In an angelic visitation, the Prophet Joseph Smith, the first president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (often mistakenly called the Mormon Church), was told that God had a work for him to do and that his “name should be had for good and evil among all nations, kindreds, and tongues” (Joseph Smith—History 1:33). He was told that in 1823 when he was eighteen years old, and it proved true throughout his life and has persisted through the decades that followed. It is true today.

Joseph Smith was the subject of three extradition hearings held in Illinois in September 2013.

In 1841, 1842, and 1843, the state of Missouri tried to extradite Joseph Smith from the state of Illinois. Joseph Smith used a writ of habeas corpus each time to stop his extradition.

The Illinois Supreme Court Historic Preservation Commission and the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum (a division of the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency) produced a rehearing and a panel discussion to educate the public on the use of habeas corpus (a writ that determines whether an individual is being detained legally). They work to bring awareness of legal events in Illinois.

The Missouri War of 1838—A Brief Summary

When Mormons lived in the state of Missouri in the 1830s, long-time residents of the state were concerned about Mormons settling there permanently. Parley P. Pratt, one of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles at the time, said that some people “had long watched our increasing power and prosperity with jealousy, and with greedy and avaricious eyes. It was a common boast that, as soon as we had completed our extensive improvements, and made a plentiful crop, they would drive us from the State, and once more enrich themselves with the spoils.”1 This was not the first time members of The Church of Jesus Christ had experienced trouble in Missouri, nor the first time they were persecuted in any state. Additionally, dissenters from the Church were joining the persecution of members of the Church.

Tensions escalated when an affidavit was sworn out against Joseph Smith falsely stating that he and another Mormon had organized an army of 500 men and had threatened death to old settlers and citizens in Daviess County. Other false claims of threats, rumors, and exaggerated stories circulated throughout Missouri. False reports of a Mormon uprising reached Missouri governor Lilburn W. Boggs. In the mobbings that followed, many Latter-day Saints were murdered and their lands and possessions were taken. Unsuccessfully, they appealed for relief to Governor Boggs several times. Mormons defended themselves, fueling stories that Mormons intended to sack and burn Richmond, Missouri.

Relying on the false reports of an insurrection by Mormons, Governor Boggs issued an extermination order. Violence against the Mormons erupted and they were brutally driven from the state. Joseph Smith and other Church leaders were taken prisoner and held in dungeon-like conditions for several months. They were charged with “murder, treason, burglary, arson, larceny, theft, and stealing.”2 Some state officials concluded that Joseph Smith and others would not be successfully prosecuted, so a sheriff and other guards allowed the prisoners to escape while taking them to a different county for trial. They joined other Latter-day Saints in Illinois.

A Writ of Habeas Corpus

In the new Mormon settlement of Nauvoo, Illinois, Smith and others discussed the form of government that their new city should have. The Nauvoo Charter became law on December 16, 1840. It was similar to charters granted to other cities in Illinois: Chicago, Alton, Galena, Springfield, and Quincy. It allowed them to establish a municipal court and a local militia. The charter helped Mormons feel like they finally had some legal security.

In 1841 Smith was arrested as a fugitive from Missouri. This was the first of three attempts to extradite Smith. The second happened when Smith was falsely accused of attempting to assassinate Governor Boggs in 1842. A third attempt happened in 1843 during the congressional race when John C. Bennett, former mayor of Nauvoo, revived the old charge of treason against Smith. A writ of habeas corpus, allowed under the Nauvoo Charter, provided his release.

Series of Events Exploring Habeas Corpus

The three Smith habeas corpus hearings were reenacted in the Lincoln Museum on September 24, 2013. The reenactment was based on the Mormons’ experiences in the early 1800s. A panel discussion on the use of habeas corpus over the last two centuries followed the reenactment. Panel members included U.S. District Court Judge Sue Myerscough of the Central District of Illinois; Michael Scodro, Solicitor General for the State of Illinois; Jeffrey Colman, partner at Jenner and Block in Chicago, who has worked on behalf of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay; and Jeffrey N. Walker of the Joseph Smith Papers Project, Salt Lake City, Utah.

Included in the event, experts  led tours of the Nauvoo historic sites. Dallin H. Oaks, one of the Twelve Apostles of the Church of Jesus Christ, former dean of the University of Chicago Law School, and former Utah Supreme Court Justice, spoke at the LDS Center in Nauvoo.

Joseph Smith continues to be known for good and evil because of his place in American history as a result of his work to restore the gospel of Jesus Christ and to reestablish the Church of Jesus Christ.


  1. Parley P. Pratt, ed., Autobiography of Parley P. Pratt (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1985), 150.

2. History of the Church, 3:315.

About paulah
Paula Hicken was an editor with the Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship from 2000 to 2013. She earned her BA degree in English from Brigham Young University. She edited Insights, the Maxwell Institute newsletter, and was the production editor for Faith, Philosophy, Scripture, Hebrew Law in Biblical Times (2nd ed.), Third Nephi: An Incomparable Scripture, and was one of the copy editors for Analysis of the Textual Variants of the Book of Mormon. She also helped manage the Maxwell Institute intellectual property and oversaw rights and permissions. She has published in the Ensign, the Liahona, the LDS Church News, and the FARMS Review.

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