Council of Fifty

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In Nauvoo, Illinois, on May 11, 1844, Joseph Smith organized a council that provided a pattern of political government under the priesthood and revelation, anticipating the prophesied time when Jesus Christ will return to the earth and govern during the Millennium. A March 14, 1844, revelation stated that the name of the council should be “The Kingdom of God and his Laws, with the keys and power thereof, and judgment in the hands of his servants.” This council came to be known as the Council of Fifty, the Kingdom of God, or Council of the Kingdom.

Joseph intended the Council of Fifty to vigorously debate and he "encouraged its members to speak their minds and say what was in their hearts.[1] Not all of the Council of Fifty were members of the Church. Joseph said that "men were not consulted about their religious opinions. "We act upon the broad and liberal principle that all men have equal rights and ought to be respected," he said. "Every man has a privilege in this organization of choosing for himself voluntarily his God and what he pleases for religion."[2]

Joseph Smith presided over the council until his death, at which time the council voted for Brigham Young and he was sustained to stand as chairman. Joseph Smith taught that the council’s purpose was to protect the Saints “in their religious rights and worship.”[3]

According to Kenneth W. Godfrey, writing for the Encyclopedia of Mormonism:

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 met irregularly.

Practical responsibilities for the council included organizing the 1844 presidential campaign for Joseph Smith and preparing for the exodus from Nauvoo in 1845 and 1846 under the direction of Brigham Young. But, according to Godfrey, “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 of Fifty functioned under the direction of the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, who were also members of the council.

The Council helped establish civil government in Utah. Godfrey has noted that the Council of Fifty largely disappeared as a functioning body after the early pioneer period and after Congress organized the Utah Territory in 1850. When the Church faced intense political challenges during John Taylor’s presidency, the Council functioned again for about five years. Godfrey noted that “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.”