A Uni-Dimensional Picture of a Multi-Faceted Nauvoo Community

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Review of Benjamin E. Park, Kingdom of Nauvoo: The Rise and Fall of a Religious Empire on the American Frontier (New York City: Liveright Publishing, 2020). 336 pages. $28.95 (hardback).


Abstract: Benjamin Park recently wrote a substantive revisionist history of Nauvoo, Illinois, the one-time Church capital under the leadership of Joseph Smith, Jr. This article serves as a critical review of Park’s work. Congratulating the author for placing this well-known Latter-day Saint story within the larger Jacksonian American democratic context, as well as for utilizing a great many primary sources hardly used before, Richard Bennett in this critical review assesses both the strengths and the weaknesses of this important new book. While complimenting Park for his significant contributions on politics, women, and race in Nauvoo, Bennett nonetheless finds much to criticize in what he sees as a unidimensional, highly political study that disregards many previous studies of Nauvoo and fails to address many other critically important facets of the city’s life and history from its inception in 1839 until the Saints’ departure in 1846.


Having heard conflicting reports about Benjamin Park’s most recent study of Nauvoo before receiving an invitation from Interpreter to review it, I eagerly awaited obtaining my own review copy. And being as vain, perhaps, as the next reviewer, I immediately flipped through its many footnotes (unfortunately, there is no bibliography) to see how many of my own books and articles were referenced, if not relied upon then at least as counterpoint to the author’s points of view. I was saddened to see that not one of my published works over the past three decades on so many aspects of Nauvoo history made the grade — including articles on the Nauvoo Charter, the Council of Fifty, the Battle [Page 2]of Nauvoo, the ensuing Nauvoo Poor Camps, the sale and burning of the Nauvoo Temple, “Lamanism” and Alpheus Cutler’s dream of aligning with the Native Americans — not even my book-length studies of the exodus from Nauvoo in February 1846. It was one of those humbling moments in every scholar’s life when you realize that your works have not left nearly so deep an impression as perhaps you once thought they would have. Such is to be expected in the up-and-down, give-and-take life of the scholar.

Crestfallen, I then began to look more deeply to see if the same fate had befallen some of my contemporaries, especially those of us who tend to see Nauvoo through a much wider lens than Park has chosen to do. It didn’t take long to see that earlier generations of scholars I deeply respect suffered much the same fate, including the likes of B. H. Roberts, T. Edgar Lyon, Glen M. Leonard, Leonard J. Arrington, Kenneth W. Godfrey, Brian Hales, and many others. Hardly if at all mentioned, their works have obviously fallen out of favor in Ben Park’s new and revisionist political history of Nauvoo. For instance, Glen Leonard’s and T. Edgar Lyon’s collaborative 828-page magnum opus on the topic — Nauvoo: A Place of Peace, a People of Promise1 — is quickly dispatched in the author’s view as an “exhaustive social, if devotional, history of Nauvoo directed to faithful Mormons” (288n6) as if hardly worth the read. It was then I realized I had to go back to the beginning and re-read this new study as well as review earlier Nauvoo studies to gauge as fairly as possible its strengths and weaknesses. Failing to engage so much of previous scholarship, Park nevertheless has a particular point of view, as if he’s the first and only one to espouse it — a deeply troubling error.

