Abstract

The post focuses on the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints during their time in Nauvoo, Illinois. A great deal of Mormon Studies Historiography focuses on the Mormon successes in Nauvoo. Lacking from the historiography is a discussion of the public’s opinion of the Mormons in Nauvoo which would in turn lead to the Mormon exodus west. The post introduces primary source documents focusing on the views of the Mormons in Nauvoo. The post opens the door for further discussions looking into the dealings of Joseph Smith Jr with non-Mormons in Illinois.

Introduction

When tracing the history of American Christianity, there are many areas to place one’s focus. However, when seeking the most American form of Christianity, it would be unwise to overlook Mormonism, an American born sect of Christianity. Any coverage of Mormonism cannot happen without a discussion of their time in Nauvoo, a time in which the founder of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints was murdered.

It was the martyrdom of Joseph Smith Jr. and his brother Hyrum Smith in a Carthage, Illinois jail that would push the Mormons from their homes in Nauvoo, Illinois over the mid-western plains to their Utah valley home in Salt Lake City. While the murder of Smith and the Mormon exodus West is well covered in modern historical research, there is little discussion of the anti-Mormon sentiments in Illinois preceding the eventual martyrdom. There have been modern pieces focused on the movement of the Mormons from New York and their exodus from Missouri, but for some reason, Nauvoo has been painted as Mormon paradise lacking anti-Mormon sentiment. However, a look at pieces written in the 1840’s preceding Smith’s murder paint a picture that is much different.

This entry will seek to challenge the typical belief that Nauvoo was a time of peace and prosperity for the Mormons up until the martyrdom, and instead provide a look at the ways in which tensions between the “gentiles” and the Mormons brewed the perfect concoction leading to murder.

Accounts from Nauvoo

One of the most common critiques presented my non-Mormons of Joseph Smith Jr. was that he was a con-man. This critique was endowed upon Smith from his earliest days in Palmyra, New York. The critique remained active during his time leading the Saints in Nauvoo. One account that draws upon Smith as a con-man is from Henry Caswall in his published account The City of the Mormons, or, Three Days at Nauvoo, in 1842.

Caswall draws upon his first person experience in Nauvoo during his trip up the Mississippi. In doing this, Caswall makes many mentions of Smith calling for the continuous donation of money to the church. He cites one sermon in which he quotes Smith as saying “…Let not the poor man say, I am too poor; but let the poor man contribute out of his poverty, and the rich man out of his wealth, and God will give you a blessing.”[1] This occurred as emigrants from England left their ships to settle in Nauvoo. Caswell saw it as shameful that Smith would even ascertain the possibility that emigrants would immediately tithe to a church in which he saw as being led by a con.

This idea of Smith as a con-man was a popular notion during the time period. Outside of Smith’s overt calls for money needed to support the new religion, there was a great deal of concern over Smith’s claim to be a prophet. The religious landscape had accepted the idea that God no longer spoke through men, therefore the claims of Smith were contradictory to the mainstream Christianity of the day.

It was this position of Prophet, that those with anti-Mormon sentiments came to regard Joseph Smith as using for evil instead of good. Joseph Jackson’s account of his time in Nauvoo entitled, The Adventures and Experiences of Joseph H. Jackson: Disclosing the Depths of Mormon Villany Practiced in Nauvoo, draws upon this sentiment. Jackson writes that all of Joseph Smith’s commands, both public and private were always delivered “in the name of the Lord.” The problem that Jackson finds in this as that Smith would use the name of the Lord and his position as Prophet in order to have his personal vendettas supported by the membership of the church.[2] This level of control over a body of people made the Mormons dangerous and Joseph Smith a despised figure, so much that it would eventually lead to his martyrdom.

The martyrdom of Smith would be a crime of passion, based in a growing disdain for the man and his religion. In his 1846 piece A Brief History of the Leading Causes of the Hancock Mob, in the year 1846, Josiah Conyers takes different accounts and opinions of the mob killing of Joseph and Hyrum Smith. The feelings for Smith are best summed up through the county’s position on the killing. When recording the county’s response, Conyers finds that they drafted three resolutions.

  1. The Mormons should have expected trouble and violence due to the public’s feeling regarding their religion.
  2. The Mormon’s inability to assimilate into the surrounding culture put them in danger for violent repercussions.
  3. The county would not condemn the actions of the Hancock mob that killed Smith. [3]

The county;s report on the event would provide a good look into the public’s view of the Mormons and Joseph Smith in particular. In a failure to condemn the killers of Smith, they made a statement that the Mormons were not a welcome party in the state despite their commercial success.

Conclusion

While only in Nauvoo for seven years, the Mormons made a name for themselves. It was not a positive name. It was a name and reputation that led to the murder of their founder and a forced exodus across the wilderness to find a home away from the judgmental eyes of the traditional Christians in America in the mid-19th century. While tragic, the failure and negativity in Nauvoo would serve the purpose of beginning the modern Mormon empire that is Utah.

Footnotes

[1] Henry Caswall, The City of the Mormons, or, Three Days at Nauvoo, in 1842, 2nd ed. (J.G.F. & J. Rivington, 1843), 14.

[2] Joseph H Jackson, The Adventures and Experience of Joseph H. Jackson : Disclosing the Depths of Mormon Villany Practiced in Nauvoo (Warsaw, 1846), 4.

[3] Josiah B Conyers, A Brief History of the Leading Causes of the Hancock Mob, in the Year 1846 (St. Louis, MO: Cathcart & Prescott, 1846), 7.

Bibliography

Caswall, Henry. The City of the Mormons, or, Three Days at Nauvoo, in 1842, 2nd ed. London: Printed for J.G.F. & J. Rivington, 1843. Sabin Americana: History of the Americas, 1500-1926 (accessed November 14, 2020).

Conyers, Josiah B. A Brief History of the Leading Causes of the Hancock Mob, in the year 1846. St. Louis [Mo.]: Printed for the author by Cathcart & Prescott, 1846. Sabin Americana: History of the Americas, 1500-1926 (accessed November 14, 2020).

Jackson, Joseph H. The Adventures and Experience of Joseph H. Jackson : Disclosing the Depths of Mormon Villany Practiced in Nauvoo. Warsaw, 1846. Sabin Americana: History of the Americas, 1500-1926 (accessed November 14, 2020).