Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Author Interview: John Dinger, 'The Nauvoo City and High Council Minutes'

nauvoohighcouncil.jpgAn important new book, The Nauvoo City and High Council Minutes makes available for the first time the minutes of the city and church high councils from the Mormon city of Nauvoo, Illinois, 1839-1845.  The minutes were edited into book format by John S. Dinger, assistant district attorney in Boise, Idaho.

He was kind enough to answer a few questions about the book:

Clair Barrus: Can you provide a description of the contents of the book, I.E. what documents are included, what time frame do they span, where did these councils fit into the leadership hierarchy of Nauvoo.

: The book contains the records of two of the governing bodies in Nauvoo; the City Council and the High Council. 

The records of the high council start on October 6, 1839 and concluded October 18, 1845.  The records of the city council span a shorter time, February 3, 1841 to March 8, 1845, because the high council acted as a city council of sorts until city officials were elected on February 1, 1841.

When the Saints left Missouri for Illinois, a presiding high council was organized in Quincy, on October 6, 1839.  This high council later called the Nauvoo High Council met until October 18, 1845. At first, the high council served as both the spiritual and civil authority in Nauvoo.  For example, at their first official meeting on October 20, 1839 they held a disciplinary council for Harlow Reed, but they also discussed the problem of animals getting loose and destroying crops.  The discussion of animals is important, because the city council ended up passing more laws dealing with animals than almost any other subject.  After the city council formed, the high council focused on more church related subjects.  For example, they regularly held disciplinary councils for many reasons, they formulated responses to polygamy rumors, they played a very important role in the dispute over who was to lead the church after Joseph Smith's death, and they had a hand in establishing the city council and in electing the town's civic leaders.

The Nauvoo High Council was especially important because it was the council at the center of the church and thus, had jurisdiction over any other high council.  Much of the discussions in the records are appeals from other high councils.  Once the Nauvoo High Council made a decision, the only other place to appeal would be the First Presidency of the Church.

The city council wasn't formed until February 1841 because they could not legally govern themselves until they received a charter from the Illinois state legislature.  This occurred in December of 1840.  The Nauvoo charter was similar to other Charters granted by the legislature, but it differed in many ways.  Nauvoo's included the right to create a university, a standing army, and a municipal court. It was specifically created to be both inclusive and powerful. As Joseph Smith wrote, "The City Charter of Nauvoo is my own plan and device; I concocted it for the salvation of the Church, and on principles so broad, that every honest man might dwell secure under its protective influence without distinction of sect or party."

With the passage of its charter, Nauvoo was able to elect a mayor, city councilmen, and alderman who were more powerful than councilmen. Like the mayor, aldermen could sit in as justices of the peace and municipal court judges, whereas councilmen were restricted to matters brought before the city council. Following the formation of a rudimentary municipal government, the council began passing laws and ordinances from the mundane to the exotic. Some of these contributed to Mormon/non-Mormon animosity and ultimately to Joseph Smith's death.
In what ways will this publication contribute to our understanding of Mormon History?

This publication will contribute to our understanding of Mormon History in very significant ways.  First, this is the first time that the city council minutes will be available to historians.  It will greatly enhance anyone's understanding who is interested in the formation and governance of Nauvoo.  It shows what issues were important to the Saints and how they passed laws to address them.  Probably the three most important issues to the City Council were animals running at large, the sale and distribution of alcohol, and the numerous attempts to arrest Joseph Smith.  It is easy to imagine the frustration that everyone felt in a growing city when animals would wander into another's crops or when someone had a rabid animal.  The city council passed numerous laws on this subject, often times repealing laws only to pass them again a few months later.  Alcohol was also a very interesting in that the city council gave Joseph Smith a license to sell it in small quantities, but passed laws prohibiting anyone else to do the same.  But most interesting were the passage of Habeas Corpus laws to prohibit the arrests of Joseph Smith for supposed crimes committed in Missouri, mainly the attempted assassination of Lilburn Boggs.  You can feel the desperation of the council to protect their prophet and Mayor.

Another very significant addition to Mormon history is the discussion in the city council of what to do about the Nauvoo Expositor.  While this is often viewed as the council simply making a decision and carrying it out, this was not the case.  While the destruction may have been a foregone conclusion, the discussion and how they reached the decision is very significant.  One June 8, 1844 Joseph Smith called for the destruction of the press, but the city council actually put it off for a few days before making the decision.  On June 10, the council met and had a very reasoned discussion on the law of nuisance and what they could do about it.  This group looked at the legal treatises of the day, looked at the Illinois and US Constitutions and passed a law governing nuisance.  After the law was passed, they then discussed if the Expositor was a nuisance.  It was only after a spirited discussion, in which councilor Benjamin Warrington disagreed, that the press was removed.

