NAUVOO, Illinois — First-timers and veterans alike joined together in Historic Nauvoo on a breezy Saturday morning for the annual exodus commemoration. It was Feb 4, 2023, exactly 177 years after the first wagons left Nauvoo, Illinois, in 1846, bound for an uncertain future.
After a welcome message from Illinois Historic Sites President Craig Lee Dalton, the gathered participants lined up to begin the mile-long walk along Main Street to Parley and then to the Mississippi River.
President Dalton admonished the crowd to think during their walk about the great things the Lord had done for members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints: “They didn’t know exactly where they were going, but they could go forward with faith in Jesus Christ and confidence in His miraculous blessings.”
Standing on the steps of the cultural hall, President Dalton gestured to the hill to the northeast. “We see this beautiful temple and reflect on the Nauvoo Temple that they built. As they were finishing it, they knew they would be leaving it. But even though they left the building behind, they did not leave the temple behind because they carried those covenants of the temple … in their hearts and in their lives.”
At the head of the procession was a group of volunteers dressed to represent the Nauvoo Legion, along with flag bearers highlighting the many nationalities present in Nauvoo in the 1840s. Families and friends walking in honor of ancestors or others who lived in Nauvoo were next in line.
Wagons pulled by teams of horses or oxen followed the walkers down the long stretch of Parley Street to the edge of the icy river, where most of the early pioneers crossed over into Iowa. A newly commissioned National Park Service sign with original artwork marks this spot as the trailhead of the Mormon Trail.
Once the crowd was gathered at the edge of the river near the Pioneer Memorial, a missionary choir sang “Faith in Every Footstep” before President Dalton introduced President Matthew J. Thomas, Nauvoo Illinois Stake president, as the keynote speaker.
President Thomas, who is a college band director by profession, remarked on the importance of music to the Latter-day Saints, as William Pitt’s brass band would lift the spirits of the weary travelers each night around the campfires. But then he asked, “Why? When the mobs drove them out, why not walk away instead of heading west?”
“Why would these Saints leave their homes in these frigidly cold conditions and move west,” President Thomas asked, “if they did not have a burning and firm testimony of the restoration of the gospel of Jesus Christ to their core? They would not do that. They knew. And today we are here to commemorate their sacred sacrifices and commitments to what they knew to be true.”
Attending for the first time since moving to Iowa from South Korea, the Kang family said they wanted to come and feel connected to the early Saints. “This is our first time here, and I think it would have been harsh for the people back then in the bitter cold,” said John Kang, who was attending with his brother and parents.
“We didn’t have ancestors here, so we wore the name tags for people who lived here,” Kang explained. “My brother, Jeffrey, had the name of John Young. A special thing happened when a sister came up to him and said her name tag matched his because the ancestor she was walking for had been John Young’s wife. So they talked about her ancestors, and that was cool.”
Also attending were Becky and Doug Mullen from Peoria, Illinois. They had participated many times in the past. Asked why they had come again, after having experienced the event often over the last 15 years, Becky Mullen’s response was quick: “You cannot walk that trail and not think of those who walked before you — with no hand warmers or warm boots or down coats. They walked with babies in arms and little ones holding on to them. They walked having left most everything behind.”
After mentioning her husband’s Nauvoo ancestry, Becky Mullen continued, “We know when we get to the edge of the river today, our walk is over. But the end of their walk would not be for quite some time after a lot of hardships. We walk because we feel their faith and love for the Savior, and it gives us courage when we go through hard times.”
Both President Dalton and President Thomas reminded listeners that today’s trials are no less daunting than in the past, but that our faith, covenants, and blessings are just as real and powerful as they were then in helping us reach our destinations successfully. The event wrapped up with a few more refreshments and visits to the historic sites for some and an afternoon at the temple for others.