“Nauvoo: On the Banks of the Mississippi,” New Era, May 2005, 36
More than 165 years ago, in the state of Illinois, a beautiful new town was growing up on the banks of the wide Mississippi River. This new place became bigger than any other city in the state at the time, even more populated than Chicago. Its buildings glowed in the late afternoon sun because of the distinctive red color of the brick. Grass grew green and lush because the land had once been swampy. And high on the hill, a spectacular white temple was lovingly built by the dedicated members of this remarkable community. They called themselves Latter-day Saints.
How the city came to be is a story of faith and sacrifice. In 1839, the Saints were forced out of Missouri and followed the Prophet Joseph Smith and his family to the little town of Commerce, Illinois. Here Joseph bought land to establish a settlement, a city that would be called Nauvoo.
For nearly seven years, the city grew and became one of the most pleasant in the area. But mobs harassed the Saints, making it impossible to continue living in Nauvoo. On a freezing day in February 1846, families packed their wagons, lined up along Parley Street, and prepared to cross the river on the ice or by barge, leaving behind their homes and temple. This exodus continued until the Saints were driven out of Nauvoo in September. They were determined to find a place where they could worship as they pleased.
After the Church members left to go west, Nauvoo faded into a small farming community, yet its place in the history of the Church was set. Now much of the city is being rebuilt. The Church is restoring old buildings. The temple again stands on the hill. And Church members and others are learning more of the history of what happened here.
After many members of the early Church gathered to Nauvoo, they set about building a temple. In just six months, from October 1840 to April 1841, the foundation stones were set and the cornerstones were laid. The baptismal font was finished, dedicated, and put to use while the rest of the building continued to be worked on. In those days the font and the oxen were made from wood.
The temple was dedicated just as the Saints were being forced out of the city. The beautiful temple that they had worked so hard to erect was soon desecrated by mobs and set on fire by arsonists, almost totally destroying it. Eighteen months later, a tornado struck the structure and toppled the remaining walls.
Many teens who live close to Nauvoo remember what it was like before the new Nauvoo Illinois Temple was built. Brianne Bokish of the Quincy Ward says, “I remember when the temple wasn’t there. There were stones marking where the corners and walls had been. My brother and I would run around, stepping on all the rocks around the whole thing. My parents took pictures of us standing in the very center where the font had been. It doesn’t seem like so long ago, but the temple is here today.”
The teens in Quincy love having a temple so close to where they live. They take frequent trips to perform baptisms for the dead. Austin Rodenberg says, “I thought it was great to have a temple rebuilt that was destroyed over 100 years ago. And to actually go in it was the awesome part.”
This long, straight street runs through old Nauvoo and directly into the Mississippi River where a ferry used to operate. It is easy to imagine the Saints lining up, waiting for their turn to cross the river heading west. Stephanie Hills says, “When I go to Nauvoo, I go to Parley Street. There’s a big rock by the river where I go, and I sit and think about everything. I look back and see the temple. I cry just thinking how it must have felt to leave it.”
Reed Cox also imagines what it must have been like to leave. “They had to leave their homes when they thought they finally had a place they could stay for good. They left everything they had. Some people couldn’t even sell their houses. They just went, and they didn’t even know where they were going,” he says.
Most of the early members of the Church built log cabins to live in when they first moved to Nauvoo. But soon, they were saving their money to buy bricks from one of the seven brick-making businesses in town. Local clay was used to make the red bricks used to build the homes in the area. Restored and rebuilt homes and buildings use the same color of bricks. Today, a small kiln, using the same clay, is operated to produce souvenir bricks.
A little more than 20 miles (32 km) from Nauvoo is the small community of Carthage. Carthage Jail, where Joseph Smith and his brother Hyrum were martyred, still stands not significantly changed in 160 years. Visitors to this place are reverent and respectful as they tour the rooms and walk up the stairs and into the small room where the Prophet, his brother, and two others were held prisoner.
Looking from the windows and imagining the crush of an angry mob on the narrow stairs, visiting teens become lost in thought as they sit for a moment in the room where the beloved Prophet of the Restoration became a martyr.
The Prophet Joseph Smith and Hyrum are buried in Nauvoo along with other family members in the Smith family cemetery. The cemetery is a lovely spot with trees surrounding substantial granite monuments marking the graves.
What was life like in Nauvoo? The Family Living Center is a place where Church members preserve the old ways of doing things. It is one of Quintin Hansen’s favorite places to visit when he and his family go to Nauvoo. “They make bread in an oven in the fireplace,” he says. “They show you how to make candles and rope and barrels.”
Casandra Stewart says, “I like this place because you get to do what our ancestors did. You get to feel how they felt. I’ve made candles. You have to dip a wick into wax, then wait, then dip it again.”
Homemaking skills and self-sufficiency are still important in the Church.
The Cultural Hall, one of the few buildings that survived from the original Nauvoo, was used for plays and concerts, church and business meetings, funerals and court sessions. Brigham Young performed in the first play there.
Rachael Hills says, “My favorite place is the Cultural Hall. When we took a tour, they showed us the original floor. It was a place Joseph Smith would have walked. They let you dance there because that was what the floor was used for originally.”
One of the first homes in Nauvoo to be restored was the Heber C. Kimball home. Heber, his wife Vilate, and their three children came to Nauvoo with virtually nothing, having lost everything they owned in Missouri. Heber built two log homes before finally completing this brick home. The Kimball family lived here only four months and five days before joining the exodus from Nauvoo.
Beautiful Nauvoo is being rebuilt. Some original buildings are restored, and others have been reconstructed. Nauvoo is a precious part of the Church’s history, but it was just one of the starting places. The Church and gospel have spread across the land and across the world. Nauvoo had the first temple where baptisms for the dead, endowments, and family sealings could be performed. Now temples are being built wherever the members can fill them. Nauvoo was a gathering place for church-loving, righteous people. But now, many cities in many lands are being influenced for good by members of the Church.
Nauvoo is a beloved historic city, and the lessons learned and taught here have since traveled beyond this farming community on the banks of the Mississippi to the ends of the earth.
When Joseph Smith was leaving Nauvoo for the last time on his way to Carthage Jail, one of the men with him recorded what the Prophet said as he turned to look at the city: “Joseph paused when they got to the Temple, and looked with admiration first on that, and then on the city, and remarked, ‘This is the loveliest place and the best people under the heavens; little do they know the trials that await them’” (History of the Church, 6:554).
Joseph Smith establishes the city of Nauvoo, Illinois, for the gathering of the Saints.
Construction of the Nauvoo Temple begins.
The Prophet Joseph Smith organizes the Relief Society.
The Prophet is nominated to run for president of the United States.
On June 27 Joseph Smith is martyred at Carthage with his brother Hyrum.
The Latter-day Saints are driven out of Nauvoo.