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Site Version July 2013


The Sale and Burning of
the Nauvoo Temple

A paper presented at the 25th annual meeting of the
John Whitmer Historical Association,
Kirtland, Ohio




This article, hypothesis, and digital images are copyrighted.
© 1997, 2001, 2013.  All rights reserved.
Revised version.

The fire presented a most sublime spectacle. It commenced in the cupola, and as the flames shot up to the sky, they threw a lurid glare into the surrounding darkness. Great volumes of smoke and flame burst from the windows, and the crash of the falling timbers was distinctly heard on the opposite side of the river. The interior of the building was like a furnace; the walls of solid masonry were heated throughout and cracked by the intense heat. The melted zinc and lead was dropping from its huge blocks during the day. On [the second] morning the walls were too hot to be touched. (Keokuk [Illinois] Register, 12 October 1848.)

 

Nobody knows exactly who burned the Mormon temple in Nauvoo, Illinois, in 1848, and motives for such a burning are usually unmentioned beyond brief allusions to arson—a fire supposedly started by persecutors remaining from a frontier mob. Construction of the luminous white limestone edifice began in 1841 under the direction of the religious leader Joseph Smith, at a cost of one million contemporary dollars. The place of worship was meant to be the grandest building west of Ohio, and crown the Mississippi bluff above Nauvoo—which then exceeded Chicago as the largest city in Illinois. The building is so important to American history, that the Smithsonian Institution displays one of its sun-faced capital stones, carved in raised relief, next to the original flag “Old Glory.”  The temple was not even close to complete when Smith was killed by enemies in 1844, and it was still unfinished though roofed when the Mormons left Nauvoo for the West in 1846, despite a hurried effort to make-do and use it anyway.(1) The fire in 1848, followed by a tornado-strength wind gust in 1850, kept the building in archaeological rubble for one hundred and fifty years. However, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, headquartered in Salt Lake City, is now speedily rebuilding on the same site, anticipating completion of a replicated temple during the fall of 2001, at a cost of $23 million.

The arson story began nearly fifty years after the fire, when folk history evolved that gave the credit to an antagonist of the Mormons named Joseph Agnew. But, the firing of the temple is surrounded by issues more complex than a sole arsonist’s resentment against a religious society that had already left the region and were consequently no longer a threat to the developing Illinois political scene (where men like Abraham Lincoln and Stephen A. Douglass were beginning their careers). The Mormons themselves had plenty more motivation to burn it themselves, when they departed for the Rocky Mountains, leaving their property behind in economic ruin. For three full years Brigham Young, while establishing himself in the role formerly occupied by Joseph Smith, had attempted to sell the Nauvoo temple to the Catholics. This repeatedly failed in part because he could not overcome a characteristic in its legal title that did not qualify him as the owner. After his church was settled in Utah, in 1847, the temple east of the Mississippi had no practical use nor financial benefits—except to Young’s enemies and competitors—and he said essentially that it was too sacred for strangers to possess. This article will show that before the temple burned, Young said he hoped it burned; and after it burned, Young said he was glad it burned. Later in Utah, Young is known to have burned Mormon properties rather than surrendering them to enemies. Young had a motive and means to have the Nauvoo temple torched; and made prior statements and performed subsequent acts that are consistent with someone who would ordered the temple burned behind him as he retreated.

The first part of understanding the destruction of the temple is an examination of motive, and part of that motive has to do with the holy place being a strategic threat to Brigham Young rather than an economic opportunity. The Mormon leader had already tried to sell the Nauvoo temple in at least a dozen efforts. Early plans to sell the temple to the Catholics began so early as 26 October 1845, when a tour was given to Catholic judge James Ralston of Quincy, Illinois. The judge advised Young to sell the temple to the Catholics, and promised his influence in getting his church at Quincy to settle in Nauvoo. However, Ralston said Young had to get other Catholic authorities to make the acquisition. Disappointed but hopeful, Young instead wrote to archbishop John B. Purcell in Cincinnati on 31 October 1845, through Young’s clerk Willard Richards, and Young had the letter personally delivered by his own agent Almon W. Babbitt. Young expressed his determination to “dispose” of the church’s public buildings including the temple. Young promised to “forbear any extensive sales to other communities until we learn your answer to this our epistle.”(2) Babbitt returned with favorable news from the Catholics including written inquiries from not only Cincinnati but Detroit as well—and that some of the Catholic officials would arrive in Nauvoo in a few days to lease if not to buy some of the public buildings.(3) Without waiting, the twelve responded to a separate letter from a private Philadelphia firm on 2 December 1845, “as they wished to buy,” and they proposed to pay in cash if a bargain were concluded. The twelve responded that they would “sell the whole or any part of the city of Nauvoo,” for fifty percent of its appraised value.(4)

Anticipating the arrival of the Catholic delegation, Young moved quickly to get the upper room of the unfinished Temple decorated. He hung mirrors, portraits, paintings, and maps. He decorated the room and set it off with cedar shrubs and trees in pots and boxes. Members brought in their finest tables, sofas, chairs, and carpets from their homes. The decorating was entirely accomplished from 5 to 8 December 1845, appearing to members to be preparations for a new Mormon endowment ceremony.(5)

A week after Babbitt’s return and the very day after decorating was complete, on 9 December 1845, the Catholics had arrived. The Bishop of Chicago had merely sent two local priests, known only as Mr. Tucker of Quincy, and Mr. Hamilton of Springfield, Illinois. Young made his sales pitch, and included that “we wish to hand it over to the Catholics and so keep out those who want to have our property for nothing.” That evening, the twelve wrote their proposal formally. On 10 December 1845, Tucker and Hamilton were given a tour of the temple, and were “admitted into the upper room of the Temple”. The official History of the Church now omits the words “upper room”, which is supposed to be too sacred for non-members to enter. Young read the proposal, remarking that he “wished to realise [sic] from the sale of our property, sufficient to take all our poor with us in a comfortable manner.” Tucker requested permission to publish the propositions in all the Catholic papers, and take the time to obtain an expert appraisal; and Young granted the request with the provision that he could reserve the right to sell to the first buyer. Young appended an alternative offer to lease the temple to them for a period of five to thirty-five years, the rent to be paid in “finishing the unfinished parts of the temple.”(6)

