The New Mormon History
D. Michael Quinn, editor
Dream and Nightmare: Nauvoo Revisited
Robert Bruce Flanders
[p.75] Had Joseph Smith offered a prize to the Saints for the best name of their new city in Illinois (instead of naming it himself), “City of Joseph” surely would have been the popular entry. It was a day when many government seats were named for American heroes, dead or alive, and Joseph Smith—despite the homely name—was a very special American hero to his followers (even to his enemies, in reverse, for whom he was a special villain).
“City of Joseph” would have been a fitting name for a new Mormon capital, for Smith fulfilled in his person and his life many facets of the Great American Dream. He was a self-made man, rising from poverty to power, from semi-literacy to knowledge of both worldly and heavenly mysteries, from anonymity to fame, from being nobody to being somebody. He was a shaper of both present and future, a man who seemed to make history rather than merely reacting to it—qualities much prized in early America. Personally he exemplified other ideals: he was big, strong, blond, handsome, virile, young, ambitious, hearty, humorous, at once earthy and godlike, articulate but not pedantic, possessed of a vanity and pomposity more admired than ridiculed, and enormously attractive to both men and women. That is enough to make any American some kind of hero, to name at least one town after.
But more important Smith was star-crossed—an American prophet by more than one definition. To generations of faithful followers he was and is a demi-god. Smith’s vision of God’s New Israel [p. 76] in America created a religious movement that intended to sanctify American history—past, present, and future—by fulfilling the promises of the Promised Land. “The latter-day glory is probably to begin in America,” said the great New England divine Jonathan Edwards a hundred years earlier. In fulfillment of the prophecy of his spiritual forebear, Smith gave the world the Book of Mormon for an American scripture (“by the gift and power of God,” as he described it) and the true church restored from heaven to earth in America. He founded the Kingdom of God in the Mississippi Valley (which Americans were wont to consider the Garden of the World), and he was fountainhead of a new sanctified, divinely commissioned ruling group—the Mormon priesthood (“the government of God,” Apostle Parley Pratt called it).1
From among a nation of immigrants, Smith made a special call to the Old World from the New: Come claim your inheritances in Zion; come build up the waste places of God; come fulfill human destiny at the close of time. Tens of thousands believed and came. And he would convert governments too. Kings and rulers must come up to Zion and learn her ways, said Smith, and he projected a great hotel, the Nauvoo House, on the banks of the Father of Waters to lodge them. Ultimately the word of ancient prophecy would be fulfilled, and the kingdom, become a mighty American empire of righteousness, would roll forth and fill the whole earth like the “stone cut out of the mountain without hands.”
Modern Latter-day Saints who are distressed that Joseph Smith sought the American presidency do not understand that it was a day when Ralph Waldo Emerson could propose Jesus Christ for the same office and have many Americans concur that it was the only reasonable nomination. America was to be truly “God’s New Israel.” Early converts to Mormonism usually were not difficult to convince of all this. A broad stratum of people in America and Europe believed it in principle before the Mormon elders arrived to announce that it was coming to pass. Thus the phenomenon of ministers and their congregations being baptized en masse (Sidney Rigdon, Isaac Morley, Lyman Wight, and others in Kirtland, Ohio, for example) and the remarkable fact that men were often baptized, ordained, and sent to preach the restoration message on the same day. The “mission miracle” of the early church was a kind of rapidly expanding, organized grapevine that got the word around.
[p. 77] The essential heart—the sine qua non—of the whole thing was the prophet Joseph Smith, the living oracle. He became an institution before his death—one might say a set of institutions. There was even an unstudied, folksy titling of the great man: “the Prophet Joseph” or just “Joseph,” never “Joe,” except by “enemies.” He sealed it all (unwillingly to be sure) with martyr’s blood and then became a myth. It was an American success story to make Horatio Alger’s fictional heroes mean, crass, and pitiable by comparison.
On the other hand, Smith and his people were sorely vexed with troubles of which his own bullet-riddled body sprawled on the well curb at Carthage jail is only a sample. Nauvoo, Illinois, began as a wretched refugee camp peopled with five thousand Mormons who survived the holocaust in northwest Missouri in 1838-39. They were broken in spirit, sick, maimed, dying, possessed only of the goods they had carried with them. Joseph was in Liberty jail and probably would be lynched or executed, “Missouri justice” either way.
But Smith survived the ordeal, was allowed to escape (an act of Missourians not to be interpreted as a grant of amnesty), and appeared on the Illinois scene in April 1839. It was a decisive moment. There was considerable sentiment among refugees to “scatter off” and avoid another attempt at corporate, communal enterprise, after the awful persecutions in Missouri. There was also some crisis of confidence in the leadership of Smith, Sidney Rigdon, and others in the hierarchy of power. Things had not been handled judiciously at Far West, Missouri. The fanatical extremism of the Danites had gone unchecked, provoking Saints and gentiles alike. Many able Mormons left or were driven from the movement, never to return. There must be some kind of new deal; the past did not bear repeating. Smith now reasserted his charismatic power of leadership. Though he was not a man to forget, neither was he given to looking backward; and now he directed attention to the future, to the destiny of the Saints in the Last Days. They would gather not scatter, they would draw thousands and tens of thousands to the cause, and they would, as Smith put it, build up a city in the land of their exile, the State of Illinois.
In retrospect Smith had little choice but to found Nauvoo if he were to survive as the leader of Mormonism—indeed if Mormonism itself were to survive, at least in the form that he had outlined. He was locked into a series of decisions and a course of events that [p. 78] were productive of new difficulties. The site of the new city was apparently accidental. Isaac Galland, a real estate speculator, had lands to sell near the Mississippi River in Illinois and Iowa at the northeast corner of Missouri, and he attracted the attention of the Saints. It was the only location considered, it seems, “no better place having presented itself,” as Smith put it. He was willing to view the lack of alternative possibilities as providential: God would provide; it was the Lord’s work. The purchase of 15,000 acres in Lee County, Iowa, for some $40,000 (on credit) brought trouble and turmoil, ill feeling in the church and out, and ultimate failure, stemming from the fact that Galland did not own the lands he sold to the Mormons. Smith regarded Galland at the outset as “one of our benefactors.” “When we were strangers,” said Smith, “he took us in.” How indeed they had been taken in by Galland, Smith was to learn subsequently with pain and embarrassment.
