Book Review: John S. Dinger, The Nauvoo City and High Council Minutes

By November 20, 2012

Dinger, John S. ed. The Nauvoo City and High Council Minutes. Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 2011. lxxxi + 616 pp. Appendixes, index. Hardback with dust jacket: $49.95; ISBN 978-1-56085-214-8.

In his preface to this volume, John S. Dinger claims, “The minutes collected in this volume are a treasure trove of material reading to the religious and secular life of the early Latter-day Saints,” and that “these two sets of documents are, I believe, two of the most important primary sources for the period” (xvi). I agree, and thus take privilege in reviewing the volume. Nauvoo is an absolutely fascinating period of Mormon history, filled with contention, innovation, conflict, dissent, and intrigue. All of these tensions come out in these important documents, as well as the mundane events that transpired in day-to-day activities.

Though the two councils in question, the City Council and High Council, were two separate bodies, they had significant overlap. Both were made up of Mormon authorities, both looked to Joseph Smith for leadership, and both seemed to merge the church/state realms that America prided itself on keeping separate (though never, in actuality, succeeded). What took place in one council likely had significance to the other, and decisions from both bodies demonstrated the LDS Church’s performance of power during the waning years of Joseph Smith’s life. What we witness in these meetings are men attempting to run the Kingdom of God on earth–no small task to take place in disestablished America. Religious sermons are offered in secular council, secular decisions are made in religious courts. Perhaps more than anything else, this collection demonstrates the permeable boundaries of church and state in Mormon Nauvoo.

As it is difficult to offer a traditional review of a documentary volume–especially where there is no thesis, driving narrative, or even major themes–I will mostly focus on two events depicted in the book, and show what these minutes tell us. And since the succession story is currently one of my points of research, I have chosen two occasions that have immediate implications for my study: the debate over the Nauvoo Expositor, and the excommunication trial of Sidney Rigdon. Fortunately, these events are documented in separate councils–the former in the City Council, the latter in the High Council–and thus they offer a helpful overview of both sources.

The destruction of the Nauvoo Expositor has always been a point of controversy in Mormon history. As the event to Joseph Smith being imprisoned and eventually killed, as well as an event that demonstrated the extent of power, both religious and secular, Joseph Smith held in Nauvoo, it has received much attention in historiography. The Nauvoo City High Council Minutes reveals much of the inside information concerning the decision to declare the Expositor a “nuissance.” The topic was first brought up in the June 10th council meeting, where they discussed “An Ordinance concerning libels and for other purposes” (256). Hyrum Smith and John Taylor immediately declared it to be slander, and Joseph Smith himself jumped to his own defense in relation to his friendship with William Law, one of the main individuals behind the Expositor. They read from both state and national constitutions regarding the freedom of press, and decided that while “we are willing they should publish the truth–but the paper is a nuisance–and stinks in the nose of every honest man” (257). Hyrum then moved that “the best way [would be] to smash the press all to pieces and pie the type” (258). Though there was some opposition to such a rash action from Benjamin Warrington, the council moved forward and destroyed the press.

While the basic points of this narrative have long been known, the minutes provide acute insight into the feeling behind the decision. Hyrum Smith’s passion is predomantly displayed in his desire to defend his brother’s (and his) reputation. Phineas Richards brought up the memory of his son dying at Haun’s Mill–an element in the Mormon memory that played a poignant role in their actions toward dissent and external persecution–and even stated that this was a “day of immense Moment, not to this city alone but to the whole world” (261). Other invocations of their charter’s rights, of state law’s precedents, even of America’s legacy of the Tea Party were present, demonstrating the attitude of the assembly. While perhaps not justifying the council’s actions, these minutes certainly reconstruct the mentality behind one of Mormonism’s most notorious events. Indeed, their “Ordinance Concerning Libels” is a poignant read demonstrating their pesecution history and concomitant defensive mentality (263-266).

