In 1999 the Mormon Church began a rebuilding project in Nauvoo, Illinois. Nauvoo Restoration Inc. first rebuilt historic Mormon homes and shops and called it the "Williamsburg of the Midwest," after Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia. Jan B. Shipps, a respected scholar of Mormonism and professor emeritus at Indiana University said, "It didn't have a religious angle. A lot of people were coming for history."
But the rebuilding of the temple "changed what was historic preservation into a religious activity," according to Shipps. Now the 54,000-square-foot, 15-story limestone temple is the biggest building in Nauvoo. 250,000 Mormons are expected to come for its opening in May. And Mormons seem to see their current presence in Nauvoo as a fulfillment of their founder's vision. But ironically, Nauvoo was the site of perhaps Mormonism's greatest defeat, the arrest and death of Joseph Smith. Now Nauvoo is being reconstructed as a testimony to the church's modern triumph.
This is the place where Joseph Smith once sought to create his own kingdom during the early 1840s. "Nauvoo was the first place that Mormonism manifested itself as a literal kingdom...that was both a religious and a civil culture," says Shipps.
It was at Nauvoo that Smith claimed to receive "revelations," which enabled him to create some of Mormonism's most controversial doctrines. This included celestial marriage, bringing couples together for eternity and baptizing the dead, which supposedly affords souls a post mortem opportunity to become Mormon. God also supposedly revealed to Smith in Nauvoo, that Mormon men should become polygamists.
But this story really began in the spring of 1820, when 14-year-old Joseph Smith claimed there was a divine visitation at his parent's farm in Palmyra, New York. Smith said God told him that all the churches in the world were "wrong," except for the one that he would eventually establish.
Smith then used something called a "seerstone" to find "gold plates," which he later claimed an angel named Maroni revealed. These plates were the purported lost history of unknown American civilizations, buried somehow in New York. Smith said he copied the plates, which were written in what he labeled "reformed Egyptian," an unknown language. But when his translation was taken to Columbia and Rutgers, scholars dismissed it as simply a fraud. Nevertheless, Smith continued and in 1830 he self-published the first "Book of Mormon." That same year he organized his growing following into what became known as the "Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints" now commonly called the Mormon Church.
The Book of Mormon is a story about how the lost tribes of Israel ended up in America during ancient times. Eventually, these Jews supposedly became two peoples, the good and white Nephites and the bad and dark Lamanites. Wars eventually destroyed the good white Jews, except for Mormon and his son Moroni. The Book of Mormon also claims that Jesus had another ministry after his resurrection in America. But all this was lost and unknown until Smith found the hidden golden plates, when he was still in his early 20s.
And the Book of Mormon states that a great prophet, like Moses would one day restore the "kingdom of God" to the Earth. Of course this turned out to be none other than Smith himself.
There is absolutely no independent historical or archeological proof to support any of the events recorded within the Book of Mormon. The book appears to be little more than a fiction created by Joseph Smith. And the golden plates later conveniently disappeared from the earth. No one can verify their actual existence, other than Mormon "witnesses." But Smith found many willing believers despite his lack of meaningful evidence, not unlike the modern "cult leaders" of today.
Smith searched for a place to build his very own theocratic city-state. At first he tried Kirtland, Ohio, but he was run out of town. He then went to Missouri, but caused so much trouble, then Governor Lilburn Boggs expelled Smith and his followers. In 1839 Joseph Smith found Nauvoo.
Mormonism offends many people, due to its ethnocentric claims. That is, Mormons have always said that their religious organization is the only true kingdom of God established on Earth and that all other religious institutions are essentially failures.
Joseph Smith was certainly the defining element of Mormonism and its original "prophet." He was not unlike contemporary cult leaders such as David Koresh, Rev. Moon or Shoko Asahara, who also defined their respective groups. Smith was an absolute totalitarian leader without any meaningful accountability and revered by his followers as the unquestioned living voice for God. He was not only Nauvoo's mayor and chief judge, but also the commanding general of his own armed militia.
The area around Nauvoo was rural and undeveloped. The Mormons became increasingly dominant due to their numbers. Smith's armed militia of 2,000 men created fear amongst the people in surrounding communities. And though the Mormons lived a relatively isolated and closed existence, they aggressively proselytized, with the hope of converting America. All this ultimately led to friction between the Mormons and "gentile" non-believers in Illinois.
Then in 1842 Smith said God told him to practice polygamy. He took many wives and told his followers to do likewise. This caused problems within Nauvoo and outrage outside the Mormon community.
Smith's hubris and growing megalomania seemed to reach its zenith when he announced his candidacy for president of the United States. A new Nauvoo newspaper, not under Smith's direct control, then published its first issue criticizing the Mormon leader. That paper's first issue was its last. Joseph Smith ordered its presses destroyed on June 11,1844. Subsequently, Joseph Smith and his brother Hyrum were arrested. A mob stormed the jail and killed them both. This would become a "martyrdom" for Mormons, but for many others it was simply seen as an end to tyranny.
