Skip to main content Accessibility help

Joseph Smith's Kingdom of God: The Council of Fifty and the Mormon Challenge to American Democratic Politics

  • Benjamin E. Park


This article contextualizes the origins and development of Joseph Smith's secretive Council of Fifty, a clandestine assembly whose minutes were sequestered from public access since their creation in 1844 and were only made available in September 2016. Organized by Smith, the founding prophet of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, only months before his death at the hands of a mob in June 1844, the council was destined to introduce a new form of world governance. Colloquially named the “Council of Fifty,” it blended democratic principles with theocratic rule. More than a significant moment in the development of America's largest home-grown religion, however, Joseph Smith's controversial organization and the ideals it represented hint at broader anxieties over the nation's cultural disunity and democratic excesses in the wake of disestablishment. While many embraced the democratization of religious authority, the Mormons and some of their contemporaries countered that it only introduced cultural and political chaos. Examining how groups such as the Mormons grappled with these implications—through orchestrated electoral participation, appeals to higher laws, and revisions to democratized authoritative structures—sheds light on this dynamic challenge of political self-rule during America's antebellum period.



Hide All

The author would like to thank Matthew Bowman, Rachel Cope, Sally Gordon, Matthew Grow, Christopher C. Jones, Laurie Maffly-Kipp, Spencer McBride, Jennifer Reeder, Alex Smith, John Turner, and Jordan Watkins, as well as his colleagues at Sam Houston State University.



Hide All

1 “Council of Fifty Minutes,” April 11, 1844, in Grow, Matthew J., Esplin, Ronald K., Ashurst-McGee, Mark, Dirkmaat, Gerrit J., and Mahas, Jeffrey D., eds., The Joseph Smith Papers: Administrative Records: Council of Fifty, Minutes, March 1844-January 1846 (Salt Lake City: Church Historian's Press, 2016), 9596 (hereafter cited as C50 Minutes, date, in JSPC50); C50 Minutes, April 18, 1844, in JSPC50:109–110.

2 William Clayton, journal, April 18, 1844, in Smith, George D., An Intimate Chronicle: The Journals of William Clayton (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1995), 131.

3 Historians have previously noted Mormonism's quixotic position with American democracy but to different ends. Hill's, Marvin S. Quest for Refuge: The Mormon Flight from American Pluralism (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1989) argued that Mormonism was a distinct dissent from American democratic culture yet overstated the oppositional cohesion on either side. Winn's, Kenneth H. Exiles in a Land of Liberty: Mormons in America, 1830–1846 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1989) focused on extralegal violence and competing perceptions of liberty. The most recent and persuasive examinations of early Mormonism's construction of power and authority are Mason, Patrick Q., “God and the People: Theodemocracy in Nineteenth-Century Mormonism,” Journal of Church and State 53, no. 3 (Summer 2011): 349375 and Flake's, KathleenOrdering Antinomy: An Analysis of Early Mormonism's Priestly Offices, Councils and Kinship,” Religion and American Culture 26, no. 2 (Summer 2016): 139183. Where Mason focuses on the political theologies and theoretical models of religious and political sovereignties, and Flake addresses the tension through questions drawn from religious studies, this paper looks at the topic from the perspective of America's democratic and political traditions.

4 The classic narratives of American democratization and Protestant republicanism are Hatch, Nathan O., The Democratization of American Christianity (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1989) and Noll, Mark, America's God: From Jonathan Edwards to Abraham Lincoln (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002), 227365.

5 Tocqueville, Alexis de, Democracy in America, translated and edited by Mansfield, Harvey C. and Winthrop, Delba (1835; Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000), 236237.

6 Kloppenberg, James, Toward Democracy: The Struggle for Self-Rule in European and American Thought (New York: Oxford University Press, 2016), 13. Kloppenberg further argued that the history of American democracy is replete with “the recurrent creation of social and political arrangements” that could, at times, both “undermine” the democratic impulse itself as well as produce “new and unanticipated forms of dependency and hierarchy,” 591.