By another accident, however, Smith avoided compounding the Iowa land fiasco by locating himself and the main body of Saints on the Illinois side, just across the river. The main acreage purchased here was from a group of speculators headed by one Horace Hotchkiss of Connecticut. This area, about five hundred acres, constituted much of what was to be the city of Nauvoo, and was subsequently known as the Hotchkiss Purchase. Hotchkiss was shrewd enough to see a city coming on his property, and the price he exacted was enormous—$50,000 principle and $64,500 interest to be paid over twenty years. Considering the fact that the time was one of deep economic depression and that much of the land was malarial swamp unfit for human habitation, the amount would suggest that Smith was duped again. But perhaps both seller and buyer were considering the odds. Land speculation then was a gamble at best, and Hotchkiss, like Smith, had to hope that the future would bring the payoff. The deal was a land contract with the purchaser having the rights of occupation but not the deed until full payment was made. In the end Hotchkiss received only a fraction of the total due him from the church and had the taxes on a growing city to pay as well, inasmuch as he was still the legal owner. So it is a question as to who took advantage of whom. In any event in order to attempt to meet payments, Joseph Smith was forced into the real estate business in a big way; it was a business filled with care and anxiety, enormously taxing of time and energy. The problem of obtaining a deed to lots [p. 79] and lands which the church sold to the gathering Saints was one that could not be solved.2
In an 1841 letter to Hotchkiss Smith fumed, “I presume you are no stranger to the part of the city plot we bought of you being a sickly hole [and] although we have been keeping up appearances, and holding out inducements to encourage immigration … we scarcely think it justifiable in consequence of the mortality that almost invariably awaits those who come.” This was one of the rare occasions when Smith did not “keep up appearances” as all real estate promoters must do and alluded to one of Nauvoo’s great problems. Endemic malaria was the worst natural scourge of the Mississippi Basin, and Smith had located his town on a wet river bottomland that swarmed in summer with infected mosquitoes. The plague was an annual event of the hot season, and hundreds died, victims of the “unhealthy air.” Draining the area helped, but new settlers in particular remained susceptible to infection by mosquitoes breeding in nearby islands and sloughs.
Other consequences of Nauvoo having been a refugee camp were less tangible than land purchase or health problems but perhaps more lasting. Injury, deprivation, anxiety, bereavement, disappointment, frustration, when unrelieved and unrequited, have a cumulative effect on the character of individuals and groups. Despite “keeping up appearances,” the brief Illinois sojourn brought neither security nor requital of past hurts. Indeed trouble was repeated and compounded, and for those who “stayed with the Church” the next flight to the valley of Great Salt Lake was to be an epic journey both in space and of the spirit. The character of the Mormon people was in process of formation, a character grounded in the experiences of the Saints in Ohio and Missouri in the 1830s, which came to a sort of early maturity in Nauvoo. Utah began in Nauvoo, as did the “dissenting” sects of Mormonism, such as the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, if in a different way.
To attempt descriptions of group character is risky at best, but in Nauvoo certain Mormon characteristics began to become permanent and settled. One was a quality of deep, mystical faith. By “believing in” the Book of Mormon and the prophet, Mormon converts had at once taken a step beyond the run of evangelical Protestants to a new parameter of faith commitment. By continuing to follow Smith and participate in his ventures, of which Nauvoo and [p. 80] the missions begun there were the most extensive, their investment deepened. Mormons were committing their lives, fortunes, and “sacred honor” to a kind of new, sacred American revolution, from which it was difficult to turn back. A mystical faith in both the sacred and secular leadership of the prophet and the priesthood was “essential to salvation,” not only in the life to come but to psychic and physical survival in this life as well. As historian Jan Shipps put it: “Always the prophet drew his followers into a circle distinctly Mormon, setting them apart from those who refused to recognize the claims of the `restored gospel’ and therefore remained Gentiles outside the covenant of Jacob. Secure within the circle, all Israel listened as plans for a New Jerusalem, and for a self-sufficient social and economic community which should flower there, were revealed in great profusion and minute detail. With faith in their prophet and in the restored priesthood which he headed—and with precious little else to sustain them—the Saints began to build their latter-day Zion at Nauvoo on the banks of the Mississippi in frontier Illinois.”3 For those who turned away—and there were many—the costs could be great: economic loss, shattering of dreams, spiritual agony, guilt, consignment by the faithful to the special oblivion reserved for “apostates,” and perhaps persecution by both Mormons and gentiles.
Another trait of Mormon character originating partly in circumstance but partly in Smith himself was a kind of paranoid style. In a way such a statement is both a truism and an exaggeration, like saying that the burned child who dreads the fire is consequently paranoid. Of course Mormons were haunted by the specter of lynchings, burnings, and drivings. Naturally the prophet feared kidnapping and lynching. But there was in addition an aggressive, truculent temper in Smith and many whom he attracted and promoted to leadership—Sidney Rigdon and Brigham Young are different examples of the phenomenon—that seemed to promote war rather than peace. The Mormons were not easy peacemakers, either with critics within or critics without. One of the many examples in the Nauvoo period was the case of Dr. John Cooke Bennett. Smith felt compelled to make Bennett a great man overnight and then was unable to avoid making a dedicated and powerful enemy of him. Bennett’s loose morals and Smith’s nascent spiritual wife system did not quite mesh gears and the consequent mutual hatred of the two became personal. But it was a clash that Smith in his position could [p. 81] ill afford. The details of the affair between the two are uncertain, but it would appear that before he left Nauvoo, Bennett genuinely feared for his life, as many of Smith’s enemies claimed to do. And he subsequently published newspaper articles and a book that aroused national antagonism toward the Mormons. Smith claimed among other things that Bennett was author of a plot to kill him, which may have been true but probably was not. Smith suffered for at least the final two years a chronic anxiety that there were plots against his life. Significantly he feared those inside the movement as much or more than those outside.
After the Bennett affair certain police-state characteristics begun in Far West were augmented in Nauvoo and persisted in Mormonism: informers, secret police, bodyguards, and gangs of enforcers. The Nauvoo Legion, a private army organized by Bennett in which Smith played general, created anxiety in Illinois and terrified Hancock County people. A case can be made that all this was a legitimate response to real dangers and insecurities. But upon reflection it seems that a paranoid temper developed in Joseph Smith that carried over into the style and modus operandi of the movement itself. Currying the enmity rather than the favor of both political parties in Illinois, the Bennett affair, losing control of the secret celestial marriage doctrine, the constant war on critics within the church, all cost the Saints dearly. It is necessary in this context to examine the celebrated Boggs shooting.
