On Saturday morning, 6 May 1843, at 9:30 A.M., eager citizens of Nauvoo gathered for a military parade featuring the Nauvoo Legion. The 37-year-old Prophet Joseph Smith, tall and strong astride his black horse, led the parade. The Prophet wore white breeches, a rich blue tailcoat trimmed with gold, and a black-plumed felt hat trimmed with silk braid. On her white horse, Emma Smith wore a black velvet riding habit with quantities of tiny military buttons and a large plumed bonnet with a black lace riding veil. She carried an ivory-handled riding crop. A dozen ladies on horseback, each adorned in a long riding dress, followed Emma. Brigham Young, legion chaplain and Apostle, wore white pants and a black coat with gold buttons.
Made up of local citizens willing to fill a well-demonstrated need for protection of the city, the Nauvoo Legion could rightly boast of more spirit and better training than other local and state militias. However, its soldiers were by no means all neatly dressed in standard issue. Their makeshift uniforms were blue, green, or red coats and white wool pantaloons, varying in design and quality. Nevertheless, the legion, carrying their small arms, created a dramatic display.
After the parade had completed its long route around the city, the crowd gathered at the parade grounds below the Nauvoo Temple to hear an enthusiastic speech by General Joseph Smith, with music by the Nauvoo Brass Band. At 7:30 that evening, many Saints crowded into the large room over the Prophet’s red brick store to attend an entertainment billed as “Mr. Vicker’s Performance of Wire Dancing.” Although it had been a long day, the entertainment continued until 11:30 P.M.
The Saints had arrived in Commerce, Illinois, on the banks of the Mississippi River in the summer of 1839. They had found a half dozen families living there and as many as 30 vacant log cabins abandoned by homesteaders. An unhealthy bog harbored “the ague,” a malarial fever usually followed by pneumonia and often by death. But the homeless Latter-day Saints envisioned possibilities so resplendent that they renamed the spot Nauvoo, a Hebrew word meaning “beautiful.”
The Saints bought four acres on a glorious rise of land for their temple—the focal point of their spiritual vision. They had already bought farming land—about 650 acres on “the flats” and thousands of acres across the river in Iowa—enough to provide food for a large city. As they dug drainage ditches to divert water from the flats, the stagnant pools of malarial water began to disappear.
In the first year after the Saints began arriving in Nauvoo, 250 houses were built. By the next year 1,200 structures had been built. By 1845 Nauvoo had 11,000 citizens, rivaling the population of Chicago. And by 1846 it supported 85 shops and industries, including mills, lime kilns, a silk weaver, and a daguerreotype shop. A library was begun, and art was displayed. Some people referred to Nauvoo as “the great city in the wilderness.”1
With basic needs provided for, residents of Nauvoo could pursue higher levels of living. The Saints were mostly from the poor and middle classes of New England and the British Isles. Fewer than 10 percent had much wealth or education. Still, they responded readily to their leaders’ counsel to develop the cultural arts for their spiritual and intellectual edification. This created strong support for a beginning library, artwork, music, dance, and theater.
A revelation to the Prophet Joseph Smith in 1832 had taught that Zion’s virtue and beauty go hand in hand. “For Zion must increase in beauty, and in holiness” (D&C 82:14; emphasis added). And the thirteenth article of faith affirmed that the Saints seek after all things “virtuous [and] lovely.” In the unique frontier society of Nauvoo, the Saints actively sought refinement.
The Prophet Joseph’s general store, made of red brick, was more grand than the log stores of its time. It boasted beautiful counters, drawers, and pillars painted with graining to simulate more valuable materials—“a very respectable representation of oak, mahogany and marble for a backwoods establishment,” wrote the Prophet in a letter.2 The Female Relief Society of Nauvoo was organized in the upper room in March 1842, with Emma Hale Smith as president. Some early public school classes were held in this all-purpose room, as well as parties, lectures, and meetings of the city council, Church leaders, and Nauvoo Legion staff. It was used as a courtroom and was also the site of the city’s first theatrical programs.
The Prophet Joseph organized a dramatic company in Nauvoo and was “foremost in encouraging the production of classical plays.”3 Believing that the theater could both teach and inspire, he attended plays himself, on occasion responding with tears to noble presentations.4 Most of the nine plays were historical, and they featured themes of heroism, friendship, love, and faith. They were entertainment, but they also taught principles of truth.
