Monday, December 12, 2011

"Not a Clear Separation": An Interview with John S. Dinger



by Scott Hales (bio)

Even though we are Modern Mormon Men, we appreciate history - especially Mormon history. That's why we're always on the lookout for books that help us dig a little deeper into the Mormon past.

The forthcoming The Nauvoo City and High Council Minutes is just such a book. Recently, I had the opportunity to interview its editor, John Dinger, and learn more about his thoughts on Joseph Smith, the Expositor, and the separation of church and state in Nauvoo. Readers should feel free to engage John with questions via the comments section.

John's book is available December 19 from Signature Books.

John S. Dinger is a graduate of the S. J. Quinney College of Law, University of Utah, where he was an editor at the Utah Law Review. He is presently Deputy Prosecuting Attorney for Ada County in Boise, Idaho. He has published in the Idaho Law Review, Journal of Mormon History, and Utah Law Review. He is a member of the editorial board of the Mormon History Association. He and his wife have three children.

Scott Hales: In the Church today, the High Council is usually associated with dull talks, long meetings, and corny jokes. What, then, makes The Nauvoo City and High Council Minutes an interesting read?

John S. Dinger: Anyone who enjoys Mormon history will not find this volume anything like a high council talk in sacrament meeting. The Nauvoo High Council minutes are especially interesting because it was the council at the center of the church and thus, had jurisdiction over any other high council. Much of the discussions in the records are appeals from other high councils. Once the Nauvoo High Council made a decision, the only other place to appeal would be the First Presidency of the Church.

The high council regularly held disciplinary councils for many reasons, they formulated responses to polygamy rumors, they played a very important role in the dispute over who was to lead the church after Joseph Smith’s death, and they had a hand in establishing the city council and in electing the town’s civic leaders.

The two most interesting issues that faced the high council were polygamy and the trial of Sidney Rigdon when he would not submit to the twelve apostle’s leadership. With the rumors of polygamy going around, many people started practicing it without the permission of Joseph Smith. So the high council would hold disciplinary hearings and cut off people living polygamy impermissibly. The high council would deny that it was being practiced, while many knew it actually was. The high council also held a public trial for Sidney Rigdon when he refused to submit to the authority of the church. This in part solidified the power of the twelve while it showed the high council submitted to them. Before Joseph Smith’s death, the Nauvoo High Council was not under the authority of the twelve.

The City Council minutes are also very interesting because we see the Saints build a city from scratch. They pass a lot of laws and ordinances, from the mundane to the extraordinary. Some of the more interesting laws passed are the one dealing with Habeas Corpus, those that kept Joseph Smith from being extradited to Missouri. In fact, they likely passed the most expansive Habeas Corpus laws ever passed in the United States. Also, probably the most interesting thing contained in the city council minutes deal with the Nauvoo Expositor. While they may have had their minds made up to destroy it before it was discussed, they really did a thorough job when they discussed. They looked at the legal treatises of the day, the Illinois state constitution, the U.S. constitution, and really had a spirited discussion. In fact, the decision to destroy the press was not unanimous.

Note: The interview is continued after the jump ...

SH: Go into more detail about the Nauvoo Expositor. What do these minutes tell us about its destruction, one of the most controversial episodes of Joseph Smith's final years? How much of the decision to destroy it was Joseph Smith's? What was the Nauvoo City Council's role in the affair?

JSD: The destruction of the Nauvoo Expositor is one on the most interesting sections in the book. While this is often viewed as the council simply making a decision and carrying it out, this was not the case. While the destruction may have been a foregone conclusion, the discussion and how they reached the decision is very significant. One June 8, 1844 Joseph Smith called for the destruction of the press, but the city council actually put it off for a few days before making the decision. The minutes state “[The] Mayor said the conduct of such men & such [news]papers are calculated to do destroy the peace of the city — and it is not safe that such things should exist.”

On June 10, the council met and had a very reasoned discussion on the law of nuisance and what they could do about it. This group looked at the legal treatises of the day, looked at the Illinois and U.S. Constitutions and passed a law governing nuisance. The record states in part:

[The] Resolution on nuisances [was] read. [The] Mayor read Article 8, sec[tion] 22, page 365, [of the] Constitution of Illinois. C[ouncillor] [George P.] Stiles spoke[,] [saying a] Nuisance is any thing [that] disturbs the peace of [the] community — & Read [James] Chitty’s [1826 edition of] Blackstone[’s] [Commentaries on the Laws of England][,] page 4.110 — [He] said the whole community [would] have to rest under the stigma of these falsehoods— If we can prevent the [Expositor from the] issuing of any more slanderous communications[,] he would go in for it. — It is right for this community to shew a proper resentment — I would go in for suppressing all further publications of the kind.

After the law was passed, they then discussed if the Expositor was a nuisance. Most of the councilors stated it was and wanted it destroyed: “C[ouncillor] H[yrum] Smith believed the best way [would be] to smash the press all to pieces and pie the type. C[ouncillor] A[aron] Johnson concurred.”