Lilburn Boggs, ex-governor of Missouri, was shot in the back of the head in Independence in 1842 by a person unknown. Miraculously he lived, and the assassin was not apprehended. But public opinion in Missouri and Illinois could scarcely have been more aroused had Boggs died with the alleged Mormon assailant caught standing over his body. The crime was laid to Orrin Porter Rockwell, a simple, illiterate, utterly faithful and loyal Mormon who was from childhood a close friend of Smith and devoted to him as courier, bodyguard, enforcer, and general factotum. He was a tough, rugged man, a skilled horseman and gunman. Rockwell was in Independence incognito at the time of the shooting for an apparently legitimate reason—he wanted to be near his pregnant wife, who was staying with her parents. He fled Missouri immediately afterward and returned to Nauvoo. Rockwell was always a man of reliable veracity, according to his biographer, and the fact that he never denied having done the [p. 82] deed is significant. He only denied that Smith ordered him to do it. Furthermore, it is not difficult to imagine that Rockwell was guilty; rather it is difficult under the circumstances to imagine him innocent. He was there, had abundant motive, and—important in retrospect—subsequently killed so many “enemies” of the church that the Boggs shooting is in character. Joseph Smith’s affection for Rockwell seemed to increase after the affair—perhaps only because Rockwell was to suffer exile and prison as a result, in Smith’s eyes unjustly, but perhaps because he knew that Rockwell was the assassin and he condoned the act. Perhaps Smith’s prophecy of a violent end for Boggs (he also prophesied that Illinois governor Thomas Carlin would wind up dead in a ditch, which caused Carlin some anxiety) and Rockwell’s being in Independence were among those extraordinary coincidences of history that occur from time to time. But perhaps not. Whatever the truth, Smith and Rockwell sought to dissociate themselves from the affair legally but not morally. If they were otherwise innocent—Rockwell of the act and Smith of the notion—they were willing to take the credit.4
As incredible as it may seem to Latter-day Saints today, the possibility that Smith and Rockwell were culpable in the Boggs shooting should be considered along with the consequences accruing to the Saints. But it should be considered in historical perspective. Boggs was a special miscreant, a vindictive, vengeful man whom the political process of Missouri elevated to the governorship. Boggs had in 1838 ordered the state militia to “expel or exterminate” the Mormons. The uprooting and slaughter of whole groups are the ultimate acts of violence which can be visited upon men and women, and the carrying out of the Boggs directive left an ineradicable mark upon the souls of those who survived it. Mormon hatred of Missouri in general and Boggs in particular knew no bounds. And in nineteenth-century America, the killing of individuals to “settle accounts” was common, especially on the frontiers. Executions, lynchings, duels, bushwhackings, premeditated and unpremeditated, brought violent ends to hundreds of people believed deserving of punishment for whatever reason. Theft, injury, insult, lack of patriotism, threats real or imagined to public or private safety, all were sufficient to bring mortal retribution. The lines between legal and extra-legal actions were blurred in young and underdeveloped frontier societies, and for people to “take the law into their own hands” was to be both [p. 83] democratic and faithful to the traditions of the American revolution. For Lilburn Boggs to suffer a nearly fatal assault was sensational but not on a different level of “punishment” than that of his own extermination order. If Smith was in any way responsible for the Boggs shooting, it is in retrospect both understandable and inexcusable, like all the violence between Mormons and gentiles. The Boggs incident caused an escalation of anti-Mormon feeling in Missouri and Illinois that the Saints could not afford but which Smith neither anticipated nor seemed to regret.
Smith’s hatreds and vendettas were not any more exaggerated than those of many prominent men; and, as in the case of Andrew Jackson, helped make him the public figure he was. But for Smith and the Mormons a paranoid style was counterproductive in the short run; and in the long run festered in the Mormon spirit to spawn qualities of illiberality and alienation that continue in Mormon culture.
Another Mormon trait that can be discerned developing in Nauvoo was a strong, distinctive sense of group loyalty, of common purpose and destiny. Described negatively, it was the feeling that those not for us are against us. In an obvious sense group loyalty under conditions of danger and suffering is a natural human response. But beyond this Mormons forsook the celebrated American individualism for “groupthink”; forsook a society egalitarian for one authoritarian and hierarchical. Though Americans were neither as free nor as equal as they believed, to become a loyal Mormon was to give up much of both. Perhaps the “strain of freedom,” as one historian put it, was too great for some of them to bear. Unquestionably Americans in the 1830s and 1840s were under great stress due to a variety of circumstances. The response of Mormons, as of masses of Americans, to the Old Hero Andrew Jackson illustrates their ambivalence about the substance of democracy. While Mormons scorned Martin Van Buren, a real democrat and consequently weak—a compromiser and deal-maker—they admired the old tyrant Jackson who destroyed his enemies with power and righteous indignation, like some Old Testament prophet, and who implied that the only “real” Americans were his supporters.5 Though insecure in the things of this world and beset by worldly powers, Mormons were secure in the knowledge of The Truth, their own identifiable, explicit calling and destiny to build the Kingdom of God. They scorned the tentative, [p. 84] uncertain religious values of gentiles. Nauvoo, though short-lived and in many ways chaotic, was the one place where Joseph Smith came close to “getting it all together.” There Mormons began to become a people—even a nation. After Nauvoo and the trek West, to call them merely a church was to understate the case.6
Between 15,000 and 20,000 Mormons finally settled in Hancock County, Illinois, with a maximum of perhaps 12,000 in and around Nauvoo. They were not only welcomed into Illinois at the outset, they were enthusiastically received. Governor Thomas Ford said that when the Mormons arrived, the citizens were “justly distinguished for feelings and principles of the most liberal and enlightened toleration in the matters of religion. The Mormons were received as sufferers in the cause of their religion. Several counties and neighborhoods vied with each other in offers of hospitality and in endeavors to get the Mormons to settle among them.”
