In 2019 there existed a legal entity known as The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. This fact will likely strike most readers as unexceptional. More interesting, however, prior to 2019 there had been no such legal entity as the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints for over 150 years, the last of that name likely having been disincorporated in 1862. Even more strangely, although there were millions of people around the globe who identified themselves as Latter-day Saints, in 2019 the only member of the legal entity known as The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was Russell M. Nelson. This somewhat surprising state of affairs is the result of how the efforts to disestablish the established colonial churches in the wake of the American Revolution created a body of corporate law in the United States with a distinctly Protestant inflection; and how the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, with its hierarchical emphasis on prophetic authority and its massive ecclesiastical ambitions, became entangled within and ultimately resisted that body of law. It may also have been the result of a bitter dispute over salt, now long forgotten but famous at the time, between Joseph F. Smith, president of the church from 1901 to 1918, and Charles Smurthwaite, a Utah entrepreneur.
Beginning in 1830, the church struggled to define the nature of its legal personality. During the lifetime of Joseph Smith it attempted to formally incorporate under the laws of two states. No American jurisdiction at the time, however, provided a legal form that meshed harmoniously with the ecclesiastical structure and government of the church, contributing to the chaos that marked its legal affairs at the time of Smith’s murder. The Latter-day Saints took advantage of the comparative legal independence of early territorial Utah to incorporate the church in a way that allowed it to pursue its ecclesiastical ambitions, but this legal structure soon drew the ire of Congress. In the late 1880s, as the federal government’s crusade against polygamy reached its height, the corporate structure of the church became a key legal battleground. In the aftermath of those battles, the church chose to eschew any centralized legal entity for its affairs, despite its hierarchical ecclesiology. Unresolved questions came to a head when controversies over post-Manifesto polygamy and church business enterprises boiled over into litigation during Joseph F. Smith’s administration. Smurthwaite, an excommunicated Mormon businessman, and Don Carlos Musser, the scion of a prominent Latter-day Saint family, sued Smith over the use of tithing funds. The case drew national media attention, and pitted two of the most prominent and talented members of the Utah Bar—church general counsel Franklin S. Richards and former Utah Supreme Court justice Charles Zane—against one another. Ultimately Richards prevailed, but the case vividly illustrated the precarious nature of the church’s ambiguous legal structure and likely contributed to the creation of the corporate entity that continues legally to embody the church today.
48 Journal of Mormon History 92-122 (2022)
Oman, Nathan B., "Salt, Smurthwaite, and Smith: The Origins of the Modern Legal Identity of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints" (2022). Faculty Publications. 2058.