Building the Kingdom of God in Nauvoo, Illinois


This lesson is called “Building the Kingdom of God in Nauvoo, Illinois.” Its objective is to teach us about how the early Saints worked to build the kingdom of God in Nauvoo and to encourage us to follow their example.

A Refuge in Illinois

As we discussed over the past couple of weeks, Missoura proved to be misery for the Saints. With the governor’s infamous military order #44 to forcibly drive the Saints out of the state or face extermination, and after their appeals to the state legislature were ignored, and with the First Presidency languishing in jail, and having spent most of their money and resources to build homes and farms and businesses in Missouri, thousands of Saints had no choice but to abandon their property in the middle of winter of 1838-1839 and head back east towards more-friendly Illinois.

A committee was organized to take the properties and try to sell them to friendly Missourians, but there weren’t many friendly Missourians around. A few properties managed to sell, but only generated pennies on the dollar. The Church needed that money because there were still some Saints who were too poor or sick to travel. But by April, the mobs were back at them. Here’s one of many entries recorded in the History of the Church:

Twelve men went to Elder Theodore Turley’s with loaded rifles to shoot him. They broke seventeen clocks into match wood. They broke tables, smashed in the windows; while Samuel Bogart (the county judge) looked on and laughed.

The mob shot down cows while the girls were milking them. The mob threatened to send the committee (on removal) to hell jumping,” and “put daylight through them.”

The same day, some of the same company met Elder Kimball on the public square in Far West, and asked him if he was a “———Mormon;” he replied, “I am a Mormon.” “Well,——————you, we’ll blow your brains out, you——————Mormon,” and tried to ride over him with their horses.

The brethren gathered up what they could and left Far West in one hour; and the mob staid until they left, then plundered thousands of dollars’ worth of property which had been left by the exiled brethren and sisters to help the poor to remove.

One mobber rode up, and finding no convenient place to fasten his horse, shot a cow that was standing near, and while the poor animal was yet struggling in death, he cut a strip of her hide from her nose to the tip of her tail, this he tied round a stump, to which he fastened his halter. (History of the Church, Volume 2, Chapter 21.)

Can you imagine? And these are just a few of the stories that we could talk about. And these have been highly sanitized to be G-rated. Let’s just say many suffered terribly.

Meanwhile, in the next county over, on April 6, 1839, the Prophet, and the four others Liberty Jail prisoners (Hyrum Smith, Lyman Wight, Caleb Baldwin, and Alexander McRae), were moved to the jail in Daviess County. The grand jury there was prepared to indict them for murder, treason, burglary, arson, larceny, theft, and stealing. They dropped the vagrancy charge.

The prisoners appealed for a change in venue and on April 15, were granted it—they were to go to Boone County in the northeast corner of the state. The five prisoners left that day in the custody of the sheriff and four guards. Now let me read you this:

They started … in the afternoon and went as far as Diahman, where they camped for the night at Judge Morin’s. The next day they went about twenty miles where a jug of whiskey was procured, and all of the guards, save one, got drunk and went to bed. The sheriff showed the prisoners the mittimus (court order) and said to them that Judge Birch told him never to carry them to Boone County, and never to show the mittimus, and, the sheriff said: ‘I shall take a good drink of whiskey and go to bed, and you may do as you are a mind to’. (Essentials in Church History, pp 212-213)

The Prophet wrote in his journal:

This evening our guard got intoxicated. We thought it a favorable opportunity to make our escape; knowing that the only object of our enemies was our destruction….  We thought that it was necessary for us, inasmuch as we loved our lives, and did not wish to die by the hand of murderers and assassins; and inasmuch as we loved our families and friends, to deliver ourselves from our enemies, and from that land of tyranny and oppression…. Accordingly, we took advantage of the situation of our guard and departed, and that night we traveled a considerable distance. (HC, 3:320)

A week later, Joseph wrote this in his journal:

Monday, April 22. We continued on our journey, both by night and by day; and after suffering much fatigue and hunger, I arrived in Quincy, Illinois, amidst the congratulations of my friends, and the embraces of my family, whom I found as well as could be expected, considering what they had been called to endure. (HC, 3:327)

They were received kindly by the people in Quincy. At that time, no plan for the re-settlement of the Saints existed. Some thought the Saints might go back to Ohio or up into Canada.

