Five fascinating facts about the Council of Fifty

The Council of Fifty was a secret organization founded by the Prophet Joseph Smith in 1844. The previously inaccessible records — or minutes — kept by the group remained a source of much speculation until they were made public in 2016. A new book titled “The Council of Fifty: What the Records Reveal about Mormon History” contains 15 essays about various topics of interest from the minutes of the council.

Among the many insights shared in the book are five fascinating facts about the Council of Fifty minutes.

1. The minutes are a manuscript of mystery.

In “The Council of Fifty,” Nathan B. Oman opens his essay, “In the spring of 1844, Joseph Smith created a secret organization, the Council of Fifty.”

The organization that was secretive in 1844 grew only more mysterious with time. Joseph directed his clerk, William Clayton, to either hide or destroy the minutes of the council shortly before he was murdered in June 1844.

Clayton chose to hide the records. Soon after the martyrdom of Joseph Smith, he dug them up and they remained in the possession of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. However, the minutes were restricted and not made available to the public. As Mormon history grew in popularity, the minutes increasingly gained a mysterious reputation until they were made public in 2016.

2. Joseph Smith had several reasons to run for president.

Most Mormons know Joseph Smith ran for president of the United States in 1844. But did he run for president to do missionary work, to protest government treatment of the Mormons, or because he actually thought he could win?

The answer is a combination of all these possibilities — and more. Since the Council of Fifty served as Joseph Smith’s de facto campaign management team, the minutes provide a number of previously unknown insights, including details on what the Council thought about the odds of winning the election.

Spencer W. McBride, contributor to “The Council of Fifty,” explains the Council believed a victory was possible but would take an actual miracle. He writes, “They appear to have believed that his candidacy would ultimately require some form of divine intervention in order to succeed.”

There is no simple or singular motive for Joseph Smith’s presidential campaign. Instead, the minutes reveal he ran for a variety of reasons.

3. The Council of Fifty tried to write a document to supersede the U.S. Constitution.

After repeatedly failing to secure U.S. government protections against violent enemies, the Council of Fifty set out to institute a new government — and a new constitution.

A committee of four familiar Mormon figures was charged with seeking inspiration for the constitution, namely John TaylorWillard RichardsWilliam W. Phelps and Parley P. Pratt.

Interestingly, Joseph Smith declined to participate in the writing of the constitution, expressing instead his desire committee members put all of their strength into the efforts and then seek him out if and when they were unsuccessful.

The committee was ultimately unsuccessful. In a peculiar swing of events, the prophet proceeded to deliver a revelation from God in which the council members themselves were identified as a living constitution inasmuch as they sought divine aid.

In “The Council of Fifty,” Oman records the text of the revelation from the minutes, “Verily thus saith the Lord, ye are my constitution, and I am your God, and ye are my spokesmen. From henceforth do as I shall command you. Saith the Lord.”

4. The minutes contain lost teachings of church leaders.

The Council of Fifty minutes contain a surprising number of teachings by LDS Church leaders previously lost to history.

For example, the minutes include teachings of Joseph Smith on the importance of thinking for yourself before asking God for help and the essential role of religious freedom in godly government. Miscellaneous teachings of the prophet include warnings against judgment and various sins.

The lost teachings are so notable Gerrit J. Dirkmaat, contributor to “The Council of Fifty,” predicts, “Some of these priceless insights will no doubt eventually make their way into lesson manuals, general conference talks, Sunday School lessons and other Latter-day Saint literature.”

5. The minutes are filled with contradictions and contingencies.

One of the fascinating insights of the minutes is how rarely the Council pursued a single idea and accomplished what it set out to do.

Like any group attempting ambitious change, the meetings were sometimes filled with passionate conversations that went off the rails. When decisions were made, they could often be characterized more as grand ideals than actual blueprints for action.

Decisions that did call for action were often contradictory. For example, the Council of Fifty made efforts both to strengthen its ties to the U.S. government and form a new government entirely. Joseph Smith was put up for president both to symbolically protest poor treatment by the government and to literally effect actual change by winning. And so on.

Rather than definitively answer our questions about many of the issues faced by the Council of Fifty, the minutes instead show an active body anxiously engaged in the simultaneous pursuit of often contradictory goals.

 

This article appeared in the Deseret News on February 2, 2018.

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