the thinker

Did Joseph Smith Commit Treason in His Quest for Political Empire in 1844?

Published in John Whitmer Historical Association Journal 32, no. 2 (Fall/Winter 2012):52-58.1

Joseph Smith was a very audacious and ambitious individual. In 1844, in central Illinois at Nauvoo, he established a theocratic/political kingdom on the Mississippi. He envisioned himself as a king presiding over an empire that eventually would include not only America but the entire world. He organized a council of fifty men to help him realize his goal. Under his direction, this secretive body appears to have been given the responsibility of setting up satellite cells for this theocratic kingdom throughout the United States and the world. In this article I will explore the evidence for this idea.

In many of the churches based on the movement started by Joseph Smith, Jr., the Book of Mormon is upheld as canonized scripture. One of the salient themes in 3 Nephi, within the Book of Mormon, is that the Native Americans under the direction of God will destroy the gentiles (anyone not Native American) in America unless they “repent,” meaning they embrace the Mormon gospel. Here are several examples from 3 Nephi, of Joseph Smith prophesying on this theme in 1830:

I say unto you, that if the Gentiles do not repent.... Then shall ye, who are a remnant of the house of Jacob [Indians], go forth among them; and ye shall be in the midst of them who shall be many; and ye shall be among them as a lion among the beasts of the forest, and as a young lion among the flocks of sheep, who, if he goeth through both treadeth down and teareth in pieces, and none can deliver. Thy hand shall be lifted up upon thine adversaries, and all thine enemies shall be cut off.... And it shall come to pass, saith the Father, that the sword of my justice shall hang over them at that day; and except they repent it shall fall upon them. (LDS, 3 Ne. 20: 15-17, 20; RLDS, 3 Ne. 9:51-53, 56)

Smith continues:

And my people who are a remnant of Jacob shall be among the Gentiles, yea, in the midst of them as a lion among the beasts of the forest, as a young lion among the flocks of sheep, who, if he go through both treadeth down and teareth in pieces, and none can deliver.... I will cut off thy horses out of the midst of thee, and I will destroy thy chariots; And I will cut off the cities of thy land, and throw down all thy strongholds.... And I will pluck up thy groves out of the midst of thee; so will I destroy thy cities.... And I will execute vengeance and fury upon them, even as upon the heathen, such as they have not heard. (LDS, 3 Ne.21:12, 14-15, 18, 21; also see LDS, 3 Ne. 16:10-16; LDS, Mormon 5:24. RLDS, 3 Ne. 9:99, 101, 104, 106; also see RLDS, 3 Ne. 7:34-42; RLDS, Mormon 2: 54).

Smith further prophesies that if the gentiles do repent, they can assist the Native Americans in building the New Jerusalem:

But if they will repent [embrace the Mormon gospel]…I will establish my church among them, and they shall come in unto the covenant and be numbered among this the remnant of Jacob, unto whom I have given this land [America] for their inheritance; And they shall assist my people…[to] build a city, which shall be called the New Jerusalem. And…assist my people that they may be gathered in, who are scattered upon all the face of the land, in unto the New Jerusalem. And then shall the power of heaven come down among them; and I also will be in the midst. (LDS, 3 Ne. 21:22-25; RLDS, 3 Ne. 10:1-4, emphasis added)

In 1838, apostle Parley P. Pratt affirmed Joseph Smith's 1830 prophecies. Pratt declared:

All who will not hearken to the Book of Mormon, shall be cut off from among the people; and that too, in the day it comes forth to the Gentiles and is rejected by them. And not only does this page [527, in 1837 edition] set the time for the overthrow of our government and all other Gentile governments on the American continent, but the way and means of this utter destruction are clearly foretold, namely, the remnant of Jacob will go through among the Gentiles and tear them in pieces, like a lion among the flocks of sheep. Their hand shall be lifted up upon their adversaries, and all their enemies shall be cut off. This destruction includes an utter overthrow, and desolation of all our Cities, Forts, and Strong Holds––an entire annihilation of our race, except such as embrace the Covenant, and are numbered with Israel.

