Grow, et al, “The Joseph Smith Papers, Administrative Records, Council of Fifty, Minutes: March 1844-January 1846” (reviewed by Bryan Buchanan)


Title: The Joseph Smith Papers, Administrative Records, Council of Fifty, Minutes: March 1844-January 1846
Editors: Matthew J. Grow, Ronald K. Esplin, Mark Ashurst-McGee, Gerrit J. Dirkmaat and Jeffrey D. Mahas
Publisher: The Church Historian’s Press
Genre: Documentary Editing, Mormon History
Year Published: 2016
Number of Pages: 734
Binding: hardcover
ISBN10: 1629722421
ISBN13: 978-1629722429
Price: $59.99

Reviewed by Bryan Buchanan for the Association for Mormon Letters

Despite all the big talk about the 1970s and Leonard Arrington’s term as church historian being Camelot, 2016 is a pretty incredible time for someone who finds Mormon history irresistible. More and more presses are discovering that Mormon history is of interest not just to Mormons (but certainly to them!) but to the larger field of American religious history. In the past decade or so, numerous ground-breaking biographies, period histories and, increasingly, interdisciplinary studies of Mormonism have been published (and joined the swelling ranks of my bookshelves). Along the way, long-standing opinions as to what primary sources should be made available to historians are changing.

Front and center in this discussion is a bold and rigorous project by the official Church Historian’s Press, to: “gather together all extant Joseph Smith documents and… publish complete and accurate transcripts of those documents with both textual and contextual annotation.” This includes ever-sensitive topics such as polygamy, temple ordinances and, now, the mystical Council of Fifty.

As the fascinating introduction to this long-awaited edition of the complete Nauvoo-era minutes of this secretive body chronicles, following the disbanding of the revived council in the 1880s, the three small leather-bound books containing the proceedings of the group went into deep archival storage, only surfacing every several decades. As the years passed, the lore of the minutes increased. The grass on the side is always rumored to be greener but, if one can’t even look at the grass, it becomes several shades greener yet. Several studies have attempted to analyze the nature and function of the council but, without the vitally-important minutes, it was impossible to be sure how accurate the conclusions were. Thanks to historian-friendly decisions, this key piece of Nauvoo-era history is now available for all to peruse and utilize in telling the story of a fascinating period in American religious history.

Though there have been indications in the past that this volume would be the sole print volume in the Administrative Records series, the introduction to series hints that there might be more hardcopy volumes yet. As the publication of this volume marks roughly the halfway point to the Papers project, it is a fitting jewel in the center of the crown. While there have certainly been important volumes published previously, the overarching majority of the documents were previously known (Revelations Book 1, AKA “Book of Commandments and Revelation,” published in the Revelations and Translations series being a key exception). This volume is unique in that the minutes were both unpublished and ardently desired. Thus, Administrative Records, vol. 1, will likely have wide appeal, reaching those who have not followed the JSP project nor purchased any volumes previously. For those who have been tuned in along the way, one might wonder why this volume includes content beyond Joseph Smith’s death—indeed, slightly over half of the council meetings in Nauvoo took place after his murder. The editors explain thusly:

“Because Joseph Smith authorized the creation of the minutes and presided over the council until his death, and because the record of the council in these years was kept as a unit in Clayton’s bound volumes, the minutes are published as part of “The Joseph Smith Papers” even though much of the record covers events in the eighteen months following Smith’s death on 27 June 1844.”

Only a person who has spent some quality time with one of the JSP volumes can truly appreciate the quality of the annotations in these volumes. The volume introduction and source note for the minutes are sterling examples of my point—it helps, certainly, that the editors were working with a document whose history and provenance is very nearly as interesting as the contents! I was fascinated with the detailed account of William Clayton’s initial scribing and copying, George Gibbs’ cryptic notes in the minutes’ margins from the late-19th Century, the truly captivating story of Franklin D. Richards trying to figure out where the records were in 1880 [1], and the fleeting resurfacings of the minutes in the 20th century.

