Nauvoo Symposium Held at Brigham Young University
November 1989

“Nauvoo Symposium Held at Brigham Young University,” Ensign, Nov. 1989, 109–11

Nauvoo Symposium Held at Brigham Young University

Nearly eight hundred people attended Brigham Young University’s day-long symposium on Nauvoo, Illinois, held on September 21. The symposium was part of the Church’s year-long commemoration of the city’s founding in 1839 and the achievements of Joseph Smith and the Saints there. In addition to President Gordon B. Hinckley and Elder Loren C. Dunn, both of whom gave talks, thirty-three scholars took part in the symposium, presenting papers on various aspects of Nauvoo.

In his remarks, President Hinckley, First Counselor in the First Presidency, said, “Ever since the Prophet named the place Nauvoo, we have spoken of it as ‘Nauvoo the beautiful.’” He then identified five features that made it so: (1) The setting of bluff, farmland, and river was beautiful. “There is something majestic … about the great river which flows around the Nauvoo point.” (2) Nauvoo’s beginnings were beautiful. Though the land was swampy and inhospitable at first, Nauvoo was a refuge after calamity. “How beautiful to the homeless is a home,” he said. (3) The creating of Nauvoo was beautiful. “There is no music like the music of industry. … There was nothing temporary about their [work]. They built as if they were going to live there for generations.” (4) The suffering of the Saints was beautiful. “There is tragedy, yes; there is sorrow, of course. But there is something sublime in suffering for a great cause.” (5) The death of Nauvoo was beautiful. “There was a certain beauty in the solemnity of it, in the sublimity of their faith, in their resolution to leave Nauvoo behind and recreate it on a grander scale somewhere in the West.”

Elder Dunn, a member of the First Quorum of the Seventy and managing director of Nauvoo Restoration, Inc., reviewed the work at Carthage and Nauvoo. The theme of the renovated Carthage site has been reconciliation, he stressed, and the emphasis has been on Joseph and Hyrum Smith’s lives: “Carthage should not be famous just for their deaths. It should be famous for what they stood for and did.” In Nauvoo, the last restoration projects for 1989 are a shoemaker shop, a tinsmith shop, a two-story barn in the style of the period, and the old Nauvoo burial ground. By next spring, the visitors’ center will focus historically on Nauvoo and the early Church. Among its displays will be an eighteen-foot model of old Nauvoo. Elder Dunn said that Nauvoo Restoration’s purpose is twofold: (1) Historical—80 percent of the visitors come because of interest in American history. One goal has been to restore important parts of Nauvoo as they appeared from 1839 to 1845. (2) Spiritual—It reminds Latter-day Saints of their spiritual heritage and the great things the Lord has done for his people.

After Elder Dunn’s presentation, a panel focused on Nauvoo in its broader setting. The sessions following featured presentations on the population, law, culture, and arts of Nauvoo; Joseph Smith as a prophet and teacher; priesthood and Relief Society organization; the temple; views of Nauvoo held by those outside Nauvoo; historical interpretations of Nauvoo; faith and apostasy; immigration and exodus; renovation of properties in Nauvoo; and the visual appearance of Nauvoo. As with most symposia, the papers reflected the conclusions of individual scholars and not any general consensus. A sampling of some of the papers follows:

What Was Nauvoo Like?

  • “Geographic and Demographic Considerations.” Robert L. Layton said that Nauvoo was part of a transportation, land-development, and population boom. From 1830 to 1840, Illinois and Missouri were the frontier. By 1840, several million people had crossed the Appalachians—only 40 percent of the people in Illinois had been born in the state, for example. Most were U. S. citizens; 13 percent were foreigners. Forests, not mountains, provided the barrier, so travel moved along waterways, and towns developed there first. In 1840, Illinois had 476,183 people; in 1850, it had 851,470 people. Only nine thousand were over age 45. The majority—272,000—were age 24 or younger.

  • “Church Membership in Nauvoo, 1839–1846.” Estimates of Nauvoo’s population have differed by as much as 16,000, Susan Easton Black said. After analysis of thousands of records, more accurate figures are now available. Nauvoo at its peak had about 12,000 people. Unlike most frontier populations, Nauvoo’s median age was in the 30s, and the percentage of males and females was almost even. Twenty-six percent had been born in England in industrial cities. The most common occupation, however, was farming. Carpentry was a distant second.

