A few weeks ago, I posted my review of Jedediah Rogers’s new book, The Council of Fifty: A Documentary History (Signature, 2014). Today, we are pleased to feature a Q&A with the author. Enjoy!
What first grabbed your attention about the Council of 50?
The devil is in the detail, as they say, so while I was familiar with some of the council’s larger themes, it was the little things that struck me: the council prohibiting “cutting Spanish rusty” or converting corn into whisky; Hosea Stout wittily suggesting in an April 11, 1883, meeting that a legal defense for a bigamist might be that “he cohabited with only one at a time”; Moses Thatcher’s reported opposition to “the proposition to anoint John Taylor as Prophet, Priest and King”; and so on.
More generally, I was grabbed by the tension between rhetoric and reality. The council discussed grandiose ideas—playing a pivotal role in the End Days, working to elect Joseph Smith as U.S. president, destroying an army and navy with an invention of “liquid fire”—that to some modern observers may seem absurd. Council members, interestingly, seemed to have thought them all probabilities. Council deliberations sometimes contained violent rhetoric, including some early utterances by Young on the doctrine of “blood atonement,” while simultaneously centering on the millennial dream of a utopian society. Historiographical debates suggest another dynamic: was the council a mere symbolic formality or did it represent the Mormon quest for real political power? Like most things historical, the answer in this case is not either/or. (Mike Quinn cautions historians not to confuse symbol and substance; indeed, within the structure of Mormonism the Council of Fifty was subservient to the First Presidency and the Twelve, at least under the reigns of Young and Taylor. Taylor’s anointing, Quinn argues, is a prime example of the symbolic nature of the Fifty. Still, readers will find ardent rhetoric of council members convinced they were part of something grand operating in the temporal realm. And we must not downplay the significance of the council in organizing and leading the trek west and as the governing body in the Salt Lake valley from 1848 to 1850. While their minds may have been, at times, hovering in the clouds, they also worked in the soil, and they expected results from their labors.)
Was there anything that surprised you while researching the council?
I knew the council was a secret organization, but it was hard for me to grasp the extent of its secrecy. Benjamin Johnson, a council member, referred to it as Smith’s “private council.” Others often mentioned that the council discussed matters in confidence. Some of these were sensitive, not least the possibility of relocating—or, perhaps more likely, partially relocating—in the Republic of Texas or Mexico’s “Upper California.” Perhaps especially, Smith recognized that the theocratic nature of the council and its designs would raise eyebrows, even in nineteenth-century America. Young, too, became hypersensitive to council information leaks; in one 1849 meeting Young nearly comes unglued, and threatens violent retribution, when he finds “a member of the council had been guilty of divulging the secrets of this council.” In the string of meetings held early that year, we see the first mentions of “blood atonement.” I can see the impulse to keep those conversations secret. But at that time the council was the governing body in the Salt Lake Valley, passing laws and making public decisions.
I suppose I was slightly taken aback by the council’s (and by that, I principally mean Young’s) firm hand reigning in “wickedness” and dissent. Young believed that establishing a godly society in a new land was possible only with an iron fist, preventing “infernals, thieves, Murders, Whoremongers & every other wicked curse to [exist].” Young took this idea, he says, from the very name of the council, as dictated by the purported 1842 revelation: “The Kingdom of God & Its Laws and Justice & Judgement in my hands. Signed Ahman Christ.” The council considered it their solemn responsibility to carry out the demands of justice. Coming away from this collection of documents makes me wonder whether the themes of schism and dissent are not more central to the Mormon story than I had previously considered.
Much of the volume deals with the post-Joseph Smith period, which is important to note since most of the attention people usually give the council is related to Joseph Smith. What do we learn about the council when we wrest our interests away from Smith and place them on his ecclesiastical inheritors?
This is a good question. Of course, the council was Smith’s project, and so you really can’t divorce it from him. The general spirit of the council as established by Smith remained the dominant force, and many men who sat in council in the spring of 1844 continued on as members, some to the end of the body’s life, committed to its founding vision.
But when we “wrest” our interests away from Smith, some really terrific highlights come into view: the role of the council in the migration west, the settlement of the Great Basin, the pressing environmental concerns confronted by folks arriving in the Salt Lake valley, the unsuccessful political maneuverings for a Mormon state, the rhetoric of frontier theocratic justice, the Mormon leadership’s response to the federal anti-polygamy campaign and free schools, and so on. About two-thirds of the documentary record centers on the council’s Utah period. I’m not particularly drawn to the Nauvoo era, anyway. I approached the documentary record primarily as a historian of western America.
