Nauvoo City Council’s minutes of 1840s provide chaos, contention and lies

(To see Cal Grondahl’s cartoon that goes with this post, click here)The LDS Church Library no longer allows access to the Nauvoo City Council and High Council minutes from 1839 to 1845. That’s a shame, but the minutes, when accessible, were recorded. Signature Books, with the assistance of historian John Dinger, has published the minutes, along with notes, and they’re just plain fascinating for enthusiasts of history. Without spin, they lay out the controversy that swirled in Nauvoo prior to Joseph Smith’s murder and the LDS exodus west.

The documents lend credence to the belief that the then-secret doctrine of polygamy sparked much of the contention that roiled Nauvoo. Many of those associated with the anti-Smith publication, the Nauvoo Expositor, were accused of using polygamy as an excuse to commit adultery. In the city council meeting of June 8, 1844, Hyrum Smith is cited as claiming that Joseph Smith’s revelation on polygamy, read to the Nauvoo High Council on Aug. 12, 1843, “was in answer to a question concerning things which transpired in former days & had no reference to the present time.” As curiously noted, “Hyrum Smith married four plural wives in 1843.” It’s clear that Hyrum Smith had rationalized that it was OK to mislead. Also, on page 255 of the Nauvoo City Council minutes, the LDS prophet, and Nauvoo mayor, Joseph Smith, supports Hyrum’s incorrect words, saying that he had not preached the doctrine in public or private.

From reading the various minutes and notes commentary, polygamy was used as a cudgel in a conflict between the Smiths and their enemies, such as William Law, Wilson Law, Robert and Charles Foster, Chauncey and Francis Higbee, Sylvester Emmons, and others. These accusations were often judged in the non-secular, but equally powerful, Nauvoo High Council meetings. On May 24, 1842, “Chancy” Higbee was excommunicated by the high council after being judged guilty of adultery and for teaching “the doctrine that it was right to have free intercourse with women if it was kept secret …” Higbee, the minutes report, claimed “that Joseph Smith autherised (sic) him to practice these things.”

Other accusations used to discredit critics included counterfeiting, stinginess, and plots to kill Joseph Smith. The final accusation was probably closest to the truth, as the violence that was commonplace in that era made lynching and murder a real possibility. The City Council minutes note how the Smiths used Nauvoo civil law to construct a habeus corpus statute so far-reaching that it could blunt any attempt to have Smith or others extradited to Missouri or anywhere outside of Nauvoo. In fact, Smith used habeus corpus to initially avoid arrest for trashing the Nauvoo Expositor press.

The city council debate that preceded the Nauvoo police’s destruction of the Expositor press as a “nuisance” is very interesting. Anger from past atrocities against Mormons, notably the Haun’s Mill massacre, were used as rationales to destroy the Expositor’s press. Interestingly, one Nauvoo councilman, Benjamin Warrington, opposed destroying the press. He wanted to give the editors time to stop publishing and assess them a $3,000 fine.

Both Smiths spoke in opposition to Warrington’s proposal, Hyrum adding that he doubted the publishers had the money to pay the fine. Those in favor of the press’ destruction cited ” Blackwater’s Commentaries on the Laws of England,” a reference book widely used in that era. Nauvoo city attorney and councilman George P. Stiles used “Blackwater” as evidence, “{saying a} Nuisance is any thing {that} disturbs the peace of {the} community.”

The destruction of the Expositor began before the city council meeting authorizing the act had finished. As are most decisions made in haste and with excessive emotion, it backfired, increasing the danger to Joseph Smith and others. An attempt to use Nauvoo’s liberal habeus corpus law to escape legal heat failed, and to protect Nauvoo from armed mobs, Joseph and Hyrum agreed to be jailed in Carthage, Ill. Assurances of safety from a feckless governor, Thomas Ford, failed, and history records that both Smiths were murdered by a mob.

The Nauvoo City Council minutes after the Smiths’ murders are interesting. There is little of the anger or bluster that was part of the meeting that sanctioned the press’ destruction. It’s muted, and frankly reflects the shock and despair that must have surrounded Nauvoo and church members at the loss of their prophet. Much of the minutes cover discussion on how much the city must renumerate the Nauvoo Expositor for the destruction of its property. Hiram Kimball was assigned the task of dealing with the renumeration.

Also, it’s clear that city leaders were concerned that the mobs that had killed the Smiths were still eager to attack Nauvoo. The council endorsed pleas by Governor Ford and others to avoid violent reprisals.

“The Nauvoo City and High Council Minutes” is a massive, indispensible treasure trove of Mormon history in Illinois. I’ll have further blog entries that will concentrate on the minutes of meetings that determined the church successors to the slain Smiths, and another blog will focus on day-to-day matters that fell before the high council. Some were amusing; one recounts a man brought for church discipline because he sold his wife for her weight in catfish!

