This review was written by Courtney Jensen Peacock, a PhD student in American Studies at Heidelberg University.
Book Review: Grow, Matthew and R. Eric Smith, eds. The Council of Fifty: What the Records Reveal about Mormon History. Religious Studies Center, BYU, Provo, UT: 2017.
The release of the Council of Fifty minutes by The Joseph Smith Papers project last year (Administrative Records: Council of Fifty, Minutes, March 1844–January 1846) is a fantastic example of the exciting new developments currently occurring in Mormon studies, as more sources are becoming available for the first time to both scholars and the public. The release of new primary sources is always cause for celebration, but the fact that the Council of Fifty minutes cover the late Nauvoo period make them especially valuable. Scholars working on the Nauvoo period have always struggled with a shortage of available contemporary sources, which has hindered a full understanding of this crucial time in the development of Mormonism’s distinct theology and culture. The publishing of the Council of Fifty minutes, along with other sources recently released by The Joseph Smith Papers or published elsewhere, has and will contribute to important and innovative analyses of the Nauvoo period and nineteenth-century Mormonism.[i]
The recently published volume, The Council of Fifty: What the Records Reveal about Mormon History, demonstrates why the release of the minutes themselves matter. Fifteen different essays by scholars specializing in Mormon history address the question: “How do the Council of Fifty minutes change our understanding of Mormon history?” (xiii). Despite the original emphasis on confidentiality among members, general information about the Council of Fifty has long been known and discussed.[ii] While the minutes themselves do not seem to contain any radically surprising or as W. Paul Reeve puts it “salacious” material, they do “provide further texture and depth to our understanding of early Mormon politics, history and theology” (Mason, 33). The Council discussed a wide range of topics, such as Joseph Smith’s presidential campaign, Mormon views on heavenly and earthly government, attitudes toward the United States, the building of the Nauvoo temple and Nauvoo House, proselyting to American Indians, and preparations for settlement in the west. As the volume’s contributors stress, reading the specific contents of the minutes enables us to experience the desperation, anger, disillusionment as well as the faith and hope which drove the actions of the council’s members (who did not know how events would play out) during this extremely tumultuous time in Mormon history.
The Council of Fifty: What the Records Reveal About Mormon History is published by the BYU Religious Studies Center and Deseret Book and is meant for a broad audience of members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. Thus, each essay is relatively short and written in a style that is accessible to both specialists and those with a general interest in Mormon history who may not have read the minutes themselves. What makes the volume particularly helpful is the way in which the volume contributors analyze the Council of Fifty in relation to, not only its specific Mormon environment, but also the broader American and international historical context. Some essays focus specifically on how the Council of Fifty minutes deepen understanding of Mormon history and leaders. Richard Bushman, Spencer McBride, and W. Paul Reeve each discuss how the minutes impact interpretations of the separatist impulses and contingency planning of Nauvoo Mormons. Significant new insights into Mormon-Indian relations are provided by Jeffrey Mahas’ overview of Mormon plans to convert and unite with American Indians as Mormons moved west. R. Eric Smith’s unique essay that examines the Council of Fifty minutes from the standpoint of a documentary editor is an important reminder for those studying Mormon history to critically evaluate the purpose and process of a records’ creation in addition to its content.
One of the reoccurring themes of the volume is the diversity of opinions among the members of the Council of Fifty. Despite upholding first Joseph Smith and then Brigham Young as their leader, the individual members of the Council passionately expressed distinct views. This led to “robust debates and discussion among council members” (Grow and Bradford, 111). As particularly demonstrated in the chapters by Christopher Blythe and Benjamin Park (as well as in their works published elsewhere), a recognition of this diversity of personal opinions and interpretations provides important insights into the developments and schisms both before and after Smith’s death. Furthermore, Matthew Grow and Marilyn Bradford outline how the minutes reveal into Young’s distinct leadership style.
A number of chapters also demonstrate the recent trend within academic scholarship that uses Mormonism as a lens to analyze a broader set of issues and themes. For example, Benjamin Park and Nathan Oman each demonstrate how the Council of Fifty was one manifestation of the dynamic political environment in 19th-century North America; the councils’ deliberations over “constitutionalism, democratic governance, and the relationship between church and state” reveal how Mormons both appropriated and rejected elements of antebellum American culture (Park, 44). In another vein, Patrick Mason compellingly suggests reading the Council of Fifty and Smith’s distinct concept of “theodemocracy” alongside other protest movements disillusioned with the United States government.
Given the volume’s emphasis on contextualizing the Council of Fifty, it was surprising that little mention is made of other institutions introduced by Smith during the last years of his life. While the Council of Fifty seems to have originally been organized as a civil body designed to protect the political and temporal interests of the church, there was, as the essays illustrate, vibrant debate among members over the ideal relationship between church and state, with the Council functioning differently under Brigham Young than Joseph Smith. In order to analyze the role of the Council of Fifty, it would have been helpful to examine it in conjunction with the “Anointed Quorum” (established in 1842 and meeting concurrently with the Council of Fifty throughout the late Nauvoo period with many overlapping male members) as well as other Mormon ecclesiastical bodies.[iii] The presence of women in the “Anointed Quorum”and their exclusion from the Council of Fifty, for example, raise interesting questions regarding Mormon leaders’ views on gender roles and how those related to tensions within the broader culture, in which women were increasingly involved in “public” moral and spiritual activities while remaining barred from the formal political realm. Additionally, the Council of Fifty’s oath of secrecy and members’ confirmation of Joseph Smith as a “prophet, priest and king” indicate that the Council shared similarities with other initiatory ritual systems being practiced in Nauvoo, including the newly expanded temple ordinances and Freemasonry.
Overall, this volume exemplifies the value of the Council of Fifty minutes for those seeking to learn more about Mormon and American history. There are often calls for scholars of Mormonism to focus more attention on 20th- and 21st-century topics, something that would certainly be worthwhile. Yet, this book demonstrates the continued value of scholars revisiting and revising narratives of 19th-century Mormonism in light of newly revealed sources.
[i] Just two examples of recent works that have benefited from previously unavailable sources include Laura Ulrich’s House Full of Females and Jonathan Stapley’s forthcoming The Power of Godliness: Mormon liturgy and cosmology.
[ii] Previous scholarship includes Klaus J. Hansen, Quest for Empire, the Political Kingdom of God and the Council of Fifty in Mormon History (East Lansing,Michigan State University Press, 1967); D. Michael Quinn, “The Council of Fifty and Its Members, 1844-1945,” BYU Studies 20, no. 2 (Winter 1980): 163-97); Andrew F. Ehat, “’It Seems Like Heaven Began on Earth:’ Joseph Smith and the Constitution of the Kingdom of God,” BYU Studies 20, no. 3 (Spring 1980): 253-280; and Jedediah S. Rogers, ed., The Council of Fifty: A Documentary History (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 2014).
[iii] This body was at times also called the “Holy Order,” “Quorum of the Anointed,” “First Quorum,” “The Priesthood,” “Holy Order of the Priesthood,” or “Holy Order of the Holy Priesthood.”