Nauvoo City and High Council Minutes


Minutes from the High Council meetings reveal political intrigue, religious strife, and interpersonal turmoil between high-ranking leaders of the church and their followers, including the fateful decision to destroy the Nauvoo Expositor. 

Mormon History Association Best Documentary Book Award

John Whitmer Historical Association Best Documentary Book Award

December 2011

SKU: 978-1-56085-214-8 Categories: , Tags: , , , , Author: John S. DingerProduct ID: 1438


Two incidents are particularly dramatic in this volume, thanks to the careful work of clerks who took the minutes, bringing to life some key moments in LDS history. One of the most memorable meetings of the city council occurred on June 10, 1844; the minutes capture the emotions as members debate whether to destroy the opposition newspaper, the Nauvoo Expositor. The publisher of the paper, Sylvester Emmons, had been a councilman until his June 8 expulsion for having “lifted his hand against the municipality of God Almighty.” As the hawkish councilmen became increasingly agitated, they began shouting slogans, asking whether the others had the nerve to do what was right and crush the newspaper. The answer was a sustained, raucous cheer.

“Yes resounded from every quarter of the room,” the clerk, Willard Richards, wrote. “Are we offering … to take away the right[s] of anyone [by] this [action][to]day?” one of the city councilmen, William Phelps, shouted. “No!!!” was the answer “from every quarter.” Should they also tear down the barn of newspaper editor Robert Foster? Yes! they said. By the time the meeting was over, the Nauvoo police, assisted  by 100 soldiers of the Nauvoo Legion, had “tumbled the press and materials into the street and set fire to them, and demolished the machinery with a sledge-hammer.”

Another gripping event occurred on September 8, 1844, when the high council gathered outdoors to accommodate large crowds for the trial of Sidney Rigdon of the First Presidency. A behind-the-scenes power struggle became evident as Brigham Young stepped forward to take control of the meeting, culminating in a request for a vote from the audience. Young asked everyone to “place themselves so that [he] could see them, so he would “know who goes for Sidney.” There followed a flurry of denunciations of various Church members who were summarily excommunicated by acclimation rather than by trial in a meeting lasting six hours.

Perhaps it all made sense if you were there and knew what the rules were, but for most people today, the history of Nauvoo seems like a parade of horribles. For instance, Henry Cook was brought before the high council on the charge of having sold his wife for her weight in catfish. He and the buyer were happy, but she was not. Henry was found innocent “under the circumstances” because “the cat fish woman” was found to be a shrew.

In another case, Joseph Smith charged William Sagers with “using my name in a blasphemous manner,” saying Smith had given him permission to sleep with his wife’s sister. William apologized, and within a month Joseph actually did give William official permission to marry his sister-in-law. This enraged his wife, Lucinda, who complained to the high council. In rejecting her complaint, the council said it had already acquitted Sagers and would not take up the case again. The minutes reveal that the trial was held in a room that was “crowded to excess’ with curious onlookers, which is vastly different than the strict privacy observed in LDS trials today.

In September 1845, the council considered the case of Amasa Bonney, who was charged with public drunkenness—an especially serious offense for a Latter-day Saint. But unfazed, Bonney “appeared [before the council] in a high state of intoxication, with a bottle in his pocket; and was soon in a state of sleep in the council room, whereupon it was voted unanimously that he be cut off from the Church.” Some people fared better and were both excommunicated and reinstated all in the same meeting because they quickly confessed and repented.

On the other side of a thin wall separating church and state in Nauvoo, the annals of the city council (as opposed to the high council) are just as curious. The council passed a law forbidding the sale of whiskey “in less quantity than a gallon.” In other words, whiskey could only be sold in large quantities. An exception was made for Joseph Smith, who pointed out that because his large home served as a hotel for visitors, he had been forced to build a bar in the foyer. He was therefore given permission to sell whiskey by the drink. From subsequent discussions, it seems to have been a profitable endeavor.

The city council dealt with all sorts of problems, large and small. In 1841 it threatened to kill free-roaming dogs and pigs, but two years later it had a change of heart. Now it specified that “cows, calves, sheep, goats, and harmless and inoffensive dogs shall be suffered to run at large as free commoners” without fear of harm. The reason for this was that Joseph Smith had decided “God withdrew his spirit from the earth … because the people were so ready to take the life of animals.”

