Episode 6: “Martyrdom, Dedication, and Exodus”

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Spencer: In 1844, the construction of the Nauvoo Temple would face its stiffest test yet. It was in that year that tension between Latter-day Saints in Nauvoo and many of their neighbors reached a fever pitch. And that summer, the tension would transform into mob violence, violence that led to the murder of Joseph and Hyrum Smith.

How did the Saints charged with building the Nauvoo Temple, who saw it as a commandment from God, finish the project in the wake of Joseph’s death? The work on the Nauvoo Temple amid escalating hostilities and violence, that’s what we’re talking about in this episode of The Nauvoo Temple: A Joseph Smith Papers Podcast, and I’m your host, Spencer McBride.


Spencer: Episode 6: Martyrdom, Dedication, and Exodus


Spencer: What caused the tension between the Saints in Illinois and some of their neighbors? That’s a big question, one that scholars have devoted years to answering. Here, I’ll try to give a condensed answer.

There were multiple components of this tension, but, in short, the growth of the Latter-day Saint community made some Illinois residents nervous, especially those living in Hancock County, which is where Nauvoo is situated. They feared what they saw as the combination of religious and civic power in Nauvoo and were apprehensive about the concentration of the political and economic power in the county as that city grew. Many believed that Joseph Smith had too much control, that he wielded too much power.

These concerns were exacerbated by the Saints’ practice of bloc voting in which they voted together for political candidates who they believed would protect their rights. And because Illinois was so sharply divided between the two major political parties, in the statewide elections, the Saints—even as a small minority—played the role of “kingmaker” by determining who won closely contested races.

In addition, the unique combination of powers in Nauvoo’s city charter worried some Illinois residents. Remember when we talked about that charter in episode 1? Well, whereas Joseph and others saw these powers as necessary to protect their citizenship rights, especially as a religious minority, and to avoid a repeat of the persecution they experienced in Missouri, critics believed that the charter placed Joseph above the law.

Eventually, many of these critics of Joseph Smith and the church banded together and formed a party they called the Anti-Mormon Party. And together they determined to drive the Saints out of the state, just as the mobs in Missouri had done.

But lacing all these reasons for hostility towards the Saints in Illinois was religious prejudice. The Anti-Mormons, even as they raised their secular concerns such as the potential for economic dominance and bloc voting, they spoke derisively of the Latter-day Saints’ beliefs. They called it a “pretend” religion and the Saints “fanatics.” These were common tactics in nineteenth-century America. It was a way of justifying extralegal violence, of saying that the mobs they formed were not persecuting a religious minority but that they were actually eliminating a threat to democratic society. But, in reality, such religious prejudice colored many of the more secular concerns of the Anti-Mormons.

With the rising tensions in Hancock County, Illinois, Joseph and other church leaders were regularly conferring about the best course of action. How could they best protect the Saints? These potential actions included leaving the state of Illinois and the United States of America altogether. Jeffrey Mahas, a historian with the Joseph Smith Papers, explains:

Jeffrey: For several months prior to his death, Joseph Smith and many of the church leaders realized that they were running out of time in Illinois. This had been a refuge for them for a time, but continuing opposition from their neighbors in Missouri as well as growing hostility in Hancock County and neighboring counties in Illinois itself was leading these men to realize we need to look elsewhere for a home, we cannot plan to stay here forever. So in February and March, they start this process of planning to send men out west, out to Oregon Territory, out to the Mexican Territory of upper California, somewhere in the Rocky Mountains or further west, somewhere to where they can find a place where the Saints can have a home somewhere in the West. These and other plans get wrapped up in an organization that becomes known as the Council of Fifty, because there are a little over fifty men who join it. The Council of Fifty investigates many possibilities. They send a member to Washington DC to inquire about the possibility of having the Saints build forts for the United States into Oregon Territory and allow the Saints to move west that way. They investigate a little bit about moving to the vast territory of upper California in the West, and they’re also looking into planting a colony of the Saints in Texas, which is a pet project that the Saints who had been harvesting lumber for the Nauvoo Temple up in Wisconsin, they come to worry that they’re going to be kicked off their land, and as a backup, they say we should all go to Texas. All of these plans are in consideration.

Spencer: Yet, for all the serious considerations that Joseph Smith and others gave to leaving the United States, they were just as serious about finding ways to stay safely in Nauvoo, or at least to keep some of the church in that city.

