Section 102: The High Council
On February 17, 1834, an important meeting was held at the home of Joseph Smith in Kirtland. It was attended by twenty-four high priests and about thirty-six other brethren, making a total of about sixty in attendance. The minutes of this meeting were recorded, and about a year later it was decided to include these minutes in the new 1835 edition of the Doctrine and Covenants. These minutes now make up section 102 of the Doctrine and Covenants. While all of the material in the Doctrine and Covenants is scripture, including section 102, the latter is not really revelation in a formal sense. Certainly inspired ideas were included in these minutes, however.
By February of 1834, Joseph had been President of the Church for almost two years, and the First Presidency had been organized for the same length of time. The First Presidency, you will recall, was first organized in March 1832 (see section 81). Since the presidency had been organized, they had received an almost overwhelming number of people who had complaints, problems, or accusations. The Presidency had been asked to make decisions and judgments and help solve myriad disputes. The brethren of the First Presidency simply did not have time to deal with these problems and still attend to their other responsibilities. Some other mechanism of dealing with these problems had to be found. For the purpose of addressing this dilemma, the above mentioned meeting of brethren was called.
At the meeting, Joseph preached to those assembled about the ancient councils of the Church and how they had operated under the leadership of Moses and Peter and other great leaders. Actually, it was revealed to Joseph in vision how Peter and the other apostles presided over these councils. These councils had reviewed disputes and had rendered judgments. Joseph proposed that the time was right to form such a council in this dispensation that could help in dealing with the problems of the saints. He then laid out the organization of a council. In the original manuscript of section 102, this council was referred to as the “church council,” but before this revelation was first published in 1835, the name was changed to “high council.”
This original high council was unique. We don’t have it in the Church today. It was composed of the First Presidency of the Church plus twelve high priests, a total of fifteen brethren. The twelve high priests were expected do much of the leg work leaving the First Presidency relatively free to do other things. The high priests to be included were selected by the First Presidency. The council could not act without a majority of the members being present. When some of the high priests were absent, other worthy high priests could be appointed to temporarily sit on the council. Whenever a vacancy occurred due to death or excommunication or other cause for removal, the First Presidency would nominate another high priest to fill the vacancy. The nominee would then be sanctioned by the general council. In the absence of the President, one of the other councilors could preside. Joseph Smith presided over the council when he was available.
The purpose of the council was initially mostly judicial, but later the council functioned in a more administrative role. When the council met to consider a problem— a major transgression by an individual—the twelve members would cast lots, and every councilor drew a number from one to twelve. Those who drew even numbers were the ones appointed to stand up in behalf of the accused to “prevent insult and injustice.” The odd-numbered councilors spoke for the Church to make certain that its interests were fairly represented. If the case was a simple one, only two councilors were called upon to speak, one from each side. If it was a little more difficult, then two from each side were selected. If the case was even more complex, then three from each side were asked to speak, but never more. After the evidence was given, the President would give his decision. A majority of the council was necessary to sustain a decision.
It should be noted that this council was not a stake high council as we understand a stake high council today. The jurisdiction of this high council was the entire Church, and it was presided over, not by a stake president, but by the President of the Church. It was not until the Nauvoo period that we had stake presidents presiding over bishops and wards. The organization of this high council, however, does serve as a prototype for our stake high councils today. The high council courts (more appropriately called disciplinary councils) today follow the same procedures as described in section 102. Some have referred to the meeting of February 17, 1834, as the meeting in which the first stake in this dispensation was organized in Kirtland. This is really not true, for there never was a stake president called as such in Kirtland.
Section 102 included instructions for other temporary, ad hoc, councils that could function outside the Kirtland area. These also consisted of twelve high priests. If an individual was dissatisfied with the decision of such a temporary council, then he could appeal the decision to the First Presidency. Later, the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles was formed as a more permanent traveling high council, and no appeal was possible from this council.
On July 7, 1834, the Prophet organized a second high council in Clay County, Missouri, with David Whitmer as president and William W. Phelps and John Whitmer as his counselors.
