For the Latter-day Saints expelled from northern Missouri by mobs, 1839 was a time of new beginnings. The massacre at Haun’s Mill Missouri, the previous October would not be soon forgotten. Nor would the brutal treatment of other Saints and the loss of homes and property given apparent sanction by the governor’s expulsion order. The exodus across the Mississippi River into Illinois that winter opened a new period in Church history. The Prophet Joseph Smith would reach the pinnacle of his public career, but the Nauvoo years would climax in tragedy.
A seven-member relocation committee appointed in January supervised the migration from Far West, Missouri. A few exiles took river boats along the Missouri River to St. Louis Missouri, but most traveled the 240 kilometers eastward to the state border in companies of wagons, two-wheeled carts, or on foot. Typical perhaps was Levi Hancock’s family. They built a horse-drawn cart, filled it with corn, and set out from Far West through deep snow with few clothes or blankets and no household goods. Eating roasted corn, elm bark, and herbs, and sleeping under the open sky, the family continued to the river and crossed early one January morning before the ice broke. Like many of the Saints, the Hancocks took refuge at the town of Quincy, Illinois. Here sympathetic citizens organized a reception committee to help the refugees.
But the Saints could not remain at Quincy, and some wondered if they should even try to remain together as a community. Brigham Young proposed that they settle by immigrant companies, and Joseph Smith wrote from Liberty Jail in Liberty, Missouri, to advise the Saints to find appropriate places of safety; so, a committee was appointed to select a central relocation site. They chose a place called Commerce, Illinois, on the bend of the Mississippi River, and when he joined the Saints that spring, the Prophet named it Nauvoo. Land across the river in Lee County, Iowa, was also purchased and the Saints founded a settlement called Zarahemla.
Nauvoo was swampy and unhealthy. As soon as the Saints began to settle, they were struck with malaria. “It was a very sickly time,” said Wilford Woodruff. “Joseph had given up his home in Commerce to the sick, and had a tent pitched in his dooryard and was living in that himself.” During this period of suffering, the Prophet called upon the power of the priesthood and went among the sick on both sides of the river, healing many.
The following summer the epidemic increased and many died. In 1841, Sidney Rigdon preached “a general funeral sermon” for the deceased, as workers hurriedly drained the swamps in an effort to control the dreaded disease.
To Nauvoo in 1840 came the first of a new kind of Latter-day Saint immigrant. On June 6, forty English Saints left Liverpool, England. They were the first LDS members from Europe and the first of nearly five thousand British Mormons to sail to the United States during the Nauvoo period.
The movement of new members from Britain resulted primarily from a special mission of the Council of the Twelve, who had been called by revelation in July 1838 to preach the gospel in Europe. Eight of the apostles, Elders Brigham Young, Heber C. Kimball, Parley P. Pratt, Orson Pratt, John E. Page, John Taylor, Wilford Woodruff, and George A. Smith, left for their missions the following summer. Some were seriously ill, and all left their families destitute in answering this call from the Lord.
The first of this group in England were Elders John Taylor and Wilford Woodruff, who docked at Liverpool January 11, 1840. Immediately they began their work, and Elder Woodruff became one of the most productive missionaries in the Church’s history. He preached first in the Staffordshire Potteries, working with members among their friends. One member especially helpful to Elder Woodruff was William Benbow, who undoubtedly told the apostle of his brother, John Benbow, a prosperous farmer at Herefordshire, who had joined the United Brethren in his search for the ancient gospel. In early March Elder Woodruff noted in his diary that “the Lord warned me to go to the South.” Immediately he and his host journeyed to the John Benbow home, where the gospel was preached to that family and then to hundreds of willing listeners. In that area alone, Elder Woodruff baptized 158 converts within a month.
Other missionaries were similarly successful. Membership in the British Isles climbed from about 1,500 in January 1840 to 5,814 when the apostles returned to the United States fifteen months later. Besides their proselytizing, the Twelve published an edition of the Book of Mormon and a hymnal, and founded a monthly periodical, The Latter-day Saints’ Millennial Star, which served the British Saints for 130 years.
An important activity of the apostles in England was their decision to promote emigration. They established an orderly system and encouraged those who had plenty of money to assist the needy. From its beginnings in 1840 until the gathering was replaced by counsel to remain and build up the Church in their homelands, an estimated 51,000 European Saints, including about 38,000 from England, crossed the Atlantic to Church headquarters.
The missionary work during the Nauvoo period centered in Great Britain, southeastern Canada, and the United States. But the first steps into other areas of the world were also taken in this period, with early visits to Australia, India, Jamaica, South America, and Germany. The work in these areas was limited, and there were few conversions. The fuller expansion of the work would be done by a later generation.
