Scholars Gather in Texas to Discuss Mormon History

Contributed By By R. Scott Lloyd, Church News staff writer

  • 18 June 2014

Richard E. Turley Jr., left, assistant Church historian and recorder, gives a presentation on the Nauvoo-era Council of Fifty Minutes with colleagues from the Joseph Smith Papers, Matthew J. Grow and Ronald K. Esplin.  Photo by R. Scott Lloyd.

Article Highlights

  • The conference attendees considered subjects including the Joseph Smith Papers, Liberty Jail, the Missouri period, and plural marriage.
  • Conference presentations also addressed contemporary issues, particularly increasing cultural diversity as the Church expands globally.

“There are many, many beneficial influences that have changed and shaped the what we are and the way that we see things. As Mormonism in all of its various expressions moves into the international forum in such a profound way, we couldn’t think of a better topic to explore as our history looks forward to its future.” —Richard E. Bennett, chairman of the Department of Church History and Doctrine at BYU

SAN ANTONIO, TEXAS

Meeting in the “Alamo City,” with its famous Riverwalk, Tower of the Americas, and championship-contender San Antonio Spurs basketball team, the Mormon History Association convened its 49th annual conference June 5–8.

Composed largely, but by no means exclusively, of members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the conference attendees considered a diversity of subjects including the Joseph Smith Papers, Liberty Jail, the Missouri period of Church history, the Mormon exodus, plural marriage, and post-Nauvoo temple traditions.

Conference presentations also addressed contemporary issues, particularly with respect to increasing cultural diversity as the Church expands globally.

“It is particularly exciting,” wrote Richard E. Bennett, this year’s president in the conference’s printed program, “to see such a mix of young scholars, established authorities, and interested amateurs rubbing shoulders together in a quest for knowledge and understanding. Not all will agree with each other, which makes for an exciting conference, but all promise to be responsible and respectful.”

Brother Bennett, chairman of the Department of Church History and Doctrine at BYU, strongly promoted this year’s conference theme, “The Immigration of Cosmopolitan Thought.”

“There are many, many beneficial influences that have changed and shaped the what we are and the way that we see things,” he said in a conference plenary session June 6. “As Mormonism in all of its various expressions moves into the international forum in such a profound way, we couldn’t think of a better topic to explore as our history looks forward to its future.”

In the conference’s opening session, Henry Cisneros, former San Antonio mayor and former U.S. secretary of Housing and Urban Development under President Bill Clinton, welcomed attendees.

“I have great respect for the Church, for its legacy here in San Antonio,” he said. “I live in Colonia Mexicana, the traditional Hispanic neighborhood. I live in my grandparents’ old home. And it’s not unusual to see two young men with black pants and white shirts riding bicycles through our neighborhood on their missions.”

Brian and Laura Hales, Mormon History Association Conference attendees, stand in front of the iconic Alamo during a pre-conference walking tour of San Antonio, Texas. Photo by R. Scott Lloyd.

A vocal ensemble conducted by Ethan Wickman, LDS composer on the faculty of the University of Texas at San Antonio, performs at a Sunday morning devotional of the Mormon History Association Conference in San Antonio. The devotional was held in the Coates Chapel in downtown San Antonio, a former religious sanctuary built in 1867 that is on the National Register of Historic Places. Photo by R. Scott Lloyd.

Richard E. Bennett, 2014 Mormon History Association president, greets attendees at the welcome session of the 49th annual association conference held in San Antonio, Texas. Photo by R. Scott Lloyd.

Henry Cisneros, former San Antonio mayor and U.S. secretary of Housing and Urban Development, welcomes attendees at the opening session of the 49th annual Mormon History Association Conference in San Antonio. Photo by R. Scott Lloyd.

Elizabeth Kuehn of the Joseph Smith Papers project delivers a presentation on “Financing Zion and Building the Stakes of Zion: Understanding the Intended and Actual Roles of the Kirtland Safety Society” at the Mormon History Association Conference. Photo by R. Scott Lloyd.

He said the Church’s San Antonio Texas Temple is about four blocks from his house, and he spoke of its positive influence on the neighborhood, where residents work hard to keep their own property in good shape because of the presence of the temple.

“When I meet people who are converts to Mormonism in our community,” he said, “I know they have committed to solid values, and it’s good for their families, and they’re going to make an impact in the community and work harder than most.”

A particularly well-attended session dealt with the upcoming publication of the Nauvoo-era Council of Fifty Minutes, a document that has long been subject to some speculation—much of it unfounded, as it turns out—with regard to its content.