The only thing more dramatic than the city’s response to everyday matters was its failings in local and national diplomacy. In 1843, when it had grown tired of negotiating with public officials from neighboring counties, the city council petitioned the U.S. Congress to see if Nauvoo could break away from the State of Illinois and become a free, independent city, also to ask if Joseph Smith might be given authority over U.S. troops! Despite a polite no from Washington, the city advised its lobbyists to be persistent, the mayor, Joseph Smith, advising them on how to persuade Senators by offering them drinks and entertainment.

All of which is to say that there are plenty of surprises in this volume for even a seasoned Mormon history buff—everything brought into sharp focus through the expertise of the editor, John S. Dinger. As one example of how the material has been placed into context for the reader, the city council complained that after the Nauvoo Expositor was destroyed, a “mob” gathered and was threatening the city. The police made a list of the mobocrats. As Dinger learned by looking up the named individuals, they were not terrorists but were the fifteen-to-seventeen-year-old sons of good Mormon families who had gathered to watch the spectacle of the police destroying the printing press.

John S. Dinger is a graduate of the S. J. Quinney College of Law, University of Utah, where he was an editor at the Utah Law Review. He is presently Deputy Prosecuting Attorney for Ada County in Boise, Idaho. He has published in the Idaho Law Review, Journal of Mormon History, and Utah Law Review. He is also the editor of the volume, Significant Textual Changes in the Book of Mormon: The First Printed Edition compared to the Manuscripts and the Subsequent Major LDS English Printed Editions and is a member of the editorial board of the Mormon History Association. He and his wife have three children.


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8 reviews for Nauvoo City and High Council Minutes

  1. Lachlan E. Mackay

    The Nauvoo City and High Council Minutes is one of the most critical resources available for anyone trying to untangle the complex story of Mormon Nauvoo.

  2. Lavina Fielding Anderson

    Open the cover of John Dinger’s edition of The Nauvoo City and High Council Minutes and find yourself in Nauvoo in February 1841 in a warm corner of Amos Davis’s parlor, listening to the formation of the Nauvoo Legion. Dinger, a knowledgeable guide, whispers in your year, explaining who John C. Bennett is. This extraordinarily vivid on-the-ground experience makes me want to bestow bouquets on every clerk, whether appointed or volunteer, who dutifully (and usually anonymously) records the stream of individual actions that make up the collective life of a community–present-day clerks take note!

  3. James E. Crooks

    Signature Books has added another gem to the histories of the early Mormon Church. The minutes of the Nauvoo City and the minutes of the Nauvoo Stake High Council of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints have been edited by Professor John S. Dinger in one volume for the first time. In the edited minutes and footnotes, the cast of characters play out their roles under a bright light from 1839 to 1845. Dinger includes biographical sketches of the councilmen of the City and Stake. The footnotes are rich with useful bibliographical references. The footnotes also provide a context of the minutes to the events in Nauvoo history. This early history during the leadership of the Prophet Joseph Smith is another pillar to Mormon history.

  4. Bryan Buchanan, Associated for Mormon Letter

    These days, it is fairly rare that a previously unpublished documentary source of importance appears. Buckle up. Signature Books has once again produced a gem in *The Nauvoo City and High Council Minutes* edited by John S. Dinger.

    While the Nauvoo high council minutes have appeared (albeit in somewhat abridged format) previously, only tantalizing excerpts here and there from the city council minutes have ever emerged. John Dinger brings his legal expertise to the table in a yeoman’s effort to produce coherent sets of minutes for both of these key Nauvoo decision-making bodies. Despite working almost until the point of no return from confusing transcripts, Dinger has compiled a fascinating chronology of the chaos that swirled almost constantly in Nauvoo.1

    The physical makeup of the minutes is practically as interesting—in both cases (city and high council), scribes would take contemporary rough notes which would then be transferred and cleaned up into bound minute books. In the case of the city council, one more step was added of producing a finished set of minutes suitable for publication. However, teasing gaps remain—the missing book containing the trial of John C. Bennett being the prime example. No other source that I have read gives such a feeling of being “on the ground”—one can easily grasp what issues were on the minds of citizens and how quickly those could change.

