The Nauvoo City and High Council Minutes. Edited by John S. Dinger. Foreword by Morris A. Thurston. Signature Books, Salt Lake City, Utah, 2011. Preface, introduction, city and stake councilmen, appendices, index. Hardcover with dustjacket. ISBN: 978-1-56085-214-8. $49.95.
Nauvoo, Illinois, in the 1840s was a theocracy; the practices of its Mormon overlords infuriated the non-Mormons of Hancock County steeped as they were in the ideals, issues, and influence of republicanism in the antebellum era. As The Nauvoo City and High Council Minutes offered here demonstrate, the Mormons established a government in Nauvoo that threatened the most cherished principles of American democracy. That they intended to expand it was evident in the creation of the secret Council of Fifty of the political kingdom of God, the attempt on the part of Joseph Smith Jr. to gain the American presidency in 1844, and negotiations with several governments for their own independent commonwealth. This aspect of the history of Mormon Nauvoo, more than anything else, led to the conflict of the Mormons with their non-Mormon neighbors.
John S. Dinger’s excellent edited work containing the Nauvoo city council minutes and its ecclesiastical counterpart, the High Council’s minutes, demonstrates beyond all doubt that there was an exceptionally thin line between church and state in the city of the Saints during the 1840s. Once granted a city charter at the end of 1840, Nauvoo’s leaders moved swiftly to establish a city council and to pass ordinances both minor and in many cases of an intrusive nature in the daily lives of residents. Always they set about to create as much autonomy from the state and national governmental apparatus as possible and this caused friction between the Mormons in Nauvoo and the larger society. For instance, as detailed in these minutes, the city council broadened the scope of habeas corpus for the municipal court, thereby ensuring that no one outside the city would be able to arrest and spirit away from Nauvoo for trial elsewhere Joseph Smith and other Mormon leaders. This infuriated secular officials outside of Nauvoo who could not arrest inside the city individuals wanted for much of anything. This was especially true of Joseph Smith who had outstanding arrest warrants from Missouri on his escape from jail in 1839 and on an attempted murder charge for the former governor, Lilburn Boggs.
The city council’s minutes also detail the most controversial aspect of city governance in the history of the Mormon sojourn in Nauvoo, the Expositor affair. In June 1844 Mormon dissidents published the Expositor newspaper to communicate what they believed were abuses of power by Joseph Smith. In response Smith, acting as mayor, directed the city council to take action to silence the newspaper, a blatant effort to eliminate critics and to purge dissenters from the community. Nothing else that the Mormons ever did revealed so convincingly to the non-Mormon community around Nauvoo the threat to democracy present in Joseph Smith Jr.’s theocratic city-state. When council member Orson Spencer said, “We have found these men covenant breakers with God, with their wives!! &c.,” he unconsciously put his finger on the repressed anxieties that haunted the Mormon mind (p. 260). The council meeting was, in fact, an act of blame making, a psychological purgation or a casting out of “iniquity” by attributing it to others. When council member Levi Richards exclaimed about the press, “Let it be thrown out of this city,” he was expressing symbolically what everyone really wanted, the casting out of the dissenters for whom the press had spoken (p. 261). Within two days of the council’s deliberations, that deed had been accomplished and the final violent death of Joseph Smith by lynching had been set in train.
The High Council’s deliberations were no less significant to the governing of the Mormons in Nauvoo. Perhaps the most explosive issue to be considered by the High Council was the doctrine of plural marriage. The minutes for this formal discussion is both telling and obscure: “August 12, 1843; Saturday. [High] Council met according to adj[ornment] at H[yrum] Smith’s office. No business before the Council. Teaching by Pres[iden]ts Hiram Smith & William Marks” (p. 467). Not much information there, but the editor provides a lengthy footnote to explain what had taken place, and how the High Council had approved the revelation on plural marriage that Joseph Smith had written on July 12, 1843, and was incorporated in the Mormon scripture, the Doctrine and Covenants, as Section 132. This footnote is exemplary of a very fine set of explanatory notes that expand upon obscure references throughout the volume.
Indeed, as The Nauvoo City and High Council Minutes makes clear, Nauvoo was very much a religious city-state under tight control. It was a haven where the followers of Joseph Smith Jr. had their most important choices—what they should do to serve God and the theocratic state that they envisioned—made for them. This is very important primary source for any future studies of the history of Mormon Nauvoo and must be on the shelf of any serious student of the subject.