For the last six months of so, I have been doing a lot of research on nineteenth-century Mormon courts. Earlier today I presented some of my preliminary research to the law school faculty at William & Mary. For those who are interested, you can take a look at my paper online. In doing my research I’ve had a number of discoveries that I’ve found interesting.
First, Mormons have tended to view their own experience as sui generis, but the reality is that lots of religious groups pushed civil litigation into church courts in the colonial period and in the early 19th century. The groups that do this, however, break down on theological lines. Essentially the sects coming out of the radical Reformation or out of Calvism do it, while those coming out of Lutheranism or Anglicanism don’t. Joseph Smith and the earliest Mormon converts came overwhelmingly from these discipline oriented traditions. They tended to be Quakers, the descendents of Puritans, Baptists, Presbyterians, etc. Not all of them, but enough of them to make a difference. After looking at the records of, say Quaker courts, and the earliest Mormon tribunals they are very similar. Mormon courts, however, diverge radically from these earlier Protestant models, creating an integrated judiciary rather than a congregationally based system.
I was also interested to find the extent to which the spectacle of litigation played into Mormon hostility to courts. In the early 19th century courts were prime entertainment, and Brigham Young in particular objected to watching them. The sermons are much like modern attacks against R-rated movies. They center around the idea that certain kinds of entertainment are morally degrading. In this case the entertainment in question was litigation. Finally, it was fascinating to see the way in which the decline of the church court system played out. The church retreated from certain kinds of disputes first. At the same time, you can see the softening of LDS attitudes toward lawyers, and an effort to create a religious narrative for Mormon attorneys.
For the law and Mormonism geeks out there (or just the Mormonism geeks) it is fun stuff.