SAN ANTONIO — Exploring Mormonism’s past while confronting a future in which the faith becomes increasingly diverse in culture, race and nationality occupied much of the discourse in the 40 sessions at the 49th annual conference of the Mormon History Association that convened in San Antonio Thursday and ends Sunday.
A major highlight of the non-denominational gathering of scholars and enthusiasts was a Friday presentation by members of the history department of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints giving a glimpse into the Nauvoo-era minutes of the Council of Fifty. The council minutes are in a record that has been shrouded in mystery and has been a topic of speculation because it has remained unavailable for scholarly study until last September, when it was announced the 1840s record would be published as part of the Joseph Smith Papers Project.
“Sometimes we think that everything in Mormonism has come top down; we know that’s not the case,” said this year’s association president, Richard E. Bennett, Friday morning as he introduced the conference theme, “The Immigration of Cosmopolitan Thought” across borders and cultures in Mormonism.
“So much in our history has come because of the connection with, or the combination of, or the confrontation with other people’s thoughts and other feelings and other sentiments,” said Bennett, a professor of LDS church history and doctrine at Brigham Young University.
Plenary session speaker Ignacio M. Garcia, a BYU history professor, reflected that thought as he shared his experience as a Latino Mormon growing up in a west-side barrio of San Antonio struggling to reconcile his religious faith with his ethnic and racial identity.
“In the San Antonio 4th Ward, I learned that we were all children of God, and while the world made exceptions, he did not,” Garcia said.
Such understanding was important, he said, because it made him value his life and the lives of those around him “in a landscape where we had little to make us proud.”
“It was also a way of fortifying us against the conflicts inherent in America’s race-conscious landscape that intruded even into the kingdom of God.”
The relationship between his faith and his ethnic identity was complicated, he said, by the socio-economic factors.
“We felt we knew the gospel, and we could point to our lessons and our private conversations to bolster our views,” he said, “but in the church public arena, the scriptures and the prophets often failed us because our white brothers were the gatekeepers of their meaning and always found in them ways to affirm their views — or so we felt back then. In the scheme of things back then in the church, we were simply ‘los Lamanitas’ (descendants of the Lamanites in the Book of Mormon), humble people who listened, obeyed, paid what they could and always followed. We were the symbol of something important, a grand fulfillment of distant prophecy, but we were not equal citizens of the kingdom, because we had no history.”
Speaking from a non-Mormon scholarly perspective, Saturday morning speaker Jehu J. Hanciles of the Candler School of Theology at Emery University called the church “a movement that takes its worldwide presence very seriously.”
“But friends, Mormonism remains a predominately American phenomenon,” he added. “The LDS Church lags behind virtually every other major branch of Christianity in the area of inculturation.”
Giving Africa as an example, he said Christianity is growing there faster than anywhere else, now accounting for 24 percent of the world’s Christian population. “Mormonism in its recent history grew spontaneously on the African continent,” he observed. “Yet the growth of Mormonism in Africa has been quite modest, and compared to other traditions, disappointing.”
The main reason for this is the church’s lack of accommodation to African cultures and worship styles, he said.
Calling for more cultural inclusiveness, and alluding to Moses’ statement in the Bible, “Would that all God’s people were prophets,” Hanciles concluded, “In a church where members speak approximately 170 different languages as their first language, only God knows the number of his prophets.”
In the conference’s Thursday night opening session, Henry Cisneros, former San Antonio mayor and former U.S. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, welcomed attendees.
“I have great respect for the church, for its legacy here in San Antonio,” Cisneros said. “I live in Colonia Mexicana, the traditional Hispanic neighborhood. I live in my grandparents’ old home. And it’s not unusual to see two young men with black pants and white shirts riding bicycles through our neighborhood on their missions.”
He said the church’s San Antonio Texas Temple is about four blocks from his house, and he spoke of its positive influence on the neighborhood, where residents work hard to keep their own property in good shape because of the presence of the temple.
