Grow and Simth, eds., “The Council of Fifty: What the Records Reveal About Mormon History” (reviewed by Melvin C. Johnson)


[Editor’s note: our friend and LDS historian Melvin c. Johnson has kindly submitted a second review of this important doctrine. Thanks, Mel! Much appreciated! JN]

Title: The Council of Fifty: What the Records Reveal About Mormon History
Editors: Matthew J. Grow and R. Eric Smith
Publisher: Brigham Young University, Provo, Utah
Genre: Non-fiction
Year published: 2017
Number of pages: 201
Binding: Hardback
ISBN: 978-1-9443-9421-9
Price: $21.99

Reviewed by Melvin C. Johnson for the Association for Mormon Letters

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 guards, his brother Hyrum and other close associates accompanied him. Potential charges of treason might 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.

He had good reasons to fear prosecution for treason.

Just four months earlier, a letter from the wilds of the Wisconsin pineries set in motion a series of events that contributed in part to Smith’s unhappy situation. Apostle Lyman Wight and Bishop George Miller of the Black River Lumber Mission had written in February 1844 to advise Joseph Smith Jr. that federal Indian Agents were interfering with the leasing of tribal forest lands for LDS logging operations. The denial of timber access was timely, though, because Wight and Miller had enough milled product to complete the Mission’s purpose of providing building materials for the Temple and the Nauvoo House. Wight and Miller asked President Smith to send their company to the Republic of Texas, where in that foreign land beyond the boundaries of the United States, they would recruit Native Americans and prepare a millennial refuge for the Saints and the Church to await the Second Coming.[1] This suggestion, contemporary with other pressures threatening the political and religious rights of the Saints and LDS Church, became the genesis in March 1844 for what is known as the “Council of Fifty” or “Kingdom of God. [2]

Joseph Smith Jr. appointed a secret council of about fifty Church members leavened with several non-Church individuals. This Council of the Kingdom of God included most of the Church’s senior leaders. In this first inception, Council members Brigham Young, John Taylor, and Wilford Woodruff would follow Joseph Smith Jr. as Church president. Secretive in organization and operation, the Council’s primary goals were bold. Within the American political system, the Fifty were to push Joseph Smith’s campaign for President. At the same time, they were to encourage power brokers in Washington D.C. to obtain reparation for the financial losses inflicted on the Church and its membership from their expulsion from Missouri. Much more audaciously and expansively, the Council was to lead the church membership and create a theo-democratic nation outside of the boundaries of the United States. Possible locations discussed in Council were California, Vancouver, Texas, and the Rocky Mountains. Lucien Woodworth met with Sam Houston, President of the Republic of Texas, as an emissary of the Council to negotiate the possible removal of the Church to the Republic. Woodworth reported back to the Council that Houston was quite favorable but needed to meet with the Texas Congress in December 1844. President Smith’s murder terminated those talks. [3]

William Clayton had buried the Council’s records of their proceedings. After the murders of Joseph and Hyrum Smith, he dug them up and copied them in to new registers. He continued as scribe under President Brigham Young in February 1845, when the Council again was reconvened. Young pruned the membership of The Fifty of non-members and others he disliked. 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.

Once in the Valley, the Council acted as an informal executive and legislative group in advising Young and the Twelve as well as in formulating a set of tactics to create a legislature and to gain statehood for implementing their theo-democratic governmental plans. The territorial legislature, as the national government organized the territory, took over the normal functions of government, and the activities of The Fifty lapsed. After more than three decades, with the increasing anti-polygamous and anti-theocratic campaign by the federal government, John Taylor reorganized The Fifty for a short while. Members in that reorganized Council included once again Apostle Wilford Woodruff, as well as future Church Presidents Lorenzo Snow, Joseph F. Smith, and Heber J. Grant. As the federal suppression of Mormon polygamy in Utah Territory forced many of the leaders and members to flee into self-imposed internal exile, the active participation of the Council passed into the ages. The next four Church President (former Council members Woodruff, Snow, Smith, and Grant) did not call it into session. In 1945, 101 years after The Council’s creation, President Grant, its final living member, died.

