“A Beautiful Place,” chapter 35 of Saints: The Story of the Church of Jesus Christ in the Latter Days, Volume 1, The Standard of Truth, 1815–1846 (2018)
Chapter 35: “A Beautiful Place”
As the malaria epidemic in Commerce continued into 1840, Emily Partridge and her sister Harriet visited the tents, wagons, and unfinished homes of the sick. Now sixteen years old, Emily was used to stark living conditions. For almost a decade, her family had been driven out of one humble dwelling after another, never enjoying the stable home life they had known in Ohio.
The sisters attended the sick until they too came down with fevers and shakes. Realizing their daughters’ lives were in peril, Edward and Lydia Partridge moved them from a tent to a small rented room in an abandoned storehouse beside the river. Edward then went to work building a house for his family on a lot a mile away.
But the trials of Missouri had broken the bishop’s health, and he was in no condition to work. He soon had a fever as well, which he treated with medicine until he was strong enough to do a week or two of work on the house. When the sickness returned, he took more medicine and went back to work.
Meanwhile, the cramped, stifling room in the storehouse did little to help Emily, Harriet, or their siblings, who also took sick. Emily’s fever remained steady through the spring of 1840, but Harriet’s grew worse and worse. She died in the middle of May at the age of eighteen.1
Harriet’s death crushed the Partridges. After the funeral, Edward tried to move the family to an unfinished cow stable on their property, hoping it would provide better shelter. But the exertion wore him out and he collapsed. To help the family, fellow Saints William and Jane Law took Emily and her siblings into their home and nursed them back to health.
Edward languished in bed several days before passing away, just a week and a half after Harriet’s death. The losses left Emily grief-stricken. She had been close to Harriet, and she knew her father had sacrificed everything to provide for his family and the church—even when grumbling Saints, faithless dissenters, and hostile neighbors wore his soul weary.2
In time, Emily emerged from the fog of sickness and grief, but her life was different now. To help provide for their destitute family, she and her nineteen-year-old sister, Eliza, had to find work. Eliza had the skills to hire out as a seamstress, but Emily had no trade. She could wash dishes, sweep and scrub floors, and do other household chores, of course, but so could most everyone else in the community.3
Fortunately, the Saints did not forget how much her father had sacrificed for the church. “No man had the confidence of the church more than he,” read the obituary for Bishop Partridge in the Times and Seasons, the Saints’ new newspaper. “His religion was his all; for this he spent his life, and for this he laid it down.”4
To honor his memory and care for his family, the Saints finished the house the bishop had begun, giving his family a place they could call their own.5
By the spring of 1840, the new city on the Mississippi was off to a promising start. The Saints dug ditches and canals to drain the swamps along the river and make the land more livable. They plotted streets, laid foundations, framed houses, planted gardens, and cultivated fields. By June, around two hundred and fifty new homes stood as a testament to their hard work.6
Unsatisfied with the name Commerce, Joseph had rechristened the place Nauvoo almost as soon as he arrived. “The name of our city,” he explained in a First Presidency proclamation, “is of Hebrew origin and signifies a beautiful situation or place, carrying with it also the idea of rest.”7 Joseph hoped Nauvoo would live up to its name and give the Saints a reprieve from the conflicts of recent years.
Yet he knew peace and rest would not come easily. To avoid the dissent and persecution they had experienced in Ohio and Missouri, the Saints needed to forge stronger bonds with each other and create lasting friendships with their neighbors.8
Around this time, Joseph received a letter from William Phelps, who had moved to Ohio after forsaking the church and testifying against Joseph in a Missouri court. “I know my situation, you know it, and God knows it,” William wrote, “and I want to be saved if my friends will help me.”9
Knowing William to be a sincere man despite his faults, Joseph wrote back a short time later. “It is true that we have suffered much in consequence of your behavior,” he stated. “However, the cup has been drunk, the will of our Heavenly Father has been done, and we are yet alive.” Happy to put the dark days of Missouri behind them, Joseph forgave William and put him back to work in the church.
“Come on, dear brother, since the war is past,” Joseph wrote, “for friends at first are friends again at last.”10
Joseph also felt an urgency to give the Saints more spiritual direction. In the Liberty jail, the Lord had told him that his days were known, and Joseph confided to friends that he did not think he would live to be forty. He needed to teach the Saints more of what God had revealed to him before it was too late.11
Building a city and managing the church’s temporal concerns, however, consumed most of Joseph’s time. He had always taken an active part in church business, and he had long relied on men like Bishop Partridge to help shoulder the burden. Now that Edward was gone, Joseph began leaning more on Bishop Newel Whitney and the additional bishops that were called in Nauvoo. Yet he knew he needed still more help directing the temporal side of church administration so he could focus on his spiritual ministry.12
Soon after, Joseph received another letter, this time from a stranger named John Cook Bennett. John said he intended to move to Nauvoo, join the church, and offer his services to the Saints. He was a physician and a high-ranking officer in the Illinois state militia who had also been a minister and a professor. “I believe I should be much happier with you,” he said. “Write me immediately.”13
In the days that followed, Joseph received two more letters from John. “You can rely upon me,” John promised. “I hope that time will soon come when your people will become my people and your God my God.” He told Joseph that his public-speaking skills and untiring energy would be invaluable to the Saints.14
“My anxiety to be with you is daily increasing,” he insisted, “and I shall wind up my professional business immediately and proceed to your blissful abode, if you think it best!”15
Joseph reviewed the letters, encouraged that someone with John’s credentials wanted to unite with the Saints. A man with his abilities could certainly help the church establish itself in Illinois.