Fast forward several months. After the destruction of the Expositor, the imprisonment and death of Joseph Smith, and the return of the Quorum of the Twelve to take control of the Church, there was a contentious trial over Sidney Rigdon’s authority claims.[1] This was one of the most important meetings in the Church’s young history, and set a precedent that we still follow today. Rigdon had been Smith’s counselor long before Smith’s death, and now attempted to assume control based on that position. While a meeting a month earlier had helped to solidify Brigham Young and the Twelve’s position, this trial was significant in determining the basis of that succession. “I will say now that those who are for Bro[ther] Joseph & Hyrum, the book of Mormon & doctrien and covenants & building up of the temple,” Brigham trumpeted, “are for the Twelve [and] this will be considered one party & those that are for Sidney Rigdon [-] I want them to be just as honest as what they are in their secret Combinations” (506).

What is fascinating here, and which I have written about earlier this year, is how these very debates shaped how Joseph Smith’s theological legacy was to be remembered. Prior to his martyrdom, Orson Hyde explained, “Joseph carried us through all the ordinances of the house of God[,] now says he (Joseph) [“]Upon your shouldsers [(]the Twelve[)] the burden of this church rests & you must turn round up your shoulders to the same” (511). From this point on, the temple ordiances, previously a privately controlled concept known only to a select few, became the dominant theme for the debates surrounding succession. While a polished version of these minutes were published in the Times and Seasons, their publication here should help expand our discussion of how the succession story played out.

These two cases, and many more, are presented with helpful detail in Dinger’s Nauvoo City and High Council Minutes. As such, the volume has obvious importance to scholars of Mormon Nauvoo.


[Note: I acknowledge that I am avoiding a massive elephant in the room: the debate over this volume’s documentary editing value. This avoidance is by design. For those interested, I will just refer to Robin Jensen’s review in Journal of Mormon History (here), the numerous letters and Robin’s response in the following issue of JMH (here), and Signature Books’ overview on their website (here).]

[1] It should be noted that this trial was likely, though not definitively, called by the Twelve, as it was recorded in the Church’s General Minutes, not the High Council Minutes. Thus, the relevancy for being included in this volume is somewhat peripheral, though the importance (both in and of it self, as well as representative of the shift of power away from the High Council toward the Twelve) is obvious. It might have been useful, however, to note more clearly that this was likely not a session of the High Council.


Article filed under Book and Journal Reviews Categories of Periodization: Origins Succession Crisis


  1. Thanks for this, Ben.

    Comment by David G. — November 20, 2012 @ 3:41 pm

  2. Thanks for fleshing out two important moments in such an interesting and insightful way. It’s good to be reminded that history is made up of so many, many “minute” details.

    Comment by Hunter — November 20, 2012 @ 5:13 pm

  3. Note: thanks to a tip from Tom Kimball, I edited the post to reflect that while William Law was one of the individuals behind The Expositor, he wasn’t the editor.

    Comment by Ben P — November 20, 2012 @ 5:15 pm

  4. Thanks for the review, Ben.

    Comment by Christopher — November 20, 2012 @ 10:06 pm

  5. Thanks Ben! I’ve forgotten whether Rigdon was initiated into the Annointed Quorum. How much did that play into the debate about continuing authority?

    Comment by Tod Robbins — November 21, 2012 @ 10:51 am

  6. Tod,

    Rigdon was a member of the annointed Quorum and it was discussed at his trial. At the trial, Orson Hyde stated:

    “Now if Bro[ther] Rigdon had got a revelation from his God that he was designated to be the President or guardian of this people[,] I think he would not have been in such a great hurry as to get the business over[,] for it was his desire & intention to get the matters all over & settled before the Twelve came[,] for if these men came here he was sure he would not accomplish his designs. Again there is a quorum here in this place that can test all the revelations before they can go forth to the public according to the order of our beloved Bro[ther] Joseph.”