The Prairie State, only twenty-one years in the union in 1839, was vast, sparsely populated, under-developed, and floundering in a sea of troubles. The state had undertaken a canal and railroad building scheme in the late 1830s that seemed to promise quick development and wealth for the state and its citizens. But the time was wrong, the plan too big, the money borrowed, and worst of all, the government had no idea what it was doing or how to do it. Then depression struck the nation—the worst in twenty years. The result was that the state was near financial and moral collapse when the Mormons arrived. The influx of so many skilled and industrious citizens, though poor, was a needed shot in the arm for Illinois. Viewed apart from all the strife that quickly ensued, Nauvoo had the potential to be a great urban center built on the industries of transportation, manufacturing, commerce, religion, and education. The river provided a power potential to turn mills, and Nauvoo lay on a line between Chicago and Kansas City for the railroad when it came. By 1846 Joseph’s city was larger than any other in Illinois. And while it could not have been another Chicago, it could conceivably have become such a complex as Davenport-Moline-Rock Island-Muscatine or even Minneapolis-St. Paul (which also began with mills at a minor falls of the Mississippi).
Illinois, though an accidental choice for Mormon settlement in 1839, had advantages compared with many other western states for the development of a culturally different, highly particular society [p. 85] such as the Mormons were becoming. The problem of slavery was absent; and for Yankees and English immigrants with abolitionist leanings a free state was essential. Missouri was, for example, no fit place for a Zion—especially one with such a New England odor about it. Yankees were by contrast welcome in Illinois and were pouring into the northern half of the state. Cultural diversity was already a fact of life, albeit an uneasy one, with Yankee and Southerner, free people of color, French-Canadian, Irish Catholic, Jews, and many new British immigrants already there. Though Illinois was in trouble in 1840, the state was rich and was soon to “take off” on a boom of development that made it the economic and political hub of western America by 1860 when the chief presidential candidates, Lincoln and Douglas, were both Illinois men who had grown up facing each other as leaders of the state’s Whig and Democratic parties.
The stumbling blocks in the way of opportunity for Mormons were considerable. In addition to Nauvoo’s bad climate and general economic unease, Illinois politics was a cockpit of fierce partisanship. The ferocity of political struggles in the Jacksonian period tends to amaze modern observers. In Illinois partisan feelings were particularly embittered. Both Whigs and Democrats wanted the new Mormon vote, were subsequently angered by what they considered Mormon duplicity and unpredictability, and finally held the Mormons in fear and contempt, as politicians are wont to hold any privately controlled swing-voting bloc. The situation offered the Mormons opportunity, but one which had to be handled delicately. Unfortunately, in political management Joseph Smith was at his worst. Inexperienced in politics, he was swayed by vanity, delusions of power, and an unwarranted certainty that he could master the situation. Particularly in the elections of 1842 and 1843, his political behavior was gross. And in 1844 he was running for the U.S. presidency, hardly a course designed to calm troubled waters, although he was killed before much came of it. The truth is that Smith did not understand or accept many of the fundamental premises of American politics. He was by 1840 basically in opposition to a democratic, two-party, brokered political system. He favored rather rule by a partie unique, a theocracy as represented by the Mormon priestly hierarchy and described as “unity of the faith” and “obedience to counsel.” His experience—with a New York court in his youth and later with Ohio bank law, with executive and judicial politics in Missouri, and with a [p. 86] government in Washington that failed to indemnify the Saints for their losses in Missouri or “impeach” that state for failing to have a constitutional form of government—tended to settle Smith into a critical apprehension of worldly governments.
In the 1843 congressional election, Smith promised the Mormon vote to the Whig candidate and then delivered it to the Democrat. Though not entirely cynical, it was careless, a provocative act of staggering proportions. It lends credence to the notion that from the Bennett scandal and the Boggs shooting in 1842 to the Nauvoo Expositor incident and Smith’s own death in 1844, Smith was losing control of many affairs and perhaps of himself. “From this time forth [the election of 1843],” wrote Governor Thomas Ford, “the Whigs generally, and a part of the Democrats, determined upon driving the Mormons out of the state; and everything connected with the Mormons became political.” For his part, Smith had said on the eve of the fateful election, “I am above the kingdoms of this world, for I have no laws.” It was an apocalyptic not a political position. By 1844 he believed the “government of God” must inevitably replace all the governments of this world, including that of the United States and the various states. The only courses the Mormons could have pursued successfully in Illinois would have been to remain scrupulously apolitical or to cultivate a skillful bi-partisanship. Smith seems at the outset to have considered both possibilities but quickly gave way to various pressures and the temptations of his paranoid style.7
Another problem the Mormons had to face was that of inevitable enmities in their home county of Hancock. Hancock County had been organized for only ten years when the Mormons came, was on the frontiers of Illinois settlement, seemed at the time to be out-of-the-way, and stagnant. Hancock had at most a population of 5,000 on the eve of Mormon settlement. There was no newspaper, and the largest town, Warsaw, a little river community fifteen miles below Nauvoo, had fewer than 300 inhabitants. Most of the population were in the townships around the edges of the county, leaving Carthage, the county seat, a little village in a kind of central no-man’s-land. The population was apparently Southern in origin and Whiggish in political proclivity. The Mormons swept in on this quiet frontier backwater like a tidal wave. Had the resident population been 500 or 50,000, things might have been easier. As it was Hancock was populous enough to resist Mormon influence but not populous enough [p.87]to do so decisively. Civil war in Hancock might have been avoided by a willingness on both sides to co-exist and by the skillful and imaginative application of cultural pluralism and political and economic federalism. Unfortunately neither side was much prepared or disposed for such a course of action.8
Mormons believed at the beginning of Nauvoo that they had a great future in Illinois. Illinoisans tended to agree and to offer the Saints many inducements and opportunities, including the remarkably liberal Nauvoo charter and an early tendency to side with the Saints against Missouri vindictiveness. So the Saints might have prospered in the Prairie state, all other things being equal. But that is not what happened. Joseph Smith must bear the burden of responsibility for the failure. He mismanaged many crucial things. Especially disastrous was his failure to cultivate successfully the good will that the Mormons inherited when they first arrived and to keep his political fences mended. He was naive and inexperienced and attracted to bad advice and bad advisors. His proclivity to control the church absolutely and to destroy what he could not control produced a crop of bitter ex-Mormons who spread scandal over the state. And his program to protect honest and innocent men (including himself) from the long, unjust arm of the law by erecting an independent judicial fiefdom in Nauvoo naturally attracted the dishonest and the guilty who coveted the same protection. Smith failed to preserve a healthy public image, and in an important measure he failed to preserve a healthy private substance. The plural wife system though officially secret was known in various exaggerated forms everywhere and added fuel to the fire. After the Boggs affair, Smith was branded a conspiratorial murderer, and the Mormons stood convicted in the court of public opinion as moral bankrupts and political firebrands.
