Friend of the blog Kurt Manwaring has published an interview with the historians Matt Grow and Eric Smith about their work on the Council of Fifty minutes. The interview in its entirety can be found here; selected snippets are published below. Enjoy, then hop on over to read all ten questions!
Kurt Manwaring: What was the Council of Fifty and why is it important — both for Mormons and a general audience?
Eric Smith: Joseph Smith formed the Council of Fifty in March 1844. It met frequently until a few weeks before his death in June of that year. Brigham Young revived the council in early 1845, and the last council meeting in Nauvoo was held in January 1846, just a short time before the first wagons rolled out on the westward journey.
The council, composed of about fifty men (hence the name), was essentially designed as a political body that would protect the Church and allow it to flourish.
Many of the men had Church leadership positions, but the council was not an ecclesiastical body and did not replace or do the work of ecclesiastical bodies such as the priesthood quorums.
At the practical level, the council had probably three main accomplishments: it helped manage Joseph Smith’s campaign for U.S. president; it provided a type of government in Nauvoo after the Nauvoo city charter was revoked by the Illinois legislature in early 1845; and it played a major role in exploring possible settlement sites and in planning the Church’s migration to the West.
As far as the importance of the minutes, Paul Reeve gets at this nicely in his essay in our collection:
“What I found [in reading the minutes] was engaging and even sometimes riveting. It was as if I had a front-row seat as I watched the tragic unraveling of the Mormon community at Nauvoo. The time period covered in the minutes is significant. The two years from 1844 to 1846 seem so crucial, yet they fall between the cracks in terms of how historians have typically told the Mormon story.”
Matt and I cowrote a short article summarizing the history and importance of the Council of Fifty for the Church’s website: https://history.lds.org/
Kurt Manwaring: Have you come across any common misperceptions about the Council of Fifty, either personally or in your professional work?
Matt Grow: Since the moment in spring 1844 when rumors started to circulate that Joseph Smith had created the Council of Fifty, misperceptions have abounded.
Many of these misperceptions revolved around the purpose of the council. Joseph Smith and other Latter-day Saint leaders talked about establishing the kingdom of God and creating a theocracy.
The other members of the Council of Fifty received Joseph Smith, using biblical language, as prophet, priest, and king. However, inaccurate rumors circulated that Joseph had crowned himself king of the world.
Because the minutes of the meetings of the Council of Fifty were not available until published in the Joseph Smith Papers in 2016, the mystique of the Council of Fifty continued until recently.
The minutes became a sort of holy grail of early Mormon records.
What would they reveal about Joseph Smith and the Mormons’ ambitions and theocratic plans?
As is generally the case, the mystique and the rumors were overblown. Fortunately, of course, anyone can now read the minutes of the Council of Fifty themselves.
Kurt Manwaring: The minutes have an interesting spectrum of awareness. Some members of the Church have no idea what the minutes are and others think the minutes are even more remarkable than recent pictures of one of Joseph Smith’s seer stones. Would you talk about the mysterious reputation the minutes had before their release — and perhaps even now more than a year after they have been published?
Eric Smith: Those who are a bit older will remember about thirty years ago when journalist Geraldo Rivera opened, on live television, a secret vault owned by crime lord Al Capone.
The event was much publicized and anticipated. I remember seeing the TV advertisements leading up to the event and wondering if there would be old skeletons or piles of jewels cached away.
Well, when the vault was opened it contained only debris.
The situation with the minutes is perhaps a bit analogous in terms of grand expectations not being met, except that the minutes truly are invaluable to understanding an important period in Mormon history.
In the case of the minutes, since they were not available for research and since it was known that council members themselves had held their discussions in confidence, people were naturally left to speculate about what was in the minutes.
At the same time, from other records (such as journals of council members), careful scholars had been able to learn a great deal about the council’s activities and purposes even without the minutes and in general had more temperate expectations of what the minutes would contain.
In his essay in our collection, Richard Bushman reflected a bit on this theme:
“When I was finishing up Rough Stone Rolling, my associate Jed Woodworth once asked if I could rest easy with my accounting of Joseph Smith’s life without having examined the Council of Fifty minutes.
At the time, I brushed aside his concern, feeling we knew enough about Nauvoo already.
Now [after reading the minutes] I am not so sure.
The minutes do shed light on questions about the last days of Nauvoo that could not be answered before. None of the topics the council addressed are completely new. They all grew out of ongoing issues in the Church’s history: protecting the Church from mobs, dealing with Indians, preparing for westward migration, establishing the kingdom of God in the last days.
But the minutes reveal how desperate and angry the leaders were and how far they were willing to go.”