A few months before his death, Joseph Smith established the Council of Fifty, so called because it was composed of roughly 50 men. The council, Joseph taught, was a temporal or political body created to protect the Church and provide it space to flourish. He stated that it was “designed to be got up for the safety and salvation of the saints by protecting them in their religious rights and worship.”
The minutes of Council of Fifty meetings held in Nauvoo, Illinois, from 1844 to 1846 were published in September 2016 as part of the Joseph Smith Papers Project, an official project of the Church History Department. The minutes contain many hitherto unknown statements of Joseph Smith and other early Church leaders. Several of the statements by Joseph concern how Church members can make decisions according to inspiration and the council process.
Throughout his lifetime, Joseph Smith was deeply interested in the creation and proper functioning of councils. He taught that “the order of Councils in ancient days” had been shown to “him by vision.” Joseph hoped that the Council of Fifty would model the proper functioning of a council system.
A central responsibility of council members, Joseph instructed, was to offer candid commentary. He understood that sometimes people would be too deferential to his position and authority and would thus not share freely opinions with him. At the council’s first meeting, Joseph urged participants to “speak their minds” and “to say what was in their hearts whether good or bad.” He said he “did not want to be forever surrounded by a set of ‘dough heads’ and if they did not rise up and shake themselves and exercise themselves in discussing these important matters he should consider them nothing better than ‘dough heads.’ ” By “dough heads,” Joseph seemed to have meant “yes men” — people who would tell him what they thought he hoped to hear. He had no use for that type of council.
Rather, he envisioned a council of vigorous discussion. A few months later, Joseph told the council “that the reason why men always failed to establish important measures was because in their organization they never could agree to disagree long enough to select the pure gold from the dross by the process of investigation.” All council members had a right to speak on all issues.
Joseph Smith urged the council members to take their participation seriously. He expected them to attend the meetings, to arrive on time, and to fulfill and then report back on assignments that had been given. Decisions were to be arrived at unanimously. Joseph instructed the men that they should study a matter out in their own minds before agreeing to the council’s decisions: “I want every man to get knowledge, search the laws of nations and get all the information they can. There can be no exceptions taken to anything that any man can say in this council. I don’t want any man ever to assent to anything in this council and then find fault with it. Don’t decide in favor of anything until you know it.”
In addition, Joseph Smith taught that both members and leaders on the council had a right to revelation. He expected the “council to exert all their wisdom in this thing” and also to receive all the wisdom they could “from the presence of God.” At that point, “if it needs correction or enlargement,” he taught, “I am ready to give it.”
This deliberative process was followed, for example, as the council explored possible new settlement sites for the Saints. Council members initially suggested a broad range of sites, including Texas, California, Wisconsin, Oregon and the Rocky Mountains. Over the course of many months, the council studied the latest maps and reports of explorations and sent out men to gather as much information as possible and to seek possible political alliances. As new information came in, the council eliminated possibilities that were impractical.
Eventually the council began to focus on the Rocky Mountains and then the valley of the Great Salt Lake as the destination. Throughout this process, council members felt that they were being guided by revelation, but not until the time for departure neared did Brigham Young feel confident of the exact destination. On Jan. 13, 1846, as the Saints were preparing to leave their homes in Nauvoo, Brigham Young declared, “The Saying of the Prophets would never be verified unless the House of the Lord should be reared in the Tops of the Mountains and the Proud Banner of liberty wave over the valleys that are within the Mountains etc. I know where the spot is.”
Though the Council of Fifty did not continue to operate after the nineteenth century, the principles that it exemplified of candid and vigorous discussions leading to inspired decision-making remain relevant to Church members today.
•Matthew J. Grow is director of publications for the Church History Department and an editor of the recent Joseph Smith Papers volume publishing the Nauvoo-era Council of Fifty minutes.
•R. Eric Smith is an editorial manager with the Church History Department.