Long Sought-after Mormon Documents Published
Salt Lake City – For over half a century, historians have tried to unravel the story of a secret Mormon political body called the “Council of Fifty” established by Mormon founder Joseph Smith. Now two events offer a breakthrough: the release by Utah publisher Signature Books of The Council of Fifty: A Documentary History, and the LDS Church History Library announcement that it will publish the minutes of the Nauvoo, Illinois, council meetings.
Until 2010 the Nauvoo minutes have been locked in an office vault in the LDS (Latter-day Saint) Administration Building, accessible only to the First Presidency.
“Opening the Nauvoo minutes is a welcome development,” says Jedediah S. Rogers, editor of the Signature Books volume. Rogers is the Senior State Historian in the Utah Division of State History, as well as an editor of the Utah Historical Quarterly. His previous books have won awards from the Mormon History Association, USU Mountain West Center for Regional Studies (Evans Handcart Award), and the Wallace Stegner Prize from the University of Utah. “Until those minutes are published, what we know is limited to the observations of participants, which itself forms a rich documentary history.” Rogers edited the eyewitness accounts and the minutes of the Utah meetings taken from transcripts prepared by the historian D. Michael Quinn, available at Yale University’s Beinecke Library.
The original purpose of the Council of Fifty, organized in 1844, was to help Joseph Smith run for president of the United States, scout locations in Oregon and Texas for Mormon satellite colonies, and seek to “redress grievances” for the wrongs committed against Latter-day Saints in Missouri. Smith said the council would become the world government when Jesus returned to earth, that its structure replicated the “council of the gods” in heaven.
Weeks before Smith’s death, he told the council’s scribe, William Clayton, to “burn, hide, or bury” the council minutes. Clayton choose to bury them and later to exhume them and transport them to Utah.
For a brief time the Council of Fifty was the governing body in what would become Utah Territory. It issued land grants and appointed law-enforcement officials. After Utah became a U.S. territory, the council approved candidates for political office and became a deliberative body to weigh proposed policy decisions before Brigham Young announced them publicly.
However, the role of the council dissipated until it was unofficially disbanded in 1851. Revived by church president John Taylor in 1880 to help combat government raids on polygamists, Taylor had the council anoint him “king over Israel on the earth.” Interestingly, this was done over the objection of council member Moses Thatcher, who was also one of the Mormon apostles.
That was the last known formal meeting of the council. It continued only in legend for generations of historians who would encounter passing references to the Council of Fifty in diaries, letters, and transcripts of minutes.
It has been 175 years since Joseph Smith imagined the millennial empire that was intended to include colonial settlements in distant places. It is nevertheless instructive to read about how early Mormons strove to put this imperial dream into action through the documents Rogers “hunted down, carefully transcribed, and annotated” for our benefit, as summarized by BYU Professor of History Emeritus Thomas G. Alexander in his dust-jacket endorsement.
Equally thrilled by the publication of this collection of documents is Weber State University Professor of History Gene A. Sessions. “This is an extraordinary compendium of information having to do with the foundation of Mormonism and early Utah,” he writes. “It contains virtually every document, outside of church vaults, pertaining to the operation of the Council of Fifty, the secretive and powerful group that worked for forty years to bring about Joseph Smith’s political vision. Rogers sets a new high standard for a documents collection.”
Rogers’s study of the council includes a foreword by Klaus J. Hansen, retired Professor of History from Queens University in Ontario, Canada, and author of the award-winning Quest for Empire: The Political Kingdom of God and the Council of Fifty. “Some may think the forthcoming Nauvoo minutes are the all-important and sufficient record of the council,” he observes. “But I suspect not. Context is equally important. We don’t yet know exactly what the contents of the minutes might be, but I believe the church’s editors will find themselves hard-pressed to produce anything as thorough and fine as the present volume.”