The following quotation, from Milton V. Backman, Jr.’s, book The Heavens Resound is perhaps too long to be included in this material, but it gives such a delightful picture of how this initial high council functioned, that I will include it:
No single offense was consistently considered by the Kirtland high council; members were tried for a variety of improprieties of behavior. One member was accused of speaking (possibly praying) so loudly during a prayer meeting that he disturbed others living in the vicinity and of not articulating so that he could be understood by those in attendance. His loud cries were considered by his accusers as disturbing rather than edifying. One man was excommunicated for abandoning his family and leaving his wife and children destitute and without sufficient food or firewood. Several persons were tried for breach of contract, two for lack of charity, and one for failing to attend meetings and to fulfill his promise to serve as a missionary. In 1836 one of the seventies was charged with “singing songs or ditties” in a store in Kirtland that were considered incompatible with the dignity of his office and calling; this same member was also accused of smoking his pipe and drinking rum, wine, and other alcoholic beverages in the Johnson tavern. Several persons were charged with publicly condemning the behavior of Joseph Smith. One person claimed that Joseph Smith was possessed of an evil spirit when he chastised a new convert, but the court ruled that the Prophet was justified in his criticisms.
Most individuals tried by the Kirtland high council were members of the priesthood, but a few women and some couples were asked to appear before this ecclesiastical body. Several women were charged with injuring the character of others by spreading malicious gossip. One brother and sister were found guilty of “unlawful matrimony.” Most religious communities in America at that time believed that dancing was improper; since the Prophet had not published a revelation relating to that subject, it seemed natural that, while he was on a trip to Missouri in 1837, the high council would consider the actions of some of the saints who had attended a ball and would rule that dancing “with the world,” in which they had been engaged, was improper.
Some who appeared before the high council court were charged with teaching incorrect doctrines. One person was accused of rejecting the revelations and commandments received by Joseph Smith; another, of preaching “heretical” doctrines, and one small group, of embracing revelations allegedly received by one of the saints who did not have the authority to receive revelation for the entire Church.
A high percent of those who were accused of transgressions and were asked to appear before the Kirtland high council complied with the request, and in nearly all instances members confessed their faults during the trial and agreed to correct their failings. Only a few members were excommunicated from the Church by this court, generally individuals who were found guilty of what were considered the most serious offenses, such as “unlawful matrimony” and apostasy. In nearly all instances the court ruled that fellowship would be withdrawn from those who had been found guilty until satisfaction had been made, and generally the accused persons, after admitting their mistakes and promising to correct them, retained their standing in the Church. The high council courts attempted to help rather than condemn individuals. The high councilors sought to correct the improper behavior patterns of the saints, to reconcile contesting members, and to establish greater harmony in the Church. Disciplining members by exposing problems and withdrawing the hand of fellowship was occasionally considered necessary as a means of helping the saints to better understand their failings and prompting changes that would enable them to strive more diligently for perfection.
The first high council of the Church was not merely a judicial body; it had administrative responsibilities as well. Acting under the direction of the presidency of the Church, the Kirtland high councilors approved men for ordination to the Melchizedek priesthood, assigned missionaries to labor in various parts of North America, and recommended that some members settle in Kirtland and that others migrate to Missouri. They agreed to encourage Emma Smith to proceed with the publication of a hymnal in compliance with a revelation that Joseph Smith had received. They recommended that Joseph Smith, Sr., be paid ten dollars a week plus expenses for his services as Patriarch to the Church, and that Frederick G. Williams be paid the same for serving as his scribe. And in October 1837, the high council appointed a committee to ask John Johnson, Jr., to desist from selling spiritous liquors to those who were in the habit of becoming intoxicated and to report to church authorities the names of any Mormons who drank alcoholic beverages in his tavern (246-48).
The original minutes of this meeting were recorded by Oliver Cowdery and Orson Hyde. Joseph Smith, however, spent most of the night following the council correcting their notations. This he said he did under the inspiration of God.
