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Dinger, "The Nauvoo City and High Council Minutes" (reviewed by Bryan Buchanan) Options · View
jeffneedle
Posted: Tuesday, December 20, 2011 10:34:01 PM

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Review
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Title: The Nauvoo City and High Council Minutes
Editor: John S. Dinger
Publisher: Signature Books
Genre: Documentary Collection
Year Published: 2011
Number of Pages: 616
Binding: Hardcover
ISBN10: 1560852143
ISBN13: 978-1-56085-2148
Price: $49.95

Reviewed by Bryan Buchanan for the Association for Mormon Letters

These days, it is fairly rare that a previously unpublished documentary source of importance appears. Buckle up. Signature Books has once again produced a gem in *The Nauvoo City and High Council Minutes* edited by John S. Dinger.

While the Nauvoo high council minutes have appeared (albeit in somewhat abridged format) previously, only tantalizing excerpts here and there from the city council minutes have ever emerged. John Dinger brings his legal expertise to the table in a yeoman’s effort to produce coherent sets of minutes for both of these key Nauvoo decision-making bodies. Despite working almost until the point of no return from confusing transcripts, Dinger has compiled a fascinating chronology of the chaos that swirled almost constantly in Nauvoo. [1]

The physical makeup of the minutes is practically as interesting—in both cases (city and high council), scribes would take contemporary rough notes which would then be transferred and cleaned up into bound minute books. In the case of the city council, one more step was added of producing a finished set of minutes suitable for publication. However, teasing gaps remain—the missing book containing the trial of John C. Bennett being the prime example. No other source that I have read gives such a feeling of being “on the ground”—one can easily grasp what issues were on the minds of citizens and how quickly those could change.

Though Dinger himself muses about a true critical edition of the minutes appearing at some point, much of the footnoting serves just that purpose. The editor notes additional material that appears in either the loose minutes or the bound minute books and uses a system of symbols to show when he moves from one source type to another. Footnotes also give brief biographical details for participants and refer to other entries that shed greater light on the discussion at hand, perhaps the greatest value of the notes. Occasionally, the reader can sense the grief that Dinger went through trying to make sense of cryptic entries—at times, he admits that at a distance of 170 years, it is simply impossible.

Leafing through the entries, one quickly notes the breadth of matters that the city council considered. In a unique “created” community where virtually no one had much experience in government, the reader sees a group consulting other cities for precedent and experimenting with ordinances. The entries cover the most mundane (dogs were clearly a pressing problem—several ordinances deal with them!) to matters such as what to do with the Nauvoo Expositor. The color of meetings dealing with the latter show through boldly in the minutes: W.W. Phelps asking whether they were trampling upon anyone’s rights, resounding answers of “No!” and resultant discussions of reimbursing those who had property destroyed with some council members stating they didn’t think such action would even be necessary. The meetings leading up to the final decision to suppress the Expositor (and take down Robert Foster’s barn as a casualty) are probably the climax of the book.

Though histories of the period mention the dissent and commotion present in late Nauvoo, these entries bluntly show a city hurtling toward complete chaos in a way that a secondary history written at a distance of decades cannot. The minutes, though understandably dealing with tedious governmental matters at times, are fascinating for anyone with even a passing interest in Mormon history.

The high council minutes don’t lag behind the city council in interesting subject material. In the period predating the formation of the city council, one can easily see the seamless blend of temporal and spiritual in their discussions. As time passes and secular matters move to the other body, the high council turns attention to hearing complaints. These range from the trivial (she took some of my trinkets, waah) to more important matters like what to do with Francis Gladden Bishop who would move in and out of favor until finally becoming a minor player in the succession events. The most riveting to me were the many trials of 1842 when polygamy begins to really be whispered about and people begin to claim authority from Joseph Smith to have sex with anyone they want. Candid depositions with a degree of detail unexpected in the Victorian era make for entertaining reading. The divide between the two Nauvoos—one composed of the elite privy to details and the general populace—is never more apparent than in reading this section. Council member Wilford Woodruff notes in his diary the “exhertion abo[u]t these days to clense the Church,” an effort that would only intensify as time passed.

As might be expected in trying to annotate such a collection, there are some minor hiccups. The brief biographical details given on most of the people mentioned are in some cases helpful, others with little more than birth and death dates not so much. On the other side of the coin, Alanson Ripley gets two sketches (p 346, 364)! When mentioning that Hosea Stout had later filled in names of high council members mentioned at first only by number, Dinger occasionally anticipates that four members always appear when only two are mentioned (p 379 n 92, 380, n 97). There are a few typos also: “Alonson Ripley.” “Stephen C. LeSeuer,” “legal council,” etc. but, with such a large amount of data (names, dates, places) this is almost to be expected.

A few more substantive issues came up—at this point in Mormon historiography, unqualified references to *History of the Church* are beginning to seem out of place. With the upcoming publication of Dan Vogel’s annotated edition of this source, one more barrier between reader and subject will be removed. Also, occasionally a footnote referring to a general topic could have used a little more oomph—for example, in a note dealing with attempts to publish the JST, Dinger says simply “Joseph Smith was re-writing portions of the Bible.”

John Dinger and Signature are to be commended for publishing such a notable addition to the field of Mormon history. Writers and researchers treating the Nauvoo period now have a major addition to their pool of sources. Perhaps someone will employ this treasure in finally writing the definitive history of Nauvoo.



[1] Only as they were preparing to go to press were the author and publisher able to consult scans of the originals which allowed them to confirm their understanding of the confusion.
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