Question: Did Joseph Smith violate marriage laws in Ohio by performing marriages?

Table of Contents

Note: This material is part of a collection of draft essays on LDS plural marriage. They are provided for the use of FairMormon and its readers. (C) 2007-2017 Gregory L. Smith. No other reproduction is authorized.

Question: Did Joseph Smith violate marriage laws in Ohio by performing marriages?

Joseph did not knowingly violate marriage laws in Ohio, and seems to have used his prophetic gifts to spare victims of the nineteenth-century's legal and bureaucratic immaturity unnecessary suffering

Joseph did not knowingly violate marriage laws in Ohio, and seems to have used his prophetic gifts to spare victims of the nineteenth-century's legal and bureaucratic immaturity unnecessary suffering. The secular powers honored Joseph's marriages, and provided documentation to ratify his acts. As happens so often, critics condemn Joseph Smith and the early Saints without providing the proper context for their legal choices or moral actions. As we consider the wider implementation of plural marriage in Nauvoo, such context will become increasingly important.

Plural marriage would eventually involve a complex collision of religious belief, secular law, and personal conscience. Many historians have presumed that Joseph Smith always had a cavalier attitude toward civil laws which conflicted with his marital concepts. Even before the broad implementation of plural marriage, critics point to marriages performed by Joseph in Ohio as evidence that he would readily violate secular laws.

As John Brooke put it:

Specifically prohibited from performing the marriage ceremony by the local county court, Smith brushed aside a state-licensed church elder to perform the rites of marriage between Newel [Knight] and Lydia [Bailey] himself. She was not divorced from her non-Mormon husband, so this technically bigamous marriage also challenged a broader moral code…Over the next two months Joseph Smith performed five more illegal marriages.[1]

Brooke claims Joseph was forbidden to perform marriages, that he performed a bigamous marriage, and that he repeatedly disobeyed state marriage laws.

Michael Quinn makes the same type of claim when he opines that

in November 1835 [Joseph] announced a doctrine I call “theocratic ethics.” He used this theology of justify his violation of Ohio’s marriage laws by performing a marriage for Newel Knight and the undivorced Lydia Goldthwaite without legal authority to do so…Theocratic ethics justified LDS leaders and (by extension) regular Mormons in actions which were contrary to conventional ethics and sometimes in violation of criminal laws.[2]

Quinn's introduction of the expression "theocratic ethics" is an excellent example of his regrettable tendency to coin an expression, and then proceed as if his act of definition proves that the phenomenon he has labeled actually exists.[3] In another context, one non-LDS reviewer of Quinn regretted this use of "rather artificial categories that acquire an aura of scholarly respectability through the magic of 'Quinnspeak.'"[4]

Quinn's vocabulary implies that Joseph was using a different sort of ethical standard as most people—and, the term "theocratic" is loaded, since it generally has negative associations. Quinn also makes the entirely unwarranted conclusion "by extension" that Joseph's supposed irregular actions meant that a "regular Mormon" would be likewise justified in following a novel ethical scheme.

Despite such confident claims, the historical record regarding Ohio marriages disagrees with this portrait in almost every particular.[5] Newel Knight, a young widower, wished to marry Lydia Bailey. Lydia was married to an abusive drunkard, who had abandoned her years before. Sidney Rigdon had been refused a license to marry as a Mormon minister, and so many concluded that Mormon elders would not receive state sanction to perform marriages.

Because Seymour Brunson had been a preacher prior to being a Mormon, he held a license to solemnize marriages. Brunson was thus about to perform the Knight-Bailey wedding. In what Van Wagoner calls "a bold display of civil disobedience,"[6] Joseph Smith stepped forward and announced that he would perform the marriage.

The Knight-Bailey wedding was not illegal, since Newel Knight obtained a marriage license from the secular authorities

On the surface, it appears that the critics are justified in arguing that Joseph had no right to perform marriages, and chose to do so anyway. Scott Bradshaw's research, however, found that refusing Rigdon permission to marry was "not justifiable from a legal point of view." Such a legal decision in Ohio "was rare in the 1830s, perhaps even unheard of."[7] The court's refusal to grant Rigdon a license to marry as a Mormon minister likely stemmed from religious prejudice.

The Knight-Bailey wedding was not illegal, since Newel Knight obtained a marriage license from the secular authorities. The state of Ohio did not contest Joseph's performance of the marriage, since it then issued a marriage certificate for the Knights' marriage. Joseph later performed other marriages in Ohio, and these couples likewise received marriage certificates after Joseph submitted the necessary paperwork.

A review of Ohio state law demonstrates that Joseph's decision to perform marriages was correct

A review of Ohio state law demonstrates that Joseph's decision to marry—and his prophesy that he had the right to marry, and that his enemies would never prosecute him for marrying—was correct. Ohio's 1824 marriage law stated that "a religious society…could perform marriages without a license so long as the ceremony was done ‘agreeable to the rules and regulations of their respective churches.’"[8]

The "rules and regulations" regarding marriage for the Church had been established since the publication of what was then D&C 101 in September 1835.[9] The Knight-Bailey wedding did not occur until 24 November 1835, and Joseph Smith surely had the authority to perform weddings in the Church if anyone did, especially since D&C 101 declared that marriage "should be performed by a presiding high priest, bishop, elder, or priest."[10]

When applying to the county clerk for marriage certificates of other marriages which he performed, Joseph specifically noted that they were solemnized "agreeably to the rules and regulations of the Church…on matrimony," a clear reference to the 1824 Ohio statute.

Notes

  1. John L. Brooke, The Refiner's Fire : The Making of Mormon Cosmology, 1644-1844 (Cambridge ; New York: Cambridge University Press, 1994), 212.
  2. D. Michael Quinn, The Mormon Hierarchy: Origins of Power (Signature Books, 1994), 88.
  3. For a critique of Quinn's concept of "theocratic ethics," see Dean C. Jessee, "Review of D. Michael Quinn's the Mormon Hierarchy: Origins of Power," Journal of Mormon History 22/2 (Fall 1996): 163–165. Jessee also treats the matter of Joseph Smith performing marriages in Ohio on pp. 166–167.
  4. Klaus J. Hansen, "Quinnspeak (Review of Same-Sex Dynamics among Nineteenth-Century Americans: A Mormon Example by D. Michael Quinn)," FARMS Review of Books 10/1 (1998): 132–140. off-site
  5. Unless otherwise indicated, the facts in this chapter are drawn from M. Scott Bradshaw, "Joseph Smith’s Performance of Marriages in Ohio," Brigham Young University Studies 39 no. 4 (2000), 7–22. See also William G. Hartley, "Newel and Lydia Bailey Knight’s Kirtland Love Story and Historic Wedding," Brigham Young University Studies 39 no. 4 (2000), 22–69.
  6. Richard S. Van Wagoner, Mormon Polygamy: A History (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1989), 7.
  7. Bradshaw, "Joseph Smith’s Performance of Marriages in Ohio," 43, 45.
  8. Ohio's "Act Regulating Marriages," (1824); cited in Hartley, "Newel and Lydia Bailey Knight’s Kirtland Love Story and Historic Wedding," 18.
  9. See Doctrine and Covenants (1835 edition), Section CI. . (In 1876, this section was eventually removed, and replaced with the plural marriage revelation as D&C 132.) We must remember that at this point in Church history, the concept of a "temple sealing" or "eternal" marriage was certainly not being taught, and may well not have even been known to Joseph Smith. All Church marriages at the time were what modern members would call "civil marriages," such as those performed by an LDS bishop today.
  10. Doctrine and Covenants (1835 edition), Section CI [DC 101:1].