Chapter Nineteen

Life in Nauvoo the Beautiful

“Chapter Nineteen: Life in Nauvoo the Beautiful,” Church History in the Fulness of Times Student Manual (2003), 240–50

As the year 1841 began, happiness and excitement prevailed in Nauvoo. Reports were arriving from England recounting the tremendous missionary success of the Twelve Apostles. Persecution, which the members of the Church had suffered since its founding in 1830, was at this point virtually nonexistent. Furthermore, the Saints were ensured civil protection with the passage of the Nauvoo city charter by the state legislature in December 1840.

The Lord’s Call to Build a City

On 15 January 1841 the First Presidency published a proclamation to the Saints “scattered abroad” explaining and expressing appreciation for the Nauvoo charter. The proclamation also expressed gratitude to the honorable citizens of Illinois, particularly those from the city of Quincy, who “like the good Samaritan, poured oil into our wounds, and contributed liberally to our necessities.” The First Presidency also charged: “Let the brethren who love the prosperity of Zion, who are anxious that her stakes should be strengthened and her cords lengthened, and who prefer her prosperity to their chief joy, come and cast in their lots with us, and cheerfully engage in a work so glorious and sublime, and say with Nehemiah, ‘We, His servants, will arise and build.’” They promised that “by a concentration of action, and a unity of effort” the Saints would see both their temporal and spiritual interests enhanced as the blessings of heaven would flow unto God’s people.1

On 19 January the Prophet received a lengthy revelation outlining the development of Nauvoo as a “cornerstone of Zion, which shall be polished with the refinement which is after the similitude of a palace” (D&C 124:2). The Lord commanded Joseph Smith and the Saints to do many things in Nauvoo for the advancement of his kingdom. They were to publish a proclamation to the kings of the world, the president of the United States, and the governors of the several states; build a hotel to be called the Nauvoo House to accommodate strangers who would come to the city to learn about the Saints; build a temple where the Lord would reveal sacred ordinances to his people; ordain Hyrum Smith as the Patriarch to the Church to replace Joseph Smith, Sr., who had died; call William Law as Second Counselor in the First Presidency; organize the Nauvoo Stake with a presidency and a high council; and set in order each of the quorums of the priesthood.

Of all these projects, construction of the temple was the most important. This was one of the primary reasons for gathering. The Kirtland Temple, the first to be built in this dispensation, was inaccessible. Three more temples were planned in Missouri—Independence, Far West, and Adam-ondi-Ahman—but persecution and violence had prevented their construction. Therefore, the Lord excused them of this responsibility: “When I give a commandment to any of the sons of men to do a work unto my name, and those sons of men go with all their might and with all they have to perform that work, and cease not their diligence, and their enemies come upon them and hinder them from performing that work, behold, it behooveth me to require that work no more at the hands of those sons of men” (D&C 124:49).

In Nauvoo the Saints had to begin again. The First Presidency, in their proclamation to the Saints, also said that great exertions would be required of the Saints and that they would be “rejected as a church” by the Lord if they failed to accomplish the task (D&C 124:32). The Presidency wrote, “Therefore let those who can freely make a sacrifice of their time, their talents, and their property, for the prosperity of the kingdom, and for the love they have to the cause of truth, bid adieu to their homes and pleasant places of abode, and unite with us in the great work of the last days.”2

In February the first elections were held in the city. John C. Bennett was elected mayor, and Joseph Smith and other Church leaders were elected aldermen and city councilors. Immediately the new government created the University of Nauvoo and the Nauvoo Legion, with Joseph Smith as the lieutenant general, according to the provisions of the Nauvoo charter.

In March, Joseph Smith received another revelation: “Those who call themselves by my name and are essaying to be my saints, … let them gather themselves together unto the places which I shall appoint unto them by my servant Joseph, and build up cities unto my name, that they may be prepared for that which is in store for a time to come” (D&C 125:2). The first city other than Nauvoo to be built was on the Iowa side of the river. The stake there was to be called Zarahemla, after the famous city in the Book of Mormon. Several small stakes outside Nauvoo were formed during the early Nauvoo period.

