Review: The Council of Fifty: What the Records Reveal about Mormon History

By September 18, 2017

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.?

Article filed under Miscellaneous


  1. Excellent review, CJP! I look forward to being able to read the new volume.

    Does anyone know how an edited collection ended up with *so few* women involved? Seems like a real oversight.

    Comment by J Stuart — September 18, 2017 @ 12:26 pm

  2. Thanks for the review, Courtney. I picked up a copy yesterday and look forward to reading through.

    Comment by J. Stapley — September 19, 2017 @ 10:26 am

  3. J Stuart, a spoksman for RSC tells me, “No intended exclusion. I learned that female authors were invited but were unavailable in the short 18-month window from the project start to release date.” I do not know who or how many women were invited, or what they were all doing that prevented any of them from contributing 12-15 pages in 18 months.

    Comment by Ardis — September 19, 2017 @ 2:36 pm

  4. Thanks for the insight, Ardis. Hm.

    Comment by J Stuart — September 19, 2017 @ 3:16 pm

  5. Nice work, Courtney!

    Comment by wvs — September 19, 2017 @ 5:33 pm

  6. Thanks for the review of the book!

    J Stuart raises an important question raised about the lack of women in this collection (only one contributor). I thought it might make sense to explain how we put together this collection and then share a few more general thoughts.

    First, I want to correct some misinformation that the RSC representative told Ardis. The book actually didn?t take 12-18 months to write. In fact, it was about this time last year that Eric and I decided to edit this book. We wanted to have it published within a year, which is a very aggressive writing, editing, and publishing standard. We did this because we wanted it published within a year of the actual minutes themselves from the Joseph Smith Papers. (This also influenced our choice of publishers?normally, publishers will take at least a year with an academic book, but the RSC works much more quickly, taking about six months from manuscript submission to publication.)

    So, authors didn?t have 12-18 months to write an article; they had about 2-4 months. We began recruiting authors in September and ended our recruitment of authors in early November. We asked some authors to turn in articles before Christmas and some authors to turn in articles by the end of January. In the course of recruiting participants, we invited several women to submit papers. Some seriously considered the proposal but declined for various reasons. My sense is that because there are more men than women working in the field, women historians perhaps are more taxed with people asking them to do things.

    In addition, we recruited many scholars who had previously published on the Council of Fifty minutes, or who had worked on the minutes for publication with the Joseph Smith Papers. These scholars were mostly men.

    So, we certainly were concerned about the lack of women authors, but in the end moved forward with what we had.

    But the low percentage of women authors reflects more than just the particular dynamics of this book. Indeed, pull off edited collections on Mormon history from your shelves and do a quick calculation. Some books have an admirably high percentage of women authors. Most do not and some are about in the same range as our book. Take, for instance, Civil War Saints: 14 men and 2 women (did J Stuart “hm” before submitting an article to that book?). Or Between Pulpit and Pew: The Supernatural World in Mormon Folklore and Writing (7 men and no women). Or the Oxford Handbook on Mormonism (8 women, 37 men). Or Standing Apart: Mormon Historical Consciousness and the Concept of Apostasy (13 men, 2 women). Those were just a few I had on my shelf.

    So when J Stuart asks with exasperation, How is this possible?, this is obviously a broader question for the field of Mormon history.

    If you scan through the MHA program, look at books and articles published in the field, etc., the disparity between men and women working in the field is clear. For whatever reason, this disparity seems to be particularly true of the Joseph Smith era (I draw this conclusion from looking at articles and books published on that era as well as my experience on hiring committees). It?s a disparity that I hope we will not only lament on blogs, but do what we can to remedy.

    Comment by Matt — September 20, 2017 @ 2:28 pm

  7. “It?s a disparity that I hope we will not only lament on blogs, but do what we can to remedy.” Amen!

    I really appreciate the thoughtful response, Matt.