Two days later the corrected minutes were read to the council and accepted by them. At the meeting, under the direction of Joseph Smith, forty-three members (nine high priests, seventeen elders, four priests, and thirteen others), excluding the First Presidency and excluding also the twelve high priests who were called to form the council, formed a voting body or committee. This body approved the twelve high priests as well as the First Presidency who were called to serve as members of this first high council.
For a summary of the courts (disciplinary councils) we have in the church today, see the commentary materials for section 107 under “The Church Judiciary.”
It will be observed that in some ways the first high council of the Church prefigured the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles which was organized a year later in February 1835. Once the Quorum of the Twelve was organized, and there were functioning high councils in the stakes of the Church, there was no need for general churchwide high councils. Nevertheless, section 102 remains as a model of organization and procedure for all future stake high councils. Verses 30-32 were added to this revelation by Joseph Smith in the 1835 Doctrine and Covenants after the organization of the Quorum of the Twelve to distinguish the decisions of that quorum from those of the high councils in Kirtland and Missouri.
Finally, a note of interest. Today in the Church, a councilor is a member of a council such as a stake high council. A counselor is one who serves to advise or counsel a priesthood leader such as a bishop, stake president, or the President of the Church. Thus, one who serves under the leader in a bishopric, stake presidency, or the First Presidency is a counselor in that body. For years in the Church we referred to all these brethren as counselors and councilors. It wasn’t until the turn of the century that these titles were standardized.
D&C 102 The High Council—Instructions for Church Disciplinary Councils
1 This day a general council of twenty-four high priests assembled at the house of Joseph Smith, Jun., by revelation, and proceeded to organize the high council of the church of Christ, which was to consist of twelve high priests, and one or three presidents as the case might require.
verse 1 “a general council . . . assembled” To avoid confusion, it must be remembered that a “general council” of high priests, elders, priests, and members (see verse 5) had met on this occasion to nominate and sustain twelve high priests and a presidency as a “high council.” The two bodies should not be confused.
2 The high council was appointed by revelation for the purpose of settling important difficulties which might arise in the church, which could not be settled by the church or the bishop’s council to the satisfaction of the parties.
verse 2 “for the purpose of settling important difficulties which . . . could not be settled by the church or the bishop’s council” The cases which were to come before this high council were only those which could not be settled by the lesser councils or “courts.” The first level tribunal in the Church in those days was the teachers quorum. Next, the two bishops, as they met in council with their counselors, could hear the cases. If these two courts could not settle an issue or if further appeal was desired, then a case could be brought before this high council.
Today, the judicial functions of the Church almost always address cases involving serious transgression on the part of members. Bishops are the common judges in Israel and will act on all cases of transgression in their wards, with the most difficult cases being referred to the stake presidency and high council for resolution. Only the stake president, presiding over a stake high council, may excommunicate a member holding the Melchizedek Priesthood.
3 Joseph Smith, Jun., Sidney Rigdon and Frederick G. Williams were acknowledged presidents by the voice of the council; and Joseph Smith, Sen., John Smith, Joseph Coe, John Johnson, Martin Harris, John S. Carter, Jared Carter, Oliver Cowdery, Samuel H. Smith, Orson Hyde, Sylvester Smith, and Luke Johnson, high priests, were chosen to be a standing council for the church, by the unanimous voice of the council.
verse 3 “a standing council for the church” That is a high council. In this verse the reader will find three instances of the word council. The first and third refer to the forty-three member council of high priests, elders, priests, and members (see verse 5) which have been convened to select a high council, and the second instance refers to the high council that is being appointed.
4 The above-named councilors were then asked whether they accepted their appointments, and whether they would act in that office according to the law of heaven, to which they all answered that they accepted their appointments, and would fill their offices according to the grace of God bestowed upon them.
5 The number composing the council, who voted in the name and for the church in appointing the above-named councilors were forty-three, as follows: nine high priests, seventeen elders, four priests, and thirteen members.
