In April 1844, Joseph Smith organized a group called the Council of Fifty or, sometimes, the “Kingdom of God.” Its chief function, aimed at protecting the members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and their rights, was to identify a place where the Saints could go to establish a theocracy or a “theodemocracy.”
William Clayton was commissioned to keep detailed minutes of the council’s meetings.
Just before his fatal trip to Carthage, Illinois, though, fearing that records of the council’s candid discussions might be used against him either legally or in the court of public opinion, the Prophet Joseph Smith instructed Clayton to destroy or bury those minutes. Choosing the latter course, Clayton retrieved his buried notes shortly after Joseph’s death and copied them into more permanent record books. Then, when Brigham Young reconvened the council in February 1845, Clayton continued as scribe.
The books came westward with the Saints but were never made available to scholars. Given Joseph’s desire to hide them and because they covered a critical, controversial and often neglected period of Mormon history, a mystique developed around them. In the world of early Mormon documents, they became something of a “holy grail.”
Of course, very few people will want to work through that volume of nearly 800 pages. So “The Council of Fifty: What the Records Reveal About Mormon History” (published by Brigham Young University's Religious Studies Center and Deseret Book), an anthology of brief essays by various accomplished historians of Mormonism edited by Matthew J. Grow and R. Eric Smith, offers an overview of what its authors regard as the high points of Clayton’s minutes.
Those hoping that these long-unpublished documents would contain “explosive details about the final months of Joseph Smith’s life or the initial era of Brigham Young’s leadership,” “material that will embarrass the church,” as the editors put it, will need to look elsewhere.
However, “while some students of the Mormon past might be disappointed in the Council of Fifty minutes because they do not contain salacious evidence that might bring Mormonism to its knees,” writes W. Paul Reeve in his essay, “what I found was engaging and even sometimes riveting.”
“The publication of the Council of Fifty minutes,” remarks Richard Bushman, “can only be described as a triumph.” It is, he continues, “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 have been published for all to examine.”
The scope of this brief column doesn’t even begin to allow me to discuss all that I myself have found of interest. So I’ll merely mention a few items, briefly. I intend eventually to publish a more complete review essay on this volume in "Interpreter: A Journal of Mormon Scripture.”
Brigham Young’s strikingly nonfundamentalist view of revelation is well-documented in the minutes, as is his confidence that, in his role as Joseph Smith’s successor, he could and would receive it. (This is dramatically at variance with the otherwise sympathetic 1940 Hollywood film “Brigham Young,” which portrays him as vacillating and full of self-doubt.)
“To carry out Joseph’s measures,” Brigham told the council on March 1, 1845, “is sweeter to me than the honey or the honeycomb.”
Moreover, far from being the autocrat some have imagined him to be, the Brigham Young of the documents is plainly willing to discuss and to take counsel.
The records also disclose that the bitter anger and frustration the members of the LDS Church felt because of the way they had been treated and their rights trampled were deeper and more passionate than we may have realized. They believed that the Constitution of the United States, as then interpreted, provided insufficient protection for unpopular minorities.
“We know we have no more justice here,” said John Taylor, still recovering from his injuries at Carthage Jail in March 1845, “no more than we could get at the gates of hell.” (It was such talk that Joseph Smith feared might be used against him.)
Significantly, the Council of Fifty under Joseph Smith included several non-Mormons among its ranks, a fact Joseph wanted to be widely known. He was, he said, trying to establish a system and a place where the rights of all would be respected, regardless of their religious views. Frontier Illinois was clearly not such a place.