“Were it possible for you to come here this season to suffer affliction with the people of God,” Joseph wrote John, “no one will be more pleased or give you a more cordial welcome than myself.”16
As Nauvoo took form, Joseph’s mind turned to the gathering. In England, the apostles had recently sent a company of forty-one Saints across the ocean, headed to Nauvoo. Joseph expected to welcome even more companies in the coming months and years.
“This is the principal place of gathering,” he announced in a sermon that July. “Whosoever will, let him come and partake of the poverty of Nauvoo freely!”
He knew the expulsion from Missouri and the failed petition to the government had left many people uncertain about the future of Zion and the gathering. Joseph wanted them to understand that Zion was more than a parcel of land in Jackson County. “Where the Saints gather is Zion,” he declared.
The Lord now commanded them to establish stakes in Nauvoo and the surrounding area. In time, as more Saints gathered to Zion, the church would organize additional stakes and the Lord would bless the land.
Before closing his sermon, Joseph announced, “I obligate myself to build as great a temple as ever Solomon did, if the church will back me up.” He stretched out his hand and pointed to a spot high on the bluff where the Saints would build the sacred structure. “If it should be the will of God that I might live to behold that temple complete,” he said longingly, “I will say, ‘Oh, Lord, it is enough. Lord, let thy servant depart in peace.’”17
A few weeks later, as high temperatures continued in Nauvoo and sickness claimed still more lives, Joseph’s friend Seymour Brunson passed away.18 At the funeral, Joseph offered words of comfort to Seymour’s widow, Harriet, and the thousands of Saints in the congregation. As he spoke, he looked at Jane Neyman, whose teenage son Cyrus had died before being baptized.
Knowing that Jane was worried about the welfare of her son’s soul, Joseph decided to share what the Lord had taught him about the salvation of those, like his own brother Alvin, who had died without baptism.19
Opening the Bible, Joseph read the words of the apostle Paul to the Corinthians: “Else what shall they do which are baptized for the dead, if the dead rise not at all? Why are they then baptized for the dead?”20 He noted that Paul’s words were evidence that a living person could be baptized vicariously for a deceased person, extending the benefits of baptism to those who were dead in body but whose spirits lived on.
Joseph said God’s plan of salvation was designed to save all those who were willing to obey the law of God, including the countless people who had died never knowing about Jesus Christ or His teachings.21
Shortly after the sermon, Jane went to the river with an elder of the church and was baptized for Cyrus. When Joseph heard about the baptism later that evening, he asked what words the elder had used in the ordinance. When they were repeated back to him, Joseph confirmed that the elder had performed the baptism correctly.22
John Bennett arrived in Nauvoo in September 1840, and Joseph eagerly sought his advice on managing the legal and political concerns of Nauvoo and the church. John was about the prophet’s age but more educated. He was a short man with graying black hair, dark eyes, and a thin, handsome face. He readily accepted baptism.23
Lucy Smith was too worried about her ailing husband to take much notice of the popular newcomer. Like Bishop Partridge, Joseph Sr. had left Missouri in poor health, and Nauvoo’s sickly summer climate only weakened him more. Lucy hoped he would eventually recover, but after he vomited blood one day, she feared his death was near.
When Joseph and Hyrum learned about their father’s worsening condition, they rushed to his bedside.24
Lucy sent word to the rest of the family while Joseph kept his father company. He told his father about baptism for the dead and the blessings it afforded all of God’s children. Overjoyed, Joseph Sr. begged him to perform the ordinance for Alvin.
Soon Lucy sat with most of her children around the bed of their father. Joseph Sr. wanted to give each of them a parting blessing while he still had strength to speak. When it was Joseph’s turn, Joseph Sr. placed his hands on his son’s head.
“Hold out faithful and you shall be blessed, and your family shall be blessed and your children after you,” he said. “You shall live to finish your work.”
“Oh, Father,” Joseph cried, “shall I?”
“Yes, you shall,” said the patriarch, “and you shall lay out the plan of all the work that God requires at your hand.”
When Joseph Sr. finished blessing his children, he turned to Lucy. “Mother,” he said, “you are one of the most singular women in the world.”
Lucy protested, but her husband continued. “We have often wished that we might both die at the same time,” he said, “but you must not desire to die when I do, for you must stay to comfort the children when I am gone.”