One of the most significant special missions was Orson Hyde’s call at the April 1840 conference to dedicate Palestine for the gathering of the Jews. On Sunday morning, October 24, 1841, Elder Hyde offered a prayer of dedication in Jerusalem asking the Lord to temper the sterile land as a gathering place for the Jews. The prayer also anticipated the rebuilding of Jerusalem, creation of a Jewish state, and construction of a temple.
The English Saints who arrived in the undeveloped countryside of Illinois found a land of economic opportunity. To achieve that potential would require hard work, and many immigrants were confronted with deprivation and illness. Although other Latter-day Saint communities grew up elsewhere in Hancock County, Illinois and in neighboring regions in Illinois and across the river in Iowa, Nauvoo was the central gathering place.
Joseph Smith sought and obtained from the Illinois legislature a charter authorizing the Saints to establish a city government for Nauvoo, another charter for a university, and a third for a city militia. The city government was similar to other chartered municipalities in Illinois. In February 1841, John C. Bennett, a former militia leader in Illinois and recent convert to the Church, was elected the first mayor. With Bennett’s help the Saints had obtained the charter, and with his assistance the Nauvoo Legion became an active group of militia with about three thousand members. It existed for self-protection and as a sign of Mormon loyalty and patriotism to the state and nation. The University of the City of Nauvoo, with Bennett as chancellor, never had its own campus, but did hold classes in Nauvoo taught by Orson Pratt, Orson Spencer, and Sidney Rigdon. The university also supervised public elementary schools, and became the model for the University of Deseret (now the University of Utah) chartered 28 February 1850 in Salt Lake city. Nauvoo became a prosperous city of ten thousand people, rivaling Chicago in size. Much of the economic growth in Nauvoo depended upon the building trades and agriculture. Residents hoped to develop manufacturing and commerce, but the buying and selling of land and the construction of homes and small shops were Nauvoo’s principal livelihood. The city had its own sawmills and brickyards and shops for carpenters, cabinetmakers, and other craftsmen. After 1842 many of the early log homes were replaced with fine brick houses that still stand as evidence of the Latter-day Saint commitment to excellence.
Of special importance to the Church were developments at Nauvoo in Church organization and doctrine. As other settlements grew in the area surrounding Nauvoo, stakes were established to look after the temporal and spiritual needs of the members. At Nauvoo, subdivisions of the stake, known as wards, first appeared. These were convenient divisions enabling the bishops of the Church to administer financial and welfare matters, but the ward did not become a full-fledged administrative unit in the Church until the late 1840s, after the migration to Utah.
Also important in Church government was Joseph Smith’s announcement of August 16, 1841, giving the Council of the Twelve administrative responsibility for the business of the Church within the stakes. Before this time, the Twelve had jurisdiction only in the missions, but “the time had come,” said the Prophet, “when the Twelve should be called upon to stand in their place next to the First Presidency.” (HC 4:403) In their expanded role, the settlement of new immigrants at Nauvoo, became advisors in church and civic activities, assisted in the issuance of missionary calls, published the Times and Seasons, a Church periodical, (founded at Nauvoo in 1839), and participated in the ecclesiastical decision-making process.
Much of Nauvoo’s religious life centered around the Sunday morning worship service. When the weather was good, the Saints gathered on the slopes of the hill below the temple site every Sunday at 10:00 A.M. for an outdoor preaching meeting. Joseph Smith was often the main speaker. In these and other meetings the Prophet explained the scriptures and introduced many important religious doctrines. He talked about the nature of the godhead, the eternal nature of man, and the relationship between God and man. All of this was part of the doctrine of salvation for the dead, which the Prophet explained to the Saints for the first time.
Baptisms for the dead were performed in the Mississippi River beginning in September 1840 and continued for more than a year until a baptismal font in the basement of the Nauvoo temple could be completed and dedicated in November 1841. Other temple ordinances, the endowment and eternal marriage, were performed on a limited basis in a special second-story room in his red brick store. The endowment was introduced in May 1842 to a small group and to others before the Prophet’s death. The Saints willingly contributed of their funds and time toward completion of the temple so that all who were worthy could enjoy these blessings. The temple endowments began to be given in the almost-completed Nauvoo temple on December 11, 1845. This sacred work continued steadily until more than five thousand members had participated in the ceremonies before the exodus of early 1846.
The revelation on marriage, received earlier but first written by the Prophet on July 12, 1843, implemented the principle of sealing by priesthood authority. The same revelation explained the circumstances under which plural marriage would be permitted under priesthood direction. Because of the controversial nature of this principle, the Prophet initially taught it only to a few of his closest associates. Historical evidence suggests that he understood the principle as early as 1831 while working on an inspired revision of the Bible in Kirtland.
