Council of Fifty minutes: anti-American sentiment, theocratic aspirations, and institutional transparency

a1-coverMatthew J. Grow, Ronald K. Esplin, Mark Ashurst-McGee, Gerrit J. Dirkmaat, and Jeffrey D. Mahas, eds., The Joseph Smith Papers, Administrative Records, Council of Fifty, Minutes, March 1844–January 1846, Ronald K. Esplin, Matthew J. Grow, Matthew C. Godfrey, general eds. Salt Lake City: The Church Historian’s Press, 2016. Hardcover. 734 pp. $59.95. ISBN 978-1-62972-242-9.

If you follow Mormon studies through journals, blogs, and social media, you’ve no doubt become aware of the significance of this volume. For those who don’t, here is a synopsis of what the Council of Fifty was and why this organization is historically important to Mormonism:

The Council of Fifty (C50) was a secret Church organization comprising roughly fifty members. The name “Council of Fifty” was a self-imposed nickname that stuck early on. Its official name was the Council of the Kingdom of God—a much more descriptive, albeit somewhat brazen, moniker. The C50 was organized during what is arguably the most dramatic period in Mormon history: Nauvoo in 1844, just three months prior to the mob assassinations of Mormonism’s royal brothers: Joseph and Hyrum Smith.

What was the purpose of this organization? I think the introduction to the volume says it best:

“[A] group chaired by Joseph Smith with the purpose of laying the foundation for a theocracy in preparation for the millennial reign of Jesus Christ. This ‘literal kingdom of God’ would ‘govern men in civil matters,’ making it distinct from the church.” [xx]

In short, it was a political organization with theocratic aspirations and a millenarian perspective. Parliamentary in form with Joseph Smith as standing chair, practically every high-ranking Mormon leader in Nauvoo held membership in the Council along with a few sympathetic non-Mormons as a token of Smith’s dedication to universal religious liberty. The idea at the time was that things were getting really ugly in America and that Jesus’ return was imminent. By not protecting religious minorities like the Mormons, the United States government and its Constitution was corrupted and flawed, and the democratic experiment was corroding. America had failed to protect the Mormons, God’s chosen people, and would soon collapse under divine judgement only to be saved by the Mormon elders of Israel. Smith promised that religious pluralism would still be alive and well under a Mormon theocratic system, and that each group would be guaranteed religious freedom.

The earliest duties of the C50 were three-fold: (1) support Joseph Smith’s presidential aspirations (which were more serious than you may have thought); (2) seek for a new place of refuge for the Mormons outside of the United States (preferably the Republic of Texas or the unsettled West among the native inhabitants whom Mormons felt a special kinship towards); and (3) seek for financial restitution from the federal government for property and economic losses in Missouri (an ambitious effort that was unsurprisingly ignored by Congress). As for the Mormon theocratic system that was to replace the U.S. government after its certain demise? That was a little ways off in the distance, although the Council’s members felt confident it would happen within their generation. It didn’t, of course, but Brigham Young did not give up on Joseph Smith’s vision for the central role that the Council of Fifty would play politically. Addressing the Council in 1845, Young asserted that Joseph “said it was this council of fifty which had to bear the responsibility of establishing the kingdom in all the world.” [380]

It should be no surprise that a mid-nineteenth-century millenarian group such as the Mormons would have grandiose ideas about theocratic government; nor should it be surprising that Mormons felt a distinct amount of cynicism towards the nation’s government that in their view repeatedly failed to guarantee their rights to practice their religion. Smith was calling for a broader reach of federal power in order to guarantee the rights of the minority. They saw themselves as refugees, and the minutes reveal a religious movement in tension with the Jacksonian era that it emerged within: a group that was participating in the democratization of American religion while being forced from place to place with no political recourse. It is little wonder that one of the earliest objectives of the Council was to send an emissary to Sam Houston, then president of the Republic of Texas, who, until Texas was annexed into the United States in 1845, seemed quite willing to accommodate the Mormon’s desperate plea for refuge.