    Though Dinger himself muses about a true critical edition of the minutes appearing at some point, much of the footnoting serves just that purpose. The editor notes additional material that appears in either the loose minutes or the bound minute books and uses a system of symbols to show when he moves from one source type to another. Footnotes also give brief biographical details for participants and refer to other entries that shed greater light on the discussion at hand, perhaps the greatest value of the notes. Occasionally, the reader can sense the grief that Dinger went through trying to make sense of cryptic entries—at times, he admits that at a distance of 170 years, it is simply impossible.

    Leafing through the entries, one quickly notes the breadth of matters that the city council considered. In a unique “created” community where virtually no one had much experience in government, the reader sees a group consulting other cities for precedent and experimenting with ordinances. The entries cover the most mundane (dogs were clearly a pressing problem—several ordinances deal with them!) to matters such as what to do with the Nauvoo Expositor. The color of meetings dealing with the latter show through boldly in the minutes: W.W. Phelps asking whether they were trampling upon anyone’s rights, resounding answers of “No!” and resultant discussions of reimbursing those who had property destroyed with some council members stating they didn’t think such action would even be necessary. The meetings leading up to the final decision to suppress the Expositor (and take down Robert Foster’s barn as a casualty) are probably the climax of the book.

    Though histories of the period mention the dissent and commotion present in late Nauvoo, these entries bluntly show a city hurtling toward complete chaos in a way that a secondary history written at a distance of decades cannot. The minutes, though understandably dealing with tedious governmental matters at times, are fascinating for anyone with even a passing interest in Mormon history.

    The high council minutes don’t lag behind the city council in interesting subject material. In the period predating the formation of the city council, one can easily see the seamless blend of temporal and spiritual in their discussions. As time passes and secular matters move to the other body, the high council turns attention to hearing complaints. These range from the trivial (she took some of my trinkets, waah) to more important matters like what to do with Francis Gladden Bishop who would move in and out of favor until finally becoming a minor player in the succession events. The most riveting to me were the many trials of 1842 when polygamy begins to really be whispered about and people begin to claim authority from Joseph Smith to have sex with anyone they want. Candid depositions with a degree of detail unexpected in the Victorian era make for entertaining reading. The divide between the two Nauvoos—one composed of the elite privy to details and the general populace—is never more apparent than in reading this section. Council member Wilford Woodruff notes in his diary the “exhertion abo[u]t these days to clense the Church,” an effort that would only intensify as time passed.

    As might be expected in trying to annotate such a collection, there are some minor hiccups. The brief biographical details given on most of the people mentioned are in some cases helpful, others with little more than birth and death dates not so much. On the other side of the coin, Alanson Ripley gets two sketches (p 346, 364)! When mentioning that Hosea Stout had later filled in names of high council members mentioned at first only by number, Dinger occasionally anticipates that four members always appear when only two are mentioned (p 379 n 92, 380, n 97). There are a few typos also: “Alonson Ripley.” “Stephen C. LeSeuer,” “legal council,” etc. but, with such a large amount of data (names, dates, places) this is almost to be expected.

    A few more substantive issues came up—at this point in Mormon historiography, unqualified references to *History of the Church* are beginning to seem out of place. With the upcoming publication of Dan Vogel’s annotated edition of this source, one more barrier between reader and subject will be removed. Also, occasionally a footnote referring to a general topic could have used a little more oomph—for example, in a note dealing with attempts to publish the JST, Dinger says simply “Joseph Smith was re-writing portions of the Bible.”

    John Dinger and Signature are to be commended for publishing such a notable addition to the field of Mormon history. Writers and researchers treating the Nauvoo period now have a major addition to their pool of sources. Perhaps someone will employ this treasure in finally writing the definitive history of Nauvoo.

    1. Only as they were preparing to go to press were the author and publisher able to consult scans of the originals which allowed them to confirm their understanding of the confusion.

  5. Doug Gibson, Ogden Standard Examiner

    The LDS Church Library no longer allows access to the Nauvoo City Council and High Council minutes from 1839 to 1845. That’s a shame, but the minutes, when accessible, were recorded. Signature Books, with the assistance of historian John Dinger, has published the minutes, along with notes, and they’re just plain fascinating for enthusiasts of history. Without spin, they lay out the controversy that swirled in Nauvoo prior to Joseph Smith’s murder and the LDS exodus west.

