Episode 7: “The Return to Nauvoo”

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Spencer: The story of the Nauvoo Temple does not end with the exodus of the majority of Latter-day Saints from the city. For a few years after Brigham Young and those who followed him left to build new cities more than a thousand miles away in the western United States, the temple in Nauvoo continued to adorn the bluff overlooking the river.

Perhaps you have wondered what becomes of a temple when most of the people who built it are forced to flee. Under such circumstances, what do you do with such a sacred and special building? The history of the Nauvoo Temple from 1846 to its ultimate demolition in 1865 is simultaneously fascinating and tragic. It includes an attempted sale, a fire, a planned renovation, and a tornado.

The fate of the original temple in Nauvoo, that’s what we’re talking about in this episode. This is The Nauvoo Temple: A Joseph Smith Papers Podcast, and I’m your host, Spencer McBride.


Spencer: Episode 7: The Return to Nauvoo


Spencer: In my conversation with Alex Smith, a historian on the Joseph Smith Papers, he told me about a document he came across in his research and I think his reaction to it epitomizes how so many who helped build the temple in Nauvoo must have felt in 1846.

Alex: I think the saddest physical document that I’ve ever run across is a newspaper advertisement selling the Nauvoo Temple when the Saints know that they’re about to leave. It’s printed in a local paper and it’s titled just as a “Notice—Temple for Sale.” And it says this building is admirably suited for religious or literary purposes, and I think it’s just so sad to think these people have spent their lives for the last half dozen years trying to build this building, they’ve put their blood, literally, sweat and tears into building it—people have died during the construction process—they’ve worked one day in ten, they’ve donated things like pencils and dogs and Book of Mormons as tithing to help build it, and yet they’re being forced to leave it behind them as they move west.

Spencer: The advertisement was genuine, too. With so few options as the main body of the church was on its way out of the United States, the church decided to try to sell the Nauvoo Temple and charged a committee with the task. It’s tragic, in a sense, because we know how much that building meant to the Saints. But in another sense, it was a pragmatic decision, because the church knew that circumstances had made it so they could no longer operate and protect the temple as they had intended to do.

Benjamin: At one point, a lot of discussions were with the Catholic Church in the Midwest, trying to sell it to them.

Spencer: That’s Benjamin Pykles, a curator with the Historic Sites Division of the Church History Department.

Benjamin: There was a lease arranged to lease it to the Catholic Church. We don’t know the details of that because there’s very few records that survive about that, just a few mentions in some records. There were advertisements in the newspaper that the trustees that Brigham Young had left behind to take care of the disposition of all the church’s property in Nauvoo, nothing really panned out.

Spencer: The sale of the temple became even more difficult after tragedy struck.

Benjamin: On October 9th, 1848, early in the morning, about three o’clock in the morning, those few Latter-day Saints—well, few hundred that were left behind—noticed the temple was on fire. The spire of the temple had burst into flames, some accounts say that before the sun rose that morning, all of the wood elements of the temple had been consumed by fire, and that was most of the temple. Everything other than the four main stone walls that were out of limestone, all of that was destroyed by fire. Most people believe that was an arsonist’s doing.

Spencer: Now a shell of its former self, the temple became a less valuable asset to sell. But eventually, the committee found a group that was interested.

Benjamin: A few years later there was a group, the Icarians, that had emigrated from France and first ended up in northeastern Texas, and after not succeeding in establishing a settlement there, they ultimately landed in Nauvoo. And they acquired the temple, what was the remains of the temple, the burned-out shell, if you will. And they started to renovate it, and they started to actually rehabilitate it. They brought in new stone masonry work, started to lay some new supports for piers and columns, and their intention was to convert it into a schoolhouse for their group.

Spencer: The Icarians had set out to use the temple as part of their egalitarian commune. But their plans changed quickly.

Benjamin: The irony is that just as they began to start that renovation work in May of 1850, a tornado came through Nauvoo and toppled the north wall of the burned-out shell of the temple, almost killed some of their workers, and their workers had to literally flee the building so that the wall did not fall on top of them. Luckily, none of them were hurt. But with now just three walls standing, that structure was very unstable and the French Icarians realized that it was pretty much unusable, and so they dismantled most of the other walls. By 1853 or so, a couple of years later, it was just the west façade, the main front face of the building that was still standing.

Spencer: Soon, Nauvoo residents started helping themselves to the debris left on the temple lot.