a1-page-xxv-textual-01-chl-c50-nauvoorecord-volumes-0021There are three known minute books that were kept by William Clayton of meetings that took place between March 1844 and January 1846. When things started heating up in Nauvoo, Clayton was instructed by Joseph Smith to either burn the minutes, put them into safe hands, or bury them. Thankfully for history, he didn’t take the first suggestion. According to the introduction to the minutes, “Clayton apparently kept the council records with him until he left Nauvoo in 1846.” [5] In the Spring of 1847, Clayton turned the minutes over to Brigham Young who brought them to the Great Basin. Young convened the Council frequently as he made plans to scout the Western territory from Winter Quarters, as well as the years following as he began establishing a legislature and seeking statehood for their desert settlement. When the U.S. Army arrived in 1858 to subdue the reportedly unruly Utah territory, the Council of Fifty records were placed in a box along with temple records and buried until 1862. Young maintained possession of them until 1867 when he turned them over to George Q. Cannon who was appointed as the Council’s new recorder. It appears that the records remained in Cannon’s possession until after John Taylor reconvened the Council of Fifty, turning the records over to Taylor’s clerk, George F. Gibbs, in 1882. The records were reviewed by Taylor’s new Council of Fifty and then reportedly locked up—unsurprising considering the federal anti-polygamy raids in Utah that forced Taylor and other leaders underground.

The successive four Church presidents—Wilford Woodruff, Lorenzo Snow, Joseph F. Smith, and Heber J. Grant—were all members of Taylor’s Council of Fifty. Grant, the last Church President to be a member of the Council of Fifty, was inducted in 1882. Gibbs, the clerk who kept the Council of Fifty records for President Taylor, transferred them to the first presidency sometime in the early twentieth century. Still in a locked box, President Grant kept them in a filing room that, in 1922, he entrusted to his secretary, Joseph Anderson. Ten years later, President Grant and Franklin S. Richards, the last surviving members of the Council of Fifty, met together and read through the records. After this, the records essentially stayed put for over eighty years, inaccessible to both historians and archivists, and apparently only referenced by the Church’s general authorities on a few occasions.

Prior to Elder Neal A. Maxwell’s death in 2004, his secretary, Susan Jackson, prepared a transcript of the minutes. We know this because when Ron Esplin, Managing Editor of the Joseph Smith Papers, began pressing Church Historian Marlin K. Jensen in 2009 for access to the minutes in order to verify Joseph Smith’s “final charge” to the Twelve (which didn’t pan out, for the record), Jensen replied that he had the transcript that was prepared by Jackson and was able to check the requested dates. Why is this important? Because it demonstrates that there was at least some discussion by the Church’s general authorities as to what the records contained—enough to request that a transcript be made. In 2009, the new LDS Church History Library was opened and, one year later, the Council of Fifty records were transferred from the first presidency office to the new archives. Although the records have been in the archives since 2010, it was not until 2013 that the Joseph Smith Papers team were given permission to use them for the sixth volume in their Journals series, which covers the period in Nauvoo when the original Council of Fifty was active. However, beyond using them as reference for the Journals volume, the minutes were green-lit by Church authorities for publication. This seismic shift in the Church’s willingness towards greater transparency (within approved channels) cannot be overstated.

