Nauvoo City and High Council Minutes Wins Best Book Award

INDEPENDENCE, MISSOURI—Last night a documentary history published by Signature Books of Salt Lake City won the 2012 Best Book Award from the John Whitmer Historical Association. The prize was bestowed on The Nauvoo City and High Council Minutes, compiled and edited by John S. Dinger, a deputy prosecuting attorney for Ada County in Boise, Idaho, who also holds a degree in history from the University of Utah.

John S. Dinger, editorThe Whitmer Association is sponsored primarily by the Community of Christ, formerly known as the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, founded by Mormons who remained in the Midwest after the murder of Joseph Smith in 1844. The Utah branch of Mormonism headed west from Illinois two years after Smith’s death.

Detailed and exhaustively annotated, the book contains the minutes of early church and civic meetings which chronicle the growing pains and issues of contention in what became one of Illinois’s largest cities prior to the Mormon exodus of 1846. Already in 1844 the community was rocked by the growing practice of polygamy by church leaders who attempted to use the city council to tamp down rumors that were circulating about the Mormon prophet’s domestic arrangements.

The city fathers decided to physically destroy the opposition newspaper that had sprung up as a result of the whirlwind of controversy at the time and was operated by church dissidents. As the printing press smoldered in the streets of Nauvoo, spectators could hardly anticipate that within a few weeks, Smith would be shot to death at the county jail and that by year’s end, the city’s inhabitants would begin making preparations to evacuate the state.

The book award was presented yesterday evening (Friday, September 21) during the association’s annual meetings in downtown Independence, Missouri. Hundreds of scholars and history enthusiasts were in attendance, including members of the LDS Church, Community of Christ, and other churches that trace their origins to Joseph Smith. Most of the so-called “restoration churches” remained in the Midwest after Smith’s death.

Earlier this year, at meetings of the Mormon History Association in Calgary, Alberta, in June, Dinger’s book won another prestigious award: Best Documentary Book. Both awards are coveted by scholars working in the field of Latter Day Saint history.

The Nauvoo City and High Council Minutes is one of the most critical resources available for anyone trying to untangle the complex story of Mormon Nauvoo,” said Lachlan Mackay from Independence. Mackay, Director of Historic Sites for the Community of Christ, is a member of the Whitmer Association awards committee. The association granted two book awards, the other, Best Biography, to Parley P. Pratt: The Apostle Paul of Mormonism by Terryl L. Givens, a Professor of English at the University of Richmond, and Matthew J. Grow, an employee of the LDS Church History Library in Salt Lake City.

Dinger says of his own work, “I think the minutes enrich our understanding of Nauvoo. They show us an intelligent Joseph Smith, a courageous stake president William Marks, and a villain in the apostate John C. Bennett.” They also show “a city being formed from the ground up and the development of an important religious body.”

In the introduction to his 700-page book, he calls the minutes a “treasure trove of material relating to the religious and secular life of the early Latter-day Saints,” adding that “the documents are, I believe, two of the most important primary sources for the period.”

The municipal records deal with issues as benign as animal ordinances (free-range cattle were considered to have the rights of “free commoners”) to more controversial laws such as the one granting Joseph Smith exclusive right to sell whiskey in town. Council meetings were held in small rooms that were occasionally filled to capacity with curious townspeople. If too many spectators appeared, the council moved to a more spacious venue such as the Seventies Hall. The high council trial of Smith’s counselor, Sidney Rigdon, was held outdoors so that everyone who wanted to could attend. The charges and verdicts, and sometimes the minutes themselves, were published in church newspapers to dissuade others from contemplating sin.

“The book is well done and makes a significant contribution to the canon of published primary sources in Mormon studies,” writes attorney and historian Morris A. Thurston in a foreword to the book. The typescripts Dinger drew from are housed in the Beinecke Library at Yale University, the Marriott Library at the University of Utah, and the Merrill-Cazier Library at Utah State University. They were prepared by historians who had access to the documents during the 1970s when the LDS Church History Library’s collections were more open.

September 22, 2012.