Question: Did Joseph Smith really tell Orrin Porter Rockwell 'it was right to steal'?

Table of Contents

Question: Did Joseph Smith really tell Orrin Porter Rockwell 'it was right to steal'?

The only evidence for this statement is a fourth-hand claim made by a convicted fifteen-year-old thief attempting to justify himself

The only evidence for this statement is a fourth-hand claim made by a convicted fifteen-year-old thief attempting to justify himself. Joseph's diary recorded the comment, suggesting it cannot have threatened or worried him.

Quinn's use of the source is incorrect, and his lumping of a later journal entry with it creates a false impression

Historian D. Michael Quinn's material for this claim reads:

10 Mar [1843]. Fifteen-year-old Thomas Morgan says that Orrin Porter Rockwell told him "Joseph had taught that it was right to steal…which was the means of drawing Thomas into the practice of stealing." Smith's next remark about his boyhood friend: "conversed much about Porter, wishing the boy well." [1]

Unfortunately, in this section of his book, Quinn provides no references, footnotes, or endnotes. One reviewer noted that "In a work where source notes are taken as seriously as they are in this book, it is unfortunate that they were not included in appendices 6 (Biographical Sketches) and 7 (Selected Chronology). The careful student needs to be able to weigh the evidence for the extensive and sometimes sensational information that is given here." [2]

So it proves here.

Background: identifying the participants

The source for Quinn's source appears to be an entry made in Joseph Smith's journal. A transcript of the journal for the period in question reads:

[Entry for February 20, 1843] Last night Arthur Milikin had a quantity of books stolen and found them at 3 this P.M. in Hyrum Smith's Hayloft. Thomas Morgan and Robert Taylor (Morgan 15, Robert Taylor 13 years old next April) /both members of the Church/ were arrested on suspicion in the forenoon. On finding the books [they] immediately went to trial before the Mayor having had a brief examination about noon. Court adjourned till 10 [A.M.] tomorrow.... [3]

So, Thomas Morgan was a fifteen-year-old member of the Church brought before Joseph (in his role as a civil judge) for theft. The History of the Church notes that the next day:

Robert Taylor was again brought up for stealing, and Thomas Morgan for receiving the books, [referred to above] and each sentenced to six months imprisonment in Carthage jail. [4]

Morgan and Taylor were found guilty, and sentenced to jail. The History of the Church later says that

I [Joseph] went with Marshal Henry G. Sherwood to procure some provisions for Thomas Morgan and Robert Taylor, who, on petition of the inhabitants of the city, I had directed should work out their punishment on the highways of Nauvoo. [5]

So, far from approving theft, Joseph sentenced the young thieves to jail time, which was later converted into labor at the petition of others.

Evaluating the claim

We now come to the source (9 days later) to which Quinn likely alludes:

Friday, March 10th 1843 Clear and cold....As Thomas Morgan went out to speak with Mayor, said he had been told by several that Joseph had taught that it was right to steal viz. O. P. Rockwell, David B. Smith, and James Smith which was the means of drawing Thomas into the practice of stealing. [6]

So, it turns out that Quinn's source is a hearsay statement from a fifteen-year-old member boy found guilty of stealing, and sentenced to jail by Joseph (later commuted to road work). The young man doubtless wanted to excuse himself in the prophet's eyes, and so makes the claim that the only reason he was 'draw[n]...into the practice of stealing' is what he has heard (unnamed) others say that Joseph said to Porter Rockwell. This statement is thus at least fourth hand:

Joseph -> Rockwell -> "others" -> Thomas Morgan.

Moreover, why would Joseph's personal journal record this incident if there were any truth to it? Why would Joseph allow a record to be made of advocating theft?

Next remark: wishing the boy well?

Quinn follows his claim about what Joseph told Porter by writing:

Smith's next remark about his boyhood friend: "conversed much about Porter, wishing the boy well."

This is disingenuous at best. The entry which reads "Conversed much about Porter, wishing the boy well," comes from a diary entry on March 14, 1843—four days after the encounter with Thomas Morgan! [7] Quinn gives the impression that the very next thing that Joseph said, after hearing the tale from Morgan, were warm reminiscences regarding Porter Rockwell. Nothing could be further from the truth—this is simply the next remark about Porter in Joseph's journal, eight journal pages later. Small wonder that Joseph's thoughts turned to Rockwell, since on March 4, 1843, Rockwell was arrested for the attempted murder of former governor Boggs of Missouri. [8]

Notes

  1. D. Michael Quinn, The Mormon Hierarchy: Origins of Power (Signature Books, 1994), 637.
  2. Dean C. Jessee, "review of The Mormon Hierarchy: Origins of Power," Journal of Mormon History 22:2 (Fall 1996): 167–168.
  3. Joseph Smith, An American Prophet's Record:The Diaries and Journals of Joseph Smith, edited by Scott Faulring, Significant Mormon Diaries Series No. 1, (Salt Lake City, Utah: Signature Books in association with Smith Research Associates, 1989), 307.
  4. History of the Church, 5:283, for date 20-21 Feb 1843. for date 20-21 Feb 1843 Volume 5 link
  5. History of the Church, 5:292, for date 1 March 1843. for date 1 March 1843 Volume 5 link
  6. Joseph Smith, An American Prophet's Record:The Diaries and Journals of Joseph Smith, edited by Scott Faulring, Significant Mormon Diaries Series No. 1, (Salt Lake City, Utah: Signature Books in association with Smith Research Associates, 1989), 329.
  7. Joseph Smith, An American Prophet's Record:The Diaries and Journals of Joseph Smith, edited by Scott Faulring, Significant Mormon Diaries Series No. 1, (Salt Lake City, Utah: Signature Books in association with Smith Research Associates, 1989), 334.
  8. History of the Church, 5:295. Volume 5 link