To this end, church leaders recognized that they needed the protection of the United States government. And so, Joseph and others start a few different initiatives. For instance, Joseph announced his candidacy for president of the United States in January 1844. The city council petitioned Congress to make Nauvoo a federal city, which would grant it a status similar to that of Washington DC and thereby qualify it for federal protection. And the Saints asked Congress to commission Joseph Smith as a general in the army to protect citizens moving west to Oregon and California, a move that would, again, enable federal protection for the Saints.

But all these moves were long shots. And they would all fail. But they show how desperate the situation was getting in Nauvoo. Nevertheless, amid all of this, the Saints continued to build the temple. And as the building came closer to completion, it almost certainly buoyed their spirits.


Spencer: As the temple construction advanced, workers were able to turn more of their attention to the building’s finer details. These details included the sunstones, the moonstones, and the stars carved into the temple’s exterior walls. To better understand the symbolism of these stones, I spoke with Matthew McBride, the director of the Publications Division of the Church History Department.

Matt: It’s interesting, so as Latter-day Saints today, we look at that building and we see the moons and the suns and the stars, and the first thought that jumps to our head is: Oh, this is symbolic of these three degrees of heavenly glory that await everybody after the resurrection. They’re laid out in the revelation that’s now in section 76 of the Doctrine and Covenants. We call them the three degrees of glory.

Spencer: Matthew is referring to an 1832 vision recorded by Joseph Smith, and a shorter biblical passage in 1 Corinthians chapter 15 that refers to three degrees of heavenly glory analogous to the stars, the moon, and the sun in their relative brightness.

Matt: But then you look closer and you see that the moon’s on the bottom, and then there’s a sun and then there are stars going around the top, and you think that’s out of order. What’s happening there? The place to look—to understand what we think Joseph Smith intended by these symbols on the building—is to the Book of Revelation, and we have one source in particular that was written by one of the key builders of the Nauvoo Temple, Wandle Mace. And he says that this order of architecture, these design elements of the moon, the sun, and the stars arranged the way they are, are intended to represent the woman spoken of in chapter 12 of the Book of Revelation. And she is described as having the moon at her feet, and her face is shining brilliantly like the sun, and she has a crown of stars around her head, which corresponds to the elements in the architecture. And it’s interesting to think about why Joseph Smith would have chosen this. This woman, Joseph Smith said, represented the church, and she is fleeing from a dragon, and she is in labor; she’s giving birth to a child, and the child that she gives birth to, Joseph Smith says, is the kingdom of God.

Spencer: So, what was Joseph Smith trying to convey with this symbolism?

Matt: The symbolism of the architecture is intended to evoke the idea of the church fleeing from the world. You think about Joseph Smith’s ideas about the Millennium, about how the church has a role to play in preparing the way for the Millennium. We’ve got to gather, we’ve got to flee from the world, we have to build a temple—this is a place where Jesus Christ can return—and then His return will kick off the onset of an earthly kingdom governed by God himself. And so that corresponds so well with what’s happening there in Joseph Smith’s interpretation of Revelation chapter 12. The woman who is the church is fleeing from the dragon, she comes to a place, she gives birth to the son who represents the Kingdom of God, and so he sees in that architecture are instantiated these ideas about the role that the church is to play in preparing for this millennial kingdom. And when you think about everything else that Joseph Smith is doing in Nauvoo, the introduction of the temple ordinances, even the creation of the Council of Fifty, and some of the thinking that they’re doing about, okay, well, what if the Savior now came, what would the government look like? What might this theocratic kingdom look like? He’s very much captivated by ideas about how the work they were doing as a church related to what the world would be like after Jesus comes.

Spencer: And Matthew told me that Joseph Smith drew inspiration for other parts of the temple’s design from the Book of Revelation.

Matt: So, the stars. It’s a five-point star, it’s inverted. And we have at least one nineteenth-century Latter-day Saint source that describes that star as it appears in the Logan Tabernacle as “the star of the morning,” and in Revelation “the bright and morning star” is Jesus Christ, who is coming again.

Spencer: And the angel weathervane placed atop the Nauvoo Temple, well, that is connected to the Book of Revelation as well.

