The Restoration of Christ's Church


Doctor Philastus Hurlbut did more to damage Joseph Smith and the Church of Jesus Christ than perhaps anyone else in Joseph’s lifetime. Even in the ocean of criticism Latter-day Saints face today, I still continue to see Hurlbut’s work resurface time and time again. So, who was this guy? Where does he fit in the puzzle of Church history? And what did he do to earn himself a spot in the anti-Latter-day Saint Hall of Fame? Let’s talk about it.

First of all, Doctor is not a title; it’s actually Hurlbut’s first name. He was about 24 years old when he was baptized into the Church probably in early 1833. He left on a mission to the eastern states in March but ended up being excommunicated by a council in Kirtland in June due to “unchristian conduct with the female sex while on a mission.” Hurlbut was not present for his excommunication, so he appealed the decision. A council led by Joseph Smith heard his confession and reinstated his membership. A couple of days later, he was excommunicated again after reports came in that Hurlbut’s confession had not been sincere and that he had been bragging about having deceived the council. 

Hurlbut, in the words of Benjamin Winchester, ”now determined to demolish, as far as practicable, what he had once endeavoured [sic] to build up.” He started giving anti-Latter-day Saint lectures and ultimately was able to convince a committee of critics in Kirtland to hire him to go out and “ascertain the real origin of the Book of Mormon, and to examine the validity of Joseph Smith’s claims to the character of a Prophet.”

Hurlbut collected a handful of affidavits asserting that the Book of Mormon was plagiarized from an unpublished book manuscript by a guy named Solomon Spaulding. Of course, he wanted to take a look at the actual manuscript, so he tracked down Spaulding’s widow, Matilda, and promised that he’d publish the manuscript and give her half of the profits if she gave him access to it, which she did. Interestingly, Hurlbut never published it. According to Matilda, “I received a letter stating that it did not read as he expected, and he should not print it.” Instead of cutting his losses and taking the L, Hurlbut doubled down and affirmed that he must have found the wrong version of the manuscript and that there must be another one somewhere that actually matched the Book of Mormon. Of course, no such manuscript has ever been found. 

Even most critics today recognize that the theory doesn’t hold much water. Fawn Brodie even acknowledged that “It can clearly be seen that the [Spaulding] affidavits were written by Hurlbut” and that “he did a little judicious prompting.” Long story short, the theory’s got more holes in it than Camp Green Lake. 

But Hurlbut wasn’t done yet. He went to Joseph’s home turf in Palmyra and Manchester, New York, to lecture against Joseph and to look for people willing to speak out against him and his family. He collected 15 affidavits of varying lengths, including 2 group statements. Researcher Dale W. Adams noted that “A reading of these statements suggests that most of them were collected at lectures given by Hurlbut, supplemented by talks given by local ministers who were critical of Joseph Smith, Jr. and his new religion.” In other words, these affidavits were not taken from a random sampling of locals. In fact, when a guy named Benjamin Saunders was later asked about Hurlbut’s affidavits, he said, “He came to me, but he could not get out of me what he wanted; so [he] went to others.”

On another occasion, in 1835, a convert named Aroet Hale, along with a few others (according to Hale’s diary), “went about from house to house to inquire the character of Joseph Smith in previous to his receiving the book of the plates of Mormon. The answer was that his character was as good as young men in general.”

One common accusation in the affidavits is that the Smiths were avid treasure-diggers, which we talk more about in this episode. At least some of the Smiths were involved, to an extent, in this folk-Christian practice, but some of the stories told in the affidavits are clearly based on hearsay or seem exaggerated and, at the very least, are motivated by a desire to make the Smiths look bad. And that’s one of the challenges of these affidavits—there will sometimes be a nugget of truth there, but in many instances, it’s impossible to prove which stories are fully true and which are false or partially true, having been distorted or sensationalized. 

Many of the other claims in Hurlbut’s affidavits amount to just your basic mudslinging — that Joseph and/or members of his family were liars, drunkards, and indolent. David Stafford wrote that Joseph Sr. and his sons were “truly a lazy set of fellows …. It was a mystery to their neighbors how they got their living.” It’s an ironic claim, considering the fact that according to 1830 tax records, the Smith farm was assessed as more valuable than any of the Stafford family farms. Again, some of the various claims just can’t be verified, but the raw historical records pertaining to the Smith family farm stand as a witness against the claim that they were lazy. 

Hurlbut went back to Kirtland with his affidavits and continued to rail against the Church. The Saints fought back. Hurlbut actually ended up threatening Joseph’s life. Joseph took him to court and won—a judge ruled that Joseph did have “reason to fear that Doctor P. Hurlbut would Beat wound or kill him or injure his property….” Hurlbut was ordered to keep the peace and fined $200 (over $7,000 today).

He sold his affidavits to the editor of the Painesville Telegraph, Eber D. Howe, who published them in what is known as the first “anti-Mormon” book, Mormonism Unvailed. Hurlbut then just sort of drops out of Church history, becomes a minister at a different Church, gets suspended from that position, and then just becomes a farmer.

Point being: It can be helpful to be aware of the Hurlbut affidavits in case someone online starts throwing antagonistic quotes at you, but the affidavits really shouldn’t be taken at face value. Personally, I largely just consider them to be propaganda. I think William Smith summed up the affidavits well when he said, “We never knew we were bad folks until Joseph told his vision. We were considered respectable till then, but at once people began to circulate falsehoods and stories in a wonderful way.” There’s a lot more that could be said about that Spalding manuscript theory we didn’t get to yet, so go watch this episode for more info on that, and have a great day!


Learning More:

— “Doctor Philastus Hurlbut: Originator of Derogatory Statements About Joseph Smith, Jr.” by Dale W. Adams in “The John Whitmer Historical Association Journal,” Vol. 20 (2000), pp. 76-93 (18 pages): 

— “Why Did Joseph Smith File a Legal Complaint against Doctor Philastus Hurlbut?” via Book of Mormon Central: 

— “Winning against Hurlbut’s Assault in 1834,” by David Grua (chapter in “Sustaining the Law: Joseph Smith’s Legal Encounters”): 

— “Joseph Smith’s New York Reputation Reappraised,” by Richard Lloyd Anderson, BYU Studies 10, no. 3 (1970): 

— “Can the 1834 Affidavits Attacking the Smith Family Be Trusted?” by Daniel C. Peterson & Donald L. Enders in “Pressing Forward with the Book of Mormon: The FARMS Updates of the 1990s,” pgs. 285-288: 

— “Hurlbut, Doctor Philastus,” biography via the Joseph Smith Papers Project: 

— “The Mythical ‘Manuscript Found’,” by Matthew Roper (Maxwell Institute): 

— “New Light on Mormonism,” by Ellen Dickinson (chapter 5 of this book contains a fascinating 1880 interview with Hurlbut.): 

— “The Joseph Smith, Sr., Family: Farmers of the Genesee” by Donald L. Enders in “Joseph Smith: The Prophet, the Man”: 

— “Joseph Smith and the 1834 D. P. Hurlbut Case,” by David W. Grua (BYU Studies Quarterly 44:1, pg. 33): 

— “Specific works/The Hurlbut affidavits,” via FAIR: 

— “What is ‘Manuscript Found’?” by Rex C. Reeve Jr. (BYU RSC): 

— “Trial of Doctor Philastus Hurlbut • 21 June 1833” in Minute Book 1 ( 

— “Trial of Doctor Philastus Hurlbut, continued • 21–23 June 1833” in Minute Book 1: 

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