Lesson 20: Nauvoo the Beautiful

“Lesson 20: Nauvoo the Beautiful,” Latter-day Saint History: 1815–1846 Teacher Material (2018)

“Lesson 20,” Latter-day Saint History: 1815–1846 Teacher Material

Lesson 20

Nauvoo the Beautiful

Introduction and Timeline

After the Prophet Joseph Smith and his fellow prisoners were allowed to escape captivity in Missouri in April 1839, they crossed the Mississippi River and reunited with the Saints in Quincy, Illinois. Soon after their arrival, Joseph traveled north to visit and arrange the purchase of land on the banks of the Mississippi River in Illinois and Iowa Territory. As the Saints gathered there, they transformed the swampy land on the Illinois side into a beautiful city they called Nauvoo. During this time, Joseph Smith sought redress from the federal government for the Saints’ sufferings in Missouri. As Nauvoo developed, the Saints received approval from the state of Illinois for a city charter that provided political and religious freedoms beyond what they had in Missouri. Also during this time, the Prophet Joseph Smith first taught the doctrine of baptism for the dead.

April 22, 1839The Prophet arrived in Quincy, Illinois, after escaping captivity.

April 30, 1839Church agents purchased land in Commerce, Illinois.

July 22, 1839Joseph Smith and others healed many people afflicted with malaria.

November 29, 1839The Prophet met with United States president Martin Van Buren to plead for reparations.

August 15, 1840Joseph Smith first taught the doctrine of baptism for the dead.

Student Readings

Saints: The Story of the Church of Jesus Christ in the Latter Days, Volume 1, The Standard of Truth, 1815–1846 (2018), chapters 34–35

Suggestions for Teaching

The Saints settle in Illinois and Iowa

Write the following phrase on the board: A beautiful place and a place of rest.

  • What are some places you would describe as beautiful or a place of rest?

map of Missouri, Illinois, and Iowa areas

Display the accompanying map, “The Missouri, Illinois, and Iowa Area of the United States,” and invite students to locate Quincy, Illinois. Explain that in April 1839, soon after the Prophet Joseph Smith escaped captivity and joined the Saints in Quincy, Illinois, he and other Church members traveled 50 miles north to Commerce, Illinois. Based on negotiations that began while Joseph Smith was still in prison, they began purchasing land in and around Commerce both on the east side of the Mississippi River and on the west side in Iowa Territory. By August they had purchased a considerable amount of land for the gathering of the Saints. In April 1840, the Prophet Joseph Smith changed the name of the city of Commerce to Nauvoo.

Invite a student to read aloud the following statement by Joseph Smith and his counselors:

“The name of our city (Nauvoo,) is of Hebrew origin, and signifies a beautiful situation, or place, carrying with it, also, the idea of rest” (Joseph Smith, Sidney Rigdon, and Hyrum Smith, “A Proclamation, to the Saints Scattered Abroad,” Times and Seasons, Jan. 15, 1841, 273–74,

  • Considering what Joseph Smith and the Saints endured in Missouri, how might the meaning of the name Nauvoo be an expression of hope for the future?

Explain that as the Saints began to gather to this area in the summer of 1839, they labored diligently to clear the land along the Mississippi riverbank. However, hundreds of Saints were bitten by mosquitoes and became seriously ill with malaria.

Ask students to locate chapter 34 of Saints: Volume 1. Invite a few students to take turns reading aloud from page 402, starting with the paragraph that begins “On the morning of Monday, July 22 …” and concluding with the paragraph on page 403 that begins “Later that evening …” Ask the class to follow along, looking for the help the Saints received from the Lord.

  • What stands out to you in this account?

Invite a student to read aloud the following statement by President Wilford Woodruff (1807–98), who related another event that occurred that day.

Wilford Woodruff

“A man [who was not a Latter-day Saint], knowing of the miracles which had been performed, came to [Joseph Smith] and asked him if he would not go and heal two twin children of his, about five months old, who were both lying sick nigh unto death.

“They were some two miles from Montrose [a town across the river from Nauvoo].

“The Prophet said he could not go; but, after pausing some time, he said he would send some one to heal them; and he turned to me and said: ‘You go with the man and heal his children.’

“[Joseph] took a red silk handkerchief out of his pocket and gave it to me, and told me to wipe their faces with the handkerchief when I administered to them, and they should be healed. …

“I went with the man, and did as the Prophet commanded me, and the children were healed” (Wilford Woodruff, Leaves from My Journal [1882], 65).

