Episode 4: “Obstacles”

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Spencer: In May 1842, the walls of the Nauvoo Temple were beginning to take shape. A church-owned newspaper in Nauvoo, the Times and Seasons, published an optimistic update on the temple’s progress. It read, “This notable edifice is progressing with great rapidity . . . and by next fall we expect to see the building enclosed; if not the top stone raised with ‘shouting of grace—grace, unto it.’”

But, like any large-scale construction project, the building of the Nauvoo Temple faced delays and an assortment of obstacles. Some were common and internal, such as issues with funding. Other obstacles were unique and external, including the persecution of Joseph Smith and the Latter-day Saints by those outside Nauvoo. Though these challenges caused delays to the temple, the Saints kept building.

In this episode, we’ll talk about these challenges and the resulting perseverance of the Saints, as both became key parts to the story of the people of Nauvoo and of the temple’s construction.

This is The Nauvoo Temple: A Joseph Smith Papers Podcast. And I’m your host, Spencer McBride.

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Spencer: Episode 4: Obstacles

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Spencer: Since the founding of the church in 1830, Joseph Smith had dreamed big. Part of this seems to be out of a pragmatic necessity; gathering thousands of people together in a community of believers requires designing cities—and designing cities requires big plans.

But the scale of Joseph Smith’s plans and projects throughout his life can also be explained by his prophetic role. He believed that what he was ultimately doing in his role as a prophet and as the president of the church was building the kingdom of God on earth in preparation for the Second Coming of Jesus Christ. That was a big undertaking and one that required thinking and planning on a large scale.

The planned Nauvoo Temple was to be a large building, almost certainly the largest erected along the Mississippi River at this time, and possibly the largest in this region of the country. But how would the church pay for the construction? To understand that, we need to understand the principles and practices of tithing among early Latter-day Saints.

To help us do this, I spoke with Jeffrey Mahas, a historian on the Joseph Smith Papers Project.

Jeffrey: The question of how to pay for a massive undertaking like building a temple is something that the church had struggled with for a long time. To understand it, you really need to go back to Kirtland, Ohio, when the Saints first really faced this problem. There the Saints in charge, particularly Joseph Smith, who were in charge of building the Kirtland Temple, took on a massive amount of debt to finance the structure. So they did not have many assets themselves and instead went deep into debt, and these are debts that haunted them for the rest of their lives.

Spencer: Now, the Saints in Kirtland had also contributed considerable time, labor, and resources to the construction of the Kirtland Temple, but the debts associated with that building project informed the way that Joseph and other church leaders approached the construction of the temple in Nauvoo.

Jeffrey: So after the Kirtland Temple, moving forward on other temple projects, Joseph Smith and the Saints had the sense we cannot do that again, and sure enough, in April 1838, when Joseph is beginning to contemplate building a temple in Far West, Missouri, he receives a revelation from the Lord instructing him not to go into debt to build the temple. But that raises a question: How are the Saints going to finance the building of a massive structure? How are they going to do this? They don’t have a lot of money. They don’t have a lot of means. And a couple months later, the answer comes via revelation: That’s a principle of tithing.

Spencer: But, as Jeffrey explains, tithing for Latter-day Saints in the 1830s and the 1840s looked different than it does today.

Jeffrey: Tithing in 1838 is a lot more complicated than we think of it today. As the principle would work as best we can understand, Saints would be instructed to consecrate all that they had to the bishops of the church, who would return a stewardship, or about as much land and property as they could make use of, and then that stewardship the Saints would be expected to improve upon, and they set an interest rate of around 6%—that was seen as that’s the growth, that is the increase of your stewardship—and you would be expected to give 10% of 6% of what you donated originally. If that sounds complex, it is. Within just one or two months, a very short period of time, this system of tithing breaks down in Missouri and they start trying to rely on other means for the church to continue to function and for the temple construction.

Spencer: Of course, that was in Missouri. Once the Saints began settling in Illinois as religious refugees, they revisited their approach to tithing.