    The documents lend credence to the belief that the then-secret doctrine of polygamy sparked much of the contention that roiled Nauvoo. Many of those associated with the anti-Smith publication, the Nauvoo Expositor, were accused of using polygamy as an excuse to commit adultery. In the city council meeting of June 8, 1844, Hyrum Smith is cited as claiming that Joseph Smith’s revelation on polygamy, read to the Nauvoo High Council on Aug. 12, 1843, “was in answer to a question concerning things which transpired in former days & had no reference to the present time.” As curiously noted, “Hyrum Smith married four plural wives in 1843.” It’s clear that Hyrum Smith had rationalized that it was OK to mislead. Also, on page 255 of the Nauvoo City Council minutes, the LDS prophet, and Nauvoo mayor, Joseph Smith, supports Hyrum’s incorrect words, saying that he had not preached the doctrine in public or private.

    From reading the various minutes and notes commentary, polygamy was used as a cudgel in a conflict between the Smiths and their enemies, such as William Law, Wilson Law, Robert and Charles Foster, Chauncey and Francis Higbee, Sylvester Emmons, and others. These accusations were often judged in the non-secular, but equally powerful, Nauvoo High Council meetings. On May 24, 1842, “Chancy” Higbee was excommunicated by the high council after being judged guilty of adultery and for teaching “the doctrine that it was right to have free intercourse with women if it was kept secret …” Higbee, the minutes report, claimed “that Joseph Smith autherised (sic) him to practice these things.”

    Other accusations used to discredit critics included counterfeiting, stinginess, and plots to kill Joseph Smith. The final accusation was probably closest to the truth, as the violence that was commonplace in that era made lynching and murder a real possibility. The City Council minutes note how the Smiths used Nauvoo civil law to construct a habeus corpus statute so far-reaching that it could blunt any attempt to have Smith or others extradited to Missouri or anywhere outside of Nauvoo. In fact, Smith used habeus corpus to initially avoid arrest for trashing the Nauvoo Expositor press.

    The city council debate that preceded the Nauvoo police’s destruction of the Expositor press as a “nuisance” is very interesting. Anger from past atrocities against Mormons, notably the Haun’s Mill massacre, were used as rationales to destroy the Expositor’s press. Interestingly, one Nauvoo councilman, Benjamin Warrington, opposed destroying the press. He wanted to give the editors time to stop publishing and assess them a $3,000 fine.

    Both Smiths spoke in opposition to Warrington’s proposal, Hyrum adding that he doubted the publishers had the money to pay the fine. Those in favor of the press’ destruction cited ” Blackwater’s Commentaries on the Laws of England,” a reference book widely used in that era. Nauvoo city attorney and councilman George P. Stiles used “Blackwater” as evidence, “{saying a} Nuisance is any thing {that} disturbs the peace of {the} community.”

    The destruction of the Expositor began before the city council meeting authorizing the act had finished. As are most decisions made in haste and with excessive emotion, it backfired, increasing the danger to Joseph Smith and others. An attempt to use Nauvoo’s liberal habeus corpus law to escape legal heat failed, and to protect Nauvoo from armed mobs, Joseph and Hyrum agreed to be jailed in Carthage, Ill. Assurances of safety from a feckless governor, Thomas Ford, failed, and history records that both Smiths were murdered by a mob.

    The Nauvoo City Council minutes after the Smiths’ murders are interesting. There is little of the anger or bluster that was part of the meeting that sanctioned the press’ destruction. It’s muted, and frankly reflects the shock and despair that must have surrounded Nauvoo and church members at the loss of their prophet. Much of the minutes cover discussion on how much the city must remunerate the Nauvoo Expositor for the destruction of its property. Hiram Kimball was assigned the task of dealing with the remuneration.

    Also, it’s clear that city leaders were concerned that the mobs that had killed the Smiths were still eager to attack Nauvoo. The council endorsed pleas by Governor Ford and others to avoid violent reprisals.

    “The Nauvoo City and High Council Minutes” is a massive, indispensible treasure trove of Mormon history in Illinois. I’ll have further blog entries that will concentrate on the minutes of meetings that determined the church successors to the slain Smiths, and another blog will focus on day-to-day matters that fell before the high council. Some were amusing; one recounts a man brought for church discipline because he sold his wife for her weight in catfish!

  6. Roy Schmidt, Association for Mormon Letters

    When I first heard Signature Books was to publish The Nauvoo City and High Council Minutes, I was very excited. While these records have been partially published in the past, they were not easily accessible. I could not be more pleased with this publication.

