Council of Fifty

Council of Fifty

The Council of Fifty (also known as the Living Constitution, the Kingdom of God, or its name by revelation, The Kingdom of God and His Laws with the Keys and Power thereof, and Judgment in the Hands of His Servants, Ahman Christ)[1] was a Latter Day Saint organization established by Joseph Smith, Jr. in 1844 to symbolize and represent a future theocratic or theodemocratic "Kingdom of God" on the earth.[2] Smith and his successor Brigham Young hoped to create this Kingdom in preparation for the Millennium and the Second Coming of Jesus. The political Kingdom of God, organized around the Council of Fifty, was meant to be a force of peace and order in the midst of this chaos. According to Mormon teachings, while Jesus himself would be king of this new world government, its structure was in fact to be quasi-republican and multi-denominational; therefore, the early Council of Fifty included both Mormons and non-Mormons.[3] Although the Council played a significant role during the last few months of Joseph Smith's life, particularly in his campaign for President of the United States, the Council's role was mostly symbolic throughout the 19th century within The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. This was largely because the Council was primarily meant for a time when secular governments had ceased to function. Regular meetings of the Council ended in 1884, after the church publicly abandoned its theocratic aspirations. The organization was technically extinguished when its last member, Heber J. Grant, died in 1945.[4]



In early Mormonism, God's Kingdom was thought of as an amalgamation between two distinct yet intimately related parts. The first is the Spiritual Kingdom of God which is represented on earth by the Church of Christ. This, Mormons believe, was described in the Book of Daniel 2:44–45 as the stone "cut out of the mountain without hands" that will roll forth to fill the whole earth. In Daniel, this kingdom was never to "be destroyed; and the kingdom shall not be left to other people, but it shall break in pieces and consume all these kingdoms, and it shall stand forever."[5] However, in conjunction with this Spiritual Kingdom, Joseph Smith, Jr. and other early Latter Day Saint leaders believed that Jesus would establish a Political Kingdom of God in the turbulent times leading up to His second coming.[6] God's Political Kingdom was to be centered around the Council of Fifty.

While little is known about the Council, records indicate[specify] that its organization was to be based upon the principles extant in the United States Constitution, and in theory God's Political Kingdom was to temper theocracy with a modified form of republican government. Evidence suggests that membership in the Council was not meant to be exclusive to Mormons. To describe such a system, Smith coined the term theodemocracy, wherein God and the people shared the power to rule in righteousness. This reflects the deeply held LDS belief in moral agency, which on a theological and philosophical level requires earthly governments to allow for individual decision making processes. In essence, the existence of choice is a moral requirement and a religious tyranny would be antithetical to Mormon beliefs. Yet this concept also reflects God's divine right to rule His people as "king of kings" and "lord of lords."

Like many in the mid-19th century, the Mormons believed that the second coming of Jesus was imminent, and would be attended by great destruction. After this destruction occurred, some structure would be necessary to politically organize the survivors. Joseph Smith received a revelation on April 7, 1842 calling for the establishment of an organization called the Living Constitution, or later the Council of Fifty. This would serve as the foundation for the establishment of Christ's Millennial government. The organization was formally established by Joseph Smith in Nauvoo, Illinois on March 11, 1844. The "clerk of the Kingdom", William Clayton, recorded that exactly one month later, Joseph Smith was "chosen as our Prophet, Priest, and King by Hosannas".[7] However hyberbolic and misstated rumors associated with this occurrence likely contributed to Joseph Smith's assassination in June 1844.

According to John D. Lee, the official scribe of the Council, the organization was meant to be the "Municipal department of the Kingdom of God set upon the earth, and from which all law emanates, for the rule, government & controle of all Nations Kingdoms & toungs and People under the whole Heavens. [sic]"

Composition and organization

Unlike other purely religious organizations formed by Joseph Smith, members of the Council of Fifty were not necessarily Latter Day Saints. At its formation, there were three non-Mormon members - Marenus G. Eaton, who had revealed a conspiracy against Joseph Smith by Nauvoo dissenters, Edward Bonney, whose brother was a Mormon but who later acted as prosecutor against Joseph Smith for his role in the destruction of the Nauvoo Expositor, and Uriah Brown. Their admittance reflected Mormon teachings that the Millennial theocracy would be multi-denominational, though Jesus himself would be king.[8] Although Brigham Young did not admit non-Mormons to the Council during his administration, he invited both Mormons and non-Mormons to be part of the theocracy,[9] and even part of the theocratic government.