Jeffrey: They return to the tithing revelation, but now they decide they’re going to try to make some tweaks to the system to make it a little bit more manageable. Instead of the idea being that you consecrate everything that you have to the church, every Latter-day Saint is expected to give 10% of all they have at the outset of the construction to the church to finance the building, and then 10% of an increase every year thereafter.

Spencer: But the method of payment also represents a considerable difference from most tithing today.

Elizabeth: Tithing in Nauvoo was very different in that it was usually paid in goods. Sometimes called “tithing in kind,” it often included livestock or household goods, sometimes clothing, sometimes more valuable things like watches or guns, rifles.

Spencer: That’s Elizabeth Kuehn, also a historian on the Joseph Smith Papers Project.

Elizabeth: One of the things you have to understand about Nauvoo is that this is a cash poor economy. It’s not an area where there is a lot of currency that is available or that’s circulating in the community, and so bartering was a huge staple of this local community, and that extended to tithing. So, oftentimes you might not have money, which at this time would mostly be gold and silver coins or banknotes. What you would have would be, perhaps, the produce of your garden, or the livestock that you are raising, or perhaps something that you had made yourself and could then give to be tithed.

Spencer: And it wasn’t just Nauvoo that was cash poor. The entire state of Illinois was experiencing a shortage of currency.

Jeffrey: One thing that’s important to remember in addition to the relative poverty of the Saints as a whole, is the country is still struggling from the 1837 financial panic. And the aftershocks of that massive financial panic are continuing to roil the nation through the 1840s. So, for example in Illinois, the Illinois State Bank fails in 1842, and with it, the main financial institution of the state of Illinois goes up in smoke. And so, Joseph is very forthright with his creditors and others and financial agents that he has, acknowledging, saying, “We have no money, there is no money in Nauvoo or in Illinois.” And at the lowest points he admits we are getting by by bartering, and when we look at the financial records, that’s very true, you can see on occasion, bank notes or gold or silver currency might be circulating, but in general, all business is being handled by barter, so you would trade goods and services for goods and services, and that is precisely what we see with the Saints contributing to the temple.

Spencer: In fact, a notice run by the editors of the church’s newspaper, the Times and Seasons, stated that the $2 subscription to the paper could also be paid in firewood.

Still, while the Latter-day Saints paying their tithing in a time of poverty demonstrates their commitment to building the temple, the goods they donated were not always the goods that the temple committee needed.

Jeffrey: As these Saints in their poverty are giving what they can, of course, they’re giving up the same items that are the luxuries that they can give up most readily, and so you get a lot of things like watches, firearms, and kind of miscellaneous niceties of life. And this becomes a problem for the temple committee because the reason people are getting rid of those is because they’re luxury items that they can get rid of easily and those make it very hard to move around. There’s not much that you can do with it. So, we see the tithing office run by the temple committee begging the Latter-day Saints to donate things that they can make ready use of, particularly grain, cattle, foodstuffs that they can use to pay their workers, which we know the vast majority of the workmen who received wages for working on the temple are being paid in things like grain, or part of a cow, or part of a pig. They’re being paid in the bare necessities that they can get to feed a family.

Spencer: On a more humorous note, Elizabeth explained that the payment of tithing in livestock often presented unique problems of its own.

Elizabeth: In the summer of 1842, there is a notice printed in one of the local papers, The Wasp, and it is from the recorder who runs the trustee-in-trust office. Joseph Smith is trustee-in-trust of the church and is over all of the financial aspects of the church in that role, but he delegates to clerks to help him. And as part of this, the clerk writes a notice on Joseph’s behalf, requesting that if anyone had seen the cow donated by Dr. Lenox Knight, that they should return it to the tithing office because it had wandered away, and there is something kind of whimsical about the idea of tithing that can get up and walk away. It’s pretty foreign, I think, to most members today to be paying in cows or chickens or pigs. And the fact was that apparently in the summer of 1842, there was a deficiency in the fence or the corral and they often lost tithing to either perhaps being stolen or just wandering away.

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Spencer: Tithing in Nauvoo was more than contributions in the form of currency and goods. In the 1840s, church leadership also relied on something called labor tithing.

