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On March 11, 1844, Joseph Smith, the Mormon prophet, admitted several men to a special council that would come to be known as the Council of Fifty. Smith said that this council formed the nucleus for the Kingdom of God that would grow on the earth. Some scholars (particularly Hansen 1967 / 1974) have argued that the Council of Fifty was the driving agent of Mormon history between 1844 and the late 1800s. However, more recent research has revealed that the impact of the council was less substantial, though still significant.
Smith organized the council in an attempt to fulfill the Biblical prophecy in Daniel 2:44, "And in the days of these kings shall the God of heaven set up a kingdom, which shall never be destroyed; and the kingdom shall not be left to other people, but it shall break in pieces and consume all these kingdoms, and it shall stand forever." This was to be the body that would govern the world during Jesus Christís millennial rein on earth. While the president of the church was also the standing chairman of the council, and nearly all of the members of the churchís First Presidency of and Quorum of Twelve Apostles served on the council, the body was to be largely independent of the ecclesiastical organization of the church. Whatever autonomy the group initially held diminished over time until the ecclesiastical hierarchy of the church subsumed the duties of the Council of Fifty.
While the council never seemed to function to the extent that Smith envisioned it could, it still had important effects on the course of Mormonism. The first significant duty was to oversee Joseph Smithís 1844 presidential campaign. Members of the council did traveled throughout the U.S. to support the campaign and to teach the gospel of Mormonism. Uriah Brown, one of the council, chaired the political convention at Nauvoo that nominated Smith as a candidate for the Presidency (Quinn 1980: 181). While Smithís candidacy was clearly destined for failure, any impact his campaign could have had on public opinion was cut short when he was shot in June 1844.
Under the leadership of Brigham Young, the Council played an important role in organizing and executing the exodus of the Saints from Nauvoo, Illinois to the Great Basin region in Utah. Earlier deliberations in the Council had sent scouts to Texas. The plans to move to Texas seem to have been well-developed. A treaty between the Mormons and the government of Texas had been drafted and awaited final approval from both groups. However, it was in the midst of these negotiations that Joseph Smith was killed. Lyman Wight, Lucien Woodworth and George Miller sought to revive the plans of the council to relocate the saints in the Republic of Texas (not yet annexed to the U.S.) Under the leadership of Brigham Young (Hansen 1967: 82-89), however the locus of the exodus shifted to the Salt Lake Valley. Wight believed that his Smithís Council of Fifty assignment to establish a colony in Texas superceded his calling as an apostle, and was excommunicated for his attempts to move the Saints to Texas. Woodworth and Miller were also dropped from the council. James Emmett, who had been appointed by the Council of Fifty to explore California and Oregon led a group of 100 saints (without approval) to establish a colony, and was subsequently disfellowshipped from the church (Arrington 1985: 121-2). The decision to stay away from Texas proved to be wise, as the relations between Mexico and Texas were tenuous at best, and often marked by violent conflict. The decision to avoid California and Oregon was based on the fear that Missourians and other frontier enemies of the Saints were migrating West. Thus, Young settled on Utah.
Young organized the migrating Saints into 25 groups of 100 families. The first group was supervised by the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, while the remaining 24 were supervised by individuals, a majority of whom were members of the Council of Fifty. Under Youngís leadership, individuals who were not members of the Council but had importance to the exodus were invited to attend the meetings (A change from the secret deliberations of the council under Smith). These groups were subdivided into groups of 50 and then 10 families, with captains at the head of each group. In this manner, the Saints left Nauvoo to what is now Council Bluffs, Iowa, where they spent the winter.
During the course of the exodus, the council was spread out and therefore was unable to assemble a quorum (half of the members) to meet. However, many of the members served in leadership capacities where they could see that the exodus was carried out in accordance with the Councilís wishes. Additionally, when leadership meetings were held, members of the council who were able were invited to attend and participate.
The first group of saints reached the Salt Lake Valley June 24, 1847. That August, Brigham and several members of the Council of the church returned to Winter Quarters, Nebraska to assist in the removal of the remaining saints there and along the trail. They left an ecclesiastical High Council (a body of local leaders) in charge of local affairs. Five members of this council, including the councilís top two leaders, were members of the Council of Fifty. This began the theocratic rein of the church in the Utah territory.
When Brigham Young and the others returned to the Salt Lake Valley in December of 1848, the Council of Fifty formally took over as the provisional government of the Saints. Minutes from the Councilís meetings show the broad legislative power that it exercised. They defined the boundaries of the territory, oversaw the procurement of public arms, organized a militia, contracted for public works projects, established standards of weights and measures, planned city development (including public spaces), and created laws defining crimes and punishments (Andrus 1958, 92-96).
The Saints then turned toward gaining recognition from the United States Government. They drafted a constitution, and set a date for elections. The Council of Fifty met and moved the election date earlier than the date set by the constitution. Elections were held March 1849, where a slate of officers would be listed, and voters could either approve or disapprove. A democratic political convention assembled the list of proposed officers, but a slate drafted by the Council of Fifty (which differed somewhat from the slate of the convention) actually appeared on the ballot and prevailed. Some of the offices prescribed in the Constitution were not filled by the Councilís slate, and others that were not mentioned in the constitution were listed (Arrington 1985: 223-4). All officials in this government were members of the Council of Fifty. This territorial government took power in July 1849.
In September 1850, Congress passed a law organizing the territory of Utah. Gaining territorial status and then statehood were objects of the council, but attaining these goals also made it difficult to see how a dependent state would be organized as the Kingdom of God on earth.
Under the reign of the Council, there had been no separation of church and state; after the election, the Council began to cede its governmental authority to the territorial government. As the councilís civil power diminished, the leading bodies of the LDS church (the Quroum of the Twelve Apostles and the First Presidency) began to take control of the political activities of the church. The council continued to meet until Oct. 1851, when most members seemed to lose interest in participation, probably due to the transfer of power to the territorial government.
Though the Council only formally governed in the Utah territory for a short time, its legacy is substantial. They planned began to build the physical and legal infrastructure of the State of Utah. Additionally, its members held prominent positions in the government (though over time, the practice came to be appointing political figures too the council, and not the reverse-see Quinn 1980: 182).
The council met sporadically through the late 19th century, with a few meetings under the leadership of John Taylor (Youngís successor) to select political candidates and to discuss issues related to polygamy, though in these circumstances, the council was more of a discussion forum than a decision-making body. The last meeting of the council was held in 1884.
Today, LDS political activities continue to be guided by the churchís First Presidency. However, faithful Latter-Day Saints who are familiar with the millennial prophecies of their faith anticipate the eventual revitalization of the Council of Fifty and the political Kingdom of God.
Andrus, Hyrum L. 1958. Joseph Smith and world government. Deseret Book: Salt Lake City, UT.
Arrington, Leonard J. 1985. Brigham Young: American Moses. Alfred A. Knopf: New York.
Hansen, Klaus J. 1967. Quest for empire: The political Kingdom of God and the Council of Fifty in Mormon history. Michigan State University Press: East Lansing, MI.
Quinn, D. Michael. 1980. The Council of Fifty and its members, 1844-1945. Brigham Young University Studies 20(winter): 163-97.
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See also World Government -- Not IF but WHOSE