The Joseph Smith Papers, Administrative Records: Council of Fifty, Minutes, March 1844-January 1846

by Jeffrey D. Mahas, Gerrit J. Dirkmaat, Mark R. Ashurst-McGee, Matthew J. Grow, Matthew C. Godfrey, Ronald K. Esplin

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This volume of the Joseph Smith Papers Project presents the minutes of a Church organization called the Council of Fifty. The minutes, which have never before been publicly available, will form the only volume of the Administrative Records series.

On 11 March 1844 in Nauvoo, Illinois, Joseph Smith organized a council that he and his closest associates saw as the beginning of the government of the literal kingdom of God on earth. The council, known both as the Council of the Kingdom of God and the Council of Fifty (it had roughly fifty members), operated under Smith's leadership until his murder less than four months later. Following Smith't death, the council met in Nauvoo under Brigham Young's leadership from February 1845 to January 1846. The minutes of the council's meetings, kept primarily by William Clayton, have never been publicly available. This volume of The Joseph Smith Papers publishes them for the first time.

Participants saw the council as distinct from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and anticipated that the council would "govern men in civil matters." According to Joseph Smith, the council "was designed to be got up for the safety and salvation of the saints by protecting them in their religious rights and worship." Nevertheless, because Smith and Young were leaders of both the church and the council, ecclesiastical concerns were frequently reflected in the council's discussions.

The minutes reveal much about early Mormon thought on earthly and heavenly governments as council members wrestled with what it meant to establish the kingdom of God on earth and to existing civil governments. Though council members generally used the term "theocracy" to describe the ideal form of government for the kingdom of God, their model also incorporated democratic elements. They believed that a "theodemocratic" government would protect the rights of all citizens, promote free discussion, involve Latter-day Saints and others, and increase righteousness in preparation for the second coming of Jesus Christ.

At the practical level, the Council of Fifty was a significant decision-making body. For instance, the council helped manage Joseph Smith's 1844 presidential campaign. The council also provided a forum for making decisions about matters in Nauvoo, including construction of the Nauvoo temple and how to protect and govern the city after the state of Illinois repealed the Nauvoo municipal charter in January 1845. In addition, the council played a major role in exploring possible settlement sites—which included sending a delegate to the Republic of Texas and sending emissaries to various American Indian tribes—and in planning the migration of the Latter-day Saints to the American West.

The minutes capture the principles, protocols, and activities of the Council of Fifty as it was formed and operated in Nauvoo. While many of the actions taken by the council have been known through other documents, the minutes chronicle the deliberations that led to these decisions, providing an unparalleled view of decision making at the center of what participants viewed as the nascent kingdom of God on earth. The minutes of the Council of Fifty thus shed new light on the development of Latter-day Saint beliefs and on the history of Nauvoo and the church during this critical era, while also providing new perspectives on American religious history, political culture, and western migration in the nineteenth century.

"Council of Fifty, Minutes, March 1844-January 1846, the latest addition to the monumental Joseph Smith Papers Project, opens a wide window onto a previously shrouded, but extraordinarily revealing, part of Mormon leadership and life during what were arguably the most turbulent and treacherous months of the church's history. Students of these pivotal events will be forever grateful for the insights and understanding they will find in these pages."
—Elliott West, University of Arkansas

"The publication of the Council of Fifty minutes as the first volume of the Administrative Records series in the Joseph Smith Papers can only be described as a triumph. The new volume is sure to be celebrated for its annotation and editing, another excellent addition to the papers project. But the minutes are also a triumph of the new transparency policy of the Church History Department. Over the years, the council minutes attained almost legendary status, as a trove of dark secrets sequestered in the recesses of the First Presidency's vault. Now the minutes are to be published for all to examine."
— Richard L. Bushman, Gouverneur Morris Professor Emeritus of History, Columbia University

"The Council of Fifty minutes are a treasure trove to anyone wanting to understand the last days of Joseph Smith, the martyrdom [of Joseph Smith], the last twenty months in Nauvoo, the revocation of the Nauvoo charter, the plans for exodus, and the apostates and renegades who inflicted so much damage upon the Saints. . . . They add a fabulous richness to our understanding. . . . The work of the editors places every matter of importance into excellent Mormon, American, and international historical context. . . . This is a splendid work. The importance of these Council of Fifty minutes is reflected and enshrined in the fine work of editing this band of scholars has put into them."
—Richard E. Bennett, Professor of Church History and Doctrine, Brigham Young University