From 24 December 1845 until 7 January 1846 there was a daily prayer within the temple “for means to remove from this place,” and “. . . that to this end our possessions might look good to those who are round about us that they may buy them and pay us gold and silver, and such things as we need.”(7) But despite this, all three efforts to sell to the Catholics and two other attempts to sell to independent firms suddenly failed. On 7 January 1846, the Catholics sent a timely response to Young informing him that the bishop could not raise sufficient funds to purchase all of the Nauvoo property, and was willing to lease only one of the public buildings, most likely the temple, “but would not insure it against fire or mobs.” The History of the Church omits the reaction of Young from the Nauvoo Temple Record: “[T]hat they would not answer the letter, and that the Catholics might go to hell their own way.”(8)

Young’s willingness to walk away from the negotiations over the issue of fire insurance is inconsistent with his lifetime stance against carrying such insurance. Later, after living in Utah nearly thirty years, he said: “I have about as many buildings as anyone in this Territory, and I never yet paid a dollar to insure one of them, or any of my property, or myself. . . . Some [Mormons] will get their buildings insured as high as possible, and then they will accidentally take fire on purpose.”(9) Young’s stance that insurance is useful only when arson is contemplated, is an early indicator that he planned to order the temple burned after his demand that it be insured.

 

When Young stopped publishing the Times and Seasons in Nauvoo on 15 February 1846, James J. Strang’s Voree Herald became the only Mormon paper in the Midwest, and a primary source of Nauvoo temple news though it was printed across the state line in Wisconsin. Strang, a young lawyer who was personally baptized by Joseph Smith, was Young’s main rival in the Mormon presidential succession crisis, and a critical challenge to Young from 1844 to 1848, and was eventually killed. In his paper of February 1846, Strang complained that the temple was still being offered for sale to the Catholics as a Cathedral or a nunnery.(10) At the April conference at Strang’s Wisconsin headquarters, resolutions were passed protesting against the sale of the temples not only at Nauvoo but at Kirtland, Ohio, and charging that Young’s trustees-in-trust were not legally in office and had “no right to convey title to any property of the Church.” Strang added a legal notice: “We caution all against purchasing property of them.” The resolutions were packed into a special issue of the Voree Herald made up of material targeted to Mormons and citizens of Hancock County, Illinois, where Nauvoo was situated.(11) Hancock newspapers picked up the story and circulated it throughout the region: “Mr. Strang, the new Mormon Prophet, says, that [Brigham Young’s agents], have no right to convey title to any property of the Church, and cautio[n]s all against buying of them.”(12)

Not altogether stopped, Young and his agents made a sixth attempt to move the temple in April 1846—this time taking out a classified advertisement in the local secular newspaper, the Hancock Eagle: “Temple to Lease. The undersigned Trustees of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, propose to lease on favorable terms, for the term of twenty years, ‘The Temple’ in this city for religious or literary purposes.” It was accompanied by an advertisement for a “brewery” building to be sold by the church.(13) In May, a seventh attempt was made with a classified advertisement in the Nauvoo New Citizen: “Temple for Sale. The undersigned Trustees of the Latter Day Saints propose to sell the Temple on very low terms, if an early application is made. The Temple is admirably designed for Literary or Religious purposes.” This one was accompanied by an advertisement for the Kirtland Temple, “having come to a determination to sell all the church property.” The advertisement ran for more than seven months without success.(14)

Midway through the advertising campaign, Strang published a column and a half in his own periodical reprinting documents from the Hancock County “Book of Mortgages and Bonds.” Those documents deeded the Nauvoo temple to Joseph Smith as the sole trustee for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints—and further required that his successor as trustee would be the First Presidency of the church. Young had not yet duplicated Strang’s claim of the formal office of First President, instead claiming the right to lead by virtue of being president of a lower body, the quorum of twelve apostles. Almon W. Babbitt and the other trustees Young had appointed therefore qualified even less as owners of the temple. Indeed, the eventual election of Young to the office of First President on 5 December 1847 may have been compelled by the quest to sell the temple.

On similar legal grounds, Strang and his supporters took possession of the Mormon temple in Kirtland, Ohio. What Nauvoo was to the Mormons in the 1840s, Kirtland had been in the 1830s, and the church had built its first temple there, which is still standing. Young’s followers brought a suit against the supporters of Strang in Kirtland, but on examination of the title deeds they withdrew the suit, paid the court costs, and left the Kirtland temple in the hands of Strang. Supporters of Strang in Kirtland included Martin Harris, William Cowdery, Leonard Rich, Amos Babcock, Sylvester B. Stoddard, Hazen Aldrich, Jacob Bump, and William E. McLellin, all influential elders in early Mormon history. After McLellin started his own group in Kirtland, the Kirtland temple was lost to McLellin’s followers. On 19 June 1848, Strang took control of the Kirtland temple a second time on legal grounds. Strang obtained a writ to eject McLellin, judgment was made in Strang’s favor, and his agent was given the key. However, McLellin’s followers axed their way through a window and took forcible occupation which Strang never attempted to regain.(15) But, from the remoteness of Brigham Young in Utah, the temples in Kirtland and Nauvoo both alike appeared isolated enough for him to suppose that if his opponents had gained the Kirtland temple then they were also capable of obtaining the Nauvoo temple—unless he took action to prevent it.