    Comment by J Stuart — September 20, 2017 @ 2:51 pm

  8. Matt, I also appreciate your thoughtful response here. As you point out, this is not (or not just) an issue of editors’ blindness to gender imbalances, or of female scholars’ busy-ness, or other circumstances unique to this volume; there are also structural issues at play that limit the number of women available and limit the time and energy those women have. There are also implicit biases that keep women from advancing as quickly and easily as men. (And, unfortunately, those biases are reinforced for the reading audience when women are absent or nearly absent from collections like this.) Given your recent experience with this book, what suggestions do you have for remedying the problems that seem to limit women’s participation in the field? (I know there’s no silver bullet–I’m hoping you can describe ideas that you’ve adopted, that you’ve seen work, or that you think might work. I’m also hoping other people will chime in on this.)

    Comment by Quincy D. Newell — September 20, 2017 @ 3:07 pm

  9. Thanks for the clarifications/corrections, Matt. I wish they had been brought up in the earlier discussion on my own review of your book, where I raised the issue and where the RSC rep’s comment was posted, and where Quincy and others contributed to the discussion. That review seems to have gone entirely overlooked in all the social media sharing. [/petulance]

    As one of the two women contributors to Civil War Saints, I can say that I was brought into the project because a friend-of-a-friend-of-a-friend pushed me in. I had not heard of the project until it was nearly complete, and I could not have volunteered myself. In fact, it was late enough that had I not already had a paper (versions of which had been given by invitation in at least four different venues after I first gave it at a conference) thoroughly researched and sourced needing only a rewrite to suit the volume, I could not have contributed. Yet there really was no reason why they shouldn’t have thought of me earlier (did I say I had given that talk multiple times?).

    So maybe part of the solution is a more vigorous search, including pushing the men whose chapters are being solicited to search among their own networks for women to invite. Otherwise, women historians will be forever stuck in the ghetto of writing women’s history in women’s volumes for women readers.

    Comment by Ardis — September 20, 2017 @ 4:00 pm

  10. Quincy and Ardis, thank you for the follow up comments. I had thought of posting a similar clarification to your initial review, Ardis, but the review was very generous and I rarely post on blogs. I hadn’t known until just now that your statement in the review had turned into a conversation in the comments. (And I haven’t been involved in the social media posting, as I don’t do Facebook or Twitter or Instagram or whatever.) And thanks for the insights into Civil War Saints.

    These are fair questions, and obviously a more vigorous search could have been helpful–and it’s a good suggestion, Ardis, to push men contributing to a volume to recommend women in their networks who might contribute.

    For the broader issue, this is obviously an ongoing conversation in the field and I would love to hear the perspectives of others–including J Stuart, Quincy, and Ardis–on potential solutions. The structural and cultural barriers are real. Encouragement and mentoring and recruiting of more women needs to happen at every level.

    Comment by Matt — September 20, 2017 @ 4:29 pm

  11. Hi Ardis, could you post a link to your review? I would love to read it! Thanks.

    Comment by cjp — September 20, 2017 @ 9:44 pm

  12. cjp: It’s here — in reading it, please understand that it was written for a very different audience from JI.

    Comment by Ardis — September 20, 2017 @ 10:14 pm

  13. I found this column by Lindy West in the NY Times (sorry, I don’t know how to embed links–the url is really helpful for thinking about how to approach this problem. (Go read it and then come back. It’s short; I’ll wait. It’s not about Mormon history, of course, but I think it translates pretty easily.) ?So, if you care,? West writes, ?how often do you say something? Maybe you?ll confront your close friends, but what about more powerful men, famous men, cool men, men who could further your career?? Let?s be clear: this problem that Mormon Studies has (and for the purposes of this comment, I?m counting Mormon history as a subset of Mormon Studies) is not just about the inclusion of women, though that is a big and visible and easily quantified part of the problem. It is also about the inclusion of people of color; differently-abled people; queer people; and other marginalized populations. To the degree that we are powerful in this field?by which I mean to the degree that we identify as straight, white, male, and financially secure, the degree to which we benefit from the exclusion of other groups?it is up to us to stick up for those who do not fit those categories. It is up to us to insist on their inclusion, and to pay the cost for that insistence. It is NOT up to marginalized groups to solve the problem.