But, a few months later, after hearing a report of inexpensive land about 35 north, on the eastern bank of the Mississippi river, the Church began purchasing land in a place formerly known as Quashquema, named in honor of a native American chief. Some white settlers built some cabins there and renamed it Venus in 1827 and then renamed it to Commerce in 1834. But they didn’t fare so well because it was swampy and infested with mosquitoes. So the Saints sunk their silver into the stinky and sickly swampland, and its surrounding sectors, and started to settle in.

The following year, Joseph gave it a new name, Nauvoo, which he said was derived from the Hebrew word “nawvaw” or “nawveh”, which meant something becoming pleasant, suitable, beautiful, a pasture, a place of rest and beauty. (The third-person plural form of “nawveh” is “nauvoo” according to page 111 of the Hebrew grammar book that Joseph Smith first used at the School of the Prophets. It was called, A Manual of Hebrew Grammar for the Use of Beginners, 2nd edition, 1834, by Josiah Seixas.)

We’ll talk more about Nauvoo in just a moment, but let’s talk about what else was happening that summer of ’39.

The Twelve in England

In July of the previous year, the Prophet received a revelation (D&C 118:5) that members of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles were to go on overseas missions the following year. In fact, the revelation indicated they were to depart from the Far West Temple site on April 26, 1839. This meant, of course, that a quorum (meaning more than six) apostles had to be in Far West at the time.

The mobs also knew about this revelation. In fact, a mob had ridden into Far West on April 20 and jeered at them about the revelation. Captain Samuel Bogart warned Theodore Turley:

The Twelve are now scattered all over creation; let them come here if they dare; if they do, they will be murdered. (HC, 3:307)

The Twelve gathered at the site shortly after midnight to avoid being seen by their Missouri enemies. There were about 20 other Saints there as well.

In accordance with revelation a large stone was rolled to the southeast corner of the foundation of the temple. Then, Wilford Woodruff and George A. Smith were ordained apostles to fill the vacancies left by apostasy. This then made seven apostles present, thus having a majority of the quorum present.

The meeting concluded, and the apostolic missionaries departed for Illinois, thus fulfilling the prophecy.

The Twelve did not actually leave from Illinois until later that summer due to the efforts of settling their families in Illinois. You see, most of the saints had been living in tents, wagons, and other temporary structures. The Twelve were anxious to find something more permanent for their families before departing for England. Some of the apostles moved their families into an abandoned military post on the other side of the river at Montrose. Other quickly built small cabins. And when I say small, I mean 12-foot by 12-foot homes.

And remember those malaria-bearing mosquitoes around Nauvoo, well, they successfully sickened a great many people, including the apostles. So it wasn’t until August that Wilford Woodruff and John Taylor were able to depart. Still ailing Wilford was rowed across the Mississippi in a canoe by Brigham Young. On landing, he lay down to rest on a piece of leather near the post office. The Prophet came along and said:

“Well, Brother Woodruff, you have started on your mission?”

“Yes, but I feel and look more like a subject for the dissecting room than a missionary,” was the reply.

“What did you say that for?” asked Joseph, “Get up and go along, all will be well with you.” (CHC, 2:23)

A month later, apostles Brigham Young and Heber Kimball, both extremely ill, left their equally sick families behind. You may remember the story of how they felt inspired to rise up from the wagon bed and give a cheer to their families, “Hurrah, hurrah for Israel!” They then laid back down in the wagon where they continued their journey in sickness and without purse or script.

The newest Apostle, George A. Smith, left his cabin and began his journey by horseback. He stopped at the Prophet’s home where his uncle, Joseph Sr. was sitting. When the patriarch saw George he burst into laughter and asked, “Who’s been robbing the burying yard?” George replied, “I am determined to go to England.” The patriarch gave George a blessing promising that he would go to England and his health would be restored.

