Council of Fifty: A Documentary History, Jedediah S. Rogers, editor, Signature Books (2014), Kindle & Hardback, 480 pages.
Jed Rogers and the team at Signature Books have produced an important, quality volume that includes all available and relevant documents about the ellusive, but key ‘Council of Fifty’.
Rogers provides helpful introductory material, giving a nice overview of the history of the Council. William Clayton made note of a revelation on April 7, 1842 directing Joseph Smith to “bear off the kingdom”, seizing the opportunity to establish “the Kingdom of God and his Laws, with the Keys and power thereof, and judgment in the hands of the servants, Ahman Christ.” Joseph Smith was voted the Prophet, Priest and King “with loud Hosannas.” The Council was known by several names, such as the “Kingdom of God,” “Grand Council,” “Council of Ytfif,” “Council of the Kingdom” “Council of Elders,” “The Kingdom of God and His laws,” “Council of L,” “Quorum of Fifty,” and other titles.
Three-fourths of the men in the Quorum of Anointed were inducted into the Council of Fifty and virtually the entire First Presidency, Quorum of Twelve and Presiding Bishopric were included, as well as three non-Mormons. Rogers points out that new members were taught secret keywords in a ritual similar to the temple endowment. Members were considered a “living constitution,” transcending the U.S. constitution, and it was considered distinct from the church. According to Council member Joseph Fielding, the Council of Fifty was “a Shield round about the Church”.
Rogers explains that Joseph Smith had a sweeping vision for the Council. He made plans to send council members to California, Oregon, Texas, Vancouver and Wisconsin. Orson Hyde and Orson Pratt carried a memorial to Washington D.C. to seek authorization to “raise a Company of one hundred thousand armed volunteers in the United States and Territories.” Other members embarked on missions to campaign for Smith’s presidential bid.
Summarizing its purpose, Rogers says the Council “was to establish a worldly kingdom that would usurp all others and receive Jesus at His Second Coming.” He includes statements from Quorum members giving us insight into Joseph Smith’s vision of ‘The Fifty’.
- Clayton believed they replicated “the Grand Council amongst the Gods when the organization of this world was contemplated.”
- Benjamin F. Johnson thought “the embryo kingdom of God upon the earth” would grow until it achieved world domination.
- George Miller believed “a majority of the voters” in the republic of Texas could be converted to Mormonism, helping to establish a “dominion” within the U.S. when Joseph Smith was elected president of the United States.
- Lyman Wight believed “the Church stands regularly organized to bear off the kingdom triumphantly over the head of every opposition, and to establish Zion no more to be thrown down forever.”
- Orson Pratt considered the council as “the only legal government that can exist in any part of the universe” with all other governments “illegal and unauthorized.”
Rogers surmises that the Council was a theocratic government that would serve as an important bridge to the Millennium, after which they would hand over political power to Christ.
Sometime after Joseph Smith’s death, Brigham Young was anointed king and priest of the entire world. He used the Council to organize the exodus from Illinois, and then as the governing body in Salt Lake before the territorial legislature was setup in 1850.
In the wake of the secession crisis caused by Joseph Smith’s death, Young consolidated power in himself and the Twelve, noting “if you throw the K[ingdom] [of God] into the Quo[rum] of 50[,] they cant manage it.” In fact, Young brought two Council members to trial for asserting the Quorum of Fifty was superior to the Quorum of Twelve, to which one complained “the Twelve had swallowed up thirty eight.” Under Young’s leadership, the Council met sporadically from 1850 to 1880. Rogers disavows the idea that the Council acted as a shadow government to the Utah territorial government.
Rogers says the Council of Fifty was reconstituted by John Taylor in 1880 to help protect the church from federal intrusion during anti-polygamy efforts by the U.S. In June 1882, a prophesy by Taylor was reported in a Council of Fifty meeting – that the Lord would “fight our battles for us” and that the Kingdom held “power from on high” and would introduce “righteousness and justice, and judgment, and truth, and virtue, and holiness” to the world. Taylor and fellow Council members believed God “considered our system infinitely superior to theirs [the United States and its constitution].”
The Council did not reconvene after Taylor’s death. Overall it operated for 40 years with periods of inactivity. Rogers believes the Council may have become irrelevant as emphasis on short-term preparations for the End Days (setting up a church-managed government to rule the world) — gave way to longer term planning.
Historian Klaus Hansen praised the annotations which provide background and context to the materials. He noted in the forward that Rogers “brought the meetings to life” and that this volume would be “essential reading” for Mormon historians.
Access difficulties were encountered in preparing the book. Rogers noted he understood “some of the church’s concerns about confidentiality” but he was denied access to holographs, even when he had typescripts or when the documents had already been published. Signature Books editors were denied access to minutes as late as the 1880s because the archives reserved the first right of publication.
Rogers included a lengthy list of documents he was not allowed to see, but notes much “although not all – of this material is available from other sources such as the transcripts historian D. Michael Quinn prepared in the 1970s.” The most important omissions are three small Nauvoo minute books titled “Record of the Council of Fifty or Kingdom of God” (March-May, 1844, Feb 1845-Jan 1846) locked in the First Presidency Vault until 2010. They will be published as the first “Administrative” volume of the Joseph Smith Papers.
Rogers’ occasional reformatting of the text and punctuation (pointed out in the footnotes) made difficult-to-read sources more readable. And the extensively researched footnotes provide context and biographical background, making the meeting minutes and other sources much more accessible. Klaus Hansen notes that others would be hard-pressed to produce such a quality volume.
Rogers illuminates the Council of Fifty, largely forgotten today by the body of the church — from Joseph Smith’s sweeping millennial theocratic vision – to Brigham’s organization of the exodus – to governing the saints in the early Utah period – to John Taylor’s revival of the Council as a counter-measure for anti-polygamy efforts.
The pages are filled with illuminating curiosities, such an announcement that Brigham Young had “found out that … the Millennium has now commenced”; Heber C. Kimball’s note that the Council’s sealing power would allow them to be “saviors of men, as much as J[esus] [C]hrist was”; their consideration of Uriah Brown’s “liquid fire” weapon that could destroy an army or navy; a discussion considering public executions that might cause would-be criminals to “tremble for fear it would be their time next”; an account of John Taylor’s anointing as King and Ruler over Israel despite opposition by an apostle, and other such items.
Rogers and the Signature Books team have produced high quality volume providing an important contribution to Mormon Studies by assembling documentation and providing annotation that brings to life the illusive Council of Fifty.