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11 Responses to Nauvoo City Council’s minutes of 1840s provide chaos, contention and lies

  1. Pingback: Signature Books » The Nauvoo City and High Council Minutes

  2. HFF says:

    Regarind Navoo, readers who want a better understanding Mormon history might be interested in a historical novel called Odysseys of the Saints which is available at Amazon or direct from the Publishers.

    The Mormons are optimistic, expansive and generous with an outlook that has attracted millions of believers. But the distinct Mormon beliefs have also created repeated controversy. Odysseys of the Saints tells “how and why” from the viewpoint of both fiction and fact.

    This book was extensively researched, with sources noted, not only on Mormon history, but on matters of ritual and theology. Neither of the authors is Mormon or ex-Mormon, so there is no religious agenda, either positively or negatively. More information is available on the book website http://odysseysofthesaints.com.

  3. HFF says:

    Sorry for the typo on the previous post–resulting from CAPTCHA challenge. Regarding Nauvoo, readers of this blog who want a better understanding Mormon history might be interested in a historical novel called Odysseys of the Saints which is available at Amazon or direct from the Publishers.

    The Mormons have attracted millions of believers. But the distinct Mormon beliefs have also created some controversy that re-appears time and again. Odysseys of the Saints tells “how and why” from the viewpoint of both fiction and fact.

    This book was extensively researched, with sources noted, not only on Mormon history, but on matters of ritual and theology. Neither of the authors is Mormon or ex-Mormon, so there is no religious agenda, either positively or negatively. More information is available on the book website http://odysseysofthesaints.com.

    With the likelihood of a Mormon as a candidate for President in 2012 (Romney or Huntsman), there should be increasing interest in the history of the Mormon religion.

  4. Clair B says:

    Nice writeup Doug.

  5. lasvegasRichard says:

    It’s interesting how the ‘church’ today can still spin as righteous the fact that Joseph Smith’s wives included a 16 year old and a 14 year old, the former being a household member. And he lied about it, too

  6. Myth Buster says:

    The Oath of Vengeance sworn by Mitt Romney’s 4th generation ancestor Parley Pratt to avenge the blood of Hyrum and Joseph Smith upon this nation and the Gentile Race to the 4th generation is a good read too.
    Limon Bogg’s “Extermination Order” aka Executive Order #44 is another good read especially with President #44 in office.
    The “White Horse Prophecy” claiming Mormon Church elders will save the constitution amid starvation and crime is another.

  7. Mikeasell says:

    I find it hard to understand why the LDS church would not the make public city records for Nauvoo available? I mean these are city council records? I wonder if it is part of the campaign to to pretend that polygamy never really happened.
    How blatant, that by their own records, they practiced it, lied about it, violated the trust of friends, violated children, usurped religious pressure on women for sex, trampled the constitution, and still pretend that it was a minor test of their faith and a footnote in their history. Disgusting.

  8. Anon says:

    Mormon architecture reveals an interesting insight into Mormon mentality at the top. In SLC there are two parks side by side. One with a fence around it owned by the LDS church the other owned by the city with no fence.

    LDS felt the need to close of main street to have more control on the area close to the temple.

    When people feel threatened or have secrets, they yearn to withdraw, they may keep their drapes at their house closed. If it is God who is behind the polygamy, there is nothing to be ashamed of or to fear. Obviously LDS leaders, on some level do feel vulnerable inspite of this.

  9. Frank says:

    Earlier it was the supposed LDS- Hitler connection, now it’s the Nauvoo Marx Brothers. Doug, you are no historian. You simple mine history for tidbits you think might embarrass current LDS members and ingratiate you with your anti-LDS readers. You will always succeed at the latter, but rarely the former.

    I’m always surprised what passes for current events for Mormon bashers like yourself at the Standard. When was the last time the Standard took the effort of publishing a political cartoon of the civil war, revolutionary war, or even world war I or II periods. How bought those Elizabethans and Jacobites? How about the Romans and Greek civilizations or other ancient history? No interest? Yet obscure oddities from city council meetings 150 years ago from another state is somehow a compelling subject for a series of blogs complete with political cartoons in support of your ridicule. All because you want to take a few shots at your religious neighbors.

    Get a life. Grow up. Find something worthwhile to talk about.

  10. Reader says:

    Doug has always shown a curiosity for the LDS church details. I say, good for him. Let’s hear about his discoveries on this or any other subject he finds interesting.

  11. Pingback: Signature Books » review – The Nauvoo City and High Council Minutes

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