Elizabeth: By February 1841, several men in Nauvoo had begun to donate their time rather than goods. So, labor tithing evolves out of this donation of work on the temple rather than paying money or goods on the temple. And over time, this practice apparently becomes more standardized and becomes more of kind of a set requirement, so that the temple recorder assigned a fixed value to this labor of $31 a year.

Spencer: So, Latter-day Saints living in Nauvoo were eventually expected to pay tithing in labor as well as in goods. Men would labor on the temple one day in every ten, or a tithe of their labor.

Many church members living too far away from Nauvoo to work on the temple were eager to contribute in whatever way they could. Often, missionaries would send or bring back donations from church members throughout the United States, Canada, and Great Britain.

Elizabeth: In June 1842, Erastus Snow, who’s a missionary in the Salem and Boston area in Massachusetts, sends donations back to the church in Nauvoo, and in his letter, he writes: “The Saints in Salem are mostly Mechanics and times are very dull and money almost out of the question with the laboring classes, but if they could work on the temple or give such things as they get for their labor, they would gladly do it. However as every little helps a little I forward what little I have got and considerable more is subscribed to be sent some future time when collected.” Among the donations in Snow’s letter were six silver teaspoons donated by a woman named Clara Homiston. She didn’t have much money, but she offered what she did have. Her donation was valued at $3. So, you can see this eagerness to give whatever they could, even if it is just some silver teaspoons.

Spencer: Both tithing paid in money and goods and tithing paid in labor were managed by the temple committee. The committee not only managed donations that came in, but how those donations were used to further work on the temple.

Elizabeth: Goods donated to the temple could go, in some cases, directly to feed or clothe the workers. The records that we have indicate that often animals were slaughtered and then that meat could be divided among the workers on the temple. There’s of course the additional step when you’re given more luxury goods like watches or perhaps finer clothing that you could then sell that clothing and be able to get a profit that could be used to buy building materials or other necessities for the temple.

Spencer: Managing the tithing was really important to the construction of the temple, and ebbs and flows in donations had an immediate effect on the temple’s progress.

Elizabeth: The construction efforts on the temple are very much dependent on this and on the resources that they’re able to bring in. Do they have adequate stone? Do they have adequate lumber? Are there enough workers? And so, for many moments, it’s a stopping and starting process where it’s not the continuous work that I think Joseph Smith and other church leaders would have wanted it to be. Sometimes the weather gets in the way, sometimes you don’t have the means to continue working on it, and we do know that there are long delays; there are pauses.

Spencer: In our conversation, Elizabeth shared multiple accounts of Latter-day Saints who sacrificed immensely to help build the temple. But one story was particularly moving.

Elizabeth: Perhaps the most poignant story I’ve come across in my research is that of Hannah Tinkham, who gave every last cent she had upon her death for the construction of the temple. In the summer of 1844, Hannah traveled with a group of Saints heading to Nauvoo. She was a 47-year-old woman from New York, possibly a weaver by trade, and while traveling to Nauvoo, she fell ill—possibly with malaria—and she continued to get worse and worse. They arrive in Nauvoo. Two weeks later, Hannah passes away at the home of the widow Sally Murdock, and the Book of the Law of the Lord that gives this account notes that Hannah “died strong in the faith and often expressed her joy to be permitted to have her body lay with the saints in this place.” So fervent was her desire to gather to Nauvoo that she rejoiced in being buried there. Normally a story such as Hannah’s would not be included among the entries that constitute the tithing record. However, she had made a specific request of her traveling companions that “in case she died, they would see that her money and effects, after defraying her funeral expenses, was put into the hands of the trustee-in-trust for the building of the temple.” Her wishes were honored, and all of her possessions were given to the committee responsible for building the Nauvoo Temple. Scribe Willard Richards dutifully recorded every single item that belonged to Hannah and its value in the Book of the Law of the Lord, noting that her possessions were “recorded as a consecration and donation for the purpose intended.” Her possessions, which included a range of clothing, household goods and weaving tools, as well as a horse, were valued at $159, along with $145 in gold and silver coins, amounting to $304. This was a significant amount for the period and represented not only all that Hannah could offer to the Lord and her fellow Saints temporally, but her testimony and commitment to the restored gospel. She was quite well off and gave it all.