Building the City Beautiful

The first homes in Nauvoo were huts, tents, and a few abandoned buildings. The first structures built by the Saints were frontier log cabins. As time and capital allowed, frame homes were erected and still later more substantial brick homes were built. Construction quickly became one of Nauvoo’s principal industries and employed hundreds of craftsmen. Nauvoo had several brickyards to supply sufficient bricks for both homes and public buildings. To beautify their homes and surroundings, the Saints were encouraged to plant and cultivate fruit and shade trees, vines, and bushes on their large lots.3

Of all the projects started under the Prophet’s direction in Nauvoo, the one that most captured the enthusiasm of the Latter-day Saints was the temple. The hopes of the Saints centered on the temple. Its construction dominated the activities of Nauvoo for five years. At the October 1840 general conference Joseph Smith discussed the necessity of building a temple. Three brethren who had worked on the Kirtland Temple—Reynolds Cahoon, Alpheus Cutler, and Elias Higbee—were appointed as a committee to supervise the construction. The plans of architect William Weeks were approved by Joseph Smith, who thereafter gave strict attention to construction and architectural details.

Immediately workmen began the excavation for the temple’s foundation. A stone quarry was opened on the outskirts of the city and was kept in nearly continuous operation. Solid blocks of limestone from four to six feet in diameter were roughly cut, to be polished later at the temple site. On 6 April 1841, Joseph Smith presided over the laying of the cornerstones for the temple.

The Nauvoo Temple

The Nauvoo Temple was the fifth temple contemplated by the early Church and the second one built. (The Independence, Far West, and Adam-ondi-Ahman, Missouri, temples were not built.) The plan and purpose were revealed to the Prophet Joseph Smith. William Weeks was the architect.

Construction took more than five years (January 1841 to May 1846) and required the efforts of many craftsmen who, because of the shortage of capital, either donated their labor as tithing or were paid with food, clothing, furniture, and other contributions of the Saints.

Here are some important dates in the history of the Nauvoo Temple:

19 Jan. 1841

Revelation commanding that the temple be built (D&C 124) was received.

6 Apr. 1841

Cornerstones were laid.

8 Nov. 1841

Basement rooms and baptismal font were dedicated.

21 Nov. 1841

First baptisms were performed.

5 Oct. 1845

General conference was held in the assembly room of the temple.

10 Dec. 1845–7 Feb. 1846

Endowments were given.

8 Feb. 1846

Informal dedication was held by Brigham Young prior to leaving for the West.

30 Apr. 1846

Temple was privately dedicated; Joseph Young, Senior President of the Seventy, offered the dedicatory prayer.

1 May 1846

Official prayer of dedication of the Nauvoo Temple was offered by Orson Hyde.

9 Oct. 1848

Interior of the temple was burned by an arsonist.

27 May 1850

Tornado demolished three of the exterior walls.


Last remaining wall was leveled for safety reasons.

The temple was built largely by donated labor. In February, Nauvoo was divided into wards for political purposes and also to better organize the work force. In nineteenth-century America a ward was a term used for a political subdivision. Each ward was assigned a particular day for working on the temple. Most able-bodied men in Nauvoo contributed work either in the quarry or on the temple, often donating one day in ten as tithing labor. The women served by sewing clothing and preparing meals for the workmen. Monetary donations were solicited from all the Latter-day Saints. Each member was expected to contribute one-tenth of all he possessed at the commencement of the construction and one-tenth of all increase from that time until its completion. Donors and the amount of their contributions were logged into a special book called the Book of the Law of the Lord.

Timber for the interior and the roof of the building, as well as for the Nauvoo House, was brought from the forests of Wisconsin via the Black River, a tributary of the Mississippi. A sizeable contingent of brethren led by Bishop George Miller went to the “pineries” and felled, cut, and rafted thousands of board feet of lumber down the river to Nauvoo.4

The Prophet considered the construction of the Nauvoo House hotel nearly as urgent as construction of the temple. He envisioned it as a means for the Saints to entertain and teach the truth to “men of wealth, character and influence.”5 The cornerstone of the building was laid on 2 October 1841, and several valuable records, including the original Book of Mormon manuscript, were deposited in it. The brethren were constantly encouraged from the pulpit to work on the hotel; however, work progressed slowly because means and labor were meager. In March 1844 Joseph Smith postponed further construction on the hotel in order to press forward on the temple.

