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Midwest Travel: Religion And History Meet In Nauvoo

Matt Turner/Flickr

A covered wagon pulled by a yoke of oxen appeared on the path in front of us. Nearby several young children walked by on stilts, a brass band tuned up for an outdoor concert and the Mississippi River rolled along, glittering in the sunshine. That’s when my husband and I knew that our visit to historic Nauvoo was a trip back in time.

Nauvoo, about 130 miles from Springfield in western Illinois, was founded in 1839 by Joseph Smith, a charismatic Mormon preacher and self-proclaimed modern prophet of God. After starting the religion in 1830 in western New York, Smith chose Nauvoo as its center after he and his followers were forced to leave Ohio and Missouri. Through his leadership and the efforts of Mormon missionaries, Nauvoo quickly grew into a community of 11,000 people by 1844, rivaling Chicago in population.

On a visit to Nauvoo that both adults and children will enjoy, you’ll learn the dramatic history of the city’s rise and fall through free tours of historic buildings, narrated wagon rides and entertaining shows. The historic buildings are open every day, while the wagon rides and shows are closed on Sunday.

Towering on a bluff overlooking the river is the impressive Nauvoo Temple. Only Mormons are allowed to enter the temple, which was reconstructed in 2002, but the rest of the restored 19th century community in the area known as the flats is open to all. Knowledgeable volunteers give tours and provide insights into their religion at the two dozen restored shops, homes and other buildings, most of them wheelchair accessible.

My husband and I started at the print shop, where we had fun guessing the original meanings of printing terms such as “dingbat” (an ornamental typographical symbol that takes up a small space), and “coin a phrase” (to lock a line of type into position by tightening two small discs called coins at either side).

The tour of Jonathan Browning’s home and gun shop includes his gun collection, with some guns labeled, “Holiness to the Lord –Our Preservation.” His son, John Moses Browning, later became important in the development of modern automatic and semi-automatic firearms.

The visit came alive for me during the free musical shows we enjoyed. Throughout the year you can see Rendezvous in Old Nauvoo, an hour-long musical comedy performed Monday through Saturday in the Cultural Hall.  If you plan ahead for next summer, be sure to go in July when you can see one of two pageants, both Broadway-style productions on outdoor stages. They feature more than 100 people in the cast, most of them volunteers.

From late May to early August, children can dress up in costumes, play pioneer games, see a puppet show, and attend the Frontier Country Fair where they can participate in sack races, go square dancing and learn the Highland fling.

On the southern end of the historic area are buildings linked to Smith, including his log home constructed in fur-trading days and the red brick store he opened in 1842 that was used for religious and community meetings. A small donation is requested before touring these sites.

Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, Nauvoo also attracts many Saints, or members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, to visit and volunteer in the pageants and other programs.

Nauvoo’s fateful year was 1844, when the prosperous Mormons were surrounded by jealous and resentful neighbors in other communities. Many others despised Mormon practices and beliefs at the time such as polygamy and baptism of the dead.  Fearful of Smith’s growing military and political power, his enemies later formed a mob that murdered him and his brother Hyrum in the county jail in nearby Carthage.

In 1846, Brigham Young and other leaders decided that the community should leave Illinois rather than risk further violence. That February about 1,000 Saints crossed the frozen Mississippi in covered wagons on sleds and headed west, and eventually some 70,000 followed their route from 1846 to 1869 and found refuge in a valley near the Great Salt Lake in Utah. Others, including Smith’s family, remained in Nauvoo and created a reorganized church.

Our last stop in Nauvoo was the Trail of Hope, a quiet place on the waterfront where the Mormons began their difficult journey west.  Since the Mormons left, Nauvoo eventually grew smaller and smaller, with just 1,118 residents in 2013.  

From Nauvoo, you can visit Carthage Jail, drive the nearby Great River Road  or head west and follow the Mormon Trail. 

See these web sites for more information:

Nauvoo Chamber of Commerce:  http://www.nauvoochamber.org/

Historic Nauvoo:  http://www.historicnauvoo.net/

Joseph Smith Historic Site: http://www.cofchrist.org/visit-nauvoo

Mormon Pioneer National Historic Trail: http://www.nps.gov/mopi/index.htm

Mary C. Galligan is a freelance writer and editor in Chicago. A former editorial writer for the Chicago Sun-Times and former Midwest correspondent for U.S. News & World Report magazine, she alternates writing the monthly IT travel column with Mary Bohlen of Springfield.  

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