The people of Quincy, Illinois, received the Mormon refugees with kindness. However, it became quickly apparent to Brigham Young and others that some provision must be made for the settlement of this large group of exiles so that they might again undertake productive enterprise.
On April 22, 1839, Joseph Smith and those who had been imprisoned with him in Liberty, Missouri, arrived in Quincy. Their guards had let them go, and they had made their way to the Illinois side of the Mississippi. The following day a conference was called by the Prophet, and a committee was detailed to investigate the purchase of lands. On May 1 the initial purchase was completed, and other purchases were subsequently made until extensive holdings were secured on both the Iowa and Illinois sides of the river.
The principal location was the site of Commerce, Illinois, about forty-five miles north of Quincy. At this point the river makes a broad bend, giving the land on its east bank the appearance of a promontory. At the time of the purchase, one stone house, three frame houses, and two blockhouses constituted the village.
It was an unhealthy place, so wet that a man had difficulty walking across most of it, and teams became mired to their hips. Of the place and its purchase the Prophet later said, “Commerce was so unhealthful, very few could live there; but believing that it might become a healthful place by the blessing of heaven to the Saints, and no more eligible place pre-senting itself, I considered it wisdom to make an attempt to build up a city.” 1
The Prophet’s faith in the future of this site is evident from the name he gave it—Nauvoo, derived from the Hebrew and meaning “the beautiful location.”
A Manifestation of God’s Power
The swamps were drained, and a city was platted with streets crossing at right angles. But the work of building moved slowly. The people were prostrate, exhausted from the trials through which they had passed. Their energies were depleted, and they became easy victims of malaria.
On the morning of July 22, Joseph, who was sick himself, looked about him only to see others sick. The house in which he lived was crowded with them, and tents sheltering other invalids stood in his dooryard. Wilford Woodruff recounts the events which followed the Prophet’s appraisal of this discouraging situation:
“He [Joseph] called upon the Lord in prayer, the power of God rested upon him mightily, and as Jesus healed all the sick around Him in His day, so Joseph, the Prophet of God, healed all around on this occasion. He healed all in his house and dooryard; then, in company with Sidney Rigdon and several of the Twelve, went among the sick lying on the bank of the river, where he commanded them in a loud voice, in the name of Jesus Christ, to rise and be made whole, and they were all healed. When he had healed all on the east side of the river that were sick, he and his companions crossed the Mississippi River in a ferry-boat to the west side. … The first house they went into was President Brigham Young’s. He was sick on his bed at the time. The Prophet went into his house and healed him, and they all came out together.
“As they were passing by my door, Brother Joseph said: ‘Brother Woodruff, follow me.’ These were the only words spoken by any of the company from the time they left Brother Brigham’s house till they crossed the public square, and entered Brother Fordham’s house. Brother Fordham had been dying for an hour, and we expected each minute would be his last. I felt the spirit of God that was overpowering His Prophet. When we entered the house, Brother Joseph walked up to Brother Fordham and took him by the right hand, his left hand holding his hat. He saw that Brother Fordham’s eyes were glazed, and that he was speechless and unconscious.
“After taking his hand, he looked down into the dying man’s face and said: ‘… Do you believe that Jesus is the Christ?’ ‘I do, Brother Joseph,’ was the response. Then the Prophet of God spoke with a loud voice, as in the majesty of Jehovah: ‘Elijah, I command you, in the name of Jesus of Nazareth, to arise and be made whole.’
“The words of the Prophet were not like the words of man, but like the voice of God. It seemed to me that the house shook on its foundation. Elijah Fordham leaped from his bed like a man raised from the dead. A healthy color came to his face, and life was manifested in every act. His feet had been done up in Indian meal poultices; he kicked these off his feet, scattered the contents, then called for his clothes and put them on. He asked for a bowl of bread and milk, and ate it. He then put on his hat and followed us into the street, to visit others who were sick.” 2
Elijah Fordham lived forty-one years after this experience.
A Mission to England
Even while facing the task of building a city, Church members did not neglect the preaching of the gospel. During the summer of 1839, seven members of the Council of the Twelve Apostles left Nauvoo for England. These men were powerful missionaries. The trials through which they had passed had strengthened their convictions concerning the cause with which they were associated, and they won hundreds of converts through the powerful testimonies which they bore.