  • What principle can we identify from the account from Saints:Volume 1 and the statement by President Woodruff? (Students may identify several principles, including the following: As we exercise faith in Jesus Christ, we can be healed by the power of the priesthood. Write this principle on the board.)

Joseph Smith’s red silk handkerchief

Display the accompanying image of the red silk handkerchief that Joseph Smith gave Wilford Woodruff, and explain that President Woodruff “kept this handkerchief as a reminder of this great experience and of Joseph’s compassion toward the sick, including those who were not of his faith” (Heidi Bennett, “A Day of God’s Power,” Museum Treasures series, Sept. 18, 2015, Wilford described that day of healing as “a day of God’s power” (Wilford Woodruff, Leaves from My Journal [1882], 62).

Explain that although many people were healed from malaria that day, others continued to suffer from malaria and other illnesses over the next year, and some died. For example, Bishop Edward Partridge died from an illness in May 1840, as did Joseph Smith Sr. in September 1840.

  • Why do you think some people were healed at that time while others perished?

To help students further understand the principle on the board, invite a student to read aloud the following statement by President Dallin H. Oaks of the First Presidency:

Dallin H. Oaks

“As we exercise the undoubted power of the priesthood of God and as we treasure His promise that He will hear and answer the prayer of faith, we must always remember that faith and the healing power of the priesthood cannot produce a result contrary to the will of Him whose priesthood it is. …

“As children of God, knowing of His great love and His ultimate knowledge of what is best for our eternal welfare, we trust in Him. The first principle of the gospel is faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, and faith means trust. … We do all that we can for the healing of a loved one, and then we trust in the Lord for the outcome” (Dallin H. Oaks, “Healing the Sick,” Ensign or Liahona, May 2010, 50).

  • Why do you think it is important to exercise faith in Jesus Christ even though we may not receive the outcome we desire?

Share your testimony that as we exercise faith in Jesus Christ, we can be healed by the power of the priesthood according to the Lord’s will.

The Saints build the city of Nauvoo and seek redress from the United States government

Explain that over time the Saints transformed the land in and around Nauvoo into a “situation [that was] very pleasant” (Mary Fielding Smith, in Edward W. Tullidge, The Women of Mormondom [1877], 256). As Saints continued to make a new home in Illinois and Iowa, the Prophet Joseph Smith traveled to Washington, D.C., the capital of the United States.

  • Based on your reading of chapter 34 of Saints: Volume 1, why did Joseph Smith travel to Washington, D.C., in October 1839? (Joseph Smith met with leaders in the United States government, including President Martin Van Buren, seeking redress for the Saints’ losses in Missouri.)

  • How did President Van Buren respond to Joseph Smith’s request? (He told Joseph, “I can do nothing for you” [The Joseph Smith Papers, Documents, Volume 7: September 1839–January 1841, ed. Matthew C. Godfrey and others (2018), 260].)

  • If you had been with the Prophet Joseph, what thoughts or feelings might you have had after hearing this response from the president of the United States? Why?

Explain that Joseph Smith and Church member Elias Higbee also tried petitioning members of the United States Congress. Although many were sympathetic to their cause, the Saints did not receive any assistance.

William W. Phelps

Display the accompanying image of William W. Phelps. Explain that about four months after the Prophet returned from Washington, D.C., he received a letter from William W. Phelps. Divide students into groups of two or three, and give each group a copy of the accompanying handout, “William W. Phelps: ‘I Am as the Prodigal Son.’” Invite the groups to read the handout together and answer questions on the handout.

William W. Phelps: “I Am as the Prodigal Son”

“In late 1838, William W. Phelps, who had been a trusted Church member, was among those who bore false testimony against the Prophet and other Church leaders, leading to their imprisonment in Missouri. In June 1840, Brother Phelps wrote to Joseph Smith, pleading for forgiveness” (Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Joseph Smith [2007], 396).

Read the following statement by William W. Phelps from his letter to the Prophet:

William W. Phelps

“Brother Joseph[,]

“… I am as the prodigal Son … : I have been greatly abased and humbled. …

“I know my situation, you know it, and God knows it, and I want to be saved if my friends will help me. … I have done wrong and I am Sorry. The beam is in my own eye.

