Mormon History

Nauvoo Visit and Joe Smith Interview - 1843

Pittsburgh Gazette September 15, 1843

The Prairies, Nauvoo, Joe Smith,
the Temple, the Mormons &c.

WARSAW, Ill., Aug. 30, 1843.

Nauvoo, as most of your readers probably know, is about 20 miles above this town, on the Mississippi; Warsaw lying at the foot of the Des Moines rapids, and Nauvoo at the head. There are two roads -- one by the river bank and one by the prairie. We took the latter, although it is some four or five miles farther. Nauvoo lies about north of this point, but we first took a due east course in order to get on the prairie, as the bluff which divides the prairie from the river, all through this region, consists of wooded hills and ravines, generally from three to five miles wide. Our road, therefore, for the first five miles was very rough, after which we got out on the open, illimitable prairie, when we altered our course to the north, and stretched away for Nauvoo, over one of the finest roads in the world. I was much surprised, on arriving at the prairie, to witness the great changes that had taken place within three years. Three years before, on a prairie some fifteen miles across, immediately east of Warsaw, scarcely a house was to be seen; now the whole prairie appeared to be settled, presenting the appearance of an old inhabited country, with the exception that not a tree was to be seen. I was informed that twenty-five farms could be counted from one little hillock on this prairie. But our course north soon took us from this settled country, and we travelled over vast prairies, extending in every direction as far as the eye could reach, except on our right, where lay the bluff which intervened between us and the river. Herds of cattle could occasionally be seen dotting the surface of the earth, and it wanted but a small stretch of the imagination to fancy these the primeval lords of the prairie, the fierce buffalo, that a few years ago roamed in solitude and security over those inland oceans. As we approached the "kingdom," as Nauvoo is denominated here, the country began to be settled, while the luxuriant herbage of the prairie was cropped quite short by the herds of cattle belonging to the Mormons. Most of the prairie, near Nauvoo, is fenced with turf. A ditch some two feet deep is dug on each side of the fence, and the turf piled up between, making a very good and durable fence. These fences are broad enough on the top for a foot path. Quite a number of the houses or huts in which the inhabitants on the prairies live, are also made of turf, and covered with clapboards. As this turf is black, as is all the soil on the prairies, these huts present a very somber appearance, and as there is not a tree, and scarcely a hillock to ward off the scorching sun of summer or the cold blast of winter, they present a very bleak and desolate appearance. As we neared the city, about six o'clock in the evening, we passed an immense herd of cows which were being driven into the city from the prairie, to supply the inhabitants with milk. We also passed a large number of wagons loaded with hay, the produce of the natural grass of the prairie. About three miles from the river, we entered the "kingdom of Nauvoo;" it being about four miles long, up and down the river, and three miles broad. The part near the prairie, about a mile and a half from the river, is quite broken up with ravines; nevertheless, it is all laid out in acre lots, and more or less settled. We drove down near the river, and put up at a very respectable tavern, kept by one of the elders -- a temperance house. After ten we walked out past the house of the prophet, who has a very good garden containing about an acre, with a very fine fence around it, painted white, as is also his house, a moderate sized and humble looking frame dwelling. Near the prophet's house, on the other bank of the river, is the site of the "Nauvoo House," building by revelation. The basement is finished. It is built of a good, hard, white-stone. The front on the river is about 140 feet, and is entirely above ground, of cut stone. It has a wing running back about 100 feet. All this work is of the best and most substantial character. When this building is finished, it will be equal to any hotel in the western country. By special revelation, the prophet and his heirs are to have a suite of rooms in this house forever.