"What I found in the Council of Fifty minutes was in fact engaging and even sometimes riveting. It was as if I had a front row seat as I watched the tragic unraveling of the Mormon community at Nauvoo. I felt the depth of council members' despair over a continued inability to find judicial, executive, or legislative justice for the wrongs they had endured, including the murder of their leaders Hyrum and Joseph Smith. I was reminded of Alexis de Tocqueville's assessment of one of the inherent weaknesses he found in American democracy, something he called the tyranny of the majority. The Council of Fifty minutes made that real to me in a way that academic histories of Mormonism have not been able to do."
-- W. Paul Reeve, Religion of a Different Color: Race and the Mormon Struggle for Whiteness

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About the Authors

Jeffrey D. Mahas

Jeffrey David Mahas is a research assistant for the Joseph Smith Papers whose work will appear in the Documents and Administrative Records series. He received a BA in history from Brigham Young University and worked for two years as collections manager of the L. Tom Perry Special Collections at BYU. He is currently pursuing a master’s degree in history from the University of Utah.

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Gerrit J. Dirkmaat

Gerrit J. Dirkmaat received his PhD in history in 2010 from the University of Colorado. He worked as a historian/writer for the Joseph Smith Papers Project (JSP) from 2010 to 2014. He was coeditor of Documents, Volume 1 and lead editor of Documents, Volume 3. He is now an assistant professor of Church history and doctrine at BYU but continues to work as a volunteer historian/writer on the JSP.

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Mark R. Ashurst-McGee

Mark Ashurst-McGee is a senior research and review editor for the Joseph Smith Papers and a specialist in document analysis and documentary editing methodology. He holds a PhD in history from Arizona State University and has trained at the Institute for the Editing of Historical Documents. He coedited volume one of the Journals series of The Joseph Smith Papers (published 2008) and volume one of the Histories series (2012). He is the author of peer-reviewed articles on Joseph Smith and early Mormon history.

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Matthew J. Grow

Matthew J. Grow is Director of Publications at the Church History Department of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and a general editor of the Joseph Smith Papers. He leads a team of forty historians, editors, and web specialists creating historical publications for academic and popular audiences. Grow was previously an assistant professor of history and director of the Center for Communal Studies at the University of Southern Indiana. He has received the Best Book Award from the Mormon History Association (twice) and the Evans Biography Award from the Mountain West Center at Utah State University. He received his PhD in American history from the University of Notre Dame in 2006.

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Matthew C. Godfrey

Matthew C. Godfrey is a general editor and the managing historian of the Joseph Smith Papers, and is a member of the editorial board. He holds a PhD in American and public history from Washington State University. Before joining the project, he worked for eight years at Historical Research Associates, a historical and archeological consulting firm headquartered in Missoula, Montana, serving as president of the company from 2008 to 2010. He is the author of Religion, Politics, and Sugar: The Mormon Church, the Federal Government, and the Utah-Idaho Sugar Company, 1907-1921 (2007), which was a co-winner of the Mormon History Association’s Smith-Petit Award for Best First Book. He has also published articles in Agricultural History and Pacific Northwest Quarterly and has presented papers at conferences of the Mormon History Association, the National Council on Public History, the American Society for Environmental History, and the Western History Association, among other organizations.

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Ronald K. Esplin

Ronald K. Esplin is the managing editor for The Joseph Smith Papers. He received history degrees from the University of Utah, the University of Virginia, and Brigham Young University. From 1972 until 1980, he was part of the History Division of the LDS church's Historical Department, with assignments both as a researcher and writer and as an archivist. He moved to Brigham Young University in 1980 when the History Division was transferred there to become the Joseph Fielding Smith Institute for Latter-day Saint History. From 1986 through 2002, he served as managing director of that research institute and as a professor of church history and doctrine. From 1988 to 1991, he served as one of the editors for Macmillan’s Encyclopedia of Mormonism. Most of his publications have involved Brigham Young and early Utah or pre-Utah Mormon history, including Men With A Mission: The Quorum of the Twelve Apostles in the British Isles, 1837–1841. Many of them also concern Joseph Smith and early Latter-day Saint leadership.

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