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19th Century Joseph Smith Latter-day Saint History

The Council of Fifty: A Constitution for the Kingdom of God

Joseph Smith tasked the Council of Fifty with writing a constitution for the Kingdom of God. Things didn’t go quite as planned.

The Council of Fifty minutes reveal that Joseph Smith asked a committee to draft a replacement to the U.S. Constitution. The effort was eventually replaced by a revelation from God wherein the Prophet was told that the council itself was to be a living constitution. Legal scholar Nathan B. Oman explains what that means—and what was going on behind the scenes.

What were the primary factors behind the Council of Fifty’s constitution?

There were theological factors and practical factors being the Council of Fifty’s constitution. The theological factors had to do with an increasingly elaborate theology of the kingdom of God, which was tied to the expectation that the world was on the threshold of the last days. Latter-day Saints expected secular governments to fail and that religious community would form the nucleus of a divinely inspired government to replace them.

Practically, the Latter-day Saints were facing rising persecution in the United States and needed a forum in which leaders could discuss plans to deal with that persecution—and ultimately to relocate beyond the then-borders of the United States.


What did the Council of Fifty spend most of its time discussing?

It spent most of its time discussing practical and political matters related to the Latter-day Saint community, particularly plans to quit the United States and settle someplace in the western interior of North America.


What assignment did the Council of Fifty give on March 11, 1844 to John Taylor, Willard Richards, William W. Phelps, and Parley P. Pratt?

This committee was tasked with composing a constitution for the kingdom of God.


Why did the Council of Fifty feel that a new constitution was necessary?

It’s not entirely clear. Mainly, one suspects that as Americans that members of the Council took it as axiomatic that any polity required a written constitution. There was no immediate practical problem to which the constitution would have been a solution.

Likewise, there was no polity in existence or in the immediate future that would have required a written constitution.

Joseph Smith Papers historians Mark Ashurst-McGee, Ronald K. Esplin, and Matthew J. Grow discuss the Council of Fifty’s attempts to create a government to protect their religious freedoms.

Did the Council of Fifty’s constitution model itself after another constitution?

The basic structure is modeled on the U.S. Constitution, which begins “We the people of the United States.” The draft constitution for the Kingdom of God began, “We the people of the Kingdom of God.”

However, unlike most constitution-writing in the 19th century, the document did not copy extensively from an already functioning constitution.

(This, for example, was the strategy taken a few years later when the Latter-day Saints drafted a proposed constitution for the State of Deseret.)

Rather, the document consisted of an imperfectly specified system of judges and a great deal of largely horotory language. In short, the document that they produced couldn’t possibly have been used to completely specify a set of actually functioning set of institutions.


How did the Council of Fifty constitution aspire to be a direct revelation from God?

Much of the document is written in the first person voice of God. The authors of the document assumed that only a government inspired by God could be wholly legitimate.

(John Taylor would later explicitly argue for this position in a short book entitled The Government of God.)

Accordingly, they felt that any constitution for the kingdom of God needed to be a revelation.


Did the Council of Fifty committee feel like the draft was a revelation?

They did not. The Council of Fifty committee produced a draft but expressed doubts that they had fully captured the mind and will of God.


Was the Council of Fifty’s constitution a blueprint for a functioning democracy?

No. The Council of Fifty’s constitution didn’t fully specify that institutional structures that would govern the kingdom of God and thus failed to work out the precise mechanics of how a democratically accountable but divinely inspired government—what Latter-day Saints at the time called theodemocracy—was supposed to work.


Why did Joseph Smith‘s Council of Fifty forgo its constitutional goals?

Joseph Smith claimed to receive a revelation in which he stated that the council itself was the constitution of the kingdom of God. By this he seemed to have meant not so much the institutional structure of the council but rather its collective membership.


How did George Q. Cannon later describe the Council of Fifty’s attempt to draft a constitution?

George Q. Cannon later reinterpreted the constitution-making and constitution-revelation in the council of fifty not as a prelude to a Latter-day Saint political sovereignty but rather as being about the government of the church.1

The kingdom of god went from being an independent political entity to being a synonym for the church.


What is the contemporary legacy of the Council of Fifty’s constitutional ideal?

The failure of the constitution writing in the Council of Fifty probably increased the political flexibility of the Latter-day Saints in the succeeding decades. This proved useful as they had to adapt themselves to rapidly changing legal and political circumstances.

About Nathan Oman

Nathan Oman lives in Williamsburg, Virginia where he is the Rollins Professor at William & Mary Law School. He was educated at Brigham Young University and Harvard Law School. While at BYU, he developed an interest in Latter-day Saint legal history, a topic on which he has published several articles in law journals, BYU Studies, Journal of Mormon History, and Dialogue. In addition to law and religion, he enjoys running slowly, fishing badly, and playing the banjo wretchedly.

Further reading

Council of Fifty, Joseph Smith, and Constitution resources

Footnotes

  1. “Cannon on Politics,” Salt Lake Herald, September 16, 1897, 5. In “The Council of Fifty: What the Records Reveal about Mormon History,” Deseret Book, 2017, 71, Nathan B. Oman states, “There is no contemporary evidence that Joseph Smith participated in the effort to draft the written constitution for the kingdom of God. Cannon was not a member of the Council of Fifty at the time, although he was later close to men who were.”

By Kurt Manwaring

Editor. History nerd. Latter-day Saint.

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