Mormonism and government/The Council of Fifty

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The Council of Fifty

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Question: What was the Council of Fifty?

Joseph Smith received a revelation which called for the organization of a special council

On 7 April 1842, Joseph Smith received a revelation titled "The Kingdom of God and His Laws, With the Keys and Power Thereof, and Judgment in the Hands of His Servants, Ahman Christ," which called the for the organization of a special council separate from, but parallel to, the Church. Since its inception, this organization has been generally been referred to as "the Council of Fifty" because of its approximate number of members.

The Council of Fifty was designed to serve as something of a preparatory legislature in the Kingdom of God

Latter-day Saints believe that one reason the gospel was restored was to prepare the earth for the second coming of the Lord Jesus Christ. Just as the Church was to bring about religious changes in the world, the Council of Fifty was intended to bring a political transformation. It was therefore designed to serve as something of a preparatory legislature in the Kingdom of God. Joseph Smith ordained the council to be the governing body of the world, with himself as chairman, Prophet, Priest, and King over the Council and the world (subject to Jesus Christ, who is "King of kings"[1]).

The Council was organized on 11 March 1844, at which time it adopted rules of procedure, including those governing legislation. One rule included instructions for passing motions:

To pass, a motion must be unanimous in the affirmative. Voting is done after the ancient order: each person voting in turn from the oldest to the youngest member of the Council, commencing with the standing chairman. If any member has any objections he is under covenant to fully and freely make them known to the Council. But if he cannot be convinced of the rightness of the course pursued by the Council he must either yield or withdraw membership in the Council. Thus a man will lose his place in the Council if he refuses to act in accordance with righteous principles in the deliberations of the Council. After action is taken and a motion accepted, no fault will be found or change sought for in regard to the motion.[2]

What is interesting about this rule is that it required each council member, by covenant, to voice his objections to proposed legislation. Those council members who dissented and could not be convinced to change their minds were to withdraw from the council, however, they would suffer no repercussions by doing so. Thus, full freedom of conscience was maintained by the council — not exactly the sort of actions a despot or tyrant would allow.

The Council never rose to the stature Joseph intended

Members (which included individuals that were not members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) were sent on expeditions west to explore emigration routes for the Saints, lobbied the American government, and were involved in Joseph Smith's presidential campaign. But only three months after it was established, Joseph was killed, and his death was the beginning of the Council's end. Brigham Young used it as the Saints moved west and settled in the Great Basin, and it met annually during John Taylor's administration, but since that time the Council has not played an active role among the Latter-day Saints.


Question: Was Joseph Smith anointed to be "King over the earth" by the Council of Fifty?

Joseph was never anointed King over the earth in any political sense

Some people claim that Joseph Smith had himself anointed king over the whole world, and that this shows he was some sort of megalomaniac.

The Council of Fifty, while established in preparation for a future Millennial government under Jesus Christ (who is the King of Kings) was to be governed on earth during this preparatory period by the highest presiding ecclesiastical authority, which at the time was the Prophet Joseph Smith. Joseph had previously been anointed a King and Priest in the Kingdom of God by religious rites associated with the fullness of the temple endowment, and was placed as a presiding authority over this body in his most exalted position within the kingdom of God (as a King and a Priest).

Joseph was anointed as the presiding authority over an organization that was to prepare for the future reign of Jesus Christ during the Millennium

The fact that Joseph's prior anointing was referenced in his position as presiding authority over this body creates the confusion that he had been anointed King of the Earth. He was in fact only anointed as the presiding authority over an organization that was to prepare for the future reign of Jesus Christ during the Millennium. The fact that Joseph had submitted his name for consideration as President of the United States during this same period adds fodder for critics seeking to malign the character of the Prophet.


To see citations to the critical sources for these claims, click here

Notes

  1. See 1 Timothy 6:15; Revelation 17:14; 19:16
  2. Andrew F. Ehat, "'It Seems Like Heaven Began on Earth': Joseph Smith and the Constitution of the Kingdom of God," Brigham Young University Studies 20 no. 3 (1980), 260-61.