  • “Remembering Nauvoo.” Reviewing a multitude of writings about Nauvoo, Glen M. Leonard demonstrated that everyone saw Nauvoo from a particular stance and viewpoint. Thus, all accounts are interpretive even when they use facts. For example, observers of Nauvoo wrote as pilgrims, journalists, celebrants, sociologists, historians, or members of different churches. Their approaches—whether investigative, reminiscent, sensationalistic, or commemorative—narrowed their viewpoint.

  • “Nauvoo of the Imagination.” Using slides of period architecture and descriptions of Nauvoo, Paul L. Anderson imagined what Nauvoo may have looked like. He pointed out that Nauvoo exists only in our imaginations. We are visually unfamiliar with the city—photography developed after the Saints left, and old paintings are scarce. Nauvoo today is expansive and peaceful, and most buildings are brick. The Saints’ city, however, was crowded and noisy, and most buildings were one-story log buildings.

Joseph Smith

  • “Joseph Smith: Prophet, Teacher, Theologian.” Many of the most important and most distinctive LDS doctrines were taught widely for the first time during the Nauvoo period, Larry C. Porter said. For example, Joseph Smith taught about our premortal existence, the three degrees of glory, spirit being matter, and the nature of God.

  • “The Effort to Preserve the Teachings of Joseph Smith.” Dean C. Jessee looked at the many documents that contain the teachings of Joseph Smith. Fewer than one in ten of the Prophet’s discourses were recorded, and those were subject to the interpretation of the scribes who recorded them. The most trustworthy discourses are those that exist in several accounts recorded by different people. The versions of such a discourse can be compared for accuracy in both style and content.

Religion and Church Organization

  • “The American Religious Context.” Thomas G. Alexander defined five major religious traits of the early 1800s that affected the Restoration: the decline of Calvinism, which emphasized election and predetermination; the rise of churches after a half-century decline; the emphasis on restoring the church as it had existed in Apostolic times; the emphasis on the Savior’s second coming; and persecution of numerous religious groups.

  • “Priesthood Bearers and Quorums.” Priesthood quorums were organized much more loosely up to 1844 than they are now, William G. Hartley said. Not all men held the priesthood; instead, they were ordained as needed. In Nauvoo, priesthood organization became more complete. Brigham Young organized thirty-two quorums of seventy, so almost every man held the priesthood. Bishops received more spiritual responsibility, and teenagers were ordained to fill Aaronic Priesthood quorums after men began receiving their endowments and moving to Melchizedek Priesthood quorums.

  • “The Female Relief Society.” Maureen Ursenbach Beecher maintained that, though the Relief Society functioned in Nauvoo only from 1842 to 1844, it was instrumental in preparing women to receive temple ordinances. The Prophet instructed the sisters on the scriptures and gospel doctrine and encouraged them to pursue charitable activities. The organization helped to set policies and programs used in the Relief Society today.

Law and Crime

  • “My Ancestor Was a Bodyguard to Joseph Smith.” James L. Kimball examined the Nauvoo police system. The city had four wards, with one part-time constable per ward and a high constable over them. A city watch to guard the area at night was called to assist the constables. In 1842, the city watch switched from regular citizens to the Nauvoo Legion. Later, the city required forty police officers. The legion also provided protection for Joseph Smith and other Church leaders. Even after the Prophet’s death, they were still referred to as “Joseph’s Guard.”

  • “The Lawrence Estate Revisited.” William Law’s recollection of how Joseph Smith, as guardian of the Lawrence children, cheated them and him is full of errors, claimed Gordon A. Madsen. All the court records pertaining to the guardianship and Joseph Smith’s management of the Lawrence estate still exist. They show that virtually all of Law’s claims are mistaken.

Nauvoo and Its Neighbors

  • “The Mormon Settlement at Macedonia.” Was there much interaction between Saints and nonmembers among smaller settlements near Nauvoo? asked Susan Sessions Rugh. In some ways, yes. The LDS settlement of Macedonia and the neighboring non-Mormon settlement of Fountain Green developed strong commercial ties. But other kinds of interaction were minimal, and political differences eventually alienated the two communities. Journals of Fountain Green residents show suspicion toward Macedonia residents.

