“Organizing the Church in Nauvoo,” Revelations in Context (2016)
“Organizing the Church in Nauvoo,” Revelations in Context
After being driven from their homes in northern Missouri, the Saints fled east to the Mississippi, taking refuge for the winter of 1838–39 in various settlements along the river in Iowa Territory and Illinois, with the largest number of Saints congregating in and around Quincy, Illinois. Forced to abandon any immediate hopes of having their land of Zion in Jackson County, Missouri, restored to them, Church leaders looked for a new central gathering place for the Saints. By summer 1839 they had purchased the area of Commerce in Hancock County, Illinois, and extensive tracts of land across the river in Iowa Territory. Commerce was selected as the new gathering place, and the Saints quickly renamed their new city Nauvoo.
Having learned from the experiences of being driven from their homes first in Jackson County, Missouri, and later from Caldwell, Daviess, and Ray Counties in northern Missouri, the Saints were determined to take advantage of the powers of government. They set about trying to establish a city in their new Illinois home where they would be free to exercise their religious rights with the protection of legal authority.
On December 16, 1840, Illinois Governor Thomas Carlin and the legislature of Illinois, initially eager to court the votes of the large number of Mormon refugees from Missouri and outraged at the atrocities the Saints had suffered at the hands of their Missouri neighbors, passed “An Act to Incorporate the City of Nauvoo.” This charter granted extensive legal powers to the citizens of Nauvoo, including, among other powers, the ability to organize a legislative body of their own to create laws within the city, the power to create the Nauvoo Legion as a subset of the state militia, and the authority to establish a university within the city.1 Around the same time the Saints were trying to secure their city’s charter they also sought to incorporate the Church in the state of Illinois, with Joseph Smith as trustee.2 In the context of these efforts to establish a new city for the Saints on the banks of the Mississippi, Joseph Smith received a revelation on January 19, 1841, identifying Nauvoo as a temple city and a new gathering place, giving instructions to Church leaders, and establishing the organization of the Church in Nauvoo. This revelation is now found in Doctrine and Covenants 124.
While the vast majority of the existing accounts of Joseph Smith’s public sermons date from the Illinois period of Church history, the opposite is true of records of his revelations. In the current edition of the Doctrine and Covenants, 135 sections were written during Joseph Smith’s lifetime, and only nine of those date from the five years that the Prophet lived in Nauvoo. Of the 110 sections canonized during Joseph Smith’s lifetime (those that were included in the 1844 edition of the Doctrine and Covenants), only three date from the Illinois period.3
Comparing the nine currently canonized sections of the Doctrine and Covenants recorded during Joseph Smith’s years in Illinois highlights the importance of the revelation received on January 19, 1841. Doctrine and Covenants 125, a brief revelation received in March 1841, concerns the establishing of the Zarahemla stake across the Mississippi River, in Iowa Territory. The next recorded revelation (now Doctrine and Covenants 126) was received in July 1841 and includes personal instruction to Brigham Young regarding his missionary service. Doctrine and Covenants 127 and 128 are September 1842 letters of instruction from Joseph Smith to the Saints in Nauvoo, describing, among other things, the principle of baptism for the dead. These two letters, written while Joseph Smith was in hiding and cherished by the Saints as inspired communications from their absent prophet were, along with Doctrine and Covenants 124, the only Illinois-era revelations or instructions canonized during the Prophet’s lifetime.
The next three sections of the current Doctrine and Covenants—sections 129, 130, and 131—contain excerpts from instructions Joseph Smith gave in 1843 in Nauvoo (section 129) and the small town of Ramus, Illinois (sections 130 and 131). Section 132 deals with plural and celestial marriage, and, while recorded in 1843, portions of it were known to Joseph Smith prior to his arrival in Nauvoo. Furthermore, its circulation was limited during the Prophet’s life to only his closest and most loyal friends. Thus, though relatively few organizational or instructional revelations were recorded during the final years of Joseph Smith’s life, the lengthy and complex revelation received on January 19, 1841, was an exception. For Church members at the time, it was, in many ways, the Nauvoo revelation.
It was widely known among Church members almost immediately upon its reception. It was the first text inscribed by general Church clerk Robert Thompson in the Book of the Law of the Lord, a record designed to contain Joseph Smith’s revelations and which also became the first tithing book of the Church.4 It was read before the Saints at the April 1841 general conference of the Church in Nauvoo—the first conference following the receipt of the revelation.5 Joseph Smith, Brigham Young, and other Church leaders made frequent reference to the revelation’s injunctions to build the temple and the Nauvoo House.6 In addition to organizing the leadership of the Church in Nauvoo by divine mandate, the revelation quickly became a source of direction and purpose for the Saints living there.
Doctrine and Covenants 124 could almost be considered an ecclesiastical charter for the Church in Nauvoo, in much the same way that the act to incorporate the city served the civic needs of the community. The revelation’s opening lines dictated that the stake of Nauvoo was to be a new central gathering place for the Saints, a “corner stone of Zion.”7 The commandment to build a temple in Nauvoo demonstrated that the new city was not simply to be a temporary refuge but a more permanent home.8
The expulsion of the Saints from Missouri and the establishing of new stakes on the western border of Illinois and across the river in Iowa Territory, together with the creation of a new city and home for the Saints, effectively provided a new beginning for the Church. This period of transition and the subsequent need for a new organization was reflected in much of the revelation’s content. Early in the revelation, several personal assignments are given to Church members, and the revelation concludes with a list of the appointments of the Church’s governing officers, including the First Presidency, Quorum of the Twelve Apostles (identified in the revelation as the “Twelve traveling council”), and a new stake high council for Nauvoo, along with other quorums.
