“The Council of Fifty: A Documentary History.” Edited by Jedediah Rogers. Published by Signature Books, December 2014.
Cloth Binding, 424 pages. ISBN: 978-1-56085-224-7. Price: 49.95 Review originally written for the Association of Mormon Letters
Writing in an early Church periodical, Oliver Cowdery described his time working as Joseph Smith’s scribe by stating, “These were days never to be forgotten”. What Cowdery said of his time working with Joseph Smith could be said of what is currently going on in the world of publishing LDS historical books. Access is being granted to long sequestered documents and many great books are being published to share them with the world. A partial list of the books of important historical documents that have been or are about to be published includes: “The Joseph Smith Papers” (Church Historians Press), “The Life Writings of Frontier Women” (Utah State University Press – FREE pdf copies of some volumes here) “The Significant Diaries” (Signature Books), The Signature Books “Temple Documents” series, The Nauvoo City and High Council Minutes (Signature Books), “The Kingdom in the West” series (Arthur H Clark/University of Oklahoma Press) and the forthcoming “Documentary History of the Priesthood Ban (Newell Bringhurst/Matt Harris University of Illinois, 2015). Joining this list of distinguished and award winning works is Jedediah Rogers’ and Signatures Books’ latest historical document volume “The Council of Fifty: A Documentary History,” which for the first time since their creation between the mid 1840’s and the late 1880’s presents to the public the long sequestered documents of a body/council/quorum of mostly Mormon men whom Joseph Smith at one time intended to mold the government of a united, millennial world.
“Council of Fifty” is divided up into three parts: introductory materials, the documents, and appendices and supplementary materials. These extra materials are very important and really help to contextualize the documents. “Council of Fifty” is forwarded by Klaus J. Hansen who wrote “Quest for Empire: The Political Kingdom of God and the Council of Fifty in Mormon History” back in the 1960’s when very few people even remembered or knew that the Council of Fifty existed. Hansen’s book inspired all future Council of Fifty research and thus his forward to Roger’s book brings things full circle and provides an important context and set up for what readers and researchers of “The Council of Fifty” will experience (more on Hansen in a moment).
The next item in the book is an “Editor’s Preface” by Rogers. It starts with a brief set up of the history of the Council and the research on it that preceded Rogers’. He then lists and discusses the Council of Fifty documents that are still restricted by the LDS Church and the documents and sources that he had access to. Rogers then speculates about the political influence of the ideas and ideals of the Council of Fifty on the modern LDS Church, before concluding by explaining his editorial procedures and acknowledging those who aided him with the publication of the book. The preface is followed by a helpful list of abbreviations of cited sources and several pages of brief, biographical sketches of all of the members of the Council of Fifty.
These materials are followed by a sixteen page “Editor’s Introduction”. In this introduction Rogers gives a historical context to the Council of Fifty and to the documents that they created. He begins this introduction by explaining the doctrinal ideas, revelatory experiences, and millennial fervor in Mormonism that led Joseph Smith to create the Council of Fifty in the early 1840’s. Coming into play in the Fifty’s creations were things as diverse as the Wisconsin Pineries and the vast unsettled fields of the Republic of Texas. Rogers then documents Joseph Smith’s being “voted” by the Fifty as “our P(rophet), P(riest) & King with loud hosannas” (1) before moving on to explain that the Fifty were meant to provide “an important bridge to the Millennium” when “they would hand over” their political power to Jesus Christ (2). Other information in the Joseph Smith period of the introduction includes the connection between the Council of Fifty and the “Anointed Quorum” initiatory practices and use of code words by Fifty members, and the impact of the “Nauvoo Expositor” and the murder of Joseph Smith. After covering the impact of Smith’s death Rogers covers the transition to Brigham Young’s leadership, the role of the Fifty in early Utah (including sponsoring a competition amongst early settlers to eliminate all pests/nuisance animals) and, Brigham Young’s being anointed “king and priest over the entire world” (3). Rogers concludes his introduction by discussing the John Taylor period of the Fifty, polygamy, and the Council’s eventual demise as the Mormons sought to assimilate into American society in their effort to achieve statehood for Utah. All of this information is included in a tightly written 16 page essay that not only provides an excellent introduction to the Council of Fifty and the documentary minutes but that would also do just fine as a standalone essay on the historical importance and impact of the Council of Fifty in Mormonism.