    Editor John S. Dinger is a Deputy Prosecuting Attorney for Ada County in Boise, Idaho. He is also a member of the editorial board for the Mormon History Association. He has, in my opinion, done a remarkable job in presenting the material contained in the book in a professional and highly competent way.

    The book itself is nicely bound and attractive. There is an excellent index, and footnotes are used throughout. In addition, appendices include the complete Nauvoo City Charter, the Prospectus of the “Nauvoo Expositor,” as well as excerpts from the first (and only) edition of that newspaper. These resources aid in our understanding of many of the items addressed by the City Council, and to some degree the Nauvoo High Council.

    Dinger has included short biographical sketches of those who served as City and Stake Councilmen. Many of the names will be familiar to readers: John C. Bennett, Ezra T. Benson, Zebedee Coltrin, Heber C. Kimball, the Pratt brothers, and brothers Don Carlos, Hyrum, Joseph, Samuel Harrison, and William Smith. Others, such as Samuel Bent, Phillip Hammond Buzzard, Noah Packard, and Leonard Soby, will probably be less familiar. To give a idea as to the quality of these sketches, I present that of Samuel Bent mentioned above:

    “Samuel Bent was born in March 1798 in Concord, Vermont. In 1833 he converted to Mormonism and moved to Kirtland, Ohio, three years later, then to Missouri, where he became a paramilitary Danite from June – October 1838. In the 1840s he lived twenty miles southeast of Nauvoo in Ramus, Illinois, and then on to a farm a few miles south of Nauvoo. In September 1847 he arrived in Utah, right behind the original pioneer company and settled in what became Bingham Canyon. Later he helped settle Ogden and became a ward bishop, stake patriarch, and territorial legislator. He died in May 1882.” (xlvii)

    I find it interesting to note several of those serving on the City Council also served on the Nauvoo High Council, such as William Marks, Ezra T. Benson, Shadrach Roundy, David Fullmer, and Reynolds Cahoon. Some nonmembers, like Daniel H. Wells who later joined the LDS Church, also served on the Nauvoo City Council.

    All sorts of things came before both councils. I noted one of my personal heros, Elder Elijah Abel, was paid a sum for building a coffin (349). Elder Abel made his living in Nauvoo as a mortician. Readers may recall Abel as an African-American who held the Melchizedek Priesthood. He was ordained a Seventy, and served several missions for the Church. He and members of his family are buried in the Salt Lake City Cemetery.

    Then there was the case of one Henry Lyman Cook, who was brought before the high council for selling his wife for her weight in catfish. The record reads, in part, as follows: “Upon examination of the case, it appeared, from the evidence, that Cook had lost his wife not long since and was left with three children [,] and being in destitute circumstances, and not in condition to keep house, thought that he best get married again and advised with who also thought best if he could get a suitable companion. Not long afterwards, upon a short acquaintance of some of his friends, he got married to Mary. Not long after this he found she was in the habit of traveling about of nights when there was no need of it&c. and that she would shamefully use his children & set bad examples before them, use very indecent language to them &c and also would abuse & insult him without a cause and entirely refuse to be subject to him or be under his control, boasting that she would not be governed by no man and threaten[ed] to use violence on him and his children[,] and that she would go off and leave him, but come back again and many such like improprieties, and that he had remonstrated against such proceedings with as much patience as could be expected under the circumstances[,] and used every method to bring her to her duty that he thought would avail any thing with her[,] and afterwards that he had whipped her pretty sevearly (which was his own testimony)[,] thinking that it might bring her to her duty. [He said] that he did not sell her but something had been said about it which was understood as a joke by himself and the witness[,] but the party making the offer held it as a bargain & so did she. It also appeared that he had formerly been a civil upright man who desired to live in peace and good order, all of which was abundantly proven.

    “President Hyrum Smith spoke at some length on the subject, and, after giving Cook a very appropriate and severe reprimand for whipping his wife, he thought that Cook had acted as well as could be expected under his circumstances and decided that he should be acquitted. The vote was then put to the council by Pres[iden]t Mark[s] and carried unanimously(438-439).” (Note: spelling as in original.)

