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Early Mormonism in America

Under the charismatic leadership of its founder, Prophet Joseph Smith, early members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons) moved westward from New York to Ohio to Missouri. In 1839, they acquired the "paper town" of Commerce, in western Illinois on the Mississippi River, and renamed it Nauvoo, which was said to suggest a lovely, restful site.

The book of Revelation required building a temple. Rising majestically on a hilltop overlooking the Mississippi River in Nauvoo, a splendid stone structure 88 feet wide by 128 feet long, with an 82-foot-high tower, was completed between 1841 and 1844. The building was articulated with 30 pilasters, each accented with a basal moonstone, a sunstone capital, and entablature star stones. The imposing building represented the faith of a developing church and its search for a permanent center from which to evangelize the world.

According to an 1844 description by Josiah Quincy, "...Near the entrance to the Temple we passed a workman who was laboring under a huge sun which he had chiseled from the solid rock. The countenance was of the Negro type with the conventional rays. 'General Smith,' said the man, looking up from his task, 'is this like the face you saw in a vision?' 'Very near it,' answered the prophet, 'except (this was added with an air of careful connoisseurship that was quite overpowering)--that the nose is just a thought too broad.'"

An 1848 fire and an 1850 windstorm reduced the building to its front facade. In 1865, the remaining structure was torn down and the intact stone sent by barge down to Quincy, IL. In 1913, it became the property of the Historical Society of Quincy and Adams Counties, which owned it until 1989, when it was purchased by the Smithsonian.

Many people around Nauvoo were suspicious of the new sect and alarmed by its increasing numbers. Religious and social differences led to attacks on Mormon settlers; in 1844, Prophet Joseph Smith was jailed, then murdered by a mob. Attacks on Mormons in the Nauvoo area in late 1845 initiated their historic move. By September 1846, only 700 Mormons remained in Nauvoo, most too poor or sick to move. But when 800 armed vigilantes attacked, these Mormons and those on nearby homesteads also left, setting off a historic westward trek.

A challenging physical and spiritual journey, the well-organized mass migration is viewed by the church as a continuing journey through the wilderness, with "faith in every footstep." Throughout 1846, between 12,000 and 15,000 people crossed the Mississippi River into the wooded hills of Iowa territory. Many stayed there in temporary encampments, while others continued across the Missouri River. They entered the "Indian territory" (of Nebraska), making winter quarters near present-day Omaha.

In April 1847, after a terrible winter, Mormon leader Brigham Young led a vanguard party some 900 miles across the grassland plains and Rocky Mountains to the Great Salt Lake valley. On July 24, 1847, the Mormons arrived at the Great Salt Lake basin in present-day Utah. These pioneers founded Salt Lake City, and Young selected a site for a new temple.


Related Images

Construction of the Nauvoo temple
Construction of the Nauvoo temple

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