Anxious to probe vexing questions of Joseph Smith’s plural marriages and his alleged desire to establish a Latter-day Saint “empire,” if not a religious dictatorship on the Mississippi, Park has written what some might argue is one of the most debatable studies on the topic since Robert Bruce Flanders’ much heralded, Kingdom on the Mississippi, which appeared in print some 55 years ago. Kingdom of Nauvoo is a well-researched, highly engaging, carefully considered, and finely crafted study of Nauvoo historical scholarship, the very kind of history Roger D. Launius and John E. Hallwas hoped for in their edited volume of essays, Kingdom on the Mississippi Revisited, published in 1996 in which they wrote, “Not all Mormon scholars have achieved [Page 3]a functional objectivity in their writing, but clearly many are striving in that direction.”2 Unquestionably, Kingdom of Nauvoo is more akin to Flanders’ Kingdom on the Mississippi in terms of tone, content, and argument than any other recent Nauvoo study, which is not to say that Park is merely borrowing from Flanders, but in many ways, they arrive at much the same interpretations. If Flanders showed convincingly that Joseph Smith did indeed practice plural marriage – much to the discomfiture of many RLDS (Community of Christ) observers at the time, Park maintains that Smith used plural marriage as a forceful means of cementing his will and formulating his doctrines, much to the chagrin of many current Latter-day Saint readers. For those who are content to read and interpret the Church-sponsored Nauvoo story through the sounds of Mississippi pageants and popular pioneer plays, and for site missionaries and tour guides who are instructed to leave off the very mention of the word “polygamy,” this work will be a difficult but necessary read. Park feels he has a commission to fill a vacuum few others are prepared or inclined to do. As if the real story hasn’t yet been told.

Relying heavily on manuscript sources previously unavailable, including the minutes of the Nauvoo High Council, the Nauvoo Relief Society, the Council of Fifty, and the Joseph Smith Papers, Park is to be congratulated for writing a fascinating political history of Nauvoo. A promising American and Latter-day Saint historian, Park places the Nauvoo story within the American context and argues that Nauvoo “failed” because it was too religious, too priesthood theocratic, too undemocratic and frankly too un-American for a rough and tumble American frontier democracy. He also argues that American democracy likewise “failed” because it was too republican, too unprepared, too fragile to accept an uncomfortably theocratic religion within its democratic framework. “The question the Mormons posed was not just about the boundaries of religious liberty,” Park concludes near the end of his book; more to the point, “it concerned the limits of American democracy … [which] was envisioned to manage different interests and grant individual freedoms. With the Mormons, the process broke down” (278–79). Park’s work is, therefore, a must-read for historians of nineteenth century Jacksonian American democracy as a case study in the limits of the great American experiment.

[Page 4]Unfolding over seven long, very readable chapters is the author’s study of Nauvoo from the time of its inception in 1839, in what was once Commerce on the banks of the Mississippi, to Joseph Smith’s murder in 1844, and then its hasty decline before Brigham Young led the Saints to the Rocky Mountains, beginning in February 1846. Like the Puritans and other religious groups before them, the Latter-day Saints were concerned that the nation had forgotten its true Christian purpose and moral compass and believed their mission as modern Israel was to be “its savior” (24). More to the point, Park’s primary argument is that Smith had concluded that the federal government had utterly failed to protect religious freedoms generally and Latter-day Saint interests in Missouri particularly, and that the dominant States’ rights doctrine then ascendant in America was antagonistic to preserving religious differences and freedoms. American democracy was “a misguided effort that had run its course,” Smith is said to have believed, and consequently, he sought to replace it with “a theocratic kingdom” (3). On the other hand, the “tyranny of the majority,” to quote de Tocqueville, was alive and well in Jacksonian America, and there was no place for an authoritarian if not autocratic religion like Smith was intent on developing in America. Nauvoo became a clash of cultures and political ideologies, a “radical” — Park’s favorite word throughout — expression of religious belief that led to inevitable misunderstanding, persecution, and eventual expulsion. Governor Thomas Ford may never have proclaimed a Lilburn Boggs-like extermination order, but the need for the Latter-day Saints to get out of Illinois amounted to much the same thing.