Wilford Woodruff’s efforts were particularly successful. While preaching in Hanley in the Potteries district of England, he felt impressed to leave that area without knowing why. Obedient to this impression, he traveled to a rural section of Herefordshire. At the home of one John Benbow, a prosperous farmer of the district, he received a cordial welcome and the news that a large group of religionists in that area had broken away from their church and had united themselves to study the scriptures and seek the truth.
Elder Woodruff was given an invitation to speak, and other invitations followed. The organization numbered six hundred, including more than a score of preachers. All of these, with one exception, embraced the restored gospel. Before he left the district, eighteen hundred members had been converted to the Church through his efforts.
At a conference held in the British Isles in April 1840, the decision was made to publish an edition of the Book of Mormon, a hymnbook, and a periodical.
An unusual mission undertaken during this period was that of Orson Hyde, upon whom the Prophet had once pronounced the blessing: “In due time thou shalt go to Jerusalem, the land of thy fathers, and be a watchman unto the house of Israel; and by thy hand shall the Most High do a work, which shall prepare the way and greatly facilitate the gathering together of that people.” 3
In January 1841, Orson Hyde left the States and went to London, where he labored with other missionaries for some months. Then he made his way to Palestine. Early on the Sunday morning of October 24, 1841, he climbed to the top of the Mount of Olives, and there in prayer and with the authority of the priesthood, he dedicated the land of Palestine for the return of the Jews. The prayer reads in part:
“Grant, therefore, O Lord, in the name of Thy well-beloved Son, Jesus Christ, to remove the barrenness and sterility of this land, and let springs of living water break forth to water its thirsty soil. Let the vine and olive produce in their strength, and the fig-tree bloom and flourish. … Let the flocks and the herds greatly increase and multiply upon the mountains and the hills; and let Thy great kindness conquer and subdue the unbelief of Thy people. Do Thou take from them their stony heart, and give them a heart of flesh; and may the Sun of Thy favor dispel the cold mists of darkness which have beclouded their atmosphere. … Let kings become their nursing fathers, and queens with motherly fondness wipe the tear of sorrow from their eye.” 4
Following the prayer, he erected a pile of stones as an altar and a witness of his act. With his mission completed, he returned to Nauvoo, arriving in December 1842.
A City from the Swamps
Meanwhile, things had been happening in the western Illinois colony. Homes, shops, and gardens rose from what had been the swamps of Commerce. But because of the extreme poverty in which these people found themselves, their problems were seriously aggravated. Several unsuccessful attempts were made to secure compensation and redress for the losses they had suffered in Missouri. The most notable of these was a petition to the Congress of the United States and an interview between Joseph Smith and the President of the United States, Martin Van Buren.
The petition availed nothing, and Mr. Van Buren replied with a statement that has become famous in Church history: “Your cause is just, but I can do nothing for you. … If I take up for you I shall lose the vote of Missouri.” 5
The governor of Missouri reacted to these efforts by requesting that the governor of Illinois arrest and deliver to him Joseph Smith and five of his associates as fugitives from justice, although two years had elapsed since they had been allowed to escape from imprisonment in Missouri. The Illinois governor honored the requisition, but on a writ of habeas corpus Judge Stephen A. Douglas released the defendants. This action, however, only delayed the Missourians in the execution of their avowed purposes.
The Building of the Temple
During this same period, a decision was made to build a temple in Nauvoo. This sacred edifice was to be reserved for special ordinance work, including baptism for the dead.
The doctrine whereby one who has the opportunity to be baptized is saved, while he who does not have the opportunity is damned, has always appeared discriminatory. And yet the scripture reads, “Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God.” 6 The law is all-inclusive.
Joseph Smith resolved this question with the doctrine of vicarious baptism for the dead, announcing it as a revelation from God. When performed under proper authority, baptism may be received by living proxies acting in behalf of the dead. Such a practice existed in the primitive Church. This is attested by the words of Paul to the Corinthians: “Else what shall they do which are baptized for the dead, if the dead rise not at all? why are they then baptized for the dead?” 7
To provide facilities for such vicarious work, as well as for other sacred ordinances, the Prophet was commanded through revelation to erect a temple. On April 6, 1841, ten thousand members of the Church assembled for the laying of the cornerstones of this structure. By November 8 the baptismal font was completed, and by October 30, 1842, the building had progressed sufficiently to permit the holding of meetings in some rooms. However, it was April 30, 1846, after most of the Saints had left Nauvoo, before it was completed in detail. The building cost approximately one million dollars, and at the time it was regarded as the finest structure in the state of Illinois.
