Jedidiah Rogers has recently published a book on the Council of Fifty. For those of you who have never heard of the Council of Fifty, it was a “quorum” set up by Joseph Smith in preparation for his U.S. Presidential campaign in 1844. One of the most unusual aspect of this council was the fact that it contained 3 non-Mormon members. Some people have wondered if the Council of Fifty had done some nefarious deeds. I asked author Jedidiah Rogers some questions, so I thought it would be interesting to post a little Q&A. He will stop by and answer any other question you have, so feel free to participate in this online discussion!
1) I understand there were non-Mormons in the Council, but did they play a leading or minor role?
A very minor role in the council’s operations but, I suppose, a larger role in the way we remember the council. That Joseph Smith admitted three of them into the original body organized in the spring of 1844 suggests that he considered the political kingdom of God to be more than a church organization. One member later described it as “a Shield round about the church.” The council seems to have been Smith’s attempt to usher in a new era of divine political governance that would inaugurate Christ’s millennial reign, and he evidently believed that non-Mormons would play a role. As a political body, responsible for the governance of Mormons and gentiles, Smith brought into the group individuals who were political allies but not members of the church. Edward Bonney and Marinus Eaton, two of the non-Mormons initiated into the council, served as Smith’s personal aide-de-camp. Uriah Brown, the third and eldest non-Mormon member, impressed the council with his supposed “invention of liquid fire to destroy an army & navy.” Smith trusted all three of them, in the words of William Clayton, to keep their “covenants” to “maintain all things inviolate agreeable to the order of the Council.”
2) Were they a shadow government?
Benjamin Johnson, a council member, referred to it as Smith’s “private council.” Others often mentioned that the council discussed matters in confidence. Clayton, in recording that Smith was “voted our P P & K with loud Hosannas,” was clearly hesitant to write out “Prophet, Priest, and King.” Others, including Smith in his diary kept by one of his scribes, spelled words backwards. Indeed, the council did address sensitive matters—not least the possibility of relocating in the Republic of Texas or Mexico’s “Upper California”—and Smith must have recognized that the theocratic nature of the council and its designs would raise eyebrows, even in nineteenth-century America.
In part because of the secrecy of the council, there is this myth, or series of myths, that have grown up around the council—the idea that it was a shadow government in Utah Territory at least until 1870, possibly later, and the idea that vestiges of the council continued to operate in Utah, particularly in the aspirations among church officials for political and even world domination. It is true that even though the council did not meet between 1851 and 1867 or from 1868 to 1880, members of the body were selected for political office. But we simply don’t have evidence that the Council of Fifty actively operated in the political shadows, so to speak, and I highly doubt that it exists in any form today.
3) What was their original intent when they came to Utah? Why were all the leaders of the Utah exodus in the council?
Smith designed the Council of Fifty in part to locate a place to resettle—or partially relocate—his people somewhere in the West, and under Young the council played a leading role in the Mormon exodus to the Great Basin. Council meetings beginning in 1845 focused on westward preparations, organizing wagon companies headed mostly by council members, and suggesting supplies necessary for the journey. 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.
But what his intentions were is still elusive. Did Young intend to establish a Mormon “state” outside the jurisdiction of the United States? I don’t think we have adequate 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.
4) 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.
Here’s a flavor of some of what the council was up to during its governance in the Great Basin. When the Fifty convened in late 1848 it met in difficult circumstances, as the winter of 48-49 was harsh. On Jan 6, 1849, the council assumed municipal duties from high council, appointed men to go to Utah Valley to seek out stock range, sent men to establish fisheries on Utah Lake, others to establish a tannery, still others to go east to buy sheep; and after those assignments the council granted to only Brigham Young and Heber Kimball the “privilege of fencing in as much of the table lands and the spurs of the mountains east of the city, as they wish for pasturage.” In other meetings the council addressed a range of business matters: finding ways to save cattle from starvation, requiring no corn to be made into whiskey, erecting an armory, imposing taxes, redistributing money and food to those that had little, surveying streets and fencing farm lots, constructing canals, locating the site of the SL cemetery, organizing the Nauvoo legion, prohibiting “cutting Spanish rusty,” and on and on.
5) In the temple ceremonies, we are all promised that we can become kings and queens to God. It seems like Brigham Young (and perhaps John Taylor) were crowned kings during one of these meetings. Is this related to the temple ceremonies, or was it a different ceremony?
Joseph Smith was crowned, too, though available records offer only the terse notation that he was “voted our P. P. & King with loud Hosannas.” We know more about John Taylor’s coronation on February 4, 1885, in which he was “anointed & set apart as a King Priest and Ruler over Israel on the Earth, over Zion & the Kingdom under Christ, our King of Kings.” These ceremonies mirrored in some ways the language of the temple, but were also wholly distinct from it. The designations certainly held symbolic significance, similar to temple rites, 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.
The coronations and other sensitive matters were also accomplished in the highest of confidences. As in Masonic and temple rites, initiates were sworn to secrecy. Like temple rites, council ordinances 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.
6) In the introduction of your book, you indicated that the LDS Church is planning on more info on the topic, so your book won’t be the last word. Do you think your book is motivating the church to do something they wouldn’t have prioritized earlier?
It’s true that the LDS church publicized eventual publication of the Council of Fifty Nauvoo minutes around the time that Signature Books announced its own volume, The Council of Fifty: A Documentary History. I was tempted then, and I suppose even now, to think that my volume prompted the church’s announcement; but, really, I doubt that was much the case. In fact, the fellas at the Church History Library have told me as much, and I have no reason to question them—that publication of the Nauvoo Council of Fifty minutes, which have always been locked in the First Presidency’s office vault, would be published as part of the Joseph Smith Papers project. But those of us active in the history community are all connected one way or another, and what happens in one corner reverberates in another. Signature has long been an important voice urging the conversation forward, and for that I think the guys and gals who run the shop ought to be given a lot of credit, even perhaps for prompting the LDS church to make the announcement a little earlier than they would have otherwise.
7) What else is important for us to understand about the Council of 50?
I might point out that anyone looking at the Council of Fifty will notice a tension between rhetoric and reality. The council discussed grandiose ideas—playing a pivotal role in the End Days, working to elect Joseph Smith as U.S. president, destroying an army and navy with an invention of “liquid fire”—that to some modern observers may seem absurd. Council members, interestingly, seemed to have thought them all probabilities. Council deliberations sometimes contained violent rhetoric, including some early utterances by Young on the doctrine of “blood atonement,” while simultaneously centering on the millennial dream of a utopian society. Historiographical debates suggest another dynamic: was the council a mere symbolic formality or did it represent the Mormon quest for real political power? Like most things historical, the answer in this case is not either/or.
Mike Quinn cautions historians not to confuse symbol and substance; indeed, within the structure of Mormonism the Council of Fifty was subservient to the First Presidency and the Twelve, at least under the reigns of Young and Taylor. Taylor’s anointing, Quinn argues, is a prime example of the symbolic nature of the Fifty. Still, readers will find ardent rhetoric of council members convinced they were part of something grand operating in the temporal realm. And we must not downplay the significance of the council in organizing and leading the trek west and as the governing body in the Salt Lake valley from 1848 to 1850. While their minds may have been, at times, hovering in the clouds, they also worked in the soil, and they expected results from their labors.
To my readers, what questions do you have about the Council of 50?