Spencer: In the United States, along a sweeping bend of the Mississippi River, sits the city of Nauvoo, Illinois. Starting in 1839, thousands of Latter-day Saints quickly transformed this swampy peninsula into a bustling city. At first glance, steamboat travelers on the Mississippi might have thought that they were drifting past yet another river town. But a certain sight would signal that Nauvoo was different. On the bluff overlooking the river—and at the heart of that city—the Latter-day Saints were constructing a temple.
When completed, the Nauvoo Temple would be the largest building on the Mississippi River at that time, and almost certainly among the largest buildings in the American West. But the builders of the Nauvoo Temple did not set out to construct a mere landmark. To them, the temple represented something more. It was a sacred edifice, a place for Latter-day Saints to worship God.
Still, when the people of Nauvoo broke ground on the temple, they did so with very little knowledge of what would transpire therein. Sure, they believed that the temple would help them grow closer to God, but they did not necessarily know how this would occur. Yet, they sacrificed immensely for the temple, giving time, labor, and a sizable portion of their meager possessions to make the promised blessings of that edifice a reality.
This podcast considers this sacrifice by examining what the temple meant to Latter-day Saints in the 1840s. Yes, this podcast is about how the temple was built, but it’s not an architectural history. At the heart of our historical inquiry is a question: What role did the temple play in the lives and religious devotion of the people of Nauvoo?
And when we look at the Nauvoo Temple through the eyes of the men and women who built it, we begin to understand the deep significance of the temple to the history of the Latter-day Saints. That’s the goal of the next eight episodes.
This is The Nauvoo Temple: A Joseph Smith Papers Podcast, and I’m your host, Spencer McBride.
Spencer: Episode 1: A New City, a New Temple
Spencer: The story of the Nauvoo Temple begins years before the start of construction. It starts with the plight of thousands of Latter-day Saints as religious refugees.
In 1838, violence erupted in Missouri between church members and many of the state’s residents. There were multiple causes for the violence, many having to do with concerns over the power that the Latter-day Saints might wield politically and economically. Also, as Brent Rogers—an associate managing historian of the Joseph Smith Papers—explains, a sense of “otherness” seemed to follow the Saints wherever they gathered.
Brent: There’s a long history there with the Saints’ move to Illinois, and maybe the best way to summarize it is in those first ten years of the existence of the Latter-day Saint faith, there’s periodic confrontations and disputes between Latter-day Saints and their neighbors. The church is obviously religiously different, but also culturally, economically, and politically has some cohesion to it, and that unity among the group, I think, creates some fear amongst neighbors who are not of the same faith.
Spencer: And, for all the different reasons that vigilantes gave for their violent opposition to the Latter-day Saints, whether economic, political, social, or cultural, they laced them all with religious prejudice. The church’s critics in Missouri scoffed at the Saints’ claims that they received revelation from God or that they experienced miraculous healings by the laying on of hands. In order to justify violence against the Saints, vigilantes in Missouri dismissed their religious beliefs as fanaticism.
Tensions came to a boil, and war eventually broke out between the Saints and these vigilantes who had formed a mob. The state’s militia was dispatched to keep the peace, but many in the militia sympathized and sided with the mob in this conflict.
Ultimately, the governor of Missouri, Lilburn W. Boggs, issued an executive order, declaring that “The Mormons must be treated as enemies, and must be exterminated or driven from the state if necessary for the public peace.”
And so, in 1838, as a frigid winter set in, the Latter-day Saints left their land and most of their belongings as they fled Missouri in order to preserve their lives.
