The Mormon Council of Fifty: What Joseph Smith’s Secret Records Reveal
By Benjamin E. Park | September 9, 2016
In 1844, the Mormon Prophet Joseph Smith surrendered himself to state authorities after destroying an anti-Mormon printing press in Nauvoo, Illinois. When he was sent to nearby Carthage, the county seat, and charged with treason, he knew there was a strong chance he would never escape alive. Before he left he whispered instructions to his secretary, William Clayton, “to burn the records of the kingdom, or put them in some safe hands and send them away or else bury them up.”* Clayton, a British convert who became a keeper of Smith’s most important documents, chose the latter option and, according to his later account, “put the records in a small box and buried them in my garden.” The records were too important to burn, despite their scandalous contents. Five days later, on June 27, a mob killed Smith while he was held prisoner at Carthage Jail.* The events shocked all Mormons, both those gathered in Nauvoo, the Church’s then-headquarters, as well as those scattered throughout America and Britain. But Clayton, undaunted, made sure to dig up “the records of the kingdom,” which entailed detailed minutes from dozens of clandestine meetings held over the previous months, and months later he transcribed their contents into a small volume he titled, “Record of the Council of Fifty or Kingdom of God.”
This “kingdom,” colloquially referred to as the “Council of Fifty,” was an organization founded only a few months before Smith’s death. It was designed to be a theocratic government-in-embryo—a “literal kingdom of God,” in Smith’s own words, that would govern the world based on divine dictates and prophetic authority. While an early goal was to orchestrate Smith’s election to the American presidency as a last-ditch effort to save the country, the prophet’s death cut the final strings that attached the Mormon people to any form of political allegiance. The American government had failed them, and so it was time to cast sovereignty to a more righteous and virtuous body. Participants in the council spoke openly of their nation’s demise, plotted ways to escape the United States’ borders, and envisioned a post-American future. It was obvious why Smith desired to keep the record secret.
And secret these minute books remained for more than a century and a half. Scholars knew about the documents due to external references, but the LDS Church kept them out of the hands of all researchers and historians. And the longer the records remained secret the larger their legend grew. But in 2010, the Joseph Smith Papers Project, a scholarly team that is working to produce editions of all documents created by and for Mormonism’s founding prophet, received permission to access the minute books in preparation for their volumes. Shortly afterward, and much to the surprise of onlookers, they announced their intention to publish the entirety of the minutes as a stand-alone volume. That book, The Joseph Smith Papers, Administrative Records: The Council of Fifty, Minutes March 1844 – January 1846, is officially released this month.
Readers will find ample evidence of the deep distrust and disappointment Mormons held toward the American government, as well as their disillusionment with the American democratic experiment in general. “[The United States government] is a damned wrotten [sic] thing,” apostle Lyman Wight proclaimed to the council, “full of lice, moth eaten, corrupt, and there is nothing but meanness about it.” But careful observers will find a lot more than shocking quotations. Historians of American religion, especially, will encounter potent examples of democracy’s discontent during the mid-nineteenth century, a reminder that notions of religious freedom, minority rights, and balanced interests were far from decided during the antebellum period. Democracy was still an unproven commodity. And in 2016, when the national election has featured stern protest candidates and tangible frustration with established democratic institutions, these anxieties appear more present than past.
THE MONTHS LEADING UP to the Council of Fifty were both the busiest and most bombastic in Joseph Smith’s prophetic career. Dissension within the Church, mostly connected to Smith’s secret practice of polygamy, and pressure from without, usually over the Church’s bloc voting habits, left the Mormons scrambling to find a new sense of stability. Nauvoo’s city council drafted a petition to Congress asking the federal government to declare Nauvoo a distinct territory and assure their protection with federal troops. Smith corresponded with five prominent presidential candidates to ask how they would help the Mormon population, and when he didn’t receive any satisfactory responses he announced his own candidacy and sent out hundreds of “electioneering” missionaries. Once things looked bleak within America’s boundaries, they began considering potential outposts for new settlement, including the still-independent Republic of Texas as well as the contested territory of Oregon. To manage all these interweaving initiatives, Smith organized a new, secret, and theologically powerful council.
The council, Smith explained as recorded in the records, was based “on an eternal principle after the order of God.” Members were “bound to eternal secrecy,” prohibited from mentioning it “even to our wives,” and warned that anyone “who broke the rule should lose his cursed head.” Weekly meetings, which continued even after Smith’s death and through the church’s westward exodus, followed a distinct and regimented pattern, with everyone sitting in a semi-circle according to age and allowed to speak in order from “the oldest down to the youngest.” All decisions had to be unanimous, as “the most perfect harmony” must prevail. This council was not to be like the contested and divisive halls of Congress. Everyone “agreed to look to some place where we can go and establish a Theocracy,” whether it was in Texas, Oregon, California, or somewhere else on the western frontier.