Richard E. Turley Jr., assistant Church historian and recorder, and two of his colleagues, Matthew J. Grow and Ronald K. Esplin, gave a glimpse into the record, soon to be published as part of the Joseph Smith Papers project, according to an announcement made in the Church News article of last September 7.

The records are to be published as footnote material in upcoming volumes and are expected to be published in full in late 2016.

Brother Turley defined the Council of Fifty as a deliberative body of the Church formed in Nauvoo, Illinois, in 1844 that provided a pattern of political government, the nucleus or focus of God’s latter-day kingdom. The council was later revived in Utah, but in the Joseph Smith Papers project, only the Nauvoo-era minutes will be published, as footnote material in upcoming volumes and eventually in one self-contained volume.

Coincidentally, given the location of the conference, the formation of the council has a Texas connection.

Brother Grow, publications director for the Church History Department, explained that the immediate impetus for organizing the Council of Fifty was the receipt by Church leaders of two letters on March 10, 1844, from two LDS missionaries, George Miller and Lyman Wight, in the Wisconsin territory, where they were procuring lumber to build the temple in Nauvoo.

“Miller and Wight proposed that the mill be sold and the missionaries be sent to Texas to select a place of gathering for all of (the Church members in) the South,” Brother Grow explained.

That led to discussions about the Church’s looking for a place where it could establish a self-governing headquarters settlement, be it in Texas, Oregon, or California. Church members had undergone oppression in Ohio, Missouri, and, more recently in Illinois and were seeking an area where they could practice their faith unmolested.

The discussions resulted in the formation of the Council of Fifty.

“By the last time Joseph Smith met with the council in May 1844 [just prior to his assassination in June], 54 men had been admitted” into the council, Brother Grow said, including three men who were not members of the Church but who were selected so the council could be representative of the type of theocratic government that would prevail in preparation for the Second Coming of Christ.

“All seemed agreed to look for someplace where we can go and establish a theocracy, either in Texas or Oregon or California,” Brother Grow read from the minutes of the organization of the first council meeting as they were kept by William Clayton. “In addition, they conversed on the subject of forming a constitution which should be according to the mind of God.”

Brother Grow noted, “Several activities occupied the council during Joseph Smith’s leadership, including his candidacy for the presidency, possible emigration to Texas or elsewhere in the West, and wide-ranging discussion about the meaning of the kingdom of God.”

Brother Esplin, general editor of the Joseph Smith Papers project, acknowledged that because the minute record has long been unavailable for study, much speculation has surrounded it, some of which will not hold up in the light of the record itself. Contrary to some conjecture, the minutes contain no hidden doctrine or sermons.

He said the value of the minutes record “is not in opening of vistas unknown, but it has significant value in providing a fuller context that we didn’t understand, providing helpful details for this initiative or that policy, allowing us to better understand the reason for some policy decisions, allowing us to share in some of the discussion that went into those decisions, preserving additional teachings and statements of Joseph Smith and Brigham Young about government-related topics.”

The records “will offer new insights along with gems here and there, expanding on familiar topics,” said Brother Esplin.

In another presentation, Elizabeth Kuehn, a research assistant with the Joseph Smith Papers project, spoke of the ill-fated Kirtland Safety Society established in Ohio by the Prophet and other Church leaders. She suggested that the society was formed in an effort to help raise money for the Church’s 1838 move to Jackson County, Missouri.

Lack of funding, attacks by enemies, and the economic fallout of the panic of 1837 led to the institution’s demise. That the society failed was unfortunate, she said, but it had never been intended to be a measure of the Church’s success, but rather a means to an end.

During a Sunday morning devotional that concluded the conference, Ronald O. Barney, stepping down as association executive director, spoke of the Prophet Joseph Smith, giving recollections from the Prophet’s close associates that reflected his greatness.

Brother Barney, retired from the Church History Department and associated with the Joseph Smith Papers project, gave this quote from Brigham Young: “He had all the weaknesses a man could have when the vision was not upon him, when he was left to himself. He was constituted like other men and would have required years and years longer in the flesh to become a Moses in all things.”

Yet, Brother Barney said, President Young concluded his statement about the Prophet with these words: “For the length of time he lived, he was as good a man as ever lived in the flesh, Jesus excepted.”

Brother Barney quoted from the recorded words of a sermon given by Joseph on May 21, 1843, in which the Prophet alluded to false piety: “That which the world calls righteousness I have not any regard for. To be righteous is to be just and merciful. If a man fails in kindness, justice, and mercy, he will be damned.”