a1-page-049-textual-06-chl-c50-navuoorecord-v1-pp30-31-0044Although the Council of Fifty was meant to be a covert organization, it was a poorly kept secret. Jedediah Rogers, in the preface of his recent documentary history of the Council of Fifty, remarked: “While most of the members of the council remained circumspect in concealing their membership, others freely and colorfully recorded tidbits about it in journals, letters, and reminiscences.” [The Council of Fifty: A Documentary History, p. xiii] In fact, the amount of external references to the Council of Fifty were ample enough for Rogers to edit a 400-page book; and have provided enough source material for virtually all past discussions on the Council of Fifty by historians. Not just independent historians, but even staff historians have included information about the Council of Fifty in their publications. Until recently, the most comprehensive treatments of the Council of Fifty have been by Klaus J. Hansen in Quest for Empire: The Council of Fifty in Mormon History, published in 1967, and D. Michael Quinn’s, The Mormon Hierarchy: Origins of Power, published in 1994. However, references to the Council of Fifty can be found in the work of Fawn Brodie, Leonard Arrington, Marvin Hill, Eugene Campbell, Glenn Leonard, Richard Bushman, as well as RLDS historian Bruce Flanders and the 1957 work of non-Mormon sociologist, Thomas F. O’Dea. Even Dallin H. Oaks was sure to mention the Council of Fifty in the book he co-authored with Marvin Hill, Carthage Conspiracy. Although not hidden, the Council of Fifty was certainly downplayed. The best example may be Glen Leonard and James B. Allen’s The Story of the Latter-day Saints, commissioned by Church leaders to be a single-volume history directed to the lay membership. In this volume, the Council of Fifty is referred to most often as the “General Council,” a secular committee that was “designed to relieve the First Presidency and the Twelve of temporal responsibilities” its role being primarily to support Joseph Smith’s presidential campaign, seek for refuge in the Western part of the United States, and appeal to Congress for the civil rights of the Mormons. [The Story of the Latter-day Saints, p 199] Not completely incorrect, but a definite reduction of its grander theocratic purpose and involvement of the First Presidency and the Twelve.

As an aside, this brings us to one of the more confusing and oft-speculated scenes within the Council of Fifty: was Joseph Smith anointed as prophet, priest, and king of the world by the Council? William Clayton affirmed as much in his private journals, and it seems this practice was continued by Brigham Young and John Taylor when they presided over the Council. It is stated in the minutes that on April 11, 1844, following George A. Smith’s adjournment the Council meeting, Erastus Snow stood to express a resolution wherein he stated “this to be the happiest moment that he ever enjoyed” and “concluded by offering a motion that this honorable assembly receive from this time henceforth and forever, Joseph Smith, as the Prophet, Priest & King, and uphold him in that capacity in which God has anointed him.” [95-96] It would seem that the anointing Snow was referring to was not performed by the Council of Fifty, however, but rather conducted as part of the temple rituals, which at the time were being performed in the same room of Joseph’s Red Brick store and involved many of the same people (this is also where the Quorum of the Anointed, the Relief Society, the Masonic Lodge, and the Nauvoo City and High Council met). Furthermore, note that Snow did not conclude his endorsement with “over the world.” Neither did Clayton in his private recollections. Decades later, under John Taylor, Erastus Snow indicated that this anointing was connected with the house of Israel, which places more of millenarian intent on the act. [96n259] This question of anointing has been one of the great mysteries among Mormon historians that the publication of the minutes will help shed more light on.

The earliest attempts to bury and hide the records coincided with periods of Mormon history when external pressures were threatening the existence of the Church. Considering what the records contained—anti-American and pro-theocratic rhetoric—the last thing church leaders wanted was for those papers to go public. However, what about decades later, after Mormonism had assimilated into mainstream America? Following World War I, America had a surge of anti-Communist sentiment known as the first “red scare.” Patriotism and national loyalties were tested far and wide. Groups were investigated for anti-American activities. President Grant, very aware of Mormonism’s historically-tenuous relationship with the U.S. government, was also very aware of what was contained in the Council of Fifty records. If they were to have leaked, the relationship between Mormonism and the U.S. would likely have ruptured again. The press would have eaten this up just as they ate up the Reed Smoot hearings during the first years of the twentieth-century. This is all made more pressing by the fact that President Grant was himself once a member of this theocratic and millenarian secret organization—and the concern wasn’t just over the early Nauvoo minutes. Following the passage of the Edmunds Act in 1882, polygamy was federally criminalized, the Church was disincorporated, and Mormons were stripped of their rights to vote and hold public office. The reconstituted Council of Fifty, under the direction John Taylor, organized the Peoples Party in opposition and prophesied that God would “come out of [His] hiding place and vex the nations of the earth because of their iniquities, their misrule, their tyranny, their oppression, their corruption, their murders, their adulteries and fornications, and all their abominations,” including the United States, which “sought to deprive my people of their free agency.” [The Council of Fifty: A Documentary History, p. 301] It is my conjecture that Grant was not keeping these minutes from the members of the Church as much as he was keeping them from the general public, the press, and the U.S. government during the post-war period of intense scrutiny and following a generation of struggle for Mormons to gain acceptance in America.