Benjamin: Joseph Smith III, the prophet’s son that stayed behind in Nauvoo, described the temple lot becoming a veritable quarry for people that wanted to recycle the temple stones and use them in building various other structures in the city and in the surrounding area, everything from wine cellars to root cellars to full-blown buildings. And if you go to Nauvoo today, and if you know what you’re looking for, you can still see some of those structures that are built out of the limestone of the Nauvoo Temple. It’s all very gray now and moss covered, and so it’s interesting to think about what kind of maintenance and cleaning the church would have had to do on that building over the years because it probably would not have been the white, beautiful, pristine structure that we see today, because limestone is a very porous stone, it absorbs the pollutants and the elements and the atmosphere around it, and so it does require a bit of maintenance and cleaning.

Spencer: Eventually, city leaders tired of one of the most prominent lots in town functioning as a makeshift quarry.

Benjamin: Finally, the city council of Nauvoo ordered the whole thing dismantled, whatever was left, and at that point the site was covered over, and the temple block started a new chapter of its history. It just became incorporated into the rest of the city of Nauvoo and its development, various buildings got erected on it over the years, and it just became part of downtown Nauvoo. I don’t think anyone ever forgot about the temple, but visible traces of its existence were gone.

Spencer: Gone for the time being, at least.


Spencer: Many—if not most—of you who are listening to this podcast likely know what ultimately happens. The church reestablishes a presence in Nauvoo. I mean, there wouldn’t be a church-run historic site there if this wasn’t the case. But have you ever considered how the church ends up back in a place it was once forced to leave? What does that process—and that timeline—look like? Some of the first to return were missionaries, but missionaries on their way elsewhere.

Benjamin: Latter-day Saints never obviously forgot about their past, although there were probably parts of it that they didn’t prefer to remember more than others. But throughout the nineteenth century, Latter-day Saint missionaries coming back from their missions to the Eastern States or from Europe, they often would stop at some of these historic sites of the church, even though the church didn’t own them at the time, just to remember and to reflect and to see these places that they had learned about and they had taught about. Nauvoo was on that list, but I think of more interest early on were the sites in New York, like the Hill Cumorah and the Priesthood Restoration Site, things like that. But around the turn of the twentieth century, Nauvoo starts to come back into Mormon consciousness.

Spencer: And so church members trickled in and out of Nauvoo over the next several decades. There was a sizable conference of church members held there in 1905, but there was no real permanent presence of the church in the city they had once hoped to establish as a place of rest. But, according to Steven Olsen, a curator on the church’s Historic Sites team, that changed in the 1930s.

Steven: In 1939, so that’s the centennial of the first founding of Nauvoo, a Latter-day Saint by the name of Wilford Wood purchased some of the temple block on behalf of the church. And Wilford Wood was one of the great benefactors for the church’s historic sites program, not only purchasing property that the church couldn’t purchase at the time and then figuring out a way to transfer that ownership to the church, but also gathering many, many archival documents.

Spencer: Others traveled to Nauvoo in the 1930s and visited their ancestral homes in the city. This group included LeRoy Kimball, who never forgot laying eyes on the home that Heber and Vilate Kimball had built nearly 100 years before. He was so taken by the property that he spent years negotiating its purchase, finally succeeding in 1954.

And, as Benjamin Pykles explains, these purchases of property in Nauvoo—though more than a decade apart—occurred as a national historical initiative was getting underway.

Benjamin: So, the government shows great interest in restoring Nauvoo in the 1930s, including reconstructing the Nauvoo Temple as kind of the centerpiece of this historic site that everyone was imagining. But then World War II hits and kind of everything’s off the table; everyone’s focused on the war effort, there’s no more talk about developing a historic site in Nauvoo or reconstructing the temple during those years. Following the war, the federal government gets reanimated about historic sites, and this is in the late 1950s, and they start looking at Nauvoo again. And one of the things that the federal government does is they try to reanimate this historic sites survey that they started in the 1930s, and they say you know what, we’re going to create a new class of historic properties, a class that designates the most important historic properties to the United States and its history, and we’re going to call these National Historic Landmarks. So, they get approval from Congress to do this, to create this category of historic sites, and one of the very first ones to receive that designation from the federal government is Nauvoo in 1961. They designate Nauvoo as a National Historic Landmark, a place that has exceptional value to the national history. And they give Nauvoo a bronze plaque that the property could display proudly, and that plaque is actually still visible today in Nauvoo, it sits just behind the temple on city property, it’s embedded on this large boulder that’s just due east of the temple today. So you could go there and look at that plaque and read what it says about Nauvoo’s place in American history.