6 Voted: that the high council cannot have power to act without seven of the above-named councilors, or their regularly appointed successors are present.
verse 6 “the high council cannot have power to act without seven . . . present” The newly installed high council must have a quorum of seven (a majority) of its twelve members present in order to conduct business.
7 These seven shall have power to appoint other high priests, whom they may consider worthy and capable to act in the place of absent councilors.
8 Voted: that whenever any vacancy shall occur by the death, removal from office for transgression, or removal from the bounds of this church government, of any one of the above-named councilors, it shall be filled by the nomination of the president or presidents, and sanctioned by the voice of a general council of high priests, convened for that purpose, to act in the name of the church.
verse 8 “whenever any vacancy shall occur” in 1834 a high priest was nominated to the high council by the First Presidency of the Church and then ratified by an ad hoc general council of high priests convened for that specific purpose.
Today, Members of the high council are called by the stake president and sustained by the membership of the stake according to the law of common consent (D&C 26).
9 The president of the church, who is also the president of the council, is appointed by revelation, and acknowledged in his administration by the voice of the church.
verse 9 “appointed by revelation” The underlying truth of the entire restoration is the divine calling of the prophet Joseph Smith. It is this calling and that of Joseph’s successors that are acknowledged by the voice of the entire Church twice yearly, at each semiannual general conference of the Church. Local authorities, officers, and teachers are similarly sustained at semiannual stake conferences and also at ward conferences.
10 And it is according to the dignity of his office that he should preside over the council of the church; and it is his privilege to be assisted by two other presidents, appointed after the same manner that he himself was appointed.
verse 10 “appointed after the same manner” The president’s two counselors are also to be appointed by divine revelation and accepted by sustaining vote.
11 And in case of the absence of one or both of those who are appointed to assist him, he has power to preside over the council without an assistant; and in case he himself is absent, the other presidents have power to preside in his stead, both or either of them.
verse 11 “the other presidents have power to preside” We learn that in this original high council either counselor could preside over the council, in the absence of the president, either alone or with the other counselor present. This is not the case today in local high councils met as a disciplinary council. Unless otherwise directed by the First Presidency, the stake president himself must preside over stake high council disciplinary meetings.
12 Whenever a high council of the church of Christ is regularly organized, according to the foregoing pattern, it shall be the duty of the twelve councilors to cast lots by numbers, and thereby ascertain who of the twelve shall speak first, commencing with number one and so in succession to number twelve.
verse 12 “cast lots by numbers” Drawing numbers randomly assures that no human agency can bias the proceedings for or against the accused in a disciplinary council, since no one knows in advance which council members will be appointed to speak or which ones will be appointed to represent the interests of the accused.
verses 13-17 In a disciplinary council meeting, all of the council members are committed to seeing that truth and justice prevail. Toward this end, half of the councilors, those who have randomly drawn even numbers, are charged with defending the rights of the accused. The other half are charged with defending the rights of the Church, or with the aggrieved party or parties. The facts of the case are then presented by one, two, or three pairs of councilors—depending on the degree of difficulty. This is not an adversarial procedure, however. There is no prosecution and no defense. No one argues a case or tries to persuade the council. No one attempts to “win” a verdict. There is only one object, which is to arrive at the truth and to let fairness and justice prevail.
13 Whenever this council convenes to act upon any case, the twelve councilors shall consider whether it is a difficult one or not; if it is not, two only of the councilors shall speak upon it, according to the form above written.
14 But if it is thought to be difficult, four shall be appointed; and if more difficult, six; but in no case shall more than six be appointed to speak.
15 The accused, in all cases, has a right to one-half of the council, to prevent insult or injustice.
16 And the councilors appointed to speak before the council are to present the case, after the evidence is examined, in its true light before the council; and every man is to speak according to equity and justice.
17 Those councilors who draw even numbers, that is, 2, 4, 6, 8, 10, and 12, are the individuals who are to stand up in behalf of the accused, and prevent insult and injustice.
