On October 3, 2016, the Joseph Smith Papers Project published a volume called Administrative Records: Council of Fifty, Minutes, March 1844-January 1846. It is a massive tome of around 800 pages containing information that had never before been published or studied. It contains many insights that help fill in gaps in Mormon history during this period. The Council of Fifty: What the Records Reveal about Mormon History is an introduction to some of those insights, or it can also serve as a summary of them for those that would rather not peruse the vast source material.
This book contains 15 chapters, each of which is a separate paper written by historians (many of which have worked on the Joseph Smith Project) such as Richard Bushman, Richard Turley, Patrick Mason, Gerrit Dirkmaat, Matthew Grow, Matthew Godfrey, Richard Bennett, Jedediah Rogers, and Paul Reeve. Like a sacrament meeting where each speaker is given the same topic, there is some overlap among many of the papers, yet each writer brings their own perspective and expertise.
The introduction was very interesting, talking about the history of the minutes themselves, and how they finally came to be published. It also explains why this book came to be: “We knew that most individuals interested in Mormon history and theology would simply not have the time or inclination to wade through the nearly eight hundred pages in the published Joseph Smith Papers volume to gain an understanding of the Council of Fifty. In addition, we were convinced that the council’s minutes needed to be engaged by scholars to evaluate the question of how these minutes should change our collective understanding of the Latter-day Saint past… Furthermore, the minutes illuminate a crucial era in the Mormon past that has not received adequate attention from historians” (page xii-xiii.) The scholars who contributed to the book were asked, “How do the Council of Fifty minutes change our understanding of Mormon history? In other words, why do they matter?” (page xiii.)
In the first paper, Richard Bushman introduces the minutes, explaining that “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” (page 1.) But Paul Reeve later assures us that “some students of the Mormon past might be disappointed in the Council of Fifty minutes because they do not contain salacious evidence that might bring Mormonism to its knees” (page 182.) However, Bushman continues, “The minutes do shed light on questions about the last days of Nauvoo that could not be answered before” and they “reveal how desperate and angry the leaders were and how far they were willing to go” (page 1) due to the constant persecution they had faced, to which state and federal governments had turned a blind eye or made their own contributions. They had Joseph Smith run for president while also writing a new constitution. At the same time, they planned possible migrations that would eventually show the intention to leave the United States altogether.
Richard Turley speaks further of the injustices leading to the formation of the council and how it planned to resolve them. “In his candidacy for the presidency, [Joseph] strongly advocated for religious liberty for all Americans, not just for Latter-day Saints. In the Council of Fifty, he discussed the creation of a theocracy outside the borders of the United States that would be defined by its extension of religious liberty to all individuals” (page 7.) This was because “their appeals for protection from government went unheeded, in part because the officials who should have protected them either participated in the mobbings themselves or were sympathetic to those who did. The Saints then sought redress in the courts, only to face similar frustrations…. [B]ecause of their status as members of a despised minority faith, the law did not protect them from violence or provide redress after it occurred” (page 11.)
Nathan Oman tells us that “Contemporary Mormons often affirm that their scriptures teach about ‘the divinely inspired constitution’ of the United States. However, the revelations of Joseph Smith do not contain this exact phrase” (page 58.) By 1840, the Mormons’ faith in the constitution “had been shattered… In the end the federal Constitution was wholly inadequate as a mechanism for protecting Mormon rights, and in Mormon eyes ‘honest men and wise men’ were nowhere to be seen in high office. It was in this context of deepening disillusionment toward the United States and its legal institutions that the Council of Fifty embarked on its constitution-making project” (page 60.) This new constitution was written without copying from other constitutions because they were all seen as corrupt. It was written in revelatory language, but the writers do not seem to have felt it had been revealed. In the end, they were unsatisfied with it and it was abandoned. Joseph Smith instead received a revelation saying “Verily thus saith the Lord, ye are my constitution, and I am your God, and ye are my spokesmen. From henceforth do as I shall command you. Saith the Lord” (page 64).
