In late February 2020, I joined a couple dozen people for a living room soirée to listen to Benjamin E. Park talk about his new book, Kingdom of Nauvoo: The Rise and Fall of A Religious Empire on the American Frontier. Dr. Park, an assistant professor of early American history at Sam Houston State University, situates the mid-19th century city of Nauvoo as an example of the tenuous nature of American democracy for a religious minority on the fringe of American society and geography. How far did freedom of religion extend? Nauvoo tested those limits.
At the event, Park offered an overview of the themes from his book, answered questions, and signed copies. I met several friends I only knew via social media and we chatted over homemade bread with honey butter. While news headlines were becoming more concerning by the day, I certainly did not realize that this would be my last evening out without worrying about masks or social distancing or a devastating global pandemic. Park’s book tour was cut short as university campuses and book stores closed and seemingly the entire world shut down.
It is in this broader context of uncertainty and ramped up anxiety that I first read Kingdom of Nauvoo. And while my personal experience of reading may not be relevant to the content of the book, it highlights to me the brilliance of what Park accomplished. Though it is meticulously researched, the book was published by a national press and is written for a general audience. Clocking in at a slim 279 pages, the book’s narrative moves at a fast clip and remains an interesting and accessible read. At a time when I set aside my own research and writing and mostly sought comfort TV shows after long days of COVID homeschooling, Kingdom of Nauvoo kept me captivated. This review in The New Yorker assures me I wasn’t the only one to find the book compelling.
When I recommend the book to friends and family (wait, you DON’T regularly find yourself casually recommending histories of Nauvoo?), the most frequent question I get is how it compares to Richard Bushman’s Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling. The key difference is probably in the framing of the books. Rough Stone Rolling is a biographical and theological history of Joseph Smith that seeks to answer the question of why so many thousands of people found Joseph’s message compelling and gave up everything to join the restoration movement. Kingdom of Nauvoo, however, is primarily a political history that examines power and gender dynamics in Nauvoo in a moment of crisis for a minority religious group within the relatively new American democracy. Park takes the story of Nauvoo outside of its insular Mormon context and into a broader American context.
As a political history, there are two aspects that I found particularly compelling. The first is Park’s analysis of the Council of Fifty, an organization whose minutes were made available to researchers for the first time in 2016. Joseph organized the Council of Fifty in 1844 just a few months before his death as a theocratic body intended to replace what Joseph viewed as America’s failed democratic experiment. The council was to write a new constitution to replace the United States Constitution and provide a forum for God’s voice to rule. Significantly, after Joseph had organized the Relief Society in 1842 and incorporated women into the Quorum of the Anointed in 1843, thereby expanding women’s roles and formal leadership in the city and ecclesiastical structure of the Church, the Council of Fifty was all-male and members were instructed to keep their activities secret from even their wives.
The second aspect is Park’s poignant explanation of Joseph’s legal maneuvering through the Nauvoo City Charter and City Council. The charter granted the city unusual rights regarding issuing writs of habeas corpus, which allowed them to protect Joseph and other leading men from arrest and extradition. This analysis of the unusual use of writs within the city helped me understand why Joseph’s personal and political enemies may have viewed him and the city as a threat to law and order and why some viewed mob action as the only way to achieve justice. Between his explanation of the role of the Council of Fifty and Nauvoo’s atypical use of writs, Park clarified points of political activity that had previously seemed murky for me.
While Joseph remains the central character of the book, Park incorporates women in a way that complicates traditional narratives and grants women greater historical agency than is sometimes seen in histories of Nauvoo. Women such as Sarah M. Kimball, Sarah Pratt, Emma Smith, Eliza R. Snow, and Vilate Kimball aren’t simply tokenized, but are shown to take an active role in social, political, and religious developments in the city. While I have yet to read a book of general Mormon history that I haven’t thought could benefit from more inclusion of women, Kingdom of Nauvoo is a good example of what I hope to see more of: using women’s own words when possible and including them as individuals driving action, not just responding to the actions of leading men.
One criticism of the book has been that Park is too careful regarding polygamy. I don’t necessarily agree. There are much longer books dedicated specifically to polygamy in Nauvoo, and the perceived weakness of not getting into the weeds of many of the details of lived polygamy allows for one of the book’s strength of placing polygamy in the context of Smith’s broader theological and theocratic developments. Park argues that some of the same impulses that drove the polygamy project—a desire to create order and certainty in a chaotic and fallen world—pushed some of Joseph’s most extreme theocratic developments. Neither polygamy nor Joseph’s attempts at theocracy were successful in bringing order to chaos, but rumors of both increased tensions in the city and were directly related to the circumstances that led to Joseph and Hyrum’s arrests and murders in Carthage Jail.
On a personal level, this book will always be tied with my memories of the world shutting down due to COVID. Nevertheless, I don’t hesitate to recommend Kingdom of Nauvoo as an important contribution not only to the history of Nauvoo and early Mormonism, but to the history of American religion and democracy. I was not at all surprised when the Mormon History Association awarded Kingdom of Nauvoo the Best Book award at their 2021 conference. It is a book worth reading.
Kingdom of Nauvoo releases in paperback this month and is also available in hardcover, ebook, and as an audiobook (if you can excuse the reader’s pronunciation of “Nauvoo,” it is otherwise an excellent narration).
thanks for the review, Katie