“… I ask forgiveness in the name of Jesus Christ of all the saints[,] for … I want your fellowship” (in The Joseph Smith Papers, Documents, Volume 7: September 1839–January 1841, ed. Matthew C. Godfrey and others [2018], 304–5).

  • Knowing that William’s false testimony had caused so much suffering for the Saints, how do you think you might have responded to William’s request for forgiveness and fellowship?

The Prophet Joseph Smith replied in a letter to William W. Phelps:

Joseph Smith

“It is true, that we have suffered much in consequence of your behavior—the cup of gall, already full enough for mortals to drink, was indeed filled to overflowing when you turned against us. …

“However, the cup has been drunk, the will of our Father has been done, and we are yet alive. …

“Believing your confession to be real, and your repentance genuine, I shall be happy once again to give you the right hand of fellowship, and rejoice over the returning prodigal.

“Your letter was read to the Saints last Sunday, and … it was unanimously resolved, that W. W. Phelps should be received into fellowship.

“‘Come on, dear brother, since the war is past,

For friends at first, are friends again at last’”

(Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Joseph Smith [2007], 398).

  • What does Joseph Smith’s response indicate about his character?

  • How do you think William might have felt knowing that the Saints unanimously received him back in full fellowship?

William W. Phelps: “I Am as the Prodigal Son” handout

Instead of distributing the handout, you could show the video “Required to Forgive” (7:52), which depicts William W. Phelps’s role in the early Church and his plea to the Prophet for forgiveness. This video is available on After students finish watching the video, ask the questions from the handout.

After students have finished reviewing the handout, explain that William W. Phelps later wrote the lyrics to the hymn “Praise to the Man” (Hymns, no. 27).

  • What principles can we learn from the Prophet Joseph Smith’s response to William W. Phelps’s letter? (Students may identify several principles, including the following: We can choose to forgive others even when their actions have seriously hurt us and others we love. As we choose to forgive others, we extend love and mercy to them. Write these principles on the board.)

  • In what ways have you or someone you know been blessed by choosing to forgive another person?

Invite students to think of someone they may need to forgive. Encourage them to follow Joseph Smith’s example by choosing to forgive that person.

The Prophet Joseph Smith teaches the doctrine of baptism for the dead

Explain that as Saints moved to the Nauvoo area, they worked with the Illinois government to gain protection for their community. They had success in 1840, when the legislature of Illinois passed an act incorporating the city of Nauvoo. This law authorized the creation of a city government and established certain laws designed to protect the citizens. In addition to helping build up and establish Nauvoo, during this time the Prophet continued to teach the Saints truths regarding salvation. On August 15, 1840, at the funeral of Church member Seymour Brunson, the Prophet first publicly taught the doctrine of baptism for the dead.

Invite several students to take turns reading the following accounts aloud. Ask the class to listen for what the Prophet Joseph Smith taught about the doctrine of baptism for the dead and how the Saints responded. (The following accounts are adapted from Susan Easton Black, “A Voice of Gladness,” Ensign, Feb. 2004, 34–39.)

Account 1.

“According to Simon Baker, who was present [at Seymour Brunson’s funeral], the Prophet began by testifying that the ‘gospel of Jesus Christ brought glad tidings of great joy.’ He read most of 1 Corinthians 15 and explained that ‘the Apostle was talking to a people who understood baptism for the dead, for it was practiced among them’ [Simon Baker, in Journal History of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Aug. 15, 1840]” (Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Joseph Smith [2007], 403).

“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” (Saints: Volume 1, 421).

Account 2. Wilford Woodruff wrote:

Wilford Woodruff

“Joseph Smith himself … went into the Mississippi river one Sunday night after meeting, and baptized a hundred. I baptized another hundred. The next man, a few rods from me, baptized another hundred. We were strung up and down the Mississippi, baptizing for our dead” (Wilford Woodruff, “Discourse,” Deseret Weekly, Apr. 25, 1891, 554).

“Why did we do it? Because of the feeling of joy that we had, to think that we in the flesh could stand and redeem our dead” (“Discourse by President Wilford Woodruff,” Millennial Star, May 1894, 324).