It was not a unanimous decision, councilor Benjamin Warrington disagreed, thinking “[They could] fine [the paper] 500.00.” Smith did not like this, it was reported “[The] Mayor was sorry to have one dissenting voice[.].” Regardless of the dissent, they voted to destroy the press.

Ultimately, the council did what Joseph Smith originally wanted, but it was a well-reasoned and thought out decision. They did not quickly decide, but weighed legal treaties and had a real discussion on the law of nuisance. While it may or may not have been a good decision to destroy the press, we now see how serious the issue was taken.

SH: I can’t help but notice how the book’s title blurs the divide between the Nauvoo City Council and the Church’s High Council. What was the relationship between the two? Was there ever a clear separation of Church and State in Nauvoo?

JSD: There was not a clear separation between the two groups. In fact, the high council served as a de facto city council before it was formed. The records of the high council start on October 6, 1839 and concluded October 18, 1845. The records of the city council span a shorter time, February 3, 1841 to March 8, 1845, because the high council acted as a city council of sorts until city officials were elected on February 1, 1841. For example, at the first official meeting of the high council on October 20, 1839 they held a disciplinary council for Harlow Reed, but they also discussed the problem of animals getting loose and destroying crops. The discussion of animals is important, because the city council ended up passing more laws dealing with animals than almost any other subject. After the city council formed, the high council focused on more church related subjects.

However, they were still intertwined. When individuals ran for city office they were generally vetted and approved by the church leaders. Also, when a civic leader ran afoul of the church they were removed from their city job. For example, at the city council meeting on June 8, 1844, it was recorded “[The] Mayor referred to Councillor [Sylvester] Emmons — and suggested the propriety of purging the City Council.”

SH: How does this book add to our image of Joseph Smith and the early Church? What in it will surprise readers the most?

JSD: Joseph Smith was not a member of the high council, so most insight to him comes from the city council minutes. In those you see a man who is not just a spiritual leader, but also a civic leader. He was not just a figure head; he was active in debate and the formation of city laws.

But he was also a business man and had a very tight hold on the alcohol trade in Nauvoo. It might surprise some that he held a monopoly and was the only person allowed to sell alcohol in small quantities. When some other people petitioned the city council for the authority to sell alcohol, the minutes note “C[ouncillor] H[yrum] Smith was opposed to drink shops — would not have any one licenced.” However, the council discussed this, and Joseph Smith spoke about it:

[The] Mayor said he had granted no licence in the city to sell Liquors, each ward petitioned that no Licences be granted in their wards. [The] Mayor had sold some Liquor at the ^Barbers^ shop — to accommodate those who needed [it] and [to] oblige O[rrin] P[orter] Rockwell in his suffering condition after being imprisoned in M[iss]-o[uri] — had sold none in his house [Nauvoo Mansion] — since the passage of the last ordinance.

SH: In the past, Signature Books has published Mormon history titles that have provided a kind of counter-narrative to that provided in official Church publications and in titles published by more mainstream presses, like Deseret Book. Now, however, unprecedented Church-sponsored projects like the Joseph Smith Papers seem to be changing up the game, so to speak. In your opinion, how does The Nauvoo City and High Council Minutes situate itself in respect to something like the Joseph Smith Papers? What gap, if any, does it fill?

JSD: The Joseph Smith Papers are wonderful and anyone interested in Mormon history is very glad to have them. The Nauvoo City and High Council Minutes will sit very well with the Joseph Smith Papers and should be appreciated by the same crowd. In preparing these documents, I tried to present them in an honest, forthright manner. I tried to put the documents in the context of the day, just like the editors of the Joseph Smith Papers project have in my opinion.

I don’t believe that Signature books, and I certainly did not, set out to provide a counter-narrative in church history. This book certainly goes into more detail than a Deseret Book publication on the Nauvoo High Council, but that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. For example, the minutes go into great detail and name individuals who were brought before the high council for entering into polygamy without permission. Many of these people blame John C. Bennett and others, including William Smith, for leading them astray. This is certainly interesting to those who have a great interest in Mormon history. However, to the average member who wants a quick read on Nauvoo, I don’t think they care if people were impermissibly living polygamy and they certainly don’t care to trace its roots. I don’t think we should pigeon hole any publisher into “faithful” or a “counter-narrative,” I think both produce great work.

As far as what gap does this fill, this is the first time the city council minutes will be published. It will greatly enhance anyone’s understanding who is interested in the formation and governance of Nauvoo. It shows what issues were important to the Saints and how they passed laws to address them.

It also makes the high council minutes widely available to historians. It was, at least a portion of the records, available on the Selected Collections dvd set, however the cost kept most people from being able to view them. This volume will put the records into historian’s hands in an easy format for a relatively low price. In this we also see the daily struggles that the Saints had at this time. We see struggles with honesty, sexual impropriety, abuse, and problems with authority. Not that much different with today. We also see the outlandish like a person on trial for trading his wife for catfish.

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