Now, Mr. Sunderland, you have something definite and tangible, the time, the manner, the means, the names, the dates; and I will state as a prophecy, that there will not be an unbelieving Gentile upon this continent 50 years hence; and if they are not greatly scourged, and in a great measure overthrown, within five or ten years from this date, then the Book of Mormon will have proved itself false.2

On March 11, 1844, Joseph Smith established a secret organization called the Council of Fifty, in Nauvoo, Illinois, which was designed to carry out his plans for political empire. This theocratic-political kingdom or body of men met a number of times in Nauvoo before Smith's death on June 27, 1844.3 The goal of this theocracy was world government.4 They further believed they would govern and rule the earth during the millennial reign of Christ.5

On April 11, 1844, the Council of Fifty installed Joseph Smith as king on earth, then two days later, “He [Smith] prophecied the entire overthrow of this nation in a few years.”6 This theocratic-political body believed they were receiving God's “law” for the whole earth. On January 1, 1845, William Clayton summarized the goals and accomplishments of this council during 1844:

The organization of the kingdom of God on the 11th March last is one important event. This organization was called the council of fifty or kingdom of God and was titled by revelation as follows, ‘Verily thus saith the Lord, this is the name by which you shall be called, the kingdom of god and his law, with the keys and power thereof and judgments in the hands of his servants Ahman Christ.' In this council was the plan arranged for supporting president Joseph Smith as a candidate for the presidency of the U.S. Prest. Joseph was the standing chairman of the council and myself the clerk. In this council was also devised the plan of establishing an immigration to Texas and plans laid for the exaltation of a standard and ensign of truths for the nations of the earth. In this council was the plan devised to restore the Ancients to the knowledge of the truth and the restoration of union and peace amongst ourselves. In this council was prest. Joseph chosen as our prophet Priest, & King by Hosannas. In this council was the principles of eternal truths rolled forth to the hearers without reserve and the hearts of the servants of God made to rejoice exceedingly.7

Apostles Lyman Wight and Heber C. Kimball, both members of the Council of Fifty, in a June 19, 1844, letter to Joseph Smith boldly declared, “You are bound to be the President of the United States on 4th March 1845 and that you are already president pro tem of the world.”8

It is unfortunate that we do not have the minutes of the Council of Fifty. They are located at LDS church headquarters in Salt Lake City, Utah, and have not been published or allowed to be used by scholars. However, we can determine some of the decision making, methods, and goals of this council because a few of their members talked about the content of their secret meetings. Several talked at the peril of their lives with George Davis of Alton, Illinois, shortly after Smiths death on June 27, 1844. Davis wrote:

The great aim of Joseph Smith was evidently to clothe himself with the most unlimited power, civil, military and ecclesiastical over all who became members of his society.... [He stated] that God had revealed to him, that the Indians and Latter Day Saints, under Jo[s]e[ph] as their King and Ruler, were to conquer the Gentiles, and that their subjection to this authority was to be obtained by the sword! From this revelation, he enforced upon them that it was necessary he should be crowned King, and…was accordingly CROWNED KING under God, over, the immediate house of Israel. This ceremony was performed in 1842 [1844], by a council of fifty…. [That] the whole earth was to become under subjection to him…. accordingly Jo[s]e[ph] swore them all to present secrecy, under the penalty of death.

It is also a fact, ascertained beyond controversy, that the Indian tribes of Sacs and Foxes, Sioux's and Pottawattamies, were consulted, and their assent obtained previous to the mock crowning…and that delegates were sent to Nauvoo from each of the above tribes about the time of the ceremony being performed [on April 11, 1844], by the council of fifty. These delegations of Indians were seen by hundreds and hundreds at Nauvoo, but the object of their visitation never was ascertained without the pale of the church, until secessions commenced taking place from the Mormons.

The reader may naturally inquire how these facts have been ascertained. I state, from the only source possible to derive information; that is, from those who aided in the ceremony, but who have since returned to their reason and come out from among this den of wicked and perverse men.9

Supportive of the above statement is the affidavit of John W. Putnam. Putnam was a resident of Bear Creek, Illinois, a community not far from Nauvoo. On August 13, 1844, Putnam stated:

That he saw in the lodge at Nauvoo, a number of arms, and he understood that there were plenty of arms in Nauvoo. He further states that the Mormons are endeavoring to seduce the Indian tribes from their allegiance to the United States, and engage them to take up the hatchet against the people of the United States, and that white men are to lead them on to the conflict.