This magnificent edifice stood on the highest elevation of the city and commanded a view of the entire countryside on both sides of the river. It became the crown of Nauvoo, which in itself was remarkable in contrast with most of the frontier towns of America, and which prior to its evacuation was the largest then in Illinois.
Many distinguished visitors called at Nauvoo during this period of intense activity. In 1843 an English writer described the community in an article which was widely published:
“The city is of great dimensions, laid out in beautiful order; the streets are wide, and cross each other at right angles, which will add greatly to its order and magnificence when finished. The city rises on a gentle incline from the rolling Mississippi, and as you stand near the temple, you may gaze on the picturesque scenery around; at your side is the temple, the wonder of the world; round about, and beneath, you may behold handsome stores, large mansions, and fine cottages, interspersed with varied scenery. … Peace and harmony reign in the city. The drunkard is scarcely ever seen, as in other cities, neither does the awful imprecation or profane oath strike upon your ear; but, while all is storm, and tempest, and confusion abroad respecting the Mormons, all is peace and harmony at home.” 8
Colonel Thomas L. Kane visited Nauvoo three years later. His description is particularly interesting:
“Ascending the Upper Mississippi in the Autumn, when its waters were low, I was compelled to travel by land past the region of the Rapids. … My eye wearied to see everywhere sordid, vagabond and idle settlers; and a country marred, without being improved, by their careless hands.
“I was descending the last hillside upon my journey, when a landscape in delightful contrast broke upon my view. Half encircled by a bend of the river, a beautiful city lay glittering in the fresh morning sun; its bright new dwellings, set in cool green gardens, ranging up around a stately dome-shaped hill, which was crowned by a noble marble edifice, whose high tapering spire was radiant with white and gold. The city appeared to cover several miles; and beyond it, in the back ground, there rolled off a fair country, chequered by the careful lines of fruitful husbandry. The unmistakeable marks of industry, enterprise and educated wealth, everywhere, made the scene one of singular and most striking beauty.” 9
Visitors who came to Nauvoo were impressed with the man under whose direction this remarkable city had risen from disease-ridden swamps. The Prophet at this time was at the zenith of his career. Many of those who knew him during this period have left descriptions of him. He was well built, about six feet tall, and weighed approximately two hundred pounds. His eyes were blue, his hair brown and wavy, his skin clear and almost beardless. He was a man of great energy and dignified bearing.
After visiting him, the Masonic grand master of Illinois wrote: “On the subject of religion we widely differed, but he appeared to be quite as willing to permit me to enjoy my right of opinion as I think we all ought to be to let the Mormons enjoy theirs. But instead of the ignorant and tyrannical upstart, judge my surprise at finding him a sensible, intelligent companion and gentlemanly man.” 10
One of the most distinguished men to visit Joseph Smith during this period was Josiah Quincy, who had been mayor of Boston. Out of his impressions of the Prophet he later wrote:
“It is by no means improbable that some future textbook … will contain a question something like this: What historical American of the nineteenth century has exerted the most powerful influence upon the destinies of his countrymen? And it is by no means impossible that the answer to that interrogatory may be thus written: Joseph Smith, the Mormon prophet. …
“Born in the lowest ranks of poverty, without book-learning and with the homeliest of all human names, he had made himself at the age of thirty-nine a power upon earth. Of the multitudinous family of Smith, from Adam down (Adam of the ‘Wealth of Nations,’ I mean), none had so won human hearts and shaped human lives as this Joseph.” 11
Such was the reaction of strangers who came to Nauvoo and called upon its most prominent citizen.
In 1839 the Saints had purchased land so swampy that a horse had difficulty walking across it. By 1844 they had built on this same ground a city without equal on all of the Ameri-can frontier. Sturdy brick homes, some of which are still occupied, broad farms and orchards, shops, schools, and a magnificent temple—with twenty thousand citizens, gathered not only from the eastern states and Canada, but from the British Isles as well—This was Nauvoo—the Beautiful!
1. HC 3:375.
2. In Matthias F. Cowley, Wilford Woodruff (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1964), pp. 104–5.
3. CHC 2:45.
4. HC 4:457.
5. HC 4:80.
6. John 3:5.
8. In George Q. Cannon, Life of Joseph Smith the Prophet (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1964), pp. 354–55.
9. The Mormons (Philadelphia: King and Baird, 1850), pp. 3–4.
10. In Cannon, Life of Joseph Smith the Prophet, p. 352.
11. Figures of the Past from the Leaves of Old Journals (Boston: Roberts Brothers, 1883), pp. 376, 400.