HANNIBAL, Mo. — The town of Nauvoo, Ill., population 1,063, appeared as sleepy as any river town on a hot August day when we arrived on the sixth day of our journey down the Mississippi River. But beneath the surface, we found old grudges and new mistrust simmering among residents who fear that the Mormon church is trying to turn their small town into a religious enclave.
The quietly intense dispute in Nauvoo is a complicated one that has its roots in violence that erupted in the area more than 150 years ago in the early days of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, commonly known as the Mormon church. But in its latest incarnation, it is primarily a feud over economic and quality-of-life issues.
At the center of the dispute is the majestic Nauvoo Illinois Temple that the church constructed at the foot of the town’s business district, re-creating the original temple built there by church founder Joseph Smith and his followers in the early 1840s. The temple, which was completed in June 2002, is the centerpiece of a sprawling complex of 27 restored historic buildings designed to give visitors a sense of life during the church’s early days.
Knowles’ father, Al Stevenson, who lives across the river in Fort Madison, Iowa, but spends much of his time in Nauvoo, said that many of the tourists are rude to the locals.
“We’re not against their religion,” he said over lunch at Grandpa John’s restaurant. “I’m not against anyone’s religion. But I’m against pushy people.”
But the resentment runs deeper than crowded streets and social graces.
The bottom line
“Part of the problem for the residents is that the church has purchased a lot of property around the temple and the prices are pretty high,” Knowles said. “That makes the rest of our property around town supposedly more valuable and has driven the tax rate up significantly.”
“Yeah, I think it’s a master plan,” she said, adding that the percentage of Mormons living in the town has increased from 10 percent to 35 percent over the period. “I think it’s been thought out for years and I think that they will get control of the City Council and the School Board within five years, then you’ll see a big drop in prices.”
The city’s mayor, Thomas Wilson, also predicted a Mormon majority in city government and expressed his displeasure with the direction the city is going in recently announcing that he will retire in April 2005 after 12 years in office.
In his office at one of three visitors centers the church has built in its complex, church Elder Jack Ranouf acknowledged that the number of Mormons living in the area has risen in recent years, from about 178 in the region around Nauvoo 1999 to approximately 900 today. He said that Mormons now make up 27 percent of Nauvoo’s population by church estimates.
But he rejected assertions that the church is using economic clout to force old-timers out in pursuing a secret scheme to take control of the town.
“The church tries to purchase property at fair market value,” he said. “We do not go out and offer beyond top dollar. We do understand that (the recent purchases) … raise property taxes, but they also raise property values.”
He also said that it is natural for Mormons to gravitate to an area of great significance in church history -- the spot where Smith and a small group of followers established the city they named Nauvoo, Hebrew for “beautiful place,” in 1839 and built one of the church’s earliest temples. Smith and his brother, Hyrum, also were murdered by a mob in nearby Carthage in 1846 after being imprisoned on charges of inciting a riot.
'Modest girls are the hottest girls'
Ranouf said that he believes the grousing about the church’s presence in Nauvoo comes from a vocal minority of its citizenry, adding that most of the townspeople support the church and appreciate its economic contribution.
“We sell an ungodly number of these shirts,” she said when asked to identify her best-selling item.
A few doors down at the Fudge Factory, Mormon owner Kathy Nelson agreed with Ranouf that fears of the church’s growing influence and talk of a secret plot are confined to a relatively small number of townspeople.
“I know that’s what they think in their heart of hearts … but they don’t have plan for taking over,” she said. “I’ve lived here 25 years and I don’t want Nauvoo to become another Salt Lake City.”
Adding fuel and an entirely different dimension to the debate is Colleen Ralson, a former Mormon who runs the Christian Visitors Center.
Ralson, whose office is packed with research on Mormon beliefs as well as exhibits like a wall of dolls intended to represent Joseph Smith and his 49 wives, said she aims to “educate, evangelize and encourage” Mormons to convert to more conventional forms of Christianity.
In the face of continued sniping from some quarters in the community, the church is increasing its outreach efforts, including having the actors in this year’s City of St. Joseph Pageant – a musical dramatization of the founding of Nauvoo -- participate in a recent city volunteer project and presenting a series of free entertainment events.
The church also announced that this will be the last year the pageant will be held in Nauvoo.
Renouf, the church elder, didn’t link the decision to the friction in Nauvoo, but he did hint that church leaders may have come to the conclusion that the opening of the temple and the huge popularity of the summer pageants may have been too much too soon for the tiny town.
“The first year we had around 350,000 people visit the temple in a three- or four-week period,” he said. “That’s a lot of people to come through a town with a population of 1,000.”
Our visit to Nauvoo concluded, we drove south into Missouri for a quick tour of Mark Twain’s hometown of Hannibal.
On Day 7 of our Mississippi River journey, we will return to the river and travel through a river lock on a barge and tow for a first-hand look at the system that has shippers say is in bad need of modernization.
Reporter Mike Brunker and media producer Jim Seida are traveling the length of the Mississippi in August and will be filing daily dispatches along the way. If you have a question or comment, mail us at email@example.com.