“The Council of Fifty” concludes with two appendices and supplementary materials. The first appendix quotes journal entries of various early LDS leaders from William Clayton in the 1840’s to Heber J Grant in the 1930’s to give a history on the creation and storage of the Council of Fifty minutes/documents. The second appendix is a doctrinal essay by Joseph Smith called “The Kingdom of God” which helps to provide a doctrinal framework for the creation of the Council. The final items in the book are an annotated bibliography, historical photographs and maps, and an index.
Now, I want to briefly return to the “Forward” by Klaus Hansen. In it Hansen makes some bold statements that for me formed a challenge that I wanted to try and prove or disprove as I read the book. He states, “The book is certainly destined to become essential reading for future Mormon historians, as well as for the interested public…”. He then connects this book with two other Signature Books publications; Gary Bergera and Devery Anderson’s “Joseph Smith’s Quorum of the Anointed, 1842-1845” and John Dinger’s “The Nauvoo City and High Council Minutes.” Of these three volumes Klaus states, “the series ranks among the most important projects in Mormon historical editing” (4). With those statements Hansen gives the Council of Fifty Minutes some large expectations to live up to. Between Hansen’s set up and the expectations and speculation that I went in with when I began reading Rogers’ book there were some big shoes to be filled. I will say here that the Council of Fifty minutes did not disappoint me and for his part Rogers succeed with this book and filled those over-sized shoes well.
There is no way in a short review to cover all of the interesting things in the Council of Fifty minutes, nor would I want to since personal discovery is much of the fun in a book like this, but I want to discuss a few of the things that I found to be interesting. One of the first items of major significance mentioned in the documents is the event (as mentioned in the introduction), recorded by William Clayton in two places in his diary, dated March 11th, 1844, and April 11th 1844, wherein it is recorded that Joseph Smith was “chosen our Prophet, Priest, and King by Hosannas” (“Loud Hosannas” in the April 11th version). Unfortunately Rogers had no other contemporary reports to share on this event. But a later reminisce by William Marks recalls that “Joseph [Smith] suffered himself to be ordained a king”. Despite a shortage of information on this event where Joseph Smith was “voted” king, it was still an important event and its inclusion by Rogers is very significant. For one thing including the record that Joseph Smith was “voted” or maybe “ordained” a “King” sets up how Joseph saw his mission and role at this point in his life. It also demonstrates the very elevated role that his followers had given him including the trust, power, and control that they were willing to give him in their lives. This event also provides the set up for Brigham Young and John Taylor similarly being declared Kings of the World after they became presidents of the LDS Church.
Also of significance in the Joseph Smith period are the minutes of Smith’s famous “Last Charge Meeting,” presumed to have been held on March 26, 1844. This was supposed to have been the meeting where Smith “rolled off” authority and responsibility for running the Church from his shoulders to that of the Apostles, presumably setting up their succeeding him as the authorized leaders of the Church after his death. It is important to point out in regards to this meeting that Bergera and Anderson note that there is some debate as to whether this was a meeting of the Fifty or of the “Anointed Quorum” (5)
Once the Council Fifty got to what became the Utah territory, at least in the very early days of the settlement, the agenda items that they discussed ranged from the interesting and serious, to the amusing, to the mundane. For instance, in what became a contest, the Fifty assigned John D. Lee and John Pack to put teams together to “carry on a war of extermination” against all animals considered to be “troublesome and destructive” (6). They discussed putting the old Kirtland Bank Bills back into circulation as the territory’s legal tender and granted Brigham Young and Heber C. Kimball use of all of the “table lands and the spurs” east of Salt Lake to pasture their animals (7). They resolved that “no corn should be made into whiskey” but should be instead “given to the poor” and that butchers should be forced to accept paper money or be put out of business (8). They resolved to use their own system of weights and measures rather than adopting any used by the rest of the world, and they discussed and authorized the building of bridges and fences, etc. (9).
