What Happened in Nauvoo, Part 2: Flourishing

[See Part 1: Founding] This second installment discussing Glen Leonard’s Nauvoo: A Place of Peace, a People of Promise looks at the middle years in Nauvoo through about 1842, covered in the second section of the book (pages 123 to 269).

Why Bother?

I gave background about the book in Part 1, but didn’t discuss the author’s view that the Nauvoo years are worth particular historical attention because they (not the early Restoration or the Kirtland years) established what became the defining doctrines of the modern LDS Church. As Leonard explains at pages 623-24:

From every perspective, the events of the Nauvoo years made a significant difference in the subsequent history of the Latter-day Saints. … [T]he final years of Joseph Smith’s life and the months immediately following his death marked a watershed in church doctrine, practices, and governance. The Reorganized Church … in 1860 adopted the pre-Nauvoo patterns as its model of the Restoration. …

In contrast, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints … headed in what Sidney Rigdon termed “a different direction.” … Brigham Young and the Twelve pledged to the Saints that they would continue the Prophet’s revealed program, including the revelations and ordinances of the Nauvoo years. The church that headed across the Rocky Mountains did so as a religious community … centered in the doctrines and practices surrounding the House of the Lord ….

So the LDS Church is, in a sense, the Nauvoo Church; Salt Lake City can be thought of as a transplated Nauvoo without the dissenters and apostates, who had no reason to follow the Twelve across the Plains. But it wasn’t just the emerging temple theology and practice that distinguished Nauvoo from earlier periods.

Not Consecration

Economically, Nauvoo was initially thriving. The constant inflow of Mormons initially scattered from Far West, plus immigration from distant states and England combined to create a building boom. Joseph made two big decisions in the wake of the Missouri experience: (1) After initially suggesting the Saints should scatter a bit and lie low, Nauvoo became once again a designated gathering place and a temple city; (2) private ownership and enterprise was practiced — no attempt was made to reinstitute a communitarian economic system under the law of consecration. In retrospect, the first decision set the Saints on another collision course with non-LDS neighbors, but the second decision avoided the internal economic conflicts and failures that characterized earlier attempts to put the law of consecration into practice and allowed Nauvoo, for a short period, to prosper.

Regarding the law of consecration, Leonard notes that after 1834 “participants were invited to contribute only their surpluses” and then observes that “the tithing revelation of 1838 formalized this approach.” So Leonard stresses the continuity between consecration and tithing, which “preserved much of the language and spirit of the law of consecration. Economic objectives remained unchanged: fund temple building, support administrative needs, and sustain the poor” (p. 142).

Personally, I see a clear break between the two approaches. This is most evident in the consequences: as a stable system, consecration was a failure and tithing has been a success. Maybe I’m just a pragmatist by nature rather than an idealist, but I am biased in favor of economic arrangements that work rather than ones that fail. How can a system that consistently fails be an ideal? I know, some of you will respond that it’s the people that failed, not the system, but the tithing system of voluntary contributions has succeeded quite well using these same flawed people (and us, their flawed descendents).

I’m pleased to note that Joseph apparently shared this view (which doesn’t necessarily make it right, but makes it safe for Sunday School comments). As related by Leonard at pages 142-43:

In public pronouncements in Nauvoo, the Prophet made clear his support of the enduring economic principle of individual ownership. The issue was raised in September 1843, when a traveling English socialist, John Finch, preached from the stand in the grove. Smith responded by denouncing Finch’s socialism. At the same time, he also discounted a communitarian system that Sidney Rigdon had endorsed in Kirtland before converting to Mormonism. … In a second sermon ten days later, with Acts 2 as his text, the Prophet preached for an hour, “designing to show the folly of common stock. In Nauvoo,” he said, “every one is steward over his own.”

The Prophet had concluded that the leveling effect of the New Testament ideal could not be realized in the world of ordinary men.

So what created trouble in Nauvoo was not, as in Kirtland, bank failures or the local effects of a national economic crisis, although the effects of the Panic of 1837 still lingered. It was polygamy and politics that caused problems, as we’ll see in Part 3.

3 comments for “What Happened in Nauvoo, Part 2: Flourishing

  1. November 4, 2009 at 8:46 am

    Dave, thanks for this. Leonard’s recounting of Joseph Smith’s position on socialism and communitarism sounds exactly right.

  2. November 4, 2009 at 8:53 am

    Err, communitarianism. Long word.

  3. November 4, 2009 at 11:49 am

    Thanks, Geoff. I particularly like the phrase “the world of ordinary men.” I think it is Leonard’s phrase, not Joseph’s, but still it gets at a Mormon paradox that has been with us from the very beginning. We contantly talk in terms of ideals, but must run the Church by way of programs and policies that, if they are going to work, have to work in the world of ordinary people. Motivated, dedicated, righteous, but still in many ways ordinary — the “weak things of the world,” as the D&C often refers to members of the Church.

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