It bears repeating that one of the virtues of this work is the author’s command of American history and his efforts to place the Church story within the wider American context. He makes a compelling argument, for instance, that the place of Catholicism in American life provided a model for debates over Mormonism and that both religions suffered from American Protestant notions of liberty that dominated both political and cultural spheres (34–35). Park also injects into his work some cultural issues previously glossed over or minimized in earlier Nauvoo studies. This is particularly true of his attempt to elevate the place of women and Emma Smith, the “elect lady” and first president of the Nauvoo Relief Society, above all. Emma is made out to be quite the heroine in this work, a force for change, a leader among women and men, a foe of the infidel, a friend of the indigent, and an increasingly vocal critic of her husband’s polygamous marriages. Not since Mormon Enigma have we seen a work more inclusive and supportive of the first [Page 5]lady of Mormonism.3 She was “not willing to make exceptions for any person in her quest for social reformation — not even her husband” (113). And the Relief Society, Park insists, became far more than a benevolent or charitable society but part of a developing kingdom of “priests and priestesses” and a bulwark against immorality and indecency. While polygamy is carefully portrayed in this book as something that “brought harm and pain to many people” (5), the women in Nauvoo were nonetheless able “to exert power and influence rarely seen anywhere in America at the time, and did far more to shape Mormonism … than is commonly assumed” (6). Park places all this within the larger American context by affirming that the voice of women in America was growing at the time of Nauvoo, that while guardians of domestic virtue, they often led various movements for cultural reform (39).

As for matters of race, Park follows such contemporary scholars as Paul Reeve in arguing that this is a topic long neglected and worthy of discussion and that there were both free blacks and black slaves in Nauvoo, some of whom, like Elijah Able, had been previously ordained to the priesthood and served missions for the Church.4 Park maintains that Joseph Smith had been consistently opposed to slavery and that Church members in Nauvoo were “somewhat liberal” on the question of racial integration (69). He also gives space to a fair discussion of the relationship of Nauvoo Latter-day Saints and American Indians, to whom they believed the Book of Mormon was written. In the end, however, Park concludes — without evidence — that “[d]espite their professed good intentions, Mormon views of blacks and Natives in reality remained close to those of other whites in the period” (71).

Park also argues that the anti-American, anti-democratic tendencies of Nauvoo increased in intensity over time. They were best expressed in Smith’s cementing of personal authority over both the secular and religious spheres, eventually becoming both mayor and candidate for the presidency of the United States and a target of those who believed in the separation of church and state, that too much political power was becoming concentrated in one religious leader. This is not a new argument but certainly is a persuasive one, and Park goes further to show that Smith’s enemies resisted and debated this centralization of power in one man. They also criticized the Nauvoo Charter, with its [Page 6]provision for a municipal court with arguably excessive powers of habeas corpus as well as provision for a Nauvoo Legion with independency of action. While some other Nauvoo scholars have long argued that the Charter granted them the legal protection Missouri never allowed (myself included), Park argues the Charter granted them the “political sovereignty” they had long coveted (55). He maintains that the Legion was an ominous “private army,” independent of external government control and more “warlike” than any other military force in Illinois — an assertion much in line with Flanders’ earlier argumentst. Still following Flanders’ earlier points, Park makes an even stronger argument that the Nauvoo Municipal Court, as provisioned in the Charter, wielded a great deal of questionable authority, something even Glen Leonard recognized as a “desperate” maneuver.5 He also makes a convincing argument that Latter-day Saint involvement in state and local politics, their penchant for bloc voting, and their switching sides from Whig to Democrat and vice versa, led to no end of misunderstanding and hard feelings, for the fact is that both political parties recognized that as Nauvoo grew in size, they had no choice but to curry Smith’s mercurial support.

The book is elegantly produced, carefully edited, and nicely illustrated, with highly readable print and interesting chapter titles indicative of a growing tree complete with roots, trunks, and branches. And its 32 pages of primary and secondary sources are impressive.

