Mormon Nauvoo in the Context of Post-Colonial Studies


A map of Nauvoo, Illinois, at the time of the Latter-day Saints in the early 1840s.

A map of Nauvoo, Illinois, at the time of the Latter-day Saints in the early 1840s.

To an extent underappreciated by historians, the Mormon experience in Nauvoo between 1839 and 1846 represents an expression of colonialism and its antithesis. The field of post-colonial studies has been gaining prominence since the 1970s. While historians and others debate the precise parameters of the field and the definition of the term “post-colonial,” to a very great sense, it may be applied to the Mormon experience.

There are important insights that might be gained from applying some of the ideas of post-colonial studies to the story of Mormon Nauvoo. Ideas from post-colonialism have now been cross-pollinated into U.S. border studies, enlivening the field and offering new perspectives on the past. To a very great extent the story of Nauvoo is the story of encounters with different cultures—Mormon/non-Mormon, western/eastern, religious/secular, democratic/theocratic—and their interactions brought a winner and loser in history.

I would argue that the Mormon invasion of Hancock County represented a colonization of a land already populated by residents with a specific belief system, structure of governance, economy, and culture. The Mormons imposed their different set of beliefs, governance, economy, and culture on this region with violent consequences. Initially welcomed into the community, being viewed as religious pilgrims persecuted elsewhere, within two years the older residents of the region had come to view them as conquerors seeking to subjugate and control.

Exactly how did this take place? What were the demarcation points of this transition? How have the various communities interpreted the unfolding events? All view themselves a blameless, but a close reading of texts on all sides lend new understandings to an old topic. These provide the cultural languages and negotiations out of which action emerged that may be studied and understood.

Especially intriguing for this type of analysis, I believe, is the interpretation of the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints/Community of Christ (RLDS/CofC). For the RLDS/CofC the Nauvoo experience is much less assured and certainly far less triumphant than the LDS tradition based in Salt Lake City. I would contend that for them the events of the era represent a conflicting set of ideals.

Such was the case from the time of Joseph Smith III in the nineteenth century and has remained so to the present, becoming even more problematic in the last 25 years or so. At a fundamental level those contradictions represented both a triumph and a tragedy, the backlash of which the CofC’s adherents have been seeking to understand and in some cases to live down ever since.

The last address of Joseph Smith in Nauvoo.

There are many examples of this. The quest for Zion was an attractive idea for the church for more than a century, and the success of Smith in such places as Nauvoo have often been viewed as the closest approximation the church had to the ideals of Zion carried in scripture and doctrine. At the same time, the RLDS/CofC have been repelled by the darker side of political power seen especially in Nauvoo—corruption, influence peddling, and the difficulty of political choices. Much the same was true when considering Smith’s truly weird theological experimentation in Nauvoo. Many in the RLDS/CofC today are certainly uncomfortable with Smith’s authoritarianism, with his militarism, and with his sense of being God’s chosen. As to the many doctrinal idiosyncrasies that emerged in Nauvoo, those are often viewed as the ramblings of a misguided fanatic.

Accordingly, the RLDS/CofC has walked a fine line relative to interpreting the legacy of Nauvoo. From a theological perspective, the RLDS/CofC essentially rejected Smith’s radical ideas on eternity, the multiplicity of gods, the possibility of progression to godhood, celestial and plural marriage, baptism for the dead, and other ideas associated with Mormon temple endowments that found no place in the RLDS/CofC. A few of these were simply considered quaint by non Mormons; others, such as plural marriage, aroused volatile emotions and became rallying points for opposition to the movement in Nauvoo.

In light of this post-colonial concept, how might we understand Mormon Nauvoo? Let me offer a few modest ideas. First, I think we would benefit from adapting some of the emphasis on “thick” literary analysis. In various times and places how have the participants in the experiences written about them? How have their ideas changed over time? What were they in 1840, 1845, 1850, or 1880? What of the historical discourses, how have they evolved over time, and what are the similarities and dissimilarities among the various cultures that have a stake interpreting this past? How have historians and other literary exponents read and represented the Nauvoo of the imagination?

For example, Robert Bruce Flanders’ book, Nauvoo: Kingdom on the Mississippi (1965), is a powerful statement of RLDS/CofC belief about the Mormon sojourn on the banks of the Mississippi. His story is one of how the lofty visions that had led to the founding of the Latter Day Saint church descended into a secular quagmire of economics and politics because of internal flaws and external pressures in the 1940s. Ultimately, the city failed and the church fractured. In it Flanders saw the tragedy of Joseph Smith as a religious figure and the place where fundamental differences of theology, polity, and society emerged to tear the Mormon church asunder.

As an inheritor of the same religious legacy I am compelled by his analysis, and I find this book still after nearly fifty years the primary text interpreting Nauvoo for modern inquirers. There is some question whether or not Flanders would have been able to pursue his pioneering approach had he been confined to the intellectual mindset of a believing Latter-day Saint. Klaus J. Hansen, in his review of Flanders’ book emphasized this point. “Utah Mormons cannot admit a major flaw in Nauvoo,” wrote Hansen, “for these were the very practices and doctrines [Brigham] Young transplanted to the Rocky Mountain kingdom.”

Believing Mormons certainly view the story differently; I refrain from insisting that they view it erroneously. So do non-Mormons, generations of residents of Hancock County, Icarians and their descendents, and others. All of those voices are fascinating and demonstrate the complexity that post-colonial studies seek to bring to their subject. I believe we could do the same with Mormon studies.

In addition, a close reading of all of the novels written about Nauvoo by all parties would provide a fascinating window into the construction of master narratives about the city and its place in Mormon history. How does Samuel W. Taylor’s Nightfall at Nauvoo (1973) compare to Mabel Sanford’s Joseph’s City Beautiful (1939), Becky Paget’s The Belle of Nauvoo (1994), and Elbert A Smith’s Timbers for the Temple (1922)? What has been the result of the colonial experience on those in Nauvoo today, and how might that be traced over time?

Second, equally important how might the theme of visuality, of looking as a means to knowing, be employed in this subject area? What representations have been used to illustrate and categorize the story of Nauvoo? What images gloss magazines and books and what do those tell us about the city and its character? What stories emanate from those images and what do they mean to those who see them? For example, a photograph of the Nauvoo sunstone has graced Nauvoo: Kingdom on the Mississippi since its publication in 1965. What is the meaning of this iconic image and how has its significance, representations, and tropes been established?

Employing a range of domains rooted in a specific culture to Foucauldian analysis, to contemporary master narratives, this type of study maintains a balance between being self-critical, self-reflexive, and self-accountable.

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2 Responses to Mormon Nauvoo in the Context of Post-Colonial Studies

  1. Should the “1940s” in this partial sentence “flaws and external pressures in the 1940s. Ultimately, the” really be “1840s”?

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