Dinger, John S. ed. The Nauvoo City and High Council Minutes. Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 2011. lxxxi + 616 pp. Appendixes, index. Hardback with dust jacket: $49.95; ISBN 978-1-56085-214-8.
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 predomantly 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.
[Note: I acknowledge that I am avoiding a massive elephant in the room: the debate over this volume's documentary editing value. This avoidance is by design. For those interested, I will just refer to Robin Jensen's review in Journal of Mormon History (here), the numerous letters and Robin's response in the following issue of JMH (here), and Signature Books' overview on their website (here).]
 It should be noted that this trial was likely, though not definitively, called by the Twelve, as it was recorded in the Church’s General Minutes, not the High Council Minutes. Thus, the relevancy for being included in this volume is somewhat peripheral, though the importance (both in and of it self, as well as representative of the shift of power away from the High Council toward the Twelve) is obvious. It might have been useful, however, to note more clearly that this was likely not a session of the High Council.