There was a struggle for power after the death of Joseph Smith. According to a letter that was written by Smith, he actually designated his son Joseph Smith III to become his successor. However, most of the Mormons (12,000) chose instead to follow the charismatic Brigham Young. Another denomination of Mormon believers would be established under Smith the younger, it would be called the "Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter Day Saints" (RLDS), now known as the "Community of Christ," based in St. Louis Missouri.
Smith's widow Emma remained in Nauvoo for several years, while Young led his faithful west to the "Promised Land." Eventually, Brigham Young made Utah the new Mormon kingdom and the new religion would prosper within this relative isolation, far away from meaningful interference.
Always pragmatic, the Mormons abolished polygamy after President and "prophet" Wilford Woodruff had a well-timed "revelation" in 1890. The abolition of polygamy was a requirement before Utah could be made a state. Many Mormons refused to accept the "Woodruff Manifesto" and continued in polygamy.
The original Mormon temple in Nauvoo was later burned down after the Mormons left. There are now only 200 permanent Mormon residents in town. However, soon thousands of Mormons will once again overwhelm Nauvoo as tourists. Hundreds of missionaries and BYU students will also come to study and experience Mormon history.
Kathy Wallace who is the editor of the weekly Nauvoo New Independent says, "There are a lot of people who resent that the Mormons thinking this is their town" And she adds that some Mormon tourists claim, "Nauvoo was nothing until 'we came back.' "
Sonja Bush, a non-Mormon resident of Nauvoo says, "It's sad, what's happened here. This used to be a very united town. Now it's a very divided town." Bush owns a draft house and a sign taped to her front window welcomes "sinners." It says, "Even Jesus hung out with sinners." Bush also sells T-shirts with the words "I 'sinned' at the Draft House." She started her T-shirt business after she heard a Mormon official call her establishment "a house of sin."
The non-Mormons residents of Nauvoo fear that one-day, much like the State of Utah, Mormons will control their town. Then Nauvoo may finally become the theocracy Joseph Smith always wanted it to be.
Mormons claim they don't want a homogenous culture controlled by the church in Nauvoo. They say their new temple is a center built to serve Mormons in several states. Mormons use their temples for weddings and baptisms, that only "worthy" Mormons who receive "temple recommends" may enter.
Shipps says, "I feel [the temple], is going to change the character of Nauvoo."
Juanee Baird is a Mormon resident of Nauvoo who moved to the town with her husband two years ago from Utah to help build the new temple. She says it "is kind of a tribute to those people who were run out of here." And somewhat more cryptically adds, "When [the church] first applied for the permit to build here, the people in town didn't want to give it to us. And we just felt that someone was helping us along. We have felt so strongly the presence of the Saints here."
The church paid the city of Nauvoo a $380,000 impact fee to build its temple.
And building the temple was really only made possible after the church paid $6 million for the an 18.5 acre site once owned by the Catholic Sisters of St. Benedict in 1998. That property largely surrounded the original site of the old Mormon temple.
The Catholic school closed in 1997. There was an effort by local non-Mormon businessmen to buy the property, but they couldn't match the money the Mormons. The convent, built in 1874, was raised to provide a better view of the Mississippi River from the front steps of the new temple. Tom Wilson the Mayor of Nauvoo called this "the saddest day in Nauvoo history."
Mormons have been buying up a lot of land around Nauvoo in recent years. The Mormon Church has built 60 housing units for their missionaries, one motel and has plans for two more. A Mormon real estate agent said that Mormons bought 12 of the last 15 houses he has sold. It is estimated that Mormons now own about a third of Nauvoo.
Nauvoo residents are anxious about the influx of Mormons. They say that Mormons may eventually take over and push out non-Mormons. Business owners complain that Mormons often choose to do business preferably with other Mormons.
Kathy Wallace, Editor of the weekly New Independent says, "It's a sort of paranoia that has built up, but it's&because a lot of things have happened in the past."
Once a tourist, Don Capener moved his family to Nauvoo in 1998. Three years later he ran for mayor. He was the Mormon candidate and Wilson was the non-Mormon candidate. Wilson won. "There was a big to-do and a lot of sentiment that, 'Well, we don't want a Mormon mayor,' " Wallace said. Capener claimed, "I got 29 percent of the vote."
Another Mormon resident charged that the LDS Church was discriminated against, because some members weren't allowed to register to vote in the mayoral election. But he later recanted that allegation when confronted by the fact that only permanent residents can vote in Illinois.
Mayor Wilson says, "I don't know what the Mormons are going to do...they don't tell me anything."
The Evans family of Utah recently came to Nauvoo to visit their daughter Courtney. She is a student from Brigham Young University helping out to open the new temple. She took her parents on a guided tour. Courtney pointed proudly to the Mormon temple towering over the town, with its golden statue of the angel Maroni, a Mormon icon, gleaming at the top.
For the Evans family, like many other Mormons, Nauvoo is a kind of a kind of holy place, not unlike Jerusalem for Christians, Jews and Muslims. Reflecting this sentiment Courtney's father Keith Evans said, "The heart strings of the people in Utah have always harked back to Nauvoo. We've always felt like we left something here that we weren't ready to leave behind."
Notes: This article was largely based upon "When the Saints Go Marching In" By David Heinzmann, Salt Lake City Tribune, April 28, 2002