    In the published minutes of the meeting in the Times and Seasons it is made clear he is talking about the Annointed Quorum:

    “There is a way by which all revelations purporting to be from God through any man can be tested. Brother Joseph gave us the plan[.] Says he, when all the quorums are assembled and organized in order, let the revelation be presented to the quorums[.] If it pass one[,] let it go to another, and if it pass that, to another, and so on until it has passed all the quorums; and if it pass the whole without running against a snag, you may know it is of God. But if it runs against a snag, then says he, it wants enquiring into: you must see to it. It is known to some who are present that there is a quorum organized where revelation can be tested. Brother Joseph said, let no revelation go to the people until it has been tested [t]here (Times and Seasons, Sept. 15, 1844, 649-50).”

    Others talk about the “Quorum” as well.

    By the way, this section from the book is on Signature Books’ website:

    Comment by JDinger — November 21, 2012 @ 12:07 pm

  7. Rigdon had been initiated into the quorum, but he hadn’t received all the rituals in the liturgy.

    Comment by J. Stapley — November 21, 2012 @ 5:37 pm

  8. I have been asked why the minutes of the September 8th, 1844 trial of Sidney Rigdon are included in The Nauvoo High Council and City Council Minutes. This question usually is asked because they are not contained in ?High council minutes, 1839 October-1845 October? or LR 3102 22 in the Church History Library.

    They are included with the High Council minutes, because this was a meeting of the High Council. Just because they are recorded in the Historian?s Office General Church Minutes (CR 100 318) do not mean they are not from the High Council. In fact, looking at the documents themselves show that this is a meeting of the High Council, with the Twelve present and acting as witnesses.

    First, in the first set of minutes from CR 100 318, those in folder 26, the record shows that members of the twelve were ?present,? while the High Council was ?organized? by appointing someone at the head and even having absent members replaced, so a quorum was present and business could be conducted.

    Also, in the printed version of the Trial, in the Times and Seasons, ?their was a call for the question,? and at that point President Young ?submitted the case to Bishop Whitney and the High Council.? Whitney was appointed to be head of the High Council at the beginning of the meeting. If the Twelve apostles were in charge of the meeting and it was not a High Council meeting, there would be no need to submit the question to the High Council.

    Finally, the twelve did not vote on whether Rigdon should be ?cut off.? While Phelps made the motion, the record states ?It has now passed the high council unanimously.? (See folder 28 or page 523-24 in my volume.) It was the High Council who cut off Rigdon, not the Twelve Apostles, and thus, this is a High Council meeting, though not recorded in their minute book.

    I hope this clears up some confusion as to my decision to include it in the High Council minutes.

    Comment by JDinger — November 28, 2012 @ 3:15 pm

  9. John–Great job on the Nauvoo book and congratulations on the awards it has received. I carved out some time this past month to read it through (in part as a detox distraction from the election as well as the underperformance of BYU?s football team) and have been immensely impressed. I was most interested in your thoughtful and thorough footnotes, especially those which explained 19th century legal theory and practice. These areas were illuminating and valuable to understanding the legal context of what was happening. I also enjoyed the quantity and quality of the biographical vignettes all throughout the book.

    One aspect of the High Council notes that took me by surprise was large the number of city ordinances discussed and passed relating to dogs and pigs. These were both interesting and humorous. For large section of the minutes, it seemed like animal ordinances were considered over and over. I have no expertise in the history of city ordinances/laws, and I wonder if similar animal statues were as common for cities during this time period (or maybe I missed a footnote explaining this).

    I?m not as interested in early Mormonism as I am later time periods, there?s just something about the relative serenity of the Smoot hearings that entraps me. But I could not refrain from reading your book, as well as your previous essay published in the JMH on Habeas Corpus. Fantastic work. Maybe you?re thinking about an essay relating to the experience of animals in Nauvoo?

    Comment by Mike Paulos — December 1, 2012 @ 12:14 am

  10. […] Reviewed by Ben Park for the Juvenile Instructor […]

    Pingback by Signature Books » review – The Nauvoo City and High Council Minutes — December 11, 2012 @ 4:18 pm


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