Kingdom of Nauvoo does, however, have serious drawbacks, limitations, and disturbing deficiencies. They cluster around three categories: first, its dedicated emphasis on telling a unilateral, highly political rendering of Nauvoo at the expense of so many other important facets of Nauvoo life; second, the devaluation of the revelatory or the spiritual, missing the point that in the end, Nauvoo history was religious, not fundamentally political; and thirdly, if not a misreading of newly- obtained manuscript material, certainly an out-sized desire to view them almost entirely in support of a singular, particular thesis.

In Park’s discussion of the political excesses he sees in Joseph Smith’s Nauvoo, I was disappointed that he fails to plumb sufficiently the enormously negative consequences that earlier Missouri atrocities had brought upon the Saints, illegal and unjustified persecutions that led the Mormons to react so defensively and so assertively in the protection of their political rights in Illinois. He does admit that “Smith and the Mormons never forgot Missouri” (31), but so many of these perceived excesses in Nauvoo were a reaction to the wrongs and injustices [Page 7]they had suffered in a supposedly democratic society that in the end sought their expulsion — not once, not twice, but three times — and their extermination in the same Jacksonian mode of maltreating and debasing the American Indian. If one is going to argue that Smith’s brand of politics and city rule were beyond tolerable American limits and the cause of so much anti-Mormon opposition, then much more needs to be said about cause and effect, and of the terribly unjust excesses of persecution and the threats of extermination levied against members of the Church in Missouri. Further, when he does talk of these Missouri difficulties, more careful analysis is needed. For instance, Park goes even so far as to argue that the Danites — a group of Sampson Avard extremists and Latter-day Saint military vigilantes — reflected Church political thought, that its constitution justified “an opposition to legitimate American political bodies” (29), and that this illegal band of renegades “planted the seeds for political dissent, and even extralegal action” (29). However, Park makes no effort to distinguish the Danites from the Church, treating them as if they were synonymous — a point most other historians, even critics, understand.

In contrast to this view of Nauvoo usurping power beyond limit, other scholars (myself included) have argued that the Nauvoo Charter, with its three provisions for a city legion, a municipal court, and a public university, was very much consistent with several other city charters, not only in Illinois but in several other states of the Union. The fact that Joseph Smith turned to the lobbying efforts of a savvy, relatively unknown and unscrupulous manipulator such as John C. Bennett may have well proved problematic later, but at the same time reflected his earnest desire to establish Nauvoo on a legal footing so he could address so many other pressing issues for which he was better suited. The fact is that the Nauvoo Charter granted to the Saints in 1841 was, therefore, anything but “extralegal,” and it was fundamentally an American construct created in obedience to law. Other scholars would argue that the excesses of the Latter-day Saint Danites of Missouri were a lesson learned; that the Legion was “independent” only in the sense that it was independent of county and other nearby militias, and it was answerable to the governor of the state and not to the Latter-day Saint First Presidency; and that in the end it was the Nauvoo Legion — not the more “warlike” militias — that laid down its public arms on the day of Smith’s martyrdom.6 This action was hardly a radical expression borne [Page 8]of autocratic rule. Still, Park has a point in saying that the perception of the Mormons by outsiders was the driving issue. The truth is, however, that many outsiders were friendly and receptive and did not share the same negative views as some of those in Warsaw and elsewhere.

Regarding the actions of the Nauvoo Municipal Court, a more careful comparative study would help readers understand that such a city court was sanctioned in several other American cities. It should also be noted that since the early English charters, mayors have held supreme powers as “conservators of the peace,” both criminal and civil. The municipal court’s “exclusive jurisdiction” clause did not originate with Nauvoo and may be found in scores of other American city charters of the early nineteenth century, Chicago, Springfield, and Alton, Illinois included.7 Its alleged excesses and debatable over-reach of recognized municipal authority most often came in response to repeated illegal attempts by Missouri to extradite and try the Latter-day Saint prophet in admittedly hostile surroundings. The most recent scholarship on the legal history of Nauvoo — another perspective sorely lacking in Park’s study — refutes “the anachronistic modern idea that the Nauvoo Municipal Court did not have jurisdiction to consider interstate habeas corpus matters.”8 If one is seeking to understand the legal history of Nauvoo, they will not find it here.

