John Hamer is our latest guest-blogger here at BCC. We are happy to have him with us and look forward to his contributions.
Bill Shepard, President-Elect of the John Whitmer Historical Association (JWHA) and trustee of Strangite properties in Voree, Wisconsin, has located an important document in the Hancock County Courthouse in Carthage, Illinois: a record of the incorporation of the “Church of Jesus Christ of Latter day Saints” in the state of Illinois by Joseph Smith. (Bill has given me permission to publish his find on BCC.) Although its contents have long been known (see History of the Church 4:287), the physical document itself seems to have eluded notice.
According to the document, Joseph Smith was elected “Sole Trustee in Trust” for the church at a meeting held in Nauvoo on January 30, 1841. The church’s incorporation was registered with county officials three days later on February 2, in keeping with the provisions of an 1835 Illinois state law. As trustee, Joseph was in control of the church corporation and held the church’s property in trust for the benefit of the institution. The name of the church is written out twice. Both occasions “Latter day” is spelled with a small “d” (as in the LDS church’s current usage), but without a hyphen (as in the RLDS church’s usage). (The capitalization and punctuation of “latter-day-saint” remained inconsistent throughout the Nauvoo period.)
More interesting is a reference the record makes to Joseph’s legal successor. According to Joseph’s sworn statement, “I was elected Sole Trustee for said Church to hold my office during life (my successors to be the first Presidency of said Church).” In other words, in the event of Joseph’s death, his legal successor was the quorum of the First Presidency. When Joseph died three years later on June 27, 1844, the sole surviving member of the First Presidency was Sidney Rigdon. (At the time, President Rigdon was actively campaigning as Joseph’s vice presidential running mate in the 1844 US Presidential election.)
Historians often say, “Joseph left no clear successor” and that “there were a number of competing succession options,” which had equal or nearly equal merit. However, as this document indicates, Joseph did have a legal successor — at least as far as the trusteeship for the church corporation and property was concerned. I think it may be time for us to begin to admit that Joseph did leave an obvious successor: Sidney Rigdon. What Joseph did not leave was an acceptable successor. Because Sidney was opposed to polygamy and because he had become erratic (as he would soon prove as head of his own short-lived church organization), his leadership was unacceptable to an inner core of Nauvoo’s elite.
Although the rivals who emerged to challenge Sidney — Brigham Young, James Strang, William Smith, David Whitmer and ultimately Joseph Smith III — had inferior succession claims, their leadership was viewed by most of the Saints as much more palatable. Poor Sidney.
87 City of Nauvoo Hancock Co. Ills
February 2nd A D 1841
To the County Recorder of the County of Hancock
At a meeting of the “Church
of Jesus Christ of Latter day Saints” at this place on Saturday
the 30th day of January A D 1841. I was elected Sole Trustee
for said Church to hold my office during life (my successors
to be the first Presidency of said Church) and vested with
Plenary Powers as Sole Trustee in Trust for the Church of Latter
Jesus Christ of Latter day Saints to receive acquire manage
or convey property real personal or mixed for the sole use
and benefit of said church agreeably to the provisions of ^ an Act entitled “an
act concerning religious Societies” approved February 6th 1835
Joseph Smith [L.S.]
State of Illinois } ss.
Hancock County } This day personally appeared before me [Daniel]
H Wells a Justice of the Peace within and for the County [of Hancock]
aforesaid, Isaac Galland Robert B Thompson and J[ohn C.]
Bennett who being duly sworn depose and say that [the foregoing]
Certificate of Joseph Smith is true.
R. B. [Thompson]
John [C. Bennett]
Sworn to and subscribed this third day of February [in the]
year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and f[orty-one]
before me Daniel H W[ells]
Justice of the [Peace]
JOHN HAMER is a co-editor of Scattering of the Saints: Schism within Mormonism. A 7th generation cultural Mormon, John and his partner Mike Karpowicz are executive directors of the John Whitmer Historical Association. When not at JWHA conferences, they spend their time driving around the country, visiting Mormon history sites, local diners and the graves of US Presidents and Vice Presidents.