Brent: One thing that kind of describes the condition, I think, of the Saints, is a reminiscent account by a man named John Hammer. He was nine years old at the time the Saints are fleeing East and North, and they’re leaving the state of Missouri and going to Illinois, and it’s starting to become winter. And a lot of them don’t have access to horses or wagons, and so many of these refugees are walking in very wintery conditions from their homes, their settlements in Missouri, to Quincy, Illinois. And so, this young boy vividly remembered the stark conditions of their forced exodus, and he wrote this stirring account: “When night approached we would hunt for a log or fallen tree and if lucky enough to find one, we would build fires by the sides of it. Those who had blankets or bedding camped down near enough to enjoy the warmth of the fire, which was kept burning through the entire night. Our family, as well as many others, were almost bare-footed, and some had to wrap their feet in cloths in order to keep them from freezing and protect them from the sharp points of the frozen ground. This at best was very imperfect protection, and often the blood from our feet marked the frozen earth. My mother and sister were the only members of our family who had shoes, and these became worn out and almost useless before we reached the then hospitable shores of Illinois.” And so, you can see the difficulty of the passage, right; they don’t have the equipment, they don’t have even the necessary clothing to make this long journey in the winter in comfortable conditions.
Spencer: The most expeditious way of fleeing Missouri for their safety was to head east more than 150 miles, crossing the Mississippi River into Illinois. And so, destitute and desperate, the Latter-day Saints entered the river city of Quincy, Illinois, hoping to find help, hoping to find compassion. And to their deep relief, that is exactly what was waiting for them.
Brent: So when they’ve crossed the Mississippi river into Quincy, Illinois, the residents there are very hospitable; they’re welcoming, they provide these refugees with some shelter and with some provisions to help them get by through the rest of the winter. And so, it’s pretty remarkable that having faced a situation where they were told that they had to leave the state because of their faith, they go to another community who temporarily welcomes them.
Spencer: The Saints told many stories of the kindness and charity that the people of Quincy exhibited toward them. Matthew Godfrey, the managing historian and a general editor of the Joseph Smith Papers, shared some of them with me.
Matt: There’s individuals who were in Quincy at the time that later looked back in reminiscences and talked about some of the ways that the citizens of Quincy helped them. John L. Butler recalled that one man allowed several families to reside without cost in 10 or 12 small homes that he had built, and he had been intending to rent these homes out to people, but when he saw that the Saints had no money to pay him, he let them live temporarily in these houses that he had built. Sarah P. Rich also noted that those in Quincy “did all they could to give our brethren employment and assisted many that were in need.” And so again, the Latter-day Saints find kind of a welcoming presence in Quincy, which was certainly much different from what they had experienced in Missouri prior to that point.
Spencer: The kindness of Quincy is inspiring. Quincy welcomed the Latter-day Saints with open arms. Even though the Saints’ religious practices were different than theirs, they did not hesitate to help. Nor did they withhold aid because they worried that there was not enough to go around. Instead, they saw men, women, and children in need of help, and they simply helped in whatever way they could. And the Saints were deeply moved by such charity.
Matt: The First Presidency of the church in January of 1841 issue kind of a proclamation, and in this, they talk about their gratitude and their thankfulness for those in Quincy and throughout Illinois who welcomed the Saints in their destitute condition. And one of the things that this proclamation says, it says: “In the State of Illinois, we found an asylum, and were kindly welcomed by persons worthy the characters of freemen. It would be impossible to enumerate all those who in our time of deep distress, nobly came forward to our relief, and like the Good Samaritan, poured oil into our wounds, and contributed liberally to our necessities.” So, I think looking back a couple of years after this, the First Presidency recognized those citizens of Quincy played a remarkable role in helping the Latter-day Saints.
Spencer: As grateful as the Latter-day Saints were for the hospitality of Quincy, they knew they needed to find a place of their own where they could start to rebuild their lives. Even before they left Missouri, church leaders had started to consider available lands in Illinois, a little north of Quincy. The spot they had in mind was on a peninsula of sorts created by a broad bend in the Mississippi River. Maps at that time identified the peninsula as containing the town of Commerce. But in reality, Commerce was what geographers call a “paper town.”
