A newer edition of this article was published as a chapter in Sustaining the Law. Follow this link to view the chapter.
In March 1835 Presiding Judge Matthew Birchard refused a request from Sidney Rigdon for a license to perform marriages in Geauga County. While Judge Birchard's refusal of Rigdon's motion may have dissuaded LDS elders from making similar requests in Geauga County, at least one elder was not deterred from performing marriages—even without a license. County marriage records show that on November 24, 1835, Joseph Smith solemnized the marriage of Newel Knight and Lydia Goldthwaite Bailey. These records also show that during the next two months, Joseph performed an additional ten weddings. By June 1837, he had married a total of nineteen couples in Kirtland.
Joseph Smith's action invokes the memory of earlier "dissenting" ministers who also struggled against prejudices and whose efforts helped bring about greater religious freedom in the United States. Just as he later would personally seek redress for the Saints' wrongs in Missouri, even pleading their cause in Washington, Joseph insisted in Ohio that Latter-day Saints be accorded their privileges and protections under state marriage law. Consistent with his strong protection of individual religious liberties, Joseph acted squarely in harmony with the prevailing legal attitudes and regulations of the day in solemnizing marriages.