Nauvoo = Stepford or Something else?Posted: July 10, 2013
Built In 1843
Put off course by the flooding of the Mississippi I needed a different park to stay. Wild camping was ill advised due to flood warnings in my area I thought it better to go to where the people in the know said was safe. Nauvoo State Park came up on Google Maps a mere twelve miles from my position. It was decided.
I rode along the Mississippi marveling at her beauty and might when I started to see historical marker’s with more and more frequency. Upon reaching the park they were everywhere. I assumed it must have been an important trading outpost since it was very close to the borders of Missouri, Iowa, and Illinois and made my way into the park.
It was Saturday and the park was quite full. Despite this there was some vacancy and I found a site without too much effort.
Even though most of the sites had tents, campers, or trailers in them the people were missing. I decided after making camp I would head into town and see what I was missing. I needed groceries anyway.
I rode toward town and was taken back my this monument of a building. Square and white like a greek temple and a golden angle with a trumpet mounted on the top. “What is this place?” I wondered nearly aloud as I rolled by.
On a hill in the middle of no where
Sure enough the town was a bustle with tourists and their cameras. There was small car show, maybe 30 or so entries, doing a fun cruise up and down main street. A late 60’s Chevelle with fat drag tires and air intake protruding from the hood grand standed at the light roasting its tires and sending a flurry of smoke everywhere. The light turned green and the car lurched forward, the back-end striving to out pace the front. It began to fishtail out of control. The driver (not his car and a novice I later found out) didn’t let up and the car zagged and zigged more wildly until came to sudden and crunching stop, nose buried into a concrete barrier. It made my heart ache to see something someone had worked so hard and long to make pristine reduced to rubber and scrap in a moment. The car was loaded on a flat-bed and the driver into an ambulance. Both were carted off and the show continued. I stayed to the end headed back to camp.
People began filtering back into the park en masse. I noticed they all had a similar way of dressing that was decidedly religious. I went to Christian school for a time and we wore a very specific uniform. Because of this I became very interested in self-imposed uniforms, particularly religious ones. The Catholics with the clean and crisp almost business dress, Southern Baptists with bright colors and lite fabric, Non denominational sporting light tattoos and piercing, but clothes free of stain and hole, the glam and glitz of the mega churches… so on so forth. I couldn’t identify this group. It was on the tip of my tongue. A cross between the sensibility of Lutherans and something faintly archaic as though some Mennonites had snuck in a shirt or two. I let it go and dosed off resolving to see what this place was the following day.
I walked into Old Nauvoo. A town erected in the 1840’s and restored quite entirely and nicely. There was the brick yard, post office/mercantile, boot shop, etc.
There were many houses with placards stating who had lived there and when. All of them said “Community of Christ” at the very bottom. So it was religious. What was Community of Christ? It didn’t ring a bell. I walked hither and thither reading placards and snapping photos until one name made stop. Lucy Mack Smith. I knew that name. I know I knew it. “It’ll come to me.” I thought moving forward.
The other patrons of the town continued to show this unidentifiable cohesion although they were clearly from different parts of the country. I heard all variations of accent and saw many license plates, but they all seemed to be of one mind. One family if you will. It was disconcerting particularly since as I identified them as a group the identified me as not part.
I decided to make may way to the Greek temple when a grave made me stop. My blood slowed and head went light. “Joseph Smith Jr.” Prophet. I was standing in front of the final resting place of the Prophet and founder of the Mormon faith and writer of their holy text, The Book Of Mormon. It was like being on holy ground, but sullied. As if you were standing where an effigy mound had been but was covered over by yard waste. I snapped a picture trying to collect myself. It all came together, the strange clothes and unity of the patrons, the historical site maintained by a Christian group, the mass departure and arrivals, the temple. I was in Mormon Mecca. Just as this realization a very tall, very heavy man who I can only assume played too much World of Warcraft as a youth leaned very close to my face and said, “I like your beard. I always have to shave mine before it gets that long.” Shaken from my stupor but far from collected I mustered a laugh, nodded, and walked away.
