Little-Known Document Enriches Understanding of the Church’s Incorporation in Illinois

By Alex D. Smith

By the winter of 1840–1841, the Mississippi riverfront town of Nauvoo, Illinois, boasted three hundred homes and ten times that number of residents.[1] When the first Latter-day Saints had arrived in 1839, they counted only ten structures on the peninsula and described the location as “literally a wilderness.”[2] In the ensuing months, they cleared land, built homes, planted crops, and drained the swampy “flats” along the river.

With the relative calm of winter approaching, Joseph Smith and other church leaders turned their attention toward securing legal rights for the Saints through state legislation.[3] The published statutes of Illinois’s twelfth general assembly, convened in Springfield on 7 December 1840, bear evidence of the Mormons’ considerable efforts.[4] But while much has been written of this legislation—particularly the Act to Incorporate the City of Nauvoo, which granted charters for the city, a university, and an independent militia body—virtually absent from the historical record is the aborted attempt to seek legislation incorporating the church in Illinois.

The only detailed evidence of this attempt is found in a single handwritten manuscript shelved in the Enrolled Bills collection at the Illinois State Archives. As the early Saints learned, the legislation was not needed; consequently, the bill—and its intent—were lost from the Mormon narrative. The manuscript is important, however, in understanding the legal steps the Saints took to establish their new home in Illinois.

Senate Bill No. 43, titled An Act Incorporating the Church at Nauvoo, was presented to the state legislature on 14 December 1840 by Sidney H. Little, the same Whig senator who had submitted Nauvoo’s charter to the senate in November.[5] The proposed act borrowed language from other incorporating acts. If passed as drafted, the act would have created the “Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints” as a “body corporate and politic, with perpetual succession, with all and singular the powers, privileges, and prerogatives, of a corporation.”

Of particular interest in the bill is the list of men identified as officers and members of the corporation. Aside from the First Presidency, the men named did not constitute a specific church leadership body. The list included the Nauvoo stake president, William Marks; one of Nauvoo’s three bishops; and three members of Nauvoo’s high council. Only one apostle—Orson Pratt—was named, and Don Carlos Smith was listed as the “president of the high priesthood.” The remaining seven men were prominent members of the Nauvoo community but did not hold ecclesiastical leadership positions at the time.

Also of note is the date on which the act was to take effect. Rather than becoming effective within a month or two, as with the other legislation being passed for the Saints, this act would have officially organized the church in Illinois half a year later, on Independence Day 1841.

The day after the bill was introduced in the senate, Senator Little recommended replacing the bill’s contents with a proposal to appoint a notary public in Nauvoo. On 17 December the bill was passed, with the new name An Act for the Appointment of a Notary Public in the City of Nauvoo.[6] It is unclear what argument led to the complete rewriting of the bill, but the most likely scenario is that the legislature considered the original bill unnecessary because of a law previously enacted. In 1835, in response to the many religious organizations seeking incorporation and the desire to treat them equally,state legislators passed a law granting default powers and responsibilities to any religious organization seeking incorporation, provided that the organization file certification that it had elected or appointed trustees.[7]

In accordance with the 1835 act, JS was elected the sole trustee-in-trust for the church on 30 January 1841, notice of which was filed with the Hancock County recorder three days later.[8] By this action, the church became legally incorporated in Illinois. With the act no longer needed, the Saints’ efforts to pass this legislation and the insightful wording they had chosen soon faded from the Mormon Nauvoo story.

This draft bill, as well as more information about its historical context, will be featured in Documents, Volume 7, scheduled for publication in spring 2018.


[1] JS, Letter, Nauvoo, Hancock Co., IL, to the Council of the Twelve, England, 15 Dec. 1840; JS Collection, CHL; “The Mormons,” Whig Republican (Lexington, Mississippi), 19 November 1840, [2]; “The Mormons are building up a town,” Pilot and Transcript (Baltimore, Maryland), 10 July 1840, [2].

[2] Joseph Smith, History, Book C–1, 11 June 1839, p. 954, CHL.

[3] The timing of these legislative efforts was likely related to the arrival in Nauvoo of John C. Bennett, who was the quartermaster general of the Illinois militia and had experience in crafting legislation with the “Invincible Dragoons”—an independent unit of the state militia. Bennett moved to Nauvoo and joined the church in the first weeks of September 1840; by the church’s October general conference, he had been appointed a member of a committee instructed to draft a charter for Nauvoo and to take it to the capital. (“Minutes of the General Conference,” Times and Seasons [Oct. 1840], 1:186; Letters from John C. Bennett to JS, 25 July and 15 Aug. 1840, JS Collection, CHL; Bennett, History of the Saints, [Boston: Leland and Whiting, 1842]: 14–15, 18.)

[4] An Act to Incorporate the City of Nauvoo [16 Dec. 1840], An Act to Incorporate the Nauvoo House Association [23 Feb. 1841], An Act for the Appointment of a Notary Public in the City of Nauvoo [7 Jan. 1841], Laws of the State of Illinois, Passed by the Twelfth General Assembly, [Springfield: William Walters, 1841]:52–57, 131–132, 190.

[5] Bill to Incorporate the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, in Bills, Resolutions, and Related General Assembly Records. 1st–88th Bienniums, 1819–1994, Illinois Secretary of State Archives, Springfield.

[6] Journal of the Senate . . . of Illinois, 15 Dec. 1840, 81; “A Bill for the Act for the Appointment of a Notary Public in the City of Nauvoo,” 12th General Assembly, House Bill no. 250 [Senate Bill, no. 37, revised no. 43], Illinois General Assembly, Bills, Resolutions, and Related General Assembly Records, 1st–98th Bienniums, 1819–2015, Illinois State Archives, Springfield.

[7] An Act concerning Religious Societies [6 Feb. 1835], Laws of the State of Illinois [1834–1835], pp. 147–149.

[8] Appointment, 2 Feb. 1841, Hancock Co., IL, Bonds and Mortgages, 1840–1904, vol. 1, p. 95, microfilm 954,776, U.S. and Canada Record Collection, FHL.