Joseph Smith’s Administrative Records

Joseph Smith’s youthful quest for personal redemption and religious truth resulted, according to his accounts, in a series of revelatory experiences that thrust him into leadership of a new religious movement. The fourteen years from the organization of the church in 1830 to Smith’s death in 1844 were turbulent times for its adherents, fraught with violent external opposition and major episodes of internal dissension. Yet a remarkably resilient core of people and practices developed and flourished. Outside observers were sometimes surprised at what they saw as the church’s cohesiveness.
Key to understanding Joseph Smith’s leadership and his governance of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is an extensive array of records created for administrative purposes that constitute the Administrative Records series of The Joseph Smith Papers. Although record keeping was sometimes inconsistent and incomplete, especially in the early years of the church’s existence, Smith and other church leaders persisted in their attempts to create and preserve records. These efforts undoubtedly contributed to the growth, survival, and vitality of the church.
The administrative records are a complicated and sometimes confusing body of materials, reflecting both the complexity of the church’s organizational structure as it developed over Joseph Smith’s administration and the difficult circumstances under which the record keepers labored. The series includes records of the organizations in which Joseph Smith was involved as an administrator, records that were housed in his office, and records of meetings and initiatives in which he played a large part, such as church conferences and his 1844 presidential campaign. Among the records are books of certificates and licenses that he signed or that were signed by others on his behalf and kept under his direction.
All of these records will be available on the Joseph Smith Papers website,, and some of the records will be published in print. In addition to the administrative records most closely associated with Joseph Smith, the website provides records of organizations in which Smith had some involvement, including minutes of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles (organized in 1835), the Nauvoo high council (1839), and the Female Relief Society of Nauvoo (1842). Excerpts from many of the administrative records—including correspondence, minutes of meetings, and financial documents—will appear, with annotation, in the Documents series of The Joseph Smith Papers.
A Joseph Smith revelation dating from the formal organization of the church in April 1830 mandated that the church keep records. Church leaders began creating and retaining administrative records almost immediately and continued this effort throughout Smith’s lifetime and beyond. The bulk of the Smith-era records were created from 1839 to 1844, when church headquarters were in , Illinois. Fewer records survive from , , and (each of which was the center of church activity for a time) in part because of the forced evacuation of church members from some of these locations. The creation of additional administrative bodies in Nauvoo provides another reason that more records exist for the church’s sojourn there.
The surviving administrative records can be grouped into various categories, each with its own history of clerks and scribes.
Minutes of Conferences and Councils
The foundational “Articles and Covenants” of the church directed that “church business” be conducted in meetings of the church’s elders. Beginning in June 1830, such meetings, called conferences, were to convene every three months. Additional meetings were held as necessary. was appointed to create minutes for the first conference and to “keep the Church record and Conference Minutes until the next conference.” After Cowdery wrote minutes for the second conference on 26 September 1830, custody of the records was delegated to . Cowdery left soon afterward on a mission to the western frontier of the . , David’s brother, apparently retained custody of the minutes, both the loose-leaf minutes that had been recorded up to that time and the records of succeeding meetings written by himself and other clerks through late 1837. These records reflect the movement of church operations from to in 1831 and the establishment of a second gathering place in in 1831. John Whitmer relocated to Missouri in January 1832 and seems to have copied minutes of meetings into a bound volume beginning sometime between 1833 and 1835. Most of the meetings for which Whitmer copied or kept minutes took place in , , and counties, Missouri.
Neither the original minutes nor the bound volume that apparently prepared is extant. However, sometime between April and June 1838, and copied the minutes from Whitmer’s record into another bound volume. Minutes taken by Robinson from 3 March 1838 through 16 January 1839 and minutes of two June 1844 meetings held in were subsequently copied into the volume. The Joseph Smith Papers feature this record book online under the title Minute Book 2.