With the rapid growth of the city, the need for other public buildings increased. The red brick store was constructed as an office for Joseph Smith and the First Presidency and as a business to help the Prophet support his family. The three-story Masonic hall, also called the cultural hall, was used for theatrical productions, concerts, Masonic ceremonies, political gatherings, art exhibits, funerals, banquets, and court sessions. Church, military, and police meetings were also held in this impressive building. The Seventies Hall was begun in the fall of 1843, and it was ready for dedication a year later. This two-story structure provided a place where the seventies, who were the missionary force of the Church, could meet and be trained. The first floor was filled with beautiful pews and a pulpit; the second floor contained an office, a small museum, and a library of 675 volumes.

Nauvoo City Government

The growth of Nauvoo6 was helped immeasurably by the liberal provisions of the Nauvoo charter. The city council established a disciplined police force and passed ordinances for the efficient administration of the city. Laws were created guaranteeing the right of assembly and freedom of worship for individuals of all religious persuasions. The council implemented plans to drain the swamps and set up a public works program to provide employment and promote the construction of homes, hotels, stores, and other buildings. They also passed an ordinance prohibiting the sale of liquor in the city and established laws controlling public events in order to avoid any immoral or obscene exhibition.

Establishment of the Nauvoo Legion as the city militia was of great importance. Because of their bitter experiences in Missouri, Latter-day Saints had an understandable mistrust of state militia forces. Although nominally part of the Illinois state militia and technically under the direction of the governor, the legion operated legally (according to the charter) under local control. It enacted its own regulations and conducted its own internal and organizational affairs. The militia included able-bodied males between eighteen and forty-five years of age. It was organized into two cohorts, or brigades, one of infantry and the other of cavalry. Each cohort was commanded by a brigadier general, and the entire body was under the command of Lieutenant General Joseph Smith. At its peak the Nauvoo Legion numbered three thousand men.

Parades and military demonstrations staged by the legion drew considerable attention throughout western Illinois. One Latter-day Saint recalled, “Some of the most impressive moments of my life were, when I saw the ‘Nauvoo Legion’ on parade with the Prophet, then Gen. Joseph Smith, with his wife, Emma Hale Smith, on horseback at the head of the troops. It was indeed, an imposing sight, and one that I shall always remember. He so fair, and she so dark, in their beautiful riding-habits. … He also wore a sword at his side. His favorite riding-horse was named Charlie, a big black steed.”7

Economic Growth in Nauvoo

As in other American cities at that time, agriculture was the main economic enterprise in Nauvoo and surrounding Latter-day Saint communities. Most families with an acre of property in the city maintained a garden with fruit trees, grapevines, and vegetables. Poorer Saints farmed or gardened in the “big field,” a community farm located on the outskirts of the city. The Big Field Association regulated the crops to be planted and the acreage to be cultivated. Other farmers outside the city or in outlying communities, such as Ramus, Lima, or Yelrome, sowed wheat, oats, rye, and potatoes and kept cattle, sheep, and hogs.

map, Illinois and Wisconsin

During the Nauvoo period Latter-day Saints brought lumber for the Mansion House, the interior of the temple, and other buildings from the Wisconsin “pineries” in the Black River Falls and vicinity. Operations began there in 1841. The small Mormon settlements of Mormon Coulee and St. Joseph were located just southeast of La Crosse. A sawmill in Melrose, between Black River Falls and La Crosse, and later another one fifteen miles closer to the logging operations was purchased.

Logs were cut on the banks of the Black River and its tributaries and were floated to the sawmills. Some lumber was sold on the open market, but most of it was loaded onto rafts and floated more than five hundred miles down the Mississippi River to Nauvoo.

About 150 men worked in the forests in the spring and summer of 1842. The first raft with 50,000 board feet of pine arrived in May 1842. In 1843 more than 600,000 board feet, including hewed timbers, shingles, and barn boards, were cut. Operations in the summer of 1844 were hindered by financial problems, disputes with Indians over land claims, and the death of Joseph Smith. Nevertheless, two rafts totaling 155,000 board feet were sent to Nauvoo that year.

