Kingdom of Nauvoo The rise and fall of a religious empire on the American frontier

Benjamin E. Park

Book - 2020

"In Kingdom of Nauvoo, Benjamin E. Park excavates the brief, tragic life of a lost Mormon city, demonstrating that the Mormons are essential to understanding American history writ large. Using newly accessible sources, Park recreates the Mormons' 1839 flight from Missouri to Illinois. There, under the charismatic leadership of Joseph Smith, they founded Nauvoo, which shimmered briefly-but Smith's challenge to democratic traditions, as well as his new doctrine of polygamy, would bring about its fall. His wife Emma, rarely written about, opposed him, but the greater threat came from without: in 1844, a mob murdered Joseph, precipitating the Mormon trek to Utah. Throughout this chronicle, Park shows that far from being outsiders..., the Mormons were representative of their era in their distrust of democracy and their attempt to forge a sovereign society of their own"--

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New York, NY : Liveright Publishing Corporation, a division of W.W. Norton & Company, Inc [2020]
Main Author
Benjamin E. Park (author)
First edition
Physical Description
324 pages : illustrations, map ; 25 cm
Includes bibliographical references (pages 285-319) and index.
  • Prologue
  • Chapter 1. Soil
  • Chapter 2. Seeds
  • Chapter 3. Roots
  • Chapter 4. Trunk
  • Chapter 5. Branches
  • Chapter 6. Fruit
  • Chapter 7. Harvest
  • Epilogue Legacies
  • Acknowledgments
  • Notes
  • Index
Review by Booklist Review

On the run from vigilantes in Missouri, the tightly knit Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints the Mormons settled in and around little Commerce, Illinois, in 1839-40. Their leader, Joseph Smith Jr. and his advisors changed the town's name to Nauvoo, greatly enlarged it, and finally produced a new constitution for it as a divine city-state. Smith had soured on U.S.-style democracy, which, as far as he and other Mormons could see, habitually let majority neighbors trample on their minority rights, regardless of where they sought to settle. It was happening again in Illinois, where the Mormons already constituted a voting bloc big enough to swing elections; with the looming 1844 presidential campaign a toss-up, Smith threw his hat into the ring as an independent spoiler. Meanwhile, he also introduced, sub rosa at first, a newly revealed church practice, plural marriage, which when it became generally known as fact rather than rumor, created dissension among the Mormons, beginning with the original Mrs. Smith, a formidable figure in her own right. The 2016 opening to historians of Mormon archives about Nauvoo enables Park to name names and assign dates to the events leading up to the Mormon cataclysm. He fashions a dense, exciting, and absorbing narrative of the most consequential and dramatic movement to dissent against and secede from the Constitutional republic before the Civil War.--Ray Olson Copyright 2019 Booklist

From Booklist, Copyright (c) American Library Association. Used with permission.
Review by Publisher's Weekly Review

In this enjoyable and fastidiously researched work, Park (American Nationalisms), professor of history at Sam Houston State Univ., highlights early Mormons' political and social roles in the development of the American West. The Mormons' first attempt to build a "new Zion" in Missouri ended in the summer of 1838 with their wholesale flight in the face of state-sanctioned violence. Afterward, they founded "kingdom of Nauvoo" in western Illinois. Led by Joseph Smith, the Mormons aimed to make Nauvoo into a God-fearing community and a model of what they believed to be the imminent kingdom of God on Earth. Park depicts the rise and fall of Nauvoo in vivid detail, exploring how it collapsed in 1848 due to a combination of factors, particularly growing state and community-wide discomfort with the Mormons as a "separate people" who lived outside of common Protestant norms and Joseph Smith's paranoid tendencies. The community's secretive structure, which Park argues contributed to its failure, was designed to keep Smith in power and also to conceal practices (such as polygamy) he felt might be detrimental to the church's public reputation. Park, who was given extensive access to the Mormon Church's archives, entertainingly establishes this little-known Mormon settlement's proper place within the formative years of the Illinois and Missouri frontier. (Feb.)

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Review by Library Journal Review

According to Latter-day Saints teaching, Joseph Smith found the golden tablets that, in his translation, became the Book of Mormon, in New York State. In crisp prose and using newly accessible sources, Park (history, Sam Houston State Univ.; American Nationalisms) traces the development of the Latter-day Saints during their sojourn in Nauvoo, IL, where most of Smith's religious and political ideas came to fruition, including the doctrine of polygamy and his rejection of democracy in favor of a religious commonwealth with himself as leader. The violent death of Smith and his brother led to the departure of his followers on a trek that would take them to Salt Lake City. Park argues convincingly that, far from being radical outsiders, Smith and his congregation were representative of American society of the time, as he considers the role of women in the church and its relationship to African Americans. VERDICT A perceptive study of a religion that has become a dominant force in American society. This work will appeal to anyone interested in the often-contentious history of religion in America.--Augustine J. Curley, Newark Abbey, NJ

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Review by Kirkus Book Review

Vigorous study of the early Mormon settlement in Illinois, linking its founding to a rising anti-democratic tradition.Park (History/Sam Houston State Univ.; American Nationalisms: Imagining Union in the Age of Revolutions, 1783-1833, 2018, etc.) joins the history of Mormonisma term used throughout the book but one that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints seems to be distancing itself fromto that of Puritanism as a breakaway political movement whose members "believed the nation had forgotten its true purpose and was in need of a return to divine values." In the case of the Mormons, that return involved a repudiation of the Constitution in favor of a document called the Council of Fifty, which "rejected America's democratic system as a failed experiment and sought to replace it with a theocratic kingdom." Thus the Kingdom of Nauvoo, on the Mississippi River, a place very different from the Utah in which the Mormons eventually took shelter. Persecuted by neighbors and officials for polygamy and sedition, the Mormon residents of Nauvoo12,000 of them in 1844, by Park's reckoningalso suffered internal divisions, including a famed disagreement between Mormon founder Joseph Smith and his wife Emma over what she regarded to be widespread sexual impropriety. As a force meant to clean society of its evils, the Mormons attracted plenty of like-minded converts, including a handful of African Americans and Native Americans who were definitively second-class citizens in the new order. Park allows that the Mormons had a point to make and that they were not alone in protesting a democracy that had witnessed much impropriety itself since the days of the Revolution, including "legal precedents based on the flimsiest of judicial decisions and political traditions established in the wake of corrupt electoral bargains." The author effectively links the Mormon critique to other dissidents, including the states' rights advocates who would lead the secessionist movement and modern-day dissidents who "flagrantly challenge the political and legal system" and reject the nation's democratic precepts.A welcome contribution to American religious and political history. Copyright Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.

Copyright (c) Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.