After about 1850, as shown in the documents and discussed by Rogers in the introduction, the Fifty largely fell into inactivity and non-importance until the time of John Taylor. Then in 1880, during the time of the polygamy raids and prosecutions by the Federal government, Taylor reactivated the Council of Fifty to help protect polygamy and the Church. During this time the Fifty discussed such things as “free schools” (10), authorizing of business licenses and liquor Laws (11), and multiple entries on who should be allowed to run in elections and which LDS political officers should be asked to resign to allow others to take their place.
One of the most interesting entries in “The Council of Fifty” minutes from Taylor’s time is from a meeting held in the Endowment House on February 4th, 1885. On that day:
L John Nuttall…read a Revelation …requiring …(John Taylor) to be anointed & set apart as a King [and] Priest and Ruler over Israel on the Earth, over Zion & the Kingdom under Christ… Francis M. Lyman motioned that we proceed to obey…the Revelation, when we clothed in our Priestly attire…Lorenzo Snow consecrated a bottle of oil. Counselor Angus M. Cannon (12) anointed President John Taylor and we all laid hands on the Prest & George Q. Cannon sealed the anointing according to a written form which had been prepared.
So, five years after becoming president of the Church and two years before his death, following the dictates of a one year old revelation, John Taylor had himself “anointed and set apart” as King of the World. While this is far more detailed then what William Clayton recorded about Joseph Smith’s experience of being “voted” Prophet, Priest, and King of the world, it is unlikely that Taylor would have gone beyond the bounds that Joseph Smith had set.
One of the things that I found to be particularly interesting in this book is that some of the records of the Council show just how early in the Utah Territory period that the Mormon leaders felt that violence would be a necessary reaction to the U.S. Federal government and to those who they saw as threats, as well as a tool to intimidate the people and keep them in line. The First recorded Council meeting in the new territory was on December 6th, 1848. The second was on December 9th, 1848. In that second meeting John D. Lee recorded that the Council discussed that if the Federal Government sent any Territorial officers that were like the politicians that the Church had known in Missouri that they would, “send them Cross Lots to Hell, that dark & dreary Road where no traveler ever returns.” For those who are not familiar with the term “Cross Lots/Across Lots to Hell,” H. Michael Marquardt states that, “To send someone ―‘to hell across lots’—on a shortcut to hell—was a euphemism for murder.” (13). Then on February 9th, 1849, in a meeting held in William Phelps school room it was recorded that the Council discussed that those who were not willing to share their grain with their fellow saints in the time of scarcity that was then being experienced, “May be thankful that their Heads are not are not found wallowing in the Snow.”
Discussion of the need to use violence to manage the new Territory continued less than a month later. On March 3rd the Fifty met to discuss crimes committed by Ira West, Thomas Byres, and others. They started the meeting by quoting the following statement, identified as a revelation about the role of the Fifty, “Verily thus Saith the Lord, by this Name ye shall be called [‘]The Kingdom of god & its Laws and Justice & Judgement in my hands. Signed Ahman Christ[’]”. Brigham Young is then recorded as having said the following to the Council about the offenders:
the verry Name of this Council is a louder text than any Elder can preach. Then can the members of this council suffer their sympathy to arrise to the extant that mercy will Rob Justice of its claims, Suffering infernals, thieve, Murders, Whoremongers & every other wicked curse to [exist], through mercy to live among us, adding sin to sin, crime to crime, corrupting the morals of the People when their Blood ought to floow to atone for their crimes. I want their cursed heads to be cut off that they may atone for their sins, that mercy may have her claims upon them in the day of redemption.
