Scholars Provide Insights to Joseph Smith’s Nauvoo

Contributed By By Scott Lloyd, Church News staff writer

  • 1 October 2013

Thomas B. Griffith, near the Nauvoo Illinois Temple, addresses an audience on the subject of opposition to Mormonism in mid-19th century America.  Photo by R. Scott Lloyd, Church News.

Article Highlights

  • Those in attendance included dignitaries from Illinois and Utah and participants from the Community of Christ.
  • Thomas B. Griffith identified the fears of locals that led to opposition against Mormons during the Nauvoo period.
  • Lachlan Mackay spoke on “The Mormon Jubilee,” a song celebrating Joseph’s release after a habeas corpus hearing.

“[Nauvoo] gives me a perspective on what a beautiful spot they had here and the sacrifice they made.” —Governor Gary Herbert, Utah governor


Historic Nauvoo became one giant classroom September 23 as 11 scholars were stationed individually at various historic sites to give perspectives on the life and teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith.

It was the opening portion of a two-day series of events that culminated with a dramatization in the Illinois capital of Springfield on “Habeas Corpus and the Courts: Individual Liberties from Joseph Smith to Abraham Lincoln to Guantanamo.”

Members of the state’s legal and historic preservation communities, along with visitors from Utah and other states, gathered in Nauvoo for the event, arranged with participation from the Church, the Community of Christ, the Mormon Historic Sites Foundation, and other organizations.

Among dignitaries from Utah were the state’s governor, Gary Herbert, and former governor Olene Walker.

In an interview, Governor Herbert said he was invited to come by Illinois Governor Pat Quinn, a longtime acquaintance. He said he and his wife, Jeanette, were delighted to respond to the invitation because they both are descended from Nauvoo residents—he from Israel Barlow, who negotiated the purchase of the land on which Nauvoo was built, and she from Shadrach Roundy, personal bodyguard to Joseph Smith.

“It gives me a perspective on what a beautiful spot they had here and the sacrifice they made,” Governor Herbert said, adding that they drained a swamp to make it habitable and, when the Mormon pioneers founded Utah, they did the reverse, adding water to the land instead of taking it away, to make it “blossom as a rose.”

“It shows what hardy souls they were, and how hardworking,” he said. “Can we do any less? It makes me want to try harder.”

Here is a sampling of some of the perspectives given by scholars at the Nauvoo historic sites:

Thomas B. Griffith

Judge of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, Brother Griffith addressed the topic of opposition to Mormonism in mid-19th century America.

Speaking near the front of the Nauvoo Illinois Temple, he identified as sources of anxiety among neighbors the fact that Mormons gathered together, that as New Englanders they were culturally different than their frontier neighbors, that they drew adherents away from other religious faiths, and that there were already rumors of the practice of plural marriage among Mormons during the Nauvoo period.

Religious beliefs radically different for the time period were also a factor, he said.

John W. Welch

Speaking at the Cultural Hall in Nauvoo, John W. Welch addressed the topic of the U.S. Constitution and the Missouri extradition attempts.

A professor of law at Brigham Young University, Brother Welch said a number of constitutional issues characterized the legal battles against the Prophet.

They included the right to petition the government for redress of grievances, language that is found in the First Amendment. Could such redress include compensation for property loss, as the Saints suffered in Missouri? No lawyer in Joseph Smith’s day could address that, Brother Welch said.

Another constitutional issue he identified was the definition of treason. Joseph Smith was held in Liberty and Carthage Jails on charges of treason, for which bail could not be posted. He argued that no treason occurred, that the Saints were not making war against the federal government, and that they were exercising their right to keep and bear arms in defending themselves, Brother Welch said.

Ronald K. Esplin

Joseph Smith’s 1844 campaign for election to the U.S. presidency was the subject of Ronald K. Esplin’s presentation in the yard of the Brigham Young home in Nauvoo.

Brother Esplin, a general editor and recent managing editor of the Joseph Smith Papers project, said Joseph’s campaign was an outgrowth of the Saints’ efforts to follow the Lord’s instruction in Doctrine and Covenants 101. Therein, they were directed first to petition the judges, then the governor, and finally the president of the United States for redress of the injuries they had suffered from persecution.

None of these efforts bore fruit, and no candidate for president, when asked, appeared disposed to help. “He basically said, ‘If we can’t find anybody and have to throw our votes away, we had just as well throw them away on ourselves,’” Brother Esplin said.

Joseph’s candidacy was cut short by his being murdered by a mob in June 1844.

Lachlan Mackay

The director of Community of Christ historic sites, Lachlan Mackay, spoke at the Joseph Smith Homestead on “The Mormon Jubilee,” a song written by Wilson Law and Willard Richards, with verses added by Eliza R. Snow, to celebrate Joseph Smith’s release after prevailing in the habeas corpus hearing in Springfield, Illinois.

He handed out copies of the song, which was sung to the tune of “Auld Lang Syne,” and had the audience sing together the chorus and some of the verses, including the opening:

And are you sure the news is true?

And are you sure he’s free?

Then let us join with one accord

And have a jubilee.