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Nauvoo Economy

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Nauvoo, Illinois, 1859, by Johannes Schroeder (1859, oil on metal, 10" x 13"). Nauvoo was a Mississippi boom town, competing with several other communities for business. Through industry and organization, the Mormons and others in Nauvoo established successful businesses as printers, gunsmiths, coopers, farmers, and merchants.

by Robert B. Flanders

Nauvoo, for seven years the headquarters of the Church, was a river city with an agricultural hinterland set amid a preestablished, second-generation frontier society of non-Mormons. Founded in 1839 by LDS refugees from the Missouri conflict, it existed as an LDS community only until 1846. Additions to its fast-growing population came mostly through new converts, many from England, who almost always brought skills and sometimes wealth. Though commerce in goods and services was brisk, Nauvoo's primary import was converts (see Immigration and Emigration), and its primary export, missionaries.

Nauvoo was neither communal nor communitarian. Still, the influences of the corporation of the Church pervaded society and economy. In Nauvoo, Joseph Smith voiced a prophetic, hurrying urgency to build the city and its temple, an urgency that loomed over all. Nauvoo was the first full-scale model of the kingdom of God on earth as envisioned by Joseph Smith. The Nauvoo Saints thus directed great energy toward "building up the Kingdom," which, in economic terms, meant building the city and establishing its economic infrastructure.

Like other communities of its day, Nauvoo had blacksmiths, coopers, potters, gunsmiths, and tinsmiths, but most in demand were the sawyers, brick makers, and carpenters. Construction was the principal industry. The hamlet of Commerce, Illinois, whose site Nauvoo overran, had few buildings, so the demand for housing was great. The Saints did not envision group housing in the fashion of Moravians, Shakers, and other communitarian societies, but they wanted detached single-family dwellings of Anglo-American rural tradition. The same was true for commercial and industrial buildings. With numerous small buildings reared upon large lots in more or less orderly rows, organized in a grid of wide streets with open land between for outbuildings, gardens, orchards, and grazing plots, Nauvoo became the prototypical Mormon city (see City Planning).

Public works made up a major part of Nauvoo construction. Work never started on an ambitious plan to dam the Mississippi to facilitate industrial development, but work did begin on a canal across the town peninsula. The plan was to bypass the Des Moines Rapids of the Mississippi, an obstacle that made the site a river portage much of the year; but the project was abandoned when the workers encountered limestone bedrock. The stone was subsequently quarried for the Nauvoo Temple.

The Nauvoo Temple, a focal point of Nauvoo religious and economic life, was essential for Nauvoo to be a literal manifestation of the kingdom. Temple building tested the religious zeal and the economic resources of all the Saints, both in Nauvoo and elsewhere. Residents were expected to "tithe for the temple" in time, goods, or money. Saints not yet gathered to Nauvoo were urged to do so quickly so that they could be part of the enterprise. Those who could not do so were to support temple construction with cash. The Twelve Apostles wrote the English Saints in 1841, "The first great object before us, and the Saints generally, is to [complete] the Temple…to secure the salvation of the Church" (HC 4:449). For Joseph Smith, completion of the temple was the first priority. The 1841 revelation authorizing the temple also threatened rejection of the Church unless the building was completed in "a sufficient time" (D&C 124:30-32). Even so, when Joseph Smith was killed in 1844, the walls were only half built.

Though building the temple was a labor of love, its economic cost put a severe drain on the city's resources. Capital was diverted from enterprises needed to provide goods and employment. Even Joseph Smith, though enthusiastic about the temple, recognized the problem. "I prophesy," he said in 1843, that "as soon as we get the Temple built, so that we shall not be obliged to exhaust our means thereon, we will have means to gather the Saints by thousands and tens of thousands" (HC 5:255).

Nauvoo's economy developed during the national depression of 1839-1843. The refugee founders were virtually destitute, but few Americans of any station had sound money during that period. The banks had failed, and specie had fled. The Saints fashioned an ingenious but shaky exchange system based on barter, letters of credit, informal IOUs, and "bonds-for-deed"—bonds given in land sales in lieu of deeds, a necessity because the whole Nauvoo tract was purchased on a long-term contract without deed until full payment. The system worked because the economy was generally expanding and the Saints trusted each other and were bound by common purpose.

The land purchase, the temple, the Nauvoo house (a large hotel), and the whole kingdom-building project upon which the Saints believed their salvation depended were headed by Joseph Smith and his ecclesiastical organization. Because Nauvoo represented an intermingling of the sacred and the secular under a prophet-leader, when he was killed in 1844, the survival of the project depended upon how and by whom he was succeeded (see Succession in the Presidency). Those who accepted the leadership of Brigham Young and the Quorum of the Twelve transplanted the system of political economy fashioned in Nauvoo to the West (see Pioneer Economy; Westward Migration, Planning and Prophecy). Some who did not and who chose to move away from the model of Nauvoo later joined the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.

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


Flanders, Robert. Nauvoo: Kingdom on the Mississippi. Urbana, Ill., 1965.

Miller, David, and Della Miller. Nauvoo: The City of Joseph. Santa Barbara and Salt Lake City, 1974.

Rowley, Dennis. "Nauvoo: A River Town." BYU Studies 18 (Winter 1978):255-72.

Encyclopedia of Mormonism

Copyright 1992 by Macmillan Publishing Company

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