7 Lilburn Boggs, Executive Order #44, Mormon War Papers, Missouri Records and State Archives, Jefferson City, MO.

8 For the Hawn's Mill Massacre (previously, based on dated scholarship, known as “Haun's Mill”), see Spencer, Thomas M., “‘Was This Really Missouri Civilization?’: The Haun's Mill Massacre in Missouri and Mormon History,” in Spencer, Thomas M., ed., The Missouri Mormon Experience (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2010), 100118. For frontier justice during the period, see Waldrep, Christopher, The Many Faces of Judge Lynch: Extralegal Violence and Punishment in America (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004), 2748.

9 The standard treatments of Mormonism's settlement in Nauvoo are Flanders, Robert B., Nauvoo: Kingdom on the Mississippi (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1965), and Leonard, Glen M., Nauvoo: A Place of Peace, a People of Promise (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 2002).

10 For Mormon voting patterns during these early years, see Flanders, Kingdom on the Mississippi, 220–221; Gayler, George W., “The Mormons in Illinois Politics: 1839–1844,” Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society 49 (1956): 5051.

11 Illinois State Register, June 11, 1841.

12 Stephen Longstroth to Thomas Longstroth, July 8, 1845, LDS Church History Library, Salt Lake City, UT (hereafter cited as CHL).

13 Nauvoo Neighbor (IL), August 2, 1843.

14 Niles National Register (MA), August 6, 1842.

15 Hatch, Democratization of American Christianity, 6, 9, 11, 15.

16 Sehat, David, The Myth of American Religious Freedom (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011), 69.

17 Gordon, Sarah Barringer, “The First Disestablishment: Limits on Church Power and Property Before the Civil War,” University of Pennsylvania Law Review 162 (2014): 334. See also Green, Steven K., The Second Disestablishment: Church and State in Nineteenth-Century America (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010). For a countering view that argues for a more inclusive religious culture during the period, see Beneke, Chris, Beyond Toleration: The Religious Origins of American Pluralism (New York: Oxford University Press, 2016).

18 Times & Seasons (IL), May 6, 1841.

19 Times & Seasons, January 1, 1842. For reciprocity as a central element of early American democratic discourse, see Kloppenberg, Toward Democracy, 5–6.

20 Illinois, Hancock County, Nauvoo Precinct Election Returns, August 1, 1842, CHL.

21 John Hardin to John Stuart, December 28, 1842, CHL.

22 The Mormon Wasp (IL), January 28, 1843.

23 Joseph Smith, sermon, in Wilford Woodruff, journal, July 4, 1843, in Kenney, Scott, ed., Wilford Woodruff Journal, 9 vols. (Midvale: Signature Book, 1983), 2:259. Hoge's visit to Nauvoo is documented in Nauvoo Neighbor (IL), August 2, 1843. For an overview of and background for this episode, see Hedges, Andrew H., “Extradition, the Mormons, and the Election of 1843,” Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society 109, no. 2 (Summer 2016): 127147.

24 Joseph Smith, sermon, in William Clayton, diary, July 16, 1843, in An Intimate Chronicle, 110.

25 Joseph Smith, sermon, July 23, 1843, in Hedges, Andrew H., Smith, Alex D., and Rogers, Brent M., Joseph Smith Papers Project: Journals, Volume 3: May 1843–June 1844 (Salt Lake City: Church Historian's Press, 2015), 65 (hereafter: JSPJ3).

26 Joseph Smith, sermon, August 6, 1843, in JSPJ3:72–73.

27 Charlotte Haven to family, September 8, 1843, in Mulder, William and Mortensen, A. Russell, eds., Among the Mormons: Historic Accounts by Contemporary Observers (New York: Knopf, 1958), 127.

28 For the electoral results, see Flanders, Kingdom on the Mississippi, 238–239.

29 Junius Secondus, “For the Warsaw Signal,” unpublished and undated letter in the Thomas Sharp Papers, Beineke Library, Yale University, New Haven, Conn.

