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The Mormons in Nauvoo

Ryan Hart
Oregon High School, Oregon

The Mormons in Nauvoo had a great impact on the surrounding area. They came to Nauvoo and created a very large and prosperous community. As they grew and became more successful, however, resentment of them grew. Hard work and determination made Nauvoo a successful community, while political disputes and jealousy caused it to fail.

Joseph Smith was born in Sharon, Vermont, on December 23, 1805. When he was eleven years old his family moved to Manchester, New York. He did not know what religious group to join when he was young. In 1820 he believed God and Jesus told him not to join any existing church, but to prepare for important tasks. Smith said an angel named Moroni visited him in 1823 and told him where to find gold plates with important writing on them. He received them four years later. In 1830 he published his translation of them called the Book of Mormon. On April 6, 1830, Smith and five others established the "Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints" at Fayette, New York. Smith was the church leader. In 1831 Smith moved to Kirtland, Ohio, in an attempt to expand his congregation. At twenty-six years of age, he was tall, good-looking, and charming, as well as a very persuasive speaker. He converted many to his new church.

From the beginning the Kirtland church had many problems. The Mormons started a bank that failed in 1837, largely because the country was going through an economic depression. To the local people, however, it did not matter that the country was in a difficult economic condition. They blamed the Mormons for the failure of the bank.

Mormon communities had also sprung up in Mentor, Ohio, and Independence, Missouri. Three years before the bank failure in Kirtland, the Missouri Mormons had been forced to leave Independence and settle in a town in northern Missouri. After leaving Kirtland, Joseph Smith joined this growing community of Missouri Mormons. Missouri was a slave state and the Mormons had strong antislavery beliefs. This conflict as well as the growing size of the community and the fact that they held different beliefs than most Christians caused a growing conflict with the people of Missouri. After an election riot, Governor Lilburn W. Boggs said, "Mormons must be exterminated or driven from the state." A few days later, mobs joined by the Missouri State militia attacked a Mormon settlement killing twenty people in what was called the "massacre at Haun's Mill." After this the Mormons were ordered to leave Missouri. Joseph Smith and some other Mormon leaders agreed to remain under arrest in Missouri.

About fifteen thousand Missouri Mormons fled to the free state of Illinois where they were welcomed. A few months later. Smith escaped prison and joined his people in Illinois. There they established the city of Nauvoo. Joseph Smith thought this swampy land in the bend of the Mississippi River would be a perfect place for the Mormons to settle. The non-Mormon residents watched in awe and with a little jealousy as the hard-working Mormons began to prosper. They dug canals to drain the swampy land, and they built brick houses and structures while most other residents of this area lived in simple log cabins.

Within a few years the population reached twenty thousand, which made it the largest city in Illinois. A big part of the reason for this growth was the great success of the Mormon missionaries. In England, where economic times were very hard, they found a population willing to accept Mormonism and move to America. Most of the immigrants settled in Nauvoo. For the most part they were poor and had little or no farming skills. While Nauvoo looked busy and prosperous, its economy was for the most part based on the construction of housing and public buildings for the



The Mormon Temple was a prominent landmark at Nauvoo, where Mormons settled when they were forced to leave Missouri.

rapidly growing population. What they needed and did not have was industry to provide jobs and income. Once construction was completed many were unemployed in Nauvoo. The leaders of Nauvoo spent a lot of time trying to attract industry to their community. Among the industries they discussed but never obtained were a railroad, a cotton mill, and a pottery plant.

Much of the economy of Nauvoo was based on credit. After a few years, the weak economy of the town became more of a problem. The lack of money and old debts from Ohio and Missouri caused the Mormons to resort to declaring bankruptcies and other maneuvers to clear their debts. One thing they did that caused them big problems in the area was the general policy not to repay debts owed to non-Mormons. These tilings caused economic problems in Nauvoo and political problems for Mormons in the state of Illinois. Joseph Smith, the Mormon leader, was blamed for these decisions.

Mormon leaders felt safe from retaliation for some of these economic decisions partly because they had their own militia called the "Nauvoo Legion." This army was chartered by the state of Illinois shortly after Nauvoo was established. The Legion, which had ceremonial duties within the church, soon evolved into an army whose main job was to protect the leadership of the church. The non-Mormons of the area saw this army as a threat to them.

As time went on relations between Mormons and non-Mormons in Illinois quickly deteriorated. Joseph Smith was killed by an angry mob in 1844. The next year a group of three hundred non-Mormons began to attack and burn Mormon homes in rural areas around Nauvoo. The Mormons formed a posse and retaliated. This violence was the beginning of the end for the Mormons in Illinois.

In 1844 the Illinois General Assembly asked the Mormons to leave the state and withdrew the charter for the city of Nauvoo. From there, the Mormons left in 1845 to resettle in Salt Lake City, Utah.[From Robert Bruce Flanders, Nauvoo Kingdom on the Mississippi; Paul Hawthorne, Nauvoo; Samuel W. Taylor, Nightfall at Nauvoo; Jeff Lindsay, What Was the 1838 Mormon War?,]


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