The announcement in September 2013 that the LDS Church would be publishing a transcript of the Council of Fifty minutes came as welcome news to the Mormon scholarly community. Previously considered confidential and kept in the First Presidency’s vault, the record had been unavailable for reading and research for 160 years. This secrecy had two consequences: debate and speculation among the scholarly community about the record’s contents, and complete ignorance of the council among most average Church members. But at long last, the transcript was published in 2016 as the sole volume in the Administrative Records series of the Joseph Smith Papers: The Joseph Smith Papers, Administrative Records: Council of Fifty Minutes, March 1844–January 1846, ed. Matthew J. Grow and others (Salt Lake City: The Church Historian’s Press).
While the publication is a welcome and valuable addition to the corpus of publically available documents on Church history, it is likely difficult for most readers to comb through the eight-hundred-page tome (complete with over one thousand footnotes) and glean what is new and important in the record. The solution? A compilation of fifteen essays, written by historians for a broad audience, on the new insights found in the Council of Fifty minutes.
The Council of Fifty: What the Records Reveal about Mormon History begins with an introduction briefly outlining the history of the council and explaining the decision to publish the record and make it available to the public for the first time. The fifteen articles that follow cover a variety of topics that touch on the nature of the council and how it functioned, as well as its objectives and influence in the Mormon community. Some of the topics covered include Joseph Smith’s campaign for the US presidency, the concept of “theodemocracy,” religious liberty, significant statements made by Church leaders in council meetings, and what the minutes reveal about Brigham Young’s leadership style and personality. The volume also discusses the council’s constitution, record-keeping practices, mission to reach out to American Indians, efforts to complete the Nauvoo House, and role in preparing for the Saint’s westward migration.
Both of the editors for the volume currently work in the LDS Church History Department. Matthew J. Grow is the director of publications in the department and a general editor for the Joseph Smith Papers, and R. Eric Smith is the editorial manager for the Joseph Smith Papers Project. Both were heavily involved in the publication of the full transcript of the Council of Fifty minutes. Several of the other contributors to the volume are also historians with the Joseph Smith Papers Project, and others are scholars in Mormon studies from several different universities and organizations.
Clocking in at just two hundred pages, this book is an accessible introduction to a record and an organization that has long been shrouded in mystery and speculation. At the end of the introduction, the editors state they “hope that this collection of essays both increases public knowledge about the Council of Fifty and spurs further scholarship” (xv). Meant to be a starting point for future discussion, this compilation will be helpful to any reader or scholar interested in learning about the Council of Fifty or wishing to enhance their study of the complete council minutes.