Someday your grandkids will ask you, “What did you do during the Great Stay-at-Home Quarantine of 2020?” Besides eating every two hours, I re-watched the first season of The West Wing. It’s a fantasy depicting my country led by a principled and intelligent man. I watched the first season of Star Trek: Discovery. These Klingon-speaking Klingons have no honor. And I read Benjamin E. Park’s new book, Kingdom of Nauvoo: The Rise and Fall of a Religious Empire on the American Frontier (Liveright Publishing, 2020). The book really helps a Mormon reader understand what happened in Nauvoo and what went wrong in Nauvoo. Here is a short review.
What Happened in Nauvoo
The book is long on analysis and long on historical context (what else was going on in America that influenced what happened to the Church in Nauvoo) but a little short on the detailed events in Nauvoo. This works fine if you have read a book on Nauvoo before, maybe Glen Leonard’s Nauvoo: A Place of Peace, a People of Promise (Deseret Book, 2002), or even the relevant chapters in a one-volume history of the LDS Church. I have to think a person coming to Kingdom of Nauvoo who had no prior acquaintance with the tale of Nauvoo might not follow the events very well. That’s an observation, not a criticism, of the book. I’m sure the author could have added a hundred pages of additional detail on some of the events and developments in Nauvoo, but a reader can find that elsewhere. One of the nice things about the book is that it is short enough to get through before the reader gets worn out (think Rough Stone Rolling).
Seen simply as a city-building project, Nauvoo was wildly successful. It benefited from a nice location along the Mississippi (at least after the swamps were drained), from Mormon immigration from elsewhere in the US and from England, and from general Mormon industriousness. It went from a few huts in 1838 to a small city that dominated its region of Illinois in 1845, at least numerically. The Nauvoo Temple was impressive, built on high ground and visible for miles. But much of what happened in Nauvoo happened in the offices on the second story of Joseph Smith’s red brick store.
As Park relates, “The engine room of this new society would be Joseph Smith’s office, located on the second floor of a recently completed dry good store” (p. 87). That’s where work on the Book of Abraham project was centered. That’s where Freemasonry was established in Nauvoo and, shortly thereafter, Joseph’s LDS endowment was first presented. That’s where the Relief Society was established. Polygamous marriages were arranged and performed in that office. It was that second floor office, not the Nauvoo Temple, that was ground zero for what happened in Nauvoo.
What Went Wrong in Nauvoo
The big question for most readers is a simple one: What went wrong? And by wrong, we mean spectacularly wrong: Joseph Smith was not just assassinated but killed while in state custody, after visiting with the governor only hours before. By the time the Saints in Nauvoo were leaving town in 1846, it was almost under siege. There were cannons pointed at Nauvoo. The orthodox Mormon explanation is that the Gentiles were persecuting the Saints or that Satan was whipping up opposition to God’s Kingdom. A historian has to look a little deeper to explain what really happened. After all, it’s not everyday that a state more or less expels a city and its citizens.
One problem was polygamy. Joseph’s insistence on moving forward with the polygamy project was full of risks, and he knew it. That’s why he kept the practice secret (as in never publicly acknowledging he was doing it) right up until that day of his death. But it wasn’t just bad publicity that was a risk. As detailed by Park, key figures within the Mormon hierarchy (when they eventually found out about it) did not support the project, including Emma Smith, Hyrum Smith (initially), Sidney Rigdon, and William Law (in the First Presidency). As Joseph brought additional men and women into the secret practice, it became something of an open secret inside Nauvoo that something was going on — but it was never clear what was rumor and speculation versus what was fact. The project as a whole eroded the credibility of the leadership and the moral foundation of the town.
And here is what is particularly relevant: This wasn’t a case of outside pressure or persecution. The whole polygamy debacle was an internal affair, one that turned some supporters into dissenters and ended up with an opposition paper being published in Nauvoo that was going to blow the lid off the whole project in June 1844. And it was the decision of Nauvoo leaders to destroy the press that printed the Nauvoo Expositor and suppress the paper that led to the charges and arrests that brought Joseph and Hyrum to Carthage. Here is Park’s summary of the paper:
The first and only issue of the dissenters’ newspaper, the Nauvoo Expositor, appeared on June 7, 1844. … It was time, the paper claimed, for a reformation within the city. Their accusations were both sweeping and meticulously detailed. They accused Smith of claiming plural wives and teaching that there were innumerable Gods. They denounced the city’s use of habeas corpus, which had shielded not only Joseph Smith, but also his friends, like Jeremiah Smith. The prophet was accused of making unholy alliances with politicians, explicitly directing the Mormon vote, and merging religious and civic spheres. (p. 227)
Which brings us to the other big problem: politics. Park does an excellent job of noting and explaining the ongoing political challenge the Saints as a body and Joseph Smith in particular faced. On the one hand, citizens in Nauvoo and the Mormons as a group had every right to vote as they pleased and to vote for candidates who promised support of one form or another to Nauvoo and to the Mormons. That’s what democratic politics is all about, and everyone else in Illinois did it as well. And for the first few years in Nauvoo, it worked. But as the Mormon population swelled and the Mormon vote became significant in state elections, it got tougher and tougher to walk some sort of middle path between Whigs and Democrats or to avoid upsetting one or the other of the parties. In the end, both were upset with the Mormons and political support for Nauvoo evaporated.
Here is Park’s description of the tough spot the Mormons were in regarding the August 8, 1843 election.
On the one hand, Cyrus Walker, the Whig, had not only been a personal friend for several years, but he had been instrumental in keeping Smith out of Missouri. On the other hand, Joseph Hoge represented a Democratic establishment that supported Nauvoo’s rights and charter. For whom could the saints vote? Smith genuinely struggled with the situation. He hedged during a July 4 oration, coyly proclaiming that he never influenced how his followers voted. Onlookers, of course, knew otherwise, and they were keen to receive a signal from him.
In the event, Smith tried to appease both sides and ended up satisfying neither. (p. 158)
Unlike polygamy, the political problem was at least partly external. Of course, the decision, after things fell apart in Missouri (what was where they went after things fell apart in Ohio) to once again gather together as a body in Illinois rather than to disperse in smaller groups and families in several states had, as a necessary eventual consequence, these kind of political issues. And the practice of voting as a block for this or that candidate exacerbated the tricky political position of the Mormons. So the Mormons were responsible at least in part for the political situation they faced.
But Park’s various comments in the text as he recounts the political events that unfolded in the 1840s between Nauvoo and the state make it fairly clear that serious conflict was almost inevitable. Joseph’s death in June 1844 did not solve the problem. Had Joseph not died in Carthage, there would still have been conflict. It wasn’t a matter of this or that official or someone’s personality or some particular event. It was simply a political situation that, given the realities of the law and politics and society in America in the 1840s, had no simple solution. Rock, meet hard place. It was a dead end. The story ends, of course, with the Mormons leaving (or trying to leave) the United States and ending up in the Salt Lake Valley. But if they hadn’t left, an equally tragic end would have come to Nauvoo.
So let’s wind this up. Yes, you should get a copy and read it. You can probably still get your copy as part of the Dialogue Book Club if you ask nicely. The book is short enough you will actually read it. It is deep enough that you’ll learn something new, even if you are familiar with the story of Nauvoo.