British immigrants had enjoyed the theaters of England and were especially eager to continue their drama in America.
Nauvoo Saints had resilient spirits, and the cultural arts played an important role in their frontier lives. Despite hardships, privation, and religious persecution, they not only worked to build up God’s kingdom on earth, but to improve themselves through education and the higher arts.
Taking to heart the teaching that “the glory of God is intelligence, or, in other words, light and truth” (D&C 93:36), the Saints valued intellectual as well as spiritual achievements. Church leaders planned to build a University of the City of Nauvoo, which was to teach “Arts, Sciences, and Learned Professions.”5
The Saints left Nauvoo before facilities could be built, but classes were held in homes for higher mathematics, philosophy, chemistry, Hebrew, German, Greek, Latin, French, Spanish, and English. To provide schools for the hosts of children not already in private schools, the city made four administrative divisions for public schools and began building substantial structures. There was even a low-cost school for the poorest families, who paid, as possible, in pennies.
The Prophet Joseph himself organized the first of several choral groups in Nauvoo and attended their singing schools. Emma Smith, who had a fine soprano voice, often sang obbligato parts in choral groups and filled the Smith home with sweet music. Caroling awakened the Prophet’s family at 1:00 A.M. Christmas morning 1843. In 1845 vocal and instrumental musicians completed their own concert hall.
Professor Gustavus Hills conducted a Teacher’s Lyceum of Music. Meanwhile, William Pitt gathered together some highly skilled instrumentalists into a brass band. Its music accompanied numerous gatherings of the Saints. Over the years the band became a beloved institution of the Saints. In addition, the Nauvoo Quadrille Band played at dances. And the Nauvoo Legion formed a band.6
In the larger homes of Nauvoo, dancing was ever present, including reels and the square and round dances of Scotland, Ireland, Germany, and England. With its energetic and fancy stepping, dance played an important part in the lives of the Saints.
Watercolor paintings were the artistic fashion of the day, and the Prophet Joseph encouraged the young to learn to paint in this medium, even though it consumed precious and expensive paper.
Joseph and Emma Smith’s daughter Julia, along with a number of others, took watercolor lessons from Mary Elizabeth Rollins Lightner. As a young mother, Mary had developed her painting skills in Missouri. She did so well that she fed her family on earnings from pictures she painted after the exodus from Missouri and “improved the time” giving painting lessons aboard a boat bound for St. Louis.7
Sutcliffe Maudsley, who had emigrated from England in 1842, was Nauvoo’s first professional artist. He, with William W. Major, painted portraits of community leaders, as well as historical murals.8
Public lectures, lyceum discussion groups, and a vigorous debating society occupied great numbers of citizens. When the debaters let a heated argument get out of control, the Prophet sometimes stepped in. Mercy Fielding Thompson heard him produce “clear and masterly explanations of deep and difficult questions,” cooling both sides into reasonable discussion.9
As Nauvoo grew and illness decreased, the Saints could devote greater energy and resources to entertainment and the arts. In the spring of 1843 public performances of all kinds increased.
A circus and wild animal menagerie came to town in September. In that era, these kinds of attractions could always draw a crowd. A special arena must have been built, because circus advertisements listed box tickets at 50 cents and 25-cent tickets for the pit. Two hundred visitors came up the river on a ferry to attend the circus.
When traveling entertainer Dan Rice came to Nauvoo, he performed both feats of physical strength and comic recitations—an unusual combination. He recited “Major Jones’ Courtship” in Southern dialect and a Yankee dialect piece.
After the performance, the Prophet remarked at a social gathering that he wished he could hear the comic pieces again. Hiram B. Clawson, a talented young man, immediately obliged the Prophet by repeating both of Rice’s recitations on the spot. Amazed that the young man had memorized both pieces in just two hearings, the Prophet delightedly began to plan a series of theatricals, since there was local talent in abundance.10
Truly the Saints in Nauvoo followed the Prophet Joseph Smith in using the cultural arts to help build the kingdom of God on the earth. After the physical and emotional trauma the Saints had suffered in New York, Ohio, and Missouri, their achievement in building Nauvoo into a beautiful city rich in cultural arts is nothing short of astonishing. Only a people convinced of the innate potential of man and persuaded of God’s immediate help could have had sufficient courage to build such great things out of such small means.