Smith and the Mormons were of course not solely to blame. Illinois was alive with opportunists, public inflamers who worked for enmity rather than comity with the Mormons. Newspapers built their circulation on anti-Mormon yellow journalism, from Thomas Sharp’s scurrilous Warsaw Signal to the august Springfield Sangamo Journal. No less a figure than Stephen A. Douglas skillfully played both ends against the middle. Bigots and sharpers of all kinds made fair game of the Mormons, especially when they began to bleed. Thomas Ford stands out among the jackals for a degree of integrity. He never pretended to like the Mormons and was honest enough to say that [p. 88] he despised them. But he was equally convinced of their civil rights and tried in his weak way against overwhelming odds to protect them.
If the Mormons failed in Illinois, if they were obsessed with dreams of a kingdom of righteousness beyond their grasp, it was a magnificent obsession. The inexperience, the lack of maturity, the human fallibility of the young prophet were thrown into bold relief by the enormous responsibilities he assumed, which were thrust upon him by events and by an adoring, demanding people. But he did speak prophetically to his generation about the sanctification of American history, the revolutionizing of American life. He proposed to change it from a confused, secularized, anarchic chaos where freedom had deteriorated to mere license, into a Christian kingdom, an empire of communities ruled by God’s restored priesthood. The Mormon church was not to be just another church but was to be the new holy catholic religion that was to refresh the earth in preparation for the end of time and the Second Coming. Of course every new sect is the sect to end all sects, and Mormonism was not in its pretensions entirely unique. But Smith offered a religious “plan” to organize and legitimate one of America’s most powerful historic impulses—the movement of millions of settlers to new lands, to open new farms, form new towns, found new businesses, new governments, new societies.
The secular manifestation of the American imperative to multiply and have dominion was the formation of the new western states—Ohio, Illinois, Missouri. The Latter-day Saints wanted to sacralize the process, to form instead the kingdom of God. To give a sacred meaning, a divine sanction, to the creating of America represented by the constant, endless begetting—westering, settling, building, speculating, risking, hoping, dying, of the millions engaged in the process—was the unique contribution of Mormonism. Those Americans who had a strong Protestant evangelical tradition worried that religion was increasingly separated from the daily meaning of life. Being saved, going to church, evidencing a pious, respectable life-style were well and good but were more and more subordinated to secular concerns. The land was new, raw, open; life was hard but opportunity beckoned.
Mormonism by contrast brought religion and life together in an inextricable mix. The land belonged to God as did the people, the settlements, the businesses, the governments. Human work could [p.89]be achieved by human aspiration, ingenuity, and sweat. But it was God’s good pleasure that his Saints should inherit the earth, in preparation for the end. To readers acquainted with the religious ethic of the seventeenth-century Puritan settlements in New England, this will sound familiar, because Mormonism was in many ways a new efflorescence of the same ethic. But now it was American not English, and the vision was much broader, more encompassing in scope. By 1844 Smith saw Zion as spreading over the entire western hemisphere. When John C. Bennett wrote that the Mormons had a vast, deep-laid plot afoot to conquer the states of middle America and erect upon their ruin a priestly tyranny, he was being both absurd and profound (though he intended to be neither), like one who might have said that the Puritans in Massachusetts Bay plotted to conquer the wilderness, overthrow Satan’s kingdom, and establish the rule of righteousness.
The Mormon idea of a literal kingdom of God—towns, organizations, governments—represented a new way for Christians to approach the end of time and the Second Coming. Smith and the Mormons were convinced millennarians, expecting the second advent in a few years. It was indeed a part of the faith of multitudes of Christians in Europe and America. Most millennarians, however, had concerned themselves with the time of the parousia; to predict the date when Jesus would come, either from divining scripture or through prophecy, was the common style of millennarian leaders. Smith was different. Instead of appointing a time, he appointed a place. To westering Americans and European immigrants who were on the move to somewhere—perhaps anywhere—in the vast land, Smith issued the call: Come to Zion, come home. Receive your inheritances, build the temple, receive your blessings and endowments, go out with the good news of the kingdom. The story of Mormonism is “gathering”—a peculiarly Mormon thing, moving in, settling, building, developing, being nurtured in the community of faith—and going out on mission. Mormon lay missionaries seemed to be a class of men who were scarcely ever at home, yet among the few Americans who knew for sure where home was. It was for them in Zion.
Nauvoo was the first full-scale model of the Mormon kingdom. This was its essential significance, although other occurrences during the period were important—for example, the development of [p.90]a distinctive Mormon eschatology and political style. Despite the fact that Nauvoo lasted only seven years, a very short time for a major town to rise and fall, it articulated the Mormon faith in a tangible way for Saint and gentile alike; it was an early proving ground for Mormonism. And it was, so to speak, the last will and testament of Joseph Smith, a fact which sanctified the memory of Nauvoo for succeeding generations of Mormons. It set permanently in Mormonism the communitarian vision and mode and fastened a “glorious lost cause” image upon the Mormon imagination. For the gentile world, Nauvoo had a different fascination, ranging from curiosity to horror. And for those Saints who dissented from the “church” during the period but did not deny the “faith” (many made such a distinction), Nauvoo meant something different. It was neither easy to accept entirely nor to reject. Members of the Reorganized church, for example, have always had difficulty interpreting the Nauvoo experience, because its meaning is ambivalent to them. Joseph Smith’s commitment to the kingdom and his sacrifice, along with the investment of a heroic founding generation of Saints, Reorganized Saints have made a part of their own faith tradition. But many of the details such as celestial marriage, the politicizing of the church, Smith’s temporal roles in Nauvoo, Mormonism as a vehicle for the immediate revolutionizing of society, and the real meaning of the Nauvoo temple have been generally rejected or denied.