After left in November 1831 with the minutes entrusted to him, clerks began another set of minutes of meetings held in , Ohio, recording them in loose-leaf format. then copied these minutes into a bound volume, beginning in December 1832. Subsequently, Kirtland minutes from 1833 through 1837 were copied into the volume as they became available. This record book is available online as Minute Book 1, so designated because it was physically created first, though its initial set of minutes are for meetings that occurred later than the first meetings recorded in Minute Book 2.
The contents of Minute Books 1 and 2 reflect the development of the church’s hierarchy and the expansion of its administrative structure. In the church’s initial years, Joseph Smith and led the organization as first elder and second elder, respectively. However, they also consulted on church business with conferences of elders, which authorized Smith, Cowdery, and others to carry out responsibilities assigned by the conferences. For example, at the church’s first conference of elders, on 9 June 1830, five elders, three priests, and two teachers were granted licenses to function in those ecclesiastical offices. At the second conference, on 26 September 1830, Smith “was appointd by the voice of the Conference to receive and write Revelations & Commandments” for the church. Beginning in March 1832, by which time Joseph Smith was “President of the High Priesthood” and and were his “councillers,” the term “council” was introduced into the minutes of meetings, and it seems to have sometimes been used interchangeably with the term “conference” in 1832.
High Council Minutes
Seeking to replicate what he understood to be “the order of heaven in ancient Councils,” Joseph Smith organized a standing “high council” at in February 1834. He revised the minutes of the initial meeting of the high council, which outlined the council’s responsibilities and procedures, to serve as a “constitution” for the organization. The presidency of the high priesthood, led by Smith, also constituted the presidency of this high council. The council was “appointed by revelation” to deal with “important difficulties” that could not be resolved by other bodies, and its minutes became a major component of Minute Book 1. In July 1834 Smith organized a high council for in , Missouri, patterned after the Kirtland high council, with , , and as its presidency. The records for this organization were included in Minute Book 2. Joseph Smith is a prominent figure in this record, as he presided over and attended conferences and councils when he visited in 1831, 1832, 1834, and 1837, and after he moved to in March 1838.
There is no extant set of minutes for either the presidency of the high council in —which was also the presidency of the church—or the presidency of the high council in . The lack of such records seems to underscore the intention that the “business” of the church—which included disciplining church members, discussing financial matters, and assigning church members to preach and proselytize—was to be conducted in the meetings of the councils over which these presidencies presided. In 1835 and early 1836, while the Missouri presidency was in Kirtland awaiting a promised endowment of power in the , the Missouri and Kirtland presidencies sometimes combined to constitute their own kind of high council, a council of presidents. Copies of minutes of some of their meetings were recorded in Minute Book 1. Other administrative interaction among members of the presidencies may simply not have been recorded except for occasional mentions in journals and correspondence.
Minutes of General Church Conferences
In addition to meetings of specific councils, the church held a more broadly inclusive category of meetings called “conferences”—meetings stemming from the directive to have the elders meet on a regular basis to conduct church business. These involved relatively less deliberation and more ratification of church authorities and policy decisions. They also served as a platform for the leaders to share their thoughts. Some of the conferences extended over two or more days. While some were simply called conferences, others were given the title “general conference.” The Church Historian’s Office General Minutes collection includes loose-leaf minutes of more than a dozen such meetings from April 1839 to 1844. Because Joseph Smith played a key role in these meetings, these minutes, along with a few comparable minutes from the Joseph Smith Collection in the Church History Library, will be included in the Administrative Records series.
Sometime in or around December 1832, Joseph Smith and his clerical associates began copying outgoing correspondence into a bound volume before sending the letters. Additionally, they copied into this letterbook six items of ’s correspondence originating in 1829 and 1831. This volume, which includes copies of letters dated through 4 August 1835, is found on the Joseph Smith Papers website as Joseph Smith Letterbook 1. A second letterbook was begun in 1839. Clerks copied into Letterbook 2 a wide variety of letters and documents from as early as 27 June 1829. They also copied contemporaneous outgoing letters from 1839 to 1843. In , clerks filed originals of incoming correspondence as well, resulting in the preservation of numerous letters received by Joseph Smith.
