[For more information on the Council of Fifty, see Matthew J. Grow’s 2016 FairMormon Conference presentation.]
In September 2013, it was announced that the minutes from the Council of Fifty would be published as part of the Joseph Smith Papers project. This was significant because they had not been available for research, and so most of what was known of the council had been gleaned from journal entries of members and rumors spread by publications such as the Nauvoo Expositor, which were repeated over the years by each generation of critics. Besides being able to put these hyperbolic claims to rest, we now have new information about what happened during the Nauvoo period, and some new statements made by Joseph Smith and other early members of the Church.
The Council of Fifty was a secret organization formed in Nauvoo, made up of the leaders of the Church, as well as other men, including some nonmembers, with Joseph Smith at the head. Their purpose was to do civil business, separate from the ecclesiastical business done elsewhere. Under Joseph Smith, the three major functions involved Joseph’s presidential campaign, planning a “theodemocracy [that] would protect liberty and freedom ‘for the benefit of ALL’” [page xxxvi], and to find a place of refuge away from the government of the United States, which had failed them.
After the death of Joseph Smith the council was reconvened under Brigham Young, and dealt with the repeal of the Nauvoo charter, completing the temple, and finding a new place to settle. It was later reconvened in 1848, after settling in Salt Lake City, and functioned off and on until 1885. This book contains the minutes through January, 1846, and there are currently no plans to publish the rest, which would be beyond the scope of the Joseph Smith Papers.
One of the things the council attempted to do was to write a new constitution. In explaining this and his theodemocracy, Joseph Smith said, “There is a distinction between the Church of God and kingdom of God. The laws of the kingdom are not designed to effect our salvation hereafter. It is an entire, distinct and separate government. The church is a spiritual matter and a spiritual kingdom; but the kingdom which Daniel saw was not a spiritual kingdom, but was designed to be got up for the safety and salvation of the saints by protecting them in their religious rights and worship. Any thing that would tolerate man in the worship of his God under his own vine and fig-tree would be tolerated of God. The literal kingdom of God, and the church of God are two distinct things. The gifts of prophets, evangelists &c never were designed to govern men in civil matters. The kingdom of God has nothing to do with giving commandments to damn a man spiritually. It only has power to make men amenable to his fellow man. God gave commandments that if a man killed &c he should be killed himself, but he did not damn him. In relation to the constitution of the United States, there is but one difficulty, and that is, the constitution provides the things which we want but lacks the power to carry the laws into effect. We want to alter it so as to make it imperative on the officers to enforce the protection of all men in their rights.” [page 128-129]
On April 11, 1844, Erastus Snow offered “a motion that this honorable assembly receive from this time henceforth and forever, Joseph Smith, as our Prophet, Priest & King, and uphold him in that capacity in which God has anointed him.” [pages 95-96] This, along with rumors of temple ceremonies where people were anointed kings and priests, had critics claiming that he had been anointed king of the world and accusing him of trying to create a tyrannical theocracy. [pages xxxviii – xxxix]
Another rumor, which seems to be much more recent, is that William Law was excommunicated by the Council of Fifty. But although there is discussion in several places of the Laws, I found nothing regarding his excommunication of April 18, 1844, except for a reference on May 6 to “give them over to the buffetings of Satan.” [page 154]
Like all books in the Joseph Smith Papers, this book contains illustrations, maps, a timeline of Joseph Smith’s life, a volume introduction, an explanation of the editorial method, and an extensive section of reference material. This book also contains a Series Introduction, as it is the first of the Administrative Records Series. There are explanatory summaries for each section and each day of the minutes, as well as thorough annotations at the bottom of each page (some of which take up more space than the transcription of the minutes). It was particularly interesting to be able to see portraits of many of the Council of Fifty participants.
This has probably been the most anticipated book in the Joseph Smith Papers so far, and it is certainly an interesting read. Much can be learned about life in Nauvoo as well as about the personalities of the council members, and it is fascinating to be able to read previously unknown statements from Joseph Smith on the constitution, the government, and civil rights.