Resting place of a Prophet
Needing more info I went and found some women dressed in period garb and asked questions. They quickly identified me as a non-member and gave me the Mormon 101 and were surprised when I actually knew it. I was curious about Nauvoo. I thought Joseph Smith was buried in Utah. They explained the Mormons came to Nauvoo after being driven out of Missouri for various reasons, including a failed church-sponsored bank and turned this swamp land into the next biggest city in Il. to Chicago at the time. They had done this in a very short time, and the locals both jealous and put off by the oddity and separatism of the Mormons had begun to increasly view the region’s control an “us or them” issue. There were also issues within the church particularly around the issue of polygamy.
On June 7, 1844, the dissidents published the first (and only) issue of the Nauvoo Expositor, calling for reform within the church. The paper decried polygamy and Smith’s new “doctrines of many Gods”, and it alluded to Smith’s kingship and theocratic aspirations, promising to present evidence of its allegations in succeeding issues.Fearing the newspaper might bring the countryside down on the Mormons, the Nauvoo city council declared the Expositor a public nuisance and ordered the Nauvoo Legion to destroy the press. In the words of historian Richard Bushman, Smith “failed to see that suppression of the paper was far more likely to arouse a mob than the libels. It was a fatal mistake.”
Smith’s body was shot repeatedly after he fell from the window. Destruction of the newspaper provoked a strident call to arms by Thomas C. Sharp, editor of the Warsaw Signal. Fearing an uprising, Smith mobilized the Nauvoo Legion on June 18 and declared martial law. Carthage responded by mobilizing its small detachment of the state militia, and Illinois Governor Thomas Ford appeared, threatening to raise a larger militia unless Smith and the Nauvoo city council surrendered themselves. Smith initially fled across the Mississippi River, but shortly returned and surrendered to Ford. On June 23, Smith and his brother Hyrum were taken to Carthage to stand trial for inciting a riot. Once the Smiths were in custody, the charges were increased to treason against Illinois.
On June 27, 1844, an armed mob with blackened faces stormed Carthage Jail where Joseph and Hyrum were being held. Hyrum, who was trying to secure the door, was killed instantly with a shot to the face. Smith fired a pepper-box pistol, then sprang for the window. He was shot multiple times before falling out the window, crying, “Oh Lord my God!” He died shortly after hitting the ground. Five men were later tried for his murder, but all were acquitted.
The woman I was speaking with was a former Utah history teacher, and while the information above is primarily from Wikipedia, she painted a different cause for the murder of the founders and failed to mention the unrest within the Church. In fact, she left out the Expositor entirely even though one of the placards mentioned it.
Former history teacher. Full time Mormon
I walked up to the Temple, a grand and beautiful building. with a statue of Joseph and Hyrum at the foot of it. I asked a woman standing in front if I could go inside. She asked me in a rhetorical manner if I was a member, to which I replied, “No.” She explained they would ask for my papers showing me as a member of the church should I try to enter. She asked if I had read the Book of Mormon. I told her yes. I told her I thought it was a good book. She said, “People absolutely believe it or think its a bunch of crazy lies.” While I am the former you don’t mock someone’s Holy book while standing on the steps of their temple built on the land interning their prophet. She explained she was there with her daughter, a performing missionary, and daughter’s new husband for a Celestial Marriage ceremony. She explained it was to bind them in marriage even into the after life. I politely listened and asked questions to those I met doing my best to tread lightly on their holy land. Despite my efforts they often immediately identified me as a non-member and acted defensive to my questions. Hyrum and Joseph on their last ride.
I am eternally grateful for the flooding that put me off course to stay in the funny little town of Nauvoo. It was fascinating to be completely surrounded by a subculture of Christianity. fascinating as it was I was quite happy to be leaving Stepford… Er, Nauvoo.
Drive fast. Take chances. Thanks for reading.