Review: Jedediah S. Rogers, ed., The Council of Fifty: A Documentary History

By December 29, 2014

C50Jedediah S. Rogers, ed., The Council of Fifty: A Documentary History (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 2014).

Secret ecclesiastical organizations usually draw a lot of attention, yet few secret ecclesiastical organizations have garnered as much speculation and mythologization as the Council of Fifty. Anyone with even a cursory interest in Mormon history has heard of the council, often wrapped up with rumors of kingly coronations, clandestine governments, and power struggles. Academic engagement with the organization has ranged from the ambitious (and as it turns out, overstated) Quest for Empire: The Political Kingdom of God and the Council of Fifty in Mormon History (Michigan State University Press, 1967) by Klaus Hansen to the more nuanced articles by Michael Quinn and Andrew Ehat.[1] Recently, the LDS Church has announced plans to publish the long-secluded minutes from the original Nauvoo council as part of the Joseph Smith Papers Project. But the council left a larger printed impact than what is found in that minute book; further, the council lasted much longer than merely Nauvoo. To help chart the development and relevance of this quixotic council, Jedidiah S. Rogers has edited The Council of Fifty: A Documentary History, which compiles a large number of documents that shed light on the secretive organization from its formation in 1844 through John Taylor’s resuscitation of the council in the 1880s. There are a lot of things that could be highlighted from the volume for discussion, but as a historian of American religious and political culture, I’d like to point out two themes that stood out to me.[2]

(Note: I will be falling into the same trap that I’ve hated to see in all the other reviews of this volume by focusing on the Nauvoo period—which is a shame, because I think the greatest contribution of this volume is to move the focus on the Council of Fifty away from the Nauvoo period. A professional review would likely focus on what this volume tells us about the Utah years—especially the John Taylor presidency, which is where I think a lot of the most fascinating stuff happened. But then, I’m a hypocrite, so on with the Nauvoo stuff, because that’s the area with which I am most familiar!)

The first theme that really stuck out to me was a phrase that repeatedly appeared when referring to the council: that the participants were “a living constitution.” (See, for instance, William Phelps’s statement on pg. 83.) In the face of government institutions that they believe failed to aid Mormons in their troubles (a common theme found throughout the volume is the pillaged status of the saints), Mormons sought a way to enact a political body that would sidestep America’s democratic ills. The way to do that, as seen through their conceptualizations of the Council of Fifty, was by placing men of God in powerful positions whose only loyalty was to the Mormon deity and whose sole purpose was to provide benevolent watch-care for humanity—most especially those in minority positions. By placing a premium on the personal character of politicians, rather than the constitutional documents upon which they swore, Mormons believed this allowed government to be progressive and living, just as the Mormon church was with their revelatory leaders, who acted in conjunction with the common consent of their congregations. In a letter writtenafter he had spent some time in Washington D.C., Orson Hyde bemoaned congress as “a chequer [checker] board; the members are players, and are extremely cautious with how they move” (58-59). Because they sought to serve too many “masters”—constituents, political power structures, constitutional documents—they lacked the latitude necessary to do what was necessary. The Council of Fifty minutes, then, helps us tease out more insight into a developing Mormon political theology. Most provocatively, such a critique of constitutional theory places Mormonism squarely in-line with evangelical movements in the nineteenth-century.[3] (And yes, I note the irony of Mormons serving as one of the early proponents of the “living constitution” phrase in American political discourse.)

The second theme that kept coming to mind as I read through these documents was how congruent these actions and words were with their surrounding American culture. At first, this might seem a quizzical statement: Isn’t Mormonism in general, and this Council of Fifty stuff in particular, quite radical when compared to their surrounding culture? Klaus Hansen’s forward, for example, proclaims that the volume helps “in elucidating the radicalism that was pervasive in Nauvoo” [x]. On the one hand, of course “radical” is an appropriate word for what is going on. However, on the other hand, the term might overlook and understate the degree to which the tensions undergirding these actions and beliefs were common during the antebellum period. Seen in a deeply contextual framework, Joseph Smith’s Council of Fifty can be grouped with Sarah Grimké’s feminist impulse and William Lloyd Garrison’s abolitionist activities as examples of American reformers who had lost faith in the American democratic experiment and the United States government’s ability to enssure the rights of minority groups. A host of Americans proposed “radical” alternatives to the antebellum social order, most of which toyed with the line between patriotic and treasonous. Rogers, in his introduction, wrote that the Council of Fifty was perhaps “closer to antiquity than democracy” based on “how unruly the proceedings sometimes became”—but such a description was nearly a prerequisite for American antebellum practice. And while Rogers later wrote that “this volume introduces us to Mormon political aspirations prior to Americanization,” I would argue that the Council of Fifty itself is about as American as most other elements tethered to what has traditionally been called “the American religion.” In short, I hope the availability of these sources, coupled with the original Nauvoo minutebooks soon to be published by the Joseph Smith Papers Project, will help us get over our decontextualized framework of the organization and its activities and ideas.[3]