Spencer: People might not think of a tithing ledger as a particularly exciting historical source, but it is only in the record of donations for the Nauvoo Temple that Hannah’s story survives. Only in this record is her commitment to the temple and the restoration of the gospel preserved for historians. Without this record, much of Hannah’s story would be lost.

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Spencer: Elizabeth mentioned several possible challenges that slowed progress on the temple’s construction. Of course, there were some obstacles that would impede the construction more than others. And the year 1842 seems like it was filled to the brim with such challenges. Jeffrey Mahas explains:

Jeffrey: One of the most trying years in Nauvoo was 1842. Early on in the year, you get the public revelations of John C. Bennett’s villainy in the city, and all of the misdeeds that he’s been doing; you get his excommunication, his removal from being mayor, and you get this kind of public war being played out in the newspapers of Joseph and the Saints attacking Bennett’s character, and Bennett replying in kind in the Sangamo Journal and other newspapers attacking Joseph Smith and the Saints. Wrapped up into all of this, former Missouri governor Lilburn Boggs is shot by an unknown assailant.

Spencer: There was no love lost between the Saints at Nauvoo and Boggs, the man who had ordered their expulsion from Missouri under the threat of state-sanctioned extermination. And when news reached Nauvoo saying that Boggs had been assassinated, the city did not mourn.

However, as it turned out, that news was premature. Boggs was shot by an unknown assailant, but the former governor survived. And then the rumors started. And one of the men starting rumors was John C. Bennett, who—after his excommunication for immorality earlier that year—had devoted himself to opposing Joseph Smith and the church.

Jeffrey: John C. Bennett and others publicly claim that Joseph had called for Boggs’s assassination. Boggs himself believes these rumors and swears out an affidavit stating that Joseph Smith was an accessory before fact of this murder attempt. The Missouri governor makes a requisition to the Illinois governor for the arrest of Joseph Smith.

Spencer: Missouri had attempted to reclaim Joseph Smith before. In 1840, Missouri officials had resurrected charges against Joseph Smith that the state’s courts had previously dismissed and requested that Illinois extradite Joseph to Missouri, sending him back to stand trial.

How is this related to the building of the Nauvoo Temple? Well, all this tumult in the lives of Joseph Smith and the Saints slowed progress on construction of that sacred building.

Jeffrey: With this public war of words between Bennett and Joseph, with this threat of extradition, many of the Saints become discouraged. They begin to believe that with these dark times, they’re not sure if the church can pull through. And so we see in the records there is a decrease in the tithing that’s being given to the Saints, and we see the temple committee calling, please don’t abandon us, we know things look dark right now, but we promise we’re going to make it through these days.

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Spencer: We’re going to pause the story of Missouri’s attempt to extradite Joseph Smith for just a moment. Even as Joseph was forced to go in and out of hiding, he was party to decisions made by church leaders of how to use the temple even while it was still under construction. Of course, the baptismal font in the basement was already dedicated and in use. But, in September 1842, as fall began to set in, Joseph and his fellow church leaders had the temple in mind to solve another pressing issue.

This was a time before Latter-day Saints built meetinghouses or chapels. In good weather, they met outdoors, often in a grove of trees adjacent to the temple lot. But in bad weather, they were forced to meet in smaller groups in individual homes. Joseph Smith and others wanted a way for the Saints in Nauvoo to be able to continue meeting as a larger group even when colder weather started to set in.

The solution they came up with was to put a temporary floor in the temple. So, in October 1842, with still no roof over the temple and the walls standing only between four and twelve feet tall, the church installed a temporary floor and church members could still meet together as a large group, protected from chilling winds.

However, the floor had no pews. So, going to church in Nauvoo at this time was a bit of an unusual undertaking. Men, women, and children would grab chairs, benches, and stools from their homes and carry them to the temple.

Charlotte Haven, a non-church member living in Nauvoo, described this scene in a letter to her mother. She wrote: “I know, dear Mother, you would be highly amused were you now to look from our parlor window at the crowd of people that are passing from their devotions in the Temple. As that edifice has neither roof nor floor, preaching is held there only on pleasant Sundays. Then planks are laid loosely over the joists and some boards are placed for seats, but not half enough to accommodate the people; so men, women, and children, take with them chairs, benches, stools, etc. They are now returning with them.”

