Question: Did Joseph Smith engage in "land speculation" in Nauvoo?


Question: Did Joseph Smith engage in "land speculation" in Nauvoo?

Note: This wiki section was based partly on a review of G.D. Smith's Nauvoo Polygamy. As such, it focuses on that author's presentation of the data. To read the full review, follow the link. Gregory L. Smith, A review of Nauvoo Polygamy:...but we called it celestial marriage by George D. Smith. FARMS Review, Vol. 20, Issue 2. (Detailed book review)

Those that made this accusation against Joseph Smith had their profits harmed by Joseph's policy of giving land to the poor

The Law's claimed that Joseph Smith used Church members' donations to engage in "land speculation" in Nauvoo. However, the Laws’ profits were harmed by Joseph’s policy of giving land to the poor, and the Laws also resented his ability to influence buyers. G. D. Smith’s account is a caricature of the facts. Few citations to the relevant literature are provided.

G. D. Smith claims that “the Law brothers came into a . . . dispute with [Joseph] over his conduct as trustee-in-trust for the church. In that capacity, [Joseph] had appropriated church members’ charitable donations for real estate speculation, buying low and reselling high to those immigrants who could afford to pay” (p. 423). In fact, Joseph had signed two promissory notes of $25,000 for Nauvoo, payable to Eastern land speculators.

Yet the dispossession suffered by the Saints in Missouri made repayment difficult since many could not afford to purchase land. [1] “Joseph wanted to help,” reports Richard Bushman, “but huge debts prevented him from simply giving away land. What could poor converts do?” Joseph’s preference was “to give land to the poor, especially to widows and orphans. To finance these free gifts, he wanted others to pay generously. The high council priced Nauvoo lots from $200 to $800, leaving room for negotiation. All these judgments required patience and wisdom and exposed Joseph to criticism for gouging and unfair treatment.” [2] In addition, “in June 1840, he asked the high council to appoint someone else to attend to ‘the temporalities of the Church.’ . . . [B]ut his appeal went unheeded, . . . leaving Joseph responsible for the debts and final disposition of land.” [3]

Thus the charge that Joseph was involved in “real estate speculation” is not true. G. D. Smith’s claim that Joseph was selling high “to those . . . who could afford to pay” is a bit of verbal legerdemain—it is true, while still managing to hide the fact that the Prophet was giving away land to those who could not pay. Joseph was already in debt for the land; land sold for higher prices did not benefit Joseph but did benefit those Saints too poor to afford land at all.

On what basis, then, were the Law brothers complaining? Their motives were not so pure as G. D. Smith suggests, just as Joseph’s actions were not so venal as G. D. Smith’s version implies. The Laws invested in lots in upper Nauvoo and on the outskirts while the church held title to the lower city. As Lyndon Cook has explained,

By 1843 the fundamental economic interests of the [Laws] and the Mormon leader were in definite conflict. Brisk competition caused the Prophet to insist that the Saints purchase building lots from only the Church. Although most recognized this as a sacrifice which would assist in liquidating Church debts, to William Law it sounded too much like totalitarianism. [4]

Notes

  1. Richard L. Bushman, Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling (New York: Knopf, 2005), 430.
  2. Richard L. Bushman, Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling (New York: Knopf, 2005), 414, 417.
  3. Richard L. Bushman, Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling (New York: Knopf, 2005), 417.
  4. Lyndon W. Cook, “William Law: Nauvoo Dissenter,” BYU Studies 22/1 (Fall 1982): 62.