30 Ford, Thomas, A History of Illinois, From its Commencement as a State in 1818 to 1847 (Chicago: S. C. Griggs, 1854), 319.

31 Joseph Smith to Presidential candidates, November 4, 1843, draft, (accessed April 2018; hereafter: JSP).

32 Joseph Smith and Elias Higbee to Hyrum Smith, December 5, 1839, in Joseph Smith Letterbook #2, 85, JSP.

33 John C. Calhoun to Joseph Smith, December 2, 1843, JSP.

34 Henry Clay to Joseph Smith, November 15, 1843, JSP.

35 Joseph Smith to John C. Calhoun, January 2, 1844, in “Manuscript History, E-1,” 1846–1849, JSP. For a general overview of these political developments, see Bushman, Richard Lyman, Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling (New York: Knopf, 2005), 512517; McBride, Spencer W., “When Joseph Smith Met Martin Van Buren: Mormonism and the Politics of Religious Liberty in Nineteenth-Century America,” Church History 85, no. 1 (March 2016): 150158.

36 Joseph Smith, journal, January 29, 1844, in JSPJ3:169–171.

37 Bushman, Richard, in “Joseph Smith's Presidential Ambitions,” in Balmer, Randall and Riess, Jana, ed., Mormonism and American Politics (New York: Columbia University Press, 2015), 313, posits Smith as a “protest candidate.” See also Poll, Richard D., “Joseph Smith and the Presidency,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 3, no. 3 (Autumn 1868): 1721; Wicks, Robert S. and Foister, Fred R., Junius and Joseph: Presidential Politics and the Assassination of the First Mormon Prophet (Logan: Utah State University Press, 2005); Bringhurs, Newell G. and Foster, Craig L., The Mormon Quest for the Presidency (Independence: John Whitmer Books, 2008): 749.

38 Smith, Joseph, General Smith's Views of the Power and Policy of the Government of the United States (Nauvoo: John Taylor, 1844), 13.

39 Smith to Calhoun, January 2, 1844.

40 Poll, “Joseph Smith and the Presidency,” 21.

41 Smith, General Smith's Views of the Power and Policy of the Government of the United States, 3.

42 William Hyde, autobiography, 18, CHL.

43 Hyrum Smith, address, General Church Minutes, April 9, 1844, in Turley, Richard E., ed., Selected Collections from the Archives of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Provo, UT: BYU Studies, 2002), vol. 1. For the missionaries who campaigned on behalf of Smith, see Derek Sainsbury, “The Cadre for the Kingdom: The Electioneer Missionaries of Joseph Smith's 1844 Presidential Campaign” (PhD diss.: University of Utah, 2016).

