Social Conditions In Nauvoo

Having followed Smith's political operations to their close, it

is now necessary to retrace our steps, and examine the social

conditions which prevailed in and around Nauvoo during the years

of his reign--conditions which had quite as much to do in causing

the expulsion of the Mormons from the state as did his political


It must be remembered that Nauvoo was a pioneer town, on the

borders of a thinly settled country. Its population and that of

its suburbs consisted of the refugees from Missouri, of whose

character we have had proof ; of the converts brought in from the

Eastern states and from Europe, not a very intelligent body; and

of those pioneer settlers, without sympathy with the Mormon

beliefs, who were attracted to the place from various motives.

While active work was continued by the missionaries throughout

the United States, their labors in this country seem to have been

more efficient in establishing local congregations than in

securing large additions to the population of Nauvoo, although

some "branches" moved bodily to the Mormon centre.*

* Lee's "Mormonism Unveiled;" p. 135.

Of the class of people reached by the early missionaries in

England we have this description, in a letter from Orson Hyde to

his wife, dated September 14,1837:-- "Those who have been

baptized are mostly manufacturers and some other mechanics. They

know how to do but little else than to spin and weave cloth, and

make cambric, mull and lace; and what they would do in Kirtland

or the city of Far West, I cannot say. They are extremely poor,

most of them not having a change of clothes decent to be baptized


* Elders' Journal, Vol. I, No. 2.

In a letter of instructions from Smith to the travelling elders

in Great Britain, dated October, 1840, he warned them that the

gathering of the Saints must be "attended to in the order that

the Lord intends it should"; and he explains that, as "great

numbers of the Saints in England are extremely poor, . . . to

prevent confusion and disappointment when they arrive here, let

those men who are accustomed to making machinery, and those who

can command a capital, though it be small, come here as soon as

convenient and put up machinery, and make such other preparations

as may be necessary, so that when the poor come on they may have

employment to come to."

The invitation to all converts having means was so urgent that it

took the form of a command. A letter to the Saints abroad, signed

by Joseph and Hyrum Smith, dated January 15, 1841, directed those

"blessed of heaven with the possession of this world's goods" to

sell out as soon as possible and move to Nauvoo, adding in

italics: "This is agreeable to the order of heaven, and the only

principal (sic) on which the gathering can be effected."*

* The following is a quotation from a letter written by an

American living near Nauvoo, dated October 20, 1842, printed in

the postscript to Caswall's "The City of the Mormons":--

"If an English Mormon arrives, the first effort of Joe is to get

his money. This in most cases is easily accomplished, under a

pledge that he can have it at any time on giving ten days'

notice. The man after some time calls for his money; he is

treated kindly, and told that it is not convenient to pay. He

calls a second time; the Prophet cannot pay, but offers a town

lot in Nauvoo for $1000 (which cost perhaps as many cents), or

land on the 'half-breed tract' at $10 or $15 per acre . . . .

Finally some of the irresponsible Bishops or Elders execute a

deed for land to which they have no valid title, and the poor

fellow dares not complain. This is the history of hundreds of

cases . . . . The history of every dupe reaches Nauvoo in

advance. When an Elder abroad wins one over to the faith, he

makes himself perfectly acquainted with all his family

arrangements, his standing in society, his ability, and (what is

of most importance) the amount of ready money and other property

which he will take to Nauvoo . . . . They make no converts in

Nauvoo, and it appears to me that they would never make another

if all could witness their conduct at Nauvoo for one month . . .

. In regard to this communication, I prefer, on account of my own

safety, that you should not make known the author publicly. You

cannot appreciate these fears [in England]. You have no idea what

it is to be surrounded by a community of Mormons, guided by a

leader the most unprincipled."

