Administrative Records, Council of Fifty, Minutes, March 1844–January 1846

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The first and only volume of the Administrative Records series, published in 2016, contains the minutes of Council of Fifty meetings held in Nauvoo, Illinois, from March 1844 through January 1846. Joseph Smith formed the council in part to explore possible Mormon settlement sites west of the boundaries of the United States. Members of the council saw its formation as the beginning of the literal kingdom of God on earth and anticipated that the council would “govern men in civil matters.” After Joseph Smith was murdered in June 1844, council meetings resumed under Brigham Young and continued until just before the Mormon exodus from western Illinois in early 1846. The minutes, recorded meticulously in three small books by council clerk William Clayton, have never previously been available for research. ISBN-13: 978-1-62972-242-9

Volume Editors

Matthew J. Grow, Ronald K. Esplin, Mark Ashurst-McGee, and Jeffrey D. Mahas are historians for the Church History Department, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Gerrit J. Dirkmaat is an assistant professor of religion at Brigham Young University.

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Maps Exploring Possible Latter-day Saint Settlement Sites

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About This Volume

On 11 March 1844 in Nauvoo, Illinois, Joseph Smith organized a council that he and his closest associates saw as the beginning of the government of the literal kingdom of God on earth. The council, known both as the Council of the Kingdom of God and the Council of Fifty (it had roughly fifty members), operated under Smith’s leadership until his murder less than four months later. Following Smith’s death, the council met in Nauvoo under Brigham Young’s leadership from February 1845 to January 1846. The minutes of the council’s meetings, kept primarily by William Clayton, have never been publicly available. This volume of The Joseph Smith Papers publishes them for the first time.

Participants saw the council as distinct from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and anticipated that the council would “govern men in civil matters.” According to Joseph Smith, the council “was designed to be got up for the safety and salvation of the saints by protecting them in their religious rights and worship.” Nevertheless, because Smith and Young were leaders of both the church and the council, ecclesiastical concerns were frequently reflected in the council’s discussions.

The minutes reveal much about early Mormon thought on earthly and heavenly governments as council members wrestled with what it meant to establish the kingdom of God on earth and how that kingdom related to the church and to existing civil governments. Though council members generally used the term “theocracy” to describe the ideal form of government for the kingdom of God, their model also incorporated democratic elements. They believed that a “theodemocratic” government would protect the rights of all citizens, promote free discussion, involve Latter-day Saints and others, and increase righteousness in preparation for the second coming of Jesus Christ.

At the practical level, the Council of Fifty was a significant decision-making body. For instance, the council helped manage Joseph Smith’s 1844 presidential campaign. The council also provided a forum for making decisions about matters in Nauvoo, including construction of the Nauvoo temple and how to protect and govern the city after the state of Illinois repealed the Nauvoo municipal charter in January 1845. In addition, the council played a major role in exploring possible settlement sites—which included sending a delegate to the Republic of Texas and sending emissaries to various American Indian tribes—and in planning the migration of the Latter-day Saints to the American West.

The minutes capture the principles, protocols, and activities of the Council of Fifty as it was formed and operated in Nauvoo. While many of the actions taken by the council have been known through other documents, the minutes chronicle the deliberations that led to these decisions, providing an unparalleled view of decision making at the center of what participants viewed as the nascent kingdom of God on earth. The minutes of the Council of Fifty thus shed new light on the development of Latter-day Saint beliefs and on the history of Nauvoo and the church during this critical era, while also providing new perspectives on American religious history, political culture, and western migration in the nineteenth century.

Reviews

“This volume of The Joseph Smith Papers is far from sensational and that is what makes it such an important contribution. This volume discloses the minutes from the long-mysterious Council of Fifty over which Joseph Smith Jr., Mormonism’s founder, presided. This council was administered with ‘the purpose of laying the foundation for a theocracy in preparation for the millennial reign of Jesus Christ’ (xx). This ‘literal kingdom’ was separate—somewhat—from the church, or perhaps more accurately, it seems to have viewed itself that way. To this point, the volume points to Smith himself, who clarified, ‘The literal kingdom of God [that is, the Council of Fifty], and the church of God are two distinct things’ as ‘the laws of the kingdom are not designed to affect our salvation hereafter’ (xxiii). In short, the Council of Fifty saw itself as the earthly theocratic government, anointed by deity, and given stewardship over His chosen people.”

