Chapter 7: Nauvoo, The
by Gordon B. Hinckley
THE people of Quincy, Illinois received the Mormon
refugees with kindness. However, it became quickly apparent to Brigham Young
and others that some provision must be made for the settlement of this large
group of exiles so that they might again undertake productive enterprise.
On April 22, 1839 Joseph Smith and those who had been
imprisoned with him in Liberty, Missouri arrived in Quincy. Their guards had
let them go, and they had made their way to the Illinois side of the
Mississippi. The following day a conference was called by the Prophet and a
committee was detailed to investigate the purchase of lands. On May 1 the
initial purchase was completed, and other purchases were subsequently made
until extensive holdings were secured on both the Iowa and Illinois sides of
The principal location was the site of Commerce, Illinois,
about forty-five miles north of Quincy. At this point the river makes a
broad bend giving the land on its east bank the appearance of a promontory.
At the time of the purchase one stone house, three frame houses, and two
blockhouses constituted the village.
It was an unhealthy place, so wet that a man had
difficulty walking across most of it, and teams became mired to their hips.
Of the place and its purchase, the Prophet later said: "Commerce was
unhealthy, very few could live there; but believing that it might become a
healthy place by the blessing of heaven to the Saints, and no more eligible
place presenting itself, I considered it wisdom to make an attempt to build
up a city."
The Prophet's faith in the future of this site is evident
from the name he gave it—Nauvoo, derived from the Hebrew and meaning "the
A Day of God's Power
The swamps were drained, and a city was platted with
streets crossing at right angles. But the work of building moved slowly. The
people were prostrate, exhausted from the trials through which they had
passed. Their energies were depleted and they became easy victims of
On the morning of July 22, Joseph, who was sick himself,
looked about him only to see others sick. The house in which he lived was
crowded with them, and tents sheltering other invalids stood in his
dooryard. Wilford Woodruff recounts the events which followed the Prophet's
appraisal of this discouraging situation:
He [Joseph] called upon the Lord in prayer, the power of
God rested upon him mightily, and as Jesus healed all the sick around him in
his day, so Joseph, the prophet of God, healed all around on this occasion.
He healed all in his house and dooryard; then, in company with Sidney Rigdon
and several of the Twelve, went among the sick lying on the bank of the
river, where he commanded them in a loud voice, in the name of Jesus Christ,
to rise and be made whole, and they were all healed. When he had healed all
on the east side of the river that were sick, he and his companions crossed
the Mississippi River in a ferry boat to the west side . . . The first house
they went into was President Brigham Young's. He was sick on his bed at the
time. The Prophet went into his house and healed him, and they all came out
As they were passing by my door, Brother Joseph said:
"Brother Woodruff, follow me." These were the only words spoken by any of
the company from the time they left Brother Brigham's house till they
crossed the public square, and entered Brother Fordham's house. Brother
Fordham had been dying for an hour, and we expected any minute would be his
last. I felt the spirit of God that was overpowering his prophet. When we
entered the house, Brother Joseph walked up to Brother Fordham and took him
by his right hand, his left hand holding his hat. He saw that Brother
Fordham's eyes were glazed, and that he was speechless and unconscious.
After taking his hand, he looked down into the dying man's
face and said " . . . Do you believe that Jesus is the Christ?" "I do,
Brother Joseph," was the response. Then the Prophet of God spoke with a loud
voice, as in the majesty of Jehovah: "Elijah, I command you, in the name of
Jesus of Nazareth, to rise and be made whole."
The words of the Prophet were not like the words of man,
but like the voice of God. It seemed to me that the house shook on its
foundation. Elijah Fordham leaped from his bed like a man raised from the
dead. A healthy color came into his face, and life was manifested in every
act. His feet had been done up in Indian meal poultices; these he kicked
off, scattering the contents, and then called for his clothes and put them
on. He asked for a bowl of bread and milk and ate it. He then put on his hat
and followed us into the street, to visit others who were sick.
Elijah Fordham lived forty-one years after that. This
occasion has gone down in the history of the Church as "a day of God's
A Mission to England
Even while facing the task of building a city, the Mormons
did not neglect the preaching of the gospel. During the summer of 1839,
seven members of the Council of the Twelve Apostles left Nauvoo for England.
These men were powerful missionaries. The trials through
which they had passed had strengthened their convictions concerning the
cause with which they were associated, and they won hundreds of converts
through the powerful testimonies which they bore.
