The reconstructed Mormon Temple in Nauvoo, Illinois. Photo courtesy of the Getaway Guys

On a very pleasant weekend last month we explored Nauvoo, Illinois. Alan had visited Nauvoo before, once as a youngster living in Quincy, Illinois and later in 1982 as a Dad with two sons in tow. Neil first heard of this unique town while an undergraduate at Southern Illinois University in the early 60’s, but did not see it until 50 years later.

Situated on the Mississippi River south of Ft. Madison, Iowa, the Nauvoo story is complex and intriguing. It was (is) a community with a conflicted past and a dual identity; an identity centered on its rise, fall and resurrection due in large part to its Mormon connection. Until the Mormons arrived from Independence, Missouri in 1839, Commerce (Nauvoo) was a typical frontier settlement on the edge of civilization. True to frontier norms, life in the middle of nowhere had its advantages and disadvantages. People and commerce either survived or didn’t, but with the arrival of Joseph Smith (1805-1844) and his followers, Nauvoo changed rapidly and by 1844 had a population of 12,000 (second only to Chicago) and a robust economy, which did not sit well with prior settlers because of Smith’s newfangled religion (Mormonism) and the collective economic clout of his followers. The Mormons had worn out their welcome in upstate New York, Ohio and Missouri, and a similar fate awaited them in Nauvoo, but not before building a boom town and an impressive Temple.

Mr. Smith must have been very charismatic. His followers believed in him and the religion he founded based on 12 golden tablets inscribed in a mysterious language found near Palmyra, New York when he was 22. Their discovery was enabled by the Angel Moroni. Smith translated the contents, while an assistant recorded them in English Moroni reappeared to confiscate the plates, and they were never seen again. The rest is history. Mormonism coincided with what is now called the Second Awakening in American history, a period when charismatic prophets of various religious beliefs (like Smith) flourished.

As the sole possessor of the knowledge contained in the mysterious plates, Smith exerted a large degree of control over life in Nauvoo, which proved to be his undoing and led to his assassination in 1844 in nearby Carthage, Illinois. Upon his death, some Nauvoo Mormons stayed, but most headed to Utah (lead by Brigham Young, 1801-1877), while others established a new Mormon church now called the Community of Christ. Nauvoo declined drastically in population and prosperity, the monumental Mormon Temple was destroyed by arsonists and Nauvoo was occupied briefly by French Icarians devoted to intellectual inquiry and communal living. Later, Germans escaping unrest in the Fatherland moved into Nauvoo and this former Mormon-Icarian community became predominately Catholic. According to the WPA Illinois guide book published in 1939, Nauvoo then had a population of about 900.

Today’s downtown Nauvoo is centered on Mulholland Street and it is quintessentially Midwestern in character. Lined with a variety of businesses housed in late 19th century structures, along with some very early 19th century architectural examples, downtown isn’t down at the heels like many Illinois communities of similar size, nor is it expanding with an infusion of tourist dollars. It is just plain comfortable and welcoming, along with admirable examples of historic preservation. The rest of Nauvoo appears to be the domain of more recently arrived Mormons, those affiliated with the Community of Christ branch (based in Independence, Missouri) and those loyal to the Church of Latter Day Saints (based in Salt Lake City). Both groups have embarked on an extensive restoration effort on the flat lands below downtown. Each has purchased large tracts of land, restored original structures and built authentic replicas of former Mormon dwellings and commercial buildings. Collectively, their respective efforts are interesting and commendable from an architectural and historic preservation perspective.

Among numerous restored/resurrected buildings of interest are the original Smith House, the stately Mansion House (second Smith residence), the Brigham Young House, The Jonathan Browning House and Workshop, and the Masonic Temple/Nauvoo Legion Armory (not to be confused with the Mormon Temple). Jonathan Browning (1805-1879), a Mormon, founded an arms-making empire in Nauvoo (Browning Shotguns, The Browning Automatic Rifle, etc.). The Masonic Temple/Nauvoo Legion Armory was the headquarters of Joseph Smith’s private army (said to have been 5,000 strong). The Masonic Temple/Armory is neo-Classical in appearance, the Browning dwelling-workshop is a two story period brick building of comfortable size, the Mansion House is an impressive Federalist design, the original Smith House is a log structure with modest, later additions. Mormon missionaries dressed in period costumes act as guides.

Just off downtown Mulholland Street and looming over Mormon activity below, is the recreated Mormon Temple of 1846. Built to scale, constructed of limestone and embellished with symbolic low relief (somewhat comic) representations of the Sun and Moon, the Temple is a sight to see. Entry is, however, restricted to Mormons. (Incidentally, Miles Archibald Romney, great-great-great grandfather of Mitt Romney, worked as a carpenter on the Nauvoo temple. He also performed a similar task on the present Mormon Temple in Salt Lake City.)

From a number of angles we Getaway Guys found Nauvoo intriguing and central to their understanding of Mormonism, especially in light of a devout Mormon running for the Presidency of the United States, an act of audacity once tried by Joseph Smith prior to his assassination 167 years earlier. Apparently America has come a long way (an African-American President) and a possible President closely associated with once reviled religious beliefs.

Editor’s Note:  The authors maintain a free website, www.getaway-chicago.com, which offers recommended outings to nearby destinations that are often overlooked, but of genuine interest and delight.