Question: What are the Hurlbut affidavits?

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Question: What are the Hurlbut affidavits?

The Hurlbut affidavits are a collection of affidavits from Joseph Smith’s neighbors which claim that the Smith family possessed a number of character flaws

Many critics cite a collection of affidavits from Joseph Smith’s neighbors which claim that the Smith family possessed a number of character flaws. These affidavits were collected by Doctor Philastus Hurlbut ("Doctor" was his first name, not a title). [1] Hurlbut had been excommunicated from the Church on charges of "unvirtuous conduct with a young lady," [2] and for threatening the life of the Prophet.

  1. There are many statements from Joseph's contemporaries attesting to his good character—These people did not sign sworn affidavits, but their accounts are recorded in their journals and histories.
  2. It is also important to note that none of these statements regarding Joseph Smith, Jr. was a firsthand account from the Prophet himself, but instead represent second or third-hand accounts. It is interesting that Fawn Brodie and other modern anti-Mormons readily dismiss the affidavits supporting the Spalding theory (which has since been discredited), suggesting the Hurlbut "prompted" those making statements, yet accepts without question the affidavits attesting to the bad character of Joseph Smith and his family.
  3. Finally, Hurlbut's motive in collecting the affidavits is a factor. The Hurlbut affidavits were collected by a man who not only had a grudge to settle with the Church, but who had actually been brought before a judge for issuing a death threat against Joseph Smith, Jr. His family had likewise lost a court case brought by the Smiths, and young Joseph's testimony played a significant role in their victory. (This occurred despite the Hurlbuts being more wealthy and prominent in the community than the poverty-stricken Smiths.)

Hurlbut had been hostile to the Smith family long before he collected his affidavits

Hurlbut's hostility to the Smiths may have been of long date. In 1819, the Smiths sued a local family of Hurlbuts over the sale of a pair of horses and some work they had done for him. (Aside from the name, it is not known if there was a family connection.) One author explains:

Joseph Smith's introduction to the legal system came at an early age. His father and oldest brother, Alvin, initiated a lawsuit in January 1819 against Jeremiah Hurlbut arising from his sale of a pair of horses to the Smiths for $65. The Smith boys had been working for Hurlbut to both pay down the $65 obligation and for other goods the previous summer. Twelve witnesses were called during the trial, including Hyrum and Joseph Smith Jr. Under New York law, being just thirteen, Joseph's testimony about the work he had performed was admissible only after the court found him competent. His testimony proved credible and the court record indicates that ever item that he testified about was included in the damages awarded to the Smiths. Although Hurlbut appealed the case, no records have survived noting the final disposition of that case; perhaps it was settled out of court. The significance of this case is not limited to the fact that a New York judge found the young Joseph, just a year prior to his First Vision, to be competent and credible as a witness. Also, the suit being brought against a prominent Palmyra family and involving two other prominent community leaders as sureties on appeal may have contributed to Joseph Smith Jr.'s memory of his family's estrangement from much of the Palmyra community....

Under applicable New York law, "qualified citizens" [for jury duty] were limited to male inhabitants of the county where the trial was being held between the ages of twenty-one and sixty; and who at the time had personal property in the amount of not less that $250 or real property in the county with a value of not less than $250. In the rural community of Palmyra this effectively meant that those qualified to be on the jury would be the more affluent and prominent men of the area. Ironically, none of the Smiths would have qualified to be a juror.

The trial was held on February 6, 1819. Twelve jurors were impaneled, all men and property owners. The Smiths called five witnesses, Hurlbut [the farmer they were suing] seven. Both Joseph Jr. and Hyrum were called to testify. This appears to be young Joseph's first direct interaction with the judicial [130] process. He had turned thirteen years old a month and a half previously. New York law and local practice permitted the use of child testimony, subject to the court's discretion to determine the witness' competency. The test for competency required a determination that the witness was of 'sound mind and memory.' A New York 1803 summary of the law for justices of the peace notes that 'all persons of sound mind and memory, and who have arrived at years of discretion, except such as are legally interested, or have been rendered infamous, may be improved as witnesses.' This determination of competency rested within the discretion of the judge....

From the record it appears that Judge Spear found Joseph Jr. competent, and he indeed did testify during the trial. This is evident in a review of the List of Services that was part of the court file. Joseph Jr.'s testimony would have been required to admit those services he personally performed....[3]

Hurlbut's collection of the statements was made at the request of an anti-Mormon committee in Kirtland, Ohio

At any rate, Hurlbut's later collection of statements was made at the request of an anti-Mormon committee in Kirtland, Ohio. [4] According to B.H. Roberts:

It was simply a matter of "muck raking" on Hurlbut's part. Every idle story, every dark insinuation which at that time could be thought of and unearthed was pressed into service to gratify this man's personal desire for revenge, and to aid the enemies of the Prophet in their attempt to destroy his influence and overthrow the institution then in process of such remarkable development. [5]

Hurlbut was unable to publish the affidavits himself after his trial for making death threats against Joseph Smith, so he sold them to E.D. Howe for publication in his book Mormonism Unvailed

Hurlbut was unable to publish the affidavits himself after his trial for making death threats against Joseph Smith, Jr. (And, it is possible that his family's animus dated back far longer.) He sold his material to Eber D. Howe, who published it in his anti-Mormon book Mormonism Unvailed in 1834. In addition to the affidavits attacking the character of the Smith family, Hurlbut gathered statements from the family and neighbors of Solomon Spalding in order to "prove" that Spalding's unpublished manuscript was the source for the Book of Mormon. Mormonism Unvailed contained the first presentation of the Spalding theory of Book of Mormon origin. Some critics, such as Fawn Brodie, are selective in their acceptance of Hurlbut's affidavits—They readily accept affidavits that attack the character of the Smith family, yet admit that some "judicious prompting" by Hurlbut may have been involved in those affidavits that were gathered to support the Spalding theory. [6]

E.D. Howe thought that Joseph was "lazy," "indolent" and "superstitious"

Howe's bias is evident throughout the book. He introduces the Smith family with the following:

All who became intimate with them during this period, unite in representing the general character of old Joseph and wife, the parents of the pretended Prophet, as lazy, indolent, ignorant and superstitious—having a firm belief in ghosts and witches; the telling of fortunes; pretending to believe that the earth was filled with hidden treasures, buried there by Kid or the Spaniards. [7]

Notes

  1. "Doctor" was not a title—It was Hurlbut's actual given name.
  2. Benjamin Winchester, The origin of the Spalding story, concerning the Manuscript Found; with a short biography of Dr. P. Hulbert, the originator of the same; and some testimony adduced, showing it to be a sheer fabrication, so far as in connection with the Book of Mormon is concerned. (Philadelphia: Brown, Bicking & Guilbert, Printers, 1834), p. 5.
  3. Jeffrey N. Walker, "Joseph Smith's Introduction to the Law: The 1819 Hurlbut Case," Mormon Historical Studies 11/1 (Spring 2010): 129-130.
  4. Brigham H. Roberts, Comprehensive History of the Church (Provo, Utah: Brigham Young University Press, 1965), 1:41. GospeLink (requires subscrip.)
  5. Brigham H. Roberts, Comprehensive History of the Church (Provo, Utah: Brigham Young University Press, 1965), 1:41. GospeLink (requires subscrip.)
  6. Fawn M. Brodie, No Man Knows My History: The Life of Joseph Smith (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1945), 446–447.
  7. Eber D. Howe, Mormonism Unvailed (Painesville, OH: Telegraph Press, 1834), p. 11.