Life was hard in Nauvoo, but there was alluring economic opportunity for individuals, for private groups of business partners, and for the church corporation. There was “political opportunity” too, although the term is not exactly appropriate to the process by which men (and a few women) could rise in influence by moving closer to the center of power where the prophet stood. Examples of the more successful were John C. Bennett and Brigham Young, men so different yet so much alike. The warm, fraternal society of Saints was a satisfying and successful feature of life in Nauvoo and its satellite settlements, and it filled deep psychic needs of frontier people. The Nauvoo community, though brief, was on balance the most mature, homogenous, and settled—the most “Mormon”—of all the Latter-day Saint colonies up to that time.
Religious life in Nauvoo was centrally important of course but is difficult to characterize in any concise manner. In a city whose [p.91]purpose was so explicitly pious, whose heritage was Puritan, and whose leaders were mostly devout Yankees, the absence of even one meeting house for the observance of divine worship must have seemed an extraordinary omission to visitors. Nor was there one clergyman whose sole vocation it was to minister. On the other hand, every dwelling was a meeting house for the Saints, though the meeting would be necessarily small. And virtually every male Mormon was a lay priest. Smith himself was of course the minister (among other things). In the Mormon definition, he and the priestly structure he headed were the only legitimate ministry in existence. The wards of the town took on a combination civil-ecclesiastic significance that persisted and became a permanent feature of Mormon life. The ward was both an articulated neighborhood—a civil community—and a religious congregation. To imply a dichotomy between sacred and secular for the purposes of description is to skew the truth, for in fact there was no separation of concept, function, or leadership. Church and state were combined, from the ward “priesthood” at the grassroots to the prophet-president-mayor-general-trustee-in-trust at the top.
The only way to understand religious life in Nauvoo is to understand that religion was life, that such a mode was fundamental to the Mormon way, and that it was deeply satisfying to its adherents. “Administering to the sick,” for example, meant not only nursing and caring for those who were down but also anointing with consecrated oil in a rite of prayer. “Going to meeting” meant (in good weather) generally repairing en masse to a grove of trees near the temple site, where a speaker’s platform stood. The addresses by the “priesthood” might be one or many, with any mixture of exegesis, admonition, or exhortation of subjects religious, political, social, economic, or personal (for personalities were often of public concern in Nauvoo). So “service” was usually a mix of Protestant-style worship-revival and New England town meeting (the latter aspect being more theocratic than democratic).
Beneath these ordinaries (or extraordinaries) of life in the New Jerusalem lay other characteristics perhaps less apparent but vital. There was a sense of mystery, of excitement, of great events, great beginnings only dimly perceived which were omens of far greater things to come as yet unimagined: “For thus said the Lord, … to them [the Saints] will I reveal all mysteries … yea, even those which eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, nor yet entered into the heart [p.92]of man.” The Mormon faith was not burdened with guilt and condemnation but was afire with hope, promise, exultation. “We thank thee, O God, for a prophet, to guide us in these latter days,” sang the Saints; and in another favorite hymn: “The Spirit of God like a fire is burning; the latter-day glory begins to come forth … . We’ll sing and we’ll shout with the armies of heaven, hosanna, hosanna, to God and the Lamb … henceforth and forever, amen and amen.” Nauvoo Saints sensed themselves caught up in the ending of an era and the beginning of another. Nothing symbolized this part of the life mode better than the great temple rising slowly on the hill and the creation of the Council of Fifty, the “living constitution” of the kingdom.
Few public buildings were erected in Nauvoo, churches included, because of the enormous investment being made in the temple. It was to be the meeting house, the public building, of a great city yet to rise. But it was to be much more, just as the temple at Jerusalem was more to ancient Jews than a big synagogue. The Nauvoo temple was a shrine and a monument for Mormonism. But more than this, the temple was a building to link heaven and earth in some mystical-literal manner that was peculiarly Mormon (although the influence of Freemasonry on Smith’s conception cannot be doubted). Here, Smith’s prophetic promises of enlightenment and blessing were to be fulfilled. To miss this meaning of the temple is to miss much of the meaning of Mormonism and Nauvoo. Nauvoo was to be the “temple city” of Mormonism. The meaningful historic analogy was Jerusalem—an analogy well understood by the Saints. Smith did not live to preside in that vast, unusual structure, but the ordinances of the new Mormon eschatology celebrated there and in subsequent Mormon temples originated in his vision. “Temple Work”—rites for the dead, “sealings” of family relationships “for time and eternity,” “endowments” (all significant Mormon expressions)—seemed less than the sum of their parts to “gentiles” but the opposite to devout Mormons.
American culture was poor in symbols, dramas, imaginative images. Americans hungered for them. One observer compared nineteenth-century political campaigns in America to traditional religious festivals of Europe. In the Mormon temple time and space were fused symbolically in an awesome, mysterious way. Past, present, and future—heaven and earth—time and eternity—the hidden things of humanity and God—were to be made known. The extent to [p.93]which the expectations of devotees were satisfied there obviously varied, but of the expectations themselves, there can be no doubt. Mormonism was a religion of great expectations, of drama, of high mystery, and of restrained ecstasy, mostly contained within the priesthood structure. Perhaps subsequent Mormon temples were in part a memory of Joseph’s City Beautiful and its dream of the kingdom. The early abandonment and subsequent melodramatic destruction of the sacred edifice, like the death of the young prophet at the apparent full flower of his powers, left impressions upon the romantic nineteenth-century Mormon imagination that can scarcely be exaggerated. But the impact was felt by dissenters as well, who interpreted these twin symbols of the fall of Nauvoo to be retribution more than tragedy—divine wrath falling upon the church in consequence of the new, unholy doctrines and politics.
Joseph Smith’s vision of the kingdom sought to sanctify not only the American quest for a new society but the American dream of empire as well. The founding generation of Mormons and their contemporaries grew up as the young republic was enhanced by the Florida Cession and the Louisiana Purchase. In their maturity they were to witness the extension of the nation into a vast continental empire—Texas, the Mexican Cession, including Alta California and the Oregon country. Western Americans in particular tended to doubt that the empire was complete even so. Nauvoo occurred just at the time when excitement over Texas, Oregon, and California approached a climax—when Manifest Destiny was a household idea if not a household word in much of the country. Smith shared the excitement, and just before his death in 1844, the focus of his planning for the future expansion of the kingdom became continental, even hemispheric. He began to conceive mission-colony-states as part of a great system of kingdom societies that might stretch from Oregon and California to Texas, Mexico, Central America, and the Caribbean.