When the Twelve returned from England they were taught the doctrine. All had difficulty in accepting it, but a number of them had additional wives sealed to them in Nauvoo. The practice remained confidential until 1852 when Orson Pratt delivered the first public address on the subject and the first explanation to the world on this part of the sacred principle of eternal marriage. Plural marriage continued in the Church until President Wilford Woodruff issued his inspired Manifesto ending the practice in 1890. (See Wilford Woodruff,” We are led By Revelation, IM, Dec. 1978.)
Apostates, especially, attempted to discredit the Church over plural marriage, when rumors of its practice circulated in Nauvoo. They claimed that Church leaders were guilty of adultery, which Joseph Smith rightly denied. Actually, Church teachings elevated the place of woman above that she commonly held in nineteenth century society. Men and women accepted plural marriage only because they were convinced it was a religious principle sanctioned by heaven, a principle which reinforced Latter-day Saint insistence upon a high moral life for all members.
Women in the Church were encouraged to correct the morals and strengthen the virtues of the community. This, in fact, was one of the specific charges given them by the Prophet Joseph Smith when he organized the Female Relief Society of Nauvoo on March 17, 1842. He also counseled the sisters to “provoke the brethren to good works in looking to the wants of the poor, searching after those who need help, and in administering to their wants.” (Minutes, March 17, 1842, MS, Historical Department) The Relief Society, with Emma Smith as president, turned first to the concern which had prompted the society’s founding, the sewing of shirts for workmen on the temple. The society enlisted more than 1,300 members in Nauvoo to help with its benevolent service. The organization met regularly until 1844, and was revived later in the Salt Lake Valley with a renewed commitment to serve those in need and to help women excel in their varied roles in society.
While the religious and economic developments in Nauvoo gave the saints hope for a peaceful future, political events soon altered their friendly relationships with others in western Illinois. Joseph Smith and other leading Church members actively participated in local government. They did so to protect the interests of the Latter-day Saints and to prevent, if possible, legal harassment like that in Missouri. By 1842 Nauvoo’s Mormon population dominated Hancock County, and Latter-day Saints held an increasing influence in local politics in nearby Adams County.
This political strength caused older residents to fear for their own political dominions. By the way they voted, the Saints could often determine the winner between the two political parties, Whigs and Democrats, in local elections. To challenge this potential, a small but insistent group of non-Mormons formed an anti-Mormon faction to work against Mormon-supported candidates. Thomas Sharp’s newspaper, the Warsaw Signal expressed the resentment of the anti-Mormons. When one political party won control of the Illinois state legislature with Mormon support, the other party’s newspapers denounced them. And when William Smith, the Prophet’s brother, defeated Sharp in an election in 1842 for a seat in the Illinois legislature, Sharp’s hostile editorials cried for the extermination or expulsion of the Mormons of Illinois.
During this same time, Missouri officials tried to extradite Joseph Smith and five others as fugitives from justice, a renewal of the older charges filed against the Prophet when he had lived in Far West, Missouri. Then, when someone attempted to assassinate Missouri Governor Lilburn W. Boggs in May 1842, Joseph Smith was charged as an accessory before the fact. An Illinois newspaper claimed that the Prophet had predicted the shooting a year earlier, but Joseph Smith quickly denied responsibility for the crime.
Working against the Prophet in all of these attempts was John C. Bennett, Nauvoo’s first mayor, university chancellor, and major general of the Nauvoo Legion. In May 1842, Joseph Smith learned that Bennett had planned to have the Prophet killed during a parade ground maneuver of the Nauvoo Legion. Bodyguards foiled the plot, and ten days later Bennett resigned as mayor. During the following month Bennett confessed to immoral conduct and was excommunicated. He left Nauvoo and began publishing an exposé. He accused Mormon leaders of threatening his life, of swindling local residents in real estate sales, and of immorality and political intrigue. These scandalous accounts brought much unfavorable reaction. Church leaders published an extensive review of the affair and sent special missionaries into neighboring settlements to correct the misinformation.
One threat followed another, and through it all the Prophet sought means to protect himself and the Saints. It was during this time that Joseph Smith considered an expansion of gathering places and an increase in immigration to the United States. In 1842 he looked seriously toward the Rocky Mountains as a place of refuge. And in August 1843 he actually sent out a small exploring party to examine lands in western Iowa Territory. The following February he laid plans for a volunteer expedition to California, and considered a proposal for a Mormon colonizing venture in southwestern Texas.
