Book Review: Kingdom of Nauvoo

Kingdom of Nauvoo: The Rise and Fall of a Religious Empire on the ...

Title: Kingdom of Nauvoo: The Rise and Fall of a Religious Empire on the American Frontier Author: Ben Park Published by: Liveright   
Genre: History
Year Published: 2020
Number of Pages: 324
Available in : Cloth & Digital
ISBN: 978-1-613149-486-4
Price: Cloth, 28.95; Digital List Price 26.23

Home - America's Freedom Festival at Provo
Grand Parade, America’s Freedom Festival at Provo

For generations, members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints living in the United States have tried very hard to cultivate an image of themselves as fiercely loyal American citizens.  Modern Mormons love to wave the flag, say the Pledge of Allegiance, launch fireworks and brag about how Provo, Utah has one of the largest Fourth of July celebrations in the entire US of A .[1]  Thanks to this image of them as consummate American patriots, most people, especially most Mormons, are likely to be shocked by the opening line of Ben Park’s Kingdom of Nauvoo: The Rise and Fall of a Religious Empire on the American Frontier. The very first sentence that greets readers is:

A gloomy pall hung over the Mormon city of Nauvoo when Joseph Smith and his closest allies gathered to replace the American Constitution (p. 2). 

That opening tease sucks you right into Kingdom of Nauvoo and from there, Park’s engaging and deft prose coupled with the newly available information that he shares never lets up, as a reader you are on an amazing ride all the way to the last page.

Council of Fifty in Nauvoo, Illinois
The Council of Fifty Minute Books

Some people might ask, does there really need to be another book on the history of Nauvoo?[2] The books on the history of Nauvoo that came before Kingdom were informative, and their author’s did the best that they could with the information that they had, but the release of the Joseph Smith Papers Project volume Administrative Records, Council of Fifty, Minutes, March 1844–January 1846 made all of those previous volumes obsolete.  Park’s access to these previously restricted and highly sought-after minutes and documents allowed him to upend many of the things that we thought that we knew about what was going on in those important days in Nauvoo. 

Returning to Park’s prologue, he explains that it was not uncommon for people in the 1840’s to think that democracy in the USA had failed and he explains that various movements were formed to fix or save that democracy.  The Council of Fifty and innovations in Nauvoo were Joseph Smith’s response to this perceived failure.  In Kingdom of Nauvoo Ben Park explores in more depth than has been possible before how during the Nauvoo period, Smith tried to save America through radical religious experimentation and by working with his secret councils to replace the US government with a theocratic kingdom.  I have read Kingdom of Nauvoo twice now, and various passages more than that.  There is so much depth in this book to absorb that trying to sum it up in a couple of paragraphs has been difficult.  I will focus on four words, two of which are used by Park: radical, politics, control, and “why”. 

File:Joseph Smith Red Brick Store in Nauvoo.jpg - Wikimedia Commons
Joseph Smith’s Red Brick Store, site of much of his religious experimentation

What Joseph Smith did in Nauvoo really was radical. This is not a new idea, but thanks to Park’s access to the Council of 50 Minutes and other documents, Kingdom of Nauvoo gives readers a greater scope of just how radical Smith’s Nauvoo experimentation was and why he did the radical things that he did.  During Nauvoo Smith tried to replace democratic government with a theocratic kingdom.  He tried to replace monogamous marriage with polygamy:

not (as) a superficial endorsement for extramarital sex, but (as) a vision of a multilayered patriarchal hierarchy that governed the cosmos (p. 63). 

In Nauvoo Smith created new scripture that included a “bold recasting of the Earth’s creation” and “revised the biblical account of humanity’s origins by introducing a ‘council’ of ‘Gods’ as the story’s driving force” (p. 89).  With the introduction of a temple he sought to use “priesthood governance” to bring “order to civilization” and “once and for all (answer), questions of one’s spiritual standing (by making) salvation…tangible” (pp. 60-61, 95-96).  Through the order of the temple he sought to revolutionize Christianity and Masonry by mixing them into one and “impos(ing) a sacred liturgy on a fraternal rite” (pp. 96-97). All of the actions by Smith were already known of course, the brilliance of Kingdom of Nauvoo is that Park is able to explain so clearly WHY Smith did all of these things and show how they are all interlinked. 

