New Essay: The Council of Fifty and American Democracy

This week marks the official release of a new essay collection, The Council of Fifty: What the Records Reveal about Mormon History (BYU Religious Studies Center), edited by Matthew Grow and Eric Smith. The volume contains fifteen chapters, each from a different author. The Council of Fifty was a secretive organization established by Joseph Smith in 1844 during the final months of his life. It sought to build a theocratic government based on divine laws and ruled by God’s priesthood. Historians of early Mormonism have salivated over the existence of its private minutes, which had been closed off to researchers since the moment of its creation. The Joseph Smith Papers Project published them for the first time last year. As I wrote in my review essay at the time, the minutes don’t contain anything shockingly new, but they do add crucial insights into the ironies of America’s democratic tradition.

I was very happy to include a chapter in this new book. Titled “The Council of Fifty and the Perils of Democratic Governance,” it situates the council within the context of antebellum American political thought. Specifically, it looks at the vibrant dialogue that took place on the afternoon of April 18th—just hours after they unveiled the draft for a new constitution—when council members debated two questions, each raised by Willard Richards: 1) Was there a separation between church and state? and 2) Should a society remain wedded to its founding ideals, or evolve over time? The answers to these problems were remarkably divergent. (Indeed, one of the best parts of the Council of Fifty minutes is it provides the voices of many non-elite Nauvoo citizens.) My essay traces the intellectual genealogy for these debates as well as their relationship to mainstream American thought.

Here’s an excerpt from the conclusion:

The Council of Fifty was, in an important way, a direct response to two issues central to American political culture, where were aptly embodied in Willard Richards’s two questions: what is the proper relationship between church and state? And how should a government evolve in response to the circumstances in which it governs? The Mormon answers to these questions were, admittedly, radical (not to mention short lived). The Church adopted America’s system of democratic governance by the twentieth century, and Mormons are seen as that tradition’s biggest defenders today. But in 1844, no solution to the problem of democratic rule appeared definitive. Within two decades, the nation would go to war over the issue of political sovereignty. And in many respects, the same questions posed by Richards remain precariously unanswered even today. So even if the Council of Fifty does not provide resolutions that are relevant for the twenty-first century, the anxieties from which they were birthed are anything but irrelevant.

As per my usual goal, I tried to prove the broader contextual relevance of the radical Mormon experience. I hope the essay will be interesting not only to those who follow Mormon history, but also people who study American religious and political history writ large.

I haven’t been able to read through all the essays in the volume yet, but the few that I have looked at were quite smart. I liked the book’s framing: all the essays are brief and efficient. (We were limited to 3,000 words.) It should therefore serve as a good reference work for scholars, students, and interested readers in the future.

For those in Utah, there are a couple of author-meets-reader events coming up. Editors will be speaking at Benchmark Books on Wednesday at 5:30, and at BYU on Thursday at 7. You can find more details about these events and the book in general at its facebook page.


  1. Lyman Forsythe · September 4, 2017

    Thanks again for the blog, the scholarship and the share,

  2. Pingback: Juvenile Instructor » 2017 in Retrospect: An Overview of Recent Books and Articles in Mormon History

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s