By the Second World War, Mormons were no longer suspect over national loyalties. Remarkably, they were now seen as ideally patriotic American citizens. Along with a conservative shift, pro-American and pro-capitalist sentiments flourished within the religion. The Church couldn’t have appeared more distanced from its theocratic roots that, a century prior, placed it at odds with the United States. By the mid-twentieth century, Mormons increasingly looked upon America with optimism rather than despair. Within this environment, the emphasized priorities became loyalty to God, family, and country; and a new narrative of “traditional values” was born. This attitude persisted through the Civil Rights Movement, the ERA campaigns, and the rise of the Christian Coalition and the modern conservative movement. Today, the only traces of the Council of Fifty that remain within Mormonism is a vague sense of minority persecution and a determined fight for the political safeguarding of their religious practices. While the release of the Council of Fifty minutes could be used to support Mormonism’s longstanding tradition of fighting for religious freedom, its theocratic and millenarian impulses, indignation towards the government of its day, and desire to seek refuge by withdrawing from the United States should not be overlooked.

Over the past decade, scholars have discussed the Council of Fifty more freely, in spite of the minutes remaining closed to researchers. The most comprehensive external-source collection, already mentioned, is Jedediah Rogers’s The Council of Fifty: A Documentary History. Now JSP Administrative Records: Volume 1 stands as the only publicly-accessible collection of the Nauvoo minutes, assembled by one the most qualified documentary editing teams available. As with all Joseph Smith Papers volumes, A1 is expertly crafted. The transcriptions, annotations, and introductions are impeccable and informative. This volume, by nature, places Mormonism into its historical and political context within the United States to a greater extent than have the other thirteen JSP volumes thus far, giving us a glimpse not only into Mormonism’s past but also the political landscape of the United States during the mid-nineteenth century. In my estimation, Administrative Records: Volume 1, also known as The Joseph Smith Papers: Council of Fifty, Minutes, may be the most important JSP volume to date, not only for its content but for the leap in institutional transparency that it represents. Alongside the The First Fifty Years of Relief Society: Key Documents in Latter-day Saint Women’s History and the online publishing of the George Q. Cannon journals, The Church Historian’s Press has consistently shown a high level of integrity and craftsmanship that is slowly changing the way that the institution is willing to discuss its past. This is not to imply that there aren’t still miles to tread in the quest for complete transparency, as evidenced by the lack of current plans to make available the remaining Council of Fifty minutes (the Utah period), the highly-coveted journals of William Clayton, or the vast stores of other documents and collections that still remain closed to researchers; but the environment is changing, and Administrative Records: Volume 1 is the most shining example of this shift at present.


Council of Fifty minutes: anti-American sentiment, theocratic aspirations, and institutional transparency — 6 Comments

  1. I’m very interested to see what these minutes imply for a reading of early LDS theology. The clandestine nature of the kingdom suggests a very Straussian reading of the public discourses that were later included in Church History and TPJS.

  2. Fascinating. 734 pages. That is a heavy volume. Have you, or anyone you know of, made a careful reading of the whole thing?

  3. Since the volume just came out (actually, it isn’t hitting the streets until next week), the only people I know who have read it all the way through are the volume editors. I’m sure that close reading reviews will be coming soon.

  4. Besides the volume editors, at least six other historians have read the volume all the way through–three who commented on the volume at the Mormon History Association meetings in June (Richard Bushman, Paul Reeve, and Richard Bennett) and three who spoke at an event in the University of Virginia on September 8 (Kathleen Flake, Richard Turley, and Nathan Oman. They represent a range of institutions–Columbia, University of Utah, BYU, University of Virginia, and William & Mary.

  5. My reading of the minutes as we have them from Clayton’s notes is that in some areas they have a very treasonous tone. I think had the enemies of the church had them,the references to joining with the native tribes to conquer the gentiles etc., it would not have been pretty.