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.
SJ: I find it interesting that non-Mormons were on the Council – can you tell us more about why and what their roles were?
JSR: We know very little about the three non-Mormons admitted to the council. It's safe to assume they were friends of Smith, but the details of their lives escape us. They each had a brief stint in the council and were summarily dropped by Young when he reconvened the council in early 1845. For these reasons, I think it's easy to overplay this idea, especially when we consider that council gatherings sometimes mirrored church meetings, complete with prayer, song, and scripture. Early members emphasized that the council was distinct from the church—"a nucleus of popular government," to quote again from Johnson—but the distinction seems largely to have been academic, since believers populated both arenas. Smith seemed to have constituted the body as a dim reflection of political plurality. What his larger vision was of folks outside the church is simply not clear from the available record.
SJ: I understand Brigham Young and John Taylor were crowned as Kings of the World – were these designations symbolic, or did the Council of Fifty literally think of them as Kings?
JSR: Both. The designations certainly held symbolic significance, and poignantly so when you consider the circumstances of the crownings (Young leading his people into the "wilderness" as a Moses-like figure, Taylor fleeing into hiding). But the act of anointing kings was real, too. Not as an Old World monarch but as God's chosen political designee responsible for handing down divine decrees. Taylor even acted the part, purportedly receiving and recording "revelations" that directed the council and the church generally, which are highlighted in the book. Moreover, council members believed in a literal sense that "the Kingdom is now being established," in the words of Joseph Fielding, and that "the millennium had commenced," as Young put it.
SJ: Who were some of the more interesting members of the Council that some might not readily recognize by name?
JSR: This is a hard question to answer, since although scores of men sat on the council, many of them said next to nothing about it. While we have records of some of their deliberations, conversations were primarily monopolized by the "leading" men, most of whom are familiar to students of Mormon history. That said, we are introduced to men like George Miller, James Emmett, Peter Hawes, and a few others who ended up not migrating to the Salt Lake Valley. We have quite a bit on folks like Albert Carrington, David Fullmer, Daniel Spencer, and a handful of others who frequently served on council-designated committee assignments. Readers, I think, will find some characters more savory than others. Orson Hyde comes across as disagreeable, Franklin D. Richards, quite likable, at least from my perspective. I hope for folks reading this cover to cover they get a sense of a collective biography of an interesting mix of men.
SJ: What, if anything, are you hoping will be learned about the Council of Fifty once the contents of the Nauvoo minutes are released by Church History Department in a few years?
JSR: What will the official Nauvoo minutes, currently unavailable for public consumption, add to this story? Along with many others I look forward to seeing for myself. For the most part I believe the JSP editors working on the Nauvoo minutes when they tell us that the record will add to and enhance the existing sources but not undo what we already know. I think there will be some surprises, though. I suppose I'm most curious about what the minutes say about expanding and/or relocating Mormon settlement in Texas, Oregon, and "Upper California." Did Young intend to establish a Mormon "state" outside the jurisdiction of the United States? I don't think we have good evidence supporting this theory. Certainly, the Mormons settled in what was Mexican territory and looked forward to theocratic rule, where God's laws would not be impinged. And they hoped for a homeland where they would have "room to expand." While some Mormons unleashed anti-American rhetoric, they generally spoke of love of country and its founding principles. Even before the Great Basin became United State territory, Young and many of his associates probably anticipated that it would eventually become so, and they sought to curry favor from federal officials, even informing President Polk in 1846 of plans to carve a state out of Upper California. Statehood would create "home-rule" within the American political system, even though it threatened to temper theocratic designs. So the evidence points in both directions. It's possible that the Nauvoo minutes will illuminate this question.
SJ: Did the Council of Fifty carry out capital punishment / blood atonement?
JSR: Not that we have evidence for. But we need to acknowledge the legacy of the council in the sordid affair of "blood atonement" and frontier violence. Here we have a body of leading men serving as legislative and judicial authorities who acted in confidence and discussed retribution of those who violated the council's confidentiality and of transgressors, both within and without the council. Upon entering the Great Basin, inhabiting a pristine wilderness untainted by corruption, Mormons seemed to want to forge a new land and new people, purged of vice and wickedness. Young believed that such a society might exist only with an iron fist, preventing "infernals, thieves, Murders, Whoremongers & every other wicked curse to [exist]." Young took this idea, he says, from the very name of the council, as dictated by revelation: "The Kingdom of God & Its Laws and Justice & Judgement in my hands. Signed Ahman Christ." The council considered it their solemn responsibility to carry out the demands of justice.
John D. Lee, more than other diarists, seemed to be particularly interested in Young's rhetoric of violence. Much of the disturbing stuff Young says comes to us from him. Which raises the question, is Lee reporting what went on accurately, or is he projecting some of his own tendencies and opinions onto the words of others? One of the benefits of having a collection documents of this is that it allows you to compare entries by various authors. We see how men differ in the ways they filter what transpired in council meetings and how they chose to record it.
SJ: Should I expect to be blood atoned for asking these questions and posting them on MMM?
JSR: Just be sure to spell certain keywords SDRAWKCAB to avoid detection. Because, you know, YTFIF is a hard one to crack!
Seattle Jon is a family man, little league coach, urban farmer and businessman living in Seattle. He currently gets up early with the markets to trade bonds for a living. In his spare time he enjoys movies, thrifting and is an avid reader. He is a graduate of Brigham Young University and the Japan Fukuoka mission field. He has one wife, four kids and three chickens.
Image credit: Signature Books (used with permission).