For more than 150 years, the world headquarters of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, commonly known as the Mormon Church, has been located in Salt Lake City, Utah. But for the church's 11 million members, a tiny town in Illinois, along the banks of the Mississippi River holds a special place in their hearts. That town, Nauvoo, a Hebrew word for "beautiful place", is about to receive a lot of attention and visitors.
For a few years in the 1840's, tiny Nauvoo, Illinois, was the center of the Mormon world. Roughly 12,000 Mormons settled here after being driven out of communities in Ohio and Missouri. Church member Dennis Simmons says they built homes and businesses for themselves, and a five-story limestone temple to God. "I think in our heritage, nothing is more sacred or more touching to us than what we know happened here in Nauvoo," he says.
The Nauvoo area holds a special place in the hearts of Mormons. The founder of the church, Joseph Smith, was murdered in jail in the town of Carthage a few kilometers away. He had been incarcerated there amid a controversy surrounding his role in the destruction of a local anti-Mormon newspaper. Mr. Smith's followers soon gathered their belongings and walked 2,500 kilometers west, to present-day Salt Lake City. The towering temple was the last bit of Nauvoo the departing Mormons saw. The temple was eventually burned.*
This year the church is opening a new Nauvoo Temple on the same site as the original. Mr. Simmons says it will be the 113th church temple worldwide, and serve as a memorial to early Mormons. "For us to come back and rebuild that temple, which initially was built with such great sacrifice, is a tribute to them, a way of our telling them we appreciate their sacrifice," he says.
Nauvoo today is a mostly-Catholic town of about 1,000 people. Much of its business is tourism-related, catering to the 250,000 people each year who visit a living history museum of restored Mormon pioneer homes and businesses.
But the town remains important to Mormon theology. The president of the church's North America Central Area, Donald Staheli, says this is where two of the church's major tenets were announced. "It was here that those ordinances of baptism by proxy for the dead [were first introduced], it was here that that sacred ordinance of eternal marriage [was first introduced], the sealing of man and woman together so that they might have an opportunity to be together in the eternities, and not in their case does death do them part," he says.
Baptism for the dead and eternal marriages are two primary reasons Mormons attend their temples. Weekly worship services and most other events are held at smaller meetinghouses. Until construction of the Nauvoo Temple, the 13,000 Mormons in a region stretching from Iowa to Indiana had to go to St. Louis, Missouri, Louisville, Kentucky, or Chicago to visit a temple.
The new Nauvoo Temple was built using plans and photographs of the old one. It is nearly the same size as the original and, according to Dennis Simmons, looks just like the temple he has seen in countless paintings. "We've seen those depictions of the temple, so we knew what it looked like. But, to actually see it, I just don't have words enough to describe," he says. "When my wife saw it for the first time last night, she could not speak."
The temple is open to the public through late June. More than 250,000 people are expected to visit Nauvoo to see the temple during the next few weeks. Church official Bruce Hafen says tour tickets have been reserved for people from throughout the United States and more than 70 countries. "Nauvoo has found a way into the hearts of many members of the church and that feeling is bringing people back. They want to come as soon as they can," he says.
Non-Mormons in Nauvoo are excited, but a little bit nervous. Mayor Tom Wilson says visitors to the Mormon historical village and a nearby winery have always been good for the local economy. But, things tend to slow down when summer is over. He hopes the temple changes that. "We need 12-month tourism in this town," he says. "These people uptown, they think after summer is over, they might as well close their doors and tuck it in."
Other people in town are not so pleased. One woman who runs a restaurant and tavern a block away from the temple doesn't expect much business from out-of-town Mormons, because church members do not drink alcohol. She worries that the thousands of people expected during the open house period will make downtown Nauvoo so crowded that her regular customers will stay away.
At a candy store across the street from the temple, owner Kathy Nelson says many people worry about possible long-term changes to their town. "I think everybody is a little bit leery, including us, of what it might do to the small-town feel that we all love. We do not want it to grow any bigger than it is, either," she says. "I think that is the main problem people have with it, is what is it going to do to our small town?"
The Nauvoo Temple will be officially dedicated in late June.
*(edited 22 May 2002 to clarify events)