Historian tackles politics, polygamy, and Joseph Smith in ‘Kingdom of Navuoo’

Sponsored by BYU Studies— Join historian Benjamin E. Park as he discusses his latest book, Kingdom of Nauvoo: The Rise and Fall of a Religious Empire on the American Frontier (Liverlight, 2020).

What is the origin story for Kingdom of Nauvoo?

While an undergraduate student at BYU, I had the great privilege of participating in their “Semester at Nauvoo” program, which enabled me to spend four months in the wonderful city and engross myself in its history. (The program is now, unfortunately, defunct.)

I not only fell in love with Nauvoo’s story, but also with history in general, which made me switch my major away from the sciences.

I eventually went to graduate school for history, though my attention had shifted to an earlier period and I wrote my dissertation/first book on American politics in the first fifty years following independence.

After finishing that book, while I was contemplating my next project, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints released, for the first time, the minutes kept in Nauvoo’s secretive Council of Fifty. These records had long been a point of historical fascination. I took this as a sign that it was time to use my new historical tools to address an old love.

Benjamin E. Park is the author of “Kingdom of Nauvoo: The Rise and Fall of a Religious Empire on the American Frontier” (Liverlight, 2020). Credit: Blair Hodges.

What was the purpose of the Council of Fifty?

Even as Joseph Smith was running for the American presidency, and “electioneering” missionaries were sent across the nation, LDS leaders were losing faith in the American government and were therefore looking for fallback options.

Spurred by new prospects for potential settlements in Texas and the West, Smith gathered his most trusted colleagues and created a council that would be in charge of organizing what they themselves called a “theocracy” that would restore God’s rule to earth.

They even tried their hand at writing a new constitution that would replace all existing governments.

On the one hand, this was the most radical political experiment during the era, even if its practical implications remained fallow before Nauvoo’s desertion. But on the other hand, the principles that shaped the council—divine rule, yearning for executive intervention, and distrust in the existing political system—was symbolic of broader cultural currents.

In some ways, Kingdom of Nauvoo is the long backstory to, and fallout from, this fascinating, if controversial, council.

What surprised you during your research for Kingdom of Nauvoo?

The LDS Church is now known for its consistency and institutional stability, so it was shocking to see how much of the early church was evolving and reactionary. So much of the institution and its leaders could change when circumstances shifted, making the period both volatile and hard to predict.

Joseph Smith and many of those close to him often felt like they were on the brink of collapse, and that worry forced them to make decisions that might appear rash but make more sense when their primary motivation was survival.

I was also amazed at how much Nauvoo’s story intersected with broader themes in America at the time, as the city was a flashpoint for most of the “hot topics” then animating political and cultural discussions.

How did the experiences of the Latter-day Saints in Missouri influence the rise of Nauvoo?

In many ways, the tragedy of Missouri shaped the way that the saints built Nauvoo and responded to its later crises.

The fact that a governor could not only support a violent mob but actually sign an extermination order forced Joseph Smith and his followers to lose faith in the state government system and instead cast their allegiance to the federal government, which was a rare move in an age centered on local control.

It also led to Nauvoo leaders building what they hoped to be safeguards against external threats: a powerful city charter, an intimidating city legion, and questionable city policies, especially regarding habeas corpus.

In nearly all decisions, they were hoping to avoid another “Missouri” moment.

How did Emma Smith exemplify the “reformist spirit of the age”?

Emma, perhaps my figure to research for this book, was raised in a Methodist faith that valued cultural reform. The desire to make the world a better place through spiritual renewal and temporal discipline was common during the early nineteenth-century, and Emma exemplified many of the movement’s principles and priorities.

Emma Hale Smith, 1844. This work is in the public domain because it was never published prior to January 1, 2003, the death date of its author is not known, and it was created before 1900

Even when she was expected to take a back seat to her husband, the prophet, she was eager to steer the church, and Nauvoo, in the right direction. This included leading the Relief Society when it was organized in 1842, as well as her outspoken opposition to rumors of polygamy and infidelity that cropped up that same year.

When did Joseph Smith first enter polygamy?

Historians have debated this question for decades, and likely will continue to debate it for decades to come, given the lack of reliable contemporary sources.

Some posit Smith entered his first polygamous union in Kirtland during the 1830s, though evidence is sparse, and the ideological reasoning inchoate.

In researching this book, I concluded that the idea of eternal sealings, to which polygamy was closely linked, developed in late-1840 and early-1841, when Smith preached new doctrines concerning the new temple that was being built on the bluff; I even posit that the first polygamous union happened on April 5, with Louisa Beman, the evening before the temple’s cornerstone ceremony.

But that’s my reasoning based on the documents and context, and other historians will present their own interpretations.

Regardless, what struck me is how much the idea of polygamy evolved over the next four years, as the practice, and the theology that justified it, went through several important changes, and was hardly systematic when Smith died in 1844.

Why did Joseph Smith wait so long to tell Hyrum Smith about polygamy?