The next morning, after breakfast, we paid a visit to the prophet. We were received in a common sitting room, very plainly furnished, where the prophet and the older members of the family had just been breakfasting, and his numerous children and dependents were then sitting at the table. He received us in quite a good humored, friendly manner, asked us to sit down, and said he hoped for a better acquaintance. On the gentleman who accompanied me asking him how he prospered, he replied, "None can get ahead of me, and few can keep behind me," He seemed to think he had said something very witty, for he laughed very heartily. We spent about an hour conversing on various subjects, the prophet himself with amazing volubility, occupying the most of the time, and his whole theme was himself. Let us give whatever turn to the conversation, he would adroitly bring it back to himself. The gentleman who accompanied me is a strong Whig, and as the Mormon vote had been given at the recent election to the Locofoco member of Congress, thereby defeating Cyrus Walker, Esq., Whig, who had defended "Joe" in several law suits with the Missourians, we spoke of politics at first. "Joe" professed to be a strong friend of Mr. Walker, and said he had voted for him, but would not interfere with his people in the matter. He said he had never asked the Lord any thing about politics; if he had done so, the Lord would have told him what to do. "The Lord," said he, "has promised to give us wisdom, and when I lack wisdom I ask the Lord, and he tells me, and if he didn't tell me, I would say he was a liar; that's the way I feel. But I never asked him anything about politics. I am a Whig, and I am a Clay man. I am made of Clay, and I am tending to Clay, and I am going to vote for Henry Clay; that's the way I feel. (A laugh.) But I won't interfere with my people, religiously, to affect their votes, though I might to elect Clay, for he ought to be President. I have sworn by the eternal gods -- it's no harm to swear by the gods, because there is none; if there is only one God, there can't be gods, and it's no harm to swear by nothing. (a laugh) -- I have sworn by the eternal gods that I will never vote for a democrat again; and I intend to swear my children, putting their hands under the thigh, as Abraham swore Isaac, that they will never vote a democratic ticket in all their generations. It is the meanest lowest party in all creation -- There are five-sixths of my people so led away by the euphonious term "democrat," that they will vote the Locofoco ticket. I am a democrat myself. I am a Washington democrat, a Jefferson democrat, a Jackson democrat, and I voted for Harrison, and I am going to vote for Clay. The Locofocos are no democrats, but the meanest, lowest, most tyrannical beings in the world. They opposed me in Missouri, and were going to shoot me for treason, and I had never committed any treason whatever. I never had any thing bigger than a jack-knife about me, and they took me prisoner of war, and had twenty men to guard me. I had nothing to do with fighting. Our men six hundred strong, were in arms under Col. Hinckle. When the Missourians came marching up, Col. Hinckle ordered us to retreat, when I lifted up my hand, and said, 'Boys, I think we won't go yet; we'll stand our ground,' and they stood firm, but Col. Hinckle run like the very devil. For doing this they charge me with treason."

In this manner, the prophet ran off, talking incessantly, Speaking of revelations, he stated that when he was in a "quandary," he asked the Lord for a revelation, and when he could not get it, he "followed the dictates of his own judgment, which were as good as a revelation to him; but he never gave anything to his people as revelation, unless it was a revelation, and the Lord did reveal himself to him." Running on in his voluble style, he said: "The world persecutes me, it has always persecuted me. The people at Carthage in a public meeting lately, said, 'as for Joe, he's a fool, but he's got some smart men about him.' I am glad they give me so much credit. It is not every fool that has sense enough to get smart men about him. The Lord does reveal himself to me. I know it. He revealed himself to me first when I was about fourteen years old, a mere boy. I will tell you about it. There was a reformation among the different religious denominations in the neighborhood where I lived, and I became serious, and was desirous to know what church to join.

