When the Mormons were forced to leave Nauvoo, Illinois, an exodus that began in February 1846, their leaders were faced with the massive task of transporting and settling thousands of essentially destitute people in the West. They were in desperate need of resources.
Among other measures, they attempted to lease their abandoned and still-uncompleted temple to the Catholics or to any other group that could supply badly needed money. Unsuccessful, they tried to sell it, seeking as much as $200,000. In March 1848, they finally did sell it — to a private member of the LDS Church, David Allred, for $5,000. However, near midnight on Oct. 8 of that year, an arsonist’s fire gutted the building. So, on April 2, 1849, Allred sold what was left to a Frenchman by the name of Etienne Cabet for $2,000.
Who was Cabet, and what did he want with the ruined temple?
Horrified by poverty, inequality and the way competition from the rising factories of the Industrial Revolution was undercutting traditional artisans in his native France, Etienne Cabet campaigned for radical social reform. Then, accused of treason in 1834 and forced to choose between two years in prison or five years in foreign exile, he moved to England. While there, he was influenced by the utopian socialist Robert Owen and wrote a didactic novel about a fictional utopian state called “Icaria.”
Ultimately, based on that novel and the popular response to it, he founded what came to be called the “Icarian” movement.
Returning to France in 1839, Cabet advocated communitarianism, hoping to substitute workers’ cooperatives for capitalist production. Some writers have even claimed — incorrectly — that Cabet invented the term “communisme”; he certainly influenced Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. After he wrote a five-volume work titled “The True Christianity According to Jesus Christ,” in which he argued that Jesus’ principal goal had been the establishment of social equality, many of his successors in the socialist movement rejected even that rather thin and this-worldly Christianity.
By 1843, Cabet claimed at least 50,000 Icarians in France, but by 1848, he had abandoned the goal of reforming French society, and, with a number of his followers, he left Europe for the democratic culture and unsettled territories of the United States. After a disastrous attempt to plant a colony along the Red River in Texas, a group of Icarians moved to Nauvoo in 1849.
Adopting the structure and institutions of Cabet’s fictional Icaria, Nauvoo became the first permanent Icarian colony, with an annually elected president and, under him, separate officers chosen to supervise the group’s educational projects, finances, agriculture and small industry. New community members were admitted only after living in the colony on probation for at least four months and, even then, only when they’d been approved by a majority vote of the community’s adult members, surrendered their personal property and contributed the equivalent of roughly four months’ wages to the common treasury.
Each family in Icarian Nauvoo received two rooms and identical furniture. Children aged four and above boarded at the community’s two gender-segregated schools, visiting their families only on Sundays — which were devoted not to conventional worship services, but to courses discussing Cabet’s writings and Icarian views on Christian morals and ethics. (The remnants of the temple were intended for use as an expanded school and academy.)
For a time, the small settlement — rising ultimately to about 500 participants — flourished, perhaps partly due to the improvements the Mormons had already made to the site and been forced to abandon intact. A steam-powered flour mill, a sawmill, two infirmaries, a pharmacy, a butchery, a bakery, a laundry, a distillery, a pigsty and a small press were established, and farm land was acquired. Meals were prepared and eaten communally, band concerts and theatrical productions were staged, and a substantial library was accumulated.
Eventually, though, economic setbacks, policy disagreements and personal rivalries — partly caused by Cabet’s increasingly autocratic tendencies — laid waste to the Icarian experiment at Nauvoo. Along with his most loyal followers (roughly 40 percent of the Nauvoo colony), Cabet was ultimately banished from the community, and he died in St. Louis in 1856. The Nauvoo Icarians never recovered from the schism, and they were forced to abandon the site in 1860. Most of Nauvoo’s residents made their way to Iowa, where the last surviving Icarian community, located near the town of Corning, voluntarily disbanded in 1898.
Daniel Peterson founded BYU's Middle Eastern Texts Initiative, chairs The Interpreter Foundation and blogs on Patheos. William Hamblin is the author of several books on premodern history. They speak only for themselves.