My first acquaintance with the inside of the Book of Mormon came when, at age thirteen, I contracted polio and was confined to bed for six months. My father supplied me with the Book of Mormon and a number of other volumes he knew would appeal to my youthful mind. The Book of Mormon was tough sledding compared to Treasure Island, Johnny Tremain or Oscar Wilde’s The Happy Prince. Dad suggested I read three chapters from the Book of Mormon each day before switching to my preferred fare. That worked, and after I got past the Isaiah chapters, the pace picked up and when the experiences of Ammon and his brethren appeared, I was locked in and the three chapter ration was gone.
When Ammon was brought before King Lamoni after having defended the king’s flocks alone by lopping off the arms of the attacking thieves to explain by what power he did that remarkable deed, the record says, ‘Now Ammon being wise, yet harmless, he said unto Lamoni: Wilt thou hearken unto my words, if I tell thee by what power I do these things? . . . And the king answered Yea, I will believe all thy words. And thus he was caught with guile.” (Alma 18:22-23). I had to ask Dad what “caught with guile” meant, but the yet harmless part of the verse caused me to laugh out loud then, and makes me still chuckle fifty-eight years later. How does one call someone harmless who has just lopped off “not a few” arms of assailants? (Alma 17:38) My father explained the difference between courage in battle and gentleness in personal conduct. It dawned on me then that I was reading real history, not fiction. That conviction has only deepened in the ensuing years, until I now know that the Book of Mormon is just what it claims to be: scripture, and that the precepts and doctrines contained therein are true. Moreover, Joseph Smith was its faithful translator.
The first time the Spirit bore witness to my soul that what I was hearing was true happened at a stake conference while a returned missionary was testifying that Joseph Smith was a prophet. I was eighteen at the time. There have been infrequent recurrences of such contacts with the Spirit at diverse and sometimes unexpected times in the following years, on occasion while giving or receiving a blessing, while praying, meditating, or hearing someone preach, but most often (in my experience) in quiet moments in the temple. All those have only reconfirmed the conviction that God lives and that His Son Jesus Christ is our Savior.
My training and occupation has been the law. About forty years ago, I became curious about all the legal encounters, arrests, trials, harassment, and persecution in legal guise to which Joseph Smith was exposed in his comparatively short life. That led to some writing and ultimately an invitation to join the team of the Joseph Smith Papers project, as senior editor of the Legal Series. He was involved in over 220 lawsuits as plaintiff, defendant, or witness. While Mayor of Nauvoo (which included the office of Justice of the Peace) and as Presiding Judge of the Municipal Court of Nauvoo, he presided over scores of other cases. In collecting his legal and business records, and learning what they demonstrate, I have come to what is for me an inescapable conclusion: Joseph Smith, quite apart and in addition to his prophetic calling (about which many others have written), was in his business and legal dealings with his fellow men an honorable and reasonable man. He paid his debts; he successfully defended himself and his church from claimed criminal charges; he built communities; he shared the material goods that came into his hands with followers and strangers; he faithfully performed the legal responsibilities as both judge and court-appointed guardian; he petitioned legislatures and the U.S. Congress for redress on behalf of his dispossessed people; he dispensed justice in his official capacity and rendered mercy and forgiveness personally. In short he was an honorable MAN, whether one regards him a prophet or not. For me he was both. Like Ammon he was “wise and harmless” while serving as God’s mouthpiece on this earth.
Posted August 2010 on FairMormon.org
Gordon A. Madsen earned B.S. and J.D. degrees from the University of Utah, and, early in his career, served as a deputy district attorney and then, from 1959 to 1964, as assistant Utah attorney general. After 1964, he worked as a lawyer in private practice, also serving from 1969 to 1971 in the Utah House of Representatives. Thereafter, at various times, he has been a member of the Utah State Constitutional Revision Commission, the Utah Judicial Qualifications Commission, and the Judicial Nominating Commission (Third District).
Now retired, he is a co-editor of the business and legal papers in the Joseph Smith Papers Project. Among his important Mormon-related works are “Joseph Smith’s 1826 Trial: The Legal Setting,” BYU Studies 30/2 (1990), “Joseph Smith and the Missouri Court of Inquiry: Austin A. King’s Quest for Hostages,” BYU Studies 43/4 (2004), and a 1996 presentation to the Mormon History Association in which he argued that William Law’s accusations of fraud against Joseph Smith, Jr., were demonstrably false.
He is married to the historian Carol Cornwall Madsen, and they are the parents of six children.