While thinking of this matter, I opened the testament promiscuously on these words, in James, "Ask of the Lord who giveth to all men liberally and upbraideth not." -- I just determined I'd ask him. I immediately went out into the woods where my father had a clearing, and went to the stump, where I had stuck my axe when I had quit work, and I kneeled down, and prayed, saying, 'O Lord, what church shall I join?' Directly I saw a light, and then a glorious personage in the light, and then another personage, and the first personage said to the second, 'Behold my beloved son, hear him.' I then, addressed this second person, saying, 'O Lord, what church shall I join?' He replied, 'don't join any of them, they are all corrupt.' The vision then vanished, and when I came to myself, I was sprawling on my back; and it was some time before my strength returned. When I went home and told the people that I had a revelation, and that all the churches were corrupt, they persecuted me, and they have persecuted me ever since. They thought to put me down, but they haven't succeeded, and they can't do it. When I have proved that I am right, and get all the world subdued under me, I think I shall deserve something. My revelations have proved to be true, because they have been delivered before they came to pass, and they came to pass exactly. I had a revelation in Missouri which was fulfilled to the letter. The Missourians had got us all prisoners, and were threatening to kill us. The principal men of us were lying under a log, with a guard standing around us in the night. I fell into a trance. I call it a trance. I heard a voice which said, 'Joseph, fear not; you and all your friends shall be delivered without harm, and shall yet stand upon the hills of Zion.' When I awoke out of the trance, I aroused Elder Rigdon, and said, I have a revelation, we shall all escape. Elder Rigdon shouted, and told it to the next one, and in the morning it was told to my family and all our friends, and they all rejoiced. -- That revelation came to pass, although they were holding a council at the time I had the trance, and had resolved to kill me. They can't harm me. I told my family lately, before I left home for Dixon, that if I was taken up, the Lord would deliver me, didn't I, Emma -- (appealing to his wife, who was standing behind his chair, playing with his hair, and who answered him in the affirmative) -- and when they took me I was passive in their hands, and the Lord compelled them to bring me right to Nauvoo. They couldn't help themselves, although they gnashed their teeth with rage.

Speaking of the temple, which he is erecting, he said, "I don't know how the world will like it, it suits me; I have no book learning; I'm not capacitated to build according to the world, I know nothing about architecture, and all that, but it pleases me; that's the way I feel."

A good deal of conversation of a similar character took place, the prophet occupying nearly the whole time, and talking of himself incessantly. Judging from his conversation, manner, and appearance, I should think him a man of small capacity, smaller acquirements, and a dupe to his own impostures. -- His language is rude and vulgar, and his conduct light and trifling. He is fond of his own jokes and low wit, and laughs immoderately when he thinks he has said a good thing. He is a large fleshy man, with a fine blue eye, large and sensual looking mouth and lips, with an evident predominance of the animal propensities.

It was surprising to see the awe with which his followers approached him with hat in hand, contrasted with the cavalier and heartless style of his treatment of them. A poor man came to the door while I was there, and with evident trepidation addressed the prophet. He wished to obtain some information as to what he had best to do with his family, having just arrived. "Had I better come into the town, and settle on one of the lots, or stay on the prairies?" "If you are going to farm it, you had better stay on the prairie," was the reply of the Prophet. "I wish to buy a piece of land, for which I will pay trade of various kinds to the amount of $500; will you sell some?" "My lands are all good titles, and I must have the money for them," was the reply of the Prophet, as he turned on his heel and left the man to reflect on the christian politeness and courtesy of one whom he esteemed a prophet of the Lord, and to obey whom, he had left early home, and braved the hardships of a western life. It is surprising that the conduct of the pretended prophet does not open the eyes of his poor, deluded followers. "Joe" is profane and vulgar in his conversation, and frequently gets drunk, and yet he is venerated as the favorite of heaven, and his revelations put on a par with divine writ.

After taking our leave of the prophet, we spent some time in viewing the city and temple. The site of Nauvoo is one of the most beautiful on the Mississippi River. The river at this place makes a large bend, forming a semi-circle, within which lies the lower part of the city, running back to the bluff. This semi-circular piece of ground is perfectly level, and lies above high water mark, extending at the widest place about three-fourths of a mile back from the river, and is about a mile and a half in length along the bluff. The bluff rises gradually, and is not very high, and presents most beautiful building sites. -- On the bluff immediately opposite the centre of the semi-circle, and a mile from the river, stands the temple. The site is beautifully chosen, as it is in a central and elevated position, and can be seen from the river, all around the bend, and from every part of the town.