—Taylor Kirby, “Administrative Records, Council of Fifty, Minutes, March 1844–January 1846,” Reading Religion, A Publication of the American Academy of Religion, 7 July 2017, http://readingreligion.org/books/joseph-smith-papers

“This volume is unique in that the minutes were both unpublished and ardently desired. Thus, Administrative Records, vol. 1, will likely have wide appeal, reaching those who have not followed the JSP project nor purchased any volumes previously. . . . The addition of a substantial new primary source after so much ground has been repeatedly plowed, is an event worthy of the attention and expectation this volume has and will receive. . . . The publication of the minutes will likely serve as a particularly potent catalyst spurring further secondary treatments better equipped than before to assess the development of Mormonism.”

—Bryan Buchanan, Review of Council of Fifty Minutes, March 1844–January 1846, in Dawning of a Brighter Day (Association for Mormon Letters Blog), http://associationmormonletters.org/blog/reviews/current-reviews/grow-et-al-the-joseph-smith-papers-administrative-records-council-of-fifty-minutes-march-1844-january-1846-reviewed-by-bryan-buchanan/.

“The publication of the Council of Fifty minutes is a momentous occasion in modern studies of Mormon history. The minutes are invaluable in helping historians understand the last days of Joseph Smith and his project to establish the Kingdom of God on earth. They offer an important glimpse into the religious and political mindset of early Latter-day Saint leaders and shed much light on events once obscured by lack of access to the minutes. The Joseph Smith Papers Project has outdone itself in its presentation of the minutes in the latest volume of the series. The minutes are essential reading for anyone interested in early Mormon history.”

—Stephen O. Smoot, “The Council of Fifty and Its Minutes: A Review,” Interpreter: A Journal of Mormon Scripture 23 (2017): 45–52.

Administrative Records: Volume 1 stands as the only publicly accessible collection of the Nauvoo minutes, assembled by one of the most qualified documentary editing teams available. As with all Joseph Smith Papers volumes, A1 is expertly crafted. The transcriptions, annotations, and introductions are impeccable and informative. This volume, by nature, placed Mormonism into its historical and political context within the United States to a greater extent than have the other thirteen JSP volumes thus far, giving us a glimpse not only into Mormonism’s past but also the political landscape of the United States during the mid-nineteenth century. In my estimation, Administrative Records: Volume 1 . . . may be the most important JSP volume to date, not only for its content but for the leap in institutional transparency that it represents.”

—Brian Whitney, “Council of Fifty Minutes: Anti-American Sentiment, Theocratic Aspirations, and Institutional Transparency,” Worlds Without End (blog), 21 Sept. 2016, http://www.withoutend.org/2016/09/

Advance Acclaim 

Council of Fifty, Minutes, March 1844-January 1846, the latest addition to the monumental Joseph Smith Papers Project, opens a wide window onto a previously shrouded, but extraordinarily revealing, part of Mormon leadership and life during what were arguably the most turbulent and treacherous months of the church’s history. Students of these pivotal events will be forever grateful for the insights and understanding they will find in these pages.”

—Elliott West, University of Arkansas

“The publication of the Council of Fifty minutes as the first volume of the Administrative Records series in the Joseph Smith Papers can only be described as a triumph. The new volume is sure to be celebrated for its annotation and editing, another excellent addition to the papers project. But the minutes are also a triumph of the new transparency policy of the Church History Department. Over the years, the council minutes attained almost legendary status, as a trove of dark secrets sequestered in the recesses of the First Presidency’s vault. Now the minutes are to be published for all to examine.”

—Richard L. Bushman, Gouverneur Morris Professor Emeritus of History, Columbia University

“The Council of Fifty minutes are a treasure trove to anyone wanting to understand the last days of Joseph Smith, the martyrdom [of Joseph Smith], the last twenty months in Nauvoo, the revocation of the Nauvoo charter, the plans for exodus, and the apostates and renegades who inflicted so much damage upon the Saints. . . . They add a fabulous richness to our understanding. . . . The work of the editors places every matter of importance into excellent Mormon, American, and international historical context. . . . This is a splendid work. The importance of these Council of Fifty minutes is reflected and enshrined in the fine work of editing this band of scholars has put into them.”

—Richard E. Bennett, Professor of Church History and Doctrine, Brigham Young University

“What I found in the Council of Fifty minutes was in fact 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. I felt the depth of council members’ despair over a continued inability to find judicial, executive, or legislative justice for the wrongs they had endured, including the murder of their leaders Hyrum and Joseph Smith. I was reminded of Alexis de Tocqueville’s assessment of one of the inherent weaknesses he found in American democracy, something he called the tyranny of the majority. The Council of Fifty minutes made that real to me in a way that academic histories of Mormonism have not been able to do.”

—W. Paul Reeve, Religion of a Different Color: Race and the Mormon Struggle for Whiteness