The Joseph Smith Papers

Administrative Records, Council of Fifty, Minutes, March 1844 - January 1846

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Matthew J. Grow, Ronald K. Esplin, Mark Ashurst-McGee, Jeffrey D. Mahas, Gerrit J. Dirkmaat
  • Salt Lake City, UT: 
    Church Historian's Press
    , September
     788 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


This volume of The Joseph Smith Papers is far from sensational and that is what makes it such an important contribution. This volume discloses the minutes from the long-mysterious Council of Fifty over which Joseph Smith Jr., Mormonism’s founder, presided. This council was administered with “the purpose of laying the foundation for a theocracy in preparation for the millennial reign of Jesus Christ” (xx). This “literal kingdom” was separate—somewhat—from the church, or perhaps more accurately, it seems to have viewed itself that way. To this point, the volume points to Smith himself who clarified, “the literal kingdom of God [that is, the Council of Fifty], and the church of God are two distinct things” as “the laws of the kingdom are not designed to affect our salvation hereafter” (xxiii). In short, the Council of Fifty saw itself as the earthly theocratic government, anointed by deity, and given stewardship over His chosen people.

The history surrounding the minutes of this council is, perhaps, more interesting than their actual content. The minutes were originally recorded by one William Clayton. Before Smith’s murder he tasked Clayton with “burn[ing] the minutes in consequence of treachery and plots of designing men.” In his last few days Smith reiterated this point, giving Clayton this time the option of either “burn[ing] the records … or put[ting] them in some safe hands … or else bury[ing] them” (xxxiii). Clayton, to the historian’s benefit, chose to bury rather than burn, and concealed the records in his garden. These records, which found their way into the historical department of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, remained in suppression as if still following the charge of their long-pasted prophet. In their concealment, rumor and speculation abounded as to the content of the minutes of this all but—at the time—unknown forgotten memory.

This volume’s greatest contribution to the study of Mormonism is the settling of this speculation. Upon first reading, the minutes appear typical of what the familiar scholar would expect from each personality. There are no dramatic switches or historical deviations. The scholar familiar with the actors of early Mormonism will likely not find surprises in this volume. The council is concerned with issues of religious liberty, minority rights, and finding a new home for the Latter-day Saints—all topics one would expect to arise from this historical moment. As the reader peruses the text they are led by a peppering of notes and commentary, all of which increase the accessibility of the volume and serve to contextualize the source material.

Of greater interest perhaps is what this volume says about Mormonism in this historical moment. Historians waited literally two centuries for the release of Clayton’s minutes. Only now, in an instance of what could be deemed significantly heightened transparency, have these minutes been released. In that sense, this volume is valuable not simply for understanding Mormonism’s founders but also for making sense of a moment where their decedents have put their history in comparatively greater demand.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Taylor Kirby is a graduate student pursuing concurrent Masters' degrees in education and religious studies at Claremont Graduate University.

Date of Review: 
July 7, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Matthew J. Grow is a historian for the Church History Department, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Ronald K. Esplin is a historian for the Church History Department, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Mark Ashurst-McGee is a historian for the Church History Department, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Jeffrey D. Mahas is a historian for the Church History Department, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Gerrit J. Dirkmaat is an assistant professor of religion at Brigham Young University.


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