This volume of the Joseph Smith Papers Project presents the minutes of a Church organization called the Council of Fifty. The minutes, which have never before been publicly available, will form the only volume of the Administrative Records series.
On 11 March 1844 in Nauvoo, Illinois, Joseph Smith organized a council that he and his closest associates saw as the beginning of the government of the literal kingdom of God on earth. The council, known both as the Council of the Kingdom of God and the Council of Fifty (it had roughly fifty members), operated under Smith’s leadership until his murder less than four months later. Following Smith’t death, the council met in Nauvoo under Brigham Young’s leadership from February 1845 to January 1846. The minutes of the council’s meetings, kept primarily by William Clayton, have never been publicly available. This volume of The Joseph Smith Papers publishes them for the first time.
Participants saw the council as distinct from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and anticipated that the council would “govern men in civil matters.” According to Joseph Smith, the council “was designed to be got up for the safety and salvation of the saints by protecting them in their religious rights and worship.” Nevertheless, because Smith and Young were leaders of both the church and the council, ecclesiastical concerns were frequently reflected in the council’s discussions.
The minutes reveal much about early Mormon thought on earthly and heavenly governments as council members wrestled with what it meant to establish the kingdom of God on earth and to existing civil governments. Though council members generally used the term “theocracy” to describe the ideal form of government for the kingdom of God, their model also incorporated democratic elements. They believed that a “theodemocratic” government would protect the rights of all citizens, promote free discussion, involve Latter-day Saints and others, and increase righteousness in preparation for the second coming of Jesus Christ.
At the practical level, the Council of Fifty was a significant decision-making body. For instance, the council helped manage Joseph Smith’s 1844 presidential campaign. The council also provided a forum for making decisions about matters in Nauvoo, including construction of the Nauvoo temple and how to protect and govern the city after the state of Illinois repealed the Nauvoo municipal charter in January 1845. In addition, the council played a major role in exploring possible settlement sites—which included sending a delegate to the Republic of Texas and sending emissaries to various American Indian tribes—and in planning the migration of the Latter-day Saints to the American West.
The minutes capture the principles, protocols, and activities of the Council of Fifty as it was formed and operated in Nauvoo. While many of the actions taken by the council have been known through other documents, the minutes chronicle the deliberations that led to these decisions, providing an unparalleled view of decision making at the center of what participants viewed as the nascent kingdom of God on earth. The minutes of the Council of Fifty thus shed new light on the development of Latter-day Saint beliefs and on the history of Nauvoo and the church during this critical era, while also providing new perspectives on American religious history, political culture, and western migration in the nineteenth century.