    While many important cases were brought before the Nauvoo City Council, none were more important than those involving habeas corpus, and the Nauvoo Expositor. Regarding the former, Editor Dinger writes: “The habeas corpus acts passed in Nauvoo were so expansive that the municipal court could review not only the legality of the arrest warrant but determine the guilt or innocence of the defendant, eliminating the possibility for a later trial regardless of where the crime occurred or where the warrant was issued. No other American city possessed such broad laws. This enabled Nauvoo’s Mormon-dominated municipal court to try all cases against Joseph Smith and other LDS leaders (xxi-xxx).” Many objected to these expansions which was one of the reasons the Illinois Legislature eventually repealed the Nauvoo City Charter.

    The case of the Nauvoo Expositor is most interesting. On June 7, 1844 the Expositor published its first and only issue. In it, Joseph Smith was accused of teaching and practicing plural marriage, theocracy, and the plurality of gods, etc. It is fascinating to note the charges were mostly true. Nonetheless, Joseph and other leaders took exception, and deigned to have the Nauvoo Expositor declared a public nuisance, and its press destroyed. I was under the impression the case was brought before the City Council in sort of a kangaroo court, and the press simply ordered destroyed, and that was the end of it. The story is more complicated than that. On June 10, 1844, the City Council met, and continued their meeting of the 8th which was adjourned. Joseph brought up the Expositor: “The Mayor said – if he had a council who felt as he did, the establishment (referring to the Nauvoo Expositor) would be [declared] a Nuisance before night . . . .(254).” After some discussion, the council adjourned for an hour. After coming back into session, the council considered passages from James Kent’s “Commentaries on American Law,” and portions of Blackstone’s “Commentaries on the Laws of England.” Satisfied the law was on their side, the council passed an ordinance to destroy the press.

    One councilor, Benjamin Warrington, argued against the destruction, feeling a fine of $500 would suffice should suffice. The discussion became quite heated at times: “C[ouncillor] Phelps continued [that he] felt deeper this day than he ever felt before. – [He] wanted to know by yes if there was anyone here who to avenge the blood of that Innocent female. Yes, resounded from every quarter of the room. – [He] referred to the Tea Plot at Boston[.] Are we offering[,] or have we offered[,] to take away the right of anyone [by] this [action] 2 day [today]? No!! from every quarters. – N[o] – Refered to [the] Laws grinding the poor – and spoke at great length – in support of active measures to put down iniquity (262).” The ordinance, as noted above, passed and the press destroyed, and the type scattered. In a footnote on page 266, Editor Dinger finds: “Before the city council had adjourned at about 6:00 p.m., the police had already entered the Expositor offices on Mulholland Street, and, as described by Francis Higbee, ‘tumbled the press and materials into the street and set fire to them, and demolished the machinery with a sledge-hammer, and injured the building.’”

    This review is already too long, but I would call attention to the trial of Sidney Rigdon before the High Council as found on pages 505-25. Several things impressed me. The trial was held in public as opposed to the closed sessions found in the church today. Sidney chose not to attend the court. Rigdon’s excommunication was a foregone conclusion as everyone but Stake President William Marks spoke against him. I find myself having a much higher opinion of Marks than I had heretofore. Most important is that the Quorum of the Twelve took over the meeting from the Nauvoo High Council, and did much to establish itself as the presiding council of the church.

    One final remark. The original records of the Nauvoo City Council, and High Council Minutes are held by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. John Dinger was denied access to these records. He writes: “In preparing the minutes for publication, I relied on typescripts, photocopies, and photographs. In addition, as we were preparing to go to press, other researchers achieved access to some digital scans that helped clarify questions I had (xvi).”

    The Nauvoo City and High Council Minutes, is, I believe a most important work. Scholars, researchers, and other interested parties will gain a much deeper understanding of the goings-on of the church and its leaders at a most important time. Although somewhat pricy, a purchase of this work will be money well spent.

  7. Roger Launius

    Nauvoo, Illinois, in the 1840s was a theocracy; the practices of its Mormon overlords infuriated the non-Mormons of Hancock County steeped as they were in the ideals, issues, and influence of republicanism in the antebellum era. As The Nauvoo City and High Council Minutes offered here demonstrate, the Mormons established a government in Nauvoo that threatened the most cherished principles of American democracy. That they intended to expand it was evident in the creation of the secret Council of Fifty of the political kingdom of God, the attempt on the part of Joseph Smith Jr. to gain the American presidency in 1844, and negotiations with several governments for their own independent commonwealth. This aspect of the history of Mormon Nauvoo, more than anything else, led to the conflict of the Mormons with their non-Mormon neighbors.