Spencer: One unintended consequence of this government interest in helping to restore Nauvoo and to advertise it as a site of national historic interest was that officials unwittingly stirred up tensions between the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, headquartered in Salt Lake City, Utah, and the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (which is now known as Community of Christ) headquartered in Independence, Missouri.

The Reorganized Church, as it was often called, was founded in 1860, fourteen years after Brigham Young and others left Nauvoo. Joseph Smith III, the son of Joseph Smith Jr., became the church’s president.

Benjamin: The state of Illinois and its government gets involved again in these restoration efforts after the war, and one of the more interesting parts of this story is that in April of 1949, after the war is concluded, the House of Representatives for the state of Illinois adopts a resolution. They pass this resolution asking both the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints to collaborate on the reconstruction of the Nauvoo Temple. They thought that this would be a great thing for the state and for the country. What they lacked an understanding and awareness of was this tension between the two churches about the temple and its legacy. They didn’t understand that reconstructing the temple would have been almost a slap in the face to the Reorganized Church, who rejected temple ordinances that they instituted in the Nauvoo Temple, and so the House of Representatives kind of quickly walked back from that. It was more than anything just a self-interested way for the government to kind of encourage economic development and tourism in post-World War II Illinois. But this is a good example of how government, because of the way they chose to understand Nauvoo and its significance, actually ended up favoring one church over the other, again, because of the interpretation that they chose to focus on about Nauvoo and its legacy.

Spencer: There were plenty of disagreements between the two churches. Some were doctrinal as Benjamin mentioned. But those doctrinal issues were also rooted in different interpretations of history, and in this case, it was a shared history. For instance, when Brigham Young led the majority of the Saints west, Hyrum Smith’s widow, Mary Fielding Smith, and their children went with him. But Joseph Smith’s widow, Emma, and their children remained in Nauvoo. Over the ensuing years their framing of what had occurred in Nauvoo diverged. The Utah Smiths recognized and embraced plural marriage and the Smiths back east maintained that Joseph had never instituted the practice. And so, the tension over this history had started years before there was ever talk of rebuilding Nauvoo.

To better understand this conflict, I called Lachlan Mackay, a member of the Council of the Twelve Apostles in the Community of Christ. Mackay, who also works at the Community of Christ historic sites in Nauvoo, graciously shared some of his thoughts on the subject.

Lachlan: So, I think the tension between the churches really is rooted in 1840s Nauvoo, in particularly plural marriage and the family feud that developed between Joseph’s descendants and Hyrum’s descendants related to plural marriage. Joseph III and his first cousin Joseph F. Smith would write thirty-page letters back and forth to each other arguing about various points of doctrine. So, they’re still family, they still, you know, would sit down at the dinner table as cousins, but it really wasn’t just doctrinal differences. It became a family feud.

Spencer: And that tension between the two sides of the Smith family—and by extension the two churches—had been exacerbated in the 1920s. It had to do with moving the bodies of Joseph and Hyrum Smith, which, in 1844, had been hidden out of fear that their enemies would try to desecrate them.

Lachlan: So, Joseph and Hyrum of course are assassinated June 27 of 1844. They are buried secretly in the cellar of the unfinished Nauvoo House. They’re there probably until late November, December of ’44, and then they’re moved even more secretly and hidden under what was sometimes called a beehouse. So, they’re buried under the brick cellar floor of this little structure, this little outbuilding by the homestead. Emma Smith later told her children who told their children, the graves are not far off the corner of the homestead underneath a little outbuilding. But eventually, all the outbuildings are long gone.

So, the Smith family knew approximately where the graves were, but not exactly where they were. And then in 1913, the Mississippi River was dammed downstream from Nauvoo in Keokuk, Iowa. The water here came up perhaps 16 feet and continued to rise, and the family started to worry that they might lose the graves to the river. They also were kind of annoyed with their cousins in the West, who, some were saying he had taken the bodies west in golden caskets, that they weren’t really here in Nauvoo, that unfortunately frustrated some. And they also wanted to appropriately mark or memorialize the graves. So, for all those reasons, in 1928, they begin a search, they start down near the river’s edge. Imagine two men bailing as one man digs looking for the foundations of the little outbuilding. They slowly work their way up the slope and accidentally, after a period of time, found the grave of Emma Smith. Her grave was marked but she was not under the marker. Then a couple of days later, they find Joseph and Hyrum side by side within the foundation walls of this little outbuilding. They made the decision to rebury all three together. And that’s where they’re at now, and that’s 1928.