Thus, Strang never had a chance to hold the temple in Nauvoo, for it was prevented. On 15 January 1846, he sent Moses Smith and others of his officials there.(16) In the temple on 1 February 1846, they attempted to gather an audience for Strang’s claims as the successor of Joseph Smith. Iowa newspapers, across the Mississippi River, reported that when they attempted to read, Brigham Young and his adherents opposed them. They were “surrounded by a mob who attempted to drive them from the city. Whereupon a row ensued, in which clubs were used freely. The Twelve-ites gained the victory and drove their opponents from the ground.”(17) According to George Miller, bishop of the whole church, Young laid a plan with Hosea Stout, his police captain. Stout was “to contrive a row to take place in the Temple, and have me called in to appease the rowdies, and Stout was to be there in readiness to kill me.” The row occurred as predicted. Stout called Miller in to calm the turmoil, but the mob wanted Moses Smith, and allowed Miller to escape.(18) In a third account, this one originating with Moses Smith, Young sent an officer of the police to disperse the crowds listening to Smith. “This order being disregarded, a mob crowded around, headed by an officer of police, armed with knives and pistols, threatening their lives and endeavoring to seize them.”(19) The only hint of the event in the diary of Hosea Stout was that on the prior day he recorded: “I feel that some very unexpected catastrophe is going to happen because of false brethren.” However, on an earlier occasion he spotted a visitor he felt was a “spy,” and decided to “bounce a stone off of his head,” which Stout boasted nearly killed the man without anyone discovering what had happened. These were not spiritual days in the temple, and Strang’s supporters seem never again to have been given a chance to use the edifice.(20)

 

There were also problems for Young in the construction of the building, making the structure useless and pressing Young to make a quick sale. In December 1845, he observed: “We shall not be able to have another public meeting here on account of the weight on the floor, it has already caused the walls to crack—prevents the doors from shutting, and will injure the roof.”(21) In January 1846, Sunday meetings were moved out of the temple and back outside, “on account of the floor being not stiff enough to support so large a company as would have come in, without swaying too much.”(22) In February, during a quiet prayer, the floor sank about one inch, with a loud crack of timber beneath, which caused a frantic stampede inside. Several people smashed and jumped through glass windows to get out. Young, along with Thomas Bullock and Willard Richards, each noted in their diaries that a couple of Strang’s adherents were fortunately the only persons injured.(23) The temple burned without Strang ever preaching in it, but he explained: “As far as the law and power of mobocracy is concerned in keeping us out of the possession of our legal rights, we have nothing to say or predict. But so far as our legal rights are concerned, we fear not; we know what we are about in this matter.”(24)

It was on legal grounds that Strang defeated Young—as his supporters canvassed Hancock County with the Voree Herald, he gained supporters for his temple position within and without the church. Strang claimed that the title defect was the reason that Young had been unable to sell the temple. In consideration of the whole scenario of the abandoned temple, unusable and empty, unmarketable or sellable, it should be apparent that Young’s best option was to simply burn the temple down—rather than leave it to aid his enemies or competitors. The likelihood that Young would burn the temple seemed obvious—to Strang, at least. He offered a compromise to Young through the columns of the paper: If Young would “not burn the Temple down and lay it to the mob,” Strang would “risk the legal right.” That is, Strang would not seize the temple, if Young would not take the only inevitable action that could prevent it.(25) There the matter stood still for a full year, with Young reporting twice in January 1847 that “the temple and public property had not been sold,” and in the same paragraph that “Strang is very little better off,” suggesting that Young often thought of the temple and Strang with the same resentment.(26) In February 1847, Almon W. Babbitt had traveled to New York and Baltimore, where he made an unsuccessful attempt to sell the temple. By April, he had been to all of the principle eastern cities, and failed to sell the building.(27)

 

Young and his agent Babbitt did not immediately give up their efforts to sell the temple. They made a ninth push in June 1847, and announced that the temple had been sold to a committee of the Catholic church for seventy-five thousand dollars. Newspaper headlines announced “From Nauvoo! The Temple Sold.”(28) But the price was far less than the sum the leaders of the church had hoped the temple would fetch. The temple was widely speculated to be worth half a million—a million—even two million dollars. Although those figures are probably exaggerated, from the outlook of Young he was already losing many hundreds of thousands of dollars, and perhaps a million or more. He wanted to sell it for half of its value, but instead he was selling it to his enemies for as little as four percent of its value.(29)

But Young could not give the temple key away at even four cents on the dollar. Strang forgot his promise to drop the legal issue and to keep Young from burning the temple. Hearing about the seventy-five thousand dollar sale, Strang now challenged in print that the purchasers “will undoubtedly buy a law suit, and consequently a bill of costs of the loss of their money.”(30) A month later, exchange papers reported that the Catholics looked at the title, and that the Temple went to the successor of Joseph Smith in the First Presidency, which Brigham Young still did not claim to be. Most regional newspapers carried stories on the failed sale, with observations like: “Several attempts have been made to sell the Temple at Nauvoo, but the proprietors have never been able to prove up a good title. The Catholics would have bought it recently, had not this defect been in the way.”(31) The Keokuk Register said “The title was deemed defective, and hence the negotiation failed.” Strang’s Zion’s Reveille responded, “Just as we Expected.”(32)

By October 1847, the Warsaw Signal summarized that “The Temple within the past year, has been on the eve of changing hands several times, but each time, we believe failed to be transfer[r]ed in consequence of the defective title.”(33) In November 1847, Young wrote to the trustees suggesting that they give the key to a friend and leave Nauvoo.(34) After Almon W. Babbitt was gone, he wrote to Young on 31 January 1848 saying, “The temple has been sold since I left.” But again, no deal was completed.(35)