    Ardis? suggestion of more extensive networking is one step toward greater inclusion, and toward surfacing implicit biases so that they can be challenged and corrected. But it will be difficult to make widespread and lasting change that way, since it depends on good intentions and decent networks, and those things vary from person to person and are really hard to measure. One step that has been effective in other areas (particularly the tech industry) has been the publication of diversity goals and data about how well (or poorly) those goals have been met. This isn?t enough either, but it helps everyone get a handle on the extent of the problem and brings people into conversation about solutions. Not too long ago, Ardis did a study of commenters on her blog (see to see what the gender breakdown was. She was following the example of Petra at Zelophehad?s Daughters (see The JI could follow suit?publish, yearly, a study of how many posts were written by men/women; people of color/white people; etc. Publish numbers on whose work gets featured on the blog?and exclude posts written for Women?s History Month, since those will skew the numbers. Tackle the question of whether the JI only features women?s work that is about ?women?s issues.? (I don?t think it does, but I?d love to see that hunch quantified.) Make diversity and inclusion an ongoing concern by clearly noting the breakdown of contributors to any volume reviewed on the site.

    Push other sites in the bloggernacle to do the same. PUSH OTHER ORGANIZATIONS TO DO THE SAME. I?m proud that the Mormon History Association is trying to become a more diverse and inclusive organization, for example, but we?re not doing enough. (That?s partly why I?m glad this conversation is happening?I?m looking for ideas!) What are the organizations to which you belong doing to make sure that marginalized voices get heard? What are you doing to advocate for diversity and inclusion in your place of employment? What are you doing to increase the numbers of women and people of color in the pipeline so that you?ll have people to hire in five, ten, fifteen, or twenty years?

    As West writes, ?What we could really use, my guys, is some loud, unequivocal backup. And not just in public, when the tide of opinion has already turned and a little ?woke?-ness might benefit you ? but in private, when it can hurt.? Maybe that means, Matt, pulling the plug on a project if you can?t get enough women to participate and not being okay with ?we tried.? Maybe that means saying ?I?d love to do this project, but if you don?t include more women, I?m not going to participate,? or ?I?d love to do this project, but you should really recruit [name of female or minority candidate] instead.? Maybe that means thinking hard about how to make women?s participation possible?do you need to provide research assistants? Do you need to move deadlines? Do you need to pay women (or pay them more) to participate? Maybe it means imposing a cost for not including women?maybe at the MHA, we need to reject any proposed session that doesn?t include at least one woman as a presenter. Maybe we need to require that any slate of board candidates include at least two people of color. Maybe we need to set aside scholarship money for women and/or people of color to attend our conference.

    Matt, what are your suggestions? This time, no fair turning the question back on others, or repeating suggestions others have made. I?d like to know what strategies YOU’VE come up with based on YOUR experiences and observations. And I?d love to hear from others, too.

    Comment by Quincy D. Newell — September 21, 2017 @ 11:06 am

  14. Quincy, thank you for responding. I hadn?t known you responded until yesterday, as I had heard that much of the conversation migrated from Juvenile Instructor to Facebook and I didn?t check back after that. I appreciate the thoughtful reply. I did my reading assignment, as you suggested. I agree that we need to speak up in private and in public for gender equality. I recently read a book that you might consider reading as you look for ideas: Iris Bohnet, What Works: Gender Equality by Design. It?s a data-driven discussion about how to structure various things in the workplace (from hiring to promoting to mentoring to creating visible role models) to overcome unconscious gender bias. There?s lots of great, practical suggestions in that book. I think some of it would be applicable to MHA and other organizations that you might be able to influence.

    I would like to understand how this issue has changed in the past five years, the past ten years, the past twenty years. By the visible markers in the field?papers presented at MHA, articles published in JMH and other Mormon Studies journals, individuals who have positions at universities or public history institutions, individuals who are graduate students?are we making progress? If so, how much? Since Quincy is handing out research assignments to Juvenile Instructor, I?ll suggest the same as well. Of course, some of that data is difficult to obtain, but some of it would be easy to find. My own sense is that the field has made and is making important strides to greater inclusion, representation, and opportunity.

