The Council of Fifty as it was formed and operated in Nauvoo, Ill., in 1844 “wrestled with the meaning of the kingdom of God and anticipated the fulfillment of millennial prophecies,” according to the latest book to be released in the Joseph Smith Papers, publishing in full the council minutes from March 1844 to January 1846.
The introduction to the new volume states that council members “expressed their vision of the ideals that should guide earthly governments and constitutions, including the necessity of protecting religious minorities in a pluralistic society, and that they believed would characterize the government of the Millennium.”
“In addition, the minutes show that the council operated as a key decision-making body helping to plan for Joseph Smith’s campaign for the [U.S.] presidency, seek other Latter-day Saint sites of settlement, and organize the exodus from Nauvoo.”
In anticipation of the Sept. 26 release date for the new volume — marking the first time in history that the minutes will be viewable by the public — its five editors each shared insights in a Sept. 19 discussion with several interested Internet bloggers, who either attended the event in person at the Church History Library in Salt Lake City or joined the discussion live from other locales via Skype.
One of the volume editors, Mark Ashurst-McGee, noted that William Clayton was appointed clerk for the Council of Fifty and took very good minutes. Brother Ashurst McGee said that the council was a secret deliberative body, and the recorded minutes were confidential. Thus, before the Prophet Joseph Smith was martyred, he instructed the clerk to burn, bury or hide the minutes. Brother Clayton accordingly buried them in his garden.
Later, he unearthed the minutes and made clean, or “fair,” copies of them in three bound volumes. These bound books comprise the official record of the council and are currently on display in the lobby of the Church History Library through Oct. 7.
Most of the loose-page copies made by Brother Clayton have not survived: Only the ones from two of the meetings remain, and these were among artifact documents displayed for the bloggers attending the event.
Ronald K. Esplin, another volume editor, said the minutes provide an additional record “of a period that we knew quite a bit about, but sometimes we knew it at the periphery, and this gets us to the center of what’s going on in terms of discussion and decision making.”
Brother Esplin said it is good to have Joseph Smith’s instructions “about his view of the Constitution, of government and protection of minority rights,” and the minute record “is a rich addition to the Joseph Smith literature on those topics. It’s got some of the best statements that have ever been recorded about Joseph Smith’s thoughts on those things, even though they were a centerpiece of his presidential campaign and were certainly known to the people at the time.”
The minute record, he said, helps put the campaign in context of the prophesied millennial reign of Christ, suggesting that by some miraculous will of God, Joseph might prevail in the presidential election; if not, the council would provide a backup plan, finding a location outside the boundaries of the United States where the Latter-day Saints could live and where the rights of all men and women would be protected.
Brother Esplin said the minutes underscore the continuity in leadership from Joseph Smith to Brigham Young. “That’s in part, I think, because it was in the Council of Fifty that Joseph Smith gave his famous last charge to the Twelve. We had hoped the minutes would document this a little more directly. They don’t, but the topic comes up a year later, when Orson Hyde presents his own summary of what occurred in March of 1844.”
Volume editor Jeffrey Mahas spoke of the business the council took up under the leadership of Brigham Young after the martyrdom of Joseph Smith. This, he said was “perhaps the darkest moment in Church history” and, in addition to the murders of Joseph and Hyrum Smith, included the formation of schisms in the Church and the repeal of the city charter of Nauvoo by the Illinois legislature in response to anti-Mormon sentiment.
“In light of this, in the spring of 1845, much of the frustration or disagreement that Joseph Smith and the council members had voiced during 1844 turns to anger and despair, when you see the members of the council giving up hope that the United States can help them in any way,” he remarked.
Carrying the message to the Indian nations and enlisting them as allies, preparing for westward migration, and dealing with the repeal of the city charter, including the temporary formation of an extra-legal police force called the “Whittling and Whistling Brigade,” occupied much of the attention of the council during this period, he said. So did resumption of work on the Nauvoo House and the Nauvoo Temple.
Volume editor Gerrit J. Dirkmaat said the minutes provide a heretofore unknown account of the martyrdom of Joseph Smith.
In the minutes, Brother Clayton records his understanding of what took place pertaining to the martyrdom. Part of it comes from William Daniels, a non-Mormon at the time who witnessed the murders. An embellished version by Lyman Littlefied of the Daniels account was later published but subsequently discredited.
The version of the martyrdom events in the minutes might provide a means of sorting out what Daniels actually said from what was published in the embellished version, he said.
Brother Dirkmaat noted that the minutes deal with the possibility of the Latter-day Saints establishing a homeland in the Republic of Texas, which had not yet been annexed to the United States. “The movement focuses so much in 1845 on getting outside the boundaries of the United States, where they feel they can finally be free.”
Volume editor Matthew J. Grow said the minutes reveal the personalities of some of the men involved.
For example, in the first meeting, the council members were congratulating themselves on being of one mind. In response, Joseph Smith directed them to speak their minds and say what was in their hearts whether good or bad, exclaiming that he did not want to be “forever surrounded by a set of dough heads."
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