Wilford Woodruff's efforts were particularly successful.
While preaching in Hanley in the Potteries district of England, he felt
impressed to leave that area without knowing why. Obedient to this
impression, he traveled to a rural section of Herefordshire. At the home of
one John Benbow, a substantial farmer of the district, he received a cordial
welcome and the news that a large group of religionists in that area had
broken away from their church and had united themselves to study the
scriptures and seek the truth.
Elder Woodruff was given an invitation to speak, and other
invitations followed. The organization numbered six hundred, including more
than a score of preachers. All of these, with one exception, embraced
Mormonism. Before he left the district, eighteen hundred members had been
converted to the Church through his efforts.
At a conference held in the British Isles in April 1840,
the decision was made to publish an edition of the Book of Mormon, a hymn
book, and a periodical. The latter, called the Millennial Star, has been
published continuously since that time, and is the oldest periodical in the
An unusual mission undertaken during this period was that
of Orson Hyde. Elder Hyde was apparently a descendant of the tribe of Judah,
and after the Prophet had become acquainted with him, he pronounced a
blessing upon his head in which he said: "In due time thou shalt go to
Jerusalem, the land of thy fathers, and be a watchman unto the house of
Israel; and by thy hand shall the Most High do a work, which shall prepare
the way and greatly facilitate the gathering together of that people."
He left the States in January 1841, going to London where
he labored with other missionaries for some months. Then he made his way to
Palestine. Early on the Sunday morning of October 24, 1841, he climbed to
the top of the Mount of Olives, and there in prayer and in the authority of
the Priesthood, he dedicated the land of Palestine for the return of the
Jews. The prayer reads in part:
Grant, therefore, O Lord, in the name of Thy well-beloved
Son, Jesus Christ, to remove the barrenness and sterility of this land, and
let springs of living water break forth to water its thirsty soil. Let the
vine and olive produce in their strength, and the fig tree bloom and
flourish . . . Let the flocks and herds greatly increase and multiply upon
the mountains and the hills, and let Thy great kindness conquer and subdue
the unbelief of Thy people. Do Thou take from them their stony heart, and
give them a heart of flesh; and may the sun of Thy favor dispel the cold
mists of darkness which have beclouded their atmosphere . . . Let kings
become their nursing fathers, and queens with motherly fondness wipe the
tear of sorrow from their eye . . .
Following the prayer, he erected a pile of stones as an
altar and a witness of his act. With his mission completed, he returned to
Nauvoo, arriving in December 1842.
A City from the Swamps
Meanwhile, things had been happening in the western
Illinois colony. Homes, shops, and gardens rose from what had been the
swamps of Commerce. But because of the extreme poverty in which these people
found themselves, their problems were seriously aggravated. Several
unsuccessful attempts were made to secure compensation and redress for the
losses they had suffered in Missouri. The most notable of these was a
petition to the Congress of the United States and an interview between
Joseph Smith and the President of the United States, Martin Van Buren.
The petition availed nothing, and Mr. Van Buren replied
with a statement which has become famous in Mormon history: "Your cause is
just, but I can do nothing for you . . . If I take up with you, I shall lose
the vote of Missouri."
The governor of Missouri reacted to these efforts by
requisitioning the governor of Illinois to arrest and deliver Joseph Smith
and five of his associates as fugitives from justice, although two years had
elapsed since they had been allowed to escape from imprisonment in Missouri.
The Illinois governor honored the requisition, but on a writ of habeas
corpus, Judge Stephen A. Douglas released the defendants. This action,
however, only delayed the Missourians in the execution of their avowed
The Building of the Temple
During this same period a decision was made to build a
temple in Nauvoo. This sacred edifice was to be reserved for special
ordinance work, including baptism for the dead.
The doctrine whereby one who has opportunity for baptism
and exercises it is saved, while he who does not have opportunity is damned,
has always appeared discriminatory. And yet the scripture reads, "Except a
man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of
God." The law is all-inclusive. Joseph Smith resolved this question with the
doctrine of vicarious baptism for the dead, announcing it as a revelation
from God. When performed under proper authority, baptism may be received by
living proxies acting in behalf of the dead. Such a practice existed in the
primitive church. This is attested by the words of Paul to the Corinthians:
"Else what shall they do which are baptized for the dead, if the dead rise
not at all? Why are they then baptized for the dead?"