We have seen how hard-pressed Smith was for money with which to

meet his obligations for the payment of land purchased. It was

not necessary that a newcomer should be a Mormon in order to buy

a lot, special emphasis being laid on the freedom of religious

opinion in the city; but it was early made known that purchasers

were expected to buy their lots of the church, and not of private

speculators. The determination with which this rule was enforced,

as well as its unpopularity in some quarters, may be seen in the

following extract from Smith's autobiography, under date of

February 13, 1843: "I spent the evening at Elder O. Hyde's. In

the course of conversation I remarked that those brethren who

came here having money, and purchased without the church and

without counsel, must be cut off. This, with other observations,

aroused the feelings of Brother Dixon, from Salem, Mass., and he

appeared in great wrath."

The Nauvoo Neighbor of December 27, 1843, contained an

advertisement signed by the clerk of the church, calling the

attention of immigrants to the church lands, and saying, "Let all

the brethren, therefore, when they move into Nauvoo, consult

President Joseph Smith, the trustee in trust, and purchase their

land from him, and I am bold to say that God will bless them, and

they will hereafter be glad they did so."

A good many immigrants of more or less means took warning as soon

as they discovered the conditions prevailing there, and returned

home. A letter on this subject from the officers of the church


"We have seen so many who have been disappointed and discouraged

when they visited this place, that we would have imagined they

had never been instructed in the things pertaining to the Kingdom

of God, and thought that, instead of coming into a society of men

and women, subject to all the frailties of mortality, they were

about to enjoy the society of the spirits of just men made

perfect, the holy angels, and that this place should be as pure

as the third heaven. But when they found that this people were

but flesh and blood . . . they have been desirous to choose them

a captain to lead them back."

The additions to the Mormon population from the settlers whom

they found in the outlying country in Illinois and Iowa were not

likely to be of a desirable class. The banks of the Mississippi

River had long been hiding-places for pirate bands, whose

exploits were notorious, and the "half-breed tract" was a known

place of refuge for the horse thief, the counterfeiter, and the

desperado of any calling. The settlement of the Mormons in such a

region, with an invitation to the world at large to join them and

be saved, was a piece of good luck for this lawless class, who

found a covering cloak in the new baptism, and a shield in the

fidelity with which the Mormon authorities, under their charter,

defended their flock. In this way Nauvoo became a great

receptacle for stolen goods, and the river banks up and down the

stream concealed many more, the takers of which walked boldly

through the streets of the Mormon city. The retaliatory measures

which Smith encouraged his followers to practise on their

neighbors in Missouri had inculcated a disregard for the property

rights of non-Mormons, which became an inciting cause of

hostilities with their neighbors in Illinois.

The complaints of thefts by Mormons became so frequent that the

church authorities deemed it necessary to recognize and rebuke

the practice. Lee quotes from an address by Smith at the

conference of April, 1840, in Nauvoo, in which the prophet said:

"We are no longer at war, and you must stop stealing. When the

right time comes, we will go in force and take the whole state of

Missouri. It belongs to us as our inheritance; but I want no more

petty stealing. A man that will steal petty articles from his

enemies will, when occasion offers, steal from his brethren too.

Now I command you that have stolen must steal no more."*

* Lee's "Mormonism Unveiled;" p. 111.

The case of Elder O. Walker bears on this subject. On October 11,

1840, he was brought before a High Council and accused of

discourtesy to the prophet, and "suggesting (at different places)

that in the church at Nauvoo there did exist a set of pilferers

who were actually thieving, robbing and plundering, taking and

unlawfully carrying away from Missouri certain goods and

chattels, wares and property; and that the act and acts of such

supposed thieving, etc., was fostered and conducted by the

knowledge and approval of the heads and leaders of the church,

viz., by the Presidency and High Council."*

* Millennial Star, Vol. XVIII, p. 185.

The action of the church authorities themselves shows how serious

they considered the reports about thieving. As early as December

1, 1841, Hyrum Smith, then one of the First Presidency, published

in the Times and Seasons an affidavit denying that the heads of

the church "sanction and approbate the members of said church in

stealing property from those persons who do not belong to said

church," etc. This was followed by a long denial of a similar

character, signed by the Twelve, and later by an affidavit by the

prophet himself, denying that he ever "directly or indirectly

encouraged the purloining of property, or taught the doctrine of

stealing." On March 25, 1843, Smith, as mayor, issued a

proclamation beginning with the declaration, "I have not altered

my views on the subject of stealing," reciting rumors of a secret

band of desperadoes bound by oath to self-protection, and

pledging pardon to any one who would give him any information

about "such abominable characters." This exhibition of the heads

of a church solemnly protesting that they were opposed to

thieving is unique in religious history.

