Mormon History in IL


Curriculum: U.S. history. Illinois history. Religious diversity in America.    

Lesson Objectives:
(1) To understand the arrival of the Church of Latter-Day Saints in Illinois (expulsion from Missouri, “Quincy miracle”)
(2) To understand the establishment of Nauvoo
(3) To understand the causes of the tensions that characterized the Mormon presence in Illinois between 1839-1846 (the Mormons; what society was like in the towns around Nauvoo)
(4) To compare the Mormon experience in Quincy with the Mormon experience in the Nauvoo area, notably in Warsaw and Carthage
(5) To learn about the lawsuits brought against Joseph Smith and what was actually being disputed beyond issues of religious difference.
(6) To understand the nature of Nauvoo when it was a fully functioning town
(7) To understand the exodus from Nauvoo
(8) To consider how historic sites become heritage sites and contested arenas for distinct narratives and group identity
(9) To lean how excvations at Nauvoo played a formative role in the development of the profession of historical archaeology in the U.S.


1. Introduction: Origins of the Latter-Day Saints
Joseph Smith Jr. was born in rural Vermont in 1805 and, as a result of financial hardships, moved with his family to upstate New York in 1816. At this time, the family found itself at the center of a Protestant religious revivalism movement known as the Second Great Awakening. The region was swept by religious fervor involving several denominations with various messages, beliefs and doctrines. Smith claimed that in the Spring of 1820, while praying in a grove of trees near his home, God the Father and Jesus Christ appeared to him in a vision and instructed him not to join any of the existing Orders. According to Smith, an angel named Moroni, an ancient American prophet, soon visited Smith and revealed to him the existence of buried records with the secular and religious history of an ancient Pre-Columbian New World civilization. The records were in the form of gold plates and once Smith had them in his possession, he translated their words into what became the Book of Mormon. Smith also professed to have received the holy priesthood from heavenly messengers like John the Baptist and the apostles.

Mormonism was founded by Joseph Smith. As a form of Christianity, the Latter-Day Saints faith shares much in common with other Christian groups (most importantly a belief in Jesus and his birth as other Christians under), with several important differences. The Saints believe that God re-established the Christian Church as found in the New Testament through the Joseph Smith, a self-proclaimed prophet. Smith stated he received revelation through God to guide the Church. Smith claimed to have received The Book of Mormon, which he said he translated with Divine help. He held this Book of Mormon to be of equal authority to the Bible. The LDS Church generally follows the word of the Old and New Testaments. The Saints also believe in the principle of continuous revelation, wherein God or his divine agents may still communicate with Man on earth. 

During the early twentieth century, the LDS Church in Salt Lake abandoned divisive practices and doctrines like polygamy so as to avoid federal disenfranchisement of Utah. Today, the LDS Church does not practice plural marriage and seeks to distinguish itself from another sect of Mormonism, the Mormon Fundamentalists.

Archaeologists find certain Mormon beliefs to be very interesting. The Latter Day Saints orient the geography of the Book of Mormon in the ancient Americas. They believe that Christ appeared in the Western Hemisphere after his resurrection, and that the “true faith” was restored in upstate New York by the prophet Joseph Smith. According to the Book of Mormon, four groups of peoples settled in the Americas around present day Central America after leaving Jerusalem around 600 BCE. These beliefs, however, are at odds with archaeological and historical evidence of the history of the Americas.

2. The migration of Joseph Smith and his community from New York westward With the holy priesthood and the Book of Mormon, Smith officially organized what became the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints on April 6, 1830. Missionary efforts quickly gained hundreds of converts, particularly in the area of Kirtland, Ohio. But Smith and his co-religionists faced persecution in upstate New York so he and most of his followers migrated to Ohio where they constructed a large community and their first temple. A large group also was sent to what was then the far west frontier in Independence, Missouri, to lay the foundations of “the New Jerusalem”, a physical kingdom in North America. Again political and economic rivalries with fellow settlers in the area quickly flared into physical tensions as they did in Ohio. As Smith and the rest of his followers joined those already living in Missouri in 1838, their increasing numbers in Missouri further exacerbated tensions. After a clash between a group of Mormons and State militiamen in October 1838, Missouri governor, Lilburn W. Boggs declared Executive Order 44, the Extermination Order, with instructions to rid the state of Mormons. Dozens of Mormons were killed or incarcerated, including Smith. It was either leave or be destroyed.

While Smith and other leaders remained imprisoned over the winter, over 8,000 of their followers migrated across the Mississippi to the town of Quincy in western Illinois. In April 1839, Smith escaped prison and joined his community, this time purchasing large tracts of land in a swamp-filled region along the banks of the Mississippi at a town called Commerce. In 1840, Smith renamed the town Nauvoo, a Hebrew word meaning “beautiful city.” During this time the Mormon community surveyed the land, laid out streets, and built dwellings and businesses. Smith organized a major public works project to build a canal and drain the swamp, which had been responsible for deadly malarial outbreaks, and generally made the region more easily inhabitable. This canal still exists in contemporary Nauvoo. The town grew with the increased settlement of Mormon followers and had nearly 2,900 residents by 1840. Three years late, in 1843, the population had swelled to around 12,000.

3. Nauvoo
For the next six years the Mormons remained in Nauvoo and undertook missionary efforts to further gain converts. There were swelling population numbers at Nauvoo. Once again, the increasing religious, economic and political power of the Latter-day Saints threatened neighboring residents. After all, in addition to his role as president of the Church, Joseph Smith was also mayor, head of the municipal court, and general of the militia. As hostilities escalated, Joseph Smith and his brother Hyrum were incarcerated once again in Carthage, Illinois, where both had presented themselves of their own free will to answer to charges. In a dramatic turn of events, both men were murdered while in the jail on June 27, 1844.

