Notes from the Council of Fifty Minutes Launch Event

By September 20, 2016

This week, the Joseph Smith Papers Project released The Council of Fifty Minutes. These long-awaited meeting minutes cover the period of March 1844-January 1846, the last three months of Joseph Smith’s life and the twenty months thereafter. Because many readers of this blog will not be familiar with the Council of Fifty, I’ve organized this post along the following lines:

What is the Council of Fifty?

Why are the minutes so highly anticipated?

What history is contained in the papers?

Q&A from the blogger event

News and resources from the blogger event

Where to sign up for the monthly newsletter from the Joseph Smith Papers Project

What is the Council of Fifty?

The Council of Fifty is a political group organized and presided over by Joseph Smith during his lifetime. The all-male Council included non-Mormons. Joseph Smith, and later Brigham Young, and John Taylor used the council to discuss the political goals and mission of the political Kingdom of God—separated from the Church of God in Joseph Smith’s mind. Primarily, the Council discussed how Mormons could receive protection to practice their religion as they pleased. Somewhat ironically, Mormons were willing to work outside of American democracy to achieve their goals—or at least leave the United States for Texas, Oregon, or the Great Basin. The Council also viewed the Council as a vehicle for winning religious liberty to worship and live as they pleased (“theodemocracy”). The Council did not oversee Joseph Smith’s political campaign. However, the Council viewed it as a means of winning religious liberty for the Mormons within the borders of the United States.

council-of-50

Why are the minutes so highly anticipated?

The minutes have been housed in the First Presidency Vault for many decades. Joseph Smith asked the Council’s secretary, William Clayton, to burn or bury the meeting minutes if Smith were to die before the Council’s goals were achieved. Thank goodness he chose not to do so! Clayton transported the papers to the Great Basin where he turned them over to Brigham Young. Eventually, future Council of Fifty clerks George Q. Cannon, and George F. Gibbs kept the minutes before they were removed to the Church Historian’s Office in the early twentieth century. At an unknown time the Minutes were moved to the First Presidency Vault.

However, just because the notes have not been accessible to historians in their entirety or from their original sources, does not mean that historians have not used fragments from them or speculated as to what they meant. You can see the 40 entries regarding The Council of Fifty on mormonhistory.byu.edu here.

What history is contained in the papers?

Four of the Council of Fifty Minutes editors spoke at the release event. Mark Ashhurst-McGee explained that William Clayton kept “loose notes” of the meetings which he later transcribed into record books. The three books are roughly the same size (and are on display at the LDS Church History Library!).

Ron Esplin informed us that Joseph Smith’s thoughts were not always revealed in full detail. However, Dr. Esplin revealed that Joseph Smith spoke most often on liberty and civil rights, and more often than not he spoke on religious liberty. This attention to liberty and civil rights was a large part of the Smith Presidential Campaign because Mormons were concerned about the federal government’s inability to protect Latter-day Saints from mob violence of pressure from state governments.

Esplin also spoke to the reasons for why Joseph Smith would organize such a Council. One reason was eschatological, exploring the means by which government would operate during Jesus’ Second Coming. However, Esplin posited that the Council reveals how Joseph Smith thought about the political mission of the Kingdom of God. Furthermore, the Council of Fifty contextualizes Joseph Smith’s presidential campaign better than any other document has done to date. Esplin also shared a number of other tidbits—the role of Sidney Rigdon in the Council of Fifty, allusions to a “Last Charge” from Joseph Smith to the apostles, and that Brigham Young became Standing Chairman of the Council of Fifty upon taking leadership of the LDS Church after Joseph Smith’s martyrdom.

Jeffrey Mahas spoke about the historical context of the Council of Fifty after Joseph Smith’s death. He reminded the audience that the winter of 1844-1845 is one of the darkest times in LDS History. There was a lot of fear, anger, and uncertainty in the air, both among everyday Mormons and among members of the Council of Fifty. The Illinois State government repealed the Nauvoo city charter and wrote in their decision, “The Mormon religion strikes at the very foundation of our society.” It was in this climate that the LDS Church gave up on the idea that the federal government or the president could protect the Latter-day Saints. The Council’s collective anger and despair led them to explore settling in Texas, the Great Basin, or Oregon. In fact, the Council sent emissaries to the Governor of Texas and discussed settling in the southwest Republic.

Mahas also shared that much of the Council had to do with memorializing Joseph Smith. For example, the Council decided to finish the Nauvoo House spoken about in Doctrine and Covenants 124 and to complete the Nauvoo Temple. Brigham Young said, “sweeter than the honey or the honeycomb.” Perhaps most importantly to scholars of religion and race, the Council spoke about potential alliances with Native Americans both politically and religiously.

Editor Gerrit Dirkmaat spoke about what new information we now can confirm about the assassination of Joseph Smith. Details shared by John Taylor and Willard Richards in the Council refute embellished accounts that have been reproduced for the past 170ish years in Mormon history.

Finally, editor Matt Grow emphasized the completeness of the documents. The notes reflect full sentences and thoughts, not merely scratches or scribbles of thoughts. He also shared that the Minutes reveal the personalities of Mormon leaders, from Amasa Lyman’s quirkiness to Brigham Young’s decidedness, and Joseph Smith’s desire to have open conversation with all.

From the Q&A

  • There are no plans to publish later minutes of the Council of Fifty (1860s, 1880s, etc.)
  • There are no plans to publish the William Clayton Diary at this time
  • There are no direct notes about women or people of African descent in the Minutes

Notes

  • Joseph Smith Papers Documents 5 will be released in Spring 2017
  • Documents 6 will come out in Fall 2017 (Missouri and expulsion from Missouri/Liberty Jail)
  • A book entitled At Devil’s Gate will be released from the Church Historians’ Press. The book includes artwork and journal excerpts from pioneer journals
  • Next year a book called “At the Pulpit” will be released. It documents discourses from Mormon women
  • There will also be a “Revelation in Context Book” that will be published with the imprint of the Church, not from the Church Historians’ Press. It will publish the excellent helps explaining the historical context of revelations canonized in the LDS Doctrine and Covenants. The book will be published in Portugese and Spanish, as well as made available online in 6 more languages.
  • The LDS Church has created helps for understanding the Council of Fifty. You can find the resources HERE

Joseph Smith Papers Project Newletter Signup

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Article filed under Announcements and Events


Comments

  1. On behalf of those of us unable to be at teh event, thank you.

    Comment by Kevin Barney — September 20, 2016 @ 8:17 am


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