The three minute books known to exist were recorded by William Clayton of the meetings from March 1844 to January 1846. He gave them to President Brigham Young before the Mormon hegira arrived in the Great Salt Lake Valley. The records remained in his care until 1858, when they were secured with temple records and buried to keep them from the U.S. Army. Dug up in 1862, they remained with President Young and then with Apostle George Q. Cannon, as the Recorder of The Council in 1867. George F. Gibbs, President John Taylor’s secretary, took possession in 1882. After 1900, Gibbs gave the minutes to President Joseph F. Smith. Early in the 1930s, President Grant read the records one final time (nearly fifty years after The Council last met) and placed them in the office of the First Presidency. For decades the records remained there, unused for any administrative and historical activities. They were transcribed before 2004, and in 2010 the transcript and volumes were housed in the Church History Library. The approval by Church leadership to publish the administrative records, was, in reviewer Brian Whitney’s words, with which I fully agree, was a “seismic shift in the Church’s willingness towards greater transparency (within approved channels) [that] cannot be overstated.” The public availability of the administrative records naturally led to The Council of Fifty ~ What the Records Reveal about Mormon History. [4]

The LDS Church made the minutes of the Council of Fifty available in published form in 2016, a product of the Joseph Smith Papers Project. [5] For many decades controversy has swirled about its influence on the messy and murky final years of Nauvoo. Other works, considering their dependence on sources tributary to and removed from the actual Council Minutes, have covered the ground well, but not completely, in describing that time in Nauvoo and later. [6] The LDS Church is to be commended for printing and making accessible these records for its membership as well as scholars and other interested laypersons. The effort continues as the Church History Library steps toward transparency of Mormon documents that quickened during the Marlin K. Jensen era and accelerated even more noticeably by Steven S. Snow, the last two LDS Church Historians.

The Fifty, their activities, and the minutes have generated curiosity for a long time. That the Council existed has long been known, but the minutes were not available (indeed hidden away with no access to historians), so a set of almost folk myths developed about them. Why were the members secretive about the Fifty and their activities? Why did they swear an oath of secrecy? (Possible charges of treason, a capital crime, may have encouraged “a loose tongue may get your neck wrung” attitude.) Why would Church leadership not make them available? What do the minutes hide? Is there salacious material on Joseph Smith’s final months of life or about the other leaders after his death? Thanks to the research of Jedediah Rogers, Klaus Hansen, D. Michael Quinn and Andrew F. Ehat, the curious had been well prepared for the public release of the material last year to the public, if a bit let down that nothing really new pops out of the manuscripts.

The great majority of readers, I think, also will be startled and somewhat intimidated at the anti-Americanism displayed in the Church leaders’ speech and action toward the nation’s officials and governing institutions from the 1840s that persisted into the early years of the next century. Mormon leaders defended, however, the Constitution as a divinely inspired document that they were trying to protect from corruption by contemporary American politicians and parties. Slide that context within a millennial philosophy that the Church’s Kingdom of God was a theo-democratic nation in the final Latter Days awaiting the eminent return of Jesus Christ, then the LDS perspective comes into focus and more clearly explains the Mormon nationalism of the 19th Century LDS Church from 1840 to 1900.

The articles that comprise The Council of Fifty ~ What the Records Reveal about Mormon History investigate how the minutes inform us further about Joseph Smith and the Council and the final days of Nauvoo prior to the Mormon diaspora. The authors are experts in the field of their study. The only major weakness in the author selection, in my opinion, is that Marilyn Bradford is the sole woman writer, and she is co-author. When will the editors trust a woman to write an entire chapter? This greatly limits a perspective unique to the work. Women certainly were the recipients of the effects of Council decision- making, and I would very much like to know what they thought and said about how these decisions affected their lives. Each essay enhances our understanding of those crazy, dangerous days before and after the murders of Joseph and Hyrum Smith, as well as the near chaos that ensued after the murders.

The authors and their essay titles follow, and I believe there is something for everyone to be found in them.

Richard Lyman Bushman
The Separatist Impulse in the Nauvoo Council of Fifty

Richard E. Turley Jr.
Injustices Leading to the Creation of the Council of Fifty

Spencer W. McBride
The Council of Fifty and Joseph Smith’s Presidential Ambitions

Patrick Q. Mason
God and the People Reconsidered Further Reflections on Theodemocracy in Early Mormonism

Benjamin E. Park
The Council of Fifty and the Perils of Democratic Governance

Nathan B. Oman
“We the People of the Kingdom of God”: Constitution Writing in the Council of Fifty

Gerrit J. Dirkmaat
Lost Teachings of Joseph Smith, Brigham Young, and Other Church Leaders

R. Eric Smith
Insights into Mormon Record-Keeping Practices from the Council of Fifty Minutes

Matthew J. Grow and Marilyn Bradford
“To Carry Out Joseph’s Measures Is Sweeter to Me Than Honey”: Brigham Young and the Council of Fifty

