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The Nauvoo City and High Council Minutes Hardcover – December 21, 2011
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From the Inside Flap
Perhaps it all made sense if you were there and knew what the rules were, but for most people today, the history of Nauvoo seems like a parade of horribles. For instance, Henry Cook was brought before the high council on the charge of having sold his wife for her weight in catfish. He and the buyer were happy, but she was not. Henry was found innocent “under the circumstances” because “the cat fish woman” was found to be a shrew.
In another case, Joseph Smith charged William Sagers with “using my name in a blasphemous manner,” saying Smith had given him permission to sleep with his wife’s sister. William apologized, and within a month Joseph actually did give William official permission to marry his sister-in-law. This enraged his wife, Lucinda, who complained to the high council. In rejecting her complaint, the council said it had already acquitted Sagers and would not take up the case again. The minutes reveal that the trial was held in a room that was “crowded to excess’ with curious onlookers, which is vastly different than the strict privacy observed in LDS trials today.
In September 1845, the council considered the case of Amasa Bonney, who was charged with public drunkenness—an especially serious offense for a Latter-day Saint. But unfazed, Bonney “appeared [before the council] in a high state of intoxication, with a bottle in his pocket; and was soon in a state of sleep in the council room, whereupon it was voted unanimously that he be cut off from the Church.” Some people fared better and were both excommunicated and reinstated all in the same meeting because they quickly confessed and repented.
On the other side of a thin wall separating church and state in Nauvoo, the annals of the city council (as opposed to the high council) are just as curious. The council passed a law forbidding the sale of whiskey “in less quantity than a gallon.” In other words, whiskey could only be sold in large quantities. An exception was made for Joseph Smith, who pointed out that because his large home served as a hotel for visitors, he had been forced to build a bar in the foyer. He was therefore given permission to sell whiskey by the drink. From subsequent discussions, it seems to have been a profitable endeavor.
The city council dealt with all sorts of problems, large and small. In 1841 it threatened to kill free-roaming dogs and pigs, but two years later it had a change of heart. Now it specified that “cows, calves, sheep, goats, and harmless and inoffensive dogs shall be suffered to run at large as free commoners” without fear of harm. The reason for this was that Joseph Smith had decided “God withdrew his spirit from the earth … because the people were so ready to take the life of animals.”
The only thing more dramatic than the city’s response to everyday matters was its failings in local and national diplomacy. In 1843, when it had grown tired of negotiating with public officials from neighboring counties, the city council petitioned the U.S. Congress to see if Nauvoo could break away from the State of Illinois and become a free, independent city, also to ask if Joseph Smith might be given authority over U.S. troops! Despite a polite no from Washington, the city advised its lobbyists to be persistent, the mayor, Joseph Smith, advising them on how to persuade Senators by offering them drinks and entertainment.
All of which is to say that there are plenty of surprises in this volume for even a seasoned Mormon history buff—everything brought into sharp focus through the expertise of the editor, John S. Dinger. As one example of how the material has been placed into context for the reader, the city council complained that after the Nauvoo Expositor was destroyed, a “mob” gathered and was threatening the city. The police made a list of the mobocrats. As Dinger learned by looking up the named individuals, they were not terrorists but were the fifteen-to-seventeen-year-old sons of good Mormon families who had gathered to watch the spectacle of the police destroying the printing press.
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I'm tempted to give this volume something less than five stars, however, for the treatment of the May 1842 council deliberations regarding illicit intercourse. John S. Dinger does include some of the text of the women's testimonies, including un-redacting the information that William Smith had been the party who "affirmed" that illicit intercourse (aka spiritual wifery) was tolerated by the leaders of the Church. However John S. Dinger does not include the totality of the testimony for Catherine Laur [Fuller Warren]. Thus he fails to provide the curious reader with the ability to know that Catherine had not only been bedded by John C. Bennett and several other LDS men, but had also been bedded by the non-Mormon sheriff of Hancock County, Jacob Backenstos. This fact is important to differentiate the free-wheeling sex of so-called spiritual wifery from the intensely secretive covenant marriages Joseph was initiating amongst his followers.
The jacket makes fun of the fact that the men identified as threatening the establishment in the wake of the destruction of the Expositor were "merely" the teenaged sons of faithful Church members. This betrays the current lack of understanding that teenagers were involved in the conspiracy to kill Joseph Smith, that teenagers appear to have been among the men involved in illicit intercourse under the leadership of Dr. John Bennett.
Nauvoo was clearly more of a theocracy than is typical in American life. However Nauvoo was led by a man who, faced with gross sexual misconduct on the part of dozens, if not hundreds, of men and women, desired to cover as many of those sins as possible under the umbrella of pastoral confidentiality. As the case of Mary Clift demonstrates, women who were seduced during the ravages of the illicit intercourse epidemic were given protection and eventual legitimacy as plural wives within the context of Joseph's polygamy-permitting New and Everlasting Covenant. Even non-Mormons benefitted from this reticence to publicly prosecute, as appears to have been the case for Jacob Backenstos.
John Dinger's edition of these important minutes is a must-have for anyone seriously studying Nauvoo. However I would caution that there are important details missing, despite the obvious effort to include all information directly related to the minutes. Primarily, it is the underlying presumption that William Law and Austin Cowles were necessarily correct in their assessment of Joseph Smith that at times rubs me wrong.
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.