The Council of Fifty, A Documentary History edited by Jedediah S. Rogers is a veritable treasure trove of quotes and references regarding the Council of 50 currently outside of the LDS Church’s closed archives. It includes many of the writings of my Great-Great-Great-Great-Grandfather William Clayton who was admitted to the Council of 50 on March 11, 1844 and appointed clerk. His minutes and writings were buried in the ground for a while, recopied in three small notebooks (Page 8), and then later buried afresh in the vaults in Salt Lake City. William Clayton recorded in his journal that the council was to be patterned after the Grand Council of the Gods in Heaven. (Page 159) During what is known informally as the Camelot years (1972-1982), Michael Quinn was one of the few to have access to these secret vaults in Utah through his work with Leonard Arrington, Church Historian. This Documentary History relies heavily on his transcriptions and research and also includes an exhaustive survey of pioneer diaries and letters with references.
On June 7, 1844, Joseph Smith ordered the destruction of the Nauvoo Expositor. As a result of this action, warrants for his arrest were issued that led to incarceration in Carthage and ultimately to his death. In the current aftermath of the October 2014 LDS.org essays on polygamy, more LDS Church members are becoming acquainted with the details of Kirtland and Nauvoo polygamy and the role it played in the destruction of the Nauvoo Expositor press. Many members have never heard of the Council of 50 as well as the effect this council may have had on historical events.
The Nauvoo Expositor had only one issue but there was a second issue planned exposing the Council of 50, the crowning of Joseph Smith as King and his plans for world dominion. “By June 1844, Smith’s plan for the Council were unraveling…his former counselor in the first presidency, William Law, released a prospectus for a newspaper to be called the Nauvoo Expositor that included a teaser about Joseph Smith being a ‘self-constituted monarch,’ and the first issue of the paper, published on June 7, indicated that the next issue would be devoted in part to the secret government that had been meeting under Smith’s direction. This signaled that the sacred confidence of the general counsel had been violated. Distraught, Smith told Clayton to get rid of the council records by burning, hiding, or burying them. Clayton chose the latter. As the events of that month progressed Smith convinced the Nauvoo City Council to destroy the opposition press.” (Pages 7-8)
And yet, despite 40 years of operation under three different church presidents, if you ask the average member the LDS church about the Council of 50, he or she would most likely not know how to respond. The Council of Fifty has largely faded away into an “intriguing footnote of Mormon history.” (Editor’s preface) Years later, and under the direction of President Taylor, “A few council members recognized that the Edmunds act had ‘not been made against polygamy, but against the church and the kingdom of God.’ Frederick T Dubois acknowledged that he and others ‘we’re not nearly so much opposed to polygamy as we were to the political domination of the church,’ that they ‘made use of polygamy… as our great weapon of offense and to gain recruits to our standard.'” (Page 13, footnote 41)
Benjamin F Johnson recorded this insight in his autobiography: “About this time he (Joseph Smith) organized his Council of 50—The embryo kingdom of God on earth—an organization distinct from the church, a nucleus of popular government which will exist for all people when heathen are giving (up) for an inheritance, and the uttermost parts of the earth as a possession ‘to Him whose right it is to reign’; a government forms of representatives from every nation, principality or tribe upon the earth; a government of God for the people and by the people, in which people will be talk to know his origin himself…” (Page 33)
A month after it’s organization, in a meeting held on April 11, 1844, William Clayton indicated that “Smith was ‘voted our PP and King with loud Hosannas.’ Footnote 10 indicates that this stands for “Prophet, Priest and King.” Similarly, a story in the Michigan Signal of Liberty, November 4, 1844, reported that Joseph Smith had been “crowned king of Israel in 1844 by a council of 50,” that “The 50 were all sworn to secrecy. I had the facts from one who assisted at the coronation–divulged since Joe’s death.” (Page 45, footnote 53) But clearly the Council of 50 was not a government alone. It was also an organization that was designed to protect polygamy and maintain strict secrecy about a practice that was not only hugely unpopular but illegal. Johnson continues that the Council of 50, “…will continue through the millennial period as the outer wall or government around the inner temple of the priesthood, until all are come to the knowledge of God.” (Page 33)
The Council of 50 was of course also involved in the more mundane affairs of governing the Church. They sent expeditions to scout out plots of land, sent people on missions, disciplined members, and (during Brigham Young’s time) planned the exodus to Utah. They were also involved in “political campaigning” and “lobbying congress” to address grievances. (Editor’s preface) George Miller stated in a letter that “It was further determined in Council that all the elders should set out on missions to all the states, get up electoral tickets, and do everything in our power to have Joseph Smith elected president, and if we succeeded in making a majority of the voters converts to our faith and elected Joseph Smith, in such an event the dominion of the kingdom would be forever established in the United States. And if not successful, we could but fall back on Texas, and be a kingdom notwithstanding.” (page 49)