Smith served as the president of the Council during his lifetime, after which Brigham Young presided, and then John Taylor. The Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, who each were members of the Council, had a special leadership role. However, all actions by the body were officially to be taken only after unanimous vote. During Smith's lifetime, meetings of the Council were held in secret.

Alpheus Cutler referred to an executive council within the Council of Fifty, which he termed the Quorum of the Seven. Willard Richards served as historian/recorder from 1844 to his death in 1854. George Q. Cannon was the final recorder for the Council and served from 1867 to his death in 1901. William Clayton served as clerk of the Kingdom from 1844–1879. In 1880, he was followed in office by L. John Nuttall. John Taylor's son William Whittaker Taylor was assistant clerk from 1880-1884.

There are forty-six known members of the pre-martyrdom Council of Fifty. It included all members of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles at the time in which it was active both in Nauvoo and in Utah. Notably, it did not include the two counselors to the First Presidency in Nauvoo, Sidney Rigdon and William Law. Other members included:

Role of the Council in Joseph Smith's administration

Many historians[who?] assert that the Council of Fifty had little practical power during its existence. Rather, it functioned as a "government in exile." The Mormons believed that, in the build-up to the Millennium, earthly governments would essentially destroy themselves as a result of their own wickedness.[citation needed] The Council was designed to be the organization which could step into the political vacuum and pick up the pieces of a ruined world. It was not meant to dominate, but it was believed that the system would be freely chosen by all (Mormons and non-Mormons alike) who survived the calamities heaped upon the world. However, the Council did perform some actual duties.

One duty of the Council was to assist in Joseph Smith's 1844 campaign for President of the United States. Smith ran on a platform among church members of bringing restitution for land and property lost in Missouri, eliminating slavery, compensating slave-owners with the sale of private lands, reducing the salaries of members of Congress, eliminating debt imprisonment, etc. Members of the Council campaigned throughout the United States. Besides sending out hundreds of political missionaries to campaign for Smith throughout the U.S., they also appointed fellow members of the Fifty as political ambassadors to Russia, the Republic of Texas, Washington D.C., England, and France. However, Smith was murdered by a large mob in the midst of his presidential campaign.[11] The campaign was meant to draw greater attention to the plight of the Mormons, who had received no state or federal restitution for hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of property lost to mob violence in relation to the 1838 Mormon War. However, Smith's Presidential campaign, the Nauvoo Expositor incident, and even hyperbolic and inaccurate rumors about the Council of Fifty helped create the local unrest that led to his assassination.

Role of the Council in the Utah Territory and state of Utah

After Smith's death, the Council anointed Brigham Young its leader, and as the "king and president" of the Kingdom of God.[12] Under Young, however, the Council continued to have relatively little power.[13]

However, the Council assisted in the Mormon Exodus from Nauvoo, Illinois and the eventual migration to the Great Basin area of what is now Utah. Young relied upon the results of scouting missions by members of the Council in choosing the Great Basin as a destination for their exodus from Nauvoo, over several alternate possibilities including Texas, California, and Oregon.

The council was to act as a legislative body in the Kingdom of God,[14] and in Utah, the Council became a provisional legislative body in the government. This continued until September 1850 when Congress organized the Utah Territory upon petition by the church. After Utah became a territory, the Constitutional requirements of separation between church and state sharply diminished the Council's official role in government. The Council then suspended meetings in October 1851. The council met again on October 9, 1868 and voted for the establishment of Zion's Co-operative Mercantile Institution (ZCMI).

The Council briefly resurfaced during the administration of John Taylor, in an advisory role on the issue of polygamy. The Council's last recorded meeting was in 1884.

See also


  1. ^ Quinn 1980, p. 167; Ehat 1980, p. 256.
  2. ^ Quinn 1980, p. 165
  3. ^ Ehat 1980, pp. 256–57
  4. ^ Quinn 1980, p. 185
  5. ^ Daniel 2:44 (KJV)
  6. ^ Journal of Discourses 1:202–3, 2:189, and 17:156–7.
  7. ^ Clayton 1844–1846, pp. 265, 267
  8. ^ Millennial Star 10:81-88
  9. ^ Clayton 1846–1847, p. 196
  10. ^ Quinn 1994
  11. ^ Quinn 1994, pp. 132–141
  12. ^ See minutes of meeting of Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, 12 February 1849, p. 3 [LDS Archives], cited in Quinn 1997, p. 238.
  13. ^ Quinn 1997, pp. 238–39
  14. ^ Melville 1960, p. 33


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