What Happened in Nauvoo, Part 1: Founding

September 29, 2009 | 12 comments
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A lot happened in Nauvoo that doesn’t get covered in Sunday School or the one-volume treatments of LDS history. But Glen Leonard’s Nauvoo: A Place of Peace, a People of Promise tells the story in detail from start to finish.

About the Book

First, a bit about the book. Remarkably, it is yet another volume to come out of Leonard Arrington’s visionary 16-volume history of the Church which took shape in the 1970s but was not carried to completion. Instead, individual authors continued with their research and published separate volumes. T. Edgar Lyon was going to write the volume on the Nauvoo years, but he passed away in 1978. The project then passed to Glen Leonard, who had access to and relied in part upon Lyon’s prior research and drafts. But the project turned out to be larger than anticipated and Leonard had other responsibilities as well, so the finished book was not published until 2002. Lyon is not listed as a coauthor, but in the preface Leonard gives Lyon’s early work on the volume lengthy praise and recognition.

Even the publishing history is a bit murky. The bibliographic information in my copy lists Deseret Book and BYU Press as the publisher with a 2002 publishing date. But Amazon lists Shadow Mountain as the publisher, and the number of volumes I’ve seen stacked at LDS bookstores over the last year suggests a recent reprint, perhaps timed to coincide with this year’s Sunday School curriculum coverage of LDS history.

Finding Nauvoo

The book is divided into four sections; the first covers the move out of Missouri and the establishment of Nauvoo. The prelude to Nauvoo was the 1838 disaster at Far West, in which Joseph Smith and several other leaders were incarcerated pending a trial which never occurred, while the body of the Saints were quickly chased out of Missouri. Families were on their own: “As counseled by their prophet, the Latter-day Saints leaving Missouri chose their own new places of refuge” (p. 30). The options were to go north to Iowa, east to Illinois, or south to St. Louis; no new place of gathering was initially identified.

Later, in his lengthy March 1839 letter from Liberty Jail, Joseph Smith provided some direction to the leaders pondering the relocation problem.

I would suggest for the consideration of the conference of its being carefully and wisely understood by the council or conference that our brethren scattered abroad [who] understand the spirit of the gathering that they fall into the places of refuge and safety that God shall open unto them between Kirtland and Far West. Those from the East and from the West and from far countries let them fall in some where between those [two] boundaries in the most safe and quiet places they can find and let this be the present understanding until God shall open a more effectual door for us for further considerations. [Dean C. Jesse, Personal Writings of Joseph Smith, Deseret Book: rev. ed. 2002, p. 442. Spelling and punctuation modernized.]

If the eventual decision had been to remain scattered between Far West and Kirtland and for LDS families or small groups to find “safe and quiet places” in order to avoid the sort of organized resistance and aggression the Saints had encountered in Missouri, LDS history would have taken a different turn. Instead, available land at Commerce, Illinois (later Nauvoo) and across the Mississippi River in Iowa appeared to be the divinely opened door that many were looking for, and most of the displaced Mormons soon relocated to that area. Joseph later ratified this area as a new gathering place for the Saints (p. 93).

The Nauvoo Charter

A city charter incorporating Nauvoo as a city was passed by the Illinois legislature and signed into law by the governor in December 1840, to become effective in February 1841. Prior to that time, Nauvoo relied on Hancock County for governmental services. The LDS high council in Nauvoo discharged some civic as well as ecclesiastical duties. While communities could easily incorporate as a town, only five other communities in Illinois had been granted city charters and municipal governments by the legislature: Galena, Springfield (the capitol since 1839), Quincy (in Adams County, just to the south of Nauvoo), Alton, and Chicago.

Contrary to what is often said in commentary, the Nauvoo Charter was quite similar to other city charters granted in Illinois. Much of the language for the Nauvoo charter was actually drawn from earlier approved city charters (this was a standard practice).

Like the city councils in Galena, Quincy, and Springfield, Nauvoo’s municipal council held legislative authority within its own jurisdiction like that of the state general assembly for the entire state. In effect, these city councils could pass ordinances that contradicted state law, as long as those ordinances did not conflict with the state or national constitution. (p. 103.)

The habeas corpus powers of Nauvoo’s judicial courts later became an issue. This power, too, was not unique to Nauvoo.

Another judicial provision granted to Nauvoo’s municipal court “power to grant writs of habeas corpus in all cases arising under the ordinances of the City Council.” The Alton charter had been amended in mid-1839 to give it this power, a precedent for the Nauvoo document. (p. 103.)

Features that were unusual for the Nauvoo charter were that it authorized the city council to organize a university and a militia (p. 104). These institutions were generally organized by separate charters. Later friction with neighboring communities was largely rooted in the use and exercise of charter powers by the municipal government in Nauvoo, not with the actual provisions of the charter themselves. To Mormons fresh from Missouri, the whole point of obtaining the charter and forming an independent municipal government was to provide a measure of legal and even military protection from neighboring communities that might organize aggression against the Mormons. But those neighbors came to see the broad exercise of these powers as unjust and provocative.