18 In all cases the accuser and the accused shall have a privilege of speaking for themselves before the council, after the evidences are heard and the councilors who are appointed to speak on the case have finished their remarks.
verse 18 “a privilege of speaking for themselves before the council” A basic principle of justice in any dispute is that both sides of the case be allowed to speak for themselves freely and without prejudice.
19 After the evidences are heard, the councilors, accuser and accused have spoken, the president shall give a decision according to the understanding which he shall have of the case, and call upon the twelve councilors to sanction the same by their vote.
verses 19-22 “the president shall give a decision” While the councilors offer valuable preparation, advice, and deliberation, they do not make the decision of the council. The decision in a disciplinary council lies with the president alone. The councilors then vote to sustain his decision after the fact. Should the high council vote not to sustain the president’s decision, the proceedings can be reviewed for possible errors. If errors are found, then a rehearing of the case may take place. But if there are no substantial errors, the original decision stands, and there is no rehearing provided a simple majority of the council sustains the president in his decision.
20 But should the remaining councilors, who have not spoken, or any one of them, after hearing the evidences and pleadings impartially, discover an error in the decision of the president, they can manifest it, and the case shall have a rehearing.
21 And if, after a careful re-hearing, any additional light is shown upon the case, the decision shall be altered accordingly.
22 But in case no additional light is given, the first decision shall stand, the majority of the council having power to determine the same.
23 In case of difficulty respecting doctrine or principle, if there is not a sufficiency written to make the case clear to the minds of the council, the president may inquire and obtain the mind of the Lord by revelation.
verse 23 “the president may inquire . . . of the Lord” It should be remembered that in its original context, the president in verse 23 was the prophet Joseph Smith who was entitled to receive new doctrine for the Church by revelation. In the modern Church, stake presidents are still entitled to receive revelation and inspiration from the Lord concerning matters before the high council, and it is customary for them to retire briefly and seek the Lord’s confirmation in prayer before reaching their decision. However, no one but the prophet receives new doctrine in the Church today (see D&C 28:2; 43:3-6).
24 The high priests, when abroad, have power to call and organize a council after the manner of the foregoing, to settle difficulties, when the parties or either of them shall request it.
verses 24-29 “The high priests, when abroad” Abroad means outside of Kirtland. These verses allow for the creation of local, ad hoc high councils in the outlying areas of the Church. These are created only in urgent situations by a member of the high council when he is away from Kirtland, and the high council in Kirtland must appoint one of their own members to preside over these ad hoc high councils. A careful record of the proceedings of the council are then sent to the high council in Kirtland. If the verdict of the ad hoc council is unsatisfactory to either party, then appeal for a rehearing may be made to the high council in Kirtland.
25 And the said council of high priests shall have power to appoint one of their own number to preside over such council for the time being.
26 It shall be the duty of said council to transmit, immediately, a copy of their proceedings, with a full statement of the testimony accompanying their decision, to the high council of the seat of the First Presidency of the Church.
verse 26 “a copy of their proceedings” We see in this requirement the continuing growth of central record keeping for the Church. Today, all decisions of disciplinary councils affecting membership are to be forwarded to church headquarters.
27 Should the parties or either of them be dissatisfied with the decision of said council, they may appeal to the high council of the seat of the First Presidency of the Church, and have a re-hearing, which case shall there be conducted, according to the former pattern written, as though no such decision had been made.
verse 27 “they may appeal” Today, the decision of any disciplinary council may be appealed to a higher church council. The decision of a bishop’s council may be appealed to a stake high council, and a stake high council decision may be appealed to the First Presidency. However, the Council of the First Presidency may choose to hear such an appeal or not and is not obligated to hear it (see verse 33).
28 This council of high priests abroad is only to be called on the most difficult cases of church matters; and no common or ordinary case is to be sufficient to call such council.