Account 3. After hearing the Prophet address the Saints in October 1840, Vilate Kimball wrote a letter to her husband, Heber, who was serving a mission in England:

Vilate Kimball

“President Smith has opened a new and glorious subject of late which has caused quite a revival in the church. … He says it is the privilege of this church to be baptized for all their kinsfolks that have died before this Gospel came forth. … By so doing we act as agents for them, and give them the privilege of coming forth in the first resurrection. He says they will have the Gospel preached to them in Prison. … Since this order has been preached here, the waters have been continually troubled. During conference there were sometimes from eight to ten elders in the river at a time baptizing” (Vilate Kimball, in Janiece Johnson and Jennifer Reeder, The Witness of Women [2016], 181).

Account 4. After hearing about the doctrine of baptism for the dead, many Saints sent letters to relatives seeking names of deceased family members. For example, Jonah Ball wrote the following to a relative:

“I want you [to] send me a list of fathers relations his parents & Uncles & their names, also Mothers. … I am determined to do all I can to redeem those I am permitted to” (Jonah R. Ball letters to Harvey Howard, Shutesbury, Massachusetts, 1842–43, Church History Library, Salt Lake City).

Sally Randall wrote:

“Write me the given names of all of our connections that are dead as far back as grandfathers and grandmothers at any rate. I intend to do what I can to save my friends” (Sally Randall letters, 1843–1852, Church History Library, Salt Lake City).

  • What can we learn from these accounts? (As students respond, write the truths they learned on the board. If necessary, help them identify a truth similar to the following: We can help redeem our ancestors who have died without the gospel by performing baptisms for the dead.)

  • Why was this doctrine so significant to Latter-day Saints at that time?

  • In what ways have you been blessed as you have helped your deceased ancestors be baptized and receive other saving ordinances?

Review the truths you have written on the board throughout the lesson, and share your testimony of them. Invite students to consider how they might apply these truths more fully in their lives.

Invite students to prepare for the next class by reading chapter 36 of Saints: Volume 1.

Commentary and Background Information

The Prophet Joseph Smith preaches in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

While Joseph Smith was in the eastern United States to seek redress from government officials, he also preached the gospel. Elder Parley P. Pratt testified of a sermon that the Prophet Joseph Smith gave in Philadelphia:

Parley P. Pratt

“While visiting with brother Joseph in Philadelphia, a very large church was opened for him to preach in, and about three thousand people assembled to hear him. Brother Rigdon spoke first, and dwelt on the Gospel, illustrating his doctrine by the Bible. When he was through, brother Joseph arose like a lion about to roar; and being full of the Holy Ghost, spoke in great power, bearing testimony of the visions he had seen, the ministering of angels which he had enjoyed; and how he had found the plates of the Book of Mormon, and translated them by the gift and power of God. He commenced by saying: ‘If nobody else had the courage to testify of so glorious a message from Heaven, and of the finding of so glorious a record, he felt to do it in justice to the people, and leave the event with God.’

“The entire congregation was astounded; electrified, as it were, and overwhelmed with the sense of the truth and power by which he spoke, and the wonders which he related. A lasting impression was made; many souls were gathered into the fold. And I bear witness, that he, by his faithful and powerful testimony, cleared his garments of their blood. Multitudes were baptized in Philadelphia and in the regions around; while, at the same time, branches were springing up in Pennsylvania, in Jersey, and in various directions” (Autobiography of Parley P. Pratt, ed. Parley P. Pratt Jr. [1938], 298–99).

Forgiving others

Our forgiveness of others does not relieve them of consequences for their actions (see D&C 64:12–14). Elder David E. Sorensen (1933–2014) of the Presidency of the Seventy taught:

David E. Sorensen

“I would like to make it clear that forgiveness of sins should not be confused with tolerating evil. In fact, in the Joseph Smith Translation, the Lord said, ‘Judge righteous judgment’ [Joseph Smith Translation, Matthew 7:2 (in Matthew 7:1, footnote a)]. The Savior asks us to forsake and combat evil in all its forms, and although we must forgive a neighbor who injures us, we should still work constructively to prevent that injury from being repeated. A woman who is abused should not seek revenge, but neither should she feel that she cannot take steps to prevent further abuse. A businessperson treated unfairly in a transaction should not hate the person who was dishonest but could take appropriate steps to remedy the wrong. Forgiveness does not require us to accept or tolerate evil. It does not require us to ignore the wrong that we see in the world around us or in our own lives. But as we fight against sin, we must not allow hatred or anger to control our thoughts or actions” (David E. Sorensen, “Forgiveness Will Change Bitterness to Love,” Ensign or Liahona, May 2003, 12).

William W. Phelps: “I Am as the Prodigal Son” handout