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Why a Utah man thinks an underground vault near the Nauvoo Temple could be the tomb of Joseph Smith

Left, business owner Brian Christiansen stands with a light in an underground vault while historian Joseph Johnstun climbs down a ladder. Some think the space could be a tomb commissioned by early Latter-day Saint leader Joseph Smith before he was martyred.
TC Christensen

Brian Christiansen has spoken with so many reporters in recent days that he is starting to lose his voice.

The businessman from St. George has fielded several interview requests because news outlets want to know more about the discovery of an old brick vault located under the sidewalk in front of his Nauvoo, Illinois, business.

Some think the mysterious underground space could be the location of a tomb once designated for Joseph Smith, founder and early prophet of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, before his martyrdom, though it never was used for that purpose.

“This is why this madman is digging up the front of the store,” Christiansen said, referring in jest to why he was originally approached by the media. “It’s been a crazy, whirlwind process, but it’s definitely been fun.”

The property

A Latter-day Saint himself, Christiansen purchased Zion’s Mercantile and Woodruff Hotel at 1200 Mulholland Street in Nauvoo, across the street from the church’s Nauvoo Illinois Temple, in the summer of 2020. He and his family had previously traveled across the country in an RV, visiting church history sites, and fell in love with the historic city. He jumped at the chance to purchase the property.

Part of what intrigued Brian Christiansen about the Zion Mercantile business property was the existence of some red brick arches under the sidewalk.
Brian Christiansen

Part of what intrigued Christiansen about the property was the existence of red brick arches visible just below the sidewalk.

“They had speculated at the time that they thought it was maybe escape tunnels or something for the brethren,” he said. “Because there’s a roadway right there, they were advised that it might be dangerous getting under there, so they didn’t excavate it.”

Later on, another theory came to light — that Joseph Smith had commissioned a tomb for him and his family, and it was located in front of the mercantile building.

“I had never heard of the tomb of Joseph,” Christiansen said. “That was all news to me.”

The dig

After purchasing the property, Christiansen and a friend grabbed shovels and started digging.

Brian Christiansen’s property with the mysterious underground vault is across the street from the Nauvoo Illinois Temple.
Brian Christ

“Because of COVID, there were no tourists and the place was vacant,” he said. “So we could dig all we wanted to see what was under the ground.”

Progress was initially slowed by a large, limestone beam. But once they created an opening large enough, they lowered a ladder inside and climbed inside to find a pile of rubble, wide-eyed frogs and cockroaches. As Christiansen started to film inside the vault, he described seeing a “large, carved keystone” on a beam, which he found to be significant.

The underground vault measures 7 feet wide by 27 feet long, Christiansen said.

Where is the tomb?

Nauvoo was the main gathering place of the Latter-day Saints from 1839 to 1846, when the majority of members were forced to leave and go west.

Joseph Johnstun, a historian in the area, said Joseph Smith commissioned William Weeks, the architect of the original Nauvoo Illinois Temple, to build a tomb for the prophet and his family.

Johnstun authored a research paper on the tomb and burial of Joseph Smith in which he explores four prominent theories for the tomb’s location. The fourth theory points to the southwest corner of the temple, which fits the location of Christiansen’s vault.

Johnstun’s paper also cites research by Susan Easton Black, a retired professor of Church History and Doctrine at Brigham Young University, who favored another vault located one block south of the Nauvoo Illinois temple on the southeast corner of Ripley and Bluff Streets.

Johnstun said Christiansen’s vault has a unique resemblance to that tomb, according to KSL.com.

“It’s of a comparable size to what the William Weeks drawings show,” Johnstun said in the article.

These plans for the Tomb of Joseph were donated to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints by Leslie Griffin in 1948, along with the Nauvoo Illinois Temple plans.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints

Christiansen has read journal entries that reference the use of red bricks and indicate the the tomb’s location was off the southeast corner of the temple, which seems to match, although Christiansen is quick to say there is no official record of where the tomb was built and he is not claiming to have found it.

“There’s just a lot of cool coincidences that just kind of raise the question,” he said. “It’s just kind of fun to think about.”

Regardless of the tomb’s location, the prophet was not laid to rest there. After Joseph and Hyrum Smith were murdered by a mob in 1844, their bodies were secretly interred in the basement of the Nauvoo House. A few months later the bodies were reburied in an unmarked spot near the Mississippi River. Decades later in 1928, the remains of Joseph, Emma and Hyrum were exhumed and reburied together in what became known as the Smith Family Cemetery.

Documentary and museum

Christiansen has enlisted a team of filmmakers, including T.C. Christensen and Phil Tuckett, to produce a documentary film that will capture the process of discovering the vault and its history. The documentary is scheduled to open in November and the purpose does not involve proving the vault is the tomb of Joseph, he said.

“But there are some similarities that lead you to wonder if it is possible,” Christiansen said.

Along with a documentary, Christiansen wants to create a museum that caters to the tomb of Joseph.

“The documentary seeks to uncover the possibilities of various locations while delving into the history of the church around the period just before and after the martyrdom,” it says on the website, tombofjoseph.com. “The Tomb of Joseph will be a space to expound on the history of the tomb, the reason why the tomb was important to Joseph and provide a venue to display historical artifacts and records.”

‘Further attention and study’

Reid Moon, a longtime collector of early church history books, documents and artifacts, is skeptical of Christiansen’s vault but maintains an open mind.

“As someone who is fascinated by early church history, I find that this discovery deserves further attention and study. It’s too important to dismiss outright,” Moon said. “Until you can prove definitively otherwise, it needs to be considered and studied using whatever documents in history are available. I, for one, am looking forward to my next trip to Nauvoo to check it out.”