My next point: the title of the book clearly indicates that this work set out to be a history of Nauvoo, even “the rise and fall” of a kingdom. However, Park’s overriding commitment to emphasize the politics of Nauvoo, the “patriarchal dynasty” of Joseph Smith, and the political tensions between Church member and Gentile, leaves a vacuum in which the social and daily life of Nauvoo is almost entirely omitted. Consequently, Park fails completely to address the economics of Nauvoo, which Flanders and Leonard both did so well. How can one study an “empire” without carefully studying its economics? And how can one study Nauvoo’s economics without understanding the faithful tithes of the people, their sacrifices and devotions? This is, in my opinion, a critical [Page 9]omission, since Nauvoo’s spectacular growth in size and economics created no end of jealousies among such stubborn critics as Warsaw’s newspaper editor, Thomas C. Sharp, and a host of other enemies. Smith’s declaration of bankruptcy in 1842, so well discussed in volume 9 of the recent Documents series of the Joseph Smith Papers, is a topic that should have been explored as another possible cause of outside irritation.9 Ironically, had Park addressed economics, that may have gone far to support some of his main points. The result is a book that retreats from being a study of the “rise and fall” of Nauvoo or a comprehensive history of what the Saints intended their Zion community to be. Instead, it is virtually a skewed biography of Joseph Smith in Nauvoo, not a cultural, social, legal, and certainly not an economic history of Nauvoo at all. Nauvoo deserves to be studied through these many lenses, not just one.

Which leads me to yet another criticism — the devaluation of the revelatory or the religious and spiritual and the emphasis on the “radical.” It is well known by most scholars that B. H. Roberts, in his The Rise and Fall of Nauvoo published 120 years ago, saw it all in starkly religious terms, God and man, the kingdom of God or nothing.10 Later studies, like Lyon and Leonard, likewise cherished the doctrinal revelations Smith introduced in Nauvoo. Flanders, on the other hand, largely ignored or misunderstood their significance to the Saints, whereas Park’s study, while not shunning Smith’s doctrinal innovations, does so in a way that relegates them to a place of secondary importance. One will find here a discussion of the Nauvoo temple and its new “rituals” of salvation, which Park tends to see as stemming from Smith’s translation of the Book of Abraham (90–91) as well as “a sacred liturgy” based on Masonic fraternal rites (97).11 Other practices, such as baptism for the [Page 10]dead, the endowment, marriage sealings — even Smith’s famous King Follett discourse — are briefly discussed but woefully underdeveloped. They are treated in a secondary way that would reinforce the author’s argument that “[e]verything revolved around priesthood authority” (60), and that while Latter-day Saint theology was certainly non-Protestant in its ordinance-based, salvific message, all such doctrinal advances were in obedience to Smith’s growing claims to authority.

The truth is Nauvoo was a religious community, first and entirely foremost. America in the 1840’s was arguably far more religious than it is today, and we need to see it in light of its time, not only through the dominant secular-political lens of the early 21st century. While politics were very important, they were not the primary factor of life in Nauvoo. Smith was looking for help to establish Nauvoo on as firm a political foundation as he could, what he called the “temporalities” of the Church, so that he could turn his attention to the “spiritualities,” or matters of doctrine and Church governance.