Although the council oversaw a number of projects and petitions, a special focus was given to creating a new, perfect constitution. Two years earlier, Smith had published an editorial in the church’s newspaper, Times and Seasons, that declared that the earth was “rent from center to circumference, with party strife, political intrigue, and sectional interest” because no nation or kingdom acknowledged the role of divine rule. The solution, according to the Council of Fifty’s minutes, was to “amend that constitution & make it the voice of Jehovah and shame the U.S.” They “resolved to draft a constitution which should be perfect, and embrace those principles which the constitution of the United States lacked.” This effort was not a novel concept in America at the time. Both abolitionists and women suffragists argued for amendments to the constitution, and William Lloyd Garrison even believed the entire founding document had to be scrapped. But the Mormon constitution was to be unique: It aimed to be based on the laws of God and implement a form of theocratic governance.
When a draft was finally presented weeks later, the preface had a familiar ring: “We, the people of the Kingdom of God,” it began. The Mormon constitution sacralized political governance. It declared that no government “acknowledge[d] the creator of the Universe as their Priest, Lawgiver, King and Sovereign, neither have they sought unto him for laws by which to govern themselves,” nor did they “grant that protection to the persons and rights of man.” After a lengthy preface, the first article declared God the ruler of heaven and earth, the second articulated God’s prophet as His mouthpiece in governance, and the third dictated that God would retain the “power to appoint Judges and officers in my kingdom.” While the document was still incomplete, its message was clear: Sovereignty was based in God’s law, authority was vested in God’s prophet, and citizens’ rights were tethered to subscribing to God’s will. Yet even this draft was too static to capture heavenly commandments: A week later Smith recorded a revelation declaring that the entire council was “my constitution, and I am your God, and ye are my spokesmen.” Divine law was too sacred to be formalized on paper, but rather must be dictated through authorized servants.
Mormons couched these theocratic proposals in democratic language. Smith declared that the council’s “political title,” which he believed to be its motto, was “Jeffersonianism” and “Jeffersonian Democracy,” meaning that Smith believed their theocratic principles fit within America’s democratic tradition. Yet he revised the definition of democracy in a way that incorporated theocracy, calling it “theodemocracy,” a neologism that captured his blended purpose. Individuals still had liberty, but that liberty merely enabled them to follow divine counsel. Perhaps most radical was Joseph Smith’s own role within this divine kingdom: One month after the council’s inauguration, it was moved “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.” The vote was unanimous.
These actions may seem extreme to contemporary ears. And indeed, they were quite unique and radical in their day. Yet the tensions and anxieties that underwrote these activities drew from much broader cultural currents. The very concept of a “Kingdom of God” came directly from the Bible, and though American Protestants had mostly forfeited the political language of divine monarchy in favor of republican discourse, Christians had long maintained the supremacy of divine laws. And though fervent faith in democracy has become an American mainstay, the validity and reliability of democratic order was severely questioned during the mid-nineteenth century. European nations during this period typically became more hierarchical, not less. The Anglican Church in Britain and the Catholic in Church in France, still reacting to the revolutionary tumults decades before, rallied behind conservative reform movements to curtail enthusiasm. In 1870, less than two decades after Smith was named “prophet, priest, and king,” the First Vatican Council formalized papal infallibility and declared the supremacy of their leader’s words over the relativism and division in the world at large. The common man was deemed too untrustworthy to empower.
Even in America, feelings toward democracy were often ambiguous. A few decades earlier, New England Federalist Fisher Ames bemoaned “the mire of democracy” which “pollutes the morals of citizens before it swallows up their liberties.” Religious ministers drew from the fear and doubt that permeated political culture in order to bolster their own authority. As the early Republic turned into the Age of Jackson, and as suffrage was extended only to white men, the anxiety still remained, especially for those on the margins of society. Proponents of abolition and women’s rights argued that democracy’s “excesses” led to a perversion of natural rights and the necessity for a stronger federal structure. The abolitionist Garrison burned the American Constitution in a public demonstration of the nation’s failed covenant. In the religious world, many turned to ecclesiastical forms that strengthened modes of obedience and curtailed disorder. Ministers during the Second Great Awakening, for instance, spoke to the downtrodden segments of society who had been left behind. Democratic governance threatened perpetual chaos, and religion provided one avenue to stabilize society.
AT THE CENTER OF the Mormon critique of American democratic governance, especially after the death of their beloved prophet, was their belief that the nation was neither strong enough or willing enough to protect minority groups. In this the Mormons believed they would find an unlikely ally: the indigenous populations who had been forced into Western territories. Indeed, some observers proposed the same solution for both Native and Mormon populations. One non-Mormon neighbor in Illinois wrote a letter to Mormon leaders, which was then discussed in the council, that suggested the federal government should establish a “Mormon reserve” in Wisconsin Territory in order to separate members of the faith, just as they had done with Indians. Such a proposal was predicated on the belief that it was impossible for groups with such dissimilar interests to live together. Though Mormons were reticent to forfeit the rights of white Americans, they sympathized with the concept of separate spheres. Council of Fifty member Orson Spencer, in endorsing the reservation idea, argued “that men of congenial religions or other interests, should separate themselves from those of adverse faith & interests and pair off, each to each.” Spencer believed the “promiscuous intermixture of heterogenous [sic] bodies for the purpose of unity & strength is alike distant both from pure religion & sound philosophy.” America’s democratic society was not equipped to manage disparate groups.