    Of course, change happens slowly at times and there are various institutional, structural, and cultural factors at play. In general, I am reluctant to participate in blogs because I don?t want people to think I am speaking for the institution that employs me. But I will share some thoughts here. I can say that I have engaged in many vigorous and lengthy and insightful conversations with people I work with about what we can do to address the issue of potential gender bias in our field.

    I am very interested in the question of how to increase the number of women who earn graduate degrees in history. I think a key element here is often internship opportunities so that individuals (both women and men) can get experience in the field, gain a sense if this is what they want to do with their life, and get connections, mentoring, increased knowledge, perhaps an opportunity to publish, etc. At my place of employment, we?ve been fortunate to hire many qualified interns and to see many (several women and several men) go onto PhD programs across the U.S. and Canada in the past several years. That?s something that we will continue. I get a sense that there are more female graduate students studying Mormon history than we?ve seen in the past. I think that this trend will continue to shape the field, and that we should encourage it by providing internships and other entry-level positions.

    I am also interested in questions of hiring, including how to increase the depth and diversity of hiring pools and how to ensure that the hiring process itself is fair and doesn?t suffer from unconscious gender bias. My own impression is that there are more qualified women candidates with master?s degrees than there are qualified women candidates with PhDs. For those of us at institutions with a public history emphasis, we need to ask what jobs require a PhD and what jobs can be done well with a master?s degree (and, in some case, with a bachelor?s degree or no degree). We also need to think creatively about more flexible work arrangements, such as job-sharing, working from another city or state, etc., as these arrangements could increase the percentage of women who work in our field.

    A related, but separate, issue is what our field needs to do to continue to highlight the experiences of women in the Mormon past. We need to do that not only in books on women?s history?such as First Fifty Years of Relief Society and At the Pulpit?but with all historical topics. That?s more challenging, for instance, with the Joseph Smith Papers as the vast majority of documents were written by men and mostly discuss the experiences of male leaders, missionaries, etc. But we are making strides even there. And in other histories we?re working on, both for a scholarly audience and for a popular audience, we?re striving to include many more voices and experiences of women than in the past.

    I do have some quibbles with what you suggest, Quincy. Your comments about JI seem to suggest that women working on women?s history is perhaps not as good as women working on other scholarly topics (or at least doesn?t seem to count as much). Simply excluding the numbers from Women?s History Month seems that it would skew the numbers as well. Let?s get the full picture. I think the quota system you recommend?no panels at MHA without women participants?is counterproductive. I?ve heard some women comment that they?re invited to participate on panels that they?re not interested in or qualified for, simply to fill this sort of requirement. I would be more interested in MHA scholarships for participation and attendance.

    Thanks again for the thoughtful suggestions. Perhaps this needs to expand into an MHA panel or series of panels.

    Comment by Matt — October 6, 2017 @ 12:52 pm

  15. Matt, thanks for the book suggestion?I?ll check it out. I agree that it would be really helpful to know how things have changed over time, and I would love to see a panel (or a series of panels) on these questions at MHA. I don?t have time to take that on, but if someone wants to do it, I?ll be an enthusiastic audience member!

    I am NOT suggesting that women?s work on women?s history is less important or less valuable. Women?s history is an area (probably the only area) of Mormon history where we do not struggle to include women?s voices. My concern is all the other areas of Mormon history, where women are not getting included. As Ardis asked in her review of the book, “do women have nothing to say that isn?t directly tied to women?s history?” Obviously the answer is that women DO have things to say about topics other than women’s history–but the perception is that, as one commenter on her blog post put it, “There does seem to be a sort of self-imposed ghetto.” As long as women’s voices are only heard when they’re talking about women’s history, this problem is not fixed. So, okay, if anyone takes up the challenge to quantify things at the JI, sure?include all the numbers. But keep track and see if the numbers for posts on women?s history and ?women?s issues? are significantly different from posts on other topics. If they are, I would say we still have a problem (even if the overall numbers look good).

    Comment by Quincy D. Newell — October 13, 2017 @ 4:06 pm


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