The next day the case of Ira West continued to be discussed. It was:
agreed that he had forfeited his Head, but the difficulty was ho[w] he should be disposed of. Some were of the opinion that to excut[e] him Publickly, under the traditions of the People, would not be safe; but to dispose of him privately would be the most practib[le], & would result in the greatest good. The People would know tha[t] he was gone, in some strange manner, & that would be all they could suggest, but fear would take hold of them & they wo[uld] tremble for fear it would be their time next…
If the council decided that it was too much for them to execute the pair then it was also suggested that they could be sold to “the highest Bidder” as a way to allow them to pay their debt to society. On March 17th their case was further discussed with Brigham Young stating that he wished that someone could, “raise Moral courage enough to bring them to him, & he would show them that he was not afraid to take their Head…”. The previous entries were recorded by John D. Lee. In attendance at the same meetings was Joseph Fielding who also recorded the idea that West should be sold and that:
Others also were spoken of in the Council as being worthy of Death and as the Kingdom is now being established which is as a Shield round about the Church and as Judgment is in the Hands of the Members thereof it is incumbant upon them to cleanse it inside of the Platter, in short we feel ourselves to be in different Circumstances as to respo[s]ibility to what we were ever in before, because the Lord has placed us where we can execute his Laws…
The discussions of violence and executions continued on March 31st. John Pack had apparently been too free with some of the secrets of the Fifty. Pack asked the Council for patience in his case and then said, “if I don’t prove true, deal with me as you think proper, if it is to cut off my head…” The next important discussion of the possible need for violence came in 1851, this time, it was on a potentially massive scale. On Monday, August 25th of that year the Council discussed the recent invention of “Liquid Fire” by Judge Uriah Brown (a Mormon) and their desire to purchase/use his invention. The Fifty discussed that, “If pipes were laid in the Kanyon he could destroy an army instantly without injuring the operator. If we settle on a sea port he could destroy any number of vessels, any navy in an instant” (14).
To me these are very important and revealing historical discussions. While the Lee diaries have been available for some time, this is the first time that all of these records have been available together and in context. I remember being told in LDS seminary and institute classes in the 1980’s and 90’s as well as in Sunday school classes that when Brigham Young, Jedediah Grant and others spoke of violence in places like the Journal of Discourses they were either being misquoted or speaking symbolically/using hyperbole. Also, until now, the discussions I have seen on violence in early Mormonism have largely been in context of the Missouri Danite period or in context of the “Reformation” and “Utah War” periods of the mid 1850’s. As I read these records of the Council in its official function in the late 1840’s and early 1850’s it seemed to me to show that the LDS leaders of the Utah period were not being misquoted and were not speaking symbolically or with hyperbole when they discussed violence. They really saw a need to be able to kill their enemies and to use fear to keep the people in line. These documents also show that the use of violence and intimidation by LDS leaders was not limited to the mid 1850’s “Reformation”/”War” period, but was actually a long running leadership method/policy. I believe that this is one example of the great value of Rogers’ book, especially when put into the greater context of recent publications like the “Kingdom in the West” series that I mentioned earlier. All of these now available records have the potential to expand the understanding that we have of the use and impact of violence in early Mormonism.
Another item that I wanted to highlight does not have as much historical impact as the discussion of violence in early Mormonism, but still in its own way shows how suppressing or withholding or even just a lack of knowledge about documents from the past has impacted Mormonism in the present. Like many Mormons in the 1970’s and 80’s I grew up hearing a lot about “Free Agency.” This concept was discussed in General Conference, in manuals, in Seminary and Institute, in Sunday school, and so forth, for a long time it was a fairly major Mormon teaching. Then, in the early 1990’s something happened, the discussion on “Free” agency became a discussion on “Moral” agency. This change was largely brought about by Boyd K. Packer of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. In April of 1992 he taught:
The phrase “free agency” does not appear in scripture. The only agency spoken of there is moral agency, “which,” the Lord said, “I have given unto him, that every man may be accountable for his own sins in the day of judgment (15).
That has been the line of reasoning used ever since in the LDS discussion of “Moral” agency. For instance in 1995 Spencer J. Condie of the Seventy said:
I am indebted to President Boyd K. Packer, who made us aware of the fact that the term free agency appears nowhere in holy writ. Instead, the scriptures generally speak of agency or free will, but when agency is modified, it is referred to as ‘moral agency’ (16).
