Visiting Nauvoo with a Family

This post will be more aimed at Latter-day Saints than most of mine, unless there are some of you who are planning to travel across the country by car and are looking for an interesting, free place to stop along the way. In that case, I’d definitely point you in this direction, as it’s very well-run and was my kids’ favorite part of the whole trip. (Sorry, Grand Canyon.) Why? Read on.

First, a bit of background. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints bounced around a lot in its early years, mainly because anywhere they started to establish themselves, the locals eventually ended up threatening to kill them unless they left. (And they usually killed a few members, just to show they were serious.) The last place the Latter-day Saints settled before they moved to Utah was Illinois, in a city they founded themselves on swampland no one else wanted. They called it Nauvoo. They’d only end up staying there for seven years: Joseph Smith was killed by angry locals. (In the seven years they’d lived there, the city had grown to 12,000 people. From what I’ve read, that was bigger than Chicago at the time. Citizens were worried the religious group would take over.)

In the years since, the Church has bought back the land, built a temple there, and restored the buildings to make the area a living history site. It’s staffed completely by volunteer missionaries now, and you can go for free to see anything they have to offer. They keep the focus on history, though they do talk about the faith of the people who lived there. What they believed and why they moved there. Because of its historical nature, this didn’t come across as preachy to me, but then again, I’m a member, so perhaps my tolerance for preachy is higher than someone else’s. I know I’ve gone to historical Shaker villages that talk about the Shaker religion and haven’t left feeling like I was being pressed to become a Shaker. This felt about on par with that.

What sort of activities are there? Well, there’s a working blacksmith, a printing shop, gun store, bakery, cultural hall, and more. In each of the places you go, there are people there to explain how things were done back in the 1840s. There are a slew of historical homes as well, all furnished with period-appropriate pieces. There are carriage rides and wagon rides that give you a tour of the town and area. In one spot, they show you how to make bricks, weave, make rope, and more. (The kids made their own rope and got to take it with them.)

But all of those things were there the last time I went. New to me this time were the performing missionaries. These are college-aged missionaries who audition to come to Nauvoo for 3.5 months and spend their time giving concerts, acting, and putting on shows. We got to Nauvoo in the evening (after the tires on our car were fixed) and went to a show they put on every evening (again, for free). It started with about 45 minutes of a brass band (really a full band, since they had a slew of woodwinds, too), followed by a 45 minute musical theater show. When the missionaries came out, they seemed just bursting with exuberance, to the point that I thought I was going to be hokey’ed out within minutes. Instead, their excitement was contagious, and I ended up thoroughly enjoying myself.

The musicians and singers are super talented, and I don’t say that lightly. They had a fiddle player who could knock your socks off. Daniela and MC talked to some of them afterward, and they both are really hoping they can go to Nauvoo one day in that role. Yes, it was all about as over-the-top wholesome as you can imagine, and I’m sure you could look at it all with a cynical eye. But talking with them and hearing about what they’re doing and what they think, I couldn’t help but wish more people could embrace that wholesomeness without worrying about what other people might think. It seemed genuine to me.

Later on that night, there was a presentation they call the “Trail of Hope,” where you walk down the road the Saints used to leave the city and head west, and the performing missionaries are there at stations along the way, acting out the part of some of the people who left. They quote from their journals or sing songs from the time. It was quite moving.

That said, it connected with me because these were also my ancestors. I had family on both my mother and father’s sides that were there in Nauvoo, dealing with the angry mobs. Abandoning their homes. I talked with the girls about it as well, showing them that they could do hard things, because their great-great-great-great grandparents did hard things. That didn’t matter as much to me when I was younger, but the older I get, the more I feel connected to those who came before me.

In any case, we had a fantastic time, and we would happily go again.


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