Rumor had it that for the first time in 160 years, Nauvoo, Illinois was experiencing a Mormon problem. It all started during the rebuilding of the Mormon temple in 2002, when a big city reporter came to town looking for a front page story. Most likely he had the story written before he arrived. The headline, at least: Bigoted, pitchfork wielding villagers up in arms over return of Mormons.
That wasn’t the impression we got on our recent visit to the “City of Joseph.” If there was any conflict between the locals and the Mormon missionaries and tourists we didn’t see it. And, trust me, we looked.
The big city reporter quoted numerous residents who predicted everything from the reestablishment of a theocratic state to Prohibition, but Nauvoo’s recent tavern closings have more to do with the economy than with the influx of teetotaling, tie-wearing Mormons. According to the big city reporter, Nauvoo’s hallowed ground has become a bit of a battleground, though instead of bloodshed and arson there is only suspicion and hard feelings. Supposedly the outsiders were cocky and that cockiness rubbed the locals the wrong way. As Nauvoo’s mayor Tom Wilson reportedly said, the mood in town was “pretty much us against them.” Proof was that back in 1998, Don Capener, a new Mormon resident, ran for mayor of Nauvoo. And even though it was more than 150 years since Joseph Smith had been mayor here (and candidate for U.S. president), the idea of a Mormon theocracy was still fresh enough to cause locals to panic and institute a successful get-out-the-non-Mormon vote campaign. More likely voters simply retained the well-known incumbent, a local farmer with deep roots in the community.
OUR FIRST STOP was the new 15-story white limestone temple. Completed in 2002, the Nauvoo Temple looms high atop a bluff on the location of the former St. Mary’s Academy and convent, which stood near the spot of the original temple. (That building was torched by arsonists in 1848.) Fourteen years ago, the Benedictine nuns sold the property (sold out, some residents say) to the LDS church for a cool $6 million. The new owners promptly razed the historic convent and chapel, but if locals have a beef with anyone it is the nuns, who took their booty and decamped to their new home at Rock Island.
In the flats below the new temple sit the newly restored Mormon settlements, a compliment to the “restored gospel,” one assumes. Nicknamed the “Williamsburg of the Midwest,” the site is split (as is the religion) between the LDS and the Community of Christ churches. The COC was founded by Joseph Smith III, son of the Mormon prophet. Smith III remained in Nauvoo after Brigham Young and followers struck out for the Great Salt Lake. The Community of Christ section contains the Smith homes and family cemetery where the prophet’s bones rest (as well as the bones of Emma, one of his alleged 28 wives), much to the chagrin of the LDS.
We toured both historic (or should I say holy?) sites. The LDS site is staffed by retired missionaries who don period garb and tell a rather bleached version of Mormon history. There is no mention of the revelation Smith received here that men should take plural wives, nor why the saints were hounded from town to town, and we were too polite to bring it up. Nor was there any mention why Smith was “martyred” by an angry mob in nearby Carthage jail. (Mayor Smith had ordered his militia to destroy a printing press, after dissenting Mormons printed a rival newspaper accusing Smith of numerous transgressions, including coerced polygamy, and knocking down the wall between church and state.)
After our tour we enjoyed a fine Sunday brunch at Nauvoo’s Grand Hotel where Presbyterian and Catholic and Methodist and Mormon all sit down to an all-you-can-eat buffet of fried chicken, roast beef, and several kinds of potatoes. It was a perfectly amiable occasion, the very idea of neighborly, ecumenical harmony. But then we hadn’t come to town in search of a front page story.