Nauvoo was a mistake. At the close of the Missouri Mormon War in the winter of 1838-39, the Saints crossed the icy Mississippi. The people of Quincy, Illinois, were aghast at their condition and opened their hearts and their homes to the refugees. A new gathering place needed to be planted and the church soon found a hopeful location upriver from Quincy — approximately at the border between Illinois, Missouri and the Iowa Territory.
The bulk of the land the church purchased was in Iowa, but the relatively small tract in Illinois included the plats of the failed town of Commerce. Soon, Stakes were founded on both sides of the River. Commerce was renamed Nauvoo and the Iowa settlement was called Zarahemla — named for the most important city in the Book of Mormon.
Nauvoo was in Hancock County, an established area with a significant non-Mormon population that included the reasonable sized towns of Warsaw and Carthage. As with the church’s experience in Kirtland, it would be difficult and expensive for poor church members to gather to the area and buy farmland (and conflict with existing “old settlers” was almost inevitable). Iowa, by contrast, was wide open. For an industrious, agricultural people, land was the key ingredient to fuel a successful settlement. With hindsight, it’s very clear that Zarahemla should have become the church’s headquarters. Nauvoo was a mistake.
Unfortunately for Joseph Smith and the Saints, the Illinoians were seductively generous. Anxious to court the Saints for their own political gains, state Democrats and Whigs offered Joseph and his people every inducement they could wish for. Within a handful of years, Nauvoo grew to become a major town, while Zarahemla never got off the ground.
It might just as easily have gone the other way. If so, how would history change? Let me propose an alternate timeline.
• 1842 Headquarters of the Mormon Church and home to Joseph Smith, Zarahemla becomes the largest city in Iowa Territory.
• 1845 Iowa’s statehood negotiations threaten to collapse over a so-called “spiritual wife” scandal, allegedly involving Zarahemla Mayor (and church President) General Joseph Smith. Smith averts the crisis by publicly renouncing the practice and expelling guilty members from the church, including former confidant, Brigham Young.
• 1846 nearly 20,000 of Iowa Territory’s 90,000 residents are Mormon, making the Saints the decisive voting block in the convention. Smith’s successful maneuvers see Zarahemla made the state capital, while a non-Mormon is elected the state’s first governor.
• 1847 Dedication of the Zarahemla temple.
• 1851 California and New Mexico admitted to the Union, while Idaho, Kansas, Dakota, and Utah Territories created as part of the “Compromise of 1851.” Some Mormons take part in the settlement of Dakota, but none of the other western territories.
• 1854 Joseph Smith elected 4th governor of Iowa as a Democrat. He is turned out of office in the Republican revolution of 1858.
• 1861 Missouri becomes the only border state to join the Confederacy. Mormon Iowa and Missouri replay old grudges in some of the most bitter local militia skirmishes of the war.
• 1867 Joseph Smith begins to ordain women as deaconesses, teachers, priestesses and high priestesses.
• 1869 Sidney Rigdon dropped from the First Presidency, in favor of Joseph Smith III. Transcontinental railroad routed through Zarahemla.
• 1879 Joseph Smith dies of natural causes. Joseph III ordained in his place by Parley P. Pratt, President of the Quorum of Twelve and by First Presidency Counselor Amasa M. Lyman.
In history after Joseph Smith’s death, things continue along the changed timelines for Mormonism, Iowa and the West. The Mormon Church follows the trajectory from highly peculiar to essentially moderate. Its expansion in the US is stunted, but this is more than made up for numerically overseas. By 2008, the church claims 25 million members worldwide, although this number includes only 2 million in the US (half of which are in Iowa). The largest proportion of the membership is in Africa, followed by Latin America.
Happy ever might have been? Or might not? What do you think?