Civil and Military Records
Joseph Smith’s administrative responsibilities multiplied in , and the creation of new organizations there led to a significant increase in the number of administrative records. In 1841 Joseph Smith helped to incorporate Nauvoo and to obtain a city charter from the state legislature. This signified his formal involvement in civil government in a way that he had not experienced before. In February 1841 he was elected to serve as one of nine councilors on the Nauvoo City Council, and he played a major role in the adoption of ordinances and resolutions for city governance. Smith was elected vice mayor pro tem on 22 January 1842, and when Mayor resigned, Smith was elected mayor by the city council on 19 May 1842. He thus became the custodian of the corporate records of Nauvoo, which were maintained in his office. These records, including those of the city council over which he presided as mayor and those of the Nauvoo Municipal Court, will constitute a major online component of the Administrative Records series of The Joseph Smith Papers.
Joseph Smith also was the commanding officer in ’s militia unit, the Nauvoo Legion, which was ultimately responsible to the governor of . Smith was commissioned lieutenant general—a rank that was unique among militia officers in the —by Illinois governor on 5 February 1841. Smith’s involvement with the militia was largely ceremonial because his second-in-command, a major general, oversaw its operations. The records generated by the Nauvoo Legion constitute a significant part of Smith’s administrative records and will be made available online.
Council of Fifty
The final organization created under Joseph Smith’s direction was the Council of Fifty, a group chaired by Smith with the purpose of laying the foundation for a theocracy in preparation for the millennial reign of Jesus Christ. This “literal kingdom of God” would “govern men in civil matters,” making it distinct from the church. More proximate concerns of the council were to locate a new site for Latter-day Saint settlement, to promote Joseph Smith’s 1844 campaign for the presidency of the , and to cultivate relations with American Indians. The council’s ambitious agenda included an attempt to produce a constitution that would improve upon the Constitution of the United States. After weeks of discussion and preliminary drafting, those assigned to create the new document found the task too daunting. They thus turned to Smith in hopes that revelation would solve the problem. Instead of producing a static written document, the ensuing revelation informed the council that they themselves were God’s constitution and his “spokesmen” and they were to “do as [God] shall command you.”
The last meeting of the Council of Fifty under Joseph Smith’s leadership was held on 31 May 1844, less than a month before he and his brother were murdered in , Illinois. , the president of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, did not reconvene the council until 4 February 1845, by which time identifying a new home for the Saints was becoming more urgent. Determined to carry out the “measures of Joseph,” the council helped plan for the relocation of the Latter-day Saints and coordinate preparations for their removal to the Great Basin in what was then , a part of . The present volume includes the three manuscript volumes of minutes of the Council of Fifty that date from its inception in March 1844 through 13 January 1846, as well as a few additional contemporaneous records of this council that were kept separately.
More than two dozen clerks, secretaries, and recorders created the records that are part of the Administrative Records series. , for example, copied letters and other documents into Joseph Smith’s first letterbook and served as clerk to the high council. recorded and copied minutes and correspondence. was general church clerk and city recorder. copied letters into Joseph Smith’s second letterbook. Three men from the British Isles played key roles: , from , was clerk for the Council of Fifty and kept other records; , from Ireland, served as Nauvoo city recorder, general church clerk, and secretary of the Nauvoo Legion; and , from England, worked with the records of the Nauvoo City Council and courts.
The removal of church headquarters to new locations, worrisome and sometimes violent confrontations with neighbors, internal dissent, and major turnover in the church’s leadership threatened the church’s stability and continuity. In the face of such challenges, the systematic creation, preservation, and use of administrative records helped preserve an element of institutional memory while also maintaining some continuity in the church that Joseph Smith led. In combination with Smith’s revelations, translations, and historical records, the administrative records laid a foundation of precedents, procedures, and policies upon which to build and rebuild.
  1. 1