A proclamation to “all the kings of the world” was called for by the revelation, which further reflected the expansive vision of what Nauvoo was to become. After repeated experiences of being driven from their homes, the words of the revelation describing the purpose of the proclamation would have given new hope: “For behold I am about to call upon them [the ‘kings and authorities’ of the world] to give heed to the light and glory of Zion, for the set time has come, to favor her.”9
Wording of the proclamation was to include an invitation to “come ye with your gold and your silver, to the help of my people, to the house of the daughter of Zion.”10 This concept of inviting visitors to come to Nauvoo and learn of the gospel and assist the Saints was inseparably connected with another prominent subject of the revelation—the construction and purpose of the Nauvoo House.
The revelation commanded that two buildings be built: a temple and a hotel, or “boarding house,” called the Nauvoo House. Both were referred to as “a house unto my name,” both were to be holy places, worthy of the Lord’s acceptance, and both were to become the central building projects of the Saints for the next six years.11 The plans for the temple embodied important new developments in Joseph Smith’s understanding and teachings regarding temples, notably the inclusion of a font in which the Saints could perform baptisms on behalf of their deceased family members and friends. This font was first called for in the January 19, 1841, revelation.
While the temple occupies the place of greatest significance spiritually and historically, more of the revelation is devoted to the Nauvoo House than to any other subject. It was to be a residence for Joseph Smith, his family, and their posterity.12 It was to be a “house for boarding; a house that strangers may come from afar to lodge therein,” where a traveler would “find health and safety, while he shall contemplate the word of the Lord, and the corner stone I have appointed for Zion.” Those who managed it would “not suffe[r] any pollution to come upon it—It shall be holy, or the Lord your God will not dwell therein.”13
Joseph Smith repeatedly emphasized the importance of the Nauvoo House. At a meeting at the site of the uncompleted temple on February 21, 1843, the Prophet stated, “The building of N[auvoo] House is just as sacred in my view as the Temple. I want the Nauvo[o] House bui[l]t it must be built, our salvation depends upon it. When men have done what they can or will for the temple. let them do what they can for the Nauvoo House.”14 A month and a half later at a conference of the Church in Nauvoo, he said, “It is important that this confernce gives importance to the N[auvoo] House. as a prejudice exists against the Nauvoo. House in favor of the Lords House.”15
For the duration of the Saints’ time in Nauvoo, the fulfillment of the various commandments and responsibilities outlined in this revelation remained the highest priority. The length of their stay in Illinois, however, would not be as long as anticipated, and some of what they hoped to accomplish would never be completed.
The Nauvoo experience can be understood more accurately in the context of this revelation and the attempts of the Saints to be obedient to its commandments. William Clayton, temple recorder and frequent scribe for Joseph Smith, expressed his motivations and those of his fellow Church members in his journal on May 31, 1845: “Our anxiety is to finish the Temple and the Nauvoo House … that we may be permitted to fulfil the commands of the Almighty in relation to this place.”16 Unfortunately, one after another, their assignments, promised blessings, and aspirations were met with challenges and frustration.
John C. Bennett, Nauvoo’s first mayor and later a member of the First Presidency, was promised that his “reward shall not fail if he receive counsel.” But he apostatized only a year and a half later and became a bitter opponent of the Church.17
General Church clerk Robert B. Thompson, appointed by the revelation as one of those who should author the proclamation, died only seven months later. It was not until years later, following the Prophet’s death, that the proclamation was written. It was finally composed by Parley P. Pratt in 1845, and published as Proclamation of the Twelve Apostles of the Church of Jesus Christ, of Latter-Day Saints.18
Due to the Saints’ impoverished condition and the press of building a new city, both the temple and the Nauvoo House progressed slowly. The two buildings competed for the same labor and material resources, and both projects lagged. Ultimately, in the fall of 1845, when it was clear that the Saints’ time in Nauvoo was limited, it became necessary to favor the completion of the temple, and in a meeting on the evening of Sunday, September 14, it was reluctantly “agreed to turn more force of hands to the Temple even if it have to hinder the Nauvoo House.”19 Construction on the temple progressed sufficiently that it could be used during the winter of 1845–46 for meetings and the performance of ordinances.
The January 19, 1841, revelation could almost be considered a vision of what might have been. The Prophet and the patriarch of the Church were killed, the Nauvoo House was never completed as designed, the majority of the Saints left their homes on the banks of the Mississippi to head west to the Great Basin, and their beloved temple, only just completed after years of diligent labor, had to be offered up for sale to meet financial needs.20
But Nauvoo’s history is also a testament to the faith of the Saints, their understanding of the importance of the divine directions contained in this revelation, and their continued efforts to fulfill them. Indeed, it would be a disservice to consider the sum total of their efforts to live this revelation a failure or to view these years only through the lens of the tragic conclusion of their habitation in Illinois.
For years Nauvoo was a refuge, a place of healthy industry, and a home for the Saints. It was a place where the “light and glory of Zion” were visible to numerous visitors who came and, in some cases, “contemplate[d] the word of the Lord.” Its “favor,” demonstrated in the lives of the Church members who lived there, did not fail to attract the attention of the world.21