It was in this context that Smith organized the Council of Fifty to launch his imperial plans. Actually fifty-three men including the church hierarchy, leading men of practical affairs, and at least one non-Mormon, the group was secret, like much of import that went on within the structure of power. Its operations as projected by Smith were shadowy and foreshortened by his own early demise. But it is clear that they were a central planning and administrative circle [p.94]charged with both conception and execution of the new imperial concepts. The group initiated proposals to detach Nauvoo from the state of Illinois and create a self-governing, powerfully-garrisoned, virtually independent state under the guise of a federal territory; to create a Mormon state in west-central Texas; to launch specific para-military colonizing ventures into the trans-Missouri west; and to elect Joseph Smith president of the United States.9
The Mormon quests for power and political sovereignty were real. The founding of Utah and its subsequent expansion were neither simply the unique, divinely revealed courses of action supposed by generations of the Mormon faithful nor the accidental and fortuitous consequences of the Nauvoo debacle assumed by secular historians. Utah was in the beginning a fragment of larger schemes salvaged and built upon by Brigham Young. The heroic but pitiful struggles in Texas and Minnesota of Lyman Wight and Alpheus Cutler—members of the Council of Fifty who broke with Young to discharge what they believed to be Joseph Smith’s commission to them—are shadowy historic reminders of many secret plans made in Nauvoo in the spring of 1844 when anything seemed possible. It should become more clear to members of the Reorganized church and other dissenting sects of Mormonism that their “founding fathers” broke with Brigham Young about other issues in addition to authority and polygamy: they dissented in many instances from the political and imperial kingdom conceived by Smith and continued by Young.
No matter how the historian approaches Nauvoo—whether with a focus on the socio-economy, the church, doctrine, religious experience, politics, or some combination—he or she should consider the ultimate concern of Nauvooans themselves: the matter of life and death. Joseph Smith had miraculously survived in Ohio and Missouri, but he did not survive in Illinois. And for the corporate Mormon people, the end in Illinois was in effect a repeat of the Missouri experience: expulsion or extermination. The Mormons again got caught up in a civil war that they could neither win nor survive. Although Mormon-gentile conflict is long past now, its effects on Mormonism are not, nor probably its effects on gentiles. War and violence change the survivors and their culture, no matter who is victor or vanquished. Mormons were the repeated victims of violence but were not themselves pacifist; Mormons publicly and privately [p.95]accepted the idea of force, threatened to use it, and did so occasionally. To condemn the Mormons for their use of violence is not any more just or reasonable than to argue that Indian and slave uprisings justified the awesome brutality visited upon them. But the Mormons were provocative and even dangerous locally, and in particular situations aroused the same kind of general, massive retaliation triggered by slave or Indian threats. One should probably not carry the analogy between oppression of Mormons and blacks or Indians much farther. The Mormon and the gentile thinking about the use of force was much the same: each side was reared in the vigilante tradition. Here, perhaps, is a new way to think about Mormon-gentile conflict in Illinois and elsewhere.
Vigilantism in America, born during the Revolutionary era, was popularized and legitimated by the War for Independence. The philosophy passed into the pantheon of the new United States: Americans must be vigilant, or freedom, so hard bought, might be threatened. A vigilante posse was usually representative of the local population or some portion of it and was more or less respected (if for nothing more than derring-do bravado). Sometimes they were led by “the leading men of the community.” They ranged from mobs to para-military organizations, and their purpose was the extra-legal protection, by whatever means they deemed necessary, of the locale from the British, the Indians, the horse thieves, the blacks, the sheep men, the nesters, other vigilance groups, or whoever else threatened at the moment.
In the nineteenth century, the vigilance ethic fed on emotionalism, romanticism, evangelical salvationism, and popular democracy. It was a powerful idea, and it gripped the imagination of Americans: the continuing right of revolution and the right to self preservation and the protection of property. In the economic circumstances of a newly developing region, a human life could be judged less valuable than a horse or a barn. They might trail, run down, and whip or lynch in one operation. Legal niceties and questions of degrees of innocence were uninteresting. Vigilantes responded frequently to the fear in sparsely populated regions that undesirable elements—usually organized bands of desperadoes—would take over, if allowed. Such fears were frequently well founded. By the early 1830s some regions of the states in the lower Mississippi Valley were under the virtual control of such outlaw bands until driven out—many [p.96]north, up the Mississippi—by massive vigilante action. This may be one reason why Illinois was in the 1830s and early 1840s so plagued with organized rural crime. Thomas Ford described much of the population of Hancock County as of “low character” and thought perhaps the Mormons were drawn there by some natural affinity with such people. Illinois had its own vigilante response. One of the most spectacular occurred in the Rock River Valley in 1841 where outlaws controlled or terrified county governments, including sheriffs and courts. After a great vigilante uprising and the civil war that ensued, offenders were exterminated or expelled.
Vigilantes were apparently like a refiner’s fire, and the innocent were consumed with the guilty. When a county seat newspaper published an editorial mildly chiding the vigilantes for their tactics, the newspaper office was burned to the ground the same night. “Law and order” were apparently restored. The Rock River vigilance served the subsequent anti-Mormon vigilance as a powerful model. The locals in particular and many Illinoisans in general feared the Mormons—that they would “take over.” Governor Ford tried during the Nauvoo Expositor crisis of 1844 to exercise control through the agency of the militia system and the state executive, but he failed. He tried again in the fall of 1845 with partial success, allowing the Mormons a truce to prepare their exodus. It was at least some improvement over their expulsion from Missouri.
