During the bitter winter of 1838-1839 some 5,000 Latter-day Saints crossed the Mississippi River from Missouri and settled in western Illinois. Since the organization of the Mormon church almost ten years before, this group of religious pioneers, led by Joseph Smith Jr., had received the brunt of political rhetoric, social ostracism, and in some cases mob violence. These people came to Illinois in 1838 and 1839 not as ordinary settlers, but as refugees from neighboring Missouri, where the state’s population had expelled them following a brutal and deadly conflict.
In Illinois during the early 1840s these people built one of the most impressive and powerful cities in the region, the community of Nauvoo, erected by the Mormons on a limestone flat by the banks of the Mississippi River some fifty miles north of Quincy. Throughout the first half of the 1840s Hancock County was dominated by Nauvoo, with its wealth, population, cultural achievements, and military and political power.
For most of the Latter-day Saints, the rise of this mighty religious commonwealth was the fulfillment of the shattered dreams of previous church-dominated communities at Kirtland, Ohio, and Independence and Far West, Missouri. They believed that God had finally enabled them to begin the establishment of His kingdom on earth, which they called Zion.
The Mormons began construction of the city of Nauvoo during the summer of 1839 and continued a massive building program until the church abandoned the site in 1846. By the end of the first year in Nauvoo, the Saints possessed what was essentially an overgrown wilderness community of log homes, a few shops, and an infant mercantile and manufacturing economy. In December 1840 they obtained a city charter from the state of Illinois, which made possible both the providing of essential services to Nauvoo’s residents and the protection from outside difficulties that had plagued the church since its origin.
Building and immigration in Nauvoo seemed to be taking place on every side. George Miller, later a bishop in the church, captured the vitality of Nauvoo in the summer of 1840, by commenting that the community “was growing like a mushroom (as it were, by magic).” Near the same time Joseph Smith, Jr., remarked, “The number of inhabitants is nearly three thousand, and is fast increasing. If we are suffered to remain, there is every prospect of its becoming one of the largest cities on the river, if not the western world. Numbers have moved in from the seaboard, and a few from the islands of the sea.”
The city continued to grow rapidly thereafter. According to newspaper editor Thomas Gregg of Warsaw, Illinois, during the heyday of Nauvoo, the Latter-day Saints built about “1,200 hand-hewn log cabins, most of them white-washed inside, 200 to 300 good substantial brick houses and 300 to 500 frame houses.”
Nauvoo was, in essence, a boom town, and no one was a greater booster than Joseph Smith Jr. In December 1841, he wrote to Edward Hunter, a recent convert to Mormonism from Pennsylvania, about business prospects in the city. “There are scarcely any limits which can be imagined to the mills and machinery and manufacturing of all kinds which might be put into profitable operation in this city,” he boasted, “and even if others should use a mill before you get here, it need be no discouragement to either you or Brother Buchwalter, for it will be difficult for the mills to keep pace with the growth of the place,…”
His enthusiasm seemed justified, for Nauvoo appeared to many Mormons the most remarkable place on earth. Nauvoo’s population doubled every year between 1839 and 1842, and continued to rise until 1846. Most of the inhabitants were Mormons, and they were intent on bringing to fruition the spiritual and secular community that they had long sought.
The most important expression of the community’s meaning was a majestic temple, symbolizing not only the substantial nature of the church in the 1840s but also a rapidly developing Mormon theology that differed substantially from orthodox American Christianity. Excavation for the foundation began as early as the fall of 1840, but the real impetus to build the temple came on January 19, 1841, when Joseph Smith proclaimed a revelation commanding the building’s construction. Thereafter work on the religious building continued by the Mormons with zest for the next five years. Built of gray limestone, the temple came to dominate Nauvoo from its perch atop the bluffs overlooking the city. It stood 165-feet high, measured 88 by 128 feet, and cost something over $1 million; an enormous sum for the time.
The demands of temple construction, as well as all the other building taking place in Nauvoo, strained the resources of the Mormons almost to the breaking point, but it also sent an ominous signal of what the Mormons could accomplish for other residents of the region. It revealed something of the numerical and economic strength of the community, and also symbolized the religious, especially theocratic, tendencies of the Saints. They were willing to sacrifice everything they had to accomplish the work that defined as critical by the institutional church. When that emphasis on local theocracy was combined with an interest in county and regional politics, the situation became explosive as the 1840s progressed.