In September 1848, a month before the temple was burned, a thirteenth and last minute attempt was made to sell the temple. The Oquawka Specator reported that a contract had been entered into with a Mr. Brower of New York, to convert it into a college for the American Home Mission Society. The contract was to close on 1 October 1848, barely a week before the burning. The arrangement was for a fifteen year lease. Later the deal was clarified to mean that the Protestant Theological and Literary Seminary had merely obtained the first right of refusal with the view of raising the funds. This may have been a Baptist Literary and Theological Seminary that instead became Colgate University in New York.  The signature building at Colgate is built with an octagon tower matching the Nauvoo temple tower, complete with the weathervane atop a copper cupola. The seminary was the alma mater of Orson Spencer, a Mormon professor at Nauvoo University in the 1840s. In this final effort, there was inevitably no sale made. Strang promised that they would be “ejected,” and that they would “borrow a law suit.”(36) Young’s last words about the temple were: “. . . the Temple of the Lord is left solitary in the midst of our enemies,” and “[leave] the building in the hands of the Lord.”(37)

In the early morning of 9 October 1848, the temple burned. Papers like the Wisconsin Standard began their story: “The Temple at Nauvoo, so long a bone of contention between the two sects of Mormons, was burnt on the morning of the 9th instant . . .”(38) The Warsaw Signal observed “whether it may have been by accident or design—or be the perpetrator friend or foe—Strangite, Brighamite, or Rigdonite,” the local citizens would be blamed.(39) The Burlington Hawkeye reported that at the moment of the fire the temple still belonged to the Mormons: “Their inability to give a clear and undisputed title has hitherto prevented them from disposing of it to the Catholics.”(40)

Brigham Young had a motive to order the burning of the Nauvoo temple, and certainly no incentive to keep it. The Keokuk Register summarized it best when it observed: “. . . every good citizen will condemn this act of the incendiary as one of the grossest barbarism. Its destruction has inflicted no material injury on the Mormons—to the surrounding country, it will be a serious loss. The citizens on both sides of the river reprobate the act as wanton and malicious in the extreme.”(41)

 

The second part of understanding the temple arson is to establish which suspects might have had an opportunity to start the blaze. Brigham Young was already seated in Utah, and had the power to hire the deed done if he desired. Within two weeks, regional newspapers reported that “the citizens of Nauvoo are about to, or have done so already, arrest a person living in Nauvoo, who is supposed to be the identical individual who fired the Temple.”(42) Three months later, there was still nobody in custody, and the citizens offered a reward of six hundred and forty-one dollars for the “apprehension and conviction of the villain who fired the Mormon Temple.”(43)

The person most often credited with the burning of the temple is Joseph Agnew, a repeated antagonist of the Mormons—though this does not preclude the feasibility of Brigham Young being the person who hired him. But the accounts of Agnew appear so late that they are doubtful, and he did not live in Nauvoo where the early suspect was reported to live. The most elaborate account of Agnew as an arsonist surfaced as a supposed confession printed in the Nauvoo Independent in about 1895.(44) Agnew had died twenty-five years earlier, in 1870, but a former resident of Fort Madison, Iowa, sensationally recounted what he claimed was Agnew’s death-bed confession. Agnew’s admission is supported by B. H. Roberts, who was supposedly told of Agnew’s confession earlier in 1885 by M. M. Morrill, then mayor of Nauvoo—however that account was not published until even later, in 1900.(45) A third reference, this time by Joseph Smith III, remembers Agnew as a “disreputable man,” a “drunken lout,” and a “river rat,” but his account was not dictated until 1913 and not published until 1935.

Only the manuscript history of Brigham Young gives an early date for the questionable Agnew claim, from 1856, but that history is synthesized much later by other men, and probably altered after 1895. According to that history, Joseph Smith III’s step-father Lewis Bidamon is claimed to have known of Agnew’s guilt in 1856. That is contradicted by Joseph Smith III, who said that Agnew confessed “quite some time after.” Even B. H. Roberts did not mention Young knowing about Agnew, when Roberts said in 1900 that he heard about Agnew on his own. Yet, somehow, Young’s account parallels Roberts’ account with identical phrases—meaning that B. H. Roberts actually contributed to the synthesized Young account after he first learned of Agnew on his own.(46) Also, the identity of Agnew could not plausibly have been told broadly by Bidamon in Nauvoo as early as 1856, so that even Young would hear about it in Utah.  Agnew’s supposed 1870 deathbed confession said that all parties had “pledged themselves to secrecy,” such that the story was not previously known.(47) So, the accounts of Agnew are credibly documented no earlier than 1895—nearly fifty years after the arson and twenty-five years after the death of Agnew.

But Agnew did, at least, have the character of someone aspiring to be an arsonist, whether he was involved by hire, or merely stole the credit anyway, or was simply accused by others as an easy scapegoat. Agnew was a participant in prior Hancock County conflicts with the Mormons. In 1845, Agnew had even started a fire on the stairs of a Mormon home, and allowed it to burn through the roof.(48) In 1846 he was captain of a company of militia preparing to fight Mormons.(49) He lived in Pontoosac, Illinois, and supposedly conspired with a “Judge Sharp” of Carthage and a “Squire McCauley” of Appanoose. Those Illinois town of Appanoose and Pontoosac were successively upriver from Nauvoo, and both were steeped in anti-Mormon actions.(50) At least four men in the Carthage mob that killed Joseph Smith and his brother Hyrum were from Pontoosac.(51)

