SALT LAKE CITY — It's a record that has been speculated about for decades. Now it's accessible to anyone who wants to read it.
The newest volume of the Joseph Smith Papers series, "Administrative Records: Council of Fifty, Minutes, March 1844-January 1846," a record that offers a candid view of how early leaders of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints handled temporal affairs, is being released by Church Historian's Press Monday, Sept. 26.
Joseph Smith organized the Council of Fifty a few months before his death. It consisted mostly of prominent church members and was to be the beginning of a political kingdom of God on earth. These minutes are the records of that organization and cover the period of church history between Joseph's martyrdom and when the Latter-day Saints arrive in the Salt Lake Valley, said Matthew J. Grow, director of publications with the LDS Church History Department and a general editor of the Joseph Smith Papers.
"This provides a really rich and detailed history of an era of church history that we don't often think a lot about," Grow said.
William Clayton served as clerk for the Council of Fifty and kept the minutes, which he later neatly copied into three small bound volumes. The minutes came to the Salt Lake Valley with Brigham Young and were kept by the First Presidency until transferred to the Church History Department in 2010, Grow said.
Grow, along with volume editors Ronald K. Esplin, Mark Ashurst-McGee, Gerrit J. Dirkmaat, Jeffrey D. Mahas and many others, have been preparing the Council of Fifty minutes for the last several years.
"This is an important record that wasn't available. For decades, Mormon historians have speculated about the contents of the minutes and whether they might ever be released," Ashurst-McGee said. "When it happened, for me, and I think a lot of other Mormon historians, it was a dream come true. It was very fulfilling to read through the minutes and see how rich they are with great information. Anyone who seriously cares about the history of Nauvoo will readily be able to tell how valuable this record is. It's not just getting access to this sensational record that no one else has ever seen, it’s the quality of the content."
Along with the easy-to-read transcript of the minutes, the thick, 700-plus page book has images, maps and a wealth of helpful footnotes, annotations and other reference material, including biographical information and photos of members of the Council of Fifty.
"There might be a perception that this is a difficult book to read, and I may get more excited about it than the average person, but these minutes flow. They are in complete sentences, thoughts, and they are debating interesting issues," Grow said. "Of course, it's intended to be a reference book, but I think it could also be read cover-to-cover and people would learn a tremendous amount about this moment in church history."
Richard L. Bushman, Gouverneur Morris Professor Emeritus of History at Columbia University, described the publication of the minutes as a "triumph" as it once again demonstrates the LDS Church's commitment to transparency in regards to its history.
"The new volume is sure to be celebrated for its annotation and editing, another excellent addition to the papers project," Bushman wrote. "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."
The Council of Fifty
Formally organized on March 11, 1844, the council accomplished three primary objectives. First, it helped to manage Joseph Smith's 1844 presidential campaign.
Second, with growing opposition and persecution, the council discussed practical solutions for matters in Nauvoo, such as the construction of the Nauvoo Temple and how to protect the Mormons when the Nauvoo city charter was revoked by the state of Illinois in 1845.
Third, the council explored the idea of moving the Mormons to Texas, Oregon and upper California before it was ultimately decided they would migrate to the Rocky Mountains and the Salt Lake Valley, Grow said.
Because of the persecution church members had suffered, religious liberty was a major concern for Joseph Smith and the council. They wanted to set up a "theo-democratic" government that would protect the rights of all citizens, encourage free discussion, involve Latter-day Saints and others, and increase righteousness in preparation for the second coming of Jesus Christ, the historians said.
"They felt the government had failed to protect them," Ashurst-McGee said. "They believed the main point of this kingdom of God on earth would be to protect the religious freedoms of all people."
The Council of Fifty meetings became a standard for how all councils should function. Joseph Smith encouraged each member to speak candidly, to be open to all options, and that decisions should be unanimous. He is recorded in the minutes as saying he "wanted all the brethren to speak their minds on this subject and to say what was in their hearts whether good or bad. He did not want to be forever surrounded by a set of 'dough heads.'"
"So on the front end, Joseph is encouraging open-minded, outspoken deliberation and also insisting on unanimous resolution at the end of the process," Ashurst-McGee said. "We have both of those aspects coming together in the council. But reaching unity and unanimity with a group of 50 outspoken men might be difficult."
Speeches and statements
The minutes provide many speechs and statements from Joseph Smith and other church leaders that haven't been previously published.
For example, on May 3, 1844, the Prophet told the council, "We should never indulge our appetites to injure our influence, or wound the feelings of friends, or cause the spirit of the Lord to leave us. There is no excuse for any man to drink and get drunk in the church of Christ, or gratify any appetite, or lust, contrary to the principles of righteousness."
On another occasion, Amasa Lyman, a counselor in the First Presidency, stated: "The object we have in view is not to save a man alone or a nation, but to call down the power of God and let all be blessed, protected, saved and made happy — burst of the chains of oppression. This is a kingdom worth having."
Brigham Young shared this lesson about how church leaders receive revelation according to their understanding: "There has not yet been a perfect revelation given, because we cannot understand it, yet we receive a little here and a little there. (I) should not be stumbled if the prophet should translate the Bible 40,000 times over and yet it should be different in some places every time because when God speaks, he always speaks according to the capacity of the people."
Young also believed God would yet to reveal many things to church members.
"When God sees that his people have enlarged upon what he has given us he will give us more."
One of the most powerful statements in the entire record, Grow said, came from Joseph Smith on the topic of religious liberty.
"I will appeal to every man in this council beginning at the youngest that when he arrives to the years of Hoary age he will have to say that the principles of intolerance and bigotry never had a place in this kingdom, nor in my breast, and that he is even then ready to die rather than yield to such things. Nothing can reclaim the human mind from its ignorance, bigotry, superstition but those grand and sublime principles of equal rights and universal freedom to all men. When I have used every means in my power to exalt a man’s mind, and have taught him righteous principles to no effect — he is still inclined in his darkness, yet the same principles of liberty and charity would ever be manifested by me as though he embraced it. Hence in all governments or political transactions a man’s religious opinions should never be called in question. A man should be judged by the law independent of religious prejudice."
The minutes also provide interesting insight into the personalities of such men as Young, W.W. Phelps, Parley P. Pratt, Willard Richards, Porter Rockwell and others as they discussed different issues in the council meetings, Grow and Ashurst-McGee said.
"You do get a sense of who these men were, what their priorities were, how they interacted with each other," Grow said. "It’s really interesting."11 comments on this story
The public is invited to view an exhibit of the original Council of Fifty minute books that has been set up at the LDS Church History Library, and the display be available until Oct. 7. For more information about the library's location and hours, visit history.lds.org/article/chl-hours.
The first volume of the Joseph Smith Papers was published in 2008. When completed, the series is expected to span more than 20 volumes. The series is divided into six categories: journals, revelations and translations, histories, documents, administrative records, and legal and business records. For more information, visit josephsmithpapers.org.
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