With the rapid influx of immigrants eager to build homes, cultivate the soil, set up businesses, or practice their trades, Nauvoo quickly became a bustling and productive community. This was in stark contrast to the rest of Illinois, which was suffering under an economic depression. In Nauvoo there were many small shops and factories: sawmills, several brickyards, a lime kiln, a tool factory, printing offices, flour mills, bakeries, tailor shops, blacksmith shops, shoe shops, a carpenter’s and joiner’s shop, and cabinetmakers’ shops. These shops sprang up everywhere and anywhere in the city, since there were no zoning laws. Nauvoo craftsmen produced matches, leather goods, rope and cord, gloves, bonnets, pottery, jewelry, and watches.8

Like the artisans of other American communities, Nauvoo’s workers often banded together according to occupations to set prices, establish standards, and police their particular vocation. At least eighteen such associations came into being in Nauvoo, including the important Nauvoo House Association, the Botanic Association, the Nauvoo Coach and Carriage Manufacturing Association, the Tailors, Potters, Bricklayers, and finally the successful Nauvoo Agriculture and Manufacturing Association.

Construction of the Nauvoo House, a Church-owned hotel on the banks of the Mississippi in Nauvoo, was commanded by the Lord in Doctrine and Covenants 124. When the cornerstone was laid on 2 October 1841, Joseph Smith deposited the original manuscript of the Book of Mormon in it. Work proceeded vigorously for a while, but because of the tension aroused by anti-Mormon sentiment, building efforts were concentrated on the temple, and the Nauvoo House was never completed.

After the Martyrdom, the bodies of Joseph and Hyrum were temporarily buried in the basement of the Nauvoo House. Emma Smith’s second husband, Louis Bidamon, completed a house on a portion of the foundation. In 1882 he found and opened the cornerstone. Much of the Book of Mormon manuscript was badly deteriorated. Throughout the years he gave portions of it to visitors who came to Nauvoo. The Church now has over 140 pages of the original manuscript.

Courtesy of the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints

Since land and buildings were the chief assets in Nauvoo, buying, selling, and exchanging land became one of the city’s major businesses. During his first two years in Nauvoo, the Prophet was heavily engaged in real estate transactions as the Church treasurer and later the trustee-in-trust. Since Church members had little or no money, they often obtained land in exchange for title to property they owned in Missouri or Ohio. Eventually private investors sold and traded land to new arrivals, especially on the bluffs in the eastern part of the city where the temple was being built. Since the Church owned most of the lowlands, leaders encouraged the Saints to buy lots and establish businesses there so the Church could divest itself of the land and pay its debts. Some landowners on the bluffs accused the Church of unfair competition and argued that it was healthier to live on the higher ground. Gradually seeds of jealousy over these and other problems led some members to apostatize from the Church.9

Education and Society in Nauvoo

The interest in education that had been manifest in Kirtland was expanded in Nauvoo. Private schools preceded the more extensive public efforts that resulted from the passage of the Nauvoo charter. At least eighty-one people—forty-eight men and thirty-three women—made part of their living teaching in Nauvoo. Over eighteen hundred students were enrolled in school. The school year was divided into terms that usually lasted three months. Eli B. Kelsey taught and directed the largest public school of well over one hundred students. The cost of attending school in Nauvoo ranged from $1.50 to $3.00 per term, and some of the scholars paid tuition with produce.10

The pinnacle of Nauvoo’s education system was the University of the City of Nauvoo. Because of other building priorities, however, a campus was never constructed. University classes convened in private homes and public buildings. The faculty included Parley P. Pratt, professor of English, mathematics, and sciences; Orson Pratt, professor of English literature and mathematics; Orson Spencer, professor of foreign languages; Sidney Rigdon, professor of Church history; and Gustavus Hills, professor of music.11 Orson Pratt was the most popular professor. He offered courses in arithmetic, algebra, geometry, trigonometry, surveying, navigation, analytical geometry, calculus, philosophy, astronomy, and chemistry. Irregular schedules and the lack of a full-time faculty and a campus meant the university was only in its initial stages of development when the Saints were forced to leave Illinois. Nevertheless, an important precedent was set for the involvement of the Church in higher education in the future.

Orson Spencer (1802–55)

Orson Spencer (1802–55) was born in Massachusetts. He was highly educated for his time, graduating from Union College in Schenectady, New York, in 1824. After teaching briefly and studying law, he turned his attention to religion and in 1829 graduated from a theological college in Hamilton, New York. He was a minister for twelve years before accepting the restored gospel in 1841.

