“The Knights and the Trial of Joseph Smith,” New Era, July 1986, 14
The Knights and the Trial of Joseph Smith
Quotations are taken from “Newel Knight Journal,” Scraps of Biography. Tenth Book of the Faith-Promoting Series, Salt Lake City: Juvenile Instructor Office, 1883, pp. 46–104.
In the early morning light of June 28, 1830, Newel Knight, Joseph Smith, and several other men quickly piled stones and logs in a small stream near Newel’s home in Colesville, Broome County, New York. The dam was to create a pond deep enough to perform baptisms. A similar dam had been built two days before so the visiting prophet could hold a baptism meeting, but in the night an angry mob that had been prompted by the local ministers destroyed it.
“Early on Monday morning we were on the alert, and before our enemies were aware of it, Oliver Cowdery proceeded to baptize Emma Smith …” [and 12 others, including many of the Knight family].
“But before the baptism was entirely finished, the mob began to collect again. We retired to my father’s house, and the mob, which numbered about fifty surrounded the house, raging with anger, and apparently wishing to commit violence against us,” Newel Knight wrote in his journal account of that day. Newel continued, “It was only by great providence on our part and help from our Heavenly Father that they were kept from laying violent hands on us.”
An evening meeting had been planned to confirm those who had been baptized that morning. Just as the new Saints of Colesville had gathered in one of the homes that night, Newel recorded, “The constable came and arrested Brother Joseph Smith, Jun. on a warrant charging him with being a disorderly person, and of setting the country in an uproar, by preaching the Book of Mormon.”
Brother Knight explained that when the constable saw the Prophet, he realized Joseph Smith was other than what he had been told by those demanding the arrest of the religious leader. Accordingly, the constable, who was a man of good conscience, told Joseph that a mob was not far away, waiting to ambush him. They eluded the mobbers, and Joseph Smith was taken about four miles away to an upper room in a tavern in South Bainbridge, Chenango County, to await trial, guarded all night by the constable.
Colesville had usually been a quiet farming community in lower New York state, and the Knights had been average citizens quite unaccustomed to public uproar.
The Knight family had become acquainted with Joseph Smith four years earlier in the fall of 1826. Joseph Knight, Sr., often hired seasonal workers on his farm, and his friend Josiah Stowell recommended to him a tall, young man named Joseph Smith as a good worker. Joseph was hired. He worked on the Knight farm and lived with the Knight family, and he developed a strong bond of trust and friendship with them. He roomed with Joseph Knight, Jr., who was close to his age, and he talked at length with the senior Mr. Knight. Newel Knight was married, but lived nearby and frequently worked and visited at his father’s farm. Over the harvest season and winter Joseph Smith shared confidences with the Knights. He told them of the visions he had seen and of the gold plates he was to receive in the coming months.
While at first a bit unsure about the amazing things he heard from Joseph Smith, Newel Knight became convinced of the truth of them and a very loyal friend as well. He wrote in his journal, “It is evident great things are about to transpire, that the Lord is about to do a marvelous work and wonder—that Joseph is to become an instrument in his hands to bring about this great and mighty work in the last days.”
Newel’s father was fascinated by what he had heard about an ancient record being buried in the hillside, and Mr. Knight, Sr., even drove his carriage up to Manchester, New York, to visit the Smith home for several days at the time in 1827 when Joseph Smith had told him he expected to receive the gold plates. Joseph and Emma Smith borrowed the carriage of Joseph Knight, Sr., to go to the Hill Cumorah to receive the gold plates.
Joseph Smith continued to visit the Knights in Colesville, to preach in their homes, and to share the Book of Mormon with them as it was translated. One day after a gospel discussion in Colesville with Joseph Smith, Newel Knight retired to the woods to pray. Newel found himself overtaken by an evil spirit that seemed to almost take control of his body. Distorted and distraught, Newel returned to his home and sent for Joseph. The Prophet came immediately and cast out the evil spirit, using the power of the priesthood. As a holy spirit filled Newel, he was literally lifted from the floor in a great spiritual experience. Many family members and neighbors witnessed this event that Joseph Smith referred to as the first miracle in the Church.
After such a long friendship with Joseph Smith, and on a day such as the one of his baptism, Joseph Knight could hardly stand by as his friend and his prophet was arrested and taken away on ridiculous charges.
As soon as the constable took Joseph Smith away, Joseph Knight, Sr., went out and hired two men, a Mr. James Davidson and a Mr. John S. Reid, who were “respectable farmers who were well versed in the laws of their country,” to help Joseph during his trial before Justice Joseph P. Chamberlain.