But I think this is more than an amusing fact about worship services in the unfinished Nauvoo Temple. I think it shows how Joseph and other church leaders met some of the obstacles and problems that arose, that they were looking for pragmatic solutions to everyday problems. If church members needed someplace to sit at church, the solution was to ask church members to bring their own seats.

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Spencer: Now, back to Missouri’s second attempt to extradite Joseph Smith. Law officers hounded Joseph Smith, and he was forced to hide for his safety. He knew that if he returned to Missouri, he was a dead man. If the state didn’t execute him, then a mob would.

Sometimes Joseph hid in the homes of friends in Nauvoo. Other times he left the city altogether. For instance, he found temporary refuge about fifty miles north on the Mississippi River at the house of apostle John Taylor’s father.

As difficult as this moment was for Joseph, there were clear benefits that he gleaned from such trials.

Jeffrey: In all of these months, Joseph spends a lot of time in quiet contemplation. He’s meditating on his own life, on his friends. We have beautiful blessings that he dictates to his scribes about his family, his friends, and all of the joys and blessings that he wishes upon them, and Joseph also spends a lot of time contemplating about the temple. The ordinance of baptisms for the dead had been introduced several years earlier, but now while Joseph’s in hiding, he has the time to really think about, craft, and formalize these ordinances, and so we get these beautiful letters that are now in the Doctrine and Covenants where Joseph talks about promising the triumph of the church, the triumph of the gospel, and also giving instructions on very practical matters about how to perform these ordinances in the proper way.

Spencer: Do you remember in episode 3 when we talked about the development of baptisms for the dead, particularly how these baptisms were recorded? These were the circumstances in which such instructions came.

And in these circumstances Joseph urged the Saints on to greater courage and optimism. He wrote: “Brethren, shall we not go on in so great a cause? Go forward and not backward. Courage, brethren; and on, on to the victory! Let your hearts rejoice, and be exceedingly glad.”

Joseph was optimistic that, if he and his fellow church members remained faithful and devoted to their cause, these trials would be resolved with the help of God.

And then, in late 1842 and early 1843, Joseph Smith obtained relief from Missouri’s attempts to extradite him.

Jeffrey: After several months, Joseph is able to obtain legal counsel from Justin Butterfield, a prominent Chicago attorney, who instructs him after speaking with Governor Ford and others in Springfield, Illinois, that Joseph can obtain a fair hearing in the capital of the state if he submits to arrest. Joseph submits to arrest to one of his friends, and then is taken to Springfield where he has a hearing before federal judge Nathaniel Pope. Pope absolutely eviscerates Lilburn Boggs’s affidavit that got the whole extradition attempt rolling, says this is a sham, there’s no foundation in law for what they’re trying to say or what they’re trying to do, there’s no evidence produced, there’s nothing here. And Pope discharges Joseph from arrest and Joseph is able to go free. This is probably one of the most celebrated moments of Joseph’s own life at the time. They compose songs, they have parties. This is, in the minds of Joseph and the Latter-day Saints, a vindication of all that they’ve suffered for the last several years.

Spencer: It’s difficult to overstate the infusion of hope that came with Joseph’s legal victory. A strong sense of optimism exudes from the surviving documents of that moment. One of Joseph’s clerks, Willard Richards, wrote, “President Smith & all the church never had so good a prospect before them as at the present time.”

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Spencer: In January 1843, Nauvoo’s future seemed bright. And at the heart of that bright future was the temple.

And while difficulties would soon return to Joseph’s life and the lives of the Latter-day Saints in Nauvoo, the city continued to grow, and the temple continued to rise. And even though the temple would not be completed for some time to come, Joseph Smith began to reveal significantly more about the ordinances that would be performed therein, ordinances that, as an 1841 revelation stated, would be a key component in the restoration of “the fulness of the priesthood.” What were these ordinances and to whom did Joseph first introduce them? We’ll dive into those questions in the next episode of The Nauvoo Temple: A Joseph Smith Papers Podcast.