In years past we generally used the term free agency. … More recently we have taken note that free agency does not appear in the scriptures. They talk of our being “free to choose” and “free to act” for ourselves (2 Nephi 2:27; 10:23; see also Helaman 14:30) and of our obligation to do many things of our own ‘free will’ (D&C 58:27). But the word agency appears either by itself or with the modifier moral: ‘That every man may act in doctrine and principle … according to the moral agency which I have given unto him, that every man may be accountable for his own sins in the day of judgment’ (17)
So according to these brethren, “Free” agency was dropped for “Moral” agency because “Moral” agency is a “revealed”/scriptural term and “Free” agency is not. This is where the records of the Council of Fifty come into play. On June 27th, 1882 the Council of Fifty met to discuss two new revelations from John Taylor. These revelations never made it into the cannon of LDS scripture and are generally unknown in the LDS Church today. But they are still “revelations”, or the word of God, according to Mormon teachings (18). In one of these revelations, given by John Taylor and believed by him and the Council of Fifty to be the direct, revealed word of God, the term “Free Agency” is used ten times. Here are some of the uses of “Free agency” in this revelation of John Taylor:
I have given man his free agency, and have always maintained that free agency among all peoples…Behold, Satan sought to take away the free agency of man…the United States sought to deprive my people of their free agency…man by his free agency yield a wiling obedience to my law… according to my eternal decrees, the free agency of man should be guaranteed to all men…but no man shall violate his covenants, pervert my laws, subvert others’ free agency, and trample upon mine authority in this Council…
Ultimately “Free” agency versus “Moral” agency is a matter of semantics. In the above quoted talk by Elder Christofferson he even stated that both terms are “correct” but “Moral” agency is preferred because of the two it is the “Revealed” term. BUT, according to this revelation by John Taylor, “Free agency” is a “revealed” term TOO. Just a minor thing, BUT if the Council of Fifty records had been more available and known among the Latter-day Saints instead of locked away in a vault the “Free” versus “Moral” discussion would not have happened, or would have been different because then it would be known that BOTH were “revealed” terms. While this is a small issue, to me it demonstrates well the impact that sharing these records can have. If something as small as a discussion on “Agency” can be impacted by previously inaccessible documents being made available to the public, what larger or more important issues, doctrines, and interpretation of historical events might be impacted as more documents come to light or if they had always been available in the first place. I do not know, but I think that we soon may.
There were a couple of minor things in “The Council of Fifty” that I wish had been done a little differently. The entry for Monday, February 23rd, 1846 details how Howard Egan told George Miller that Hosea Stout had given instructions for Miller to be killed and thrown into the river. Miller then goes to Brigham Young to confront him about the orders for his death. A footnote provides the following information about Howard Egan:
Howard Egan (1815 -78), an Irish immigrant, was formerly one of Joseph Smith’s body guards. He became the superintendent of the Pony Express office in Salt Lake City for its short-lived existence.
While that information on Egan is helpful and correct, and while I understand the need to be succinct in a biographical footnote, I think that it would have been more interesting if Rogers had included one more detail. After arriving in Utah, in what became a very famous case, Howard Egan murdered a man who had an affair with his wife. Given that this footnote on Egan was connected to an entry about accusations of a murder plot, it seems like it would have been fitting to mention Egan’s connection to a murder that he later committed. Maybe Rogers left mention of the murder out because it is well known, or to not distract from the rest of the book, but to me it just makes sense to mention it given the context of the entry.
The entry for Saturday, December 9th, 1848 mentions Lilburn W. Boggs who is then mentioned in a biographical footnote. Of Boggs the footnote states that he was the, “Missouri governor who infamously issued the evacuation order against Mormons in 1838.” The order issued by Boggs against the Mormons, is of course, usually called the “Extermination Order.” While Rogers is technically accurate in calling it an “Evacuation Order,” (19) most people know it as the “Extermination Order” so I think that it would have been nice if he either used that term, or if he had included a brief explanation as to why he chose “Evacuation Order.”