Group of Mormon Leaders
Depiction of Joseph Smith meeting with apostles in Nauvoo. Painting by William W. Major

As explained in Kingdom, the major connecting tissue for the above radical experiments is control.  When he was a boy and a young man, Joseph Smith’s life was frequently out of control. His family was poor. They had to move frequently. They built homes and plowed land only to lose them.  As an adult, Smith was frequently on the move. In Missouri he found himself in jail while his followers had to flee the state. So, when he got to Nauvoo and had a chance to use politics and religious power to gain control, Smith did, and Park illustrates just how excessively he tried to wield that control.  It is as he is describing and explaining Smith’s manipulation of politics and religious power to gain control that Park’s writing is at its best and where I think that Kingdom is most important. 

Joseph Smith is a tricky person to write about. To Mormons, Smith is the mouthpiece for God and someone who they are taught to revere as a great hero from the time that they are small.[3] For most ex-Mormons and many non-Mormons, Smith is a villain who perpetrated a great fraud and was only after power, money, and sex.  Trying to produce a scholarly book that can appeal to a wide audience and explain someone like Smith without just making everyone upset is extremely difficult, but I believe that Park pulled it off.  As depicted in Kingdom of Nauvoo, Smith really does believe in his prophetic role and he really is concerned about the salvation of his people.  But in his attempts to gain and wield control and protect himself and his people, Smith made bad and questionable decisions that injured his followers, turned friends into foes, scared their neighbors and the nation, and ultimately led to his death.

Historians Share What You Should Know about Emma Smith - Church ...
Joseph Smith offered women authority and power through the Relief Society. But while this was going on he was secretly telling some of their number that their family’s salvation depended on them becoming his plural wives

For those that follow or believe in Joseph Smith, when they read Kingdom they will see the Smith that they know and follow, but they will gain a greater understanding for why people are challenged or bothered by him.  Park does an excellent job of describing both Smith’s gifts and ability to inspire people while narrating aspects of his life and behavior that could be very troubling. I will illustrate how this impacted me with three quick examples.  Park shows how Smith’s behavior toward women could be both inspiring and disturbing.  He gives great detail on how Smith sought to empower women through the Relief Society and Masonic temple ritual, while showing how Smith could pit women against each other, manipulate them into secret plural marriages, and use them to cover and protect himself from the results of his choices and behaviors. 

William Law (Latter Day Saints) - Wikipedia
William Law

Smith could be fiercely loyal and protective of his friends and rewarded them with power and position. But Park illustrates better than I have read before how Smith could also turn friends into enemies.  I grew up with the idea that William and Jane Law and William’s brother Wilson were evil villains who were responsible for Smith’s death.  In Kingdom I learned just how much the Laws loved Smith and just how hurt they were by his actions.  For me the Laws went from one dimensional villains to complex, tragic, sympathetic figures.  When it comes to politics, all I can say is read the book.  After reading the book I can understand why the “enemies” of the Mormons had reason to fear their political behaviors and block voting.  While I may not agree with the violent reactions that led to Smith’s deaths and the attacks that drove the Mormons out of Illinois and into the American West, after reading Kingdom I can sympathize with why all of the non and ex-Mormon’s in 1840 were so angry.

2020 Fireworks Show, America's Freedom Festival at Provo at LaVell ...
Its all connected

I want to say just a little bit more about “Why” because this is the most important word for me in relation to Kingdom. If you have not caught on already, I believe that Ben Park has revolutionized how we understand Nauvoo.  I grew up hearing the stories of my ancestors in Nauvoo. This led to a life-long fascination and I read all of the previous books and materials on its history. I have known the STORIES, the “what” of Nauvoo for decades, but now that I have read Kingdom of Nauvoo, I finally understand the WHY of Nauvoo. Even more, reading Kingdom helped me to understand the “why” of Mormons today.  While the “lets replace the government” Mormons of 1840’s Nauvoo may seem radically different from the “flag waving, Pledge of Allegiance” saying Mormons of 2020’s Provo, Kingdom showed me how modern Mormons are the natural evolution of their Nauvoo ancestors. Park has laid a whole new foundation in Kingdom for understanding the “why” of Joseph Smith’s Nauvoo theocracy and radical religious experiments. This in turn gives a better understanding for “why” Brigham Young attempted his radical experiments and theocracy in the Utah territory.  Once I understood that, I understood a whole new “why” for the political ideals and behaviors of today’s firework shooting, flag waving Mormons.  These connections are really all really very captivating. 