“Squire McCauley” was probably John McCauley from Appanoose, another activist in Hancock County violence, and a known associate of Agnew.(52) McCauley was also seen in the Carthage mob, and was a major in the Illinois militia. Five days before the assassination of the Smiths, he was accused of firing his weapon on other Mormons.(53) McCauley lived at Appanoose, where a mob gathered in January 1845 to consider driving the Mormons from Nauvoo “before the Temple was done or they never could.” In 1846, when Phineas Young and others were taken prisoners at Pontoosac, it was in retaliation for the arrest of McCauley for beating Mormons and stealing a gun.(54) Joseph Fielding called him one of the “ringleaders of the mob,” and indeed he had even been a precinct chairman of the Mormon opponents since 1843.(55)

“Judge Sharp” was likely Thomas C. Sharp, the editor of the Warsaw Signal, who later became a county judge. Sharp was indicted in the killing of the Smiths, and is renowned as the leading antagonist of the Mormons in all of Illinois and Iowa. Two weeks before the assassination of the Smiths, Sharp used his periodical to urge the killings: “Let it be made with powder and ball!!!”(56) After the burning, Sharp’s Warsaw Signal acknowledged that whether the fire was an accident or not, “the body of the Anti-Mormons, of Hancock county, will have to bear the blame.”(57) Certainly Agnew, McCauley, and Sharp had the demeanor to burn the temple in the height of animosity—but that day was several years past, when the temple was burned.

 

The information about Agnew in the accounts of the Brigham Young manuscript and B. H. Roberts duplicate the 1870 confession recorded printed in 1895. Both accounts match the confession’s statement: “The reason for our burning it was that there was continual reports in circulation that the Mormons were coming back to Nauvoo . . .”(58) The principle fault of that commonality is that there were no apparent reports in circulation at all, and certainly then not continual reports that the Mormons were returning from Utah.

The Young account is supplemental in that it says that the inhabitants of Hancock County “contributed a purse” of five hundred dollars to Agnew. The Smith account substitutes that with Agnew’s supposed confession that “he was hired to fire the building,” but that he received part of his pay in advance, and later another payment was paid, but that he was never paid in full. The striking contradiction of these two statements with the 1870 confession printed in 1895, is that to collect so much money would require that Agnew’s involvement was well known, and yet he supposedly spoke of it as being secret and made no mention of money whatsoever. Further, that the payment makes no allowance for his accomplices, who fit the profile of activists rather than hired torches. Thomas C. Sharp and John McCauley could not have been the tools of Agnew, for they were wealthy and sophisticated county leaders, not followers of a drunken river man. Agnew reportedly said they “Pledged ourselves to destroy the temple if it cost our lives,” which sounds more like the personalities of the three alleged conspirators when a motive existed before the Mormons left, not after. Fifty years after the fire, and twenty-five years after the death of Agnew, he may have also just been a convenient person to blame.

There are other contradictions in the supposed Agnew confession. The narrative says that the three men came each from his own city, and met five miles down river from Appanoose on the Illinois side of the river, then they “journeyed” together on horseback to within one mile of Nauvoo. However, Appanoose is only six miles from Nauvoo already, so there is no distance they could have additionally journeyed—they were already there at the mile mark without traveling any distance whatsoever, much less so great a distance that it would be called a journey.

Agnew’s confession tells a dramatic tale of rushing into the temple, sidestepping the custodian, and then backtracking to retrieve a key left in the door. Actually, in the main auditorium of the temple there was no “side room” that Agnew is supposed to have described as a hiding place, and by no feasibility any side room containing a “crucifixion” as described. Had any such artwork existed in the temple at all it would not have been in the unfinished lower auditorium level, and if it had been displayed anywhere it would have been removed with other fixtures and paintings in 1846.(59)

There are further problems with Agnew making his way back through the temple when he allegedly lit the fire later that night before it “burst through the roof.” The account says he could not find his way out. “After going up two pairs of stairs and through many halls I came to a square turn,” and came to the spot of the fire. In getting out, Agnew supposedly said he had to run through the flames to exit down a stairway on the same end of the temple as the fire, before exiting and locking a door with the stairs inside. All of this inconsistent with the outdoor vestibule staircases of the temple, outside the locked door, and lack of halls.(60) Further, it is contradictory to most eyewitness accounts that the fire began in the “towering cupola” or “dome,” not in the third-story attic.(61)

In rebuttal of the printed Agnew confession, the former custodian came forward. George Johnson claimed that he was engaged in exhibiting the temple to strangers the evening before it was burned, and that the Agnew account was “very incorrect.” He confirmed that there were strangers in the temple that separated from the main group when he went to the top, and that they were then asked to leave. However, he remembered only two men. More significant, one of the men was boarding across the street, and later bragged that he “saw the fire when it did not look larger than a man’s hand,” something Johnson contended would be known only to the arsonist. This account of boarders conflicts strongly with the Agnew tale of sneaking into the city and racing away. Finally, Johnson alleged that “the west basement window on the south side which led to the stairway had been taken out and was sitting against the wall of the building showing that no key was used to enter the building.” Those are memories that are not easy to artificially create late in life. However, Johnson’s reminiscent account of being upstairs conflicts with a contemporary Nauvoo Patriot article which said that a meeting was held in the lower room, but no person went into the upper room. He evidently refreshed his memory with other printed accounts, as he even used the erroneous month and date for the fire perpetuated by many Mormon and Illinois histories.(62)

 

So there are inconsistencies and implausible elements in the supposed Agnew confession, at least as recorded as an action of persecution. But the physical flame lighter in the Nauvoo temple late on that October night had an identity in someone. Agnew may have been hired as the incendiary, and later elaborated his account as a hero and head of more prominent mob leaders like Thomas C. Sharp and John McCauley. Though all three participated as an antagonistic force against the Mormon religious society, they would have lost that ambition with the Mormons already gone. There was no indication in regional newspapers that the Mormons had ever considered returning to Nauvoo as Agnew claimed was the motive. Five hundred dollars was an excessive amount of money to discreetly collect with waning interest in Mormon issues in Hancock County.

