph testify concerning the finding of the Book of Mormon. Hurlbut’s attorney, James A. Briggs, wrote several letters later in his life describing the hearing. While some of the elements in Briggs’ recollections can be shown to be misremembered, such as his memory that Smith smith was on trial, rather than Hurlbut, much of Briggs’ accounts can be verified in other sources.[2] While it is impossible to determine how much these recollections reflect what was actually said about the Book of Mormon at this 1834 hearing, they do provide an interesting window into the stories that were circulated concerning the finding of the Book of Mormon.

In 1833 Joseph Smith was prosecuted by a man by the name of Hurlbut, I think, for assault and battery. I was a law student at the time in Willoughby, and was for the prosecution. The case was before a Justice of the Peace in Painesville, Ohio. The matter attracted a great deal of curiousity. The court was held in the old Methodist Church in Painesville, and the Justice who issued the warrant against the Mormon Prophet invited another Justice of the Peace to sit with him. Judge Bissell was the attorney for the Prophet. The trial lasted three days, and the church was filled to overflowing. During the examination of Smith, he gave the history of the finding of the golden plates of the Mormon Bible, how he was kicked by the Devil when he uncovered the plates and stooped down to get them. It was an interesting story; and, although it had nothing to do with the case under investigation, the Court, his own attorney, and the people all desired to hear the narration, and it came out under oath. Smith, Hyde, Pratt, and all the leaders of the faithful were there, except the ablest and most eloquent man among them all, — the Rev. Sidney Rigdon. He had been a Baptist minister, and was a man of great natural eloquence. He is yet living, and, I think, could tell something about how the Mormon Bible was manufactured, if he would.

I guess, in my speech to the Court in the case, I must have been rather hard on the Prophet and his testimony and Mormonism, as I was told that one of his brethren said, “If it was not for his religion, he would whip that young Briggs.” I was not whipped. Smith was bound over; and Mormonism, persecuted, mobbed, turned out, has flourished. (James A Briggs to John Codman, 1875, in “Mormonism,” International Review 11 [Sept. 1881]: 222-223)

In the winter of 1833-34, Joe Smith made an assault upon Hu[r]lbut, and was arrested on a warrant, and the trial was in the old Methodist Church, on the southeast corner of the square in Painesville. It lasted for three days. Judge Bissell was the attorney for Joe Smith, and I was employed by Hulbut, having been admitted to the bar in October, 1833.

If there had been reporters in those days the verbatim report of that trial for assault and battery would be a curiosity. I said to Judge Bissell: Now let us have an account of the finding of the gold plates of the Mormon Bible. The finding has nothing to do with the case, but let me ask Smith all about it. The Judge interposed an objection to the question, but withdrew it, and he got out the whole history from Smith under oath. He testified that when he dug into the earth, and reached the plates “that he was kicked out of the hole he had dug and lifted into the air by some “unseen power.” The whole trial was exceedingly rich, and the old church was crowded with delighted spectators. In my speech I paid my respects to one of the leaders of the Kirtland Mormons in such a manner that he said, “if it was not for his religion he would whip that young lawyer Briggs” Perhaps I am the only one that ever escaped a flogging on account of a man being a Mormon…. (James A. Briggs to Cleveland Leader and Morning Herald, January 1884)

About this time Dr. Hurlbut had some trouble with the Mormons at Kirtland, where they had built a temple and he had the prophet, Joseph Smith, arrested on a warrant of a justice of the peace for assault and battery. He had an examination before two justices in the Old Methodist Church in Painesville. It lasted three days. Judge Benjamin Bissell was the attorney for Smith and I was the attorney for Dr. Hurlbut. The examination produced much interest. Cowdery, Hyde and Pratt, Mormon leaders, were there with “Joe” Smith. I said to Mr. Bissell, “let us get from ‘The Prophet’ his history of the finding of the ‘golden plates.'” Mr. B. consented and for two days we had The Prophet, “Joe” Smith, on the witness stand. He swore, that is, under oath, that he found the golden plates buried in the earth in a field in Palmyra, N. Y., and when he found them he was kicked by an unseen foot out of the hole in which they were placed. All present knew that it was a Mormon lie. (James A. Briggs to New York Tribune, January 29, 31, 1886)

