John Smith had been made President of the Nauvoo Stake when William Marks refused to follow the leadership of the Twelve. John Smith would go west with the Saints and become the first Stake President in Salt Lake City. As most of the Saints, with their leadership, crossed the Mississippi River to move west, Nauvoo became a waste place of Zion with few Saints remaining.
“They that remain, and are pure in heart, shall return, and come to their inheritances, they and their children, with songs of everlasting joy, to build up the waste places of Zion—And all these things that the prophets might be fulfilled.’
“. . . this stake which I have planted to be a cornerstone of Zion, which shall be polished with the refinement which is after the similitude of a palace.’
1846 – Joseph and Hyrum had been killed and the Quorum of Twelve Apostles, with Brigham Young as its leader, was leading the residents of Nauvoo into the wilderness and eventually to Salt Lake City. John Smith had been made President of the Nauvoo Stake when William Marks refused to follow the leadership of the Twelve. John Smith would go west with the Saints and become the first Stake President in Salt Lake City. As most of the Saints, with their leadership, crossed the Mississippi River to move west, Nauvoo became a waste place of Zion with few Saints remaining. Those who remained would join other churches, with many becoming members of the RLDS–now Community of Christ Church. Like Far West and Independence, and Kirtland, Zion had moved. The Nauvoo Temple was destroyed by fire. Their Prophet was buried in an unknown grave along the riverbank. Nauvoo became home to new citizens who purchased the empty homes and started a new community.
For more than twenty years the Church, often through the work of individual members, had begun to return, purchase, and rebuild the City of Nauvoo. On March 17, 1956, a branch of the Church had been organized to serve the missionaries and a handful of local members. In 1962, Nauvoo Restoration, Incorporated, non-profit Church-sponsored organization was formed. On May 24, 1969, ground was broken for a visitor’s center to share the story of Nauvoo and how the people who took a small village on the banks of the Mississippi River and built a city, only to pick up and leave it for the Rocky Mountains in the west. Homes and businesses were restored and rebuilt and a flavor of the 1840’s began to take shape on the flats—land below the river bluff that had been part of the original city. The block, on the bluff where the Temple had stood, was cleaned up, excavated, and landscaped. The Nauvoo Branch grew, and a new meetinghouse was built a few blocks north of the historic Temple site that also overlooked the new Visitor’s Center.
That is when my family and I arrived in Nauvoo. It was 1976, and a family vacation resulted in a job with the Church for my dad and an adventure for the rest of us. My dad began working for the Church Building Department—Temple and Special Projects Division. The summer I was fifteen was spent on a bike exploring Nauvoo and reading everything I could find on Nauvoo history. I felt I was in Heaven and fell in love with the history and people of this small City along the Mississippi River. Now in February 1979, the organization of the Nauvoo Stake was about to take place.
February 18, 1979 was a day never to be forgotten. Excitement filled the air at the Visitor’s Center. It was the only meeting place large enough to hold the meeting in Nauvoo. President Ezra Taft Benson, President of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles had come to organize a Stake of Zion once again in Nauvoo. This Stake was special for the historical significance as well as it would be the 1,000 Stake of the Church. The missionaries and employees of Nauvoo Restoration, Inc. had been busy preparing the Visitor’s Center for the meeting. A platform had been built over the top of the information desk where those conducting the meeting would sit, and chairs were set up filling every space on the floor facing the platform. As President Benson arrived, he was led to the platform where the Nauvoo District Presidency and others greeted him. At the appointed time the meeting began. President Gene R. Mann, District President, was sustained as the new Stake President, and for the first time in 130 years a Stake of Zion was once again in Nauvoo. The Nauvoo Ward, with W. Hugh Pierce as Bishop, was organized.
President Benson spoke of the importance of having a Stake in Nauvoo again and that the curse on Nauvoo had been lifted with the organization of the Stake. The Children of Zion sang with joy and many felt the approval of heaven. It was a wonderful occasion in the hearts of those who attended.
Since the Primary wasn’t organized until the Saints were in Utah, the first Stake Primary President ever, my mother, was sustained, and later my father would serve as Stake Executive Secretary. It was an amazing and spiritual time for my family and myself in Nauvoo. It is hard to conceive it has been forty years since that wonderful day in a small city in Illinois.
Two days later I turned 18, and in May I would graduate from Nauvoo-Colusa High School. I spent the summer working with my father restoring homes, and in the fall I would leave for BYU. The summer of 1980, I again worked for my father as I prepared to serve a mission. I would be the second missionary called from the Nauvoo Ward. My wonderful Bishop would serve as the first member of the Church elected Mayor of Nauvoo since 1846. This was a great time to live in Nauvoo. My father’s job ended in 1982, and my family moved to Utah when I finished serving my mission. On the tenth anniversary of Nauvoo becoming a Stake, February 18, 1989, my father passed away unexpectedly. His life, testimony, and experience in Nauvoo, left a wonderful legacy for our family.
Twenty years—and a few weeks after the Stake was organized—on April 4, 1999, President Gordon B. Hinckley stood before a General Conference of the Church and stated, “We plan to rebuild the Nauvoo Temple. . . . It will be a while before it happens, but the architects have begun their work. This temple will not be busy much of the time; it will be somewhat isolated. But during the summer months, we anticipate it will be very busy. And the new building will stand as a memorial to those who built the first such structure there on the banks of the Mississippi.’ It would be dedicated on June 27, 2002, the anniversary of the death of Joseph and Hyrum Smith.
In the forty years since the Nauvoo Stake was organized, there have been many changes to Nauvoo. The friendship between the Community of Christ and the Church has increased. Thousands of people visit Nauvoo every year. The Spirit of Nauvoo is evident, and even Lucifer has taken notice. But, the Savior has his eye on the sacred ground of Nauvoo, as well. The Cornerstone of Zion is in place, and the Saints will continue to “build up the waste places of Zion—And all these things that the prophets might be fulfilled.’
(top) Program Cover and (middle) interior for the “Organizational Conference’ Nauvoo Illinois Stake and the (bottom) newspaper article from the Daily Gate City Newspaper, Keokuk, Iowa, from February 24, 1979.
Books that may be of interest on Nauvoo.