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The First Mormon Government: The Council of Fifty

"When the human and the eternal merge, there will always be adjustment periods."

Photo courtesy of LDS Media Library

Before Joseph Smith ran for US president, he established an organization in Nauvoo to govern the temporal concerns of the Saints. He called the group “the Council of Fifty.” 

I remember the first time I learned about Joseph Smith’s seer stones, polygamous relationships, and other uncomfortable tidbits of Mormon history. I was in a religion class at BYU; my professor had given our class copies of historical documents about seer stones and polygamy, straight from members’ diaries and other primary sources. I definitely felt shock and didn’t really know how to handle this information at first.

However, before my professor ended class, she reminded us that the promise in Moroni 10:3–5 hadn’t changed just because the Lord gave us more knowledge. Moroni counsels, “ I would exhort you that when ye shall read these things, . . . ask God . . . if these things are not true; and if ye shall ask with a sincere heart, with real intent, having faith in Christ, he will manifest the truth of it unto you, by the power of the Holy Ghost.” From that day on, I have welcomed the opportunity to learn about our history, no matter how startling it may be.

The latest historical topic to come to my attention has to do with a group known as the Council of Fifty, a governing council in Nauvoo, Illinois. The Joseph Smith Papers project has released a collection of documents that shed light on the role of the Council of Fifty, entitled “Documents Generated, Reviewed, and Received by the Council of Fifty in Nauvoo.” This group shaped the exodus of the Latter-day Saints to the desert west and managed the political campaigns of LDS leaders. It also managed spiritual matters, such as missions and temple construction.

According to one member quoted in the summary section of the topic, the council was created “to ‘establish a Theocracy’ somewhere in western North America.” This statement, at first glance, seems to clash with our belief that we should be subject to our respective governments (see Article of Faith 12). The Church’s current position is to be a “part of a larger society.” How do we reconcile this past with our present?

What we come to understand when studying Church history is that when the human and the eternal merge, there will be always be adjustment periods. Heavenly Father definitely teaches us correct principles and gives us a chance to work on them, and then he builds upon that knowledge when we’re ready for it.

When I find what at first seem to be messes in the past, I make sure to keep digging to find the cleanup as well.

Explore “Documents Generated, Reviewed, and Received by the Council of Fifty in Nauvoo” on The Joseph Smith Papers website.

Source: The Joseph Smith Papers

—Emilee Pugh Bell, Mormon Insights

feature image by clark young

Find more insights

Read an overview of the “Council of Fifty: Summary within The Joseph Smith Papers to discover more about the council’s history and purpose.

Check out Erin Steenblik Tanner’s Mormon Insights article “The Joseph Smith Papers: Preserving Precious History to find out more about the careful compilation of The Joseph Smith Papers.

Learn more about The Joseph Smith Papers in Angela Marler’s Mormon Insights article Questions and Answers Found in the Joseph Smith Papers.

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