Mormon Renewal Creates a Stir in an Illinois Town

NAUVOO, Ill. – High upon a bluff overlooking the Mississippi River stands a soaring Mormon temple, the biggest building for many miles around. Closed to non-Mormons, it symbolizes the tension that has reshaped life in what was until recently a typical Midwestern town.

The Mormons opened their rebuilt temple here two years ago, and since then more than half a million people, many from Utah, have come to see it. About 300 Mormons have moved here, bringing the population to 1,100.

“There’s no religious animosity, but these people have created a big stir,” said Bob Soland, a city councilman.

Mormons have brought a good deal of money to Nauvoo, something that many other towns along the Mississippi River might envy. Places like Warsaw, 17 miles north, and Fort Madison, Iowa, on the other side of the river, have few apparent prospects and seem to be shriveling away.

In Nauvoo, though, Mormons have restored two dozen historic buildings to give visitors a sense what life may have been like here in the 1840’s. Cars, many with Utah license plates, creep in and out of a new 200-car garage. There are seven restaurants, all open year-round.

A temple like the one recently restored stood on the same bluff in the 1840’s, when Nauvoo was the center of the Mormon world. It was destroyed during a bloody conflict between Mormons and their enemies in which the religion’s founder, Joseph Smith, was killed. Soon afterward, the Mormons set out on their epic trek to Utah, where they prospered and built what has become one of the world’s fastest-growing religions.

Smith founded the Mormon faith in upstate New York, where he claimed to have been guided by an angel to a spot where he discovered gold plates on which ancient prophets had written a series of divine revelations. He led a small band of followers to Nauvoo, and within a few years the group swelled to 10,000, ranking this town, with Chicago, as the two biggest in Illinois. Mormons established their own legal code and raised a militia with about 3,000 men. Smith gained considerable political power and announced plans to run for president.

“Nauvoo is the beginning of a lot of things,” said Samuel Park, president of the Illinois Nauvoo Mission, which oversees the church’s operations here. “It’s a sacred place to us, a place of sacrifice. We’re coming back here, and we want to stay.”

Mr. Park said he recognized that some longtime residents were unhappy with the increased traffic, skyrocketing real estate prices and other changes Mormons have brought to Nauvoo. “There’s a certain fear that our presence here is a tad too dominant,” Mr. Park said. “But we’re a peaceful group. We obey rules. Maybe the good example is irritating.”

Al Stevenson, a retired farmer, stood outside Grandpa John’s cafe on a recent afternoon, chewing on a toothpick and grousing about the newcomers. He had a few unprintable comments about the Illinois state legislature, which recently passed a resolution apologizing to Mormons for the way they were treated here in the 19th century, and then spoke about his new neighbors.

“I just don’t like pushy people,” Mr. Stevenson said. “If they had come in here and sat down with us and asked our advice and tried to understand who we are and how we’ve been living all these years, that would have been fine. But they don’t show any respect for us. The only way to get along with them is to do what they want.”

Mr. Stevenson said he and his friends were angry that Mormons had paid a six-figure price for a home across the street from the temple and then destroyed it so there would be more open space around their building. He said some people here had joked about buying another home near the temple and opening a bar or strip club, presuming that the church would then pay them a huge sum to buy and close it.

Mayor Thomas J. Wilson said he had decided to step down in April after 12 years in office, partly because he disapproves of the ways Nauvoo is changing. Mr. Wilson predicted that the day would come when Nauvoo would have a Mormon mayor and a Mormon-dominated City Council.

“It’s going to happen over time,” he said. “They’re here, and every day they grow a little. It’s a reality.”

As the two men spoke, a well-scrubbed young woman named Rebecca Bingham emerged from the cafe. She said she was one of 128 recent high school graduates from Utah who had come here on a bus tour to explore their Mormon roots.

“We all know about Nauvoo,” Ms. Bingham told the bemused locals. “It’s a big place, big in our hearts.”

Many of the businesses along Nauvoo’s main street cater to Mormons, including one that sells T-shirts proclaiming, “Modest Girls are the Hottest Girls.” But at the Nauvoo Christian Visitors Center, Colleen Ralson, a former Mormon, spends her days telling everyone who drops in that the Mormon faith is based on lies.

The Mormon Church

Given that the theology and practice of the Mormon Church violates essential Christian doctrines, Mormonism does not represent historical, Biblical Christianity, is not a Christian denomination, and is not in any way part of the Christian church.

“If they’re following Joseph Smith, they’re not following the God of the Bible,” Ms. Ralson said.

Mormons, whose church is officially called the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, use Christian iconography and say that they follow the biblical God, but with additional revelations not included in the Bible.

Economic, political and social tensions have grown as Mormons have poured into Nauvoo. A developer wants to build a 70-unit residential complex on the edge of town, and the unspoken assumption is that Mormons would buy most of them. The City Council has blocked the project, citing concerns about its size.

“Real estate sales are five times bigger than before they came in with the temple,” said Wayne S. Marting, the town’s only real estate agent. “If in a normal year you used to sell six or seven properties, now it’s 25 properties. And if you sell 25, then 21 or 22 of those sales would be to Mormons.”

Rustin Lipincott, director of the Nauvoo tourism office, said he spent much of his time “trying to find that happy balance between local folks and Mormon folks.”

“This is an exciting time for Nauvoo, especially for people in business,” Mr. Lipincott said, “but I can also see the hesitation of longtime residents.”

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The New York Times, USA
July 29, 2004
Stephen Kinzer

Religion News Blog posted this on Thursday July 29, 2004.
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