Under the direction of the Twelve Apostles, members of the Mormon Church quickly gathered to finish the construction of the Nauvoo Temple, so that all Latter-day Saints who desired to and were worthy could complete ordinances there. The Twelve fine-tuned the organization of the Church, so that duties were defined and worthy men assumed responsibility for various far-flung groups of Latter-day Saints. Priesthood authority defined the stewardships of various positions, and the Twelve were relieved of many pressing concerns that were too many for them to handle. Quorums of seventies, such as those called by the ancient apostles, helped administer the affairs of the Church.
Citizens of Illinois outside of Nauvoo succeeded in getting Nauvoo’s charter revoked. The action was understandable because of the many criminals who claimed to be Mormons, thus blackening the reputation of upstanding Latter-day Saints. The revoking of the charter left the Saints without a legal government or the protection of their own militia. The Twelve used guards to try to keep unsavory characters out of Nauvoo. Sometimes boys followed them, whistling, until the people abandoned the town. However, Nauvoo continued to grow. In June of 1845 Brigham Young said the following about the city:
[The city] looks like a paradise. All the lots and land, which have heretofore been vacant and unoccupied, were enclosed in the spring, and planted with grain and vegetables, which makes it look more like a garden of gardens than a city. . . . Hundreds of acres of prairie land have also been enclosed, and are now under good cultivation, blooming with corn, wheat, potatoes, and other necessaries of life. Many strangers are pouring in to view the Temple and the city. They express their astonishment and surprise to see the rapid progress.
Nauvoo’s spectacular growth only increased the antagonism of the Mormon Church’s enemies. Men accused of assassinating Joseph and Hyrum Smith were finally brought to trial. The claim of the defense was that it was the people’s will that the prophet be disposed of, so no one should shoulder the blame. All the accused were acquitted, and this emboldened the mobs who wanted to drive the Latter-day Saints out of Illinois. Early in September of 1845, a mob of three hundred men led by Levi Williams systematically burned outlying Mormon farms and homes. They first raided Morley’s settlement and torched many unprotected homes, farm buildings, mills, and grain stacks. In mid-September Brigham Young asked for volunteers to rescue the besieged Saints. One hundred thirty-four teams were secured and immediately sent to bring the families of the outlying settlements in south Hancock County and north Adams County safely to Nauvoo. Ensuing events proved that there would be no peace in Hancock County unless the Saints left.
Congressman Stephan A. Douglas was an advocate of manifest destiny—a philosophy advocating the growth of the United States completely across the continent. He counseled Church leaders to find a place to settle in the West and promised to use his influence in assisting their move. For some time Church leaders had planned a move to the Rocky Mountains, so these negotiations proceeded smoothly. Finally the Saints agreed to leave Nauvoo the following spring as soon as there was enough grass on the prairies to sustain their cattle and horses. Trustees of the Church would stay in Nauvoo to sell any remaining property.
Late in 1845 ordinances were performed in the nearly-completed Mormon temple, with rooms being dedicated to the Lord’s work as they were completed. When enemies of the Church observed this increased temple activity, they renewed their oppression. The Saints began to realize that they would be forced out of Nauvoo before the spring and favorable weather. They worked day and night to provide the members with the temple ordinances they desired. “On 3 February the Brethren planned to stop the ordinance work, and Brigham Young left the temple to make final preparation to leave the next day for the West. But seeing a large crowd gathered to receive their endowments, he compassionately returned to serve them. This delayed his departure for another two weeks. According to temple records, 5,615 Saints were endowed before going west, thus fulfilling one of Joseph Smith’s fondest desires.”
Many thousands of people responded to Latter-day Saint missionaries in England. They sent funds to Nauvoo for the building of the temple, and began to make the journey to the U.S. to join the body of the Saints. They became the strong backbone of the church membership. Meanwhile, Parley P. Pratt and his companions were teaching in the eastern United States. They discovered others of the Church who were spreading false doctrine and committing gross sins, causing many to be led astray. The guilty parties were sent to Nauvoo for church discipline.
In 1842 Joseph Smith had prophesied that the Saints would continue to suffer much affliction and “some of you will live to go and assist in making settlements and build cities and see the Saints become a mighty people in the midst of the Rocky Mountains.” Exploring groups were sent out to scout a good location for the Saints in the Rockies, and plans for the move advanced. The great basin of Utah was settled upon. Despite the onset of winter, Nauvoo was a hive of activity as the Saints began to prepare for the exodus.
The evacuation from western Illinois was originally planned for April 1846, but two new threats prompted an early, hasty exit. The first was the indictment against Brigham Young and eight other Apostles, accusing them of counterfeiting. The second was a warning by Governor Thomas Ford and others that federal troops in St. Louis planned to intercept the Mormons and destroy them. Years later it was learned that this was only a rumor started to induce the Saints to leave sooner than they had planned.
In January 1846 the Brethren decided to prepare several companies to leave at a moment’s notice. A committee was appointed to dispose of all property and effects left behind, including the temple and the Nauvoo House. The decision to leave was made on 2 February, and the first group, led by Charles Shumway, crossed the Mississippi River on 4 February. Soon there were several hundred Saints assembled in temporary camps in Iowa. Brigham Young and others who remained behind to administer endowments to the Saints did not leave Nauvoo until mid-February. Unfortunately too many left who were inadequately outfitted and chose to depart earlier than was wise.
The first difficulty (after abandoning beloved property) was crossing the Mississippi River. The river froze over for a time, allowing wagons to cross it. Ferries were used amidst floes of ice for the rest of the wagons.
If the Saints had left Nauvoo beginning in April, as originally planned, undoubtedly there would have been a more orderly exodus. The original blueprint called for twenty-five companies of one hundred families each with adequate provisions and presided over by a company captain. The companies were to have left at prearranged intervals to ensure order. But these plans were shattered by the Saints who panicked and did not want to be left behind after the Twelve had left. Many of the previously appointed captains abandoned their assignments to align themselves with the vanguard companies and be with the Twelve. But in spite of the confusion, there was optimism among the Saints in eastern Iowa. One of the most remarkable migrations in the history of Western civilization had begun.
*Parts of this article were adapted from the LDS Institute Church History Manual.