Gerrit Dirkmaat’s paper, “Lost Teachings of Joseph Smith, Brigham Young, and other Church Leaders” is very similar to his August, 2017 FairMormon Conference presentation titled, “Lost Teachings of the Prophets: Recently Uncovered Teachings of Joseph Smith and Others from the Council of Fifty Record.” He provides insightful quotes from Joseph Smith, Brigham Young, John Taylor, Hyrum Smith, and even Porter Rockwell.
Matthew Grow and Marilyn Bradford discussed how Brigham Young’s leadership developed after he reconvened the council following Joseph Smith’s death. He appears to have needed a little additional prodding from Orson Spencer: “When Joseph was here he was for carrying out his (Josephs) measures, he now wants pres Young as our head to carry out his own measures, and he believes they will be right whether they differ from Josephs measures or not. Different circumstances require different measures” (page 105.) It is pointed out that “Though the minutes of the Council of Fifty were published as part of The Joseph Smith Papers, they arguably provide more insights into Brigham Young than Joseph Smith” as nearly 70 percent of the minutes are from after Joseph’s death (page 106.) Under Brigham Young, the council became a shadow government after the Nauvoo charter was repealed, which included starting the storied whistling and whittling brigades. He also led the completion of the Nauvoo Temple and of course planned for the exodus west. Indeed, during a council meeting in the attic of the Nauvoo temple, Brigham Young said, “The Sayings of the Prophets would never be verified unless the House of the Lord should be reared in the Tops of the Mountains and the Proud Banner of liberty wave over the valley’s that are within the Mountains &c. I know where the spot is” (page 116.)
This is just a sampling of some of the papers that are contained in the book; there are many more. Whether or not you plan to spend some time with the actual minutes, this book has much to offer in understanding what they contain. Coincidentally, I was reading the book while this time period was covered in Gospel Doctrine over the last couple of weeks, and I was able to gain some new insights and took the opportunity to share some of them in class. I expect that this is just the beginning of much new scholarship that will come forth now that the minutes are publicly available.
What a surprisingly delightful find!
The value of this book is difficult to convey in a few words. The Council of Fifty is a topic that until recently has had little to no significant insight in. This has led people into speculation - and has led those critical to assume the worst and those faithful to assume the irrelevancy of it.
What we have found is that it gives significant insight into the LDS leadership thought at the time.
This small book takes the insight from leading LDS scholars and to help put these papers into perspective.
To be fair and transparent - like most of these "collected essay" books - some essays have much more value than others. About half of the essays are the scholars saying "hey these are neat and important and as a scholar we are excited...". But the other half actually take concepts from the papers and give them perspective! The new perspective gives depth to the challenges of the saints at the time - highlighting the reality of their struggles and the real complications of real life.
This is the perfect book for the curious on the Council of Fifty - and the perfect book for the serious on the Council of Fifty. After reading this the serious ones can then go and read the core material in the Joseph Smith Papers themselves.
“Riveting” is the only way to describe "The Council of Fifty: What the Records Reveal about Mormon History." I approached this collection of essays with a fairly solid understanding of Mormon history but very little knowledge of the Council of Fifty itself, and from the first page on, I was completely engrossed. The authors do a thorough job of explaining the purpose and scope of the Council of Fifty, along with identifying why the minutes of its meetings are crucial for understanding Mormon history, particularly the two-year gap between Joseph Smith’s death and the Mormons leaving Nauvoo. The text is extremely accessible yet thought provoking, and the book is organized in such a way that the narrative builds on itself smoothly.
Each essay addresses a different facet of the Council of Fifty and explores ways that the newly released council minutes illuminate our understanding of Mormon history. As I read the book, I better understood what was at stake during this formative time period, and my appreciation grew for the teachings and leadership of Joseph Smith and later Brigham Young. All in all, this book is a fabulous introduction to the Council of Fifty minutes for both the casual reader and a serious scholar of Mormon history. And of course if you are a serious scholar, you will immediately study the actual council minutes and simply use this volume as a well-crafted jumping-off point for further scholarship, which is what these essays so thoughtfully invite us to do.
One of the greatest challenges new historical scholarship faces is that of accessibility. The old joke is that historians too often write only for other historians, using opaque prose that alienates non-specialized readers. There is more than a grain of truth to these observations, which is why this new volume from Brigham Young University’s Religious Studies Center and Deseret Book is so welcome.