I have one last minor quibble. I earlier mentioned that on June 27th, 1882 two revelations that were received by John Taylor were read to the Council of Fifty, the first was on polygamy and the second was the one that mentioned “Free Agency” so many times. Of the two only the second is included in the text of the book, for the first the reader is directed to Fred Collier, “Unpublished Revelations, Volume 1”, second edition. WELL, I don’t have that, but I want to read the text of the revelation. I can understand that the revelation might not have belonged in the body of the book, but it would have been nice to have it in an appendix or maybe to have Signature Books put it on their website and include a web address in the book’s footnotes.
SO, did the records of the Council of Fifty live up to my expectations? Do I believe that Klaus Hansen is correct? Have Jedediah Rogers and Signature Books produced a volume that is “destined to become essential reading for future Mormon historians, as well as for the interested public”? YES, yes they have. I’ll be honest, as with the records and discussions of any group or political body out there, quite a few of the entries in the records of the Council of Fifty contain dry, boring, details of things that long ago ceased to be important. BUT these records demonstrate that the Council of Fifty did at one time hold an important position in the LDS hierarchy. They contain records of discussions and demonstrate practices (such as being involved in political matters) that still impact the LDS Church today. They demonstrate that LDS leaders from the 1840’s to the 1880’s believed that the millennial reign of Christ was very near, near enough that they had to prepare the governing body that would help them to run the world during the pre and post millennial periods. At a time when official LDS Church essays have once again brought attention to the practice of polygamy in the LDS Church the records of the Council of Fifty help to bring light to the great lengths that John Taylor and the other Church leaders were willing to go to in the 1880’s to preserve the practice.
The “Council of Fifty: A Documentary History” is an important and a well done book. Jedediah Rogers and Signature books are to be commended for give the LDS historians and all those interested in LDS history a great gift in the now improved access to these very important documents. No collection of LDS documentary histories will be complete without this book.
Read Clair Barrus’ review at Worlds Without End
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(1) Quoting William Clayton, Introduction, pp 4-5
(2) Introduction, p. 5
(3) Introduction, p. 10
(4) Both quotes from “Forward” by Klaus Hansen
(5) There was a lot of overlap in members of the two bodies, see “Joseph Smith’s Quorum of the Anointed” pp. 72-73
(6) See Council of Fifty, entries for Saturday, December 16th, 1848, Saturday, January 20th, 1849, Sunday, March 4th, 1849
(7) See Council of Fifty, entry for Saturday, January 6th, 1849
(8) See Council of Fifty, entry for Saturday, February 3rd, 1849
(9) See for instance, Council of Fifty, entry for, Friday, February 9th, 1849
(10) See Council of Fifty, entry for, Tuesday, October 12th, 1880 and others
(11) See Council of Fifty, entry for, Friday, April 8th, 1881
(12) According to Rogers during this time the scribe referred to the members of the Council of Fifty as “Counselors” because they were members of the Council and not for any ecclesiastical office that they held. See note for entry of Tuesday April 4th, 1882
(13) “The Coming Storm: The Murder of Jesse Thompson Hartley” p. 8, pdf version
(14) This entry from the previously unavailable “Selected minutes of the Council of Fifty”
(15) “General Conference”, April, 1992 https://www.lds.org/general-conference/1992/04/our-moral-environment?lang=eng
(16) “Agency: The Gift of Choices,” Ensign, Sept. 1995, p. 18
(18) See Doctrine and Covenants 68:4
(19) Modern scholarship, most notably by Alexander Baugh, demonstrates that the word “exterminate” as used by Boggs, did not mean to kill the Mormons, rather it just meant to drive them out of the state. See Baugh, “A Call to Arms: The 1838 Mormon Defense of Northern Missouri”, and the Webster’s 1828 dictionary in which the first definition of “Exterminate” is “to drive from within the limits or borders.”