However, for Brigham Young to order the temple burned, he would have needed a local intermediary to contract a hired torch, like Agnew. People who had the financial resources and regional Mormon jurisdiction to help Young included Orson Hyde, in charge of the church across the Mississippi River in Iowa. Hyde was actually accused of burning the Nauvoo temple in a remonstrance to Congress by William Smith (the only surviving brother of Joseph and Hyrum).(63) Another possibility is Almon W. Babbitt, who was the political enemy of Hyde. Babbitt was disfellowshipped by Hyde on 19 November 1848, and instantly reinstated by Brigham Young. The History of the Church erroneously affixes that date of 19 November 1848 as the date of the temple fire, based on Brigham Young’s manuscript history, making an interesting inadvertent connection between the action to disfellowship and the temple fire.(64) Babbitt was so controversial as trustee of the Nauvoo real estate, that Heber C. Kimball publicly accused him of selling his Nauvoo home for seventeen hundred dollars in cash intended for emigration expenses, “but Almon W. Babbitt put it in his pocket, I suppose.” If currency was so easily obtained by Babbitt, he had the ability to pay five hundred dollars to Joseph Agnew or to any other torch bearer his superiors ordered.(65) Indeed, the opportunities were endless for Brigham Young to get the job done.

 

The third part to understanding the temple fire is to examine the prior and subsequent statements of Brigham Young hoping for and approving of such an exact event. The burning of the Nauvoo temple on 9 October 1848 was preceded by statements of Young assenting to the burning. Those statements resulted from a lesser fire that failed nearly three years earlier, on 9 February 1846, between 3:30 and 4:00 p.m. The day before, ceremonial endowments were concluded in the temple and the fixtures were removed. Brigham Young gave his last address in Nauvoo by warning that apostates would arise and come to Nauvoo.(66) On the ninth, the fire was discovered on the main deck roof, a private vantage of Young’s.(67) Young’s personal history affirms his unusual absence from the temple, and that he “could see the flames from a distance, but could not get there in time to help.” His thoughts are recorded, though, that “If it is the will of the Lord that the Temple be burned, instead of being defiled by the Gentiles, Amen to it.”(68) Bystanders said “for some time it looked rather fearful” and that it “came very near burning down.” After an alarm of “fire in the temple,” the flames were extinguished, and the incident was attributed to the center stove pipe.(69) Though earnest Mormons put out the fire “by great and uncommon exertions,” Young’s own fiery indignation remained forever un-cooled: “I would rather see it burnt than to see it go into the hands of devils. I was thankful to see the Temple in Nauvoo on fire. . . . when I saw the flames, I said ‘Good, Father, if you want it to be burned up.’ I hoped to see it burned before I left, but I did not.”(70)

As Young had pledged his approval of the burning of the temple before the act, so did he give it his approbation subsequent to the final burning: “. . . We committed the building into The hands of the Lord, and left it; and when we heard that it was burned, we were glad of it,” he proclaimed.(71) “I was glad when I heard of its being destroyed by fire, and of the walls having fallen in, and said, ‘Hell, you cannot now occupy it.’”(72) He referred to his enemies, the remaining residents of Hancock County and the followers of James J. Strang. He said, “I would rather it should thus be destroyed than remain in the hands of the wicked.”(73) George Q. Cannon echoed him, adding: “I am glad it is destroyed; I am glad that it was burned and purified by fire from the pollution our enemies inflicted upon it, and I am glad there is nothing of it left [rather than see it] pass into the hands of our enemies and be defiled by them.”(74)

The fourth and final part of understanding the destruction of the Nauvoo temple is to examine the subsequent acts of Brigham Young, similar to his statements. For example, on 29 April 1850 his Mormon settlement in Nebraska named Winter Quarters was burned—its cottonwood tabernacle and nearly all of six hundred homes were put on fire at once. The Mormons had abandoned the site in the summer of 1848 following Young’s failure to persuade the president of the United States to allow the settlement to continue in the Omaha Indian reservation. The log cabins became possessions of the Indian agents when the federal government prohibited Young from moving them east across the Missouri River to Kanesville, Iowa.(75)

In Utah, before the “Move South” in 1858, Young implemented a similar scorched-earth policy to resist the approach of U.S. troops led by Albert S. Johnston. Mormon-owned Fort Bridger and Fort Supply in Wyoming were each burned. Lewis Robison, a Mormon and formerly constable of Hancock County, Illinois, applied the torch to Fort Bridger on 3 October 1857, and recounted that “It burned very rapidly and made a great fire.” Within a few days Fort Supply was burned by Mormons in the Utah militia.(76)

Young moved every willing inhabitant of Utah south of the Point of the Mountain in 1858, and his preparations to burn Salt Lake City—if fulfilled—would have clouded over the lesser burning of the Nauvoo temple. His discourses were confident and ubiquitous:

I have told you that if there is any man or woman that is not willing to destroy anything and everything of their property that would be of use to an enemy, if left, I wanted them to go out of the Territory; and I again say so to-day; for when the time comes to burn and lay waste our improvements, if any man undertakes to shield his, he will be sheared down. . . . Before I will suffer what I have in times gone by, there shall not be one building, nor one foot of lumber, nor a stick, nor a tree, nor a particle of grass and hay, that will burn, left in reach of our enemies. I am sworn, if driven to extremity, to utterly lay waste, in the name of Israel’s God.(77)

Young then put his declaration to the congregation:

Would you, if necessary, brethren, put the torch to your buildings, and lay them in ashes, and wander houseless into the mountains? I know what you would say and what you would do.

(President Brigham Young: Try the vote.)