The recent volume of the Joseph Smith Papers Project documenting the proceedings of the early Mormon Church’s “Council of Fifty” is a remarkable scholarly achievement. This volume, with its rich and careful deconstruction of the Council’s records, will serve scholars of Mormonism for years. The secrecy in which the Council originally convened, along with the Church’s restriction of the record for years afterward, make the volume especially rewarding for those seeking to understand the Church’s final and tumultuous years in Nauvoo, the desperate plans for finding refuge outside of the United States, and the Prophet Joseph Smith’s audacious political philosophies and ambitions prior to his assassination.
However, for non-specialists who have an interest in the Council of Fifty’s impact upon the developing Church, the Joseph Smith Papers volume presents significant obstacles. At over 700 pages in length, few average readers have the time to dedicate to its study. Furthermore, the historical context of the Council’s minutes is bogglingly complex, involving hundreds of characters, referring to thousands of other documents, and taking part in the larger social, religious, and political turmoil that engulfed the nation. For readers unfamiliar with these elements, the insights and benefits of the Joseph Smith Papers volume on the Council of Fifty falter under the burdens of its own strengths.
For this reason, editors Matthew J. Grow and R. Eric Smith have compiled a series of essays from some impressive Mormon Studies scholars into an anthology The Council of Fifty: What the Records Reveal about Mormon History. The essays in The Council of Fifty provide clear and concise highlights of some of the most important themes addressed by the Council and how these themes affected the later trajectory of the Mormon Church. Readers will quickly learn of Joseph Smith’s musings on establishing a “theodemocracy” as a means of remedying the failures of the nation’s state and federal governments to provide the Saints with redress. Other topics include the Church’s engagement and philosophy concerning American Indians, the role of revelation in guiding civil life, the evolution of Mormon record keeping, Mormon constitutionalism, the shifting Mormon perspective on being a “chosen people,” and more.
These essays are more than just informative; they are also riveting. To cite two examples, Spencer W. McBride and Patrick Q. Mason’s contributions highlight the conflicts the Council faced as they simultaneously laid claim to American liberties yet expressed a desperate, and sometimes painful, rage as they navigated the frustrations of court proceedings, rejected petitions, and broken promises of a government which had turned its back on them. At the same moment, while Joseph Smith enlisted the Council in his moonshot of a presidential campaign for “the privilege of enjoying our religious and civil rights as American citizens,” members of that same body derided the American government insisting that “the boasted freedom of these U. States is gone, gone to hell.” McBride and Mason carefully guide the reader through these conflicting positions and provide much food for thought for all readers, but perhaps especially to those who have assumed that the nationalist strains within American Mormonism are inherent and inviolable. In today’s political disharmony, such reflections are certainly worthwhile.
Joseph Smith Jr., the prophet and leader of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS), had many matters on his mind on June 25, 1844. He was under arrest and on his way to jail at Carthage, Illinois. Along with the guards, his brother Hyrum and other close associates accompanied him. Potential charges of treason could arise for declaring martial law in Nauvoo, Illinois, a capital offense under Illinois law. Just five years earlier he had escaped from such charges in Missouri. He gave orders to William Clayton, one of his trusted scribes, to secret away if not outright destroy a certain set of papers. They were the records of a secretive LDS church quorum known as The Council of Fifty.
After the murders of brothers Joseph and Hyrum Smith, Clayton dug them up. He copied them in new journal books. He continued as scribe under President Brigham Young in February 1845, when the Council again was reconvened. Even though Young pruned the membership of The Fifty, the Council was active in planning and organizing the move into the Great Salt Lake Valley from the Missouri River. For the next eleven months, the Council members met in secret to discuss important matters, the most serious finding and placing the Saints in a permanent location far beyond the reach of the United States government. The Council and many of its members along with its records ended up in the Great Salt Lake Valley in 1847.
The essays develop critical insights into that decisive era of Mormon history. It is true that no great, new revelation or overwhelming secret has been delivered by the release of the minutes. However, the information made available in the last year along with this book now allows the historians to sift through a vast minutia of particular specifics that inform their understanding of the processes, the thoughts, and the planning that led Joseph Smith then Brigham Young, with their peers in the secret council, to lead the Church ultimately into the great American West. It is an important book, perhaps the most important one for this year.