“When I meet people who are converts to Mormonism in our community, I know they have committed to solid values, and it’s good for their families, and they’re going to make an impact in the community and work harder than most.”
Cisneros gave a capsule history of Texas, a topic that was the focus of a subsequent speaker at the session, Michael Van Wagenen, author of “The Texas Republic and the Mormon Kingdom of God.”
Mormons, he said, made their first overtures to Texas during the transitional period after Texans fought off control by the Mexican government following the legendary battle of the Alamo and Texas had become an independent republic under the leadership of its own congress and the presidency of Sam Houston.
The Council of Fifty, a group established in Nauvoo by Joseph Smith, whose followers had endured oppression in the United States, explored the possibility of negotiating with Houston for part of the land claimed by Texas, where it was hoped the church could establish a theocratic republic.
Van Wagenen said church emissary Lucien Woodworth entered into negotiations with Houston, who hoped a Mormon presence would create a buffer nation between Texas and Mexico. But the church leaders subsequently abandoned the plan, and the annexation of Texas by the United States followed.
During the church's leadership succession crisis after the murder of Joseph Smith, apostle Lyman Wight split from the main body of the church and led his own group to Texas, where it founded settlements on the frontier.
Richard E. Turley Jr., LDS assistant church historian and recorder, and two of his colleagues from the Church History Department, Matthew J. Grow and Ronald K. Esplin, whetted scholars’ appetites about the Council of Fifty minutes, soon to be published as part of the Joseph Smith Papers Project.
Turley defined the Council of Fifty as a deliberative body of the church formed in Nauvoo, Illinois, in 1844 that provided a pattern of political government, the nucleus or focus of God’s latter-day kingdom. The council was later revived in Utah, but in the Joseph Smith Papers Project, only the Nauvoo-era minutes will be published, as footnote material in upcoming volumes and eventually in one self-contained volume.
Grow explained that the immediate impetus for organizing the Council of Fifty was the receipt by church leaders of two letters on March 10, 1844, from two church missionaries, George Miller and Lyman Wight, in the Wisconsin territory, where they were procuring lumber to build the temple in Nauvoo.
“Miller and Wight proposed that the mill be sold and the missionaries be sent to Texas to select a place of gathering for all of (the church members in) the South,” Grow explained.
That led to discussions about the church looking for a place where it could establish a theocracy, be it in Texas, Oregon or California. The discussions resulted in the formation of the Council of Fifty.
“By the last time Joseph Smith met with the council, in May 1844, (just prior to his assassination in June), 54 men had been admitted” into the council, Grow said, including three non-Mormons.
Esplin acknowledged that, because the minute record has long been unavailable for study, much speculation has surrounded it, some of which will not hold up in the light of the record itself. Contrary to some conjecture, the minutes contain no hidden doctrine or sermons.
In summary, Esplin said the value of the minute record “is not an opening of vistas unknown, but it has significant value in providing a fuller context that we didn’t understand, providing helpful details for this initiative or that policy, allowing us to better understand the reason for some policy decisions, allowing us to share in some of the discussion that went into those decisions, preserving additional teachings and statements of Joseph Smith and Brigham Young about government-related topics.”
The records “will offer new insights along with gems here and there expanding on familiar topics,” Esplin said.
Near the end of the session, a question was posed as to why the minutes have not been made available for study until now, as they seem rather innocuous.
“I think the best answer is tradition,” Turley responded. “I think over the course of time, people kind of lose understanding about the significance of things, and when they lose that understanding, there is a sense of uncertainty that surrounds it. When there is a sense of uncertainty, people can be very conservative about how they handle it.”
The minutes are coming forth now, Turley said, because of the coincidence of several factors that have “demystified” them. These factors include the launching of the Joseph Smith Papers Project, the financial resources for the project provided by the Gail and Larry Miller family and the recruitment of many bright people with knowledge and expertise “to do the kind of high quality work we are doing,” he said.