Each of these missionaries left for their missions in adverse circumstances. They were sick. Their families were sick. They left families in poverty and in shelter that was little more than a roof over their heads. They left with little or no money in their pockets. In fact, Heber and Brigham only had $13.50 when they left Nauvoo, but miraculously, they were able to pay out more than six times that amount in travel expenses. Things like that happen when we are determined to fulfill the commands of the Lord.

John Taylor and Wilford Woodruff arrived in England in January 1840. Brigham Young, Heber Kimball, Parley Pratt, Orson, Pratt, and George A. Smith arrived the following April after a stormy passage. On April 14, the first council meeting of the Twelve was held in Preston. At that time Willard Richards was ordained an apostle and Brigham Young was sustained as president of the Quorum.

Many, many marvelous things happened during this mission. I’d encourage you to go read some of them for yourself. Let me share with you just one of them.

On March 3 Elder Woodruff stopped at the home of Mr. John Benbow. Wilford introduced himself and said he was an Elder of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and that he had come to preach the gospel.

John Benbow said there were over 600 people who had broken off from the Methodist Church, called themselves the United Brethren, and they were searching for light and truth. Mr. Benbow sent word out and many came to his home to listen to this missionary from America.

On March 8, a local constable showed up to arrest Elder Woodruff for “preaching to the people.” The parish rector had made a complaint. Elder Woodruff stated that he had a license to preach and asked the constable to take a chair until the meeting was completed.

Elder Woodruff preached a sermon on the first principles of the gospel and at the end issued an invitation to be baptized. Four preachers came forward and requested baptism, along with the constable.

The constable returned to the rector and told him if he wanted Mr. Woodruff arrested he would have to go and serve the writ himself. The constable said that he had listened to the only true Gospel sermon he had ever heard.

The rector then sent two clerks of the Church of England as spies and they were both baptized. The rector decided not to send anyone else. (Essentials in Church History, pp233-234)

Within 30 days, he had baptized 45 preachers and 160 members of the United Brethren, and the success continued. In fact, all of the United Brethren but one were soon converted.

John Taylor wrote in a letter, “Elder Woodruff, has lately left the Potteries where he was and has gone to another neighborhood, and is making Methodist preachers scarce” (Times & Seasons, Vol 1 No 7, p110)

The mission of the Twelve to England lasted just over one year. Brigham Young and others of the Twelve departed on April 20, 1841, along with 130 Saints. Parley Pratt remained to continue publication of the Millennial Star and to direct mission activities.

Between 7,000 and 8,000 people were baptized during this period and about 1,000 emigrated to Nauvoo. It was a remarkable mission and many good and faithful British Saints strengthened the Church. The seeds were planted and this remarkable harvest of souls continued. By 1852, the number of converts from the British Isles reached 57,000.

The Growth of Nauvoo

Meanwhile, back in Illinois, the Mormons lobbied the state legislature for approval of a charter for the city of Nauvoo. The charter was passed (representative Abe Lincoln voted in favor of it) and the city was incorporated in February 1841. It was a liberal charter that gave to the city many powers including public education, judicial, and the ability to organize a military body, which became known as the Nauvoo Legion. By the way, by 1845 this militia had over 2,500 members. In contrast, the United States had a standing army of 8500.

The Nauvoo community grew quickly. Going from 30 buildings to 1200 during its first two years. Plus hundreds were in progress. In a letter addressed to the editor of the New York Herald (May 18, 1842), an officer of the U.S. artillery described Nauvoo like this:

Yesterday was a great day among the Mormons. Their legion, to the number of two thousand men, was paraded by Generals Smith, Bennett, and others, and certainly made a very noble and imposing appearance. The evolutions of the troops would do honour to any body of armed militia in any of the states, and approximates very closely to our regular forces.

These Mormons are accumulating like a snowball rolling down an inclined plane, which in the end becomes an avalanche.

Speaking of the university:

All the sciences are taught, and to be taught in their colleges, with Latin, Greek, Hebrew, French, Italian, Spanish, &c., &c. The mathematical sciences, pure and mixed, are now in successful operation, under an extremely able professor of the name of Pratt, and a graduate of Trinity College, Dublin, is president of their University.