Newel wrote in his journal:
“On the following day a court was convened for the purpose of investigating the charges which had been made against Joseph Smith, Jun. On account of the many scandalous reports which had been put in circulation, a great excitement prevailed. …
“The trial commenced among a crowded multitude of spectators, who generally seemed to believe Joseph guilty of all that had been alleged against him, and, of course, were zealous to see him punished for his crimes.”
Many witnesses were called up against Joseph Smith, including Josiah Stowell, for whom he had worked, and Mr. Stowell’s daughters, whom Joseph had known socially. Despite many attempts to elicit something from them which could be held against Joseph, all of the witnesses reported that Joseph Smith had dealt with them fairly and kindly.
Joseph Smith was acquitted by the Chenango County court of all charges, and at the very moment he was released, officials from the neighboring Broome County presented another warrant for his arrest.
“The constable who served this second warrant upon Joseph had no sooner arrested him, than he began to abuse him,” Newel wrote. The constable refused Joseph food, even though Joseph had been in court all day with nothing to eat. Then Joseph was taken 15 miles to a tavern where men gathered to “abuse, ridicule, and insult him. They spit upon him, pointed their fingers at him, saying, ‘Prophesy! Prophesy!’” The only food Joseph received for the night at the tavern was crusts of bread and some water.
Joseph Smith was taken before the Magistrate’s Court in Colesville. Again, his friends, including the Knights and the counselors Mr. Knight had hired, were at his side.
Newel reported of the trial that many witnesses were called who swore to incredible falsehoods about Joseph Smith. Some of these witnesses contradicted themselves so plainly that the court would not allow their testimony. Others were zealous to convict Joseph but could only testify of things they had heard others say about him. Finally, Newel Knight himself was called as a witness by a prosecuting attorney, a Mr. Seymour, who had been sent for just for this occasion.
Newel faithfully recorded in his journal the interrogation given him by the lawyer Mr. Seymour:
“Mr. Seymour asked: ‘Did the prisoner, Joseph Smith, Jun., cast the devil out of you?’
“[Newel’s] Answer: ‘No, sir.’
“Question: ‘Why, have you not had the devil cast out of you?’
“Answer: ‘Yes, sir.’
“Question: ‘And had not Joseph Smith some hand in it being done?’
“Answer: ‘Yes, sir.’
“Question: ‘And did he not cast him out of you?’
“Answer: ‘No, sir, it was done by the power of God, and Joseph Smith was the instrument in the hands of God on this occasion. He commanded him to come out of me in the name of Jesus Christ.’
“Question: ‘And are you sure it was the devil?’
“Answer: ‘Yes, sir.’
“Question: ‘Did you see him after he was cast out of you?’
“Answer: ‘Yes, sir, I saw him.’
“Question: ‘Pray, what did he look like?’
“(Here one of the lawyers on the part of the defense told me I need not answer that question.) I replied:
“‘I believe I need not answer that question, but I will do it if I am allowed to ask you one, and you can answer it. Do you, Mr. Seymour, understand the things of the Spirit?’
“‘No,’ answered Mr. Seymour, ‘I do not pretend to such big things.’
“‘Well, then,’ I replied, ‘it will be of no use for me to tell you what the devil looked like, for it was a spiritual sight and spiritually discerned, and, of course, you would not understand it were I to tell you of it.’
“The lawyer dropped his head, while the loud laugh of the audience proclaimed his discomfiture.”
Following Newel’s testimony, the closing arguments were made. Mr. Seymour attacked the character of Joseph Smith in a violent harangue. The Colesville gentlemen Mr. Davidson and Mr. Reid followed on Joseph’s behalf, and even though they were not formally trained lawyers, they silenced all opposition and convinced the court that Joseph Smith was innocent. He was cleared in court of all charges and freed.
Even the second constable who had arrested Joseph Smith and treated him so cruelly came forward and apologized. The constable went so far as to warn the young prophet that a crowd was waiting to tar and feather him a short distance from the court, and the constable helped Joseph escape the mob.
This was just the beginning of the persecutions of Joseph Smith and of those who followed him, like Newel and Sally and Lydia Knight, and the families of the older and younger Joseph Knights. The Knights would follow Joseph Smith to Kirtland, Missouri, and Nauvoo; and finally both Newel Knight and Joseph Knight, Sr., lost their lives in the trek west to Salt Lake City. Their loyalty and faithfulness never wavered.
In 1842 in Nauvoo, Joseph Smith wrote about the Knights in his record book. He remembered well and listed the many kindly deeds where Joseph Knight, Sr., had helped him. About Newel and Joseph Knight, Jr., he wrote, “I record [their names] in the Book of the Law of the Lord with unspeakable delight, for they are my friends” (History of the Church, 5:125).