Rare Mormon Documents Published
Salt Lake City – The minutes of the city and church high councils from the early Mormon city of Nauvoo, Illinois (1839-1845), are preserved in the LDS Church History Library and Archives in Salt Lake City but are unavailable to historians. They are confidential, the Church says, as they include disciplinary hearings for Church members involved in moral transgressions.
Both sets of minutes were pieced together by John S. Dinger, a Mormon history enthusiast and assistant district attorney in Boise, Idaho, and are being published by Signature Books of Salt Lake City. Dinger compiled the minutes from typescripts prepared years ago by archivists and historians during a time when Church archives were more welcoming. Now, typescripts of portions of the documents reside in the Beinecke Library at Yale University, the Marriott Library at the University of Utah, and the Merrill-Cazier Library at Utah State University.
“The minutes are a treasure trove of material relating to the religious and secular life of the early Latter-day Saints,” Dinger writes in the preface to his 700-page The Nauvoo City and High Council Minutes. “These sets of documents are, I believe, two of the most important primary sources for the period.” Regarding confidentiality, he says that the high council trials were held in rooms that were “crowded to excess” with “curious onlookers.” If too many spectators appeared, the council moved to a bigger space “to accommodate the large audience.” The trial of early Mormon leader Sidney Rigdon was held outdoors so everyone could attend. The charges and verdicts were published in the Church newspaper, which often included the minutes of the proceedings, all of which, Dinger says, were meant to dissuade anyone else who might be contemplating sin.
The origin of the high council is interesting. It is not biblical, explains Dinger. During the first few years after the Mormon Church was founded, Joseph Smith met informally with small ad hoc groups to plan events and resolve disputes. Later, he formed a permanent council that met in his home in Kirtland, Ohio, that he called “the high council of the church of Christ.” It became the primary governing Church body and appellate court for high councils later organized elsewhere.
In Nauvoo, the high council conducted business in a solemn fashion, even though the cases were sometimes outlandish. For example, in 1843 Henry Cook was summoned to answer the charge of unchristian-like conduct and for selling his wife for her weight in catfish. From evidence introduced at the hearing, it appeared that Cook’s first wife had died and he was struggling to care for three young children. He remarried, but his new wife walked the streets at night, used bad language in front of the children, and refused to obey him. Cook also said she threatened him with violence. In return, he whipped her “pretty severely.” The high council sided with Cook, ruling that he had acted as well as could be expected under the circumstances. The vote for acquittal was unanimous.
The city council, by contrast, addressed issues of loose animals, taxes, distribution of liquor (allowed to be sold only in quantities of one gallon or greater), and more importantly, protection against arrest for Mormons, which was a persistent source of contention with neighbors. After Joseph Smith became mayor in 1842, his dual civil and religious roles blurred, which added to the growing conflict with outsiders.
In July 1843, Smith’s revelation on plural marriage was read to the high council. Soon, a group of dissidents which included members from both councils began to speak out and founded an opposition newspaper called the Nauvoo Expositor. Smith urged the city council to declare the newspaper a public nuisance. In the process, he incited the council into a frenzy that called the police and militia to march through town and smash the printing press with sledgehammers. Within two weeks, a different mob armed with guns stormed a small town jail in nearby Carthage and murdered the Mormon prophet.
This and other incidents of significance are recorded in dramatic eye-witness fashion in the scribes’ narratives found in The Nauvoo City and High Council Minutes, “making publication of the minutes a milestone in Mormon studies,” says Dinger. “The record shows conflict among the political and religious powerbrokers and shines a light on the behind-the-scene issues that led to Joseph Smith’s struggle for control, the defamation of significant community leaders, and the pulse-pounding events that ended in Smith’s death, followed by the evacuation of the second-largest city in Illinois. As you read, you can feel the tension on every page. The reading is sometimes pretty gripping.”
The Nauvoo City and High Council Minutes
John S. Dinger, editor
700 pp. 978-1-56085-214-8
See more books about the city of Nauvoo:
Joseph Smith’s Quorum of the Anointed, 1842-1845: A Documentary History, Gary James Bergera and Devery Scott Anderson, editors
Nauvoo Endowment Companies, 1845-1846: A Documentary History, Gary James Bergera and Devery Scott Anderson, editors
The Development of LDS Temple Worship, 1846-2000, Devery Scott Anderson, editor
Nauvoo Polygamy: “but we called it celestial marriage …,” George D. Smith
Nauvoo Sealings, Adoptions, and Anointings: A Comprehensive Register of Persons Receiving LDS Temple Ordinances, 1841-1846, Lisle Brown, editor