44 Stephen Longstroth to Thomas Longstroth, Rockeport, May 26, 1844, CHL.

45 Ralph Harding to Dwight Harding, August 22, 1844, CHL.

46 C50 Minutes, March 11 and 14, 1844, in JSPC50:40, 42–44, 48.

47 Times & Seasons, July 16, 1842.

48 Joseph Smith, journal, March 10, 1844, in JSPJ3:201.

49 C50 Minutes, March 19, 1844, in JSPC50:54.

50 See Tsai, Robert L., “John Brown's Constitution,” Boston College Law Review 51, no. 4 (2010): 151207.

51 C50 Minutes, April 15, 1844, in JSPC50:110–114.

52 C50 Minutes, April 15, 1844, in JSPC50:114, 115, 121, 127;

53 C50 Minutes, April 25, 1844, in JSPC50:137.

54 C50 Minutes, February 3, 1849, quoted in JSPC50:137, fn. 412. Willard Richards had earlier hinted at the evolving nature of constitutional interpretation when he wondered if the “kingdom of God” became perfect not as an adopted document, but “through the alterations of the constitution which may take place hereafter to suit the situation of the earth and kingdom.” C50 Minutes, April 15, 1844, in JSPC50:122. Pratt elsewhere said that he was happy to give up the written constitution because “he considered that if God gave us laws to govern us and we receive those laws God must also give us a constitution.” C50 Minutes, September 9, 1845, in JSPC50:467. This emphasis on councils as the mode for determining the will of God had been a dominant theme in Joseph Smith's leadership structure for over a decade. See Bushman, Richard L., “Joseph Smith and Power,” in Whittaker, David J. and Garr, Arnold K., eds., A Firm Foundation: Church Organization and Administration (Provo, UT: BYU Religious Studies Center, 2011), 113; Flake, “Ordering Antinomy,” 150–155.

55 Albert Carrington, “Kingdom of God,” notebook, March 4, 1845, CHL.

56 Orson Hyde to John E. Page, May 6, 1844, CHL.

57 Thomas Wilson to Archibald Stuart, November 4, 1787, quoted in McBride, Spencer W., Pulpit and Nation: Clergymen and the Politics of Revolutionary America (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2017), 115.

58 Porterfield, Amanda, Conceived in Doubt: Religion and Politics in the New American Nation (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2012), 11.

59 Grimke, Angelina, “Letter XII: Human Rights Not Founded on Sex,” in Grimke, Angelina Emily, Letters to Catherine Beecher: In Reply to an Essay on Slavery and Abolitionism, Addressed to A. E. Grimke, Revised by the Author (Boston: Isaac Knapp, 1838), 115.

60 Grimke, Sarah, “Letter II: Woman Subject Only to God,” in Grimke, Sarah Moore, Letters on the Equality of the Sexes, and the Condition of Woman (Boston: Isaac Knapp, 1838), 11.

61 Theodore Parker, “National Sins,” Sermon Book 10:421, Theodore Parker Collection, Andover-Harvard Theological Library, Harvard Divinity School, Cambridge, Mass.

62 Theodore Parker to S. J. May, September 25, 1852, in Theodore Parker Papers, Massachusetts Historical Society, Boston, MA.

63 See Gura, Philip F., Man's Better Angels: Romantic Reformers and the Coming of the Civil War (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 2017).

64 Fitzhugh, George, Sociology of the South, or the Failure of Free Society (Richmond: A. Morris, 1854), 204.

65 Armstrong, George D., The Christian Doctrine of Slavery (New York: Charles Scribner, 1857), 125.

66 “Constitution of the Confederate States; March 11, 1861,” The Avalon Project, Yale Law School, (accessed September 2016). See also Irons, Charles F., The Origins of Proslavery Christianity: White and Black Evangelicals in Colonial and Antebellum America (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2008), 211245; Jordan T. Watkins, “Slavery, Sacred Texts, and the Antebellum Confrontation with History” (PhD diss.: University of Nevada, Las Vegas, 2014).

67 Wilentz, Sean, The Rise of American Democracy: Jefferson to Lincoln (New York: Norton, 2005), 322.

68 Haselby, Sam, The Origins of American Religious Nationalism (New York: Oxford University Press, 2015), 278.

69 Schlereth, Eric R., An Age of Infidels: The Politics of Religious Controversy in the Early United States (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2013), 17.

70 On the secularization narrative of the nineteenth century, see Modern, John Lardas, Secularism in Antebellum America (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011); Holland, David F., Sacred Borders: Continuing Revelation and Canonical Restraint in Early America (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011), 209218; Grasso, Christopher, “The Religious and the Secular in the Early American Republic,” Journal of the Early Republic 36, no. 2 (Summer 2016): 359388.

71 Theodore Parker, “The Divine Presence in Nature: A Sermon of Spring,” Parker Sermon Book 9:377, Parker Papers, AHTL.

72 C50 Minutes, April 18, in JSPC50:121.

73 Times and Seasons, May 1, 1844.

74 Joseph Smith, sermon, June 16, 1844, in Ehat, Andrew F. and Cook, Lyndon W., eds., The Words of Joseph Smith: The Contemporary Accounts of the Nauvoo Discourses of the Prophet Joseph (Provo: BYU Religious Studies Center, 1980), 382.

