“This stake … I have planted to be a cornerstone of Zion, which shall be polished with the refinement which is after the similitude of a palace” (Doctrine and Covenants 124:2).1
In section 124 of the Doctrine and Covenants, Jesus Christ refers to Nauvoo as a “cornerstone of Zion” four times (see verses 2, 23, 60, and 131). A cornerstone is a large stone laid at the corner of a building’s foundation. It gives order, strength, and stability to the entire structure. Zion can mean “the Lord’s people,” “the pure in heart,” or a specific temple-centered location like Jerusalem.2 The Lord called the stake of Nauvoo “a cornerstone of Zion” because the prophetic revelations and the temple covenants He revealed there as well as the community of believers, would give order, strength, and stability to the entire Church for generations to follow.
“What was the object of Gathering the … people of God in any age of the world[?] The main object was to build unto the Lord an house whereby he could reveal unto his people the ordinances of his house and the glories of his kingdom and teach the people the ways of salvation.” —Joseph Smith3
Before 19th-century European settlement, Native peoples lived along Nauvoo’s horseshoe bend in the Mississippi River for generations.4 Some called it Quashquema, a Meskwaki word meaning “peaceful place.”5 But by 1832, after a treaty with the federal government, the Native Americans were forced to leave.6 Investors soon began planning a frontier city they named Venus and later Commerce, but a nationwide banking panic in 1837 changed their plans. The city promoters started looking for someone to buy the land.
During the winter of 1838–1839, Latter-day Saints were driven from their homes in Missouri. Many found refuge in Iowa Territory or around the town of Quincy, Illinois. The Latter-day Saints had tried many times to follow Jesus Christ’s direction to build up a city, but each time they were forced to abandon their efforts. Now, in the spring of 1839, huddled in temporary lodgings and with the Prophet Joseph Smith a prisoner in Liberty, Missouri, they faced a choice. Should they gather to build a city again and risk persecution, or should they scatter among the larger population?7 Aware of the risks but trusting in God, Joseph Smith authorized Church leaders to buy land for gathering. The new location included the small town of Commerce. Joseph renamed the city Nauvoo, a Hebrew word sometimes translated as “beautiful.”8
The Latter-day Saints went to work. They drained swampy land, planted farms and orchards, built homes and roads, and started businesses. At the same time, they welcomed waves of immigrant converts from North America and Europe. At its height, Nauvoo’s population surpassed 10,000 people, making it one of the largest cities in the state of Illinois. At the center stood the Nauvoo Temple, dedicated in 1846 as the house of the Lord, the crowning achievement of the “cornerstone of Zion.”
“My servant Joseph Smith, … unto this end have I raised you up, that I might show forth my wisdom through the weak things of the earth” (Doctrine and Covenants 124:1).
Nauvoo represents the height of Joseph Smith’s mission to restore the gospel of Jesus Christ. Here the Lord revealed a greater understanding of the plan of salvation and restored temple ordinances and blessings. Joseph taught the Saints they could be sealed together in preparation for exaltation, or eternal life. He also taught them they could stand in for their deceased ancestors and receive ordinances that would seal them together in the next life.
The Lord revealed these ordinances as the Saints designed and built the temple. As portions of the temple were completed, priesthood leaders would dedicate spaces for the performance of temple ordinances, and then construction continued on the rest of the building. Eventually, baptisms for the dead, endowment ordinances, and sealings were performed inside the Nauvoo Temple.
“If ye labor with all your might, I will consecrate that spot that it shall be made holy” (Doctrine and Covenants 124:44).
Central to building up Nauvoo as a cornerstone of Zion was building a temple. Nearly every member of the Nauvoo community was invited to help build the temple. Some were paid wages for their work. Others donated their time, money, talent, and labor during more than five years of construction. Some of the most skilled laborers were the stone masons, who carved decorative features into some stones and set all the stones in place as the temple walls rose.
In addition to constructing the temple, Latter-day Saints also drew closer together through religious worship inside the temple. Even as they prepared to depart their beloved temple city in the winter of 1845–1846, the Saints continued receiving ordinances and making covenants with God and each other in the temple day and night. In three short months, over 5,000 Saints received the endowment and over 2,000 were sealed. These covenant relationships solemnized in the Nauvoo Temple bound the growing community of Saints together. As they sought to realize Zion throughout the world in the following centuries, they built on the foundational cornerstone of temple blessings revealed in Nauvoo.
“The Restoration is a process, not an event, and will continue until the Lord comes again. The ultimate objective of the gathering of Israel is to bring the blessings of the temple to God’s faithful children. As we seek how to accomplish that objective more effectively, the Lord reveals more insights. The ongoing Restoration needs ongoing revelation.” —President Russell M. Nelson10
The work of salvation and exaltation performed in Latter-day Saint temples throughout the world today began in Nauvoo. Under divine instruction, Joseph Smith introduced temple covenants and associated priesthood ordinances to the Saints in Nauvoo. Joseph understood that these ordinances would be refined through continuing revelation.
To prepare for the continuation of prophetic revelation, Joseph delegated essential priesthood keys to the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles shortly before his untimely death at Carthage Jail. Using these keys, the Apostles directed the completion of the Nauvoo Temple and administration of temple ordinances to thousands of Latter-day Saints before their exodus to the American West.
Following the departure of the Saints from their city, the original Nauvoo Temple was destroyed by fire and tornado. Over 150 years after the Saints left Nauvoo, President Gordon B. Hinckley dedicated the reconstructed Nauvoo Illinois Temple. The ongoing revelation that builds on the foundational temple revelations is what makes Nauvoo and its temple one of the most sacred places on earth, truly “a cornerstone of Zion.”
1. Revelation given to Joseph Smith at Nauvoo, Illinois, January 19, 1841.
2. See Guide to the Scriptures, “Zion,” ChurchofJesusChrist.org.
3. “Discourse, 11 June 1843–A, as Reported by Wilford Woodruff,” 42–43, josephsmithpapers.org.
4. See “Nauvoo, Illinois,” Places, josephsmithpapers.org.
5. See “Nauvoo State Park,” www2.illinois.gov/dnr/Parks/Pages/Nauvoo.aspx.
6. The Black Hawk War began and ended in 1832 and was a joint attempt from both Sauk and Meskwaki tribes to reclaim land east of the Mississippi River. As an aside, these tribes later visited Joseph Smith on August 12, 1841, and discussed his role as a prophet and their chances for reclaiming land that once belonged to them. Joseph Smith told them that he could not foresee a victory for them in battle, but he counseled them to purchase land and make peace among themselves and with the white settlers. Note the fulfillment of this prophetic counsel from the Meskwaki official website: “Because their ancestors had the tenacity and foresight to purchase their land, the Meskwaki Settlement is not an Indian Reservation. It was not set apart from the public domain and reserved for Indians. It is privately purchased property—a sovereign nation” (“The Meskwaki Nation’s History,” meskwaki.org/history).
7. See Church History Topics, “Nauvoo (Commerce), Illinois,” ChurchofJesusChrist.org/study/history/topics.
8. The Hebrew word Nauvoo is translated as “beautiful” in the King James Version of Isaiah 52:7: “How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of him that bringeth good tidings, that publisheth peace; that bringeth good tidings of good, that publisheth salvation; that saith unto Zion, Thy God reigneth!”
9. See Matthew McBride, A House for the Most High: The Story of the Original Nauvoo Temple (Salt Lake City: Greg Kofford Books, 2007), 103, 140.
10. Russell M. Nelson, “The Temple and Your Spiritual Foundation,” Liahona, Nov. 2021, 94.