Historians have long known of the existence of the Council of Fifty and the minutes of its meetings. Until recently, though, the minutes had never been made available for historical research. Because of their inaccessibility—and because historians knew that they were made during a critical and controversial era of Mormon history—a mystique grew surrounding the records. What did they contain? Why had they been withheld? Here are five insights from these important documents that every Mormon should understand about the Council of Fifty, as adapted from the new book The Council of Fifty: What the Records Reveal about Mormon History.
1. One purpose of the Council of Fifty was to establish a theocracy—the beginning of the literal kingdom of God on earth, in which the council would govern.
Less than three months before Joseph Smith was killed at Carthage, he formed a confidential council consisting of roughly fifty men. The council, which became known as the “Council of Fifty” or “Kingdom of God,” was to “look to some place where we can go and establish a Theocracy either in Texas or Oregon or somewhere in California.” Furthermore, Joseph Smith told them, the council “was designed to be got up for the safety and salvation of the saints by protecting them in their religious rights and worship.” The members of the council believed that it would protect the political and temporal interests of the Church in anticipation of the return of Jesus Christ and his millennial reign.
The Council of Fifty was organized with men from many different backgrounds. Some had been members of the Church from the earliest years; some had converted more recently. Some hailed from southern states, some northern, and others came from Canada or England. In fact, three members of the council were not members of the Church at all—a point Joseph Smith wanted recorded and heralded.
Council clerk William Clayton recorded in one of the earliest meetings, “Pres. Joseph said he wanted all the brethren to speak their minds on this subject and to say what was in their hearts, whether good or bad. He did not want to be forever surrounded by a set of ‘dough heads,’ and if they did not rise up and shake themselves and exercise themselves in discussing these important matters, he should consider them nothing better than ‘dough heads.’”
2. The records of the Council of Fifty were made available for the first time last year when they were released as part of The Joseph Smith Papers.
Shortly before going to Carthage, Joseph Smith instructed William Clayton to destroy or hide the records of the council. The Prophet feared that the candid discussions within the Council of Fifty—including the desire to establish a theocracy—could be used against him in either a court of law or, more likely, the court of public opinion. Clayton opted to bury the records in his garden.
A few days after Joseph Smith was killed by a mob in Carthage, Clayton dug up the records of the Council of Fifty. He then copied the minutes of the council’s meetings into more permanent record books and continued taking minutes after Brigham Young reassembled the Council of Fifty in February 1845. Over the next year, the council met to discuss how to govern the city of Nauvoo after the state of Illinois revoked its municipal charter and how to find a settlement place for the Latter-day Saints in the West. The council’s final meetings in Nauvoo occurred in the partially completed Nauvoo Temple in January 1846, just a few weeks before the Saints began to cross the frozen Mississippi on their way west.
As they headed west, Church leaders took the minutes of the council meetings with them. The council met intermittently for periods of time in Utah Territory under Brigham Young and then under his successor, John Taylor, until the 1880s. After the council stopped functioning in the 1880s, the records of the council became part of the archives of the Church’s First Presidency.
The minutes of the Council of Fifty had never been previously available for at least two key reasons: first, because the discussions of the council were considered confidential during the council’s meetings, and later stewards of the records wished to honor that confidentiality; and second, because once the records were in the possession of the First Presidency, they were seldom used or read by Church leaders, and there was no pressing reason to make them available. The Church’s commitment to publish all of Joseph Smith’s documents as part of The Joseph Smith Papers provided the appropriate moment for their release.
3. The Council of Fifty attempted to write a constitution for the kingdom of God but ultimately abandoned the project.
By 1840, Mormon faith in the U.S. constitutional model had been shattered. Events in Missouri had played themselves out to their bitter conclusion, with the expulsion first from Jackson County and then from the entire state. Mormon property had been seized, Mormons had been massacred by mobs, Mormon men and women had been physically assaulted, and Governor Lilburn Boggs had issued his extermination order. Efforts at relief before the courts of Missouri were futile. Finally, Joseph Smith traveled to Washington, D.C., to petition the nation’s statesmen for relief. There he ran up against the realities of antebellum federalism and the electoral needs of Martin Van Buren’s embattled Democratic Party. That disjunction proved decisive for the political development of Mormonism. No relief for the Mormons was forthcoming from the federal government. In the end the federal Constitution was wholly inadequate as a mechanism for protecting Mormon rights. It was in this context of deepening disillusionment toward the United States and its legal institutions that the Council of Fifty embarked on its own constitution-making project.
Taken as a whole, the constitution of the kingdom of God is less a blueprint for a functioning government than an effort to state a philosophy of government. As to whether their draft was a revelation, however, the authors of the constitution of the kingdom of God expressed their doubts. Parley P. Pratt later gave a hint as to the problem faced by the committee. “If we made a constitution it would be a manmade thing, and . . . if God gave us laws to govern us and we received those laws, god must also give us a constitution.” As the first-person voice of the Lord in articles 1 through 3 of the council's draft constitution testified, the committee believed that they must produce a revelation—something that they did not seem to feel they had done.
