Question: Was it illegal for Joseph Smith to perform marriages in Ohio?

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Question: Was it illegal for Joseph Smith to perform marriages in Ohio?

The secular powers honored Joseph's marriages, and provided documentation to ratify his acts

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.

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.

Despite such confident claims, the historical record regarding Ohio marriages disagrees with this portrait in almost every particular.[2] 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,"[3] Joseph Smith stepped forward and announced that he would perform the marriage.

The court's refusal to grant Sidney Rigdon a license to marry as a Mormon minister likely stemmed from religious prejudice rather than being contrary to the law

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."[4] 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.

Ohio's 1824 marriage law stated that "a religious society...could perform marriages without a license"

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.’"[5]


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. 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.
  3. Richard S. Van Wagoner, Mormon Polygamy: A History (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1989), 7.
  4. Bradshaw, "Joseph Smith’s Performance of Marriages in Ohio," 43, 45.
  5. Ohio's "Act Regulating Marriages," (1824); cited in Hartley, "Newel and Lydia Bailey Knight’s Kirtland Love Story and Historic Wedding," 18.