    John S. Dinger’s excellent edited work containing the Nauvoo city council minutes and its ecclesiastical counterpart, the High Council’s minutes, demonstrates beyond all doubt that there was an exceptionally thin line between church and state in the city of the Saints during the 1840s. Once granted a city charter at the end of 1840, Nauvoo’s leaders moved swiftly to establish a city council and to pass ordinances both minor and in many cases of an intrusive nature in the daily lives of residents. Always they set about to create as much autonomy from the state and national governmental apparatus as possible and this caused friction between the Mormons in Nauvoo and the larger society. For instance, as detailed in these minutes, the city council broadened the scope of habeas corpus for the municipal court, thereby ensuring that no one outside the city would be able to arrest and spirit away from Nauvoo for trial elsewhere Joseph Smith and other Mormon leaders. This infuriated secular officials outside of Nauvoo who could not arrest inside the city individuals wanted for much of anything. This was especially true of Joseph Smith who had outstanding arrest warrants from Missouri on his escape from jail in 1839 and on an attempted murder charge for the former governor, Lilburn Boggs.

    The city council’s minutes also detail the most controversial aspect of city governance in the history of the Mormon sojourn in Nauvoo, the Expositor affair. In June 1844 Mormon dissidents published the Expositor newspaper to communicate what they believed were abuses of power by Joseph Smith. In response Smith, acting as mayor, directed the city council to take action to silence the newspaper, a blatant effort to eliminate critics and to purge dissenters from the community. Nothing else that the Mormons ever did revealed so convincingly to the non-Mormon community around Nauvoo the threat to democracy present in Joseph Smith Jr.’s theocratic city-state. When council member Orson Spencer said, “We have found these men covenant breakers with God, with their wives!! &c.,” he unconsciously put his finger on the repressed anxieties that haunted the Mormon mind (p. 260). The council meeting was, in fact, an act of blame making, a psychological purgation or a casting out of “iniquity” by attributing it to others. When council member Levi Richards exclaimed about the press, “Let it be thrown out of this city,” he was expressing symbolically what everyone really wanted, the casting out of the dissenters for whom the press had spoken (p. 261). Within two days of the council’s deliberations, that deed had been accomplished and the final violent death of Joseph Smith by lynching had been set in train.

    The High Council’s deliberations were no less significant to the governing of the Mormons in Nauvoo. Perhaps the most explosive issue to be considered by the High Council was the doctrine of plural marriage. The minutes for this formal discussion is both telling and obscure: “August 12, 1843; Saturday. [High] Council met according to adj[ornment] at H[yrum] Smith’s office. No business before the Council. Teaching by Pres[iden]ts Hiram Smith & William Marks” (p. 467). Not much information there, but the editor provides a lengthy footnote to explain what had taken place, and how the High Council had approved the revelation on plural marriage that Joseph Smith had written on July 12, 1843, and was incorporated in the Mormon scripture, the Doctrine and Covenants, as Section 132. This footnote is exemplary of a very fine set of explanatory notes that expand upon obscure references throughout the volume.

    Indeed, as The Nauvoo City and High Council Minutes makes clear, Nauvoo was very much a religious city-state under tight control. It was a haven where the followers of Joseph Smith Jr. had their most important choices—what they should do to serve God and the theocratic state that they envisioned—made for them. This is very important primary source for any future studies of the history of Mormon Nauvoo and must be on the shelf of any serious student of the subject.

  8. Ben Park, Juvenile Instructor

    In his preface to this volume, John S. Dinger claims, “The minutes collected in this volume are a treasure trove of material reading to the religious and secular life of the early Latter-day Saints,” and that “these two sets of documents are, I believe, two of the most important primary sources for the period” (xvi). I agree, and thus take privilege in reviewing the volume. Nauvoo is an absolutely fascinating period of Mormon history, filled with contention, innovation, conflict, dissent, and intrigue. All of these tensions come out in these important documents, as well as the mundane events that transpired in day-to-day activities.

