Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Why is the Temple Lot Suit important?

It's interesting to note that throughout the Internet, whether comments are made by Utah LDS, ex-Utah LDS, Christians against Utah LDS, or Community of Christ (formerly RLDS), the discussions about Joseph and polygamy rarely mention the Temple Lot Suit. It's as though the trial never happened. Yet, it is one of the most important documents existing that proves Joseph is innocent of teaching and practicing polygamy.

About the Temple Lot

According to The Temple of the Lord, by Richard and Pamela Price (you may purchase a copy online), the spot for the temple in Independence, Missouri (See RLDS Doctrine and Covenants 57:1) was dedicated in 1831 by Joseph Smith, Jr. and ten elders of the LDS Church (See The Temple of the Lord, p. 21). The dedicated spot for the temple was on a 63.27 acre tract which was purchased by the original LDS Church on December 19, 1831 (See ibid., p. 35) but deeded in the name of Edward Partridge, Bishop of the Church (See ibid., p. 38). After the LDS were driven out of Independence, the property was deeded over to Martin Harris. However, because of Missouri Governor Boggs' Extermination Order, it was unsafe for Harris to come to Jackson County Missouri to record the deed. Thus, the Harris Deed, which was a warranty deed (the seller warrants that it is legally theirs to sell) was never recorded (See ibid., pp.41–50).

About two years after Joseph's death in 1844, Brigham Young led several thousand LDS to Utah. On the way they stopped near what is now the Omaha, Nebraska area and camped for the winter, calling it Winter Quarters. While at Winter Quarters, Mr. Pool from Independence, Missouri contacted Brigham Young, who had a plural marriage with Emily Partridge, the daughter of the deceased Edward Partridge. Pool asked Young if Edward's wife and children would sell to him a quit claim deed (the seller doesn't guarantee they have the right to sell the property but will quit claiming ownership of it) for the Temple Lot. The Temple Lot is the city block between the RLDS Stone Church on the north and the RLDS Auditorium on the south that was designated by Joseph as the spot for the temple and which is a part of the 63.27 acre tract that the original LDS Church purchased (See ibid., pp. 73–86). The Partridges agreed to the deal and sold a quit claim deed to Pool for the land. The Pool Deed eventually changed hands until it was purchased by the Church of Christ (Temple Lot), who owns it today (See ibid., pp. 52–61).

In addition to the Pool Deed, in the 1870s a warranty deed was recorded that transferred all the properties of the original LDS Church in Independence, Missouri from Edward Partridge to Oliver Cowdery on behalf of Cowdery's children. Based on this deed, a quit claim deed for the Temple Lot was sold to the RLDS Church (See ibid., pp. 63–72). Thus, both the RLDS Church and the Church of Christ (Temple Lot) owned quit claim deeds to the Temple Lot.

About the Suit

In the early 1890s, the RLDS Church sued in court (Circuit Court of the United States, for the Western District of Missouri, Western Division, at Kansas City, Missouri, Judge John F. Philips) the Church of Christ (Temple Lot) who had possession of the land. The RLDS Church wanted the court to decide which church was the rightful owner of the Temple Lot. The Utah LDS Church assisted the Church of Christ (Temple Lot) in their defense. The presence of the Utah LDS Church in the trial was so notable "that Judge Philips in his decision spoke of it as 'the power behind the throne.' They furnished many leading witnesses, including Wilford Woodruff, president of the Utah church, Lorenzo Snow, president of the Utah twelve, and at least two of the women who had become notorious by reason of their claim that they were plural wives of Joseph Smith the Martyr" (The Church in Court, compiled and arranged by Elbert A. Smith).

Since neither party owned a warranty deed to the land, Judge Philips had to determine who was the proper successor to the original LDS Church which had purchased the 63.27 acre tract containing the Temple Lot. Thus, he had to determine the original beliefs of the church as well as the beliefs of the churches represented at the suit to decide which church was the legitimate continuation of the original church and entitled to the property.

