Publisher: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University
Editors: Matthew J. Grow & R. Eric Smith
Date Available: September 4, 2017
Number of Pages: 201
On October 3, 2016, the Joseph Smith Papers Project published a volume called Administrative Records: Council of Fifty, Minutes, March 1844-January 1846 (reviewed and explained here). 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.