“Making the City Beautiful,” Liahona, Dec. 1998, 40
It was a bitterly cold February night—so cold the Mississippi River had turned to solid ice, a blue and white highway. With the river frozen, there were no river barges, no ferryboats, no boats of any kind. Thick ice made it possible to walk out on the river, perhaps to walk all the way to the far bank.
The city of Nauvoo, resting quietly on the banks of the Mississippi, was dark—but four people were still moving about, shivering on shore, about to test the ice. Would it be strong enough to support them? Was it possible to drive a team of horses pulling a wagon across?
Kayla Walker followed in her father’s footsteps as he approached the river. Their friend, Tim McCormick, also moved out onto the ice. Even though she was excited to make the crossing, Kayla was a little scared. Their guide, Jerry McLeod, had already warned them that if they felt the ice begin to crack beneath their feet to spread out their arms to catch themselves from falling in completely. “He told us to try to stay above the ice,” Kayla says. “If you fall below, the current will carry you under the ice. That was sort of scary.”
Kayla stepped out on the ice. Exactly 150 years ago that month, the first pioneers to leave Nauvoo crossed the ice of the Mississippi, leaving behind their beloved and beautiful city with the white temple shining on the hill. Kayla, her father, and a friend had received the necessary authorization to be on the ice and reenact the pioneers’ departure.
“I was wearing three pairs of pants, a turtleneck shirt, and a sweater. Then I had on a big coat, a hat, a scarf, and gloves. I had on two pairs of socks and a pair of hiking boots, and I was still cold,” Kayla recalls. “It was –30° Celsius. That’s why the ice was so thick. It was frozen 45 centimeters down. I could see cracks in it, but all you could see was more ice because it was so thick.
“It was dark. It was slippery, but we kept a steady pace. There was snow on top of the ice, so we did have some traction. We hit some slick spots where it was hard for me to keep up. I just didn’t want to stop. I wanted to get across. It took us 18 1/2 minutes.
“Brother McLeod’s wife met us on the other side in her van and drove us back home. I was very glad to get in that van with the heater on high and hot chocolate waiting. It was neat to think about my ancestors making the same crossing. Only they did it with long dresses and their children and some people who were sick. They did that, with no questions asked, because they believed in the Church. What strong testimonies they had! I think I would have gone hesitantly. I would have been asking, ‘Why can’t I just wait?’ Just doing what they did so long ago was a big testimony builder.”
Kayla, age 17, is a member of the Nauvoo Ward, Nauvoo Illinois Stake. She and the other youth in the ward have heard at least a thousand times the stories about the pioneers who built their town. They all know that Nauvoo means “City Beautiful.” And they know every street, every house, practically every flower and blade of grass in the city. After all, many of their service projects and a lot of their summer jobs involve planting those flowers and mowing those blades of grass. These youth are helping to make the city beautiful once again.
The city of Nauvoo occupies a gentle bend in the Mississippi River. It is a small town sitting on a hill above the river with only slightly more than 1,000 residents. In its day, 150 years ago, Nauvoo was a city of more than 10,000 residents. Now the streets of the old part of town, on the grassy flats next to the Mississippi, are mostly filled with visitors. Pioneer homes, made of local red brick, are slowly being rebuilt and repaired. When the youth are asked to help decorate the Kimball home for Christmas, they immediately know it isn’t the home of one of the local ward members. It’s the home of Heber C. Kimball (1801–1868), an early leader in the Church.
Even today it’s easy to feel the presence of those early settlers and how happy they were—working together, worshiping together, and being where the Prophet Joseph was so they could see and hear him often.
The Nauvoo teens know well the feeling of being in the presence of a prophet. The last two Presidents of the Church have visited Nauvoo. Dustin Powell, age 17, says about President Hinckley: “When the prophet came to speak, I was really paying attention to him. Everyone was attentive. Everything was quiet so everyone could listen to him. I thought it was amazing.”
Trampas Powell, age 16, adds, “You just felt good to be where he was.”
All the teens wish that one particular building had not been destroyed when the pioneers left Nauvoo. They try to picture the temple high on the hill overlooking the town. Today there’s a water tower near the Nauvoo Temple site, plainly visible all over town. The temple steeple stood 10 meters higher than the water tower does today, so it is easy to imagine how impressive the temple would have looked on the hill.
Mary Hasek, age 17, says: “I imagine the temple there. It would be really pretty.”
“It would be a bigger town,” says Corey Condren, age 13, “because Mormons like to live in a town with a temple nearby. But now there’s the St. Louis temple, and that’s close for us.”
“I would have felt bad,” says Kevin Condren, age 18, “to leave the temple like they had to. But I would have felt good that it was finished.”
The Latter-day Saint youth of Nauvoo also participate each summer in the City of Joseph production. Hilary Hohl, age 16, explains: “The play is about the pioneers going west. I think it’s amazing. It explains what they went through.”
The story also explains what the pioneers left behind in the old city of Nauvoo. Sarah Hasek, age 15, says: “In the play when the characters are talking about building the houses and sacrificing everything they have to do it, you can still go and see the houses they built. Their sacrifice is still here. They didn’t leave their homes in vain.”
If the young men of 150 years ago wanted to give service to a good cause, they could carry water to the men working on the temple. Today young men in Nauvoo are also deeply involved in giving service regularly. Each summer thousands of visitors come, swelling the numbers attending their ward. Every Sunday morning, the young men arrive at the meetinghouse an hour early to set up hundreds of folding chairs and prepare up to 32 trays for the sacrament.
It doesn’t take a great deal of skill to set up chairs, but it takes ingenuity and a carefully organized plan to pass the sacrament to all those people tucked into classrooms or lining the hallways. All the deacons, teachers, and priests are needed to pass the sacrament. And they want to do it with dignity. “We get tired and want to take off our ties and jackets,” says Mark Hasek, age 14, “but we know people will go back to their wards and say, ‘The Nauvoo boys did this.’ We’re a big example.”
After meetings they have to move those hundreds of chairs outside, ready to be set up for the City of Joseph performances the following week. The young men are doing a little good-natured complaining about having to set up so many chairs when one of the young women pipes up and says, “We help with the chairs, too.”
The young men start to tease. “Yeah, the boys are responsible for setting up the chairs. The girls are responsible for sitting in the chairs. Everyone in the stake knows to call the Nauvoo Ward about setting up. We know chairs.”
The young women in Nauvoo have projects, too. They see that the statues at the visitors’ center are cleaned and polished. It takes a lot of work to remove discolorations and add a wax coat to keep the bronze statues looking their best.
Nauvoo is a peaceful place—a little too peaceful for teenagers sometimes. One exception was the filming of the Church movie Legacy a few years ago. Most of the youth who lived here then were in the movie.
“I think making Legacy helped my testimony,” says Kyle Walker, age 16. “The main story was about my ancestors. I don’t know if I would have been able to do what they did.”
But these teens probably would have been willing. What could make them leave the comfort of their homes today and walk out into the wilderness? “I would do it if the prophet said to,” says Andrew Kearse.
Although many of the pioneers who lined up their wagons at the river, waiting for their turn to cross the ice, had tears in their eyes when they looked back at the beautiful city, the young people of the Nauvoo Ward look back all the time. And when they do, they see not only the beautiful city, but more importantly they see the legacy of service and sacrifice left by those who built it.