Nauvoo: A religious and cultural history day
Saturday May 15, 2010, 10 miles (16 km) – Total so far: 388 miles (625 km)
Part of this ride, and consequently the route I’ve chosen, is to reflect on why people emigrate and the hardships people may have encountered in past journeys. What compels a person to leave the security and love of home (refugees excepted!) to take up residence somewhere foreign and unknown? I happily emigrated west for college and immediately felt like Fort Collins, CO was home. My next immigration was considerably more involved and more expensive, and I struggled for more than 6 years to get a life started in Australia. It was a long time before I found a place where I fit in and felt accepted.
So I’ve purposely chosen a bike route which will allow me to follow parts of the Mormon, Oregon and California trails and a section of the Lincoln Highway – the first trans-continental U.S. highway. Today, I will explore the Mormon journey. After yesterday’s encounter, I decide to go have a look around town early, before the faithful or any pilgrimage folks are out and about. I check out all the restored and reconstructed buildings and try to imagine what it would have looked like at its height in the early-mid 1840s when there were approximately 4,000 buildings and around 15,000 followers in town, making it bigger than Chicago at that time. The Mormons were chased out of New York, Ohio and Missouri before they ended up here in 1839. They weren’t here too long before they pissed off the locals, here, too. This ended with the arrest and murders of Smith and his brother in 1844, and not long after (1846), the exodus to Utah led by Brigham Young.
As I’m walking/riding around, I keep thinking about the strength and power of faith. This religion compelled easterners of no particular frontier bent to follow their leader from NY to OH to MO to here – where they took up residence on swampy river flats prone to flooding. And then they travelled in a mass migration westward to Utah on the call of the church leaders (even though they had little choice but to leave). I ponder how people with a desire for power, a charismatic persona and a fantastic public speaking ability come to lead others in politics, religion, etc. It is an interesting morning.
I also try to understand the hysteria in the time after the Smith brothers were killed by vigilantes in the Carthage jail. The faithful brought the bodies back to Nauvoo to lie in state in the kitchen of the Mansion House. The followers were so afraid of what might happen with the ill will of the other locals that they buried the bodies in between the foundation walls of the house and the coffins elsewhere. The bodies were moved again before thirty years later being buried where they are today. I can’t fathom the fear that would lead to that.
I wander down to the river and wonder what the followers really thought as they looked across that wide river and into the unknown – the doubts they had, the fear of being persecuted if they stayed, a righteous feeling for following God’s will, etc. Over time, the trail became established, but that journey would always have been gruelling. Google ‘Mormon handcarts’. I look at the various statues and monuments and take pause to look at the list of names of known Trail casualties.
Being of no particular faith, my mind is boggled by this all. I find it particularly curious to see the split in the religion. The Community of Christ folks (Smith’s descendents and the ‘Reorganised LDS’ contingent) own part of town and the LDS (Brigham Young followers) own other parts of town. They have separate interpretive signage and visitor centres and different views on how things happened. It is pretty thought-provoking to see this religion early in the making – like being around 2000 years ago and meeting a particular carpenter.
So I cruise up to see the Mormon temple that was completed in 2002. The original temple, sitting on the same site, was never finished and was burnt down after the exodus. The temple dominates the town, but it doesn’t have any reverential feel to me. It seems more like a courthouse than a place to connect with God. I then head down to see the ‘Monument to Women’. I think it might celebrate either the accomplishments of some of the pioneer Nauvoo women and their contributions to the community, or some of the women who endured the trek to the Salt Lake Basin. But no, it is all about contributing kiddos and the joy of motherhood. It has 3 garden areas for each stage of life. In girlhood you are supposed to pray, learn and develop talents. Then there is a courtship statue of teenage years that leads into the next stage of womanhood – being a mom. These statues are all about child-raising. This then leads to the final stage which has one statue of a grandmotherly woman knitting or sewing a quilt. My interpretation of this monument: learn, develop your talents as a youngster, then forget about all that, marry early, raise a bunch of kids and end your life quilting. Oh dear, this really bothers me!
That experience is enough for me to call it a day with Mormon history and head back to the campsite to catch up on my journal and thank my parents for raising me to be an independent chick with a sense of adventure and the feeling that I can do whatever I want in life. No kiddos for Emily!