A paper town was a town or city on a map that was not actually there in real life. In some instances, mapmakers placed fictitious towns on their maps to detect plagiarism among those who would copy their maps and sell them for profit. While Commerce was hardly fictitious, it was not as well-established of a town as maps might have made it seem. In fact, some maps at this time still called the settlement by its older name, “Venus.” According to its plat, the town of Commerce was designed to consist of several streets, making numerous city blocks. But that was not what the Saints found when they scouted this area, an area that would eventually become Nauvoo. In reality, there were only a handful of buildings on the entire peninsula. Matthew Godfrey explains:
Matt: I think the best description of Nauvoo in 1839 was given by John L. Butler in his autobiography, where he said that Nauvoo was a “low, marshy, wet, damp and nasty place.” And that’s essentially what it was. Nauvoo was a swamp. It was located on the flats along the Mississippi River, and because of that, there was a lot of water. It was a swampy area. There were tons of mosquitoes in the area; these mosquitoes carried malaria with them. The Saints didn’t know the disease at the time as malaria, they called it the ague, but many Saints are afflicted with malaria in the summers of 1839 and 1840 when they’re first settling in the area that will become known as Nauvoo. Joseph Smith’s manuscript history also described Nauvoo as “so unhealthy, very few could live there.” So, it’s not a great place for the Saints to settle.
Spencer: So, the dismal conditions of the peninsula beg the question: why would the Saints choose this as the place to rebuild their lives?
Matt: I think part of the answer to that is that the Saints really had no other choice. They were too poor and sick at the time to really go anywhere that was a great distance from where they were in Quincy, for one thing. I don’t think they had the means to have like a mass migration to another state or to another area that might be better than Nauvoo. I think as well because they were so poor, they had to try to purchase land on credit, and in fact, Joseph Smith and other church leaders go into a great deal of debt to purchase the land around Nauvoo and across the Mississippi River in Montrose in Iowa territory. And so, they had to find people who were willing to convey large acreages of land to them on credit that wouldn’t require cash payments or very substantial cash payments, and so they were able to find that in a few individuals who held land in Nauvoo and in Montrose.
Spencer: Alex Smith, a historian on the Joseph Smith Papers and an expert on the history of the church in Illinois, agrees with this assessment.
Alex: So, I think part of it is just availability of large sections of land for an inexpensive price. This had all been part of the military tract, what becomes thirteen counties of Illinois that are set aside for veterans of the War of 1812 to purchase land from the federal government at cheap prices, but much of that land is ended up being resold by land speculators to anyone who wants it. But what you end up getting is over 600 acres right in this immediate area that the church can kind of buy in wholesale, and so they do that and end up with the property. But when they arrive there, they find all sorts of issues with actually creating a settlement. So, they’re not moving into a pre-existing town, per se. We call Commerce a town, but it’s really more a handful of settlements.
Spencer: But desperate circumstances do not fully explain the decision to build a city near the platted town of Commerce. To fully answer that question, we need to take into account the optimism that seemed embedded in Joseph Smith’s personality and the visionary nature of his leadership.
Matt: Despite the swampy location, despite the unhealthy conditions that the Saints are living in at the time, I think they saw the potential of Nauvoo. Located on the Mississippi River, I think they were hopeful that this could be an important port city for steamboats moving up and down the Mississippi River, and so it could possibly be a place where a lively trade could occur. And then I think, too, that Joseph Smith had a vision for Nauvoo that really is quite remarkable. And he even tells the Saints in 1840 when they’re still suffering from malaria, when they’re still trying to build the city up—it’s still in kind of these rough conditions, still not a great place to live—but he tells the Saints in a sermon that Nauvoo will become one of the greatest cities in the world. And I think Joseph truly believed that. I think he truly believed that it doesn’t matter what condition this place is in right now, if we work hard, if we trust in the Lord, we can turn this into a great city. And I think it’s largely because of Joseph’s vision, his leadership, that Nauvoo does turn into a rather remarkable city in Illinois.
Spencer: And so, the Saints set to work building a new city in less-than-ideal circumstances. The first task was draining the swampy portions of the peninsula. As it turns out, those were not caused by the river but by springs on the bluff above. Once the land was drained of standing water, they discovered an abundance of resources that had been there all along, resources that they could use to build, including clay ideal for making beautiful, strong red bricks.