To provide facilities for such vicarious work, as well as
for other sacred ordinances, the Prophet was commanded through revelation to
erect a temple. On April 6, 1841 ten thousand members of the Church
assembled for the laying of the cornerstones of this structure. By November
8 the baptismal font was completed, and by October 30, 1842 the building had
progressed sufficiently to permit the holding of meetings in some rooms.
However, it was April 30, 1846, after most of the Saints had left Nauvoo,
before it was completed in detail. The building cost approximately one
million dollars, and at the time it was regarded as the finest structure in
the state of Illinois.
This magnificent edifice stood on the highest elevation of
the city and commanded a view of the entire countryside on both sides of the
river. It became the crown of Nauvoo, which in itself was remarkable in
contrast with most of the frontier towns of America, and which prior to its
evacuation was the largest then in Illinois.
Many distinguished visitors called at Nauvoo during this
period of intense activity. In 1843 an English writer described the Mormon
community in an article which was widely published:
The city is of great dimensions, laid out in beautiful
order; the streets are wide, and cross each other at right angles, which
will add greatly to its order and magnificence when finished. The city rises
on a gentle incline from the rolling Mississippi, and as you stand near the
temple, you may gaze on the picturesque scenery around; at your side is the
temple, the wonder of the world; round about, and beneath, you may behold
handsome stores, large mansions, and fine cottages, interspersed with varied
scenery . . . Peace and harmony reign in the city. The drunkard is scarcely
even seen, as in other cities, neither does the awful imprecation or profane
oath strike upon your ear; but, while all is storm, and tempest, and
confusion abroad respecting the Mormons, all is peace and harmony at home.
Colonel Thomas L. Kane visited Nauvoo three years later.
His description is particularly interesting:
Ascending the upper Mississippi in the autumn, when the
waters were low, I was compelled to travel by land past the region of the
Rapids . . . My eye wearied to see everywhere sordid, vagabond and idle
settlers, a country marred, without being improved, by their careless hands.
I was descending the last hillside upon my journey when a landscape in
delightful contrast broke upon my view. Half encircled by a bend of the
river, a beautiful city lay glittering in the fresh morning sun; its bright,
new dwellings, set in cool green gardens, ranging up around a stately
dome-shaped hill, which was covered by a noble marble edifice, whose high
tapering spire was radiant with white and gold. The city appeared to cover
several miles; and beyond it, in the background, there rolled off a fair
country, chequered by the careful lines of fruitful husbandry. The
unmistakable marks of industry, enterprise and educated wealth everywhere,
made the scene one of singular and most striking beauty.
Visitors who came to Nauvoo were impressed with the man
under whose direction this remarkable city had risen from disease-ridden
swamps. The Prophet at this time was at the zenith of his career. Many of
those who knew him during this period have left descriptions of him. He was
well-built, about six feet tall in his stocking feet, and weighed
approximately two hundred pounds. His eyes were blue, his hair brown and
wavy, his skin clear and almost beardless. He was a man of great energy and
After visiting him the Masonic Grand Master of Illinois
On the subject of religion we widely differed, but he
appeared to be quite as willing to permit me to enjoy my right of opinion as
I think we all ought to be to let the Mormons enjoy theirs. But instead of
the ignorant and tyrranical upstart, judge my surprise at finding him a
sensible, intelligent companion and gentlemanly man.
One of the most distinguished men to visit Joseph Smith
during this period was Josiah Quincy who had been mayor of Boston. Out of
his impressions of the Prophet he later wrote:
It is by no means improbable that some future textbook .
. . will contain a question something like this: What historical American of
the nineteenth century has exerted the most powerful influence upon the
destinies of his countrymen? And it is by no means impossible that the
answer to the interrogatory may be thus written: Joseph Smith, the Mormon
Prophet . . .
Born in the lowest ranks of poverty, without
book-learning and with the homeliest of human names, he had made himself at
the age of thirty-nine a power upon earth. Of all the multitudinous family
of Smith, from Adam down [Adam of the "Wealth of Nations" I mean] none has
so won human hearts and shaped human lives as this Joseph.
Such was the reaction of strangers who came to Nauvoo and
called upon its most prominent citizen.
In 1839 the Mormons had purchased land so swampy that a
horse had difficulty walking across it. By 1844 they had built on this same
ground a city without equal on all of the American frontier. Sturdy brick
homes, some of which are still occupied, broad farms and orchards, shops,
schools, and a magnificent temple—with twenty thousand citizens, gathered
not only from the eastern states and Canada, but from the British Isles as
well. This was Nauvoo—the Beautiful!