75 Willard Richards to Hugh Clark, May 24, 1844, copy in Willard Richards Papers, CHL. That same month another Mormon apostle, Parley Pratt, denounced the riots and proclaimed that while “The Catholics may be the sufferers to-day, [and] the Mormons to-morrow,” there was no telling who could be next. “Jeffersonian Meeting,” The Prophet (New York), June 15, 1844. For an overview of the relationship between Mormons and Catholics in the nineteenth century, see Cannon, Mark W., “The Crusades Against the Masons, Catholics, and Mormons: Separate Waves of a Common Current,” BYU Studies 3, no. 2 (Winter 1961): 2340; Grow, Matthew J., “The Whore of Babylon and the Abomination of Abominations: Nineteenth-Century Catholic and Mormon Mutual Perceptions and Religious Identity,” Church History 73, no. 1 (March 2004): 139167.

76 McGreevy, John, Catholicism and American Freedom: A History (New York: W. W. Norton, 2004), 3637.

77 See Hamburger, Philip, Separation of Church and State (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2002), 193251; Butler, Jon, “Historiographical Heresy: Catholicism as a Model for American Religious History,” in Kselman, Thomas, ed., Belief in History: Innovative Approaches to European and American Religion (South Bend: University of Notre Dame Press, 1991), 287288. Catholicism is notably absent in Hatch's Democratization of American Christianity, as he noted his focus on “the rise of full-fledged populist clergy,” thereby restricting his focus (12).

78 Turner, J. B., Mormonism in All Ages, or the Rise, Progress and Cause of Mormonism (New York: Platt and Peters, 1842), 8. My theoretic modeling of convergences between Mormon and Catholic notions of authority draws from Grow, “The Whore of Babylon and the Abomination of Abominations,” and Bowman, Matthew B., “Toward a Catholic History of Mormonism,” Journal of Mormon History 41, no. 1 (January 2015): 198216.

79 Tocqueville, Democracy in America, 275–276.

80 Orestes Brownson, quoted in Carey, Patrick W., Orestes A. Brownson: American Religious Weathervane (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2004), 67.

81 For the First Vatican Council, see Hasler, August, How the Pope Became Infallible: Pious IX and the Politics of Persuasion (New York: Doubleday, 1981).

82 C50 Minutes, April 11, 1844, in JSPC50:90, 92–93, 95–96. Patrick Mason has demonstrated how many Mormons saw “theocracy” and “democracy” not only as “complimentary” but “inseparable.” Mason, “Theodemocracy,” 350, 357–358. For Mormonism's sacramental and covenantal notion of voting habits and prophetic authority, see Flake, “Ordering Aninomy,” 147, 152, 166–167.

83 Anointing of Heber C. and Vilate Kimball, January 8, 1846, in Anderson, Devery S. and Bergera, Gary James, eds., The Nauvoo Endowment Companies, 1845–1846: A Documentary History (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 2005), 376377.

84 Orson Hyde, “Diagram of the Kingdom of God,” Millennial Star, January 15, 1847.

85 Hatch, Democratization of American Christianity, 15. For Smith's dynastic mission, see also Compton, Todd M., “A Trajectory of Plurality: An Overview of Joseph Smith's Thirty-Three Plural Wives,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 29, no. 2 (Summer 1996): 138; Stapley, Jonathan A., “Adoptive Sealing Ritual in Mormonism,” Journal of Mormon History 37, no. 3 (Summer 2011): 53118; Brown, Samuel M., In Heaven as It is on Earth: Joseph Smith and the Early Mormon Conquest of Death (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012), 203247; Flake, Kathleen, “The Development of Early Latter-day Saint Marriage Rites, 1831–1853,” Journal of Mormon History 41, no. 1 (January 2015): 77102.