All you that are willing to set fire to your property and lay it in ashes, rather than submit to their military rule and oppression, manifest it by raising your hands.

(The congregation unanimously raised their hands.)(78)

John L. Butler recalled that Young “ordered the people in the North and in the County of Great Salt Lake to move South and . . . that they were to set fires to their houses and leave them a ruined city . . . the folks put straw and shavings in their houses ready to burn them up when the word came from Brigham.”(79) Alice B. Anderson said she had “piled straw around their homes before leaving them with a view to setting fire to them, if necessary.”(80)

As almost confessionary late in life, Brigham Young advised his followers that all fires are preventable: “Build your houses and your cities so that they will not take fire unless you purposely set them on fire.”(81) This article has presented evidence that suggests that Young may have ordered the Nauvoo temple burned. He had a motive after spending three disappointing years learning that it could not be sold, he could not maintain its physical integrity—and he could not use it where he settled in the Rocky Mountains. He did not want to aid his opponents among Mormons or non-Mormons. He made statements favoring its destruction both before and after the deed; and he similarly destroyed other Mormon property rather than give it to his enemies. Stories about an arsonist named Joseph Agnew are contradictory with each other, but if true are not incompatible with the possibility that Agnew was paid by an agent for Young. Preaching to his followers a decade after the fire, Young said: “This year has made me think of the season that we were obliged to leave Nauvoo. . . . Should we ever be obliged to leave our houses, the decree of my heart is that there shall naught be left for our enemies but the ashes of all that will burn. (The congregation responded, ‘Amen’)”(82)
 

 

1. Autobiography of Parley P. Pratt, p. 303; Times and Seasons, January 15, 1846; Brigham Young, in the Journal of Discourses, 18:305, said it was “nearly completed before it was burned,” with some elaboration, though writers traditionally say that it was fully completed. 

2. History of the Church, 7: 489-490, 508.

3. Nauvoo Temple Record, 15-16.

4. History of the Church, 7:537; Nauvoo Temple Record, 17-18.

5. Nauvoo Temple Record, 5-6, 8 December 1845; Nauvoo Temple Record, typescript, 20-21.

6. Nauvoo Temple Record, 40-46; Thomas Bullock diary, BYU Studies 31:36; History of the Church, 7: 539-541.

7. Nauvoo Temple Record, typescript, 107, 129, 130, 146, 152, 158, 179, 203; Nauvoo Temple Record, 1 January 1846.

8. Nauvoo Temple Record, 7 January 1846; History of the Church, 7:565.

9. Journal of Discourses, 17:362.

10. Voree Herald, 1 (February 1846): 8.

11. Voree Herald, 1 (April 1846): 20; and 1 (June 1846): 27; St. Louis American, 16 May 1846.

12. Quincy [Illinois]Whig, 6 May 1846.

13. Hancock [Illinois] Eagle, 10 April 1846.

14. Nauvoo [Illinois] New Citizen, 15 May to 23 December 1846.

15. Voree Herald, 1 (September 1846): 38; Gospel Herald, 3 (28 September 1848): 134-135.

16. Chronicles of Voree, 15 January 1846.

17. Burlington [Iowa] Hawkeye, 12 February 1846.

18. George Miller, “Correspondence,” 1 July 1855, Northern Islander.

19. Gospel Herald, 14 June 1849.

20. Hosea Stout diary, 9 and 31 January 1846.

21. Nauvoo Temple Record, 28 December 1845, 2 January 1846.

22. Nauvoo Temple Record, 4 January 1846.

23. Manuscript history of Brigham Young, 22 February 1846; Thomas Bullock diary, 22 February 1846; Willard Richards diary, cited in Stegner, The Gathering of Zion, 51.

24. Zion’s Reveille, 2 (22 July 1847): 76, emphasis added.

25. Voree Herald, 1 (September 1846): 38, 40.

26. Manuscript history of Brigham Young, 7 and 29 January 1847.

27. Manuscript history of Brigham Young, 3 February 1847 and 5 April 1847.

28. Warsaw [Illinois] Signal, 12 June 1847; Iowa Sentinel, 26 June 1847.

29. History of the Church, 7:434; Journal of Discourses, 24: 15-17; Wandle Mace autobiography, typescript, 207, Brigham Young University.

30. Zion’s Reveille, 2 (22 July 1847): 76.

31. Keokuk [Iowa] Register, 24 July 1847; Daily Missouri Republican, 28 July 1847; Burlington [Iowa] Hawkeye, August 5, 1847; Warsaw [Illinois] Signal, 7 August 1847; Monmouth [Illinois] Atlas, 13 August 1847.

32. Keukuk [Iowa] Register, as exchanged with Zion’s Reveille, 2 (2 September 1847): 100.

33. Keokuk [Iowa] Register, 19 October 1847.

34. Manuscript history of Brigham Young, 5 November 1847.

35. Almon W. Babbitt to Brigham Young, 31 January 1848.

36. Oquawka [Illinois] Spectator, 27 September 1848; Gospel Herald, 3 (19 October 1848): 160; 3 (26 October 1848): 163; and the Nauvoo [Illinois] Patriot, as exchanged with the Gospel Herald, 3 ( 23 November 1848): 192.

37. Manuscript history of Brigham Young, 5 November 1847; “Epistle to Saints,” 23 December 1847, Millennial Star 10 (15 March 1848): 81-88.