Matt: There were tons of buildings, tons of churches in early America that had angel weathervanes, and people always thought of those weathervanes as, oh, the angel Gabriel or whatever. In this instance, we know the weathervane was created and installed on the temple, and to the extent that that weathervane matches the design that we know we have from William Weeks for the weathervane, this angel is depicted with a trumpet and is carrying a book. And it is prostrate, it’s flying through the air, which evokes the passage in the Book of Revelation about the angel flying through the midst of heaven, having the everlasting gospel to preach to the inhabitants of the Earth. He’s holding the book. And so, so the Book of Revelation is just this fruitful place to look for trying to understand the symbolism, even the trumpet stones that are the abacus, the big wide plate sitting on top of the sunstones at the top with these trumpets, it depicts the trumpets that are sounded by angels in Revelation chapters 8 and 9, and they sound these trumpets, then they pronounce woes in the last days. And after the last trumpet has sounded, there’s a voice that says: “[Behold,] the kingdom . . . of this world [is] become the kingdom . . . of our [God], and of His Christ.” And so, all of these ideas about the Second Coming, about the incipient kingdom of God on the earth, about the dangers of the last days and the role that the church is supposed to play, it’s all kind of baked into the architecture of the temple.


Spencer: Visitors to Nauvoo often commented on the temple and its architecture. In May 1844, Joseph showed two prominent guests, Josiah Quincy and Charles Francis Adams of Massachusetts, around the city. In his journal, Quincy noted his fascination with the face that a laborer was carving into one of the sunstones. Joseph Smith and the Saints were proud of the temple and looked forward to the day it was completed. Unfortunately, Joseph Smith would not live to see that day.

On June 27, 1844, tensions in Hancock County finally boiled over. An armed mob stormed the jail in Carthage, Illinois, where Joseph and Hyrum Smith were being held on charges that they had incited a riot and committed treason. The mob opened fire on the men and, when the smoke cleared, Joseph and Hyrum were dead.

This was a tragic moment in the history of the church and a pall fell over Nauvoo. The Saints wept. To them, Joseph and Hyrum died as martyrs. And the martyrdom is such a significant historical event that it could be the subject of an entirely different podcast.

But in the story of the Nauvoo Temple, the martyrdom proved to be a watershed moment. Now, the Saints had to finish the temple without their prophet, and they had to do it with the hope that they could stay long enough to use the temple once it was complete. In the short term, the death of Joseph and Hyrum Smith halted construction. But in the long term, it sped things up. Historian Alex Smith explained how this occurred.

Alex: There’s no question that Joseph’s murder, and Hyrum’s, caused an immediate halt to construction of the temple. I mean we’re told that for a number of weeks immediately after the martyrdom, that there was no work done on the temple. I think, if I remember correctly, the time book of workmen only shows guards, for instance, being paid during those weeks immediately following the martyrdom. But whether or not the martyrdom prompts a sense of urgency is a good question. I believe that since early 1844, there was already an understanding that Nauvoo was no longer tenable as a long-term home for the Saints. The Council of Fifty is already looking elsewhere outside of the United States for a place for the Saints to move to en masse. So Joseph’s death, I think, probably put a point to the issue that we’re really not welcome here, but in terms of whether it created more of a sense of urgency, I think the Saints actually understood with temple construction all through ’44, ’45 that they were leaving, that they were on their way out.

Spencer: But as they hurried to finish the temple, church leaders also had to figure out where they could move to be safe. Jeffrey Mahas explains:

Jeffrey: For a time, many Latter-day Saints are divided and split about what they should do. Some, like James Emmett, who had been privy to some of the discussions of the Council of Fifty, said, that’s it, Nauvoo’s time is done, I am heading out of here, and he leads a little over 100 Saints just west into the middle of nowhere on an ill-fated journey trying to find refuge in the West. Others like Lyman Wight say, Joseph told me to go to Texas, I’m going to go to Texas. And he gets a group, and they winter in Wisconsin, but they’re planning the next spring to head down to Texas, which they do. Others like Sidney Rigdon, who had been sent off to Pittsburgh as part of Joseph Smith’s presidential campaign, kind of also is of the mind, I think Nauvoo’s done guys. In contrast to all of this, Brigham Young and the Twelve are very firmly of the mind, No, we are going to stay here. We are going to build the temple. That is our first priority.