Consider the question of the Mormons’ geopolitical aspirations. Did Young intend to establish a Mormon “state” outside the jurisdiction of the United States? He settled his people in what was Mexican territory and looked forward to theocratic rule, where God’s laws would not be impinged. Some hoped for a homeland where they would have “room to expand.” But in the record we have here, while anti-American rhetoric was common, Young and his associates also spoke of love of country and its founding principles. Even before the Great Basin became a United States territory, the council probably anticipated that it would eventually become so, and they sought to curry favor from federal officials, even informing President Polk in 1846 of plans to carve a state out of Upper California. Statehood would create “home-rule” within the American political system, even though it threatened to temper theocratic designs. So the evidence points in both directions.
What lessons do you think the Council of Fifty provide for historians of religion who may not specialize in Mormonism?
Religious historians need go no further for an American brand of theocracy than the Council of Fifty in the State of Deseret. John D. Lee, writing in 1848, alluded to the Council of Fifty as “the Municipal department of the Kingdom of God set up on the Earth, and from which all Law eminates,” responsible “to council, deliberate & plan for the general good & upbuilding of the Kingdom of God on the Earth.” This description is as good as any I know. The council seems to have been Smith’s attempt to usher in a new era of divine political governance that would inaugurate Christ’s millennial reign and perhaps eventually encompass the globe. I don’t think there’s any question Smith convinced his followers that the council would play a pivotal role in the unfolding cosmic events of the End Days. Smith called the council a “theodemocracy,” which seemed to fuse power in the hands of people with strict adherence to the dictates of divinity. He and his successors saw themselves as holding this divine-kingship, and they were even anointed as such in council meetings. In the Great Basin Young continued the work that Smith had initiated. He said as much in a December 28, 1848, discourse, publically announcing that Smith had organized “a municipal council of 50 men” and that “that council is here.” As a governing body, the council passed laws and instituted legal statutes, acted as the judicial authority, and oversaw the growth of Salt Lake City and territorial expansion in the Great Basin. Mormonism in the West is certainly not the only case of nineteenth-century American theocracy, but it ought to catch the eye of religious scholars, particularly given the rich documentary record left behind.
I hope those readers who actually do religious studies will chime in here.
What do you think is the primary contribution of this volume to the Mormon history community?
This may be surprising to some, but I’ll venture that the primary contribution here is as a collection of records that document events of great moment in nineteenth-century Mormonism. If the volume also assists, or simply encourages, a reevaluation of the council and its role in Mormon history, all the better.
The months leading to Joseph Smith’s death, the exodus from Nauvoo and migration to the Far West, the establishment of a flourishing Anglo society in the Great Basin, the bumpy road leading to the demise of plural marriage and the Americanization of Mormonism—this record centrally touches all these and promises to reveal new insights in the stories we tell. Although we know much more about the years leading to the Manifesto than we did only a decade or two ago, and although as Quinn has thoroughly shown that Taylor’s Council of Fifty largely rubber-stamped decisions made by the Mormon hierarchy, this volume offers a distinctive contribution: behind-the-scenes discussions of pressing issues confronting Mormonism. I don’t think we can write a history of this era without dealing with this record, which details the central concerns of Mormonism’s leading men. In at least one case it fills a historiographical hole—Mormon settlement in the West prior to the creation of Utah Territory, since we know relatively less about the first years in the Salt Lake valley than we do about the remainder of the pioneer era in Utah. The official territorial record does not begin until 1851.
Beyond that, there is probably something of interest in here for all Mormon history consumers—political intrigue, kingly anointings, threats of violence, moments of sublimity, political infighting, dissent, and more. This record introduces us to men like George Miller, Lyman Wight, James Emmett, and others largely neglected in the dominant Mormon narrative. Like the Journal of Discourses, it gives an unvarnished view of how rough and tumble things were—the unrefined way of speaking, the threats and uncertainties, the frontier theology, and so on—but also reveals how once in a while council deliberations could be tender, even transcendent.
Now, I’m going to ask you to do some work for me: I’ll be teaching a course on Religion and Politics in American history next semester. If I were to theoretically spend a lecture on Mormonism and the Council of 50, what documents in your volume do you think would most interest my students? What lessons do you think the Council of Fifty provide for our nation’s interwoven narrative of political and religious traditions?
Petitions to Washington. The Council of Fifty attempted mightily to achieve reparations for wrongs done to Mormons in Missouri. I would think Orson Hydes April 25 and 26 letters, detailing efforts to win over politicians in Washington, would be of interest to your students. Perhaps use these documents to spark a discussion of religious persecution and federal efforts to address it.
Minutes of the April 11, 1883, meeting, alongside a chapter from something like Sarah Barringer Gordon’s The Mormon Question, might work well for insights into how leading Mormon men addressed thorny legal and political issues that they believed impinged on their religious liberty.