During the Nauvoo exodus, his wife died, leaving him with six children under the age of thirteen. In the midst of these trials he was called to serve as mission president in England in 1847. He served there for two years and also edited the Millennial Star. He was appointed chancellor of the newly founded University of Deseret in Utah in 1850. He served in the territorial legislature and later went on several missions, including one to Prussia, Germany, and another to the Cherokee Indians.

Courtesy of Utah State Historical Society

Education for many of the Saints in Nauvoo came through public lectures and debates. Many traveling lecturers spoke in Nauvoo on such diverse topics as phrenology (the pseudo-science of character-reading from the shape of the cranium) and geology. The Nauvoo Lyceum conducted regular debates on current issues. The Saints also established a museum from the contributions of missionaries and other travelers. Addison Pratt made the first contribution. Some of the items he contributed were a whale’s tooth, coral, and the jawbone of a porpoise.12

The chief source of news in Nauvoo was the newspaper. The Saints had published newspapers in Missouri and Ohio. During the siege in Missouri, Church leaders buried the printing press used for the Elders’ Journal. It was recovered in 1839 and brought to Nauvoo, where it was used to print the Times and Seasons starting in November of that year. As the official publication of the Church, the Times and Seasons was carefully controlled and supervised by the Prophet.

During its brief history, the Times and Seasons published significant doctrinal items and policy statements, including parts of Joseph Smith’s official history, portions of the book of Moses, and the book of Abraham, which were all later included in the Pearl of Great Price. The paper also featured conference addresses, circular letters from the Council of the Twelve Apostles, minutes of important Church meetings, reprints from other newspapers, and the King Follett Discourse. There were dozens of articles on the Book of Mormon, including items on archaeological evidence and discussion of geographical locations.


The Saints were kept informed of local, state, and national news through the columns of three newspapers during the Nauvoo period. The Times and Seasons was devoted primarily to Church matters, while the Prophet’s brother William served as editor of the Wasp, a more secular newspaper that advocated the cause of the Saints. Later the Nauvoo Neighbor replaced the Wasp.

Nauvoo also had a weekly nonreligious newspaper devoted to agriculture, business, science, art, and community events. When it first appeared in April 1842 it was known as the Wasp, but the name was later changed to the Nauvoo Neighbor. It was printed on the same press as the Times and Seasons and was edited by William Smith, brother of the Prophet. Later, John Taylor was assigned the editorial responsibility.

Nauvoo’s residents, like other Americans, had some time for and enjoyed participating in recreational activities. They attended the theater (in the cultural hall), lectures, balls, or dancing schools, sang in one of three choirs, performed in one of three brass bands, bowled, played ball, pulled sticks, wrestled, and watched prairie fires. Joseph Smith especially liked to pull sticks and wrestle and was widely hailed as one of the best at both. Wood cutting and quilting bees, cooperative barn and house building, fishing, picking wild berries, braiding, and weaving were practical as well as recreational pastimes that were also popular.

Death and disease continued to plague Nauvoo even after the swamps were drained and the fever and ague diminished. Almost half of the reported deaths in Nauvoo were among children under the age of ten. Death often hit a family more than once, sometimes taking both parents. Diseases that attacked and often killed the Saints were diarrhea, canker, measles, mumps, whooping cough, the bloody flux, consumption, and diphtheria. Letters to loved ones frequently spoke of sickness, death, and suffering.

Writing to her husband, John Taylor, while he was still serving his mission in England, Leonora Taylor reported, “This has been a distressed place since you left, with sickness. Almost every individual in every family [is] sick; George [John Taylor’s son] got well of his fever but has a little sore on the edge of the sight in his eye that has given me great anxiety.”13 Bathsheba Smith wrote the following in 1842 to her missionary husband, George A. Smith, concerning their son: “George Albert was sick last Saturday and Sunday. He had quite a fever. I was very uneasy about him. I was afraid he was going to have the fever. I took him to the font and had him baptized and since then he has not had any fever. He is about well now.”14

Nauvoo letters did not dwell exclusively on sickness, death, and suffering. Public events, progress with gardening, and current events in the Church were just a few of the other topics. Bathsheba Smith’s confession of loneliness for her beloved George A. is a good example of the frequent expressions of affection that were part of nearly every letter: “I should be pleased to spend this afternoon with you. It seems to me I could not wish to enjoy my self better than to sit under the sound of your rich and lovely voice and hear you unfold the rich treasure of your mind. Even the sound of your footstep would be music in my ear.”15

The cultural hall

The cultural hall was dedicated in April 1844. Something of a public building, it housed musical and theatrical productions and other cultural activities as well as city council and other meetings. It also served as the Nauvoo Masonic lodge. Originally it was a three-story building, but the third story was taken off sometime after 1880. Since acquiring it in 1962 the Church has restored the building, including the third story.