38. Wisconsin Standard, as exchanged with the Gospel Herald, 3 (2 November 1848): 171.

39. Warsaw [Illinois] Signal, as exchanged with the Gospel Herald, 3 (16 November 1848): 187.

40. Burlington [Iowa] Hawkeye, 12 October 1848, emphasis added.

41. Keokuk [Iowa] Register, 12 October 1848; Iowa Sentinel, 20 October 1848; emphasis added.

42. Iowa Sentinel, 20 October 1848, quoting the Iowa Statesman.

43. Davenport [Iowa] Gazette, 4 January 1849.

44. George H. Rudisill, “How the Famous Mormon Temple at Nauvoo Was Destroyed,” Nauvoo [Illinois] Independent, circa 1895-1898, typscript; Autumn Leaves, December 1905.

45. B. H. Roberts, The Rise and Fall of Nauvoo (Salt Lake City: Deseret News, 1900), 369; B. H. Roberts, Comprehensive History of the Church, 3: 22-23.

46. Manuscript history of Brigham Young, 19 November 1848, recording an event of 1 November 1856; Saints’ Herald, 5 February 1935. Young says, for example, “might induce the Mormons to return,” where Roberts similarly said “an inducement for them to return.”

47. George H. Rudisill, “How the Famous Mormon Temple at Nauvoo Was Destroyed,” Nauvoo [Illinois] Independent, circa 1895-1898, typescript; Autumn Leaves, December 1905.

48. History of the Church, 7:530.

49. Quincy [Illinois] Whig, 20 May 1846.

50. History of the Church, 7:363, 407.

51. History of the Church, 7:145.

52. Quincy [Illinois] Whig, 20 May 1846.

53. History of the Church, 6: 529-530, 7:144.

54. George Morris autobiography, typescript, 28-29, Brigham Young University; Hosea Stout diary, typescript, 43-44, Brigham Young University; T. Edgar Lyon, BYU Studies, 18:169; Mary Lightner autobiography, Utah Genealogical and Historical Magazine, 17 (1926):205; Lyman Littlefield Reminiscences,168-169.

55. Joseph Fielding diary, BYU Studies 19:163; History of the Church, 6:8.

56. History of the Church, 7:143; Warsaw [Illinois] Signal, 12 June 1844.

57. Warsaw [Illinois] Signal, as exchanged with the Gospel Herald, 3 (16 November 1848): 187.

58. George H. Rudisill, “How the Famous Mormon Temple at Nauvoo Was Destroyed,” Nauvoo [Illinois] Independent, circa 1895-1898, typescript; Autumn Leaves, December 1905.

59. The Nauvoo Temple Record describes portraits, paintings, maps, and mirrors on the walls of the upper room (attic level), but makes no mention of any other floor being sufficiently completed for decoration.

60. Nauvoo Temple Record, typescript, 20, 86, 107. Plausibly Agnew came up Heber C. Kimball’s private staircase which climbed a single story.

61. Keokuk [Iowa] Dispatch, 12 October 1848; Burlington [Iowa] Hawkeye, 12 October 1848. Only the Joseph Smith III account describes the fire in the attic, but he evidently relied on the 1870 confession in this detail—including the motive for placing the fire in that location.

62. George Johnson, autobiography, typescript, 5, Brigham Young University; Nauvoo [Illinois] Patriot, circa week of 9 October 1848.

63. William Smith, Remonstrance to the Congress of the United States Against the Admission of Deseret into the Union . . .

64. J. Keith Melville, “Brigham Young on Politics and Priesthood,” BYU Studies, 10:488; A. Gary Anderson, “Almon W. Babbitt and the Golden Calf,” Regional Studies, Illinois; History of the Church, 7:617; Manuscript history of Brigham Young.

65. Journal of Discourses, 8:350.

66. Norton Jacob autobiography, typescript, 29, Brigham Young University.

67. Nauvoo Temple Record, typescript, 2, 137 and 155.

68. Manuscript History of Brigham Young, 9 February 1846.

69. Norton Jacob autobiography, typescript, 29, Brigham Young University; Hosea Stout diary, typescript, 45, Brigham Young University; Samuel Rogers journal, typescript, 47, Brigham Young University; Henry Bigler autobiography, typescript, 14, Brigham Young University; William Huntington journal; Thomas Bullock diary.

70. Journal of Discourses, 8: 202-203.

71. Brigham Young, “Have You Such Faith, Latter-day Saints?, Deseret News, 13 March 1861.

72. Journal of Discourses, 8: 202-203.

73. Journal of Discourses, 10:252.

74. Journal of Discourses, 19: 204-205.

75. Journal of William H. Kilgore, 29 April 1850; Lawrence G. Coates, BYU Studies, 18:432; Lawrence G. Coates; BYU Studies, 24:289; Andrew Jenson, Encyclopedic History of the Church, 367, 957; B. H. Roberts, Comprehensive History of the Church, 3:305; “General Epistle of the Twelve to the Church,” 23 December 1847 in Millennial Star, 10:84; Juvenile Instructor, 18:361.

76. B. H. Roberts, Comprehensive History of the Church, 4: 278-279.

77. Journal of Discourses, 5:232.

78. Journal of Discourses, 5:247.

79. “A Short History or the Byography of John L. Butler Partly from His Own Writing,” Historical Department, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Salt Lake City.

80. Andrew Jenson, LDS Biographical Encyclopedia, 3:4.

81. Journal of Discourses, 17:362.

82. Journal of Discourses, 5:337.

 

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One example of our
concise priesthood lineage

Prophet Joseph Smith, 1829

Ebenezer Page, 1830
(Early Mormon in N.Y., Missouri, brother of John E. Page,
Later an Apostle at Voree, Wis., and Beaver Island)


Elder Wingfield Watson, 1858
(Lived on Beaver Island)

Elder Joseph H. Hickey, 1907
(Son of L.D. Hickey who lived at Palmyra, N.Y., Nauvoo, Ill.,
Voree, Wis., and was an apostle on Beaver Island)


Elder Steve Barany, 1953
(Son-in-law of Joseph H. Hickey, died in 2010 at 95)

Others

 

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