Nauvoo — ‘a sunrise and a sunset’

City by the river opens a new chapter

A sunrise and a sunset — "a little more as it were, than a day, from 1839-1846" — was how President Gordon B. Hinckley described the story of the Church in Nauvoo, Ill.

Gary Smith painting shows building of original Nauvoo Temple.
Gary Smith painting shows building of original Nauvoo Temple. Credit: Deseret News archives

Standing in the Old Nauvoo Burial Ground in 1989 on the 150th anniversary of what was called "Nauvoo, the Beautiful," President Hinckley said: "Thank the Lord for the faith of those who came before us. May the Lord ever hold great in our memories the significant things of Nauvoo — the life and death during that day between sunrise and sunset." (Oct. 14, 1989, Church News.)

It's an apt description for this city on the bend of a river and its pioneer inhabitants founded more than 160 years ago. With the dedication of the new Nauvoo Illinois Temple scheduled for June 27-30, 2002, the story of Nauvoo is opening a new chapter. But that story began in the winter and early spring of 1838-1839 as destitute Church members — many barefoot and starving — trekked 150 miles east from Far West, Mo., to the banks of the Mississippi River. Crossing, they found temporary safety — and kindness — with the residents of Quincy, Ill., while the Prophet Joseph languished in jail at Liberty, Mo.

"The Saints came out of Missouri poor," said Glen M. Leonard, director of the Museum of Church History and Art, in a Church News interview. Describing a people who built the city he said would come to rival Chicago of that day, he continued. "They lost their property, many of their belongings, but not their faith. When they came to Nauvoo, they wanted to pick up where they left off and build a temple."

With that resolve, these bedraggled Latter-day Saints began to carve a new home from the muddy marshes of Commerce, 50 miles north of Quincy.

According to Nauvoo Panorama by Janath Cannon, the Church purchased 47 acres in Commerce from Isaac Galland, while 123 acres were purchased from Hugh White. Thus, Nauvoo was born and then incorporated in 1840. That same year, the Illinois Legislature granted the Nauvoo city charter "detailing the powers and duties of the City Council and other officers, and providing for the establishment of a University of the City of Nauvoo and an independent militia to be called the Nauvoo Legion."

Despite an early epidemic of malaria and other swamp diseases which saw many deaths through 1841 (according to The Story of the Latter-day Saints by James B. Allen and Glen M. Leonard), Church members would find a "peaceful interlude" in this city by the river. An 1845 census has Nauvoo with a population of more than 11,000 "with probably a total of 15,000 Latter-day Saints in all of Hancock County, plus a few thousand others in Iowa and western Illinois," Brother Leonard added.

As early as 1840, Brother Leonard said, the Prophet Joseph presented the idea of a temple to members during a general conference. "They sustained the idea. They would support construction of a temple and they pledged they would help build it with their time and their means. They agreed to pay their tithing, with their goods or work one day out of every ten [on the temple]."

Contemporary sketch shows crumbling remains
Contemporary sketch shows crumbling remains Credit: Deseret News archives

With the return of the Quorum of the Twelve from England in 1841, Brother Leonard said, the Prophet delegated to them the responsibility to encourage the Saints to support the temple. In a revelation recorded in Doctrine and Covenants Section 124, the Lord commands that a temple be built in Nauvoo.

According to Sacred Stone: The Temple at Nauvoo by Heidi S. Swinton (available in stores May 6), some 10,000 people attended the laying of the four cornerstones of the temple on April 6, 1841. During the next few years — even as homes and businesses were built and missionary work expanded — "men gave every tenth day to cut, haul, and place the huge limestone blocks and the wooden timbers that were floated downriver from the Church-operated sawmills in Wisconsin. The women asked Joseph Smith to organize them into a formal society, so they could better forward the work on the temple by providing food and clothing to the workmen," according to Nauvoo Panorama.

Thus, the Prophet organized the Female Relief Society of Nauvoo on March 17, 1842 — the forerunner of today's Relief Society.

To facilitate the work, according to Sacred Stone, Nauvoo was divided into wards, and workers rotated in 10-day shifts. Even children joined the effort. Sacred Stone relates the experience of Matilda McClellan Loveless: "How well I can remember being very pleased when my mother would let me take Father's dinner to him while he was working on the Nauvoo Temple. I seemed to understand the importance and the holiness of the building. Father was always so pleased to have us children come with his dinner and would tell us all about the temple of God he was assisting to build."

During these years of building, industry and faith, however, the storms of mobocracy began again to gather. Convert immigrants continued to pour into Nauvoo, while neighboring towns such as Carthage, Quincy and Warsaw stayed at a few hundred each. And, according to Brother Leonard, with this population boom in Church membership came political strife. A political party, called the Anti-Mormon Party, was even organized to fight Church voting power. In Nauvoo Panorama, Heber C. Kimball is quoted, while standing at the railing of a boat approaching Commerce: "It is a very pretty place, but not a long abiding home for the Saints."

His was a prophetic statement of things to come. In April 1844, the Prophet Joseph taught revealed doctrine concerning the nature of God and man. These teachings, along with the doctrine of eternal marriage, only fanned the flames of hatred on the part of enemies, both inside and outside the Church. Finally, on June 27, 1844, the Prophet Joseph and his brother, Hyrum, were martyred at Carthage Jail.

These enemies surmised that if they killed the Prophet, the Church would disperse and cease to exist as a political power, Brother Leonard said. But disperse they did not. Less than a year after the martyrdom, on May 24, 1845, the Nauvoo Temple capstone was laid under the direction of President Brigham Young.

They dedicated the temple in sections, Brother Leonard said. The basement had been dedicated in 1841 so proxy baptisms could be conducted. On Dec. 10, 1845, amid preparations to leave for the Rocky Mountains, temple work in Nauvoo commenced, according to Sacred Stone. Before the temple's final dedication on May 1, 1846, by Elders Orson Hyde and Wilford Woodruff, 5,615 members had received their temple blessings, according to Nauvoo Panorama and Sacred Stone.

The exodus, begun on Feb. 4, 1846, was well under way. By that autumn, mobs had forced the remaining members to flee. The once-bustling city was dying.

On Oct. 9, 1848, an arsonist torched the magnificent temple, leaving only blackened walls. On May 27, 1850, the temple, which had been sold to the French Icarians for $2,000, was further damaged by a tornado. What remained was taken down and used in other edifices, according to Panorama.

Brother Leonard said a man on his deathbed confessed he knew who hired the arsonist who set the sacred temple on fire — and that it was to make sure the "Mormons" never came back.

On June 27, 2002, the history of the Nauvoo Temple — it seems — will have come full circle.

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