The committee never completed their constitution for the kingdom of God. Rather, Joseph Smith “advised that we let the constitution alone.” He summed up the “whole matter about the constitution” in a three-sentence revelation:
Verily thus saith the Lord, ye are my constitution, and I am your God, and ye are my spokesmen. From henceforth do as I shall command you. Saith the Lord.
The revelation ended any further discussion of a written constitution for the kingdom of God. Rather, the council simply abandoned the project and focused its attention on the immediate practical concerns facing the Saints, including their ongoing legal difficulties. They certainly did not abandon the ideal of a political kingdom of God, and they pursued some ambitious if impractical plans, such as massive military alliances with American Indian tribes. In that sense, the revelation did not represent any turning away from theocratic ambitions.
4. The records of the Council of Fifty show that the trek west might not have happened the way you think.
The Council of Fifty’s very organization centered on the idea that Mormons needed to find a new location for Mormon settlement (initially, the search was for an additional location for Mormons—another gathering place not to replace Nauvoo but to supplement it, with some early discussions and efforts focused on Texas as a place where Mormons with slaves might gather to avoid the problems that moving to a northern state might present for slaveholding converts). Oregon and California were also places that captured the council’s imagination.
Historians have long known of the advanced preparations of the Mormons for their removal west, especially their foreknowledge of the resources that the West had to offer and the potential sites for a future relocation. The Council of Fifty minutes add detail and a more concrete timeline to that knowledge. As early as September 1845, Brigham Young had zeroed in on the Great Salt Lake. Sometimes, stories that circulate in popular Mormon culture suggest that the Saints were driven from their homes in Illinois and wandered aimlessly westward, not knowing their destination until, on July 24, 1847, Brigham Young declared that the Salt Lake Valley was “the right place.” Young, in fact, arrived two days after the initial Mormon migrants entered the valley on July 22. He joined that vanguard group on July 24 at their camp, where the beginnings of the initial Mormon settlement were already under way. Young’s declarative statement that day was thus a confirmation of a decision already made—something Young had contemplated with the Council of Fifty as early as the fall of 1845.
Council members were also purposefully looking for a place outside of firm governmental control for their settlement, and northern Mexico (which at that time included modern-day Utah) fit that bill. They were fully aware that they were leaving the United States and crossing an international border. Mexico’s lack of direct dominion over its northern frontier was partly what made it so desirable to the Saints.
5. The minutes of the Council of Fifty contain many previously unknown teachings and insights from Joseph Smith and other Church leaders.
The publication of the record of the Nauvoo Council of Fifty by The Joseph Smith Papers and the Church History Department is easily one of the most important events of the last decade for expanding our understanding of early Mormon history. The record not only contains precious nuggets but is a veritable treasure trove of new information. For members of the Church who may see examining such a massive record as a daunting prospect, they may be most interested in the teachings and insights of Joseph Smith, Brigham Young, and other Church leaders—many of which have been lost to history until now. Here are just a few examples.
Joseph Smith on Religious Tolerance and Defending Religious Freedom
“God cannot save or damn a man only on the principle that every man acts, chooses, and worships for himself; hence the importance of thrusting from us every spirit of bigotry and intolerance towards a man’s religious sentiments, that spirit which has drenched the earth with blood. When a man feels the least temptation to such intolerance, he ought to spurn it from him. It becomes our duty on account of this intolerance and corruption—the inalienable right of man being to think as he pleases, to worship as he pleases, being the first law of everything that is sacred—to guard every ground all the days of our lives.”
Brigham Young on Continuing Revelation
Brigham Young taught that “there has not yet been a perfect revelation given, because we cannot understand it, yet we receive a little here and a little there. [I] should not be stumbled if the prophet should translate the Bible forty thousand times over and yet it should be different in some places every time, because when God speaks, he always speaks according to the capacity of the people.”
Porter Rockwell’s Bitter Reaction to Joseph Smith’s Murder
“I was a friend to Joseph Smith while he lived. I am still his friend. He can’t avenge his wrongs himself, but I mean to avenge them for him, and if I get into trouble, I want you to help me if you can without incriminating yourselves. If not, let me go. I love my friends and hate my enemies. I can’t love them if I would.”
The minutes of the Council of Fifty provide a rich and fascinating record of council members’ deliberations and decisions; but the detail contained in the 800-page volume may be overwhelming to many Latter-day Saints. This book of 15 short essays gives an initial appraisal of how the council’s minutes alter and enhance our understanding of Mormon history during the critical era of the last months of Joseph Smith’s life to the trek west.