One of the few issues I had with the way the documents were edited was how late reminiscences were interspersed alongside contemporary accounts, and at times it was difficult to distinguish between the two. (I am speaking primarily of the Nauvoo period in this paragraph.) Of course, it is necessary to engage with later accounts concerning the Council of Fifty, especially given the paucity of written accounts from the years in question, but when these problematic sources are placed side-by-side with contemporary documents, especially without editorial explanation,readers are sometimes predisposed to miss the historical distance between the two. (This is especially the case when the reader has to flip much earlier in the volume to determine the date of the source on the page.) Also, it takes great skill on the part of the historian to contextualize reminiscences and determine what can be trusted and what is too dependent on a faulty memory. Besides noting a sometimes unfortunate reliance on problematic sources like the Manuscript History of the Church, Brigham Young’s History, and the Journal History, I was also hesitant about the insertion of these later sources based on the period they were discussing rather than the period in which they were written. Such a format privileges the notion that these documents explain more about the past than the contemporary context in which they were created.

Allow me to give an example: in the section discussing the Council of Fifty meeting that took place on March 14, 1844, a participant describes the council as “a government of God for the people and by the people” (33). As a historian of American political thought, the hair started to rise on the back of my neck, because this quotation seemed to closely resemble a phrase later spoken by Theodore Parker and then popularized by Abraham Lincoln at the Gettysburg Address: that democracy was “a government of the people, for the people, and by the people.” First, this phrase would predate Parker and Lincoln by two decades; second, it would be a phenomenal source for tracing the contested definition of democracy in an antebellum period of unrest and reform. However, my heart sunk when I saw the source: Benjamin F. Johnson’s autobiography, penned more than five decades later. The postbellum context for Johnson’s document places its potent phrases in a completely different light—Johnson would have known Lincoln’s address by then, so it is more appropriately seen as evidence for how Utah saints appropriated Joseph Smith’s earlier political musings within a new gilded age of America. The document is still an important witness to that tension, but it’s relevance for the Joseph Smith period decreases dramatically. Further, because of the way the sources are presented, the reader has to flip back nearly fifty pages to recognize that the source in question was written a half-century after the period under discussion.

But while such potential problems may cause pitfalls for some readers, skilled historians should be able to easily sidestep this organizational complexity and proceed to get much from the volume. Indeed, I found a host of fascinating documents and ideas contained in The Council of Fifty that I hadn’t known before, and I came away with a lot of new potential research questions that will energize future research. That’s one of the central goals of a documentary history, so by that measure this volume is very much a success. I plan to turn to the book again and again, and Jedediah Rogers should be commended for providing us an immensely useful tool in our continuing quest to understand Mormonism’s fascinating past.

[Two quick notes: first, this review was written based on an advance review copy that was kindly provided by Signature Books; second, we are pleased to have Jedediah Rogers participate in an Author Q&A that will appear on the blog sometime soon, so look out for that.]

__________________________________

[1] D. Michael Quinn, “The Council of Fifty and its Members, 1844 to 1945,” BYU Studies 20 (2): 163-98; Andrew F. Ehat, “It Seemed Like Heaven Began on Earth: Joseph Smith and the Constitution of the Kingdom of God,” BYU Studies 20 (3): 253-79.

[2] Mark Ashurst-McGee, one of the editors of the Joseph Smith Papers Project, once ribbed me for my lack of knowledge concerning document production with this barb: “There are two types of historians: those who understand documents, and those who don’t.” Compared to those trained in documentary editing, I am firmly in the latter category. As a result, I am not in a position to judge The Council of Fifty‘s ability to match documentary editing standards. With that said, save for one point I highlight toward the end of this review, the presentation worked quite well for my purposes.

[3] See John W. Compton, The Evangelical Origins of the Living Constitution (Harvard University Press, 2014).

[4] This emphasis on the exotic nature of the Council of Fifty dates all the way back to Klaus Hansen’s Quest of Empire. And while Marvin Hill’s Quest for Refuge: The Mormon Flight from American Pluralism (Signature, 1989) sought to overturn some crucial interpretations concerning Mormonism’s relationship to the American republic, in many ways the book was merely the reverse side of the same coin in that it maintained a too-rigid boundary between the two cultures and pretended a homogeneity on both sides. I have attempted to address some of these issues in Benjamin E. Park, “Early Mormon Patriarchy and the Paradoxes of Democratic Religiosity in Jacksonian America,” American Nineteenth Century History 14 (2): 1-26.

Article filed under Book and Journal Reviews Historiography


Comments

  1. Thanks for the review, Ben. I look forward to getting my hands on a copy!

    Comment by J Stuart — December 29, 2014 @ 12:26 pm

  2. Thanks, Ben. A great introduction and critique. Looking forward to getting a copy.

    Comment by WVS — December 29, 2014 @ 3:03 pm

  3. Ben: “I hope the availability of these sources, coupled with the original Nauvoo minutebooks soon to be published by the Joseph Smith Papers Project, will help us get over our decontextualized framework of the organization and its activities and ideas.”

    Amen!

    Comment by BHodges — December 29, 2014 @ 4:02 pm

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