29 The traveling or located high priests abroad have power to say whether it is necessary to call such a council or not.
verses 30-32 These verses were not part of the original revelation, but were added by Joseph as he was preparing the revelation to be published in 1835. They were added to distinguish the roles of the general high council of the Church from that of the newly formed Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. The high council, when it functions abroad, or outside of Kirtland, is here referred to as “the traveling high priests abroad.” The Quorum of the Twelve Apostles is referred to as “the traveling high council.” We learn that the Council of the Twelve Apostles is a court of last appeal, unless there is a question of transgression by one or more of its members.
30 There is a distinction between the high council or traveling high priests abroad, and the traveling high council composed of the twelve apostles, in their decisions. 31 From the decision of the former there can be an appeal; but from the decision of the latter there cannot. 32 The latter can only be called in question by the general authorities of the church in case of transgression. 33 Resolved: that the president or presidents of the seat of the First Presidency of the Church shall have power to determine whether any such case, as may be appealed, is justly entitled to a re-hearing, after examining the appeal and the evidences and statements accompanying it. 34 The twelve councilors then proceeded to cast lots or ballot, to ascertain who should speak first, and the following was the result, namely: 1, Oliver Cowdery; 2, Joseph Coe; 3, Samuel H. Smith; 4, Luke Johnson; 5, John S. Carter; 6, Sylvester Smith; 7, John Johnson; 8, Orson Hyde; 9, Jared Carter; 10, Joseph Smith, Sen.; 11, John Smith; 12, Martin Harris. After prayer the conference adjourned. OLIVER COWDERY and ORSON HYDE, clerks
Brief Historical Setting
Shortly after the high council was organized in Kirtland, two delegates arrived in Kirtland representing the exiled saints in Missouri. They petitioned the high council in Kirtland as to how and by what means Zion was going to be redeemed. It was apparent to the high council that in spite of three months of using legal channels in Missouri, no progress had been made in securing protection for the saints sufficient to allow them to return to their lands in Jackson County. They concluded that direct assistance must be given to their afflicted brethren. Prior to this meeting of the high council, Joseph had prayed and received an answer to the question of what must be done for the saints in Zion [D&C 103 -Zion’s Camp]. With Joseph’s inspired prompting, the high council reached a decision that an army must be gathered to go up to Zion and redeem the exiles. This army would be called “Zion’s Camp.” For two and one-half months there was a pause in the temple building project in Kirtland as the Church recruited men and contributions of money and goods to help the destitute members in Missouri.
During the first week in May, an army of just over one hundred men marched from Kirtland, led by the Prophet Joseph. As they marched, they experienced great hardships. They recruited men to join them as they traveled, and by the time they reached Missouri they numbered just over two hundred men. The hope of Zion’s Camp was that once they joined the exiled saints, they would inform the Governor of Missouri they were prepared to return to their lands in Jackson County and take them back by force. The Governor had previously promised Joseph by letter his full support in assisting the exiles to win back their lands. It was expected that the Governor would call out the Missouri militia to protect them as they returned to their homes.
While camped at Salt River in Missouri the army learned that the Missouri Governor not only refused to call out the militia, but he refused to allow the Mormons the right to bear arms in Jackson County. Even more devastating was the realization that armed Missourians were waiting to destroy any Mormon who dared return to Jackson County. Hopes of ever seeing their exiled brethren return to their homes were dashed! Angered and frustrated, the men of Zion’s Camp resumed their march. While camped at Fishing River on June 22, 1834, Joseph received a revelation [D&C 105 Zion’s Camp Disbanded] in which the Lord told the men he had accepted their sacrifice, and they would not have to fight in Missouri. They were, in effect, disbanded! They had marched a thousand miles through all manner of trial and privation to rescue their beleaguered brethren in Missouri, and now they were disbanded thirty miles before they reached their destination!
As a cruel denouement to this experience, a tragedy struck Zion’s Camp about this time. A cholera epidemic broke out among the members of the Camp and within two weeks, thirteen members of the Camp had died.
- Michael J. Preece