When Latter-day Saints were driven out of Nauvoo, Illinois in 1846, their last sight of the city they built was their temple gleaming on a hilltop.
But what a difference a century and a half makes.
Some 154 years after the original Nauvoo Temple was gutted by arsonists' flames, Latter-day Saints are heralding the temple’s painstaking reconstruction as a symbol of today’s climate of religious acceptance and of healthy relations with their Nauvoo neighbors.
From the desperate group of pioneers whose exodus across the Mississippi River eventually landed them in Utah has emerged a robust church with 11 million members in 160 countries.
The original Nauvoo Temple was the fledgling Church’s second temple. The new version is its 113th.
Nauvoo’s origins date to 1839, when Latter-day Saints fleeing religious persecution in Missouri established the community on tracts of swampland. Led by Church founder Joseph Smith, they drained the swamps and began erecting well-kept homes and prosperous farms and businesses.
In February of 1841, the settlers began work on a temple, obeying a commandment from God to build a "house of the Lord" — a sacred place reserved for the performance of their highest, most sacred rites.
They needed money to build it, but members of the Church were largely destitute. Some gave their entire life savings, and many donated hard physical labor. Approximately 1,200 men worked in the stone quarries or on the temple itself, donating every 10th day toward temple construction. Women were asked to contribute their pennies and dimes to the temple fund. They also sewed clothing and prepared meals for the workmen.
By 1844 Nauvoo was one of Illinois' largest cities, with a population that rivaled Chicago's. But mounting suspicion and anxiety in neighboring communities fed an atmosphere of agitation and mistrust. Newspapers in nearby towns began to call for the Latter-day Saints' expulsion or extermination. Mobs threatened to overrun Nauvoo.
At the height of this unrest, Joseph Smith and his brother Hyrum were killed in nearby Carthage, Illinois.
The troubles forced most Latter-day Saints from Nauvoo before the temple was finished in May of 1848. Before embarking on their westward exodus, thousands of Latter-day Saints made sacred covenants with God in the temple they knew they would soon abandon.
In October 1846 the building was almost totally destroyed by arson. In 1850, a tornado toppled some of the remaining walls and weakened the rest. The remnants were later removed and eventually used in houses, farms and buildings on both sides of the river.
Not surprisingly, today’s reconstruction reminds many Latter-day Saints of the sacrifices of those original Church members in Nauvoo. Gordon B. Hinckley, president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, said when announcing rebuilding plans that the temple "will be a memorial to those who built the first such structure there on the banks of the Mississippi."
Because of their reverence for the Nauvoo area, which they view as part of the roots of their faith, Latter-day Saints want to ensure the area retains the charm and beauty established by its first settlers and maintained by those who have lived there since.
At the October 1999 groundbreaking of the new temple, Hinckley assured Nauvoo Mayor Tom Wilson of the Church’s desire to cooperate in making the new endeavor positive for both the Church and the city. And just as they kept their commitment to be good hosts during the 2002 Winter Olympic Games, Church leaders and members are determined to be good neighbors in Nauvoo.
Jim Scheetz, member of the Nauvoo City Council, and Mary Jo Scheetz, Nauvoo Planning Commission administrator, are not Latter-day Saints but are pleased with what they see.
"I enjoy what's going on and everything that's happening and it seems to me it's all for the good," says Jim Scheetz. "Once [the temple project] is done, the people in the community will be part of the other things in the community — the historic society, the library, the school board, helping with fundraisers."
He adds, "Anything can be accomplished once you work together."
Referring to the rebuilding of the Nauvoo Temple and the people involved in the project, Mary Jo Scheetz says: "I think what I see that it has done for the community is it is uniting us. We don't want it to be city against church and I don't think it is that way. ... We've made very good friends. ... We couldn't have asked for anything better historically ... so, we're just more than thrilled," she says.
Jim Scheetz adds: "Real estate values are going up because of the interest in the temple and people wanting to come back to the historic roots that are here. That's definitely helped the economic base. ... I think the community's looking forward to new revitalization and where we can go from here."
"We need more citizens," says Mayor Tom Wilson. "We could double our population with no trouble and I think we will. We'll see a lot of housing expansion in the next five years."
Wilson also confirmed that the temple will increase tourism.
Church representatives have provided Nauvoo City with funds and services designed to help the city accommodate the temple and its visitors without significant change. The Church has been a part of the modern Nauvoo community since the 1937 repurchase of some of its original property, which has been gradually developed.
The Church’s local management arm, Nauvoo Restoration, Inc., pays property taxes on all Church-owned land that is not used for worshiping and supports efforts to increase tourism.
"Nauvoo and the LDS Church have been generous with their information and their willingness to work with regional tourism," wrote Katherine Walker, director of the Macomb Area Convention and Visitors Bureau in a guest editorial published this spring in The Macomb Journal.
"It’s not only a historical rebirth for the temple and Nauvoo," writes Walker, "but it’s a cooperative effort between the LDS Church, regional tourism and many local officials."
Tourists already visit Church-operated re-creations of shops, farms and homes that look as they did while the early Church members were establishing Nauvoo — a word derived from a Hebrew word for "beautiful."
While serving as a reminder of the dedication of early Latter-day Saints, the reconstructed temple’s main purpose is the same as the original’s — to provide a sacred place in which members of the Church receive instruction about the purpose of life and their relationship to God and Jesus Christ and participate in ceremonies such as eternal marriage.
The approximately 100 Latter-day Saints in the town of Nauvoo are among the more than 13,000 members of the Church in western Illinois and eastern Iowa who will be served by the Nauvoo Illinois Temple. They, along with millions of other Latter-day Saints, believe that the rites performed in temples make it possible for individuals to return to the presence of God and for families to be united eternally.
More than 150 years ago this doctrine of eternal families drove poor migrants to build a temple. Now, the same belief will likely bring many of the initial settlers’ descendants back again and again to share in heartfelt ceremonies inside the new monument to their forebears' sacrifices.
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