I did come across a couple of minor mistakes while reading Kingdom, and to Park’s credit I haven seen him acknowledge them in discussions since the book’s release.  I hope that these are corrected in future printings/editions.  The mistakes I saw are: on page sixty-six, Park addresses polygamy and polyandry.  At the bottom of the page he lists several women to whom Joseph Smith was sealed:

each of whom had husbands who were active members of the church: Mary Elizabeth Rollins, Patty Bartlett Sessions, and Marinda Nancy Johnson.

However, Mary Elizabeth Rollins’ husband Adam Lightner was never a member of the church.[4] The second mistake is really just Park getting ahead of the timeline.  Pages 146-154 are one of my favorite sections of the book.  On these pages Park elaborates on the complicated nature of Smith’s relationships with some of his polygamous wives. Quite a bit of this section is dedicated to Smith’s sealing to seventeen-year-old Sarah Ann Whitney. Sarah Ann was the daughter of Presiding Bishop Newel K. Whitney and Elizabeth Ann Whitney who was a counselor to Smith’s wife Emma in the Relief Society.  On page 150, Park tells the story of how in 1843, in order to hide his polygamous relationship with Sarah Ann, Smith set up a fake marriage for her to Joseph Kingsbury. On this page Sarah Ann is named as “Sarah Ann Kimball” instead of Whitney. Technically this is not wrong as after Smith’s death, Sarah Ann was married to Heber C Kimball. Park is just a couple years ahead of the curve![5] But this could confuse readers who do not know that.

I apologize, I got very wordy in this review, but Kingdom of Nauvoo is droolingly good.  It grabbed me with its amazing prologue and it was non-stop fascination from there.  In Kingdom of Nauvoo, Park’s access to previously unavailable Council of Fifty documents and his engaging prose allowed him to craft a feast that will satisfy readers and historians for a long time to come.


[1] Provo, Utah is, of course, the home of LDS Church owned BYU.  It has a population of approximately 116,000, 90% of whom are LDS/Mormon. The “America’s Freedom Festival at Provo” starts in May and includes speech and essay contests, art contests, a baby contest, a baseball tournament, a golf tournament, firesides and prayer breakfasts, hot air balloon races and many more activities.  It culminates on July 4th with a huge parade and a concert/firework spectacular that is held at BYU’s Football stadium.

[2] Major titles of general history on Nauvoo include: Nauvoo: A Place of Peace, a People of Promise, by Glen M. Leonard; The Rise and Fall of Nauvoo, by B. H. Roberts; Nauvoo: The City of Joseph, by David Miller; Nauvoo: Kingdom on the Mississippi, by Robert Flanders; Kingdom On The Mississippi Revisited: Nauvoo In Mormon History, by Roger D. Launius; and “In Old Nauvoo: Everyday Life in the City of Joseph, Book by George Givens

[3] LDS “Doctrine and Covenants” 135:3 states that Joseph Smith has “done more, save Jesus only, for the salvation of men in this world.” From the time that they are children Latter-day Saints are taught the hymn “Praise to the Man” which includes lyrics such as “Great is his glory and endless his priesthood. / Ever and ever the keys he will hold. / Faithful and true, he will enter his kingdom, /Crowned in the midst of the prophets of old” (LDS Hymnal, No. 27).

[4] For a brief biography of Lightner including that he was never a member of the Church see this link to the Joseph Smith Papers project that cites Mary Elizabeth. https://www.josephsmithpapers.org/person/adam-lightner-jr

[5] See https://www.josephsmithpapers.org/person/sarah-ann-whitney-kimball


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