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Map of the City of Nauvoo, Illinois, on the Mississippi River, c. 1842.

by Glen M. Leonard

Nauvoo, Illinois, headquarters of the Church and home for many of its members from 1839 to 1846, began and ended as a community in exile. In 1838-1839 Latter-day Saints fled from Missouri seeking religious refuge from mob persecution. They found shelter in eastern Iowa and western Illinois, where they established new communities. Joseph Smith named the principal city Nauvoo, meaning, he said, "a beautiful location, a place of rest." When the Saints left Nauvoo for the Rocky Mountains seven years later, they were again religious exiles in search of a home.

The community at Nauvoo grew rapidly on land purchased from settlers and speculators willing to sell on contract. Joseph Smith, acting as agent for the Church, bought the Illinois farms of Hugh and William White and investment tracts from Isaac Galland and Horace Hotchkiss—in all, 660 acres. He resold one-acre Nauvoo lots surveyed on the flats along the river, in competition with other LDS developers who platted land on nearby bluffs. A survey established streets three rods wide within city boundaries overlaying existing "paper" towns of Commerce and Commerce City. In December 1840, Nauvoo became a legal entity under the Nauvoo charter, issued by the Illinois legislature and providing the Saints better legal protection than they had ever known. Nauvoo was now home.

As exiled Latter-day Saints from Missouri and Ohio gathered to their new stake of Zion, missionaries in the United States and Great Britain baptized many new converts (see Missions of the Twelve to the British Isles). Encouraged by Joseph Smith, American and Canadian converts moved westward to Nauvoo. Some used canal boats and lake steamers, others covered wagons and horseback, and a few simply walked. Beginning in 1840, thousands sailed the Atlantic from Liverpool, England, and took steamboats up the Mississippi from New Orleans. This was a religious migration, an individual and family response to religious beliefs, aided by Church emigration agents in Liverpool, who organized companies and appointed shepherds for those fleeing to Zion (see Immigration and Emigration).

Newcomers were welcomed in Nauvoo by friends, relatives, missionaries, and the Prophet Joseph Smith himself. Renting a room or finding other temporary quarters became increasingly difficult during the boom years 1841-1843. As quickly as possible, new settlers hired scarce contractors and craftsmen to build houses. Lumber, harvested from nearby virgin forests or shipped in, and, later, bricks made in Nauvoo, went into hundreds of comfortable but small, new homes. Nauvoo became a boom town.

Gardens on the city lots furnished vegetables, herbs, fruits, and berries. Meat and potatoes, when available, and corn—ground into meal for boiling, baking, and frying—were staples in everyone's diet. On nearby prairies, farmers plowed, cooperatively enclosed, and then planted hundreds of acres in corn, wheat, and potatoes. LDS tradesmen found ready work in Nauvoo, as did merchants eager to import manufactured goods from St. Louis, Cincinnati, and the East Coast.

Nauvoo boosters and their political opponents in neighboring towns exaggerated their estimates of Nauvoo's population for differing purposes. Illinois census takers in 1845 counted 11,057 residents. Adding growth through late 1845 and including the city's environs boosted the estimate to 15,000 at Nauvoo's peak, almost equal to a faster-growing Chicago.

To meet public needs, civic groups built a music hall and cultural hall, and priesthood quorums planned their own meeting halls. Church-sponsored construction of the Nauvoo house, a grand hotel, and the Nauvoo Temple gave Nauvoo's growth religious meaning.

Though all members contributed as means and faith allowed toward erection of the temple, they did not all live in Nauvoo. Some remained in their hometowns because of economic or family pressures. Others joined the March to Nauvoo but found homesites and land away from headquarters. On a 13,000-acre, Church-purchased site in Lee County, Iowa, just across the river from Nauvoo, the Saints founded a town called Zarahemla and nine other smaller settlements. Joseph Smith organized an Iowa stake and approved settlement there and in several new towns in western Illinois. Besides Nauvoo, Church members in Hancock County lived at Ramus (now Webster); in Adams County at Lima, Quincy, Mount Hope (now Columbus), and Freedom (near Payson); in Morgan County at Geneva; in Sangamon County at Springfield; and in Pike County at Pleasant Vale (now Canton). Additionally, presiding elders organized Church branches wherever clusters of members lived in North America and the British Isles.

Wherever they lived, Latter-day Saints looked to the Prophet Joseph Smith for religious leadership. His revelations and sermons published in Nauvoo achieved Churchwide distribution. For residents, the Prophet offered firsthand preaching, teaching, and counseling. Besides these, his influence in Nauvoo was enlarged through his roles as land agent, mayor, militia leader, magistrate, and merchant. No wonder that after his death and the repeal of its charter, the city was renamed the City of Joseph.