All over the bluff and bottom, are buildings, either erected, or in progress of erection, but no part of the town is compactly built. The whole space is a conglomeration of houses, fences, gardens, corn fields, stables, huts, &c. One looks in vain for anything like a compactly built street. The object seems to have been to scatter as widely as at all convenient, and to cover as much ground as possible. The ground is sold in lots, and every man builds his house, or shantee, or hut, as the case may be, and plants his ground in corn and vegetables for the support of his family. The houses are of all sorts, shapes and sizes. Some, very many, are fine brick dwellings. Others are quite respectable looking frames. Others, again, are shantees, some log, some turf, and some mere sheds of boards. There are very few stores, mechanic shops, or business houses, and no trade going on. There is nothing to export, and no ability to import. Every body seems engaged in putting up houses, taking care of gardens, and getting in hay from the prairies. As crowds of emigrants are flocking in daily, the whole community is employed in providing shelter, and in procuring the barest necessaries for existence. It is hard to estimate the number of the population, it is scattered over so large a space, and several families are frequently crowded into one house. The prophet stated to me, that he estimated their number at 12,000. He said he could muster, in half a day, 3,000 able-bodied men, fit to bear arms, who could whip any five thousand Missourians. It is thought there are at least 25,000 Mormons in the county. They have a majority of the voters, and hold nearly all the county offices.

There must be a great deal of suffering in the winter season, from cold and hunger; and there is a considerable sickness in the community at this time. One sees many pale faces about the streets. As we approached the city, we met a mournful cavalcade conveying a human being to his last resting place. First came a common wagon driven by horses in which was the coffin, a rough looking box, with three men sitting upon it in their shirt sleeves. Behind this came a rough wagon, drawn by oxen, in which was a large family of children, of all ages, a young woman about 18 appearing as chief mourner, her cheeks wet with tears, probably burying her father. No prophet or priest, or elder, or procession of neighbours accompanied the remains to their last resting place.

But I must hasten to some account of the Temple, and then bring this long, and I fear, dry epistle to a close. This modern structure, which is to revive the departed glories of the temple of Jerusalem, and which is as apparently dear to every Mormon heart, as was that venerated house to the devout Jew, is building, as we stated before, on the bluff and is indeed "beautifully situated." It is about 120 feet long by 90 broad. When finished it is to consist of a basement, and two twenty-five feet stories. The basement and one twenty-five feet story is up, and the remainder in process of completion. The basement story is about 12 feet in the clear, the half of which is under ground. It is divided off into various sized rooms running along each side, with a large hall or room in the centre. In this large room stands, the consecrated laver, supported by twelve oxens, carved with great fidelity to the living original. Four of the oxen face the north, four the south, and two each, east and west. They, as well as the laver are composed of wood, and are to be overlaid with gold.

The lever is of oblong shape, some four or five feet deep, and large enough for two priests to officiate at the rite of baptism, for which it is intended, at once. A pump stands by it to supply it with water. Stairs approach it from either side. I walked up and looked in. It contained nothing but a few inches of water. The laver, oxen, and &c., are at present protected from the weather by a temporary roof. What the numerous rooms in this basement are intended for I did not learn. The walls are all exceedingly strong and massive, even the partition walls, generally from two to three feet thick. The basement is lighted by numerous windows, about five feet high, and as many wide, arched over the top. Between these windows are very heavy pilasters, on the top of which rest the basement stones of the less heavy pilasters between the windows of the upper stories. On each of these basement stones is carved a crescent or figure of the new moon, with the profile of a man's face, as seen in old Almanacs. The windows of the upper stories are some fifteen or eighteen feet high arched over the top in a perfect semicircle. The first story above the basement is divided into two apartments, called the outer and inner courts. The walls between these courts are three feet thick, of solid mason work, with two immense doors for passage between them. The outer court is some twenty five feet wide, by ninety feet long -- the inner court is about ninety feet square. These facts about the dimension of the building I obtained from Joe himself. All the work is of good cut stone, almost white, and it will present a fine appearance when finished. How the second twenty five feet story is to be finished, I did not learn. I have been thus particular in my description of this building, as many exaggerated stories are circulated in regard to it. Having thus visited the prophet, and examined the city, and temple, I left for my temporary home at this place, thankful that I had been preserved from such vain and unhappy delusions, which cannot but work temporal and spiritual woe to all concerned in them, unless speedily repented of.

Note: This letter was written by Pittsburgh Gazette Editor, David Nye Waite, Sr. See also Waite's report of a follow-up visit to the same region in the June 9, 1845 issue of the daily Gazette.