The Utah LDS Church, Church of Christ, and the RLDS Church brought forth their best witnesses to testify how their church continued the beliefs of the original church. The Utah LDS Church tried to prove that the authority for the doctrines unique to their organization, including polygamy, came from the teachings and practice of Joseph Smith, Jr. The RLDS Church brought evidence and testimony that these doctrines were an invention of Brigham Young and other Utah LDS leaders and were not taught or practiced by Joseph. After many testimonies and cross examinations, Judge Philips rendered, in part, the following decision:

"There can be no question of the fact that Brigham Young's assumed presidency was a bold and bald usurpation. The Book of Doctrine and Covenants (printed in 1846) page 411, containing a revelation to Joseph Smith, January 19, 1841, gave unto them "my servant Joseph, to be a presiding elder over all my church, to be a translator, a revelator, a seer, and a prophet." The book clearly taught that the succession should descend lineally and go to the firstborn. Joseph Smith so taught, and, before his taking off, publicly proclaimed his son Joseph, the present head of Complainant Church, his successor, and he was so anointed.

"The Book of Mormon itself inveighed against the sin of polygamy.... Conformably to the Book of Mormon, the Book of Doctrine and Covenants expressly declared "that we believe that one man should have but one wife, and one woman but one husband." And this declaration of the church on this subject reappeared in the Book of Doctrine and Covenants, editions of 1846 and 1856. Its first appearance as a dogma of the church [the dogma of polygamy] was in the Utah Church in 1852.

"Claim is made by the Utah Church that this doctrine is predicated of a revelation made to Joseph Smith in July, 1843. No such revelation was ever made public during the life of Joseph Smith, and under the law of the church it could not become an article of faith and belief until submitted to and adopted by the church. This was never done.

"It is charged by the Respondents, as an echo of the Utah Church, that Joseph Smith, 'the Martyr,' secretly taught and practiced polygamy; and the Utah contingent furnishes the evidence, and two of the women, to prove this fact. It perhaps would be uncharitable to say of these women that they have borne false testimony as to their connection with Joseph Smith; but, in view of all the evidence and circumstances surrounding the alleged intercourse, it is difficult to escape the conclusion that at most they were but sports in 'nest hiding.' In view of the contention of the Salt Lake party, that polygamy obtained at Nauvoo as early as 1841, it must be a little embarrassing to President Woodruff of that organization when he is confronted, as he was in the evidence in this case, with a published card in the church organ at Nauvoo in October, 1843, certifying that he knew of no other rule or system of marriage than the one published in the Book of Doctrine and Covenants, and that the 'secret wife system,' charged against the church, was a creature of invention by one Doctor Bennett, and that they knew of no such society. That certificate was signed by the leading members of the church, including John Taylor the former President of the Utah Church. And a similar certificate was published by the Ladies' Relief Society of the same place, signed by Emma Smith, wife of Joseph Smith, and Phoebe Woodruff, wife of the present President Woodruff. No such marriage ever occurred under the rules of the church, and no offspring came from the imputed illicit intercourse, although Joseph Smith was in the full vigor of young manhood, and his wife, Emma, was giving birth to healthy children in regular order, and was enciente at the time of Joseph's death" (The Temple Lot Case, Price Publishing Company, pp. 543–551).

The Importance of the Suit

The importance of the Temple Lot Suit in relation to Joseph's character was that in a court of law, Joseph was found innocent of teaching and practicing polygamy. The Utah LDS Church brought forth their best witnesses that Joseph taught and practiced polygamy to prove they were the continuation of the original church. Yet, in an unbiased court of law, the Utah LDS Church could not prove that Joseph taught or practiced polygamy, even with two witnesses who claimed to be Joseph's plural wives. In fact, the witnesses they produced—their best ones—were not credible witnesses according to Judge Philips.

So debates can continue and books can be written alleging all sorts of hideous acts by Joseph involving polygamy. But the fact still remains that in an unbiased court of law, where best evidence is presented and allegations have to be proved and witnesses have to be credible and every man is innocent until proven guilty, Joseph Smith, Jr. was found innocent of teaching and practicing polygamy.