Then, at the October 1839 General Conference of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints held at Commerce, Illinois, church leaders announced that the area, which they had already started calling Nauvoo, was to be a place of gathering for the Latter-day Saints. Soon thereafter, the First Presidency sent a letter to the Saints scattered abroad urging those who could to gather with the Saints in their fledgling settlement.
Spencer: Joseph Smith explained to the Saints that the word “Nauvoo” was of Hebrew origin, that it “signified a beautiful situation, or place” and that it carried with it the idea of rest. So, Joseph and company applied the name to their new home in the hopes that it would prove to be a beautiful place and a place of rest. But for how long?
Years ago, when my work on the Joseph Smith Papers sent me deep into the study of the founding of Nauvoo, I often wondered about the extent to which these settlers were thinking of Nauvoo as a permanent home. After all, the reason they had been in Missouri in the first place was because they believed it was the location God had appointed for them to build up Zion. Now they were exiled from the state. Did they view their sojourn in Illinois as temporary? As it turns out, the shift in the Latter-day Saints’ thinking about the potential permanence of Nauvoo occurred gradually, a process marked by a few key milestones. One of these milestones was talk of building a new temple.
Alex: I think that Nauvoo really becomes permanent—rather than a temporary relocation while they’re refugees waiting to go back to Missouri—with the announcement of construction of a temple. It’s when Nauvoo becomes a temple city that we get kind of a permanence there. When it becomes clear that it’s not going to be immediately possible to return to Missouri, even to recover lost property there—physical and real—through Joseph, the Lord tells them that they’re going to be in Illinois for longer. And I think Nauvoo becomes more permanent when they realize they’re going to be building a temple and have access to that. And it’s kind of tricky to nail down the timing of when the Saints first start conceiving of building a temple in Nauvoo, but probably within a year of their arrival. So they arrive in the Commerce area on that peninsula in the summer of 1839, and by April of 1840, there is talk of building a temple. It’s not actually announced until that October conference, October 1840, that they would build a temple, and it doesn’t really become official until the following January, the January 1841 revelation that becomes section 124 of the Doctrine and Covenants. And that really codifies that Nauvoo will become a new gathering place for the church, and that’s because of the temple being built there.
Spencer: Missouri wasn’t entirely in the rear view for Joseph Smith and the Saints. The Latter-day Saints had been forced off their land and much of their property had been confiscated by the mobs. If they could not reclaim that land, they desired reparations for it. All of their appeals to Missouri officials had only culminated in their expulsion from the state under threat of extermination. So, church leaders determined in 1839 that it was time to turn their attention to the federal government in Washington DC.
Accordingly, in November 1839, Joseph Smith, Sidney Rigdon, and Elias Higbee formed a delegation to the federal government and traveled to the capital. They carried with them a memorial to Congress and hundreds of affidavits from church members attesting to the persecution they experienced in Missouri and itemizing their lost property.
In the capital, Joseph Smith and Elias Higbee met with President Martin Van Buren in the White House and asked for his help with their petition to Congress. Citing concerns about being reelected, Van Buren refused to help them. Then Congress considered the church’s memorial in a special hearing of the Senate Committee on the Judiciary, but that committee ultimately determined that the federal government had no jurisdiction in the case, that it was an issue between the Saints and Missouri and that the prevailing doctrine of states’ rights prevented them from intervening to protect the rights of a religious minority.
So, what does this trip to Washington DC have to do with the founding of Nauvoo? Well, it convinced Joseph that at this time he could not count on the federal government to protect the Saints’ citizenship rights. He hoped that Illinois would prove better than Missouri on this front, but he could not count on that either.
This trip to the capital almost certainly influenced the way that Joseph and others conceived of the powers and protections that they would enumerate in Nauvoo’s city charters. They could hope for the help of others, but they could not rely on it.
Alex Smith shared several of his thoughts on the process of incorporating Nauvoo in 1840 and 1841.
