A Missouri Lawyer Defends Joseph Smith: The Recollections of Peter Burnett

14m ·

A Missouri Lawyer Defends Joseph Smith: The Recollections of Peter Burnett

From the fall of 1838 through the Spring of 1839, Joseph Smith and other Church Leaders were confined in the Liberty Jail.  They had several attorneys defending them, including Peter Burnett, a Missouri lawyer and--incidentally-- one of the Missouri militiamen who had marched against the Latter-day Saints at Far West.  

In this episode, we discuss Peter Burnett's account of defending Joseph Smith.  Latter-day Saints are familiar with the harsh conditions of the Liberty Jail, but Burnett's account highlights an aspect of the experience that is less well-known: that Joseph and the other prisoners were in constant danger of being lynched by mobs, and they were particularly vulnerable during court hearings and while being moved to and from the jail.  Burnett's account highlights the heroism of Joseph's team of country lawyers, scratching out a living in a lawless frontier, and taking a stand for the rule of law against the murderous mob.

We recount one pre-trial hearing where the prisoners and their attorneys were in imminent danger of being dragged out of the Liberty Courthouse and hanged.  Yet Burnett and Doniphan would not back down.  Burnett recounts how he drew his pistol and told his co-counsel, "Doniphan, let yourself out [i.e., give it all you've got], my good fellow.  I will kill the first man who attacks you."  And Doniphan proceeded to give the one of the most noble, withering arguments, growing bolder as the crowd grew more incensed.    

He also describes the stream of curious visitors that came to the Davis County Jail to gawk at the famous Joseph Smith.  These visits led Joseph into theological debates and, memorably, a wrestling match against the best fighter of Davis County.  

Burnett also leaves an incredible summation of his client's physical appearance, mannerisms, and character.  While Burnett had much criticism of Joseph's way of speaking, his lack of education, and his awkward way of expressing ideas, "with all these drawbacks," he wrote, "Joseph Smith was much more than an ordinary man."   

For more information contained in this episode, please check out:   Peter Hardeman Burnett, Recollections and Opinions of an Old Pioneer (1880), available at https://www.loc.gov/item/01006673/  

Search Terms:  Joseph Smith, Peter Burnett, Alexander Doniphan, Mormon War, Missouri Persecution, Clay County, Davis County, Liberty Jail, Lyman Wight, Sidney Rigdon, Samuel Lucas, court-martial,  lynch mobs, Country Lawyers

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