by Seattle Jon:
Signature Books recently published The Council of Fifty: A Documentary History, a compelling and interesting look into the operation of the Council of Fifty, the secretive and powerful group that worked for forty years to bring about Joseph Smith's political vision. We encourage you to buy it here for the book lover on your Christmas list. Signature provides this summary:
Mormon leader Joseph Smith had an ambiguous relationship with the United States government. He was fond of the U.S. Constitution but distrusted democracy, even "republican forms of government," because people could as easily turn against you as stand by you. Instead, he voiced approval of "theocracy," the church president heading a council of Mormons and non-Mormons who would oversee secular matters. He put his idea into practice in 1844 in Illinois by creating the secret Council of Fifty, saying it would replicate the "councils of the gods" in heaven. In the Great Basin the council oversaw everything from water rights to the regulation of hunting and grazing during the first few years in the valley. Among the council's more controversial practices was how it anointed its leader their temporal king. Whether it was fealty to king or fraternity generally that drove their emotions, the members felt an inseparable bond, writing about how they spent hours together in "sweet conversation." One council member described one of the meetings as "a long session but pleasant and harmonious," while another wrote that "much precious instructions were given, and it seems like heaven began on earth and the power of God is with us."
As I did with Signature's Cowboy Apostle and Lost Apostles, I've asked the author a few questions that came to mind as I read the book.
Seattle Jon: Why fifty? Why not twenty-four or ninety-nine?
Jedediah S. Rogers: Fifty seems to have originated with the purported 1842 revelation directing the organization of the council. The problem is that revelation has gone missing, if it ever existed. So this is speculation. Perhaps Joseph Smith had a thing for numbers: twelve, fifty, seventy. A round number, fifty, rolls off the tongue, alliterative. Beyond these considerations, I suspect Smith desired a body of men large enough to assume real-world governing responsibilities, so he organized it roughly the size of a typical legislative body. I think Smith had other considerations, too. He liked to bring folks together in a common purpose and to invest them in a cause. He used original inductees to launch his campaign for president. Conversely, Brigham Young considered the council too large and unwieldy; he preferred the streamlined efficiency of two counselors and the Twelve.
The council was not the only time groups of fifty were brought together to fulfill a task. On the trek west, the pioneer companies were divided into groups of ten, fifty, etc. In the early years in the Salt Lake Valley the council called "a company of fifty mounted men, to preserve the city and vicinity from Indian depredations," and Parley P. Pratt prepared a group of fifty men to explore the "country South," what we know as southern Utah.
SJ: Was the Council of Fifty a secret
JSR: Like temple rites, council rites seem to be cut from Masonic cloth. Upon initiation, new members received keywords (charge, name, and penalty), not unlike inductees to Masonic lodges. Many of the council's members also belonged to the anointed quorum. But it would be a stretch to refer to the council as a "sacred" organization, though meetings replicated some trappings of temple rites and were sometimes devotional. Benjamin Johnson, a council member, referred to it as Smith's "private council." Others often mentioned that the council discussed matters in confidence. Some of these were sensitive, not least the possibility of relocating—or, perhaps more likely, partially relocating—in the Republic of Texas or Mexico's "Upper California." Perhaps especially, Smith recognized that the theocratic nature of the council and its designs would raise eyebrows, even in nineteenth-century America.
Young became super sensitive to leaking council information, no doubt partly because the teaser in the Nauvoo Expositor about Smith being a "self-constituted monarch" was partly responsible for his death. In one 1849 meeting Young nearly comes unglued, and threatens violent retribution, when he finds "a member of the council had been guilty of divulging the secrets of this council." In the string of meetings held early that year, we see the first mentions of "blood atonement." I can see the impulse to keep those conversations secret. But at that time the council was the governing body in the Salt Lake Valley, passing laws and making public decisions, all in secret. It's a most curious chapter in Utah's political history.