The unassuming Mississippi River town of Nauvoo, Ill., played a surprising and pivotal role in the history of Mormons.
In a small Mississippi River town a day’s drive south of the Twin Cities, the story of early America’s sustained battle over salvation and belief awaits the faithful and the curious.
The town of Nauvoo, population 1,149, roughly on a line between Des Moines and Springfield, Mo., contains the well-preserved 19th-century settlement of the besieged Mormons and their martyred founder, Joseph Smith.
Nauvoo is probably not on most travel itineraries for non-Mormons like me.
I went to feed my minor obsession with 19th-century America, of which this uniquely American church forms a dramatic chapter. We who pride ourselves on religious freedom, encompassing everyone from the snake handlers to Scientologists, can learn from early Mormon history.
Nauvoo perches on a picturesque bluff where the river divides northern Illinois and southern Iowa. It distinguishes itself from other hardscrabble river towns in the region by the presence of a spectacular Mormon temple of gleaming limestone, rebuilt a decade ago to 1840s specs.
Atop the parapet, the Angel Moroni and his golden trumpet face the westward trail that the “Saints,” those early Mormons who were made immortal by dint of unshakable belief and irrepressible pioneering spirit, embarked on once they left Nauvoo and its violent troubles behind.
The Mormons bugged out for their permanent home in Salt Lake City in 1846.
Today, Nauvoo, a Hebrew-inspired name the Mormons chose meaning “to be beautiful,” has fully reclaimed its role in the history of the Salt Lake City-based Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and Smith, its fascinating, confounding founder and “revelator.” Smith, supreme ruler of all things temporal and spiritual, was jailed and assassinated in the county seat of Carthage, Ill., about 20 miles away. He is revered here as a martyr to a “restored” gospel that now claims 15 million members around the world.
Nauvoo boasts a refurbished village of sturdy brick houses down by the river where Smith, Brigham Young and thousands of converts from as far away as the Midlands of England tried to build up Zion in the Midwest.
The houses, many marked with names of 19th-century owners and open to the public for free, give visitors a sense of the town as it stood when thousands of believers disembarked here for a new life. Offices of “Times and Seasons,” the town newspaper, which contained Smith’s continuing revelations, and other small businesses of the day are restored for tourists.
The LDS Church, as it is often known, based in Salt Lake City at the other end of the trail from Nauvoo, has built an impressive visitors’ center in Nauvoo telling the story of the early church. This ensures that Joseph Smith’s modern followers tell the Mormon story as one of prophecy, devotion, persecution, martyrdom and escape.
The odder and darker elements of early church belief and practice, which made the Mormons a target for their neighbors wherever they landed, are whitewashed out of the retelling I heard.
A quick historical review is in order. In the church’s retelling, the Angel Moroni appeared to Smith near his home in western New York and directed him to golden plates buried nearby. Smith said he translated the plates into the Book of Mormon, published in 1830. The book’s history essentially wrested the Promised Land and the Chosen People from Middle Eastern deserts and moved them to the North American continent.
Smith added converts and daily prophecies wherever he went, preaching a “restored” gospel that negated all other paths to paradise. Those were fighting words on the frontier. When combined with rumors of polygamy, Smith’s autocratic rule and even his support for abolition of slavery, the Mormons were targets.
Besieged wherever they went, they wandered across the frontier, to Kirtland, Ohio, and Independence, Miss., before settling in Nauvoo in the early 1840s.
A shot of alcohol
We found a delightful inn, the Hotel Nauvoo, whose openness to tourists includes serving caffeine and alcohol, from which the devout abstain. My son and I took a shot and were denied entrance to the temple by kindly church members arrayed in creamy white suits. They referred us to a nearby building where we watched a DVD of the reconstruction of the temple a decade ago and references to baptisms, weddings and other services and “ordinances” performed within.
At the visitors’ center, we were told the story from the church’s point of view — the persecution of the saints and Smith, its founder and prophet. Such words as “polygamy” are not to be seen or heard in this retelling, and Smith was depicted as a fair-haired saint who became a martyr for his beliefs.