Return to the City of Joseph

Modern Mormonism's Contest for the Soul of Nauvoo

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Scott C. Esplin
  • Champaign: 
    University of Illinois Press
    , November
     248 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Many religious studies scholars know that the early Latter Day Saints moved their church headquarters and a large body of followers from place to place in their earlier years–from New York State to Ohio to Missouri to Illinois–before the main body of them finally settled in Utah. The most widely known of those early settlements was Nauvoo, Illinois, their refuge when they left Missouri under terrible persecution. But then the focus moves to Utah, and it’s a fair guess that not so many have much awareness of what happened in Nauvoo after the late 1840s.

Return to the City of Joseph: Modern Mormonism’s Contest for the Soul of Nauvoo by Scott C. Esplin speaks to that important lacuna in the history of the Saints. How many realize that Emma Hale Smith, the first (and only legal) wife of founder Joseph Smith, Jr., refused to follow Brigham Young to the Salt Lake Valley and remained in Nauvoo until her death? How many know of the other non-LDS people who settled in Nauvoo and played an important role in its history? How many are more than dimly aware of the church of the Smith family that continued there and elsewhere? And, crucially for this volume, how many know of the competition between the Young and Smith branches of the faith once the preservation and restoration of Nauvoo became important to both of those churches?

Robert Bruce Flanders, in his standard history Nauvoo: Kingdom on the Mississippi (University of Illinois Press, 1965), devotes only a couple of pages to the post-exodus city, depicting it as decaying and its inhabitants as dispirited (341). To recap a bit of the story told in any number of LDS historical surveys, once the “Brighamites,” as they were often called, left for the West, a remnant of the original movement stayed behind. Some were Brighamites who stayed only to try to sell the LDS Temple and other church-owned real estate. In 1848 an arson fire badly damaged the Temple, and a newly arrived group of French-speaking followers of the utopian novelist Etienne Cabet, known as Icarians, purchased the remains of the building for a pittance.

The Temple’s end came soon thereafter, when it was hit by a tornado. During the second half of the 19th century Nauvoo had Catholics, Methodists, Presbyterians, and Lutherans as well as Latter Day Saints, whose core constituency remained the Smith family, including their church’s first president and prophet, Joseph Smith III. The Smith family-led church (often called the Josephites) continued to work to preserve Church property in Nauvoo.

In the early 20th century the Utah-based Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (hereinafter the Utah church) church rekindled an interest in Nauvoo and began to look at restoration and preservation of the town. In 1962 a new organization, Nauvoo Restoration Incorporated, was formed under the auspices of the Utah church. The two churches (Esplin calls them “mountain Mormons and prairie Mormons” [142]) have since competed to preserve their common past.

But that terminology embodies a bit of the subtle bias which pervades the book.  Esplin calls all LDS churches (of which there have been hundreds, most of them quite small) “Mormons.” The subtitle of the book reflects that usage. However, nearly all of them do not follow the orthography of the dominant Utah church. That church calls itself the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Most of the others, including the Josephite church (now officially the Community of Christ; formerly the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints), now refer to themselves as Latter Day Saints, not Latter-day Saints. And they never (at least officially) call themselves Mormons. A small difference, perhaps, but one which preserves the distinctiveness of the many other LDS churches. None of these terminological matters contradict the basic facts of Esplin’s story, but to a non-LDS observer it can give his account a tint of special pleading or favoritism.

In addition, Esplin’s failure to mention (except for two passing comments) Joseph Smith’s practice of polygamy, a key cause of the mob violence which led to the lynching of Smith and his brother Hyrum in 1844, reflects a longstanding reticence in the Utah church to discuss that feature of the LDS faith which stirred enormous animosity to it for more than half a century. This tilting toward Utah-church preferences may reflect the fact that the publication of Esplin’s book was supported by Brigham Young University, where the author is employed.

The rebuilding of the long-destroyed Temple by the Utah church in the early 2000s put that church’s stamp on the town once and for all. And so Nauvoo continues, with two LDS presences (and an occasional nod to the Icarians and others from the town’s past). Esplin has done a good job of amassing the Nauvoo story from diverse sources and brings new light to the slumbering history of the city  One wonders, however, if there is more to the story. Here we meet the LDS believers who followed Brigham Young and the Smith family, but what about the other claimants to LDS leadership, such as Alpheus Cutler, Charles B. Thompson, and Lyman Wight?  Even though most of them left Nauvoo eventually, they must have had some impact on the post-Joseph Smith town. LDS history is full of intriguing stories. (For background on these founders of LDS churches, and many more, see Divergent Paths of the Restoration, edited by Steven L. Shields [Herald House, 2001.]

Esplin’s work is narrative, not analytical, and as such avoids much of the preoccupation with theory and method that is often found in religious studies scholarship.  He tells a good story that is overdue for telling and is a worthy addition to the record of this remarkable new American religious movement.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Timothy Miller is Research Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Kansas.

Date of Review: 
May 19, 2021
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Scott C. Esplin is a professor of religious education at Brigham Young University and a coeditor of Far Away in the West: Reflections on the Mormon Pioneer Trail.


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