To study the Texas plan, he organized “a municipal department of the Kingdom,” known as the General Council, or Council of Fifty. It was a secular committee of about fifty men designed to relieve the First Presidency and the Twelve of many temporal duties, to work with Congress in ensuring Mormon civil rights and to find appropriate settlement sites.
The Council of Fifty sponsored Joseph Smith as a candidate for the presidency of the United States in 1844, and managed his campaign. He declared his candidacy on a union platform combining popular ideas from both national parties. The Prophet hoped to offer American voters a presidency above politics, and outlined his views in a pamphlet titled Views of the Powers and Policy of the Government of the United States, written with the assistance of William W. Phelps.
Although Joseph Smith was running as a citizen without Church sponsorship, the machinery of church government worked for his election. April conference speakers endorsed the candidacy and three hundred volunteers agreed to campaign actively throughout the nation. Sidney Rigdon, first counselor in the First Presidency, was named vice-presidential candidate for the political party known as the National Reform Party. The party scheduled its national convention for Baltimore, Maryland, in mid-July 1844, but the gathering was never convened. The disaffection of John C. Bennett and his cooperation with other opponents of the Prophet in Illinois stopped Joseph Smith’s search for political and religious refuge and ended his brief career in martyrdom.
On June 7, 1844, a group of dissenters, including several prominent Church members who had apostatized, published the first issue of the Nauvoo Expositor. This newspaper denounced Joseph Smith as a “fallen prophet,” a political demagogue, an immoral scoundrel, and a financial schemer. It accused Mormonism of promoting such activities and it maligned other individuals. Those attacked by the paper included several members of the Nauvoo City Council as well as the new mayor, Joseph Smith. After lengthy discussion, the council decided the libelous newspaper violated public nuisance laws. They voted to stop the paper before it aroused anti-Mormon mobs. Therefore, the city marshal destroyed the press, scattered the type, and burned available papers.
Owners of the paper then charged the city council with fomenting a riot (even though the destruction of the paper had been accomplished in orderly fashion). Council members were arrested and went through court proceedings which eventually legally acquitted them. But before this procedure could take place, anti-Mormon newspapers stirred up such a commotion that Joseph Smith mobilized the Nauvoo Legion and placed the city under martial law. Illinois Governor Thomas Ford was informed of the controversial actions and personally investigated. He obtained pledges that both sides would observe strict legality and nonviolence. Ford traveled to Carthage, Illinois, the county seat, to conduct negotiations between the opposing parties, and decided a trial would be the best solution.
The fifteen men named in the riot charge presented themselves at Carthage on June 25, where a justice of the peace freed them on bonds pending trial. Later that evening Joseph and Hyrum Smith were served an improperly issued writ charging them with “treason” for declaring martial law in Nauvoo. It was enforced without a hearing and the two were held in Carthage Jail. John Taylor, Willard Richards, and others accompanied them to jail.
On June 26 Governor Ford visited the Prophet in jail and was satisfied that the city council’s action and mobilization of the Legion had been taken for legal procedures. Ford left two companies of the anti-Mormon Carthage Greys (the local militia) to guard the jail. Although he promised to take the prisoners with him if he visited Nauvoo, the governor ignored this promise and left for the city of the Saints on the morning of June 27.
At Carthage, June 27, 1844, a body of men daubed their faces with mud and gunpowder, rushed the jail, and quickly overpowered the cooperative guards, who had agreed in advance to load their guns without balls. The mob rushed upstairs to the jailer’s sleeping room where the four Latter-day Saint leaders waited. Shots punctured the thin bedroom door. Hyrum Smith was the first to fall mortally wounded. John Taylor was struck from the doorway and from shots fired through the window. Seriously injured, he rolled under a bed to safety. Joseph Smith ran to the window. He was struck by two balls from the open door, another from outside the window. He was struck by a fourth ball as he plunged through the window. The attackers rushed outside to assure themselves that the Prophet was dead, leaving Willard Richards, still behind the door, uninjured. Someone shouted that a posse of Mormons was coming. The rumor was untrue, but the mobs fled.
They had killed the Prophet, believing that his death would mean the end of Mormonism. But members of the church recognized Joseph Smith and his brother Hyrum, the Patriarch to the Church, as martyrs to the Lord’s cause. Faithful members reaffirmed their belief in the ultimate triumph of the latter-day work restored through the Prophet. Joseph Smith had risen from obscurity to national renown, and the Saints believed that his name would be “had for good and evil among all nations,” (JS—H 1:33) as promised by Moroni. They thus set about the task of carrying forward a sacred mission that had only just begun.