In 2013, the First Presidency of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints granted the Joseph Smith Papers Project permission to publish the Nauvoo-era “Record of the Council of Fifty or Kingdom of God.” The minutes, which have never before been publicly available for research and have never been published, will form volume 1 of the Administrative Records series. This volume is scheduled for publication in late 2016. The record will also be used extensively in annotation for volume 3 of the Journals series, to be published in late 2015.
On 6 June 2014, at a plenary session of the Mormon History Association conference in San Antonio, Texas, Richard E. Turley Jr., assistant church historian and recorder, and Matthew J. Grow and Ronald K. Esplin, general editors of the Joseph Smith Papers, provided details about the council minutes based on research by themselves as well as by volume editors Mark Ashurst-McGee and Gerrit J. Dirkmaat and research assistant Jeffrey David Mahas.
Turley described the Council of Fifty as a governing body organized in Nauvoo, Illinois, in March 1844, a few months before Joseph Smith’s death. The Nauvoo-era record contains minutes of meetings from March 1844 to January 1846, which were chaired by Joseph Smith and later Brigham Young and include their instruction on government and the Kingdom of God.
The minutes are contained in three physical volumes, all of which were inscribed by William Clayton, one of Joseph Smith’s principal scribes. Turley also traced the custodial history of the record, which has been in the church’s continuous possession.
Because of the conference’s location in Texas, Grow focused on one purpose of the council’s formation: the possibility of forming settlements in Texas or other locations outside of what then constituted the United States. At the time, Latter-day Saints were facing opposition both from church members who had broken with Joseph Smith and from enemies outside of the church. These settlements were intended to be places of refuge should church members need to leave Nauvoo. In March and April 1844, Lucien Woodworth, a council member, traveled to Texas and negotiated with Texas president Sam Houston regarding a possible settlement. When Texas was annexed by the United States in 1845, Grow explained, “the council’s previous interest in Texas evaporated” and the focus shifted westward, beyond the Rocky Mountains.
Esplin observed that the minutes provide a better understanding of how the Council of Fifty related to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints at the time. Joseph Smith made a clear distinction between the ecclesiastical function of the church, including ordinances, temple work, and priesthood keys, and the political and temporal function of the Council of Fifty, which focused on “protecting the church and providing it space to flourish.” Specifically, Esplin discussed the Council of Fifty’s connection to two important initiatives in Nauvoo: finding potential resettlement locations and supporting Joseph Smith’s candidacy for president of the United States in 1844.
As recorded in meeting minutes, Joseph Smith stated that the council’s purposes included helping create a government that would protect Latter-day Saints and other minority groups. On 11 April 1844, Esplin noted, Joseph Smith highlighted the inclusion in the Council of Fifty of three men who were not Mormons. Smith told the council that this was intended
to show that in the organization of this kingdom men are not consulted as to their religious opinions or notions in any shape or form whatever and that we act upon the broad and liberal principal that all men have equal rights, and ought to be respected, and that every man has a privilege in this organization of choosing for himself voluntarily his God, and what he pleases for his religion. . . . God cannot save or damn a man only on the principle that every man acts, chooses and worships for himself; hence the importance of thrusting from us every spirit of bigotry and intollerance towards a man[’]s religious sentiments, that spirit which has drenched the earth with blood. . . . It becomes our duty on account of this intollerance and corruption—the inalienable right of man being to think as he pleases—worship as he pleases &c being the first law of every thing that is sacred—to guard every ground all the days of our lives. I will appeal to every man in this council . . . to say that the principles of intollerance and bigotry never had a place in this kingdom, nor in my breast, and that he is even then ready to die rather than yeild to such things. Nothing can reclaim the human mind from its ignorance, bigotry, superstition &c but those grand and sublime principles of equal rights and universal freedom to all men.
On the question of whether the minutes would alter the understanding of this period of Mormon history, Esplin said that because church members kept better records in the 1840s than in earlier years, much of what the council minutes contain is also referred to in diaries and letters of council participants, and information about many council initiatives has long been available. Thus, the records do not contain “a hidden history but a fleshing out of some aspects of that history,” he explained.
More information on the session can be found in this report from the Deseret News.
The Joseph Smith Papers Project announces the addition of two new videos to the website. These videos, which outline the accounts of Joseph Smith’s first vision of Deity, join several videos already on the site that build context around Joseph Smith’s papers.
In the first video, two historians from the LDS Church History Department, Jed Woodworth and Steve Harper, join Joseph Smith Papers volume editors Karen Davidson and Mark Ashurst-McGee to discuss the four firsthand accounts of Smith’s vision. In the second, Karen Davidson and general editor Ron Esplin provide details on the origins of the secondhand accounts recorded by Smith’s contemporaries.
Links to the videos can be accessed in the right-hand margin of the home page. Transcripts of the accounts are available in the Histories and the Documents series and are also available on this website. See the finding aid titled “Primary Accounts of Joseph Smith’s First Vision of Deity” for links to the documents.
The Joseph Smith Papers Project announces the addition of the following new content and features to its website, josephsmithpapers.org:
Also recently added are documents from January through March 1842 and five accounts of Joseph Smith’s 7 April 1844 discourse on the “subject of the dead.” In the coming months more documents from the Documents, Journals, Histories, Revelations and Translations, and Administrative Records series will be added. Eventually the website will contain images and transcripts of all extant and available Joseph Smith papers.
The Joseph Smith Papers is excited to announce the release of a new document viewer to facilitate navigation of the sometimes-complicated documents found on our website and to improve the overall user experience. Enhancements include:
We would like to thank our partners from several departments at the corporate offices of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints for helping us develop the new viewer and for their continuing support of our project. In particular we thank Ben Godfrey, Kevin Nielson, and David Willden of the Church History Department, Darren Brown, Andrew Clark, and Doug Stringham from the Publishing Services Department, and Mike Bohman, Bill Bush, Tyler Dalton, Matt De Young, Brooke Frandsen, Clint Goodman, Michael Jasper, Jon Lewis, Tyler Replogle, and Dennis Sagers from the Information and Communications Services Department for their fine work and expertise.