NAUVOO, Illinois — Megan George was pregnant with the first of her six children when she and her husband, Adam, a farmer in Cody, Wyoming, last visited sites here that are crucial to the history and development of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

They’d been talking seriously this winter about taking their children to Nauvoo when news broke March 5 that Community of Christ had transferred major sites to the Church of Jesus Christ.

Megan texted Adam a screenshot of a story about the transfer in the Church News. He texted back two words.

“Let’s go.”

While Canada geese honked loudly and other birds called from the eastern shore of the Mississippi River on a chilly Wednesday morning, the Georges toured three sites that were transferred earlier this month, closed down and reopened this week under Latter-day Saint stewardship — the Smith Family Homestead, the Nauvoo Mansion and the Red Brick Store.

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These are places where Joseph and Emma Smith lived and worked while they built a temple and a major city that filled with more than 11,000 early Latter-day Saints. It’s a place where he received revelations and an organization was created that became indispensable cornerstones in the doctrines and practices of Latter-day Saints today.

It’s also the place where Emma received her husband’s body the day the prophet and U.S. presidential candidate was assassinated in nearby Carthage Jail. She was overwhelmed as 10,000 people paraded through her home, the Nauvoo Mansion House, to see Joseph as he laid in state there with his brother Hyrum Smith, who was murdered with him by a mob that attacked the jail.

On Monday, 196 people visited the Red Brick Store the first day it reopened, including the eight Georges, who returned for more on Wednesday. They were glad they came.

“This is hallowed ground,” Megan said. “Joseph and Emma left a part of their spirits here.”

Why these Nauvoo sites matter

Today, Nauvoo is a rural town with a single operating diner and 1,100 residents. The roads into it pass rich, flat crop fields cut out of thin forests between rolling hills. Large, empty lawns separate historic preserved or restored homes.

Nauvoo in 1843 was a thriving metropolis that rivaled Chicago and dwarfed the state capital of Springfield, where Abraham Lincoln was living with Mary Todd and their first child three years before the future president was elected to Congress.

It takes some imagination to envision 12,000 to 15,000 people living here, said Joseph Monsen, a senior manager for the Historic Sites Division of the Church History Department.

“Main Street and Water Street — these were busy streets,” he said. Boats unloaded at the end of Water Street feet from the Smith homes, and Joseph Smith, a people person, often greeted the arrivals.

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Telling those stories, and others of far deeper spiritual and doctrinal significance, is the job of 101 Latter-day Saint missionaries serving at the Illinois Historic Sites. They were overwhelmed to learn on March 5 that the church had acquired the three properties, said Sister Beverly Bundy, whose daughter called her with the exciting news.

The next day, they visited the Smith Homestead, where Joseph and Emma Smith lived for four years.

“The first time I walked in this house, I bent down and touched the floor,” Sister Bundy said. “They stood here!”

That’s the power of historic places, Monsen said.

“When you walk where someone else walked, you connect differently,” he said. “Your mind is transported to another place. To be able to come to Nauvoo is powerful. You see the temple, you see the temple view, the temple district, and now you can walk through Joseph’s and Emma’s homes.”

The Smiths had fled persecution from the eastern United States to the western frontier of Missouri, then back eastward again to Nauvoo.

“Then they get this little two-story, wooden-log home and a little bit of peace, and they get to raise their kids,” Monsen said. “Joseph gets to lead the church. It becomes the social center. Everyone is there.”

They lived in the homestead, a few yards from the Mississippi, from 1839-43, then moved catty-corner across Main Street to the larger Nauvoo Mansion House, where they lived for 10 months.

“I find there’s a humanization of Joseph and Emma when you stand where they lived, when you see who they were, what they cared about,” Monsen said. “When they get the homestead, they’d just been driven out of Missouri, leaving everything they had. Then they get this two-story log home, get to raise their kids and Joseph gets to lead the church gathered in one place.”

In the middle of it all, Joseph opened the Red Brick Store.

