“Nauvoo (Commerce), Illinois,” Church History Topics
“Nauvoo (Commerce), Illinois”
After the Latter-day Saints were driven from Missouri in the late 1830s, they found refuge in and around the small town of Quincy, Illinois. Then they faced a choice: should they gather to build a city again and risk persecution, or should they scatter among the larger population to avoid confrontation? Aware of the risks of gathering but trusting in the commandment to do so, Joseph Smith authorized Church leaders to purchase a large tract of land from Isaac Galland. The land was situated along the Mississippi River and included the small town of Commerce, Illinois. The Saints soon went to work draining swamps, planting farms and orchards, building homes and roads, incorporating businesses, and welcoming wave after wave of immigrant converts from around the United States and England. Joseph renamed the city Nauvoo, a Hebrew word sometimes translated as “beautiful.”1
Joseph Smith and other Church leaders sought and were granted a powerful city charter from the state in the hope that it would protect them from the kinds of injustice they had previously experienced. From 1842 until his death in 1844, Joseph Smith served as mayor of the city. At its height, the population reached nearly 10,000 people, making it one of the largest cities in the state.
A revelation received by Joseph Smith in January 1841 commanded the Saints to renew their efforts to build a temple. Thus a central focus of activity in Nauvoo was working on the majestic stone temple, situated on a bluff overlooking the city. Saints contributed labor, goods, and funds to the project. The revelation also commanded them to build the Nauvoo House, which would accommodate visitors to the city. A large outdoor grove served as a gathering place for large public meetings, including the Church’s semiannual conferences.
In Nauvoo the Lord introduced significant ordinances and teachings through Joseph Smith. The first baptisms for the dead were performed in the nearby Mississippi River and later in the Nauvoo Temple baptismal font, which was dedicated while the building was still under construction. The first temple endowments were given to small groups in the upper room of Joseph Smith’s Red Brick Store, and the first marriage sealings for time and eternity, including the first documented plural marriage sealings, were performed in private homes before the temple was completed. In an address given during his final conference, Joseph Smith preached a powerful sermon, often called the King Follett discourse, on humankind’s divine nature and potential.
Nauvoo was also the site of important changes to Church organization. After the Twelve Apostles returned to Nauvoo following a successful mission in the British Isles, Joseph Smith gave them greater authority to administer the business of the Church, entrusted them with temple ordinances, and prepared them to lead the Church after his death. The Relief Society was organized in Nauvoo on March 17, 1842, a step Joseph Smith considered essential to the complete organization of the Church.
In Nauvoo the Saints’ sizable population, the expansive city charter, and the substantial city militia protected the Saints from much of the persecution they had experienced in Ohio and Missouri. However, tensions remained. Starting in 1842, there were attempts to bring Joseph Smith back to Missouri, both through a legal extradition process or by kidnapping. Opposition to the Church developed in some surrounding communities and among some disaffected former Latter-day Saints in Nauvoo. In the face of these challenges, Joseph Smith and others began planning to create additional settlements farther west.
In the summer of 1844, Joseph and Hyrum Smith were murdered in Carthage, Illinois, about 20 miles east of Nauvoo. The Saints mourned the loss of their Prophet and overwhelmingly voted to sustain the Twelve Apostles to lead the Church in his absence. In spite of intense outside pressure to leave Illinois, the Saints completed the temple, where thousands received the endowment. Then, beginning in February 1846, they evacuated the city, leaving behind their homes and their temple.2
During the 20th century, the Church acquired many sites of historical significance in Nauvoo.3 Among these was the temple site, though the temple itself had been destroyed by fire, a tornado, and finally demolition. In 2002 the Church completed construction of a rebuilt Nauvoo Illinois Temple on the same site.4 Today Nauvoo hosts many visitors from around the world who tour sites operated both by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and Community of Christ (formerly the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints), making Nauvoo a shared sacred space where members of both faiths can reflect on their early history.
Related Topics: Quincy, Illinois, Settlement; Nauvoo Temple; Female Relief Society of Nauvoo; King Follett Discourse; Nauvoo Expositor; Deaths of Joseph and Hyrum Smith; Succession of Church Leadership; Departure from Nauvoo