Spencer: Yet, over all these considerations hung two questions: How much time did they have left in Nauvoo? And was it enough to finish the temple?

Jeffrey: In January of 1845, growing statewide opposition to the Saints leads the Illinois State Legislature to revoke Nauvoo’s municipal charter. At this point, the Saints are very concerned about what’s going to happen to them. They’ve seen their charter as a bulwark of freedom, something that’s protected them from anti-Mormon aggression. With that, they had their own court system, they had their own militia unit, and now all of that’s been stripped away, and there’s this real fear: what happens next?

Spencer: Well, in the midst of this, on January 24th, 1845, Brigham Young and others met in the temple and prayed about whether they should remain in Nauvoo long enough to finish the construction. Brigham recorded in his journal that the answer they received was “yes.”

Jeffrey: And from that moment, no one wavers or questions that decision. They are going to—no matter what—stay and finish the Nauvoo Temple. During all of this time, you had threats of opposition, men like Lyman White, Sidney Rigdon, who had turned their backs on Nauvoo and believed that the temple was a failed endeavor, there were rumors that these men were going to try to destroy the temple, try to halt the work in some way, and so you see a growing culture of vigilance and fear growing among the Saints at the same time as they’re trying to do what they can to build the structure. All through the winter of 1844–45, they work very hard, and very quickly they get up the scaffolding and try to finish and complete the walls, and by May of 1845, they are able to put on the capstones onto the external walls of the Nauvoo Temple.

Spencer: Now there was a point in 1845 where the temple construction almost halted altogether due to a lack of funds. But then an Italian convert named Giuseppe Taranto, or Joseph Toronto, as he chose to be called in the United States, stepped forward. He donated $2,600 in gold, all of his savings from years working as a sailor. It was nearly all he had, and his immense sacrifice allowed for the continuation of temple construction at a critical moment.

External pressure continued to build, but Brigham Young ultimately determined their plan of action. And completing the temple was always a key part of that plan.

Jeffrey: Throughout that fall, they continue making plans to complete the structure, and the temple is probably having one of the most productive periods in its construction history as the Saints hurry to complete it. All that same time, once the charter has been taken away, Brigham Young and the Twelve and other church leaders recognize, again, we cannot stay here forever. The hope was that they could maintain Nauvoo as kind of a temple city, the home of their temple for as long as possible while the headquarters of the church moved elsewhere, and so Brigham and the Council of Fifty begin looking again at where to go, what they can do. Where can the Saints go to obtain peace? Where will they not be attacked or face opposition from their neighbors? Over the course of the next several months, they gradually narrow down from what had been looking at Oregon, Texas, and upper California, to upper California. And by the end of the summer, it’s even more specific of the Great Basin, and on September 9th, 1845, Brigham Young convenes the Council of Fifty and says, we’re going somewhere near the Great Salt Lake. The next day, right after that decision has been made, anti-Mormon violence breaks out again in Hancock County. The group of vigilantes start burning the homes of Latter-day Saints who are living elsewhere in the county, away from the city, and we have about a period of a month of open civil war between Latter-day Saints and Anti-Mormons in Hancock County. This violence only ends once Brigham and the Saints publicly state their intentions to leave the state the next spring, and state militia comes in to try and keep the peace between the two warring parties. When news had come that the Anti-Mormons had accepted the Saints leaving the state, Brigham and the Council of Fifty actually rejoice, because the joke was on the Anti-Mormons. They were planning to leave this whole time, but still the hope is that they can finish the temple, and by November—by the end of November—the temple is complete enough that they’re able to finish the attic story, dedicate that, and on the 10th of December 1845, they begin performing ordinances inside the Nauvoo Temple.


Spencer: In December 1845, the temple was not totally finished, but it was finished enough to start using it for endowment and sealing ceremonies. And, as Matthew McBride explains, these circumstances made for a temple dedication unlike any other in church history.