But Mormons had their own vigilance. They believed in local, even regional and state, political control; in the expulsion of undesirable elements; in short, in Mormon popular sovereignty. The Mormon ethic as a force to revolutionize American life fitted neatly with the belief that the vigilante tradition preserved that continuing revolution. The Danites may perhaps best be understood as a kind of special, romantic vigilante organization, in some ways not unlike the Ku Klux Klan, the Knights of the Golden Circle, or other secret groups pledged to defend the truth. The Nauvoo Legion was different of course but was not perceived as less dangerous by the gentiles. As a matter of fact, Mormonism attracted a sort of nineteenth-century “freedom fighter” type, as all beleaguered causes and all civil wars have done throughout history—men whose motives are mixed, complex, and often confused.10
The most fateful act of Mormon vigilantism in Illinois was Joseph Smith’s destruction of the Nauvoo Expositor press in June 1844. [p.97]It set in motion a swift train of events that ended with his own murder on June 27. Only the first issue of the newspaper was published before Smith’s order that it all be destroyed, but a few copies survived, and reproductions are now widely available in libraries. Reading the Expositor today gives one pause. It is moderate enough—compared with most “opposition” newspapers of the day. Joseph Smith was criticized and condemned for many of his actions to be sure, but the editors were still in “the faith” of Mormonism, although they had broken with “the church.” Any good Whig editor who had cursed the name of Andrew Jackson in print would have disdained it as no expose at all. Polygamy, centralization and “usurpation” of power by Smith and the hierarchy, attempted control of the economy, charges of “covering up” the true state of affairs, duping the people, etc., all are there. But such is the standard fare of any independent newspaper that criticizes the prevailing power structure. Apparently Smith’s real problem was that the paper was independent and that it threatened his monopoly over public expression and the formation of public opinion. Furthermore the paper was part of a continuing conflict of community elites. Smith and the church dominated the “lower town” in Nauvoo, but a group of gentile and dissident Mormon businessmen dominated a rival commercial district on the “hill.” The rivalry had become acrimonious by 1844. Smith had already suffered just about all the inflammatory newspapers he could stand around the state, given his personal sensitivity to public criticism. The Nauvoo Expositor, in his own town and run by traitorous former brethren, was the last straw.
The destruction of newspapers was in the vigilante tradition. In frontier America, given the widespread illiteracy and the paucity of printed material, a newspaper constituted a sort of monopoly on the flow of printed information and propaganda to the literate, opinion-forming segment of the population. Hence the regular destruction of “unpopular” presses. The Mormons had had their own Evening and Morning Star press destroyed in Independence, Missouri, in 1833. The most celebrated destruction of a newspaper by mob vigilance was the abolitionist press of Elijah Lovejoy in Alton, Illinois, in 1837, where Lovejoy was killed. Smith’s action certainly had precedent, and he apparently gave it little thought. But the aggrieved Expositor editors saw Smith unexpectedly playing into their hands and used the incident to destroy the prophet—though there is no evidence [p.98]that they were involved in the plot to kill him that resulted.
What Nauvoo was may become more clear in our generation. Joseph Smith was not only the founder of the faith but proved to be the unique Mormon prophet as well. For him there was never a replacement. His death brought a succession crisis that changed Mormonism through schism and metamorphosis. Nauvoo was the occasion for the “final” Mormon expulsion, this time from the United States, and was followed by flight into the wilderness. Nauvoo was the end of the beginning. It was also the fork in the road for Mormons; those who accepted Nauvoo and what it meant tended to go West with Brigham Young and the Mormon corporation. Those who had serious doubts, including many who had not actually lived in Nauvoo, chose the road of dissent that led to the churches of the dispersion or out of organized Mormonism altogether. For all, Nauvoo tended to be a guide, a model of what to do or what not to do. What might have been, had Nauvoo survived, we can only surmise.
Nauvoo was a volatile mixture of elements—American patriotism, immigrant dreams of the promised land, displaced-person desperation, religious mysticism and fanaticism, free experimentation with new social, ethical, and politico-economic modes, optimism, opportunism, energy—and escalating violence, within and without. But no matter that Smith, his religious corporation, and his people were in the end not entirely innocent victims—they were victims nevertheless. The threat they supposedly posed to their neighbors was not sufficient to warrant the response. In the end the result was another typical case of overkill. Americans could not yet conceive of themselves living together in the Promised Land with others of fundamentally different values and goals, of possibly resolving their conflicts peaceably. Coexistence is a new idea even in the following century, and one with which many Americans are still uneasy. Of course Mormons themselves denied the notion of cultural federalism—of the right of others to be “wrong”—and were themselves oppressed when that right was denied them.
In 1838 Abraham Lincoln said in a speech in the Illinois legislature that internal violence was the supreme threat to American political institutions. He spoke of “the increasing disregard of law which pervades the country; the growing disposition to substitute the wild and furious passions in lieu of the sober judgment of courts … .” [p.99]Americans need not fear foreign conquest, he continued. “If destruction be our lot, we ourselves must be its author and finisher. As a nation of freemen, we [will] live through all time, or die by suicide.”11
1. Conrad Cherry, ed., God’s New Israel: Religious Interpretations of American Destiny (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1972), is a collection of essays that offers insight into the vision of an American kingdom of God such as Smith explicated.
4. Harold Schindler, Orrin Porter Rockwell: Man of God, Son of Thunder (Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 1966), is a provocative biography. Schindler obviously suspects that Rockwell was the Boggs assailant as does Fawn Brodie in her biography of Smith, No Man Knows My History (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1945), which offers a balanced account of the affair. Neither Schindler nor Brodie believed Smith to have been involved directly.
5. For an examination of the politico-cultural setting for early Mormonism in the Jacksonian period, see Marvin Meyers, The Jacksonian Persuasion: Politics and Belief (Palo Alto, CA: Stanford University Press, 1957).
7. For detailed treatments of the Mormons and Illinois politics, see Flanders, Nauvoo, chap. 8, and “The Kingdom of God in Illinois: Politics in Utopia,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 5 (Spring 1970).
8. For an unusual and thoughtful discussion of the problems of immigrant groups of heterodox culture, see Louis Hartz, “A Comparative Study of Fragment Cultures,” in Hugh David Graham and Ted Robert Gurr, eds., The History of Violence in America: Historical and Comparative Perspectives (New York: F. A. Praeger, 1969).
9. For extended discussions of these matters, see Klaus J. Hansen, Quest for Empire: The Kingdom of God and the Council of Fifty in Mormon History (Wayne State University Press, 1967), and Flanders, Nauvoo, chap. 10.
10. This discussion of vigilantism follows Richard Maxwell Brown, “The Vigilante Tradition in American History,” in Graham and Gurr, Violence in America. See also Thomas Rose, ed., Violence in America (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1967); Robert Lee and Martin Marty, eds., Religion and Social Conflict [p. 100] (New York: Oxford University Press, 1964); and Horace M. Kallen, Cultural Pluralism and the American Idea (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1956).