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The Council of Fifty

by Kenneth W. Godfrey

The Council of Fifty, a council formed in Nauvoo in 1844, provided a pattern of political government under priesthood and revelation. It was, to its members, the nucleus or focus of God's latter-day kingdom.

Old Testament prophecy speaks of a stone "cut out of the mountain without hands" that will roll forth to fill the whole earth (Dan. 2:44-45). Joseph Smith and his associates believed that the "little stone" represented in part a political kingdom similar to the other kingdoms referred to by Daniel. Joseph Smith taught that in this, the dispensation of the fulness of times, "all things" would be set in place for Christ's return, including the basic principles and organization for a system that would govern the earth during the Millennium (JD 1:202-203; 2:189; 17:156-57).

On April 7, 1842, Joseph Smith received a revelation giving the formal name of the "Living Constitution"—or, as it came to be known by the number of its members, the Council of Fifty—and indicating that the nucleus of a government of God would be organized. Two years later, in the spring of 1844, after a small group of faithful Church leaders and members had received their temple Endowment, the Prophet formally established the Council of Fifty.

Members of the council understood its principles to be consistent with the ethics of scripture and with the protections and responsibilities of the Constitution of the United States. Non-Latter-day Saints could be members (three were among the founding members), but all were to follow God's law and seek to know his will. The president of the church sat as council president, with others seated according to age, beginning with the oldest. Revealed rules governed proceedings, including one that required that decisions be unanimous.

The council had some practical responsibilities for organizing Joseph Smith's presidential campaign in 1844, the exodus from Nauvoo in 1845-1846 (see Westward Migration), and early government in the Great Basin. But what interested council members most was, not their specific duties, but the expectation that the council represented something much larger: it was a working demonstration of the principles and pattern for a future kingdom of God on earth. The Church already had a well-developed apocalyptic outlook, including belief in the latter-day collapse of existing governments before Christ's return. In this framework, the Council of Fifty was viewed as the seed of a new political order that would rule, under Christ, following the prophesied cataclysmic events of the last days.

The council, therefore, did not challenge existing systems of law and government (even in Nauvoo), but functioned more as a private organization learning to operate in a pluralistic society. Its exercise of actual political power was modest, but provided a symbol of the future theocratic kingdom of God. Always, the Fifty functioned under the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, who were also members of the council.

After the westward migration and the early pioneer period, the Council of Fifty largely disappeared as a functioning body, except for a brief resurgence during John Taylor's presidency when the Church again faced intense political challenges. Still, the Saints found consolation in the belief that one day, when the Savior returned, the Council of Fifty, or a council based on its principles, would rise again to govern the world under the King of Kings.

(See Daily Living home page; Politics home page)

Bibliography

Andrus, Hyrum L. Joseph Smith and World Government. Salt Lake City, 1958.

Ehat, Andrew F. "It Seems Like Heaven Began on Earth: Joseph Smith and the Constitution of the Kingdom of God." BYU Studies 20 (Spring 1980):253-79.

Hansen, Klaus J. Quest for Empire. East Lansing, Mich., 1967.

Quinn, D. Michael. "The Council of Fifty and Its Members, 1844 to 1945." BYU Studies 20 (Winter 1980):163-97.

Encyclopedia of Mormonism, Vol. 1, Council of Fifty

Copyright 1992 by Macmillan Publishing Company

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