Echoes of the City of Joseph

Scott Esplin is a professor of Church History and Doctrine at BYU with a background in late 19th, early 20th century history and educational history. He recently published a social history of Nauvoo with Return to the City of Joseph: Modern Mormonism’s Contest for the Soul of Nauvoo through University of Illionis Press. The book covers not just the history of the city but how the different factions through history have viewed Nauvoo’s history. This goes up through present battles over how to define the meaning of the city. Most people know roughly the history up through the martyrdom of Joseph and Hyrum but a surprising number of people don’t know the rest of the story. Yet the is, according to Esplin, a fascination with what happened after the martyrdom. Kurt Manwaring has a great interview with Esplin on this.

Esplin started the book project by taking up the project of R. J. Snow, director of public affairs and manager of Nauvoo Restoration Inc during the period of the reconstruction of the Nauvoo temple. That organization has been in charge of developing Nauvoo on behalf of the Church going back to 1962. Snow died tragically in 2006 after returning to Utah. Originally a history of the restoration of Nauvoo, Esplin expanded it to include how different groups saw the city.

In exploring the story, however, I became acquainted with members and leaders of the Community of Christ as well as residents of Nauvoo unaffiliated with either faith.

From those relationships, I learned that the story of Nauvoo’s restoration is really a story of faith and community relationships, of misunderstandings, contestation, and eventually cooperation.

It is also the story of the effects of pilgrimage and religious tourism on a small town.

Finally, it is a story of transformation within the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints itself across the twentieth century.

This is a lesser known issue. I suspect many knew of some of the tensions, especially as Nauvoo started becoming a tourist destination for many members of the Church. I visited it myself as a teen and thoroughly enjoyed the experience. In the 90’s I was aware of some of the tensions in the area as the Church bought up real estate in the broader region. Esplin notes that “Church leaders decided to restore Nauvoo into a memorial to Joseph Smith and, in the Church’s view, the work God accomplished through him. In this way, Nauvoo has become, again, the city of Joseph.”

It’s interesting considering Nauvoo – or at least the restored parts of it – as a kind of memorial to Joseph Smith. I’d never really thought about it like that. Having it there allows member to have a kind of material connection to Joseph that we might not get from Church. Some people have brought up Nauvoo as a kind of Mecca for us — albeit with fewer direct religious ritual aspects. In a real sense Nauvoo is at least to us what Jerusalem is for Jews and Christians even if perhaps theologically Jackson County is more significant. Esplin sees this as nostalgia.

Nostalgia plays several interesting roles in this book. First, there is the nostalgia among members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints for Nauvoo, one of the most important sites in its history. There is a desire to walk where Saints and prophets walked, to venerate at the tomb of their Prophet and Patriarch, Joseph and Hyrum Smith.

There is some inner longing to place a finger in the bullet hole in the door of the room where they died, to look out the window where Joseph Smith fell to his death, and to ponder on their lives.

There is a cost thoguht.

…it is with some sadness that I drive around town, especially on Mulholland Street, and find shuttered shops and unfinished buildings. I am impressed by the toll tourism takes on a small community that chooses it as a primary economic drive. Or, in the case of Nauvoo, sometimes has tourism chosen for it by others. It makes me wonder how I would feel if my hometown were suddenly transformed by descendants of a group that lived there more than a century earlier.

This is wrapped up in a different sort of nostalgia.

…there is a nostalgia among longtime residents of Nauvoo for the city of their youth, one whose streets aren’t crowded by tour buses or whose sidewalks and shops are frequented by costumed characters from the 1840s.

There is a feeling like a play is being performed in their town (in fact, historic plays are performed daily in their town) and yet they are no longer the central characters in the story. Among some of them, there is a nostalgia for Nauvoo to return to the way it was before religious tourism came to town.

Having grown up in a summer tourist town (Waterton Park) which was swamped in summers and nearly dead the rest of the time, I can empathize with what Esplin describes as the problem of Nauvoo.[1]

Tourism makes the experience in Nauvoo highly seasonal. During the summer months, hotels, restaurants, and gift shops bustle. It feels like one faith takes over, and all others, including local residents, recede. Labor Day, and especially its annual Grape Festival, feels like the turning point when Nauvoo’s permanent residents reemerge and the pace of life changes.

It’s this dual nature that is so fascinating to me. It’s an aspect of Nauvoo I think most people never think about. Those who have lived near tourist destinations know this affects not just the nature of the town but even the surrounding area. When Bill Clinton made the region around Boulder into Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, this brought with it many changes to the community. In particular people started buying up land for vacation homes. As one might expect the same thing happened in Nauvoo.

Additionally, outside investors purchasing homes and transforming them into vacation rentals has changed property values and the tax base. Local schools seem to have been impacted by a decline in young families.

A scholar of tourism studies once called basing an economy on tourism a “devil’s bargain.” To me, this is a fascinating metaphor when applied to a town like Nauvoo that it rooted in religious tourism.

Tourism also brings a boom and bust economy that a more diverse economy avoids.

Beyond the social effect on non-Mormons, Esplin brought out many other features I wasn’t aware of. In particular the French Utopian movement had a huge impact on post-Mormon Nauvoo. I have to confess I’d never even heard of that movement before. It’s interesting that an other communitarian group took over from the ashes of our own movement.