Wagon rides are given in Nauvoo on Wednesday, March 27, 2024. | Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

The Red Brick Store’s vital role in an unfolding Restoration

It’s difficult to overstate the importance of the Red Brick Store in Latter-day Saint history, Monsen said.

That isn’t because Joseph Smith was a good shopkeeper, missionaries say during the new tours of the store this week. In fact, they note, while the gregarious prophet and president enjoyed the role of greeting customers and providing them goods, he was too big-hearted to be a good businessman. He extended credit to people who couldn’t pay. On a tour of the Newel K. Whitney store in Kirtland, missionaries note that he then sometimes paid customers’ debts himself.

He quickly hired someone else to run the store and worked in an office upstairs, overseeing the Nauvoo Temple’s construction and the church’s growth.

The importance of the store is that upper floor, his office and the large room next to it. Missionaries tell stories of three major events that took place there.

First, “the endowment is initiated there,” said Monsen, referring to the Latter-day Saint temple ordinance that both teaches God’s plan of salvation and provides covenants that endow people with strength in daily life.

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A total of 42 men and women received the endowment ordinance there and in the Mansion House. That group would administer the endowment to thousands in the temple before the Saints fled Nauvoo after Joseph’s death in 1844.

Second, after two women brought an idea to Joseph to create a women’s sewing society to make clothes for men building the temple, he said God had a larger plan for them. Emma helped expand the idea in the society’s first meeting in the store’s upper room, where she was named the group’s first president, saying that it should minister relief in situations large and small.

Sister Geniel Tomlin of Fairview, Wyoming, shared the story during a tour on Wednesday afternoon.

“The Relief Society, which began with a desire to prepare a temple for the people, would now help prepare a people for the temple,” she said.

Third, in March 1844, Joseph gathered the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles in the Red Brick Store’s upper room and conferred the spiritual keys he’d received from angelic visitors in the Kirtland Temple and elsewhere on them. He told them if he died without sharing those keys, they would disappear again from the Earth.

“I roll the burden and responsibility of leading this church off from my shoulders on to yours,” he said.

‘It’s time to visit Nauvoo’

Illinois Historic Sites President Daniel Mehr said the Nauvoo missionaries are ready for any influx of visitors that may come with the transferred homes and store. Some 75,000 people visit the sites each year.

He expressed gratitude for Community of Christ’s longstanding preservation of the sites, including the 1980 reconstruction of the Red Brick Store, which had been sold off and torn down for its bricks in 1890.

“For 100-plus years, they were great stewards,” Mehr said. “We would not have these properties today for the public if it weren’t for the Community of Christ. We wouldn’t have it without them. So we revere them for that. We love them for that. As they hand off those stewardships to us, we’re excited about it.”

The Latter-day Saint missionaries, he said, share slightly different information than their predecessors at the transferred sites, providing the history vital to the church. They also thank Community of Christ during tours. New signs outside the buildings also refer to Community of Christ’s decadeslong contributions to preservation.

Horses clopped down Main Street past the transferred site Wednesday, pulling a wagon with tourists. In the summer, the streets are also filled with performing missionaries who sing and dance. Hundreds of people gather to put on the annual Nauvoo Pageant.

“This place is hopping and bopping in the summer,” Mehr said.

While he revels in the way missionaries tell the history of Joseph and Emma as a love story, it is colored by moments like Emma telling Joseph to come home to her before he and Hyrum ride away on horses for the final time, bound for Carthage and their deaths.

The subsequent departure of the Latter-day Saints across the frozen Mississippi River marked the second time in less than a decade they had left behind a temple, and began a brutal and often deadly 1,300-mile trek beyond the U.S. border to the Salt Lake Valley.

But the history also includes Joseph receiving revolutionary revelations about the inclusive and family nature of the afterlife and the knowledge the church continued to grow and thrive, missionaries said.

“We try to bring to life the Nauvoo Joseph knew,” said Mehr, who believed the transferred sites will contribute more to a visitor’s experience, like a youngster sitting at the knee of a grandparent telling a story that connects the past to the present.

“Everyone of us is looking for a connection,” Mehr said. “Come for the connection; go edified.”

“It’s time to come visit Nauvoo.”