During his last years at Nauvoo, the Prophet unfolded additional aspects of the restored gospel. He responded to questions about basic LDS beliefs with thirteen Articles of Faith, which described fundamental doctrines. He published another revealed scriptural record, the book of Abraham. He taught new insights into the common origins of all mankind and their eternal destiny, particularly in a eulogy for a member, King Follett (see King Follett Discourse). Many of the new teachings pointed toward the temple, and looked toward a collective effort to perform ordinances for the salvation of deceased ancestors and the exaltation of faithful Saints. The first baptisms for the dead were done in the Mississippi River, but by late November 1841, proxy baptisms commenced in the temple font. Meanwhile, with the temple not yet complete, several men, including two of the Twelve, received the first temple endowments on May 4, 1842, in an upstairs room at the President's office-store. The following year their wives and other men and women received the same ordinances, providing a corps of initiates to administer temple ordinances to thousands of others in the Nauvoo Temple beginning in December 1845.

The temple was a central focus of Nauvoo religious life. The Saints supported its construction with tithes of time and means, and they longed to receive anticipated temple blessings. For those privileged to live in Nauvoo, the temple and its associated theology gave new and eternal meaning to birth, marriage, life, and death.

Though Joseph Smith's personal leadership dominated Nauvoo's religious life, an institutional structure supported his efforts and carried on after his death in 1844 (see Martyrdom of Joseph and Hyrum Smith). During the Nauvoo years, the Quorum of the Twelve accepted an increased role. First organized in 1835, members gained experience first as mission leaders in England and then as administrators in Nauvoo. With the First Presidency and other authorities, they shared opportunities to preach scriptural commentaries on Sunday from the stand in the grove near the temple, and to address the Saints at general conferences. Among the most significant meetings in Nauvoo, these April and October conferences brought together thousands of the Saints for business and instruction. Similar gatherings convened elsewhere for scattered branches. Minutes published in the British Millennial Star and Nauvoo Times and Seasons helped keep members elsewhere informed of Church business, membership growth, and preachings. Church periodicals issued the first installments of Joseph Smith's History of the Church, a project he pursued diligently with his clerks from 1838 until his death in 1844.

The women's Relief Society, organized in 1842, administered to the needs of the poor and taught principles of sexual purity. In this, they assisted the bishops of Nauvoo's fledgling wards—new administrative units for tending to temporal needs and monitoring religious worthiness. After Brigham Young and the Twelve succeeded the Prophet as leaders, the seventy and other Melchizedek Priesthood quorums grew rapidly in numbers and importance. The Seventy built a hall, sponsored a library, and prepared themselves for missions and for temple blessings.

While Latter-day Saints in Nauvoo gave primary allegiance to their religious affiliation, their lives reflected experiences typical of others in Jacksonian America. Non-Mormons living in and around Nauvoo joined with them in the celebration of Independence Day. Military processions, band music, patriotic speeches, and other festivities attracted citizens who arrived on horseback and in carriages and riverboats. Christmas observances were highlights for family and friends, with progressive dinners, singing, and dancing. Membership in Mormon Freemasonry lodges, organized in 1841-1842, affirmed group loyalty within the Church and encouraged fraternal ties with others. Contrary to expectations, however, the rapid growth of the lodges created controversy that strained relationships with other masons (see Freemasonry in Nauvoo).

Mormon-American society in Nauvoo, leavened increasingly by a British and Scandinavian immigrant influence, included typical nineteenth-century entertainment and recreational opportunities. Brass bands played at dances and patriotic gatherings, accompanied Church choirs, and performed for temple capstone ceremonies. Adult and youth choirs, instrumentalists, and vocalists entertained and edified at social and religious gatherings. The music performed came out of the host society, though some hymns were newly written for LDS services. Mormon poets regularly memorialized events and people and set significant religious messages to rhyme for biweekly periodicals. Thespians in Nauvoo presented popular theatricals or sponsored traveling performing troupes in the Nauvoo cultural hall. Other occasional attractions included art exhibits, the circus, and riverboat excursions (see Social and Cultural History).

Children had few toys, mostly homemade wagons, tops, and dolls. They enjoyed games such as fox and geese or leapfrog. Youths engaged in pastimes such as playing with marbles, wrestling, foot racing, hunting, fishing, stick-pulling, bowling, and baseball. Adults joined in many of these recreational activities and sometimes passed the time with card games, carriage rides, or parlor socials. When not providing necessities, Nauvooans also pursued education and learning. To get basic training in reading, writing, and arithmetic for their families, parents hired tutors or enrolled children in one of dozens of classes offered by Nauvoo's part-time teachers. Tuition was paid through providing teachers board and room and scarce cash. The University of Nauvoo existed only in a few scattered classes. Male adults and younger men organized lyceums and debating societies to develop rhetorical skills. They argued religious as well as political topics to prepare participants for missionary and civic service. Books were scarce in private homes, but a membership lending library offered two hundred donated volumes on science, world religion, history, and literature. Nauvoo's religious and secular newspapers, the Times and Seasons and Nauvoo Neighbor (originally The Wasp), edited by prominent LDS citizens, circulated to Latter-day Saints on two continents. In an "Age of the Common Man," Nauvoo's social and educational life was one of broad enjoyment and participation.

