“Was the Church legally incorporated at the time it was organized in the state of New York?” Ensign, Dec. 1978, 26–27
Larry C. Porter, chairman, department of Church history and doctrine, Brigham Young University Section 20 of the Doctrine and Covenants speaks of the newly evolving “Church of Christ” as being “regularly organized and established agreeable to the laws of our country.” (D&C 20:1) In 1969–70 I spent several months looking for evidence that the Church had been incorporated according to the laws of the state of New York. Though I could not locate the incorporating document, I found several accounts which show that the organizers of the Church were aware of and made a conscientious attempt to meet the legal requirements for incorporation.
David Whitmer, a contemporary and close associate of the Prophet Joseph Smith, showed that he recognized the legal requirements for the organization when he stated: “On the 6th of April, 1830, the church was called together and the elders acknowledged according to the laws of New York.” (Kansas City Daily Journal, 5 June 1881)
Those “laws” David Whitmer was referring to were “An Act to provide for the Incorporation of Religious Societies,” passed by the New York State Legislature on 5 April 1813. Section III of that act reads, in part:
“III. And be it further enacted, that it shall be lawful for the male persons of full age, belonging to any other church, congregation or religious society, now or hereafter to be established in this state, and not already incorporated, to assemble at the church meetinghouse, or to the place where they statedly attend for divine worship [in this case, the Peter Whitmer, Sr., farm house in Fayette Township], and, by plurality of voices, to elect any number of discreet persons of their church, congregation or society, not less than three, nor exceeding nine in number [Joseph Smith chose six—Oliver Cowdery, Joseph Smith, Jun., Hyrum Smith, Peter Whitmer, Jun., Samuel H. Smith, and David Whitmer (HC, 1:76)], as trustees, to … transact all affairs relative to the temporalities thereof. … That on the said day of election, two of the elders or church wardens, and if there be no such officers, then two of the members [Joseph Smith, Jun., and Oliver Cowdery] of said church, congregation or society, to be nominated by a majority of the members present, shall preside at such election, receive the votes of the electors, be the judges of the qualifications of such electors, and the officers, to return the names of the persons who, by plurality of voices, shall be elected to serve as trustees for said church [the six men named above] … in which certificate, the name or title by which the said trustees and their successors shall forever thereafter be called and known [The Church of Jesus Christ (HC, 1:79)].
With this knowledge of the legal requirements, I went in search of the elusive document. Mr. John S. Genung, trustee and historian of the Waterloo Library and Historical Society, Waterloo, New York, helped me make a systematic examination of possible repositories. Since the Laws of the State of New York (III, p. 214) indicated that the incorporation certificate should be initiated and recorded in the county, by the county clerk, there is no evidence that such a certificate would be filed with the state offices at Albany, nor in the offices of Fayette Township.
Accordingly, we began with the Seneca County Courthouse at Waterloo. Mr. Thomas B. Masten, Jr., the county clerk, allowed us access to the materials deposited in the clerk’s offices. The records there showed only three religious societies incorporated in 1830: “January 7, 1830, Trinity Church of Ovid; January 12, 1830, Seneca Falls Society of ME [Methodists]; November 24, 1830, 1st Baptist Church, Lodi.” (Miscellaneous Record Book B) No record was found which even approximated the title or time of founding of the LDS Church. If the incorporation certificate of “The Church of Jesus Christ” or “The Church of Christ” had been duly filed with the county clerk of Seneca County, it should have appeared in this listing.
I was then allowed to examine the records in the downstairs vault and an adjoining storage room. Again, the desired record was not found. However, the vault did contain a ledger entitled “Court of Common Pleas, 1827–1831.” As the Act of 1813 stipulated that a certificate of incorporation could be issued by “one of the judges of the court of common pleas,” I studied this record at length, but found no appropriate entry.
Seneca County is one of the few two-shire counties in the United States; that is, it has two county seats—one at Waterloo in the north and one at Ovid in the south. At the time the LDS Church was organized, both of these seats were operative on a “sharing” basis. Every six months, county records were shuttled back and forth by wagon, depending on whose term of jurisdiction was then incumbent. On 2 February 1830, the Seneca County Court of Common Pleas met at Waterloo. However, on 11 May 1830, it convened in Ovid. If they had not gone into Waterloo earlier, the organizers of the LDS Church could have gone to Ovid, New York, 14.6 miles south of the Whitmer farm, to validate their certificate of incorporation.
So Mr. Genung arranged for me to meet with Undersheriff Gerald B. Brewer at the courthouse in Ovid. Today, with Waterloo the site of Seneca County government, only a small office is maintained by the undersheriff at the old courthouse in Ovid. Undersheriff Brewer opened his shelves for inspection. A few old ledgers still remained in a basement room, but none pertained to the incorporation of religious societies.
My next step was to see if any of the New York branches of the Church had been registered. Because the law required religious societies within each county to register their particular congregations, the various branches of the Church might have applied for a certificate of incorporation in their respective locations. Byron C. Blazey, Ontario County clerk, Canandaigua, New York; Leonard Schlee, Wayne County clerk, Lyons, New York; John P. McGuire, Chenango County clerk, Norwich, New York; and Howard Davis, Broome County clerk, Binghamton, New York, all gave me access to their offices and storage facilities. In no instance was there record of an incorporation proceeding for any LDS Church religious society during 1830–31.
In a “last ditch” attempt to turn up any lead, I searched records in the Fayette Town Hall, the Waterloo Town Hall, and the state archives at Albany—all to no avail.
My extensive examination of the primary sources thus pointed to at least two possible explanations: First, the organizers of the LDS Church met all the legal requirements and submitted their application for incorporation, but through some technicality or omission the certificate was never recorded in the appropriate record book. Or second, the organizers made an attempt to meet the prerequisites of the law, but the press of initial business and local opposition somehow stayed them from formally executing the document in a court of law during the ten months the Prophet remained in New York.
Given the circumstances, I doubt that the original certificate of incorporation in Seneca County will ever be found. However, it is possible that the elusive document is still in existence and will be discovered in an obscure place. The legal preliminaries were met by the Prophet Joseph—but we don’t know if they were ever completed.