Effective machinery for settling difficulties between members was early in existence in the church, and provision was made for elders' courts, and a court of the Bishop and his associates to act as judges in certain cases. Evidently the appellate court of twelve high priests, presided over by the Presidency, was also familiar to the church for we find the notorious Doctor Hurlbut in June, 1833, appealing from the decision of the Bishop's Court, which "cut him off " from the church for misconduct while in the East on a mission. It is recorded:
Doctor Hurlbut being dissatisfied with the decision of the council on his case, presented the following appeal:
I, Doctor P. Hurlbut, having been tried before the bishop's council of high priests on a charge of unchristianlike conduct with the female sex, and myself being absent at the time, and considering that strict justice was not done me, I do by these presents, most solemnly enter my appeal unto the President's Council of High Priests for a rehearing, according to the privilege guaranteed to me in the laws of the church which council is now assembled in the schoolroom, in Kirtland, this twenty-first day of June, 1833.
The rehearing being granted, two high priests John and William Smith "were ordained under the hands of Elder Rigdon," to make out the number that the court might be organized. The decision of the court was that though the Bishop's Court had handed down a correct decision that his "crime was sufficient to cut him off from the church," yet he "should be forgiven because of the liberal confession which he made."1
But two days later Doctor Hurlbut was called in question by a "general council" on another charge and cut off. This time he brought no appeal.
Just how common these cases were we do not know, but evidently there was not a permanent high council until February 17, 1834, when at a meeting called at the home of Joseph Smith in Kirtland, the Standing High Council was organized.
The minutes of this meeting state:
This day a general council of twenty-four high priests assembled at the house of Joseph Smith, Junior, 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. This 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.
Joseph Smith, Junior, Sidney Rigdon, and Frederick G. Williams were acknowledged presidents by the voice of the council; and Joseph Smith, Senior, 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. 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.
The number composing the council, who voted in the name and for the church in appointing the above-named councilors, were fortythree, as follows: nine high priests, seventeen elders, four priests, and thirteen members.2
The high council at its first meeting proceeded to try to determine whether disobedience to the Word of Wisdom was a transgression sufficient to deprive a member from holding official position in the church, after it was sufficiently taught him.
The question originated in Springfield Township, Erie County, Pennsylvania, when some of the members refused to partake of Communion because the elder administering did not obey the Word of Wisdom. The two high priests present, Lyman Johnson and Orson Pratt, both soon after ordained apostles, disagreed as to whether they were justified in doing so. Johnson contended that they were justified, because the elder was in transgression, and Pratt said the church was bound to receive the Lord's Supper under the administration of an elder, so long as he retained his office or license.
The decision (which seems to us to have left the point at issue still in abeyance) was "That no official member in this church is worthy to hold an office, after having the Word of Wisdom properly taught to him, and he the official member neglecting to comply or obey it." This decision stood for many years, the decision of the highest court of appeals in the church on the observance of the Word of Wisdom.
A similar high council was later organized in Missouri.
1 Times and Seasons, Volume 6, page 785; Church History, Volume 1, page
2 Church History, Volume 1, page 429; Doctrine and Covenants 99:1-3.