Smith’s introduction and expansion of what Park refers to as the “scandalous” practice of plural marriage colors this work. It is placed in a context of a race against time, that Smith’s grasp on political and religious power largely depended on keeping his involvement in plural marriage secret and that once discovered, it would lead to his downfall. Park sees Smith’s plural marriages, including those of a polyandrous nature, as experimental “extramarital affairs,” evidence of “transgressiveness” (66), and most certainly not the result of divine command. Any claim to their revealed origins is de-emphasized if not dismissed. For a work that examines plural marriage as much as this one does, there is surprisingly little room given to statements made by Smith’s many wives, some of whom spoke in defense of what came to be later known as the “Principle.”12 Unlike Fawn Brodie, who saw the Latter-day Saint prophet as a sex-driven, psychologically disturbed megalomaniac,13 Park argues that “Smith was never intent on merely vindicating promiscuity.” However, he argues that polygamy became a buttress to his visions of a “multilayered patriarchal hierarchy that [Page 11]governed the cosmos” (63). In Parks’ world, not only was polygamy a tool in Smith’s toolbox of autocratic control but also the doctrine of eternal marriage was “inextricably tethered to Smith’s polygamy revelation” (177). He even goes so far as to argue that Joseph Smith convinced his more mild-mannered older brother Hyrum to accept plural marriage as the purchase price, or at least down payment, for eternal salvation by promising him eternal marriage with his wives in the hereafter. One is led to conclude that the doctrine of the eternality of the marriage covenant so beloved by so many in Nauvoo as revelation, came as part of a hastily drawn-up bargain to convince a hesitant brother to accept polygamy (150–51). While most serious historians would agree that polygamy, the way it was secretly introduced, denied, covered up, and inculcated, was a major contributing factor in the eventual death of the Latter-day Saint leader, many also give gracious provision for his sincere belief in the divine origin of the practice — a belief many of his wives shared.

While it is not always clear on which side of these political arguments Park adheres, since he gives so much space and credence to the perception of critics both from within and without, his work certainly tries to show that Smith brought upon himself a great many of his own difficulties, especially from within the ranks of Nauvoo leadership. William Law, a counselor in the First Presidency who became disillusioned over plural marriage and various other new doctrines, is virtually excused in his participatory plans to assassinate Smith. He “worked to bring an end to what he believed were Nauvoo’s corruptions” (223). Emma Smith, already shown as the guardian of virtue, becomes almost Joseph’s adversary (195), sadly, one the prophet “could no longer trust” (197). John C. Bennett, however, remains the villain and “saintly scoundrel”— to borrow from Andrew H. Smith’s book title14— but one for whom the “Mormons provided a new opportunity in his perpetual climb” (54). The almost inevitable murder of Joseph and Hyrum Smith may not be justified, but the perpetrators of their death are hardly condemned — indeed, they were “ready to bring Mormon leadership to justice” (198), the inevitable result of a frontier America impatient with legal maneuverings and cumbersome, obstructed forms of justice. Such a review of the causes of Joseph Smith’s death may be a justifiable attempt to understand what eventually happened at Carthage but it is hardly a balanced or defensible study in excusing it.

[Page 12]Yet another point: if more of the sentiments of the ordinary convert had been incorporated into Park’s work — the men and women who gave up country and culture, friend and family to come to Illinois, and without whose sacrifices this “Kingdom of Nauvoo” would never have occurred — then this work would have been more accurately representative of what happened in Nauvoo and why. Simply put, the people of Nauvoo are missing in this work on Nauvoo. Their stories of faith, sacrifice, consecration, and commitment are nowhere to be found, while the words of critics both from within and without Nauvoo abound.

My final criticism and perhaps the most important question one can ask about this book is as follows: do the many new manuscript sources, which Park relies upon so heavily and which were unavailable to Flanders, Leonard, Klaus Hansen, James Kimball, and other earlier scholars of Nauvoo, support Park’s political-based thesis? Do the minutes of the Nauvoo Relief Society, for instance, show a Society increasingly at odds with its founder and this because of plural marriage? Likewise, do the minutes of the Council of Fifty, with their discussion of a new constitution and kingdom of God upon the earth (200–201), back up the author’s claim that the Church was a fundamentally undemocratic empire? And do the minutes of the High Council and of Nauvoo’s Municipal Court support the view that Smith was pursuing a damaging, self-aggrandizing personal agenda?

