The Council of Fifty: What the Records Reveal about Mormon History by Matthew J. Grow
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
I picked this up the last time I was at BYU. I hadn't previously read the council of fifty minutes but this was a good over view to what they contained and what some of the themes seemed to be throughout the minutes. And consequently, I read over some of the minutes as I read my way through this book. The minutes were not made available to the public until 2016 when they were published by the Joseph Smith Papers. Each chapter of this book is an independent essay by different religious or historical scholars that take us through the minutes somewhat chronologically and by topic. While I find some of these authors and/or topics more interesting than others I generally enjoyed each chapter and their unique insights.
The council of fifty was organized not long before Joseph Smith was killed, held meetings during the years in Nauvoo following Joseph's murder, and met occasionally in Utah under Brigham Young and John Taylor. It was comprised of around 50 men (it fluctuates a bit), 3 of whom were not members of the church. The minutes give some great insights into not only the final days of Joseph Smith but also to the years that always seemed to be glossed over in Mormon history between the martyrdom and the arrival of Brigham Young and company in the Salt Lake Valley.
This book begins by giving a little background into the reasons behind the creation of the council of the fifty. Joseph Smith took things very literally at times. He and most of the Saints believed that the second coming was imminent. Joseph believed that in order to bring forth the second coming the kingdom of God needed to be established on earth. While most Mormons now view the kingdom as an eternal institution Joseph and associates thought of it as a physical world government. The saints at the time also felt very let down by their country's government. Some contributing reasons for the creation of this secret group were the protection of the saints and their leaders, writing a new constitution, and campaigning for Joseph Smith's presidential run.
Under Joseph Smith's leadership the council meetings seem to focus around their thoughts about national and local governments, the meaning of the "Kingdom of God", the relationship between church and state, the relationship between the church and the kingdom of god, the injustices they felt they had endured as United States citizens, and Joseph Smith's run for the United States Presidency. Many of these sessions are pretty philosophical in nature with not much concrete work getting done in terms of actually writing a constitution or moving Joseph Smith's campaign ahead. Patrick Mason writes an excellent essay on the term "Theodemocracy". As explained by Joseph Smith that is a government where power is held by God and by the people. Instead of the famous saying "The voice of the people is the voice of God" (thank you west wing!), theodemocracy is based on the idea that "The voice of God shall be the voice of the people" (as asserted by Brigham Young). How much power should be given to "Theos" and how much power to be given to "demos" is a topic of debate amongst the members of the council. With Joseph leaning toward demos and Brigham leaning toward theos.
Using this concept of a theodemocracy the council attempts to write a new constitution for the world. The saints at this time had been heavily persecuted and had also participated in violence themselves. They felt that local government and the federal government had failed to protect them or assert any form of justice in their behalf. Saints at this point had been beaten, raped, killed, stolen from, and driven out of several states. The council realizes that the U.S. constitution has some pretty large holes in it when it comes to minority rights and so they set out to form a constitution that is more inclusive to minorities (with their emphasis being on religious minorities). After Joseph Smith's murder the council's sense of injustice is increased even more and the discussion turns to ideas of justice, revenge, and even punishment for those who contributed to the martyrdom. I found this discussion interesting because the church today has so entwined patriotism with religious ceremony. I think it would be interesting for many members to learn about the true feelings many of the founding members of the LDS church had toward the United States and it's leaders. There are many statements from the minutes quoted in this book about how fallen the country is, ways in which the US constitution fails and needs revising, and more.
One of the authors even talks about a time when the Salt Lake Tribune was writing an article about the pioneers and asked him to supply 3 interesting things that the average church member wouldn't know about the pioneers. One of his facts was that they were pretty dissatisfied with the government and were actually seeking to leave the country when they came to Utah. He wrote that before these minutes were published and said that while he received a lot of hate mail at the time from people who declared that their ancestors loved this country and it's constitution, he has since been vindicated by the evidence as found in these minutes.
This leads us into the next topic that is discussed- moving the saints. Dissatisfied with their treatment under U.S. law they begin to look outside of the country to places like Utah, Alta California, Texas and Mexico. It is discussed somewhat under Joseph Smith and then detailed and decided upon under the guidance of Brigham Young. While California and the coast seemed to be most favored at first and favored by Joseph Smith, Utah is finally decided on. Having been driven out of several places already by "old settlers" they want to find a place where they can be the first settlers. They also want a place that isn't too desirable so that others wont fight them for it. Salt lake seems to meet both these requirements, cuts about 600 miles off of their trip to the coast, and it's also on the trail to California and Oregon so they can get some traffic coming through for trade.
Another theme discussed is that of Mormon and Native American relationships. The early saints believed Native Americans to be Lamanites and they saw it as their responsibility to convert these Lamanites back to the truth of their fathers. They also believed that once the Lamanites were converted and joined up with the Mormons they would help them take back the land and overthrow the government that had oppressed both the Mormons and the Native Americans. There are several campaigns and missionaries sent out from Nauvoo to accomplish this goal. They are for the most part unsuccessful but this idea is another reason pushing them to migrate west and live among the different tribes of Native Americans.
The minutes also cover development and construction both in Nauvoo (completion of the temple and Nauvoo house) and in Salt Lake as they begin to establish their vision of Zion. We see the minutes really change from discussing the philosophies and big pictures of the church to discussing the very tangible and day to day needs of the church.
This document also just gives us a window into some of what happened during that time. We see many brethren leave the church. We get a glimpse into some of the chaos that occurred after Joseph is martyred. We see that there were many people who claimed that Joseph had told them what should happen next and where the saints should go and that it wasn't just peacefully decided that Brigham Young would be the next leader. I was aware of some of the conflicts that arose between the high council and the quorum of the 12 apostles but this also highlighted that many of the members of the fifty thought that the governing power should lie with them.
For me the overall take away was how much some of these men persevered even when the things they thought were going to happen didn't. They thought the second coming was imminent, they thought Joseph Smith would be vindicated, they thought the U.S. would protect them, they thought there would be widespread conversions among the Native American's, they thought the council of the fifty was destined to become the new and greatest government the world had ever seen, they thought the Nauvoo house would be finished and that it would be a place where the dignitaries of the world would come to stay, and even when none of these things came true in the ways they'd hoped they still stayed dedicated to their prophet and religion and to moving the saints out of persecution. The minutes give us a glimpse into the fact that these were men with differing opinions, backgrounds, and ideas. It also shows us the nature of church councils and leadership. We often think that all the early church decisions were made in meetings where God just came down and told the saints exactly what to do. While they did claim to be inspired by God they also made choices by counseling and studying and doing what they thought was best. Sometimes they got things right and sometimes they didn't- much like today. The minutes and this book provide an interesting look at the evolution of thought amongst the Latter Day Saint movement.
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