    From the church’s founding until May 1834, it was called the Church of Christ. In May 1834 the name of the church was changed to the Church of the Latter Day Saints. In 1838 a revelation changed the name to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. (Articles and Covenants, ca. Apr. 1830 [D&C 20:1]; Minutes, 3 May 1834; Revelation, 26 Apr. 1838 [D&C 115:4].)  

  2. 2

    Revelation, 6 Apr. 1830 [D&C 21:1].  

  3. 3

    Articles and Covenants, ca. Apr. 1830 [D&C 20:61–62]. This early version of the articles did not specify how often the elders should meet, but later versions called for the “business” to be transacted at conferences held “once in three Month[s].” (Revelation Book 1, p. 56; Articles and Covenants, ca. Apr. 1830, in Revelations Collection, CHL; Hyde and Smith, Notebook, [8] [D&C 20:61–62].)  

    Revelations Collection, 1831–ca. 1844, 1847, 1861, ca. 1876. CHL. MS 4583.

    Hyde, Orson, and Samuel Smith. Notebook of Revelations and Missionary Memoranda, ca. Oct. 1831–ca. Jan. 1832. Revelations Collection, 1831–ca. 1844, 1847, 1861, ca. 1876. CHL. MS 4583, box 1, fd. 2.

  4. 4

    Minutes, 9 June 1830.  

  5. 5

    Minutes, 26 Sept. 1830.  

  6. 6

    See Source Note for Minute Book 2.  

  7. 7

    Source Note for Minute Book 2.  

  8. 8

    Source Note for Minute Book 1.  

  9. 9

    Minutes, 9 June 1830.  

  10. 10

    Minutes, 26 Sept. 1830.  

  11. 11

    “History of Orson Pratt,” 12, Historian’s Office, Histories of the Twelve, 1856–1858, 1861, CHL; Note, 8 Mar. 1832; Minutes, 26–27 Apr. 1832.  

    Historian’s Office. Histories of the Twelve, 1856–1858, 1861. CHL. CR 100 93.

  12. 12

    Minutes, 17 Feb. 1834. A November 1831 revelation authorized the president of the high priesthood to periodically call twelve high priests to assist him in handling “the most important business of the church & the most difficult cases of the church.” (Revelation, 11 Nov. 1831–B [D&C 107:78–79].)  

  13. 13

    Minutes, 17 Feb. 1834; Revised Minutes, 18–19 Feb. 1834 [D&C 102].  

  14. 14

    Revised Minutes, 18–19 Feb. 1834 [D&C 102:2].  

  15. 15

    Minutes, 3 July 1834.  

  16. 16

    See Minutes, 14 July 1835; Minute Book 1, 19 Aug. 1835; and Minutes, 14 and 16 Sept. 1835.  

  17. 17

    Articles and Covenants, ca. Apr. 1830 [D&C 20:61–62]. These meetings should not be confused with the missionary term “conference,” which referred to a geographical area of several branches. (See, for example, Record of the Twelve, 22–23 May 1835; 17–19 July 1835; 7 Aug. 1835; JS History, vol. B-1, 780; JS History, vol. C-1, 1131–1132; and Reuben Hedlock, Liverpool, England, to JS et al., Nauvoo, IL, 10–21 Jan. 1844, JS Collection, CHL.)  

  18. 18

    This first letterbook was a volume that was originally used to record a six-page draft of a history of Joseph Smith’s early life. (Source Note for Letterbook 1.)  

  19. 19

    Oaths of Office, 3 Feb. 1841, Nauvoo, IL, JS Collection, CHL; Nauvoo City Council Minute Book, Feb. 1841–Feb. 1845.  

  20. 20

    JS, Journal, 22 Jan. and 19 May 1842.  

  21. 21

    Commission, Thomas Carlin to JS, 10 Mar. 1841, JS Collection, CHL.  

  22. 22

    John C. Bennett served as major general until 30 June 1842; he was succeeded in August 1842 by Wilson Law. (“Nauvoo Legion Officers.”)  

  23. 23

    Council of Fifty, “Record,” 18 Apr. 1844.  

  24. 24

    Council of Fifty, “Record,” 25 Apr. 1844.  

  25. 25

    Council of Fifty, “Record,” 4 Feb. 1845.  

  26. 26

    Jessee, “Writing of Joseph Smith’s History,” 439–473; Minute Book 2, 31 July–1 Aug. 1834; Biography of Thomas Bullock, 27th Quorum, vol. 1, p. 14, Seventies Quorum Records, CHL.  

    Jessee, Dean C. “The Writing of Joseph Smith’s History.” BYU Studies 11 (Summer 1971): 439–473.

    Seventies Quorum Records, 1844–1975. CHL. CR 499.