With respect to such new sources, there is the underlying assumption that the Church itself has misread, downplayed, or at the very least tried to disengage itself from its history. Park states early on that one of the reasons for the recent directives on calling the Church by its full name rather than the term Mormon is a way to “distance the faith from its past identity” (4). In all fairness to the Church, this perceived detachment hardly squares with its recent efforts to publish the multi-volume Joseph Smith Papers, including the Minutes of the Council of Fifty, the Minutes of the Nauvoo Relief Society, the Nauvoo City Council Minutes, and other organizational records — the very records Park relies upon — and to make electronically available so many heretofore hard to find minutes, letters, journals, and related manuscript sources. The Church may once again be refashioning its identity, as it has in the past, but this time not at the cost of whitewashing or downplaying its history.

In my review of several of these new manuscript sources and my use of them in various studies, I submit that one can see what he or she wants to see in them. They certainly attest to a growing religion that believed itself to be the kingdom of God restored to earth once more, not a mere [Page 13]outgrowth of American traditions and practices, a religious movement unquestionably more theo-democratic than most other contemporary American religions. In regard to the Relief Society, Park is correct in arguing that one of its central purposes was to be a watchdog on Nauvoo morality. Under Emma’s direction and not unlike other female societies in contemporary America, it was to improve behavior and decorum in Nauvoo. However, its more important functions were to be a charitable society and to prepare the Saints for temple worship. Park emphasizes the former at the expense of its other dominant functions. And as to polygamy, the truth is many of the founding sisters of the Relief Society entered into plural marriage and were highly, albeit secretively, supportive of it — including Eliza R. Snow and Helen Mar Kimball Whitney — and spent their lives in support of it. Again, the work needs more balance, more attention to the other sides of the argument.

As for the Council of Fifty and its “radical” efforts to write a new constitution, they may indeed have reflected Smith’s desire to find refuge in the west where the Church could thrive without persecution, establish a “shadow government,” and “reinstate God’s kingdom,” but even Park admits that the council “never sought to enact any of his most radical proposals” (206). The Council of Fifty may have been more than a mere advisory body on Smith’s candidacy for president of the United States and on later post-martyrdom plans and preparations for moving the Church west. However, what sounded obviously un-American in its deliberations was not an attempt to overthrow America but its Millennial emphasis on prophecy that God would soon “set up a kingdom which shall never be destroyed” (Daniel 2:44) and that the Church of Jesus Christ had been established to fulfill that destiny. These are points once again of a religious nature, not a secular or political one, which I believe the author glosses over or fundamentally misunderstands.

To conclude, Kingdom of Nauvoo is a significant contribution to Latter- day Saint history and scholarship as well as to American history more generally. Even if the author has neglected or at least downplayed much previous scholarship, it deserves careful reading and analysis, if for no other reason than that it utilizes so many new primary sources. While raising issues of real importance on race and women’s issues too long neglected, Park unfortunately portrays Joseph Smith as eventually overcome by his own claim to power and authority, a view I find disturbingly unsubstantiated, highly disappointing, and certain to be hotly debated by those who see the Prophet Joseph Smith much differently. In the end, Park shows that the Latter-day Saint empire could [Page 14]not co-exist in an American democracy unprepared and unwilling to accept so difficult a religious enterprise. Unfortunately, he does so from a unidimensional perspective and at the minimization of those many other economic, legal, and religious elements of Nauvoo’s exciting history that made it, at least for many observers, not a failure but a qualified success.