I strongly encourage all professionals and laypersons absorbed with LDS history to visit your favorite bookstore or get online quickly. It’s been said before elsewhere, but it is true about this book. Buy two: place prominently on your desk to impress your history friends when they visit with you. And for the late-night hours when those questions tiggle at your mind, have one on your bedside table.
There have been few items from Mormon history that have spawned more speculation, rumor, and even fear than the minutes of the Council of 50, a secretive body established by Joseph Smith just a few months before his death. The actual minutes of those meetings, conducted from 1844 through about 1846, and then reconstituted by Brigham Young after the Mormons moved to Utah, have only been seen by a handful of scholars. What little has been known had to do with the Council’s apparent charter to set up the “Kingdom of God on Earth,” and serve as a theocratic governing body to usher in the millennium at the end of times. The fear had to do with the idea that the Church was hiding something awful and nefarious in these minutes. That fear, apparently, is totally unfounded. Instead, we have detailed notes about what for all sense and purposes turns out to be bureaucratic discussions, and, frankly, more concerned with ideas than orthopraxy.
After several years of preparation, the Joseph Smith Papers Project published late last year the Nauvoo era minutes of the Council, covering the era from 1844 to 1846, and encompassing almost 800 pages. These are the official minutes, meticulously recorded by William Clayton. At a price of around $60 and a limited printing, not a lot of casual readers of Mormon History are going to snap this volume up. However, knowing that there is a lot of interest, the Religious Studies Center at BYU commissioned and published a book of essays by scholars who have read the minutes, and can condense those extensive minutes into a series of chapters that tell us a lot about what those minutes and all the secret discussions were all about, and conversely, what they were not. There is a lot of interesting material there, but as one of the essayists points out, there is a need “to read these minutes with caution. The council deliberated courses of action. It did not dictate them…members gave advice and insights, but they did not ultimately determine action…[instead they] expressed all kinds of different and contrasting opinions.” Not much action came from those deliberations. [p156]
So, in the midst of all the talk of the differences between a theodemocracy or a theocracy, and which would best serve to govern the country and eventually the world, is the reality that these meetings were mostly a bunch of men sitting around and talking about ideas and ideals, without having to do much about those ideas. Sound like any meetings you have ever been to?
But there were tasks that the Council of 50 took seriously, and acted upon. During these minutes of the Nauvoo era, with their founding prophet dead, and the threat of ultimate expulsion from Illinois by mob violence, the Council did spend a lot of time looking at the options for where the Saints could move next, and find a semblance of safety that they had not previously enjoyed. There is talk of “Upper California,” San Francisco and other parts north in the Bear Republic. A couple of the Council members traveled to the Republic of Texas to explore the possibilities there. Oregon was considered, or some other “inland valley” isolated from the troublesome neighbors that the Mormons seemed to always run afoul of. All of these areas had something in common: they were actually or nominally outside the control of the United States.
All of this talk of a theocratic government had the practical advantage of providing a means of governing a large number of people according to religious principles, or as Joseph Smith put it in one of the earliest meetings, “Vox Populi, Vox Dei.” Smith differed from the standard definition of “the voice of the people is the voice of God,” and instead asserted that it meant “The voice of the people assenting to the voice of God.”
In another essay, the discussion by the Council regarding the issue of religious liberty is reviewed. Certainly, this was a major concern for the early Church, as various local, state, and federal government officers continually refused to intervene on behalf of the Saints as they were subjected to mob violence, murder, and theft of property. It is interesting to note that the concept of religious liberty is still a highly regarded issue by today’s church leadership, but without the imminent threat of violence by the majority. The issue hasn’t changed, but the scope of the problem is nowhere near as dangerous as it was in 19th century America.
Reading the full set of the minutes of the Council of 50 is something that I certainly aspire to, but in the practical short term, this collection of essays is probably just right for giving me a sense of what they contain. Don’t think that these are Cliff Notes versions. There is a lot of worthwhile material here to absorb. Editors Matt Grow and Eric Smith have done a good job with their co-authors in providing us with not only summaries, but considerable insight and context to the long awaited minutes of the Council of 50 and its function.