Jeffrey D. Mahas
American Indians and the Nauvoo-Era Council of Fifty
Matthew C. Godfrey

A Monument of the Saint’s Industry: The Nauvoo House and the Council of Fifty

Christopher James Bennett
“With Full Authority to Build Up the Kingdom of God on Earth”: Lyman Wight on the Council of Fifty

Richard E. Bennett
“We Are a Kingdom to Ourselves”: The Council of Fifty Minutes and the Mormon Exodus West

Jedediah S. Rogers
The Council of Fifty in Western History

W. Paul Reeve
The Council of Fifty and the Search for Religious Liberty

The above titles are explanatory as to subjects and their importance. 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 now allows the historians to sift through a vast minutia of 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.

Good history writing must be good literature. The quality of work in any anthology of essays will always be to some extent uneven, but this group of professionals creates an excellent prose and style that captivates this reader’s interest to the final word. These writers avoid the scholarly ennui that at times limits the practice of our discipline. Some behave as if “Nothing new is to be found or seen or heard, we think. So we skip round about that common sense informing us more [much more] remains to be found, more remains to be examined, more remains to be interpreted.” [7] This volume captures so much that is important about the Council and its actions. The essays capture and cast concepts and facts in a new light that I had not considered before. This volume is the latest and best in current scholarship on The Council of Fifty.

I strongly encourage all professionals and laypersons absorbed with LDS history to visit your favorite bookstore or get online quickly. This book is worth the fare. Buy two: place one prominently on your desk to impress your history friends when they visit with you. And for the late-night hours when those questions come tiggling at your mind, have one on your bedside table.

[1] Joseph Smith collection (supplement): Lyman Wight letter, Black River Falls, Wisconsin, to Joseph Smith, 1844 February 15. Church History Library, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Salt Lake City, Utah.

[2] The Wisconsin-based origin of The Council of Fifty is fully discussed in Melvin C. Johnson, Polygamy on the Pedernales: Lyman Wight’s Mormon Villages in Antebellum Texas, 1845-1858 (Logan, Utah: Utah State University Press, 2006), 9-31, discusses the precedents leading up to and the creation of the Council of Fifty. The book is available online at Utah State University Digital Commons.

[3] Johnson, Polygamy on the Pedernales: Lyman Wight’s Mormon Villages in Antebellum Texas, 1845-1858, 4, 5, 29, 30. Negotiations with President Sam Houston and the Republic of Texas fell apart after Joseph Smith’s death.

[4] Brian Whitney provocatively describes what he considers the LDS Church leadership’s “contempt for the founding documents of the United States and the open rebellion of the early leaders [and today] contrasts sharply with the Americanism of the contemporary Church and is sure to cause some cognitive dissonance for many readers.”

[5] The Joseph Smith Papers, Administrative Records: Council of Fifty, Minutes, March 1844-January 1846, volume editors Ronald K. Esplin, Jeffrey D. Mahas, Gerrit J. Dirkmaat, Mark R. Ashurst-McGee, Matthew J. Grow, and Matthew C. Godfrey (Salt Lake City, Utah: The Church Historian’s Press, 2016].

[6] The works most important are Jedediah S. Rogers, ed., The Council of Fifty: A Documentary History (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 2014) should be laid side by side when studying The Council of Fifty ~ What the Records Reveal about Mormon History. Other important works include D. Michael Quinn, The Council of Fifty and Its Members, 1844 to 1945, BYU Studies Vol 20, No. 2 (Winter 1980): 163-197; Klaus J. Hansen, Quest for Empire: The Political Kingdom of God and the Council of Fifty in Mormon History (Michigan State University Press, 1967); and Andrew F. Ehat, “It Seems Like Heaven Began on Earth”: Joseph Smith and the Constitution of the Kingdom of God, BYU Studies Vol 20, No. 3 (Spring 1980): 253-280.

[7] Newell G. Bringhurst and Craig L. Foster, eds., The Persistence of Polygamy, Vol. 3: Fundamentalist Mormon Polygamy from 1890 to the Present (John Whitmer Books, 2015), Reviewed by Melvin C. Johnson for the Association for Mormon Letters; reviews/older-reviews/bringhurst-and-foster-eds-the-persistence-of-polygamy-vol-3-fundamentalist-mormon-polygamy-from-1890-to-the-present-reviewed-by-melvin-c-johnson.

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