November 2, 2012 6:31 pm

A sanctuary for saints

The tiny town where Mormonism was established now welcomes 1m visitors a year
Women in 19th-century clothes in Nauvoo, Illinois

A period-dress re-enactment

They’re used to tourists in Nauvoo. They get about a million a year. But, standing in the town’s reconstructed Victorian pharmacy, one volunteer in full 19th-century dress says that this year she’s noticed something rather different about them: they’re not all Mormon.

“I think a lot of them come because they want to know about Mitt Romney,” says Sister Rawlings, herself a Mormon missionary. “They know he’s a Mormon, so it piques their curiosity. They want to know what we believe.”

This tiny Illinois town in a bend of the Mississippi, 300 miles southwest of Chicago, has been variously described as the Mormon equivalent of Mecca, Zion and the Vatican. That’s something of a hat-trick of offensiveness to the Abrahamic religions, but an indication of how important this place is.

It was here that Joseph Smith Jr, founder and prophet of Mormonism, arrived in 1839 to create a place for the gathering of “the saints”. Over the next few years, he and heaven’s newest saints applied themselves to the rather earthly tasks of swamp-drainage. Within a few years they had built a city to rival Chicago with a pharmacy, a gunsmith, a temple and (in accordance with an unusually precise revelation from the Lord) an absolutely enormous house for Smith.

Illinois map

Their non-Mormon neighbours, unconvinced that the devotees gathering here in their thousands were saints (and even more unconvinced of the saintliness of Smith’s militia and his polygamy) arrested him. Smith was shot in a scuffle. His followers fled across a frozen Mississippi, eventually to Utah. The town’s population dropped from 11,000 to just over 1,000 in five years. Zion, and its pharmacy, began to crumble back into the earth.

Until now. Over the past few decades, the Mormons have started to reconstruct Nauvoo as a religious site-cum-tourist attraction. The houses are back; the pharmacy is back; the temple is back. And, in ever-increasing numbers, the Mormons are back, many of them in original costume.

On a freezing October day, I walk along fire-bright avenues of autumnal trees. With its gravel paths and perfect lawns, it could be in any well-to-do suburb in America. Except that interspersed with the cars is the occasional horse and cart. A woman sweeps the street in full Victorian dress.

I push open the nearest door marked “Entrance – Please no smoking, food or pets.” Two women approach. “I’m Sister Call,” says one. “I’m Sister Moses,” says the other. Both, from the neck up, have the perfect hair and make-up of well-heeled American retirees. Both, from the neck down, are dressed as 19th-century Mormons. Including, in Sister Call’s case, the underwear, which is, she says, “interesting”.

Sister Call shows me around the pretty house, with its stripped-wood floors and muted Farrow & Ball-toned walls. She explains that like most of the people on this site, she is a missionary – hence the “Sister” (men here are called “Elder”). Before finding her calling, Sister Call had run a car dealership in Idaho. There is, she says, no comparison between the two: being a missionary is “just fun”.

Fun, and also presumably quite expensive: all missionaries pay for their own board and lodging for the duration of their stay (often somewhere between one and two years). This, she explains, is so that visitors like me can come and experience not only the house tours and wagon rides for free but also “the truthfulness of this restored gospel”.

Nauvoo©Alamy

Historic Nauvoo

And the visitors keep coming. It is estimated that a million Mormons come here each year to see where their prophet lived, as well as increasing numbers of non-Mormons coming to see what they, and Romney, believe.

But as I walk around, it doesn’t feel like I am getting any closer to the faith of Romney’s co-religionists. The reconstructions are charming (albeit with rather less in the way of dung and malaria than I suspect the originals had); the volunteers delightful, and the town autumnal and beautiful. But, overall, the experience feels more about history and housing than it does about religion; a sort of upmarket Ironbridge.

Until, that is, you sense the schisms and doctrinal differences betrayed by the multiple visitor centres. Nauvoo, (population 1,149) has no fewer than four: one run by the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter-day Saints; one run by the Community of Christ; one run by the local tourist board; and one run by a non-Mormon Christian.

Each, a local tells me, will give you their own, subtly different version of history (except for the non-Mormon, who eschews all subtlety to tell me that Mormonism is “toxic”). In the gift shop of the Community of Christ (formerly known as the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints) centre, next to some Joseph Smith salt and pepper shakers, I find volunteer Don Richardson. I ask him how these two branches of Mormonism differ. He pauses for a moment before saying, “They put a hyphen between ‘latter’ and ‘day’.”

Nauvoo has two historical research centres: the Mormon belief that people can be baptised (and saved) posthumously means that knowing your ancestors is important. Lacking any Mormons in my own family, I decide to look up Romney’s great-great-grand­father Parley P Pratt, a close associate of Smith and one of the first settlers.

I head to the Land and Records Office. Inside, I am approached by the usual brace of missionaries. “I’m Sister Dahl.” “I’m Sister Green.”

I explain what I’d like to look up. They show me to computer and I sit in front of its Joseph Smith screensaver, flanked by the sisters. As I reach for the mouse, Sister Dahl says, “Have you been told about the promise that if you read the book of Mormon and pray, you will know the truthfulness of it?”

I say that I have not. So the Book of Mormon is fetched and read from. Finally Sister Dahl looks back at the computer. “OK. So anyway ... You press ‘start’ ... Then ‘view files’ ... ”

The Nauvoo, Illinois temple©Alamy

The replica of the temple built by founding father Joseph Smith

Moments later, great-great-grandpa Romney’s records appear on screen. Mitt may be a big believer in family but his ancestor seems to have been a believer in the big family. The records of 12 wives appear on screen. As I look down the list of Mary Ann, Martha and Elizabeth, I say it seems rather a lot. “Yes,” says Sister Dahl, a little less confidently.

I leave the office, pruriently pleased with my discovery but still little wiser as to what Mormons (or Romney) believe in. So I head to the temple. A precise, white stone replica of the one built by Smith, it stands on the hill overlooking the town.

There, a volunteer with the fairytale-ish name of Elder Spell tells me that I, a non-Mormon, can’t go inside. Instead, he sits me down in yet another visitor centre and shows me a film. Once again this leaves me little wiser. I ask Elder Spell how I would be allowed into the temple.

“You’d have to be a member,” he says. “And you have to have a Temple Recommend.” This, he explains, is rather like a passport awarded to Mormons for having the right beliefs and good behaviour. I ask Elder Spell if he thinks Romney would be allowed in.

“Yes, definitely,” he says.

I leave the temple, still unsure of what exactly it is that Romney does believe – but in little doubt that he could get in. A conclusion that has a distinctly metaphorical feel to it.

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