Church Organization Expands

As thousands of Saints gathered to Nauvoo and surrounding communities, new organizational needs emerged. The three major stakes in the area, Nauvoo, Iowa (Zarahemla), and Ramus (Illinois), were provided with an organization consisting of a presidency and high council. In addition, the Iowa and the Ramus stakes had a bishop to oversee the care of the poor and see to other essential welfare needs. In Nauvoo three bishops were originally assigned to serve the needy within the three municipal wards of the community. By August of 1842 the rapid influx of immigrants led to the restructuring of the city into ten wards with three additional wards on the outskirts. With the needs of the incoming Saints in mind, bishops were appointed for each ward. There was no ward ecclesiastical organization nor was there any idea of a ward congregation. Sunday services and priesthood quorums functioned at a stake or a general Church level.

Priesthood quorums were reconstituted in Nauvoo. There was one elders quorum, with John A. Hicks serving as president. The high priests quorum was presided over by Don Carlos Smith. Three seventies quorums, organized prior to Nauvoo, were primarily designed to provide a pool of missionaries. Thus the seventies were the largest of the Melchizedek Priesthood groups during the Nauvoo period. As such they constructed their own building, the impressive Seventies Hall on Parley Street, and were active in missionary and educational pursuits. Several more seventies quorums were organized following the Prophet’s death.

When the Apostles returned from their mission to Great Britain, Joseph Smith gave them additional responsibility in the Church organizational structure. At a special conference on 16 August 1841, the Prophet announced that the Twelve were to remain at home, where they could support their families, relieve the First Presidency of some financial duties, and attend to the needs of the many immigrants. Joseph said that while they would continue to direct missionary work, “the time had come when the Twelve should be called upon to stand in their place next to the First Presidency.”16 Previously the Twelve had operated as a traveling high council and had no jurisdiction where there were organized stakes with their own high councils. As a result, in the minds of many, the high councils sometimes rivaled the Twelve in authority. But now the Twelve became General Authorities over the stakes as well as over the missions. By the time the Prophet was martyred, he had trained the Twelve Apostles and blessed them with the keys of the kingdom so that they were fully able to take over the leadership of the Church.

Plate depicting the organization meeting of the Relief Society

Plate depicting the organization meeting of the Relief Society. Beginning in Kirtland when the women of the Church united to make the veils of the Kirtland Temple, they drew the praises of Joseph Smith for being foremost in good works.

On Thursday afternoon, 17 March 1842, in Nauvoo, the Prophet, in company with John Taylor and Willard Richards, formally organized the eighteen women present into a society. Joseph Smith stated, “The Church was never perfectly organized until the women were thus organized.”17 Emma Smith was called to be the first president, with Sarah M. Cleveland and Elizabeth Ann Whitney as counselors and Eliza R. Snow as secretary.

Latter-day Saint women were blessed with a new Church organization during the Nauvoo era. It had its inception when several women, led by Sarah M. Kimball, organized to make shirts for the men working on the temple. They drafted a plan of government typical of women’s groups at that time, but when Joseph Smith was consulted, he offered to organize the women after the same pattern as the priesthood. Under his direction and at a gathering of eighteen women, the Female Relief Society of Nauvoo was organized on 17 March 1842. Emma Smith was selected as its president, thus, according to Joseph, fulfilling an earlier revelation identifying her as an “elect lady” (D&C 25:3). The organization’s objective was “the relief of the poor, the destitute, the widow and the orphan, and for the exercise of all benevolent purposes.”18

On 28 April the Prophet gave the sisters additional counsel and promises. He advised the women to treat their husbands “with mildness and affection” and to meet them with a “smile instead of an argument or a murmur,” reminding them that when a mind is in despair it needs the “solace of affection and kindness.” After promising that they would receive appropriate instruction through the order of the priesthood, he said, “I now turn the key in your behalf in the name of the Lord, and this Society shall rejoice, and knowledge and intelligence shall flow down from this time henceforth; this is the beginning of better days to the poor and needy, who shall be made to rejoice and pour forth blessings on your heads.”19

Title page of the minute book of the first Relief Society

Title page of the minute book of the first Relief Society, titled A Book of Records Containing the Proceedings of the Female Relief Society of Nauvoo, and containing a note “appropriate for the Society” taken from a scrap found in an old Bible in the room.