Just like Emma, Hyrum was a devoted reformist who maintained a traditional sense of morality. When the earliest rumors of polygamy began to surface, he led the charge to expose and punish anyone involved, which terrified his brother Joseph.

There were a number of rocky periods in which Hyrum was pushing a public front against any non-traditional sexual unions while Joseph was expanding his polygamous experiment.

Eventually, in Spring 1843, Hyrum was introduced to the principle, and once he was converted he became its most ardent defender. His sudden and vehement change-of-face remains one of the most mysterious issues in Nauvoo, at least for me, though I concluded that it was related to how polygamy enabled him to be sealed to both his deceased wife, Jerusha, and current wife, Mary Fielding.

Ironically, it ended up being Hyrum’s zeal in promoting polygamy that fall that led to Nauvoo’s escalating conflict.

What kind of a toll did polygamy take on the marital life of Joseph and Emma Smith?

The Smith marriage had already survived numerous struggles preceding Nauvoo, including the deaths of several children, familial opposition, financial troubles, forced relocations, and death threats.

But nothing threatened their union as much as Joseph’s polygamous unions.

It is impossible to know when, exactly, Emma found out about the practice, though it is clear she was hearing rumors as early as 1842. It is also likely that she only discovered pieces of the principle at a time, as there were multiple moments in which she appeared shocked and outraged anew.

The Spring and summer months of 1843 were especially rocky, as they included her approval of several new plural wives, her discovery of others, a confrontation with her former friend and now sister-wife, Eliza R. Snow, whom she accused of betrayal, and other episodes that threatened their nearly-two-decades-old-marriage.

It was during this period that Joseph also dictated a revelation justifying the practice, though it failed to convince its primary intended audience, Emma, who went so far as to threaten divorce.

However, they seemed to reach a truce later that fall, and even if they had one more rocky moment the next March, the final year before Joseph’s death witnessed better feelings.

What role did polygamy play in the fall of Nauvoo?

There had been vehement external opposition to Nauvoo since its early years, as Illinois residents in nearby towns felt that Nauvoo was corrupting the democratic process through their practice of bloc voting.

Yet that external opposition never gained enough steam until there was also internal dissent within Nauvoo itself.

Throughout Joseph Smith’s final year, word concerning polygamy began to spread, and some of his previously most loyal followers, including a handful in leadership positions, jumped ship and formed a formal opposition.

That spring, 1844, they threatened to expose the polygamy project, which would only add fuel to the external fire.

What motives were involved in publishing the Nauvoo Expositor?

The internal dissenters, led by people like William Law, wanted to reform the church. (In a way, they were similar to Hyrum and Emma Smith in their reformist impulse.)

Their goal was to expose what they believed to be Joseph Smith’s corrupting actions, particularly his polygamous experiment, in the hopes of saving the church.

This was a tough decision for them, and several of them demonstrated hesitation at taking such a radical action. But they believed it was their duty as Americans and believers to reveal what was going on, in the most American form of dissent: newspapers.

Why was Joseph Smith killed?

Because of his experience in Missouri, Smith was terrified of another war that was enflamed by internal dissent. He therefore pushed the City Council to declare the Nauvoo Expositor a nuisance and have it destroyed. This rash action only intensified internal and external opposition, and both Nauvoo and its surrounding communities prepared for a battle.

In the midst of escalating rhetoric, Smith declared martial law, an action beyond his legal authority yet one he felt necessary. He eventually turned himself in on the charges of destroying the Expositor’s press, but then the charges of treason, based on his martial law declaration, made the case all the more perilous.

Yet Smith’s opponents were not willing to leave justice in the hands of county, or even state, authorities, because they had seen politicians play coy when it came to Nauvoo, and they had witnessed Smith find ways to, in their mind, elude punishment. So they took matters in their own hands, formed an extralegal militia, marched on the county jail in which Smith was imprisoned, and killed him and his brother, Hyrum.

Ironically, they had come to the same conclusion that Smith had declared over the previous year: America’s legal systems were too slow, encumbered, and prone to corruption, necessitating extralegal action.

Why does Nauvoo and its failure matter?

In 2020, we have come to see democracy as the only possible political system, and even those who highlight its weaknesses do not dare to offer a replacement; democracy is to be salvaged, not displaced.

But in the 1840s, democracy was still an unproven experiment, and many wondered if it would last.

In Nauvoo, Joseph Smith and his followers believed that America’s democratic system had failed, and they were eager to try something new; outside of Nauvoo, observers feared the saints were the most direct threat to democratic order since its creation.

The story of Nauvoo, then, is a story of democracy in crisis, and it highlights how the political principles all Americans cherish today were far from assured in the past.

Kingdom of Nauvoo: The Rise and Fall of a Religious Empire on the American Frontier is available Feb. 25, 2020.

Recommended resources

Learn more about Joseph Smith, Nauvoo, and Ben Park in additional installments of 10 questions:

This interview is made possible thanks to the generous sponsorship of BYU Studies.

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