Following the general exodus from Nauvoo in 1846, a French Utopian group known as the Icarians learned of the vacant homes, farms, and especially the abandoned temple in western Illinois. Moving up river from New Orleans in 1849, they acquired the properties and lived in Nauvoo for a similar length of time (approximately seven years) as the Latter-day Saints.

They even went to work trying to refurbish the Nauvoo temple, which had been gutted by an arsonist’s fire in 1848. The building was largely demolished by a tornado in 1850, portending a similar fall of the Icarians a few years later. They and their descendants are, however, one of several groups that left a mark on Nauvoo after the Latter-day Saints.

Others include German-speaking immigrants that made Nauvoo one of the most German-speaking towns in Illinois, a group of Catholic nuns who operated a private boarding school in the city for more than one-hundred years, and members of the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ (now called Community of Christ) who continue to operate the Smith family properties in Nauvoo.

In the popular imagination (or at least in mine) there’s the idea that the people who lived around Nauvoo at the time of the Mormon expulsion took over the area. I had never considered other groups moving in and transforming the region. I find this aspect of the history fascinating. One can quickly see that the history of Nauvoo is far, far more complex than we typically encounter.

An other interesting part of the history is the more recent tensions between our faith moving into Nauvoo and the Community of Christ (formerly RLDS) who had an established place there.

Operating rival historic sites in such close proximity, there was a time when a building war seemed to exist between the two groups. For many years, Nauvoo’s restoration felt like a game of “anything you can build, we can build better.” That slowed dramatically in the twentieth century, essentially ending with the reconstruction of the temple.

Through the work of good faith and site leaders on both sides, cooperation seems to have replaced competition. I compare it to family dynamics. Sometimes siblings who squabbled as teenagers get along much better as adults once identities are established. These two faiths cooperate really well today.

I suspect that Nauvoo and the two faiths view of it is itself a microcosm of the relationship between the faiths.

Check out the full interview over at 12 Questions. As always Kurt Manwaring does a fantastic job interviewing people whose work sometimes gets overlooked.

1. I should note that Waterton has become far more crowded than it was when I was young. Both in summer when one can barely move but even in winter where cross country skiing has become popular.

4 comments for “Echoes of the City of Joseph

  1. Sd
    July 24, 2019 at 5:06 pm

    I think you mean 21st century.

  2. July 24, 2019 at 5:54 pm

    Nope early 20th. Roughly the period that Alexander’s Mormonism in Transition covers. Some of his papers on the era include “Joseph F. Smith and the Reshaping of Church Education” and later ““You Can Make Your Own Bright Future, Tom Trails”: Evaluating the Impact of the LDS Indian Seminary Program.” He has quite a few other papers in early to mid 20th century LDS history though. His other book, perhaps quite relevant given the holiday today, was Far Away in the West was about the exodus from Nauvoo and the trek west.

  3. Chad Nielsen
    July 25, 2019 at 7:18 am

    My mission’s boundaries included the Nauvoo stake. While we weren’t allowed to proselyte inside of Nauvoo itself, I had the opportunity to visit the town several times and to talk to a lot of people who lived in the area and were more familiar with the post-Latter-day Saint history of the area than I was. It is a fascinating subject. The Catholic church associated with the boarding school was still next door to the temple, and the vineyards (I think the German groups established those) were just south of the town.

    My mom (who grew up in Illinois) remembers non-Mormons in the area joking that mayflies (AKA shadflies) should be called Mormon flies because they swarm the area for a short period of time, take over everything, and then suddenly disappear. I also always remember talking to one person who worked on maintaining the temple. She talked about growing up in Nauvoo and some of the challenges of the area being a tourist attraction. She basically said that when large groups of people act as tourists they lose their brains and that can be very frustrating for the locals. The prime example was the number of times she had strangers come to her door and say: “My ancestors lived on this plot of land 150 years ago. Can we come in and look around?” While the CoC and our Church have learned to cooperate and (mostly) get along, there seemed to still be a fair amount of bitterness on the part of other groups living there about how their history and little town have been completely overshadowed by the Church.

  4. Ivan W.
    July 26, 2019 at 6:53 pm

    Well, as annoying as the LDS tourists can be, are any of them threatening mob violence the way a Nauvoo city council member did a couple of years ago:

    “Beverly Reynolds, Nauvoo City Councilwoman . . . called for “people like this” to be tarred and feathered and run out of town . . . [then] she called for a return to the 1840’s. She said “[y]ou and I know what happened then”. . . “[i]t could happen again,” she said.”

    https://edgarcountywatchdogs.com/2017/06/mormons-feel-threatened-as-nauvoo-city-council-member-calls-for-tar-and-feathers/

    (not sure how accurate the article is, honestly. Screenshots seem to confirm the initial statements saying the non-Mormons in Nauvoo should go all 1840s on the Mormons, but I can’t find much about it in the news except for a few clearly agenda driven sites, or sites that just cut and past from the agenda driven sites; the council member in question apparently threatened to sue – https://edgarcountywatchdogs.com/2017/06/nauvoo-councilwoman-threatens-watchdogs-for-publishing-her-threats-to-mormons/ – but a quick, shallow search finds nothing since then).

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