As elsewhere in American society, the family was the focus of everyday life. Women met domestic needs through a combination of their own labor and income from their husbands' work. The family produced and prepared food, though Nauvoo merchants imported or traded many foodstuffs. Women often made everyday clothing, bed coverings, rugs, and such things as towels and curtains from purchased cloth. Furniture, kitchen utensils, and tools for trades were imported or brought along by immigrants. Home remedies, supplemented by priesthood blessings, were administered in faith for healing. Infant mortality was high, and death for all a constant possibility from malaria-like diseases, untreatable illnesses, and accidents.

For Latter-day Saints in Nauvoo, the family took on new religious meaning. Conversion unfortunately often divided families, though letters from Nauvoo nurtured bonds and encouraged reunion. Proxy temple ordinances offered opportunity for uniting families across generations and beyond the grave. Select associates accepted the Prophet's private challenge to make covenants of marriage with plural wives (see Plural Marriage), though the doctrine was not preached publicly until 1852 in Utah. In preparation for the temple, teaching of the doctrine of eternal families added a unique touch to LDS family life. Sealing ordinances for husbands and wives gave marriage and the family in Nauvoo an eternal perspective.

Just when life appeared to be back to normal after the martyrdom, the loss of Nauvoo's charter and mob harassment in 1845 threatened the peace of Joseph Smith's City Beautiful. Political and schismatic opponents predicted "the end of "Mormonism."' Disaffected Latter-day Saints threatened religious unity and offered guardianship and new prophetic leadership in opposition to the Twelve. The Church survived, but Nauvoo's position as the Church center ended. The governing Quorum of the Twelve announced plans at the October 1845 conference to evacuate by the following spring.

Throughout the winter, residents organized for the exodus even as they rushed to complete their temple and receive its ordinances (see Western Migration: Planning and Prophecy). They purchased oxen, made wagons, sold properties, and outfitted themselves for the long trek into the western wilderness as they also prepared temple clothing and did finishing work inside the temple on the hill. Brigham Young and the Twelve appointed agents to dispose of unsold property and organized emigration companies as they oversaw construction details on the temple. By December, just before departure began, thousands of the Nauvoo faithful began to receive their long-awaited temple endowments. Before winter's end more than 6,000 received temple ordinances and thus were willing to leave. After seven eventful years, the Latter-day Saints moved on again, transplanting their covenant society to a new Promised Land. (See Concept of a Promised Land)

(See Daily Living home page; Church History home page; 1831-1844 home page)


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Church history sites near Nauvoo, Illinois, 1839-1846

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Nauvoo, Illinois. Streets and buildings, 1846.

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Joseph Smith and his family moved into the Mansion House in August 1843. Later a wing
was added to the east side of the main structure for a total of twenty-two rooms. Beginning
in January 1844, Ebenezer Robinson managed the Mansion House as a hotel, and the prophet
maintained six rooms for himself and his family. Emma Smith lived here until 1871, when
she moved into the Nauvoo House, where she died in 1879.

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Seventies Hall, Nauvoo, was a meeting place for various priesthood quorums. Built in 1844, it
housed a training school for missionaries, a small library, and a museum of artifacts from
around the world. It was reconstructed on its original foundation in 1971-1972.

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Brigham Young's residence in Nauvoo, as it appeared around 1900.

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Looking northeast toward the Nauvoo Temple, 1846, at the time of the Latter-day Saint exodus
(daguerreotype). Nauvoo grew rapidly between 1839 and 1846. Dugouts and simple log
structures were soon replaced by traditional frame or brick homes. Charles W. Carter collection.


Flanders, Robert B. "To Transform History: Early Mormon Culture and the Concept of Time and Space." Church History 40 (1971):108-17.

Godfrey, Kenneth W. "Some Thoughts Regarding an Unwritten History of Nauvoo." BYU Studies 15 (1975):417-24.

Godfrey, Kenneth W. "The Nauvoo Neighborhood: A Little Philadelphia or a Unique City Set Upon a Hill?" Journal of Mormon History 11 (1984):78-97.

Hill, Marvin S. "Mormon Religion in Nauvoo: Some Reflections." Utah Historical Quarterly 44 (1976):170-80.

Kimball, Stanley B. "Nauvoo West: The Mormons of the Iowa Shore." BYU Studies 18 (1978):132-42.

Miller, David E., and Della S. Miller. Nauvoo: The City of Joseph. Salt Lake City, 1974.


Nauvoo Temple photo courtesy of whistlepunch

Encyclopedia of Mormonism

Copyright 1992 by Macmillan Publishing Company

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