He further states that he has understood that Lyman Wight has already departed [to Texas] to stir up the savages, and prepare them for the final struggle with the whites. He also understood that cannon had been received in Nauvoo, sent there in hogsheads of sugar, and also fire arms and ammunition. He further states … that in conjunction with the Indians [the Mormon plan is] to attack the people and subvert the government, and establish Mormonism throughout the United States. He further states, that…. the Indians had twice held their Powows, or war dances in Nauvoo.10

Wilson Law (brother of William Law, a former second counselor in the First Presidency), added in his affidavit of June 20, 1844, that Joseph Smith was ready to:

Set the laws at defiance; for the Government, he said, was corrupt, and ought to be overthrown, and he would do it, for he could get help plenty from the Indians, for he had communication with them all the time, and they were ready. And deponent further saith that he verily believes that said Joseph Smith is, and has been, conspiring with the Indians against this Government, he having agents out among the Indians, passing to and fro ever since last summer; and that a number of Indians have come to Nauvoo, at different times, last winter and spring, and held secret councils with said Smith. And further, that Hyrum Smith, last winter, said to the affiant, that this Government must be changed; for it did not suit them, and they could never keep the revelations or build up the kingdom under the present form of Government.11

It appears Joseph Smith's modus operandi was to inform the Native Americans that America really belonged to them, and then use that incentive to entice them to join the church. It further appears that when enough Latter Day Saints and Native Americans were allied together, that Smith would then lead them as their king to conquer America as predicted in 3 Nephi.

Also in the spring of 1844, Smith provides a second example of setting his political plan in motion, this time outside of Nauvoo. He ordained Council of Fifty member, Alpheus Cutler, and made him head of a committee (that included Council of Fifty member, Lewis Dana, an Oneida Indian) responsible for Lamanite ministries.12 Smith charged him with restoring the Lamanites to Zion. Cutler referred to his mission of converting and organizing the Native Americans as “Lamanism.” He and a group of missionaries sought proselytes among the Oneida, Delaware and probably Shawnee tribes in the Kansas and Missouri area.13

By December 1847, Cutler was aggressively “recruiting portions of the six nations to the Delaware reserve…[converting them, and] enlisting the Indians in armed resistance against federal authorities.” He was confident that “several thousand Indians along the Missouri River could be marshaled into some kind of army of redemption. Such a force could level Fort Leavenworth [Kansas] in six hours.”14

By early 1849, apostle and Council of Fifty member Orson Hyde, in reporting to Brigham Young and others said that Cutler and the missionaries were or might be organizing the Indians for armed rebellion, attempting to reestablish the church in Jackson County, and restoring the Lamanites to Zion.15 Cutler was unsuccessful in his aggressive efforts, but his intent to carry out Joseph Smith's mandate is clear. Like the church itself, Cutler believed that Zion would soon be redeemed and the temple built in Independence, Missouri, during his generation.         

A third example of Smith's plan and apparent pattern to redeem Zion is seen in Lyman Wight's mission to Texas. Apostle Lyman Wight and bishop George Miller, both council members, were sent to Texas in 1844 by the Council of Fifty. Wight said:

Instruction was given me by brother Joseph with great zeal; setting forth the necessity for such a mission, for the good of the cause of bringing the Lamanites to the knowledge of the truth [including that America belongs to them], paving the way for the redemption of Zion and building the Temple in Jackson County.16

Bishop George Miller further described the goals of the Council of Fifty for Texas. He wrote:

In this council it was agreed upon that we would run Joseph Smith for President of the United States, which we would certainly do, and also Sidney Rigdon for Vice President; and in case they were elected we would at once establish dominion in the United States, and in view of a failure we would send a minister to the then Republic of Texas to make a treaty with the Cabinet of Texas for all that country north of a west line from the falls of the Colorado River to the Nueces; thence down the same to the Gulf of Mexico, and along the same to Rio Grande and up the same to the United States territory, and get them to acknowledge us as a nation; and on the part of the church we would help them [Republic of Texas] defend themselves against Mexico, standing as a go-between
the belligerent powers. And if successful in this matter we would have dominion in spite of the United States.17

Miller also added:

It was further determined in council that all the elders should set out on missions to all the States, get up electoral tickets, and do everything in our power to have Joseph elected President,…[and] in such an event[,] the dominion of the kingdom would be forever established in the United States. And if not successful, we could but fall back on Texas, and be a kingdom notwithstanding.18

The Council of Fifty also sent other members of this group to meet with Indian Councils.19 Perhaps the examples identified in this article indicate what Smith had in mind for each member of the Council of Fifty, all of whom were referred to as “princes in the Kingdom of God,” and “fifty princes of the Kingdom.”20

In summary, Joseph Smith by attempting to establish a secret theocratic-government within America in 1844 appears to have violated the treason clause of the U.S. Constitution (Article III, Section 3). Moreover, his plan and method for overthrowing the United States, and
eventually all world governments, caused apprehension within the United States. Had Smith lived a few more years, his actions most likely would have convicted him of treason, or something along those lines in a court of law. In all probably he would have served time in a penitentiary.