Spencer: And today, visitors to Nauvoo can visit the new gravesite where the bodies of Joseph, Emma, and Hyrum Smith are now buried next to each other. But the way the relocation occurred may have added to already hard feelings.

Lachlan: At some point, Joseph Smith III had signed over to his son and daughter-in-law, Fred M. and Ruth Smith, the homestead, which included the gravesite, and there was a deed restriction saying if you ever sell the property, you’ve got to give the Utah cousins the chance to find Hyrum and take his remains west.

But within a few years, the RLDS Church started talking about the possibility of developing a historic or missionary site in Nauvoo, and they realized that that deed restriction would be a problem; they didn’t intend it to mean you could never sell this property to the church. And so, they redid the deed and removed that restriction, and my guess is, this is speculative, but that that amplified the conflict that occurred in the late 1920s when we began searching for the graves, found the remains of Joseph and Hyrum.

Fred M. Smith then sent a telegram to folks in Salt Lake, but as you would expect, there were some hard feelings about the fact that they found them and fairly quickly reburied them. So that became a pretty sensitive point.

Spencer: So, all this conflict was present when the state of Illinois started talking about rebuilding the temple.

Lachlan: And then as discussions began in the 1930s–40s about the possibility of rebuilding the Nauvoo Temple, I think that often members of the reorganization felt left out of those conversations.

So, the state of Illinois is talking with church leaders about that possibility, and we were annoyed because our headquarters had been in Illinois for several decades, we had stayed here, but we felt like we were not always equal participants in those conversations, and that I think played a role in some of the conflict as well.

Fortunately, our historians, as new Mormon history is birthed, our historical communities began working together, sharing interpretation and documents, and that spirit of cooperation slowly worked up to leadership and slowly has worked down to membership.

So, the wonderful relationship that exists today is really, I think, rooted in the relationship between our historical communities.


Spencer: But in the 1950s and 1960s, the tension between the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and the Reorganized Church was still present. And so, both groups largely worked separate from each other in their respective efforts to restore Nauvoo’s historic buildings. The Reorganized Church focused their efforts on buildings in the southwestern section of the city, such as Joseph Smith’s Homestead, the Nauvoo Mansion, and the Nauvoo House. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints focused on purchasing and restoring the ancestral homes of church members throughout the rest of the city. But they also had plans for the temple block.

In 1962 the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints approved the creation of Nauvoo Restoration Incorporated, or NRI. And LeRoy Kimball became the organization’s first president. Kimball and many others who had an interest in Nauvoo’s history set to work restoring what properties they could. Many involved with NRI hoped to model Nauvoo after Colonial Williamsburg, a historic village in Virginia that serves as a living history museum where visitors can experience what life was like in seventeenth-century Virginia. Could Nauvoo similarly convey what it was like to live there in the 1840s?

The establishment of NRI was a major step forward in restoring Nauvoo. And an archaeological excavation that started that same year was even more exciting.

Spencer: Dee F. Green, a Latter-day Saint graduate student at Southern Illinois University, oversaw that year’s excavation. Then, in 1965, J.C. Harrington, a renowned scholar of historical archaeology, and his wife, Virginia Harrington, joined in the efforts.

The Harringtons worked on the excavation of the Nauvoo Temple and several other sites in the city for several years. And, as Benjamin Pykles explains, the result was exciting for the interpretation of what the temple meant to the people who built it in the 1840s.

Benjamin: By the time it was all over, by 1969, the entire temple floor plan had been exposed and stabilized and rehabilitated as a tourist site so that tourists could come and see the original foundation walls of the temple, they could see the original well that was in the basement of the temple that fed the baptismal font that was there, even some of the original brick flooring was still intact that they had uncovered, and the Harringtons with Nauvoo Restoration Incorporated developed the site at that point as a major tourist destination for those visiting Nauvoo, and they would interpret the significance and the history of the temple for those that were visiting in the late ’60s and into the 1970s and beyond.


Spencer: As the twentieth century drew to a close, Nauvoo had grown into a vibrant historic site. Tens of thousands of people visited the city each year. They could tour dozens of historic buildings, restored to be as good as old, or to look as close as possible to the way they did in the 1840s. For buildings that no longer stood, visitors could often see remnants of their foundations. This included the temple.

But then, in April 1999 at the conclusion of the church’s annual General Conference, President Gordon B. Hinckley rose to speak. His talk only lasted for a few minutes, but it would forever change the history of Nauvoo. That’s where we’ll pick up the story in the next—and final—episode of The Nauvoo Temple: A Joseph Smith Papers Podcast.