    Though the two councils in question, the City Council and High Council, were two separate bodies, they had significant overlap. Both were made up of Mormon authorities, both looked to Joseph Smith for leadership, and both seemed to merge the church/state realms that America prided itself on keeping separate (though never, in actuality, succeeded). What took place in one council likely had significance to the other, and decisions from both bodies demonstrated the LDS Church’s performance of power during the waning years of Joseph Smith’s life. What we witness in these meetings are men attempting to run the Kingdom of God on earth–no small task to take place in disestablished America. Religious sermons are offered in secular council, secular decisions are made in religious courts. Perhaps more than anything else, this collection demonstrates the permeable boundaries of church and state in Mormon Nauvoo.

    As it is difficult to offer a traditional review of a documentary volume–especially where there is no thesis, driving narrative, or even major themes–I will mostly focus on two events depicted in the book, and show what these minutes tell us. And since the succession story is currently one of my points of research, I have chosen two occasions that have immediate implications for my study: the debate over the Nauvoo Expositor, and the excommunication trial of Sidney Rigdon. Fortunately, these events are documented in separate councils–the former in the City Council, the latter in the High Council–and thus they offer a helpful overview of both sources.

    The destruction of the Nauvoo Expositor has always been a point of controversy in Mormon history. As the event to Joseph Smith being imprisoned and eventually killed, as well as an event that demonstrated the extent of power, both religious and secular, Joseph Smith held in Nauvoo, it has received much attention in historiography. The Nauvoo City High Council Minutes reveals much of the inside information concerning the decision to declare the Expositor a “nuissance.” The topic was first brought up in the June 10th council meeting, where they discussed “An Ordinance concerning libels and for other purposes” (256). Hyrum Smith and John Taylor immediately declared it to be slander, and Joseph Smith himself jumped to his own defense in relation to his friendship with William Law, one of the main individuals behind the Expositor. They read from both state and national constitutions regarding the freedom of press, and decided that while “we are willing they should publish the truth–but the paper is a nuisance–and stinks in the nose of every honest man” (257). Hyrum then moved that “the best way [would be] to smash the press all to pieces and pie the type” (258). Though there was some opposition to such a rash action from Benjamin Warrington, the council moved forward and destroyed the press.

    While the basic points of this narrative have long been known, the minutes provide acute insight into the feeling behind the decision. Hyrum Smith’s passion is predominately displayed in his desire to defend his brother’s (and his) reputation. Phineas Richards brought up the memory of his son dying at Haun’s Mill–an element in the Mormon memory that played a poignant role in their actions toward dissent and external persecution–and even stated that this was a “day of immense Moment, not to this city alone but to the whole world” (261). Other invocations of their charter’s rights, of state law’s precedents, even of America’s legacy of the Tea Party were present, demonstrating the attitude of the assembly. While perhaps not justifying the council’s actions, these minutes certainly reconstruct the mentality behind one of Mormonism’s most notorious events. Indeed, their “Ordinance Concerning Libels” is a poignant read demonstrating their pesecution history and concomitant defensive mentality (263-266).

    Fast forward several months. After the destruction of the Expositor, the imprisonment and death of Joseph Smith, and the return of the Quorum of the Twelve to take control of the Church, there was a contentious trial over Sidney Rigdon’s authority claims. This was one of the most important meetings in the Church’s young history, and set a precedent that we still follow today. Rigdon had been Smith’s counselor long before Smith’s death, and now attempted to assume control based on that position. While a meeting a month earlier had helped to solidify Brigham Young and the Twelve’s position, this trial was significant in determining the basis of that succession. “I will say now that those who are for Bro[ther] Joseph & Hyrum, the book of Mormon & doctrien and covenants & building up of the temple,” Brigham trumpeted, “are for the Twelve [and] this will be considered one party & those that are for Sidney Rigdon [-] I want them to be just as honest as what they are in their secret Combinations” (506).

    What is fascinating here, and which I have written about earlier this year, is how these very debates shaped how Joseph Smith’s theological legacy was to be remembered. Prior to his martyrdom, Orson Hyde explained, “Joseph carried us through all the ordinances of the house of God[,] now says he (Joseph) [“]Upon your shouldsers [(]the Twelve[)] the burden of this church rests & you must turn round up your shoulders to the same” (511). From this point on, the temple ordiances, previously a privately controlled concept known only to a select few, became the dominant theme for the debates surrounding succession. While a polished version of these minutes were published in the Times and Seasons, their publication here should help expand our discussion of how the succession story played out.

    These two cases, and many more, are presented with helpful detail in Dinger’s Nauvoo City and High Council Minutes. As such, the volume has obvious importance to scholars of Mormon Nauvoo.

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