Their death did not bring the end of the Latter-day Saints, however, as followers rallied around Smith’s apostles, the most important of whom was Brigham Young. Young directed the completion of the temple at Nauvoo (the House of God) and, under the continued threat of violence, evacuated in February 1846. Thus began the westward migration, crossing the Mississippi River once again. Most of the inhabitants of Nauvoo followed Young to the Salt Lake Valley in Utah territory, being an example of American pioneers. They left Nauvoo nearly empty. Another group chose not to follow Young and remained in Illinois and nearby areas. That group formed what later became known as the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (RLDS), now known as Community of Christ. Ironically, their religious headquarters are not in Nauvoo or Illinois, however, but in Independence. Missouri, from whence they had been expelled.

After the abandonment of Nauvoo by the Saints, the city lay largely empty. In 1849 French Icarians moved in with the intention of building a Utopian community of their own. Later, other European immigrants, including Swiss and Germans, began to build a business center at Nauvoo.

4. Heritage and the Commemoration of Mormon Historic Sites
Nauvoo and its history are an integral component of early Illinois identity and heritage. And archaeological investigations and architectural reconstruction efforts over the twentieth century are fascinating to study because they encapsulate a fight over heritage and historical memory. The city of Nauvoo, Illinois stands today as a testament to a long history of religious tension and contested identity in early Illinois and America.

At the turn of the twentieth century the Church sought to intentionally reshape its image and identity by coalescing around a series of important historic sites that would provide an important dimension of history and tradition. Accordingly, Church officials began to acquire properties of historical significance.

The first property to be acquired was the Carthage Jail in 1903, the site at which Joseph Smith and brother Hyrum had been killed in 1844. The Church also purchased the property of Smith’s birthplace in Vermont, the Smith family farm near Palmyra, New York, the Peter Whitmer farm in Fayette, New York, and the Hill Cumorah property in New York.

Nauvoo became an especially a key site for Mormon historical identity, as the last residence of Joseph Smith and the launching point for the migration to Salt Lake. Although during the early 1900s Nauvoo lay in dilapidated ruin, it would be rehabilitated through intentional and concerted restoration efforts. By the end of the twentieth century Nauvoo had become one of Mormonism’s most popular heritage sites.

During this process there were distinct visions for the memorialization of Nauvoo in 1930s. While the RLDS wanted to memorialize the figure of the prophet Joseph Smith, the LDS asserted that it should stand as a monument to idealized Mormon pioneers, who sacrificed at great costs to build the city in just a short few years. By this strategy, the city would provide a centralized identity around which LDS followers could coalesce, in addition to squaring a more mainstream image of the faith to American society. Moreover, the U.S. government (through the National Park Service), in turn, pushed for a narrative to memorialize a romanticized period of national history, a story that asserted that early settlers along the Mississippi river brought “civilization” to wild and virgin country. For the government, the heritage narrative of Nauvoo had the potential to teach cherished American principles, national pride, and hope for the future. All parties saw Nauvoo as a physical symbol with which to foster group identity and heritage.

Archaeological excavations of the city of Nauvoo provided a major impetus to the restoration work there. The first excavations at Nauvoo successfully uncovered the foundation stones of the original temple which had collapsed as a result of fire and abandonment and the stones re-tasked for other buildings during the interceding years. Later in the 1960s, archaeologists continued excavations to determine the location of historic structures, cisterns, foundations, walkways and artifacts coming from historic homes and stores. The Brigham Young house lot was excavated beginning in 1965 and a series of excavations were conducted at the Joseph Smith Homestead Complex in the 1970s. Nauvoo has experienced ongoing investigations since. These investigations were indispensable to the restoration of Nauvoo as a historic site.

Today, visitors can experience restored and replica homes and shops, public buildings, gardens, cemeteries, the reconstructed Nauvoo temple and public programming throughout the year. Events like the Nauvoo Exodus Commemoration, honor the migration of the LDS community out of Nauvoo to Salt Lake. Other events like the Nauvoo Summer Pageant offer public performances based on the historical experiences of residents of Nauvoo during the 1840s. There also is an excellent Interpretive Center for visitors. Together, Nauvoo today is a spectacular open-air historic site and an ongoing nexus of historical narratives and heritage.

Why does Nauvoo continue to be a site of major importance to followers of the Latter-Day Saints religion today?
Q2. Can Nauvoo be promoted as an important site of American history and thus attract tourists who are not Mormons?
Q3. What role does archaeology play in Nauvoo?
 When you visit a historic site or a museum do you ever consider who writes the narratives that visitors read and what some of the varying goals or messages might be? 

( Brickyard, Brigham Young Home, Browning Home and Gun Shop, Cultural Hall, Family Living Center, John Taylor Home, Joseph and Hyrum Smith Memorial, Lucy Mack Smith Home, Lyon Drug and Variety Store, Nauvoo Post Office, Nauvoo Print Shop, Pioneer Memorial, Quarry Overlook, Nauvoo Temple.
(1) After the death of Joseph Smith, the Mormon religion underwent a split into two related but different churches: Latter Day Saints (best known for their presence in Salt Lake City) and Community Christ/Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (headquartered in Independence, MO). Different buildings in Nauvoo pertain to the different sects of this religion. Which buildings and museums and activities pertain to which group?
How might the different buildings of Nauvoo be highlighted differently to tell a different story?
(3) What is the role of archaeology and heritage restoration programs to shape the public perception of history?

Create your own heritage script for Nauvoo. Choose five buildings/sites and write the text for a plaque on each one that explains its importance.

Write a nomination dossier for Quincy to be included in the International Coalition of Sites of Conscience.