Matt: It’s probably the most interesting temple dedication story ever. And the first thing you’d have to say about it is that the temple was dedicated in parts. So, they want to continue baptisms for the dead. All they have are some basement walls in the spring and summer of 1841, but they work really hard so that by that October, the walls are high enough up, and the font can be installed, and a temporary wooden roof can be laid over the top of the walls where they are, and then that space is dedicated so that they can continue to perform baptisms for the dead. And then work continues, and then you reach the fall of 1845, and this is this moment where the temple is finished enough that they are ready to start performing the endowment in the temple and introduce it to large numbers of members of the church. And so, there’s this very small group that had received the endowment from Joseph Smith that meets in the upper attic story of the temple that they have now prepared, they’ve partitioned it off with canvas, they have decorated the Council Chamber at the east end of the attic, and then they have a private dedication ceremony. And they’re the only ones who know about it, so there’s not a lot of pomp, but that space is dedicated for the introduction of the endowment.

Spencer: We’ll talk about the administration of the endowment in the temple in just a moment. But where the dedication of the temple is concerned, the dedication of the entire building actually occurred months later, after Brigham Young and other church leaders had left Nauvoo.

Matt: And then, members of the church start to leave Nauvoo in February of 1846, and the temple’s still not done. And some of the people that remain behind after those first groups leave are certainly people who are poorer and don’t have the means to leave quite yet, or who are waiting to sell their property so that they can leave, but also a group of temple construction workers who remain there, they finish installing a herringbone red brick floor in the basement, they finish a lot of the plastering and painting in some of the different parts of the building. There are various final tasks that they do. They paint an inscription over the end of the main assembly hall on the first floor that says “the Lord has beheld our sacrifice, come after us,” and all of this work is being done as Saints are leaving in company after company, and by April, the decision is made that even though not all the parts of the building are finished, that it’s finished enough that they’ve fulfilled the mandate that God had given them to build and to complete this temple. They’ve made their sacrifice, and so they decide to have a dedication, and they have even two dedication ceremonies. On April 30th, they have a private dedication where temple workers and people who have been endowed, they come together and they have a private dedicatory ceremony, and they offer a prayer and dedicate their work and all of the sacrifice that they’ve made to build the temple to God. The next day on May 1, they hold a public dedicatory ceremony, and this is something that we don’t do in our temples today. Part of the reason they held a public ceremony to dedicate was so that they could charge a price for a ticket, and part of the reason that they did that was they were charging curious onlookers, outsiders, people from the communities around Nauvoo to come and participate in the dedication of this large public building. The dedication occurred in the congregational meeting hall downstairs, so it was designed to accommodate a large group of people. And they did this so that they could raise money to help the poorest of the Saints that remained in Nauvoo, especially the temple, the people who had been working construction on the temple to complete it, so that they would have enough money to make the trip across the river and across Iowa. And there are accounts of the public ceremony written both by Latter-day Saints and by others who attended. There were talks that were given talking about the temple. There was a dedicatory prayer that was offered. And so, in many respects it was a similar format to a dedicatory session that we would have today. It’s just that it was public, and that they had charged admission as a way of trying to help those workers.

Spencer: Even though the dedication of the entire building occurred on May 1, 1846, the church had stopped administering the endowment in February.

This means that the endowment ceremony was only performed in the Nauvoo Temple from December 10, 1845, to February 8, 1846, a short period of 60 days.

But it was 60 days that were unlike any other period in the history of Nauvoo. It was 60 days that the men and women who participated in the work of the temple would forever treasure. After years of dedication and work and sacrifice, they were finally realizing the promised blessings of the temple. They were finally partaking of the fulness of the priesthood, as that January 1841 revelation had promised them that they would.

Alex Smith described just how busy the temple was at this time.

Alex: William Clayton as temple recorder actually records names of those who receive their ordinances in the temple, both endowment and sealings, proxy sealings, all sorts of ordinances. And the numbers are staggering for end of December, January, beginning of February, and it’s while Saints are literally packing wagons in January and February that they are taking time to go through and do ordinance work by the hundreds in the temple. Huge drive for as many people as possible to receive those before they can leave. You have some members of the church living within the walls of the temple, sleeping at night trying to accomplish the work there before they leave their city.

Spencer: And this earnest desire of so many Latter-day Saints to receive the endowment and to be sealed meant that Brigham Young and other church leaders often spent day and night in the temple. Brent Rogers, an associate managing historian of the Joseph Smith Papers, shared with me some entries from Brigham Young’s journal.