Intense secrecy guarded the Council of YTFIF (FIFTY) and members were required to take oaths of secrecy similar to the oaths found in the Anointed Quorums and LDS temple ceremonies. Footnote 9 states that, “because the proceedings of the council were supposed to be secret, an attempt was made to spell some terms backward to avoid detection, although not always successfully.” (Page 19) The Council sometimes referred to themselves in secret writings as the Kingdom of God, or the “K of G.” Words were often abbreviated to obscure meaning. There were also tantalizing plays on words: “Our great success at present depends upon our faith in the doctrine of election; and our faith must be made manifest in our works, but every honorable exertion…to elect General Joseph Smith.” (page70, emphasis mine) Footnote 99 points out the “play on the two meanings of election.” Their clandestine meetings had a “cloak and dagger” feeling reminiscent of Joseph Smith marrying one of his wives (Louisa Beaman) outdoors while she was dressed as a man to conceal her identity and the occasion. (Todd Compton, In Sacred Loneliness, Page 59) William Clayton mentioned that the council would send men on missions who were in trouble with the law for polygamy and “hunted by writs” so that if possible they could “evade the blow until we can finish the temple and the Nauvoo house.” (Page 89)
Roger’s Documentary brings up as many questions about secrecy as it answers. Consider the following letter from Willard Richards to Reuben Hedlock: “We will pay your wife as you requested in your letter as soon as possible…Let nobody know your business but the underwriters; our wives know not all our business, neither does any wise man’s wife know all things; for the secret of the Lord is with those that fear him and do his business: it’s the wisest sufficient; but we will add, if you want us to do anything for your wife, write us and we will do it: the keep your business from your wife, and from everybody else.” (page 53, underlining original) Why was Reuben’s wife owed money? Why were the women left out of the deliberations of the Council of 50 or at least informed of its decisions? (Women at that time were allowed to be members of the secret Anointed Quorum.) What business of the council was being kept from “everybody else?”
There were also real consequences for divulging secrets or disregarding the council’s counsel. William Clayton wrote in his journal: “if men step beyond his bounds he will lose his kingdom as Lucifer did and it will be given to other who are more worth.” (Page 88) Or take the example of James Emmett, who was being disciplined by the Council of the 50 and was told, “If you don’t abide council you will go to hell.” (page 80) On May 10, 1845, the Council met to discipline David D. Yearsely for “treachery.” Footnote 37 states that this treachery was “divulging the Council of 50 proceedings and possible apostasy.” (Page 105) The council was also involved in several prominent excommunications, for example, “on 8 September 1844…Sydney Rigdon was tried and excommunicated from the church.” (Page 40) Also, William Law was removed from the first presidency in January 1844 and excommunicated in April. “Troubled by rumors of polygamy, he (Law) became a principal driver behind the Nauvoo Expositor. Later he settled in Wisconsin with his brother Wilson who is also involved in the Expositor.” (Page 41, footnote 46) Willard Richards also claimed, “It is all their secret instruction that is trying to cut our throats. I would just as soon be showed at present the knife to my throat. (Page 80)
By anyone’s estimation, Joseph Smith was an ambitious individual. In his lifetime, he founded a religion, dictated several books of scripture, received countless revelations from God, and married over 33 women. In an announcement of the martyrdom, John Taylor told Joseph Smith’s followers that he, “Joseph Smith, the Prophet and Seer of the Lord, has done more, save Jesus only, for the salvation of men in this world, than other man that ever lived in it.” (Doctrine and Covenants 135:3)
Joseph Smith didn’t just organize a government; he organized what he considered to be the only government approved of by God. Orson Pratt thought the Kingdom of God was “the only legal government that can exist in any part of the universe. All other governments are illegal and unauthorized.” (Page 8) John D Lee recorded in his diary that “This Council of fifty…is the municipal department of the kingdom of God on the earth, and from which all law emanates, for the rule, government and control of all nations and kingdoms and tongues and People under the whole Heavens…” (Page 142) Lyman Wight, who was later sent to found colonies in Texas, believed “the church stands regularly organized to bear off the kingdom triumphantly over the head of every opposition, and to establish Zion no more to be thrown down forever.” (Pages 3, 4) George Miller, believed “the majority of the voters” in The Republic of Texas could be converted to Mormonism, thereby establishing a “dominion” within the United States that would flourish after Smith was elected US president. (Pages 3 -4) This was to be a literal government to usher in the coming of Christ. Notes from a meeting in Nauvoo on February 27, 1845 reveal that “Brigham Young had found out that we are in the Eternity; the Millennium has now commenced.” (Page 83)
The Council of Fifty, A Documentary History was a real page turner for me, but not in the sense that I read this particular book quickly. As I read a quote, I would find myself looking up other documents from the same time period. If a quote from Joseph Smith’s Journal was included, I found myself pulling out my copy of his journal only to discover that in some instances the particular quote had been edited out! It is certainly not an easy read. There is very little dialogue (except in the preface) and no story or context to tie the quotes together. It is just what it claims to be, a documentary history or a collection of quotes. With my newfound knowledge of the workings of the Council of 50 in mind, I was able to fill in a lot of gaps in my knowledge of early church history. This book is exhaustive in scope and carefully researched. I am all the more excited for the eventual day when William Clayton’s diaries will be released from the vaults and I can fill in more gaps in my own family’s history.