The exhaustive analysis of the antecedents of the council, the makeup of the body and the specific responsibilities of the group all come in a very valuable but concise twenty-two pages. No reader need fear that the occasionally vague references in the minutes themselves will remain enigmatic. A notable example: during the 6 May 1844 entry, there is a page with only two lines of text, the balance taken up with three intricate footnotes discussing the Higbee brothers.

Anxious prospective readers have been anticipating better intel on several fronts for the Nauvoo period. A key question has long been whether the so-called “Last Charge” that Joseph Smith delivered (essentially transferring responsibility for the development of Mormonism from his shoulders) took place in the council. The editors opine that it “likely occurred” during the 26 Mar 1844 morning session “about which the minutes are silent”—they add that Orson Hyde and others referred back to this purported event a year later.

Others have wondered if the minutes would shed any further light on polygamy in Nauvoo. Interestingly, despite the secretive nature of the council (theoretically a perfect forum for such a potentially explosive subject), there is really no mention of the topic. However, plural marriages and rumors thereof clearly added fuel to the growing fire of unrest in Nauvoo and that is brought out in the notes when applicable.

Because there are simply not as many “smoking guns” as sometimes rumored to be in the minutes, some readers might initially feel disappointed. This is simply a result of unrealistic expectations created by the long period the minutes spent in deep storage, growing more exotic over time.

In no particular order, a few aspects of the minutes I found curious and enlightening. The juxtaposition of a body described (per revelation) as “The Kingdom of God and his Laws” with parliamentary procedure [2] is quite striking. Perhaps this blend is a key window into Joseph Smith’s stated goal of a “theodemocracy.” The active involvement of Sidney Rigdon was particularly noteworthy—the common portrayal of him as an absentee officeholder who simply shows up in Nauvoo in August 1844 ready to take over the reins is strongly challenged in the minutes. Rigdon, after Joseph Smith, is probably the main voice in many of the discussions.

The frustrating incompleteness of Nauvoo-era records in places is very much evident here. The editors note that William Clayton “frequently summarized or excised tangential remarks or discussion, keeping the focus on the decisions made by the council and its chairman.” Similarly, they point out that “only a few 1844 entries approach the level of detail contained in the 1845 entries.” One particularly egregious specimen of this assessment—the 11 Mar 1844 entry tantalizes the readers with “Prest. Joseph gave much instructions on many subjects & laid down the order of organization after the pattern of heaven” and nothing more.

Readers will simultaneously enjoy the addition of several Joseph Smith sermon texts to the canon (it is very striking to read new words from old lips, as it were) and want to travel back in time and punch some scribes for moves like this one from Clayton.

Perhaps no period of Mormon history garners as much attention and ink as Nauvoo (with obvious reason), and the addition of a substantial new primary source after so much ground has been repeatedly plowed, is an event worthy of the attention and expectation this volume has and will receive. For example, one could quite profitably compare the styles of Joseph Smith and Brigham Young in a more parochial study, or use the role of the council in the migration west, as a case study in the expansion of the American border.

The publication of the minutes will likely serve as a particularly potent catalyst spurring further secondary treatments better equipped than before to assess the development of Mormonism, a key function of the Joseph Smith Papers project. While the minutes themselves are incapable of meeting all the exotic expectations that have been cultivated over many decades, they are an integral source for the study of Nauvoo-era Mormonism and a welcome addition to the now robust lineup of volumes in the Joseph Smith Papers.

[1] He discovered that George Q. Cannon had possession of them. The only problem? Cannon was on the other side of the country in Washington D.C. lobbying for Mormon interests. The brief note that “[Cannon] mailed back the key to the box containing the records” smacks of Indiana Jones (or at least National Treasure!).

[2] William Clayton was understandably in favor of such measures since, as scribe, the order imposed thereby made it easier for him to do his job.

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