The Patriarch, Hyrum Smith, made an announcement to the

conference of 1843, which further confirms the charges of

organized thieving made by the non-mormons. While denouncing the

thieves as hypocrites, he said he had learned of the existence of

a band held together by secret oaths and penalties, "who hold it

right to steal from anyone who does not belong to the church,

provided they consecrate one-third of it to the building of the

Temple. They are also making bogus money . . . . The man who told

me this said, 'This secret band referred to the Bible, Book of

Doctrine and Covenants, and Book of Mormon to substantiate their

doctrines; and if any of them did not remain steadfast, they

ripped open their bowels and gave them to the catfish.'" He named

two men, inmates of his own house, who, he had discovered, were

such thieves. The prophet followed this statement with some

remarks, declaring, "Thieving must be stopped."*

* Millennial Star, Vol. XX, pp. 757-758.

The Rev. Henry Caswall, in a description of a Sunday service in

Nauvoo in April, 1842 "City of the Mormons," p. 15) says:--

"The elder who had delivered the first discourse now rose and

said a certain brother whom he named had taken a keg of white

lead. 'Now,' said he, 'if any of the brethren present has taken

it by mistake, thinking it was his own, he ought to restore it;

but if any of the brethren present have stolen a keg, much more

ought he to restore it, or else maybe he will get catched.' . . .

Another person rose and stated that he had lost a ten dollar

bill. If any of the brethren had found it or taken it, he hoped

it would be restored." This introduction of calls for the

restoration of stolen property as a feature of a Sunday church

service is probably unique with the Mormons.

That the Mormons did not do all the thieving in the counties

around Nauvoo while they were there would be sufficiently proved

by the character of many of the persons whom they found there on

their arrival, and also by the fact that their expulsion did not

make those counties a paradise.* The trouble with them was that,

as soon as a man joined them, no matter what his previous

character might have been, they gave him that protection which

came with their system of "standing together." An early and

significant proof of this protection is found in the action of

the conference held in Nauvoo on October 3, 1840, two months

before the charter had given the city government its extended

powers, which voted that "no person be considered guilty of crime

unless proved by the testimony of two or three witnesses."**

* "Long afterward, while the writer was travelling through

Hancock, Pike and Adams Counties, no family thought of retiring

at night without barring and doublelocking every

ingress."--Beadle, "Life in Utah," p. 65.

** Millennial Star, Vol. XVIII, p. 153.

It became notorious in all the country round that it was

practically useless for a non-Mormon to attempt the recovery of

stolen property in Nauvoo, no matter how strong the proof in his

possession might be. S. J. Clarke* says that a great deal of

stolen stock was traced into Nauvoo, but that, "when found, it

was extremely difficult to gain possession of it." He cites as an

illustration the case of a resident of that county who traced a

stolen horse into Nauvoo, and took with him sixty witnesses to

identify the animal before a Mormon justice of the peace. He

found himself, however, confronted with seventy witnesses who

swore that the horse belonged to some Mormon, and the justice

decided that the "weight of evidence," numerically calculated,

was against the non-Mormon.

* "History of McDonough County," p. 83.

A form of protection against outside inquirers for property,

which is well authenticated, was given by what were known as

"whittlers." When a non-Mormon came into the city, and by his

questions let it be known that he was looking for something

stolen, he would soon find himself approached by a Mormon who

carried a long knife and a stick, and who would follow him,

silently whittling. Soon a companion would join this whittler,

and then another, until the stranger would find himself fairly

surrounded by these armed but silent observers. Unless he was a

man of more than ordinary grit, an hour or more of this

companionship would convince him that it would be well for him to

start for home.*

* Lee's "Mormonism Unveiled," p. 168.

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