The city of Nauvoo contains about ten thousand souls, and is rapidly increasing. It is well laid out, and the municipal affairs appear to be well conducted. The adjoining country is a beautiful prairie. Who will say that the Mormon prophet is not among the great spirits of the age?” (Millennial Star, 3:83-84)

Structure of the Church

There was one stake in Nauvoo, and at that time, the stake was the basic unit of the Church. Ideally, a new clustering or settlement would begin with a presiding officer. This person may be called a branch, stake, district, or settlement president or presiding elder. Then the unit needed a bishop to handle court cases, money, and the poor. Finally, a high council was needed to handle discipline cases and disputes and make decisions for the settlement. If the population grew, more bishops would be added and the settlement would be subdivided into wards, sometimes called districts or branches. The high council exercised authority over the ward bishops.

The bishops primary task was to care for the incoming saints, many of whom were sick and destitute. They also settled disputes and performed weddings. In Nauvoo, wards in Nauvoo were also civil divisions for police, tax, election, school, and other municipal purposes.

Local priesthood quorums were stake entities, as they had been in Ohio and Missouri. These included quorums of high priests, elders, priests, teachers, and deacons—one of each type for each stake.

If you were a member of the church, most of your interaction with the church would be through the regularly home visits by a member of the teacher’s quorum. Aaronic priesthood offices were held by men, although some older boys were ordained. No priesthood office correlated with an age group—but with maturity.

Most of the church meetings were quorum meetings. For the women, it would be the Female Relief Society. There would be a regular stake-wide sacrament meeting held out in the open, usually near the temple, presided over by general authorities. But no regular ward meetings, although bishops could call them. For example, one Nauvoo bishop convened a ward prayer meeting at 4:00 on Thursdays.

Above the stake level, but below the apostles, were the quorums of seventy. In 1846 Nauvoo, there were 34 seventies quorums. In fact, 80% of all priesthood holders were seventies. Seventies were called to go on missions. In fact, during that century, 2/3 of all missionaries were seventies, the rest were elders or high priests. A Seventy had the authority to establish a new stake, ordain high priests, and set apart a new stake president.


The last years of the Prophet’s life in Nauvoo finalized the laying of the foundation of the work of God. The Nauvoo period was like the last phase of putting a 500-piece puzzle together without the aid of the picture on the box top. There were many segments of the gospel that had been revealed, but they did not yet all fit together. The gospel picture began to develop just as several people working on different portions of a puzzle and large segments begin to develop, then at the very end they all fit together making a beautiful picture.

So far the saints had bits and pieces of the plan of salvation by way of revelation and ordinances. However, in Nauvoo they all started to fit together into a beautiful eternal picture. The doctrinal picture of the eternal nature of man, the family, the earth, Zion, and God was completed in Nauvoo.

For a quick recap, here are some of the new things that happened:

  • New Interpretation of the Godhead (physical body)
  • The Eternity of Priesthood Covenants
  • Nauvoo Temple
  • Baptism for the Dead
  • The Endowment
  • Celestial and Plural Marriage and Eternal Increase
  • Premortality
  • Better Understanding of Eternal Progression
  • Sealing of Children to Parents
  • The Relief Society Organized
  • Wentworth Letter
  • Book of Abraham
  • Liberal Attitudes on Arts, Music, Dance
  • 200 Public Discourses by Joseph Smith
  • King Follett Discourse
    • Man Can Become a God and Man is Eternal in His Nature
    • We Must Comprehend God to Comprehend Ourselves
    • God Was Once as We Are
    • Learn How God Came to Be God
    • God was Once a Man Like Us
    • Learn How to Become Gods Ourselves
    • To be a Joint Heir with God and Christ is to Become What They Are
    • God Did Not Create the Mind of Man
    • Man is a Self-Existing Being
    • Man is Co-eternal with God
    • That Which Has a Beginning May Have an End
    • One Eternal Round
    • There is No Creation of Intelligence


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