1. Glen Leonard and T. Edgar Lyon, Nauvoo: A Place of Peace, a People of Promise (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 2002).
2. Roger D. Launius and John E. Hallwas, eds., Kingdom on the Mississippi Revised: Nauvoo in Mormon History (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1997), 251.
3. Linda King Newell and Valeen Tippetts Avery, Mormon Enigma: Emma Hale Smith, Prophet’s Wife, “Elect Lady,” Polygamy’s Foe (New York: Doubleday, 1984).
4. W. Paul Reeve, Religion of a Different Color: Race and the Mormon Struggle for Whiteness (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2015).
5. Leonard and Lyon, Nauvoo, 288.
6. See Richard E. Bennett, Susan Easton Black, and Donald Q. Cannon, The Nauvoo Legion in Illinois: A History of the Mormon Militia 1841–1846 (Norman, OK: The Arthur H. Clark Company, 2010).
7. Richard E. Bennett and Rachel Cope, “‘A City on a Hill’ — Chartering the City of Nauvoo,” in The John Whitmer Historical Association: 2002 Nauvoo Conference, Special Edition, ed. Joni Wilson (Kansas City, MO: JWHA, 2002), 25. See also James L. Kimball Jr., “A Study of the Nauvoo Charter, 1840-1845” (master’s thesis, University of Iowa, August 1966).
8. For the most recent study involving the Nauvoo Municipal Court, see A. Keith Thompson’s “Missourian Efforts to Extradite Joseph Smith and the Ethics of Governor Thomas Reynolds of Missouri,” Interpreter : A Journal of Latter-day Saint Faith and Scholarship, Vol. 29, no.1 (2018): 307-24.
9. Joseph Smith, Jr., The Joseph Smith Papers: Documents, December 1841– April 1842, vol. 9, eds. Alex D. Smith, Christian Heimburger, and Christopher James Blythe (Salt Lake City: Church Historian’s Press, 2019).
10. B. H. Roberts, The Rise and Fall of Nauvoo (Salt Lake City: Deseret News Press, 1900).
11. The author goes on to argue that the Book of Abraham “prefigured the Social Darwinism of the late nineteenth century” with its anti-egalitarian, highly structured, preferential hierarchical view of those with varying degrees of intelligence, a highly-layered society of kingdoms and authorities (90-91) which Smith was trying to imitate. However, missing is any mention of Smith’s better- known translation of the Book of Mormon and its preference for a society without kings and hierarchies and often based on the voice of the people. Relying on one book of scripture to understand Church doctrine at the expense of omitting another can lead to a faulty, one-sided approach.
12. See Todd Compton’s In Sacred Loneliness: The Plural Wives of Joseph Smith (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1997). Park does briefly reference Eliza R. Snow’s conversion to the practice as primarily “another step in a path toward personal sanctification and transcendence,” (115), “a path to becoming queens of a godly kingdom,” but more practically as sought-for social stability in the chaotic Nauvoo society (116).
13. Fawn McKay Brodie, No Man Knows My History: The Life of Joseph Smith: The Mormon Prophet (New York: A. A. Knopf, 1945).
14. Andrew F. Smith, The Saintly Scoundrel: The Life and Times of Dr. John Cook Bennett (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1997).

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About Richard E. Bennett

Richard E. Bennett grew up in Sudbury, Ontario, Canada, the son of a nickel miner. “Dick” worked underground as a mining engineer assistant for three years. He also worked as a laborer for the Canadian Pacific Railway before earning a BA degree in English Literature at BYU. Later, he went on to earn an MA in American History at BYU (studying under Marvin Hill and Leonard Arrington) and a PhD in American Intellectual History at Wayne State University (Detroit). He and his wife, Patricia, raised a family of five children in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada, where Dick was Head of Archives and Special Collections for the University of Manitoba for 20 years. He also served as stake president in Winnipeg for nine years. Since coming to BYU, Dick has served as Chair of the Department of Church History and Doctrine and as Associate Dean of Religious Education. He has published 10 books and scores of articles on Church History, the most recent being Temples Rising: A Heritage of Sacrifice (Deseret Book, 2019) and 1820: Dawning of the Restoration (BYU and Deseret Book, 2020).

Go here to see the one thought on “A Uni-Dimensional Picture of a Multi-Faceted Nauvoo Community”.