Alex: When Nauvoo leaders first start considering incorporation of Nauvoo as a city, I think we have to look at the timing and ask why they’re doing it when they do it, and what they’re hoping to accomplish by it. And it seems to center around the arrival of John C. Bennett into Nauvoo. He was not a member of the church at the time, quickly joins the church, but he was Illinois’ quartermaster general of the Illinois Militia. And he corresponds with Joseph, moves to Nauvoo, and he has a background in legal incorporation, and he has experience with that, and I think that he may be kind of the motivating factor. So, in fall of 1840, early winter, he and Joseph start drafting language to charter the city of Nauvoo and a couple other institutions, and they submit that to the 12th General Assembly of the Illinois legislature in December. But that act to incorporate Nauvoo embodies three separate charters: a charter for the city itself, a charter for the University of Nauvoo, and a charter for the Nauvoo Legion. And each of those kind of give us a hint about what church leaders, Joseph and others, were trying to do in Nauvoo.
Spencer: And what were the Latter-day Saints trying to do in Nauvoo? They were trying to establish a place where they could live and practice their religion in peace.
Alex: They had come from years of persecution in Missouri, and they’re trying to defend themselves legally, militarily, physically from a repeat of those experiences, and so the charter for the city gives Nauvoo leaders their own legislative body, their own judicial body in this particular city, and the ability to have their own militia unit. And independent militia units of the state militia were a popular thing. In fact, Illinois encouraged cities, towns, even groups of people who wanted to incorporate themselves as a militia, they really encouraged these. Independent militia bodies tended to be better armed, better trained, better prepared than the actual state militia units themselves. But anyway, the Saints needed a way to defend themselves, like I say, both from physical harm and from legal troubles. And so if you look at the Act to Incorporate Nauvoo, it really does grant a large degree of power to the city, and that becomes a stumbling block for opponents of Latter-day Saints and of citizens of Nauvoo in coming years. But when it passes the legislature it does so with flying colors. We’re told not a single dissenting vote, and both Whigs and Democrats are actively seeking the Mormon vote, and no one is trying to oppose the passage of this charter. In fact, they’re kind of bending over backwards to pass it.
Spencer: Those in the Illinois legislature who voted in favor of Nauvoo’s incorporation and then congratulated John C. Bennett on the bill’s passage included a young up-and-comer named Abraham Lincoln. Another rising star, Stephen A. Douglas, likewise extended his congratulations to Bennett.
In the ensuing years, critics of the church in Illinois would call for the revocation of Nauvoo’s charter, complaining that it granted the city’s officials too many powers. And while the concentration of the city’s powers was unique, Alex explains that most of these individual powers were not unique for Illinois cities at that time.
Alex: But even though it grants so many powers, I think a lot of times we make a mistake in considering it too atypical. So, Illinois had incorporated five cities prior to Nauvoo: Springfield, Chicago, Alton, Galena, and Quincy. And if you look at the way Nauvoo’s charter is worded, it really uses boilerplate language from all of these. So things like the mayor being head of the judicial system in the city, or a municipal court that could issue writs including habeas corpus, those are seen as quite powerful tools at the Saints’ disposal, but really every single power if you look at it that is built into Nauvoo’s charter is found in one of these other charters. It’s true that probably the combination of powers is a little unique to Nauvoo, but it’s not as if they’re setting out to make themselves an entirely independent territory, for instance, they’re really just using language that is being piecemeal pulled from one charter or another.
Spencer: Joseph Smith and the Saints celebrated the incorporation of Nauvoo and the city’s charter. It was a moment of hope, a development that they believed would lead to future peace and prosperity, a future in which the city would live up to the promise of its name as a “beautiful place” and as a place of peace.
Spencer: In January 1841, things seemed to be going well for Joseph Smith and the Saints in Nauvoo. Their city was blossoming out of a former swampland. Their charter promised protection from future persecution. And they had plans to construct a new temple.
But that was only the beginning. In the same month that Illinois granted Nauvoo its charter, Joseph Smith published a revelation. Among other things, that revelation promised that this new temple would be different than the House of the Lord in Kirtland, that in the Nauvoo Temple, God would restore “the fulness of the priesthood.” We’ll talk about how Latter-day Saints understood this promise and the ways that it motivated them to construct this new, sacred edifice in the next episode of The Nauvoo Temple: A Joseph Smith Papers Podcast.