Commentary: The Shadow of Missouri

Mormon history is not always written by historians. But historians bring a lot of context to their accounts that non-historians often don’t. This was especially visible in Leonard’s excellent, detailed discussion of the Nauvoo charter.

Having read the entire book and looking back at the first section, what I note is that as much as relocating Saints wanted a fresh start in Illinois and wanted to leave Missouri behind them, they could not. Two items in particular remained live issues for Joseph and the Saints during the entire Nauvoo period: (1) persistent efforts to petition the state of Missouri and the federal government for redress for Mormon property losses in Missouri; and (2) sporadic efforts by Missouri officials to return Joseph Smith to Missouri to appear before state courts there. The first issue was a source of continuing embarrassment to Missouri, the state having been excoriated by the national press for its treatment of the Mormons; the second was a continuing threat to Joseph Smith, who feared legal process in Missouri less than the illegal acts that would surely be directed at him should he have returned there. Ironic, then, that the charges that finally removed Joseph from Nauvoo to Carthage, where he was vulnerable to a vigilante attack, were rooted entirely in events that transpired in Nauvoo.

12 Responses to What Happened in Nauvoo, Part 1: Founding

  1. Bob on September 29, 2009 at 8:40 am

    Thank you for the write up. I have the book, but I’ve never fully read it. It’s one of the few books I have bought from DBs. It’s very handsome on my bookshelf. Is there any one volume close to it on Kirtland or Far West?

  2. Kevin Barney on September 29, 2009 at 9:47 am

    For Kirtland, the analog would be Milton Backman, The Heavens Resound (which was also originally a part of the 16-volume church history Dave mentions).

    I’m guessing that for the Missouri periods you would want to read Stephen LeSeuer on the 1838 Mormon War and also the book by Gentry, which IIRC is based on his dissertation.

    I too have the Nauvoo book and have not fully read it. I need to correct that at some point.

  3. Jim Donaldson on September 29, 2009 at 10:03 am

    For the Kirtland Period, I like “Heavens Resound: A History of the Latter-Day Saints in Ohio, 1830-1838,” by Milton V. Backman, Jr. It was published by Deseret Book in 1983 and was also originally part of the Arrington multi-volume project. It is out of print but readily available used.

    For the Far West period, I like “The Mormon War of 1838,” by Stephen C. Lesueur. It was published by the University of Missouri Press in 1987 and is currently available in paperback.

  4. Jim Donaldson on September 29, 2009 at 10:04 am

    Kevin beat me to it.

  5. Ben on September 29, 2009 at 10:06 am

    For the Kirtland period, Mark Staker’s forthcoming volume will be indispensable, and I believe a worthy replacement of Backman.

    It should be out within a month, I hear, published by Kofford Books. Mark is a senior researcher in the Church Historical Department.

  6. Dave on September 29, 2009 at 10:13 am

    Ben, thanks for the advance notice. Let’s hope Kofford promotes the book well and also that Deseret Book will stock it.

  7. Raymond Takashi Swenson on September 29, 2009 at 10:51 am

    One of the blessings of living now rather than 50 years ago is having these much more complete histories, from Rough Stone Rolling to Massacre at Mountain Meadows and now the Joseph Smith Papers. The remarkable nature of this progression is that Joseph, Brigham and other early Mormons come into focus as much more clearly human, but nevertheless sincere, and therefore harder to account for by any narrative other than one that accepts the reality of the Restoration visions.

  8. WVS on September 29, 2009 at 3:53 pm

    I like Leonard’s book, its main weakness (for me) is its failure to examine carefully the economics of Nauvoo and the Church, at least Flanders, “Nauvoo: Kingdom on the Mississippi” is better at this I believe. Flanders also gives a little better view of some of the orbiting personalities like Lyman Wight than Glen does. But Flanders seems a little “source starved” on other matters. So much has come out since he wrote, etc. That said, Leonard’s book is better in other respects. The definitive study is yet to written, and it won’t be one volume. Too much context for just one.

  9. Observer on September 29, 2009 at 4:47 pm

    About the book’s publication, I have heard that it was intended for a serendipitous release in the months’ preceding the dedication of the Nauvoo temple. If I understand correctly, the manuscript was not delivered on schedule, or at least as anticipated, therefore the droves of Nauvoo open house and/or dedication visitors were not able to purchase them on the trip that would have sparked their interest. Nevertheless, a large first run was still produced and did not sell out, leaving stacks of first edition hardbacks to trickle out over the following years.

  10. Observer on September 29, 2009 at 5:05 pm

    Also, re the title of the post, there’s a typo: Nauvoo is rendered NavUoo. Feel free to delete this comment when you fix, so I don’t look like an ass.

  11. Bob on September 29, 2009 at 6:21 pm

    #10: This is why I keep it close…..so I don’t make that mistake.

  12. Dave on September 30, 2009 at 6:19 am

    Thanks for catching that, Observer. Corrected.