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More than Latter-day Saints feel a sacred tie to Nauvoo, BYU professor explains

SALT LAKE CITY — The city of Nauvoo, Illinois, is bustling during the month of July with tourists who come looking for religious nostalgia and a bit of good fudge. But members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints aren't the only ones who think of Nauvoo as their own.

"Return of the City of Joseph: Modern Mormonism's Contest for the Soul of Nauvoo" is a social history of Nauvoo by BYU professor, Scott C. Esplin.
"Return of the City of Joseph: Modern Mormonism's Contest for the Soul of Nauvoo" is a social history of Nauvoo by BYU professor, Scott C. Esplin.
University of Illinois Press

In “Return to the City of Joseph: Modern Mormonism’s Contest for the Soul of Nauvoo” (University of Illinois Press, 216 pages), BYU professor Scott Esplin examines the social history of the city associated with the Prophet Joseph Smith.

Esplin brings a unique expertise to the book. He has spent years teaching Latter-day Saints about Nauvoo and the history of the restored gospel of Jesus Christ.

“Regardless of age, I find there is a fascination with what occurred in Nauvoo after the deaths of Joseph and Hyrum Smith,” said Esplin in an email interview. Students ask about Emma Smith, about the burial site of Joseph Smith and are curious about what happened to the temple.

The rich Latter-day Saint history associated with the area creates a sacred feeling associated with Nauvoo as a place — an idea that appeals to Esplin.

“As a missionary in Italy, I was introduced to different religious traditions and their venerations of sacred space,” he said. A stint teaching at Brigham Young University’s Jerusalem Center for Near Eastern Studies also enhanced his awareness of how particular places can have strong spiritual draws.

Scott Esplin holding one of his daughter in front of the Nauvoo, Illinois, temple of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. His new book, "Return to the City of Joseph," is a social history of Nauvoo.
Scott Esplin holding one of his daughter in front of the Nauvoo, Illinois, temple of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. His new book, "Return to the City of Joseph," is a social history of Nauvoo.
Scott Esplin

“All of these experiences have shaped the ways I view religious tourism, pilgrimage and contested sacred space,” he said.

Just as Jerusalem is a sacred site for many, Latter-day Saints and others see a bit of heaven in Nauvoo.

As Esplin immersed himself in the research, he got to know residents of Nauvoo who were not associated with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints or the Community of Christ, the church that viewed Joseph Smith III instead of Brigham Young as the rightful successor to Joseph Smith.

“From those relationships, I learned that the story of Nauvoo’s restoration is really a story of faith and community relationships, of misunderstandings, contestation and eventually cooperation,” he said. “It is also the story of the effects of pilgrimage and religious tourism on a small town."

Rather than writing a history of the church during the Nauvoo period, Esplin examines what happened to the city itself after the martyrdom of Joseph Smith in 1844. For example, Esplin reveals that properties left vacant after a mass Latter-day Saint exodus in 1846 came to be occupied by French communalists known as Icarians.

“They acquired the properties and lived in Nauvoo for a similar length of time … as the Latter-day Saints,” said Esplin. “They even went to work trying to refurbish the Nauvoo temple, which had been gutted by an arsonist’s fire in 1848.”

Nauvoo would also come to be home to German immigrants, Catholic nuns and members of the church now known as the Community of Christ.

“All of these form the fabric of Nauvoo,” said Esplin.

Esplin said finding ways for all of these groups to celebrate their Nauvoo heritage has been challenging at times, but intercultural relationships have noticeably improved in recent years, especially between The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and the Community of Christ.

“Through the work of good faith and site leaders on both sides,” he said, "… these two faiths cooperate really well today.”