After a pause, Joseph Sr. exclaimed, “I see Alvin.” He then folded his hands together and began to breathe slowly, until his breaths grew shorter and shorter, and he passed quietly away.25
A few weeks after Joseph Sr.’s death, the Saints gathered in Nauvoo for the October 1840 general conference. Joseph taught them more about baptism for the dead, explaining that the spirits of the dead were waiting for their living kindred to receive the saving ordinance in their behalf.26
Between sessions of the conference, the Saints rushed to the Mississippi River, where several elders stood waist-deep in the water, beckoning them to be baptized for their deceased grandparents, fathers, mothers, siblings, and children. Soon after, Hyrum was baptized for his brother Alvin.27
As Vilate Kimball watched the elders in the river, she longed to be baptized for her mother, who had died more than a decade earlier. She wished Heber was back from England to perform the ordinance, but since Joseph had urged the Saints to redeem the dead as soon as possible, she decided to be baptized for her mother right away.28
Emma Smith’s thoughts were also on family. Her father, Isaac Hale, had passed away in January 1839. He had never reconciled with her and Joseph. Some years before his death, he had even allowed critics of the church to publish a letter he had written condemning Joseph and calling the Book of Mormon “a silly fabrication of falsehood and wickedness.”29
Still, Emma loved her father and was baptized for him in the river.30 He had not accepted the restored gospel in this life, but she hoped it would not be that way forever.
That fall, Joseph and John Bennett drafted a charter of laws for Nauvoo. The document was designed to give the Saints as much freedom as possible to govern themselves and protect against the kinds of injustices that had afflicted them in Missouri. If the state legislature approved the charter, the citizens of Nauvoo could pass their own laws for the city, operate local courts, found a university, and organize a militia.31
Joseph’s plans for the church continued to grow as well. Anticipating more and more Saints gathering, the prophet founded several stakes in new settlements near Nauvoo. He also called Orson Hyde and John Page to embark on a mission to Palestine, where they would dedicate Jerusalem for the gathering of the children of Abraham. To get there, the apostles would have to cross Europe, giving them opportunities to preach the gospel in many of its cities.32
“We may soon expect to see flocking to this place, people from every land and from every nation,” Joseph and the First Presidency proclaimed, “persons of all languages and of every tongue and of every color, who shall with us worship the Lord of Hosts in His holy temple.”33
In early December, John Bennett successfully lobbied the Illinois state legislature to approve the Nauvoo charter, granting the Saints power to carry out their plans for the city. When John returned to Nauvoo in triumph, Joseph praised him at every opportunity.34
A little over a month later, on January 19, 1841, the Lord blessed the Saints with a new revelation. He assured them that He had welcomed Edward Partridge and Joseph Smith Sr. into His care, alongside David Patten, who had been killed at the Crooked River skirmish. Hyrum Smith was called to take his father’s place as patriarch of the church and was also appointed to serve as a prophet, seer, and revelator alongside Joseph, filling the role Oliver Cowdery once held in the church.35
Additionally, the Lord instructed John Bennett to stand by Joseph and continue speaking to those outside the church in the Saints’ behalf, promising him blessings on the condition of righteous works. “His reward shall not fail if he receive counsel,” the Lord declared. “I have seen the work which he hath done, which I accept if he continue.”36
The Lord also accepted the Saints’ past efforts to build Zion in Jackson County, but He commanded them now to build up Nauvoo, establish more stakes, and build a hotel called the Nauvoo House, which would provide visitors a place to rest and contemplate the word of God and the glory of Zion.37
Most important, the Lord commanded the Saints to construct the new temple. “Let this house be built unto my name,” He declared, “that I may reveal mine ordinances therein unto my people.”38
Baptism for the dead was one of these ordinances. So far the Lord had allowed the Saints to perform the baptisms in the Mississippi River, but now He commanded them to stop the ordinance until they had dedicated a special baptismal font in the temple. “This ordinance,” He declared, “belongeth to my house.”39
Other temple ordinances and inspiring new truths would come later. “I deign to reveal unto my church things which have been kept hid from before the foundation of the world, things that pertain to the dispensation of the fulness of times,” the Lord promised. “And I will show unto my servant Joseph all things pertaining to this house, and the priesthood thereof.”40
Promising to reward their diligence and obedience, the Lord urged the Saints to labor with all their might on the temple. “Build a house to my name, even in this place, that you may prove yourselves unto me that ye are faithful in all things,” He commanded, “that I may bless you, and crown you with honor, immortality, and eternal life.”41
As the new year dawned, the future looked bright for the Saints. On February 1, 1841, they elected John Bennett mayor of Nauvoo, which also made him the chief justice of the city court. He also became chancellor of the new university, major general of the militia, and an assistant president in the First Presidency.42 Joseph and other church leaders had confidence in his ability to lead the city and make it great.
As John’s authority and responsibilities expanded, Emma could not deny that he had helped the Saints immensely. But she did not share the Saints’ affection for him. She thought John paraded himself through town like a pompous general, and when he was not trying to impress Joseph, he seemed self-absorbed and inconsiderate.
For all his talents and usefulness, something about John Bennett worried her.43