Interview with editor of early-LDS Council of 50 papers

Friday , December 19, 2014 - 2:17 PM

By DOUG GIBSON, Standard-Examiner Opinion Editor

The Council of 50, established in 1844 in Nauvoo, was Mormon prophet Joseph Smith’s vision of a theocratic government. It lasted for several decades, but was most active in the months prior to Smith’s murder. The papers include the excitement of a team exploring Texas as a potential exile site, as well as an overly optimistic trip to Washington D.C. to seek reparations for past abuses by violent Mormon haters. During the tenure of Brigham Young, the council’s influence declined, occasionally rising when a crisis arose. Below is an interview with Jedediah Rogers, the editor of the new volume from Signature Books, “The Council of 50: A Documentary History.”. 

What was the original purpose for the Council? How did Joseph Smith and others view a blend of government with theology?

“John D. Lee, writing in 1848, alluded to the Council of Fifty as “the Municipal department of the Kingdom of God set up on the Earth, and from which all Law eminates,” responsible “to council, deliberate & plan for the general good & upbuilding of the Kingdom of God on the Earth.” This description is as good as any I know. The council seems to have been Smith’s attempt to usher in a new era of divine political governance that would encompass the globe and inaugurate Christ’s millennial reign. I don’t think there’s any question Smith convinced his followers that the council would play a pivotal role in the unfolding cosmic events of the End Days. Smith called the council a “theodemocracy,” which seemed to fuse power in the hands of people with strict adherence to the dictates of divinity. He and his successors saw themselves as holding this divine-kingship, and they were even anointed as such in council meetings.

“In the short term, Smith employed the council to operate the machinery of his presidential run, to seek redress of “grievances” from the federal government, and to locate a place where his people would relocate in peace, without molestation from its neighbors.“

Why were they so secret?

”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 in secret. It’s a most curious chapter in Utah’s political history.“

Lyman Wight, how serious was the council's attempt to move to Texas? Was he correct in assuming that it was going to happen?

”Lyman Wight can be viewed as a tragic figure. He enjoyed the confidence of Smith but butted heads with Young, primarily over the question of resettlement in Texas. Smith did appoint Wight to send a small group to settle in Texas, and Wight remained committed to that mission. But we need to remember that Wight was not intimately involved in council deliberations. He only attended meetings from April to May 1844, and even in those meetings Texas was discussed as only one of many “satellite” communities to be potentially settled by Mormons. Wight was unwilling to bend when Young and the council decided to pursue a different path.

“Wight probably never intended to remain in Texas indefinitely. Like Smith, he expected a return to Independence, Missouri—the New Jerusalem—and in fact began the return trip in 1858 but died while enroute.”

How intense was the effort to get reparations from Washington D.C.? Did they realize it was a long shot or did they assume, based on faith, a lot of success?

“In 1844 the council attempted mightily to achieve reparations for wrongs done to Mormons in Missouri but made little progress. Beyond brief references in the record, little is known about how these requests were received by Congress. It is hard to know their motives, but based on their petitions, we can presume that they hoped for success. We know most about a petition, carried to the nation’s capital by Orson Hyde and Orson Pratt, seeking authorization to “raise a Company of one hundred thousand armed volunteers in the United States and Territories” to protect westward emigrants on the Oregon Trail. Although some congressman warmly welcomed the emissaries, the proposal was never seriously considered.“

What role did the Council play in the settlement of Utah?

”Historians agree that the council played a leading role in the migration to the Salt Lake Valley and was the governing body in the Great Basin from December 1848 to mid 1850. It passed laws and instituted legal statutes, acted as the judicial authority, and oversaw the growth of Salt Lake City. We have the council to thank for city planning in Salt Lake City, settlement of Utah Valley, exploration of southern Utah, the location of the Salt Lake City cemetery, and a host of other achievements. The council’s record becomes all the more significant when we consider that we know relatively less about the first years of the Mormons in the Salt Lake Valley than the rest of the pioneer era, especially in matters of governance. The official territorial records don’t start until 1851.“

What was their intent when they came to Utah? Where did they think they were going in the first place?

”For some reason, the answer to the first question is still elusive. 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 in 1847 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 States territory, Young and many of his associates probably anticipated that it would eventually become so, and he 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 of the council, to be published by the LDS church, will illuminate this question.

“The other question is easier to answer: by late 1845 Young had settled on relocating to the “interior basin” of what was at that time Upper California, encompassing what later became California, Nevada, Utah, and Arizona. From the report of John C. Fremont, a politically suave explorer and western promoter, the council pinpointed the Salt Lake Valley or the Bear River Valley to the north as the place to create a Mormon homeland. They pored over his map. Young knew where he wanted to go.“

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