86 C50 Minutes, April 18, 1844, in JSPC50:128. For previous uses of the term “proper source,” see JSPC50:128, fn. 38.

87 Pratt, Parley P., “The Fountain of Knowledge,” in in An Appeal to the Inhabitants of the State of New York (Nauvoo: John Taylor, Printer, 1844), 15, 19. For the political and cultural implications of these debates over revelation and knowledge, see Holland, Sacred Borders.

88 C50 Minutes, April 18, 1844, in JSPC50:121, 124–125, 128. (Emphasis added.)

89 Davis, George T., “An Authentic Account of the Massacre of Joseph Smith,” in Hallwas, John E. and Launius, Roger D., eds., Cultures in Conflict: A Documentary History of the Mormon War in Illinois (Logan, UT: Utah State University Press, 1995), 105.

90 New Hampshire Statesman and State Journal, October 11, 1844.

91 Ford, History of Illinois, 321–322.

92 “Life in Nauvoo,” New-York Daily Tribune, May 28, 1844. See JSPC50:220, fn. 82.

93 Warsaw Signal (IL), June 12, 1844.

94 James Robbins to Mother and Friends, Adams County, June 16, 1844, CHL.

95 Robert A. Gilmore to John Richey, July 5, 1844, CHL.

96 Vilate Kimball to Heber C. Kimball, June 9, 1844, CHL.

97 William Clayton, Journal, July 3–4, 1844, quoted in JSPC50:205.

98 C50 Minutes, March 18, 1845, in JSPC50:336.

99 Times & Seasons, August 15, 1845.

100 Clayton, Journal, December 25, 1844, and February 28, 1845, quoted in JSPC50:213, 257–258.

101 C50 Minutes, March 4, 1844, in JSPC50:283.

102 Thomas Sharp, “Manuscript history of the Anti-Mormon Disturbances in Illinois,” 1845, in Sharp Papers. For this period of contest and discord, see Flanders, Kingdom on the Mississippi, 306–341; Leonard, A Place of Peace, a People of Promise, 508–550.

103 Smith had earlier declared the council should always include non-Mormons “to show that in the organization of this kingdom men are not consulted as to their religious opinions or notions in any shape or form whatever and that we act upon the broad, liberal principal that all men have equal rights, and ought to be respected.” C50 Minutes, April 11, 1844, in JSPC50:97. For Young's attempt to consolidate authority in the wake of Smith's death, see Turner, John, Brigham Young: Pioneer Prophet (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2012), 110143; Park, Benjamin E., “Early Mormon Patriarchy and the Paradoxes of Democratic Religiosity in Jacksonian America,” American Nineteenth Century History 14, no. 2 (Summer 2013): 183208.

104 The non-Mormons were released from the council in C50 Minutes, February 4, 1845, in JSPC50:226–227.

105 C50 Minutes, March 11, 1845, in JSPC50:308.

106 C50 Minutes, April 11, 1845, in JSPC50:401 (emphasis added).

107 George J. Adams to A. R. Tewkesberry, June 14, 1845, CHL.

108 C50 Minutes, March 4, 1845, in JSPC50:285.

109 William Clayton, journal, March 10, 1845, in An Intimate Chronicle, 159.

110 C50 Minutes, May 10, 1845, in JSPC50:454.

111 C50 Minutes, March 18, 1845, in JSPC50:329–330.

112 William Clayton, “Events of June 1844,” in JSPC50:198.

The author would like to thank Matthew Bowman, Rachel Cope, Sally Gordon, Matthew Grow, Christopher C. Jones, Laurie Maffly-Kipp, Spencer McBride, Jennifer Reeder, Alex Smith, John Turner, and Jordan Watkins, as well as his colleagues at Sam Houston State University.

Related content

Powered by UNSILO

Joseph Smith's Kingdom of God: The Council of Fifty and the Mormon Challenge to American Democratic Politics

  • Benjamin E. Park


Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 0
Total number of PDF views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between <date>. This data will be updated every 24 hours.

Usage data cannot currently be displayed.