What is the Temple District of Nauvoo and why does it matter to Latter-day Saints?

The western view across the Mississippi River from the bluff where William and Esther Gheen lived in Nauvoo, Illinois, in the 1840s must have been magnificent. Brilliant sunsets would have regularly painted the evening sky above the lush green landscape.

Still, the couple built their house to face east — away from the river.

“This family faced their house to the temple,” said Elder Quentin L. Cook of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. “The view was not important. It was the ordinances of the temple that mattered most.”

Standing in the renovated Weeks home on May 29 while visiting the newly dedicated Navuoo Temple District, Elder Cook reflected on the Gheens and other faithful families who lived in the shadow of the original Nauvoo Illinois Temple.

The Gheens’ ordinary life isn’t recorded in major history books. “But they are just as important,” he said.

William Gheen worked construction shifts and raised money for the temple; he died before the edifice was completed. Esther was endowed in the temple in December 1845. Six weeks later, she entered the temple again to be sealed to William.

Elder Cook and his wife, Sister Mary G. Cook, walked the streets of the Navuoo Temple District a few hours before he dedicated the historic area, located just west of the Nauvoo Illinois Temple. The site is just opening to on-site visitors after 14 months of closures and limitations defined by the COVID-19 global pandemic. Since March 2020, Latter-day Saint missionaries gave 13,720 virtual tours, said Nauvoo Historic Sites President John Rizley.

Elder Quentin L. Cook, of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, and his wife Sister Mary Cook tour Historic Nauvoo in Nauvoo, Illinois on Saturday, May 29, 2021.
Elder Quentin L. Cook, of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, and his wife Sister Mary Cook tour Historic Nauvoo in Nauvoo, Illinois on Saturday, May 29, 2021. Credit: Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

The updated, historic Temple District is a witness of the early members’ lives, priorities and testimonies. It includes:

  • Three restored homes of early Latter-day Saints
  • A reconstructed home
  • A pavilion with an exhibit about the art of cutting stone for the original Nauvoo Temple
  • A revitalized West Grove
  • A wayside marker that honors a poem written by Eliza R. Snow while she lived in the Temple District in 1845
  • A new exhibit about the temple in the Nauvoo Visitors’ Center

The home of Orson and Marinda Hyde, which is not part of the Temple District, was also rebuilt and dedicated by Elder Cook.

Read more: Elder Cook dedicates Temple District of Nauvoo — reflecting on the past, looking forward in his first public travel since COVID-19

In 1841, Joseph Smith sent Orson Hyde on a mission that took him through Europe and the Ottoman Empire to Palestine. On Oct. 24, 1841, he stood on the Mount of Olives and dedicated Jerusalem for the gathering of Israel in the last days. In 2016, Elder and Sister Cook joined Elder Jeffrey R. Holland and his wife, Sister Patricia Holland, and prominent Jewish leaders — including former U.S. Senator Joseph Lieberman and Robert Adams, the former attorney general of New York — to visit the site in Jerusalem. They met with the prime minister of Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu, to share details about Elder Hyde’s historic dedication.

The restored Hyde home — built by Church members in Nauvoo with donated labor and supplies while Orson was away — features his mission and the other missions of the early apostles of this dispensation.

Missionary work is one of the “prophetic priorities” that occurred during the Nauvoo era, said Elder Cook. While missionaries were being sent across the world, the Nauvoo Temple was being built to provide sacred saving ordinances.

Sister missionaries attend the historic Nauvoo Temple District dedication in Nauvoo, Illinois on Saturday, May 29, 2021.
Sister missionaries attend the historic Nauvoo Temple District dedication in Nauvoo, Illinois on Saturday, May 29, 2021. Credit: Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

During their visit to the historic Temple District of Nauvoo, Elder and Sister Cook stopped inside the home of William and Caroline Weeks. An architect, William Weeks worked with the Prophet Joseph Smith on the design of the Nauvoo Temple.

“This is the place where the vision Joseph had for the temple became real,” said Steven Olsen, a senior curator of the Church’s historic sites.

Just down the road from the Weeks home, stands a reconstructed home of Edward and Ann Hunter Home. It was here, while in hiding on Sept. 6, 1842, that Joseph Smith wrote the letter that would become Doctrine and Covenants 128 and detail the doctrine of baptism for the dead. Edward Hunter was a bishop in Nauvoo, so the home also became a “bishops storehouse” where donated items could then be used to minister to the needs of Latter-day Saints.

Today, trees are growing near the Hunter home that will become the West Grove. Because of the large Church membership then in Nauvoo, the West Grove was one place large groups of Latter-day Saints could gather. There Church members sat on split-log benches to listen to sermons from Joseph Smith and others.

Throughout the Nauvoo Temple District, “the temple is the focus, the temple is the backdrop,” said Church Historian and Recorder Elder LeGrand R. Curtis Jr.

Historic sites and temples “are the strongest material witnesses of the restoration” the Church has, Olsen said.

“So the question then becomes: What is it about Nauvoo that allows it to serve as a material witness of the restoration? It is two-fold. One, it is a strong evidence of Joseph Smith’s prophetic leadership. Two, it was in the Nauvoo temple where the covenants and associated ordinances were established that inaugurated the plan of exaltation.”

The Nauvoo Illinois Temple at sunset in Nauvoo, Illinois, on Saturday, May 29, 2021.
The Nauvoo Illinois Temple at sunset in Nauvoo, Illinois, on Saturday, May 29, 2021. Credit: Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

Elder Cook said there is something about Nauvoo that just really touches his heart. “I love the history. I love the ancestors. I love the houses. I love everything about it,” he said. “But the temple is what really gives it the meaning doctrinally and is special.”

Noting how important the temple ordinances were to early Latter-day Saints, Elder Cook said Church records show in the two months before the temple was closed and the Saints were forced to vacate Nauvoo, some 6,000 members received saving ordinances.

Those early members — including Esther Gheen and others who built homes in the shadow of the Nauvoo temple — did not have access to another temple until 1877. “So the temple, then and now, is what is most impressive to me,” said Elder Cook.