This will also make the Nauvoo High Council easily accessible for the first time.  It was, at least a portion of the records, available on the Selected Collections DVD set, however the cost kept most people from being able to view them.  This volume will put the records into historian's hands in an easy format for a relatively low price.  In this we also see the daily struggles that the Saints had at this time.  We see struggles with honesty, sexual impropriety, abuse, and problems with authority.  Not that much different with today.  We also see the outlandish like a person on trial for trading his wife for catfish.

Most importantly we see the introduction of polygamy and its aftermath, and the public trial of Sidney Rigdon.

As I understand it, these minutes span a range of time including the death of Joseph Smith. What can we learn from them about the impact of his death, and the subsequent transition of the church?

Both documents span Smith's murder and in both you see radical changes brought by his death.  The city council, of which Smith was a member, met four days after his death.  The first noticeable change was a shift in leadership to W.W. Phelps.  He took up the reins as the city council tried to keep the peace.  They passed resolutions pleading with the Saints to be peaceful and not seek revenge.  The city council also has to resolve the Expositor issue, offering to pay damages for the destruction of the press.  Near the end of 1844 they are back to passing various laws and ordinances and they seem to be back to normal.

The high council is an entirely different story.  Prior to the death of Smith, the council was already having problems over certain members not being able to accept the teaching on polygamy.  These members included
William Law, William Marks, Leonard Soby, and Austin A. Cowles.  After his death, the high council was further impacted because members disagreed as to who was supposed to lead the church.  William Marks, the president of the high council was looked at by many as one who should lead the church, including Emma Smith and William Clayton.  William Marks however, supported Sidney Rigdon's claim, and was joined by council member Leonard Soby.  As the majority of the council supported the twelve apostle's claim, the documents show Marks influence dwindle, until he was removed from the council.  Eventually the council would answer to the twelve, something it had not done before the death of Joseph Smith.

Can you provide any curious tidbits of information, or an interesting story from your book?

The book is full of many interesting tidbits that historians will enjoy.  Some of my favorite are On September 6, 1845 the high council had summoned Amasa Bonney to a disciplinary council for drinking.  The record states what happened:
Amasa Bonney (who had been cited before the Council) on the charge of drunkenness) appeared in a high state of intoxication, with a bottle in his pocket; and was soon in a state of stupor sleep, in the Council room, whereupon it was voted unanimously that he be cut off from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, and was forthwith conducted from the room [by] Counsellors Wilson & Holman.
Also, as stated above, I enjoyed seeing how seriously they took their jobs as city councilors. Specifically, in reference to the deciding what to do about the Nauvoo expositor, they really studied out the current law on nuisance:
[The] Resolution on nuisances [was] read. [The] Mayor read Article 8, sec[tion] 22, page 365, [of the] Constitution of Illinois. C[ouncillor] [George P.] Stiles spoke[,] [saying a] Nuisance is any thing [that] disturbs the peace of [the] community — & Read [James] Chitty's [1826 edition of] Blackstone['s] [Commentaries on the Laws of England][,] page 4.110 — [He] said the whole community [would] have to rest under the stigma of these falsehoods— If we can prevent the [Expositor from the] issuing of any more slanderous communications[,] he would go in for it. — It is right for this community to shew a proper resentment — I would go in for suppressing all further publications of the kind.
Clair: What if anything surprised you when you did this book?
John: One thing that really surprised me in working on this book is the sympathy I felt for William Marks because I really ended up liking and admiring him.  At the public trial of Sidney Rigdon, many of the twelve apostles and members of the high council spoke against Sidney Rigdon, bringing up anything and everything negative he ever did.  When it came to William Marks to speak, he took a different approach.  He stated:
I feel disposed to speak in favor of Elder Rigdon & I will take up the opposite side & I have always been a friend to Elder Rigdon & I suppose there is many here that loves him too & it has been a long time since I have been [asked to defend someone as] the president of the [high] council & I feel for a few moments to take his side[.] I do [not] wish to do what is wrong. Nor I do not wish to uphold any lies or [be involved] in any thing that is wrong — but I will endeavor to do justice to him.
While I personally disagree with Marks in this, I still think it admirable that he held to his beliefs in a public setting, where many were disagreeing with him.  I think it showed real courage.

The Nauvoo City and High Council Minutes
John S. Dinger, editor
700 pp. 978-1-56085-214-8
$49.95. hardback.