Opening up some legends: Mormons reveal founder Joseph Smith's 'theocracy' plans

By nature, newswriters abhor secrecy, and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (a.k.a. “Mormon”) is the most secretive of America’s large  religious denominations.

Headquarters provides no information about church decision-making and finances. Believers are oath-bound to reveal nothing about temple rituals. In 1999 church authorities even won a federal court order to halt Internet postings from the secret “General Handbook of Instructions” that defines procedures and policies for local leaders.

However under Thomas Monson, president since 2008, "Handbook” material is now available to members and the public. Also during  recent years a “Gospel Topics” section on the church’s official website has posted revealing historical essays about founder Joseph Smith’s odd “plural marriage” (i.e. polygamy) practices, the ban on full membership for blacks (ended  in 1978), disputed matters regarding the Saints’ unique scriptures, etc.

On Sept. 26th, the Church Historian’s Press issued a first-class, lavishly annotated volume in its ongoing Joseph Smith Papers series: “Administrative Records: Council of Fifty Minutes, March 1844–1846,” ($59.95). That title may not sound like anything to set journalists’ pulses pounding, but there’s a great story here. These legendary texts have been kept ultra-secret the past 170 years. And for good reason.

Background: In tumultuous 1844, Smith was assassinated while being held in jail for ordering destruction of a newspaper shop of dissenters  in Nauvoo, Illinois, who opposed his polygamy and political designs. At the time Smith was running for president of the U.S. after failing to get promises from the presidential candidates to protect his oft-persecuted flock.

To operate his campaign, Smith on March 11 established a body known as the Council of Fifty, though he said its divinely revealed name was actually “The Kingdom of God and his Laws.” The new book contains the council's minutes. This organization  began to search for a new home where the Saints could flee beyond the existing borders of the United States (settling on the Salt Lake valley after Smith’s death) because they had lost all confidence in American democracy.

The clandestine plans involved creation of a new “theocracy” or “theodemocracy” and amendment of the U.S. Constitution to “make it the voice of Jehovah” though protecting citizens’ right to religious freedom. Smith was designated as the “Prophet, Priest & King” to lead the divine kingdom on earth. The council was a civil entity separate from his church organization but church leaders were most of the participants alongside a handful of non-Mormons. Council members were “bound to eternal secrecy” about their activities, and anyone “who broke the rule should lose his cursed head.”

To state the obvious, this was an astonishingly scandalous and subversive religio-political scheme. As Smith was being taken off to jail he told the council’s clerk to either burn these minutes, “send them away,” or bury them. The clerk did the latter. Eventually they made their way to the private archives of the church presidency, which granted access to the Joseph Smith Papers team in 2010. Smith biographer and Columbia University historian Richard Bushman, a devout Mormon, considers release of these minutes “a triumph of the new transparency policy of the Church History Department.”

However, Peggy Fletcher Stack, intrepid and award-winning religion writer at the Salt Lake Tribune, offered related observations in a Jan. 9 article.

Stack noted that despite opening up on early history the church has kept private most of officialdom’s minutes and personal journals since the 19th Century, so historians wonder if the full story of the modern church will ever be known.

The latest twist in the  information wars is the posting Oct. 2 of videos somehow leaked from the inner sanctum as LDS apostles discuss such delicate matters as gay rights.

Further information for a Council of Fifty story:

* A new report from The New York Times.

* Stack weighs in on LDS video postings.

* Official historians’ article about the new release.

* Analysis by historian Benjamin Park.

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