  • “Political and Economic Considerations.” James B. Allen identified the major issues of the day: voters’ rights, antislavery movements, suffrage, and temperance. Sectionalism was also growing, leading eventually to the Civil War. A severe economic recession characterized the 1830s and early 1840s. Land speculation on the frontier was rampant. When the Saints filed for redress for their lost property, the issue of states’ rights prevented the federal government from acting. When Joseph Smith ran for president of the United States, his platform dealt with these issues. Many of his views foreshadow legislation passed since then.

Women’s Issues

  • “Women in the American Setting.” Carol Cornwall Madsen explored the rapid changes for American women during the early 1800s. In 1820, most women were illiterate, but by the 1850s, they were the leaders in novel and poetry writing. New factories also opened the workplace to women. In religion, twice as many women joined churches as men. Females weren’t allowed to vote, but an 1848 women’s rights convention declared that women had that right. Many LDS women leaders felt that the 1842 organization of the Relief Society opened the way for the emancipation of women everywhere.

  • “Women’s Perceptions of Their Husbands’ Priesthood Callings.” In studying the writings of 120 Nauvoo women, Melinda Evans Vail found that most women supported their husbands’ priesthood involvement and accepted the resulting hardships, seeing them as a sacrifice for the Lord. The women wrote with pride of temple-building and accepted sometimes difficult doctrines because they believed the doctrines were necessary to the Restoration.

Education, Culture, and the Arts

  • “A People of ‘Culture and Refinement.’” We must be careful about drawing conclusions from insufficient evidence, Davis Bitton said. Though many Church members think of Nauvoo as a prosperous and highly educated society, it probably wasn’t, particularly by today’s standards. Nauvoo had a library, and its holdings have been documented. But it wasn’t established until 1844, and no one knows how many people used it or what books were read. Many citizens were minimally educated, and most were so busy building the settlement and earning a living that they had no time to pursue culture or education.

  • “Theater in Nauvoo, in a Milieu of Cultural Arts.” Carma de Jong Anderson mentioned that the University of Nauvoo offered an amazing variety of classes, though no one knows how many were actually taught. Schools also existed for the very poor. Classes, choir performances, circus acts, magic shows, and plays were staged in the Red Brick Store and in the Cultural Hall. Drama in the early 1800s was moralistic and instructional, and Church leaders welcomed it both as entertainment and education. A theater company was formed in Nauvoo and staged tours of its most popular play, Pizarro.

  • “Songs of Joseph’s Nauvoo.” Mixing lecture and music, Michael D. Hicks showed how the songs from the Nauvoo era reflected the life of the Saints. Some, like “Adam-ondi-Ahman,” had uniquely LDS themes. Others, such as “The Mobbers of Missouri,” were satires about the Saints’ enemies. Still others were popular songs of the day that the Prophet often requested, like “The Soldier’s Tear.” Though members like Parley P. Pratt and Isaac Watts wrote lyrics for many hymns, the words were sung to well known tunes. It is not well known that Nauvoo had a music hall, located one block from the temple, that featured frequent concerts.

Anti-Mormons Associated with Nauvoo

  • “Henry Caswell.” Craig L. Foster discussed Henry Caswell’s visit to Nauvoo and his impact in Britain as the chief anti-Mormon writer there. A professor and a vicar, Caswell published more tracts and articles against the Church than any other Englishman. He based many of his observations on a brief visit to Nauvoo. Caswell’s recollections of that visit and several Church leaders’ remembrances of it differ considerably.

  • “From Assassination to Expulsion.” Could the Saints have avoided expulsion through reconciliation and better communication? Marshall Hamilton asked. His conclusion is no. Events following the martyrdom show that the sensitive areas—political strength versus lawlessness—were not easily resolvable. Furthermore, the catalyst for expulsion, Thomas Sharp, consistently published rhetoric in his newspaper and wrote letters calling for expulsion, no matter what the Saints were doing.


Actors in period costumes thronged restored Nauvoo during filming of the new Church film now being shown in Nauvoo visitors’ center. (Photo by John Luke.)


The Sarah Kimball home, where the Relief Society was organized, is a Nauvoo landmark. (Photo by Craig Dimond.)


Actors portray Joseph and Emma Smith in a new Church film about Nauvoo. (Photo by John Luke.)