One of the greatest challenges new historical scholarship faces is that of accessibility. The old joke is that historians too often write only for other historians, using opaque prose that alienates non-specialized readers. There is more than a grain of truth to these observations, which is why this new volume from Brigham Young University's Religious Studies Center and Deseret Book is so welcome.
The recent volume of the Joseph Smith Papers Project documenting the proceedings of the early Mormon Church's "Council of Fifty" is a remarkable scholarly achievement. This volume, with its rich and careful deconstruction of the Council's records, will serve scholars of Mormonism for years. The secrecy in which the Council originally convened, along with the Church's restriction of the record for years afterward, make the volume especially rewarding for those seeking to understand the Church's final and tumultuous years in Nauvoo, the desperate plans for finding refuge outside of the United States, and the Prophet Joseph Smith's audacious political philosophies and ambitions prior to his assassination.
However, for non-specialists who have an interest in the Council of Fifty's impact upon the developing Church, the Joseph Smith Papers volume presents significant obstacles. At over 700 pages in length, few average readers have the time to dedicate to its study. Furthermore, the historical context of the Council's minutes is bogglingly complex, involving hundreds of characters, referring to thousands of other documents, and taking part in the larger social, religious, and political turmoil that engulfed the nation. For readers unfamiliar with these elements, the insights and benefits of the Joseph Smith Papers volume on the Council of Fifty falter under the burdens of its own strengths.
For this reason, editors Matthew J. Grow and R. Eric Smith have compiled a series of essays from some impressive Mormon Studies scholars into an anthology The Council of Fifty: What the Records Reveal about Mormon History. The essays in The Council of Fifty provide clear and concise highlights of some of the most important themes addressed by the Council and how these themes affected the later trajectory of the Mormon Church. Readers will quickly learn of Joseph Smith's musings on establishing a "theodemocracy" as a means of remedying the failures of the nation's state and federal governments to provide the Saints with redress. Other topics include the Church's engagement and philosophy concerning American Indians, the role of revelation in guiding civil life, the evolution of Mormon record keeping, Mormon constitutionalism, the shifting Mormon perspective on being a "chosen people," and more.
These essays are more than just informative; they are also riveting. To cite two examples, Spencer W. McBride and Patrick Q. Mason's contributions highlight the conflicts the Council faced as they simultaneously laid claim to American liberties yet expressed a desperate, and sometimes painful, rage as they navigated the frustrations of court proceedings, rejected petitions, and broken promises of a government which had turned its back on them. At the same moment, while Joseph Smith enlisted the Council in his moonshot of a presidential campaign for "the privilege of enjoying our religious and civil rights as American citizens," members of that same body derided the American government insisting that "the boasted freedom of these U. States is gone, gone to hell." McBride and Mason carefully guide the reader through these conflicting positions and provide much food for thought for all readers, but perhaps especially to those who have assumed that the nationalist strains within American Mormonism are inherent and inviolable. In today's political disharmony, such reflections are certainly worthwhile.