In 1834, early in the spring, Dr. P. Hurlbut had Jo Smith, of Kirtland, the Mormon prophet, arrested on a warrant of a justice of the peace in Painesville, Ohio, for assault and battery. The examination was in the old Methodist Church on the southeast corner of the public square. The matter excited great interest. The late Judge Benjamin Bissel was the attorney for Smith; I was the attorney for Hurlbut. The examination lasted three days. During the examination I said to Bissel, “Let us get a statement from Smith of how he found the golden plates of the Mormon Bible.” Bissel at first objected to my question, but then withdrew the objection, and then Prophet Smith told us the whole story of digging for and the finding of the plates in Palmyra, N.Y. Smith testified that in digging he touched the plates. He was kicked by an unseen power out of the hole in the earth. From these plates the Mormon Bible was translated. He did not tell where the plates were. It was a great legal farce. Pratt, Hyde and other leading Mormons were there.  (James A. Briggs, “Open Letter to Joseph Smith III,” in Arthur B. Deming (editor) Naked Truths About Mormonism I Jan., 1888 [p. 4. col. 4])

I lived for some eighteen months in Willoughby, Ohio, in 1832-4, within two and a half miles of the Mormon Temple in Kirtland; knew Jo Smith, Cowdery, Pratt, and Hyde, leaders of the faithful; heard Jo Smith in a justice court, where he was before it on a charge of assault and battery, testify as to his finding the “Golden Plates” of the “Mormon Bible,” and how he was kicked out of the hole in the earth where he was digging, when he struck the plates, by an unseen power. If there had been a newspaper reporter at that three days’ hearing, in the old Methodist church in Painesville, it would have been one of the interesting and curious chapters in history. What a blessing reporters are! We cannot be too thankful for them. (James A. Briggs to New York Times, March 5, 1888)

___________

[1] Presidency of the High Priesthood, Ohio, to the Brethren Scattered from Zion, Missouri, January 22, 1834, Joseph Smith Letterbook 1, p. 81.

[2] All of these letters were discovered made available on the website of independent historian Dale Broadhurst, although I have verified the existence of all of them. For an analysis of the hearing and subsequent trial, see my “Joseph Smith and the 1834 Hurlbut Case,” BYU Studies 44, no. 1 (2005): 33-54.

Article filed under Categories of Periodization: Origins From the Archives


Comments

  1. Interesting documents, David. I find it interesting that in one letter he specifically points out that he wanted Joseph to share the BOM recovery story, while in another he thought that “it had nothing to do with the case under investigation,” as if he didn’t think it was wise for Joseph to share it.

    Comment by Ben — February 19, 2008 @ 1:13 am

  2. Ben: I agree that these are fascinating documents. While they all overlap a great deal, they also all contain some unique qualities.

    But I read the statement “it had nothing to do with the case under investigation,” as Briggs wanting to hear JS’s BoM story, even though it had nothing to do with the legal question of whether or not Hurlbut had threatened JS’s life. Bissell, JS’s attorney, at first objected to that line of inquiry, but he too wanted to hear about the gold plates and so withdrew the objection.

    Comment by David G. — February 19, 2008 @ 2:31 am

  3. Did Broadhurst discover all of these? It seems like they, or at least some of them, have been floating around for many years. And Vogel published most if not all of them in EMD. But maybe he got them from Broadhurst.

    Comment by Mark Ashurst-McGee — February 19, 2008 @ 11:14 am

  4. Good question, Mark. I’m not sure who found them first. I had forgotten that some of them are also in EMD. I should just clarify that I got them from Broadhurst’s website.

    Comment by David G. — February 19, 2008 @ 11:17 am

  5. The unspoken piece here has to do with the meaning of testimony, law, and the evidences of Christianity. They seemed to derive a certain pleasure from knowing that they were hearing the witness of Smith _under oath_ in a court of law.

    This use of witnesses to support what is called evidential Christianity (the “external” evidences of scripture) played an important role in Alexander Campbell’s diatribe and a variety of early anti-Mormonism. This pleasure at hearing Smith under oath appears to me to partake of the same cultural milieu.

    Comment by smb — February 19, 2008 @ 1:36 pm

  6. Sam: When I was doing my research for the article, I came across a reference to a pamphlet that was printed soon after the hearing that contained the testimony. I have not been able to locate that pamphlet, but I suspect that it was printed with what you mention in mind.

    Comment by David G. — February 19, 2008 @ 1:40 pm


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