EDITOR'S NOTE:The weekly Illinois Bicentennial series is sponsored by the Illinois Associated Press Media Editors and Illinois Press Association. More than 20 newspapers are creating stories about the state’s history, places and key moments in advance of the Bicentennial on Dec. 3, 2018. Stories published up to this date can be found at 200illinois.com.
For the Mormons, Quincy appeared to be a beacon of hope and safety during tumultuous times.
Mormons began arriving in Hancock County about 1839 after having encountered hostility elsewhere, according to Thomas Gregg, a Hancock County settler who wrote about the faith in his 1880 book, “History of Hancock County, Illinois.”
But in Quincy they were welcomed, which contributed to the faithful choosing Hancock County as a place to settle. They established their own town, Nauvoo, north of Quincy. Gregg’s book describes early Nauvoo as a picturesque site on the east side of the Mississippi River, about 10 miles north of Keokuk, Iowa.
“The origin, rapid development and prosperity of this religious sect are the most remarkable and instructive historical events of the present century,” wrote Gregg.
Illinois was a new home where members settled after being driven out of New York, Ohio and Missouri. But Mormon followers would eventually be driven out of Illinois, too.
Founding of a faith
The founder of the religion, Vermont native Joseph Smith, was living in New York in 1820 when, at age 14, God and Jesus Christ appeared to him in the woods, according to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints website.
"I saw a pillar of light exactly over my head," Smith wrote, "above the brightness of the sun, which descended gradually until it fell upon me."
Church members believe Smith was led in 1823 to a hill in Palmyra, N.Y., where he received, from an angel known as Moroni, gold plates engraved with the history of the people who lived in the Americas at the time of Christ, according to the Mormon website. He used them to write the Book of Mormon.
Smith and a few followers made their way to Ohio, where the religion increased in numbers but persecution continued, so they traveled to Missouri. Church members began to flee from Liberty, Mo., after Smith and other Mormon leaders were arrested in November 1838 on charges of murder, treason, burglary, arson, larceny and theft, according to “Utopian Communities of Illinois” by Randall Soland.
By January 1839, Mormon apostle Brigham Young fled with several hundred followers to Quincy.
“Eventually, a total of 8,000 Mormons came to Quincy, where the citizens offered their sympathy and assistance by opening up their homes … giving the Mormons food, clothing and shelter,” Soland wrote.
Smith joined his family in Quincy, and Mormon leaders purchased several hundred acres of land in Commerce, now known as Nauvoo. By June 1840, there were nearly 3,000 people in Nauvoo.
Within eight years of settling in Nauvoo, the number of residents had grown to nearly 12,000, including about 4,700 converts from Great Britain. About $1 million was raised for construction of a temple, which was completed in 1846. New laws were incorporated to help the church prosper, such as tithing, which started in 1838.
“Under the law of tithing, 10 percent of the member’s possessions and property at the time of baptism, as well as 10 percent of their annual income, was to be given to the church,” Soland wrote.
In 1844, a group of anti-Mormon dissidents formed and started a newspaper, the Nauvoo Expositor that printed its first and only edition on June 7, 1844.
“It contained scandalous and derogatory allegations about the ‘adulteress’ lives of Smith and other Mormon leaders," Soland wrote. "Smith and the city council declared the newspaper libelous and a public nuisance and ordered the town marshal to destroy the press.”
Smith's opponents accused Smith of inciting a riot and filed charges in Carthage. Nauvoo's court, which claimed jurisdiction, quickly tried and acquitted Smith.
Gov. Thomas Ford, however, "declared the destruction of the Expositor illegal and demanded that the Smith brothers (Joseph and Hyrum) come to Carthage for retrial,” Soland wrote.
Smith was arraigned in Carthage, released on bond and arrested again a charge of treason “on the grounds that Smith had wrongly declared martial law in Nauvoo during the destruction of the presses of the Expositor.”
A mob stormed the Carthage jail on June 27, 1844, and shot the Smith brothers to death.
After the death of Joseph Smith, the church was run by the Twelve Apostles and Brigham Young until 1847 when Young became the second prophet and president.
A couple of years after Smith’s death, word spread about possible attacks heading toward Nauvoo that would lead to the arrest of the Twelve Apostles and destruction of the temple. An exodus began Feb. 4, 1846, with small groups of travelers leaving Nauvoo by walking across the frozen Mississippi River.
After an arduous journey, they eventually settled in Salt Lake City, Utah, where the religion is based today.
Nauvoo still draws thousands of visitors each year to see the jail, complete with its bullet-riddled door, the Smith graves and the temple, which was destroyed by arson in 1848 and a tornado two years later, and then rebuilt in 1999.