The note reads: “O, Lord! help our widows, and fatherless children! So mote it be. Amen. With the sword, and the word of truth, defend thou them. So mote it be. Amen.”

Although at that time Latter-day Saint women had to apply to become members, the Relief Society was very popular and grew rapidly. Membership had grown to over thirteen hundred women at the time of Joseph Smith’s death. Because of the crisis created by the Martyrdom and the exodus to and settlement in the West, there were few Relief Society meetings until the organization was revived in 1867.

Since worship was not conducted on a ward basis, it centered on the public ministry of the Prophet and private family devotions. When weather permitted, Sunday meetings were held in a grove near the temple where several thousand people could be accommodated. Church authorities sat on a portable platform, while the audience rested on bricks, split logs, or on the grass. Sabbath worship usually included a spiritual meeting in the morning and an afternoon business meeting. The Saints loved to hear their Prophet speak and were faithful in attending these public services, but it was a strenuous exercise for him to speak for several hours to the vast audience in the open air. At times his voice gave out temporarily and he called others to take his place. Many of his sermons were recorded and provide an important source of doctrine and guidance for the Church today.

Families often met in their homes and enjoyed hot bread or other refreshments while listening to testimonies, counsel from the family head, and missionary reports. Private religious life in Nauvoo also included fasting and prayer, singing hymns, and administering to the sick. Even social events had a religious aspect and played a great role in uniting the Saints and fostering their way of life.

Life in Nauvoo was generally typical of life in American cities of the nineteenth century. But there were some unique aspects. Perhaps its greatest difference was that most of its citizens’ fondest hopes centered on gathering together according to the principles of Zion, building their holy temple, learning the doctrines of salvation, and seeking the blessings of the Almighty.

Show References


  1. Joseph Smith, Hyrum Smith, and Sidney Rigdon, in History of the Church, 4:267, 271–72.

  2. Smith, Smith, and Rigdon, in History of the Church, 4:273.

  3. This paragraph is derived from James B. Allen and Glen M. Leonard, The Story of the Latter-day Saints (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1976), p. 155.

  4. Previous two paragraphs derived from Allen and Leonard, Story of the Latter-day Saints, pp. 154, 156, 161–62.

  5. History of the Church, 5:328; see also 5:137.

  6. Section derived from Allen and Leonard, Story of the Latter-day Saints, pp. 151, 153.

  7. “A Sketch of the Life of Eunice Billings Snow,” Woman’s Exponent, Sept. 1910, p. 22.

  8. Derived from Allen and Leonard, Story of the Latter-day Saints, pp. 155–56.

  9. Derived from Allen and Leonard, Story of the Latter-day Saints, p. 155.

  10. See Paul Thomas Smith, “A Historical Study of the Nauvoo, Illinois, Public School System, 1841–1845,” master’s thesis, Brigham Young University, 1969, pp. 82–98.

  11. Derived from Allen and Leonard, Story of the Latter-day Saints, pp. 158–59.

  12. See History of the Church, 5:406.

  13. In Ronald K. Esplin, “Sickness and Faith, Nauvoo Letters,” Brigham Young University Studies, Summer 1975, p. 427; spelling and capitalization standardized.

  14. In Kenneth W. Godfrey, Audrey M. Godfrey, and Jill Mulvay Derr, Women’s Voices (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1982), pp. 122–23; spelling and capitalization standardized.

  15. In Godfrey, Godfrey, and Derr, Women’s Voices, p. 125.

  16. Brigham Young, in History of the Church, 4:403.

  17. “Story of the Organization of the Relief Society,” Relief Society Magazine, Mar. 1919, p. 129.

  18. History of the Church, 4:567; previous two paragraphs derived from Allen and Leonard, Story of the Latter-day Saints, pp. 160, 163–64.

  19. In History of the Church, 4:606–7.