1 Treason: “The offense of attempting to overthrow the government of the state to which one owes allegiance, either by making war against the state or by materially supporting its enemies,” Black's Law Dictionary, abridged 7th ed., ed. Bryan A. Garner (St. Paul, MN: West Group, 2000), 1219.

2 Parley P. Pratt, Mormonism Unveiled (New York: O. Pratt and Fordham, 1838), 15, emphasis added.

3 Klaus J. Hansen, Quest for Empire: The Political Kingdom of God and the Council of Fifty in Mormon History (East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 1967), 61, 66, 200 and page 223 for the names of this council in 1844.

4 Smith's ambitious goal of political empire is evident in the bold proclamation of the Council of the Twelve (who are also Council of Fifty members), addressed: “To all the Kings of the World; To the President of the United States of America; To the Governors of the several States; And to the Rulers and Peoples of all Nations.” The decree went on to warn world leaders: “You cannot…stand as idle and disinterested spectators of the scenes and events which are calculated in their very nature to reduce all nations and creeds to one political and religious standard, and thus put an end to Babel forms and names, and to strife and war.” Proclamation of the Twelve Apostles of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. To all the Kings of the World; To the President of the United States of America; To the Governors of the several States, And to the Rulers and People of all Nations (Liverpool: F. D. Richards, 1845), 1, 6. A copy of this proclamation is in the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University, New Haven, Conn., emphasis retained.

5 Brigham Young, 6 April 1852 and 18 February 1855, in Journal of Discourses, 26 vols. (London and Liverpool: LDS Booksellers Depot, 1854-86), 1:202-203; 2:189.

6 William Clayton Journal, 11 April and 13 April 1844, D. Michael Quinn Papers, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University, emphasis added.

7 William Clayton Journal, 1 January 1845, D. Michael Quinn Papers, emphasis added.

8 Lyman Wight and Heber C. Kimball to Joseph Smith, 19 June 1844, Joseph Smith Collection, LDS Church History Library, Salt Lake City, Utah.

9 Geo. T. M. Davis, An Authentic Account of the Massacre of Joseph Smith, The Mormon Prophet and Hyrum Smith, His Brother, together with a brief history of the rise and progress of Mormonism, and all the circumstances which led to their death (St. Louis: Chambers and Knapp, 1844), 7-8, emphasis retained.

10 Affidavit of John W. Putnam, August 13, 1844, published in “Letters to Gov. Ford−No. IV,” Alton Telegraph & Democratic Review, March 15, 1845, 1.
11 Affidavit of Wilson Law, June 20, 1844, published in “Letters to Gov. Ford−No. II,” Alton Telegraph & Democratic Review, February 22, 1845, 1.

12 D. Michael Quinn, The Mormon Hierarchy: Origins of Power (Salt Lake City: Signature Books in Association with Smith Research Associates, 1994), 179-80, 209, 529.
13 Danny L. Jorgensen, “Building the Kingdom of God: Alpheus Cutler and the Second Mormon Mission to the Indians, 1846-1853,” Kansas History 15, no. 3 (1992): 192, 209; and Danny L. Jorgensen, “The Old Fox: Alpheus Cutler,” in Differing Visions: Dissenters in Mormon History, ed. Roger D. Launius and Linda Thatcher (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1994), 161, 165.

14 Jorgensen, “Building the Kingdom of God,” 200, 209; and Jorgensen, “The Old Fox,” 164.
15 Jorgensen, “Building the Kingdom of God,” 201n27; and Jorgensen, “The Old Fox,” 166-67; see also, Orson Hyde, George A. Smith, and Ezra T. Benson, “A Report to Presidents Brigham Young, Heber C. Kimball, Willard Richards, and the Authorities of the Church of the Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints in Zion,” 1849, 16-24, Brigham Young Collection, LDS Church History Library.
16 Letter of Lyman Wight on 29 November 1844, included in his Address. Lyman Wight, An Address By Way of an Abridged Account and Journal of My Life from February 1844 up to April 1848, with An Appeal to the Latter Day Saints ([Austin, TX], 1848), 5-6, emphasis added.
17 George Miller to Dear Brother, St. James, 27 June 1855, published in the Northern Islander (St James, MI), August 23, 1855. Correspondence of Bishop George Miller with the Northern Islander, (n.p., 1977), 20.

18 Ibid. 28 June 1855, 21.
19 For example, see William Clayton Journal, 15 April 1845, D. Michael Quinn Papers.
20 Miller to Dear Brother, 27 June and 28 June 1855, published in the Northern Islander.