Brent: Latter-day Saint leaders begin administering ordinances in early December of 1845, and from that time forward, Brigham Young especially spent most of his time in the temple, administering ordinances and overseeing endowment ceremonies for I think eventually thousands of Latter-day Saint men and women. And so just a couple of excerpts from Brigham Young’s journal I think are instructive. So on January 11th, 1846, the entry just says, “I spent the day in the temple,” and then on Monday, January 19, 1846, Brigham Young’s journal says, “I [stood] at the altar all day with the exception of [time alone to take] refreshment . . .” and then again, just showing that he is spending practically all of his time attending to these ordinances and ceremonies, another entry says, “Through the week, my labors were entirely confined to the sealings and anointing of the Saints.” And so, the purpose of arranging and overseeing these rituals, these ceremonies, these ordinances, it’s the center of the worship and the activity, especially for Brigham Young, but clearly for the Saints as well because they’re just filing in person after person, or couple after a couple, throughout every day in January as they are preparing to be ready to head west outside of the bounds of the state of Illinois and eventually outside of the bounds of the United States before the United States reacquires the land. And so, to answer the question about what effect did the decision to leave Nauvoo have on ordinance work in the temple is, it had an immense impact because people really sought to have that opportunity to receive their ordinances and their endowment, and Brigham Young is spending day after day, hour after hour, just taking time to have a refreshment here and there, so that the Saints could get their ordinance work done.

Spencer: But this period of intense temple work could not last forever. Time was running out and the Saints needed to start their exodus from Nauvoo. And this forced church leaders to make some hard choices.

It was also in this moment that the faith and dedication of the men and women who built the temple was on full display. Jeffrey Mahas tells the story of the final day that the endowment was going to be available in the Nauvoo Temple.

Jeffrey: One of my favorite stories that we get comes a little bit before the Saints leave, one day before the first wagons cross the Mississippi River, and this comes from Brigham Young’s journal. Brigham Young on the second of February says, we’re done. We’ve got to close up shop, we’ve got to shut everything down, we can’t give any more endowments, we can’t give any more sealings, we need to pack up and go, and then in his journal, he records what happens the next day:

“Notwithstanding I gave out word that we would not attend to these matters, yet the House was thronged all the day. The anxiety are so great that the Brethren would have us stay here & continue the endowments until our way will be Hedged up, & our enemies intercept us, But I tell you brethren that it will not do, this is not the last Temple that we will build—in this house we have been paid, well if we were to receive no more, & I tell you that there will be double the anxiety manifested to build the next, that there was to [erect] this—Then be satisfied—I am going to load up my wagon and be away from this place, immediately, I walked off some little distance from the Temple, supposing the crowd would disperse, but on returning to the temple again, I found the House thronged to overflowing looking upon the multitude & knowing the anxiety of the Brethren, that were thirsting and hungering for the word, we commenced sealing[s] & anointing[s], & continued & continued also the washings Night & Day, putting through from two to three hundred persons within 24 hours, and spent the night.”

And so, here you see right on the eve of leaving the city that they’ve built up, that they’ve loved, and especially this temple that they’ve sacrificed so much for, many Latter-day Saints were unwilling to leave it, they were unwilling to leave without participating in the ordinances that they had been waiting for. And even though Brigham Young and others said it’s time for us to go, it’s time to wait, many of the Saints were too, in Brigham’s words, anxious to receive those ordinances before they left the city, and so we see temple work continuing for another week.


Spencer: Ultimately, the Saints would leave Nauvoo. They would go to the Great Salt Lake Valley and, in time, they would build new temples. Eventually the church would build temples around the world.

But in February 1846, as the wagons started to cross the Mississippi River and the temple started to fade from view, all that still lay in the future.

In his journal, apostle Wilford Woodruff recorded his feelings as he laid eyes on Nauvoo for the final time. He wrote, “I left Nauvoo for the last time perhaps in this life. I looked upon the temple & city of Nauvoo as I retired from it & felt to ask the Lord to preserve it as a monument of the sacrifice of his Saints.”

Now, perhaps you are wondering about what became of the original Nauvoo Temple. The Saints were in a difficult situation. What does the church do with such a sacred building when it is forced to abandon it?

And how, in time, would Wilford Woodruff’s prayer be answered, that Nauvoo and the temple would stand as a monument of the sacrifice of the Saints? The answers to these questions are an important part of this story. And it’s where we’ll pick it up in the next episode of The Nauvoo Temple: A Joseph Smith Papers Podcast.