But more than seeing Native Americans as fellow victims of American injustice, Mormons also saw them as militant colleagues. Once Brigham Young was in charge, the council worked feverishly to devise a plan to join with Native tribes in bringing vengeance to the American nation that had wronged them. They naively assumed that large numbers of indigenous leaders would swiftly accept their message of redemption, unify into one body led by Young and the Council of Fifty, and then establish a “standard of liberty”—a theocratic empire ruled by the government of God. “Our object,” noted George Miller, is not just “to unite all the Indian tribes from north to south and west to the Pacific Ocean in one body,” but to also “include ourselves in that number.” One councilman, Reynolds Cahoon, envisioned scrawling “liberty” on “an old squaws blanket on a kite tail” that they would then raise as a banner of war and force their oppressors to “flee.” Though this paternalistic vision was predicated upon the extermination of Native socity and mirrored the very cultural colonialism that they themselves decried, the Mormons believed this interracial union would overturn years of oppression.
The Comanche, Cherokee, and Choctaw Indians, all of whom were targeted by the Mormons for this newfound union, were unsurprisingly not as interested in such an alliance. While denouncing an American nation that they felt overlooked their own interests, Mormons dismissed the interests of these tribes. But the determination to base a government on shared interests was a common refrain in antebellum politics. Only a decade earlier, South Carolinian proponents of nullification like Robert James Turnbull argued that “the interests” of some groups within the nation were “diametrically opposed” to others, and as a result the democratic system was crumbling. John C. Calhoun believed that the “diversity of interests in the several classes and sections of the country” put many minority groups (in his mind: slavemasters) at risk. In response, northern abolitionists, like Theodore Parker, argued that the constitution was designed to try to protect the “interests” of enslaved people and that it was time to take violent action. Everywhere Americans turned, they witnessed political debates that sought to prioritize the interests of one group of citizens over others. So when Mormon councilman Lyman Wight declared that the only “government worth asking for” is one drawn “from those whose interests are identified with ours,” his inclination was far from the margins.
The Council of Fifty’s meetings increasingly focused on westward migration throughout 1845. Facing escalating pressure from their Illinois neighbors, the Mormons were forced to consider cutting the cord on their American experiment earlier than expected. Democracy had failed them in the United States and they now set their sights on Mexican territory—and what would eventually become Utah after the Mexican-American War the following year—where they could finally establish God’s true kingdom. The Council of Fifty played a central role in organizing this exodus, but it met only infrequently once the church was settled in Utah when new territorial and ecclesiastical organizations obtained more control. The council never met as often or with as much authority after Nauvoo. But for their two-year heyday, they were an especially poignant embodiment of America’s democratic paradox. At one of their final gatherings before the trek west, the council decided to publish a definitive account of the nation’s mistreatment of the beleaguered saints. The proposed title satirically struck at the irony of their situation: “The Beauties of American Liberty: The Land of the Free, the Home of the Brave, the Assylum for the Opprest.” They wished to highlight the disparity between the nation’s ideals and realities. Though no doubt ignorant of the fact, and obviously without equal validity, the tenor of their accusations mimicked the powerful accusation of Frederick Douglass three years earlier: “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?”
These tensions at the heart of a democratic culture had already been identified and dissected by its greatest critic, Alexis de Tocqueville. “The moral empire of the majority,” he wrote in Democracy in America, “is also founded on the principle that the interests of the greatest number ought to be preferred to those of the few.” This was the threat of what he called the “omnipotence of the majority,” and the consequences of this culture could be “dire” and “dangerous” for those on the margins of society. We are still struggling with that tenuous battle in our increasingly pluralist society today, and the past contests give context to continued anxieties. Even as the nation has progressed in providing rights to previously marginalized communities like LGBT Americans, the presidential nominee for one of our two major political parties has based his campaign upon the ostracizing and disenfranchising of minority groups. Recent protests aimed to remind our culture that #BlackLivesMatter are testaments to the limited nature of American justice and liberty. The Mormon experience in the 1830s and 1840s demonstrates that the radical extensions of the majority’s rule has a significant and sobering context, and the Council of Fifty presented only one radical response. In an irony befitting for our national history, Joseph Smith’s theocratic vision proved to be an important moment in America’s democratic experiment.
Benjamin E. Park is an assistant professor of history at Sam Houston State University. He is currently working on a book manuscript that explores Mormon Nauvoo as a moment of Democratic crisis. Follow him @BenjaminEPark.
*These sentences have been updated to correct the first name of William Clayton and the month of Joseph Smith’s death.
Writers tell us stories about where they discovered religion and politics in their states.
An Atheist Finds (Some) Reasons to Believe in Her Old Church.
A setting to debate the issues of the day.