Question: What was unique about the city of Nauvoo's charter and why did it anger some non-Mormons?

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Question: What was unique about the city of Nauvoo's charter and why did it anger some non-Mormons?

The Nauvoo Charter granted great power to the city, but it was not unique in this respect: The other charters in Illinois were similar

The Nauvoo Charter granted great power to the city, but it was not unique in this respect—the other charters in Illinois were similar. Nauvoo's court system was more restrictive than other cities', since it was under the jurisdiction of the country court, while other cities' were not.

The powers granted Nauvoo were not seized by the Saints; they were granted lawfully, and could have been removed lawfully by the legislature. Unfortunately, efforts by anti-Mormons and apostates to take the law into their own hands led to the murder of Joseph and Hyrum, and the eventual departure of the Saints from Illinois, and the United States.

To understand the Nauvoo charter, we must first review the history which preceded it. We will start with Joseph Smith's incarceration in Liberty Jail.

Liberty Jail

9 April 1839
Grand jury indicts Joseph and Co. for "murder, treason, burglary, arson, larceny, theft, and stealing."[1] During their transport to another county from Liberty Jail, the judge, sheriff, and guards conspire to allow them to escape, probably because the state did not feel they could get a conviction.
20 April 1839
completion of evacuation of Saints from Missouri to Illinois.
22 April 1839
Joseph and companions rejoin saints at Quincy, Illinois


1 May 1839
Joseph Smith purchases first land at Commerce (later Nauvoo), Illinois.
October 1839
a high council and stake presidency called for Nauvoo

Attempts to Receive Redress for Missouri Persecutions

28 November 1839
Elias Higbee and Joseph Smith arrive in Washington, D.C. to plead for redress because of the Missouri persecutions.
29 November 1839
Joseph and Elias meet with President Martin Van Buren.
Early Feb 1840
Joseph and Elias meet with President Van Buren again, and are told “Your cause is just, but I can do nothing for you.”
4 March 1840
Joseph arrives back in Nauvoo from Washington, D.C.

The efforts to obtain redress in Washington came to naught. It seems very clear to a modern reader that the US federal government should have been able to intervene to rectify the injustices done the Saints in Missouri. However, this matter was not entirely clear at the time, and many political leaders (especially those from the South) were of the opinion that such matters were to be left to state authorities.

Joseph Smith clearly favored an expansion of the U.S. Constitution’s powers to allow protection of persecuted minorities:

I am the greatest advocate of the Constitution of the United States there is on the earth. . . The only fault I find with the Constitution is, it is not broad enough to cover the whole ground.
Although it provides that all men shall enjoy religious freedom, yet it does not provide the manner by which that freedom can be preserved, nor for the punishment of Government officers who refuse to protect the people in their religious rights, or punish those mobs, states, or communities who interfere with the rights of the people on account of their religion. Its sentiments are good, but it provides no means of enforcing them.[2]

Indeed, the whole debate about what the federal government could and couldn’t force the states to do would eventually be settled only by the Civil War. The Mormons were too early and, frankly, not popular enough to push the matter to that point. Joseph’s view won out, though—the 14th Amendment to the Constitution (passed after the Civil War) gave all naturalized or natural-born Americans “citizenship” status in both their state and the United States, and provided that

No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.[3]

Nauvoo and writing the Charter

14 September 1840
John C. Bennett, quartermaster of Illinois, arrives in Nauvoo, is baptized, and begins helping to draft a city charter.
16 December 1840
City of Nauvoo charter, charter for Nauvoo legion, and charter for University of Nauvoo issued by the Legislative Assembly of Illinois with little debate.

The Democrats who welcomed the Mormon settlers initially probably hoped to use their block-voting tendencies to control the balance of power in the state. (Indeed, one Assemblyman sarcastically noted that the charter should be renamed “A Bill for the Encouragement of the Importation of Mormons”![4]) Given the potential political power of the large number of immigrants, the state politicians were extra helpful in the matter of the charter, as BH Roberts noted:

This effort to win the Saints to one political party or the other continued to be a factor in their affairs so long as they remained at Nauvoo. It was owing to this rivalry for their support that doubtless made it possible for the Saints to obtain larger grants of power for their city government, and greater political privileges and influence in the State than otherwise could have been obtained by them. It also was this rivalry for their favor... that made them alternately fulsomely flattered and heartily disliked; fawningly courted, and viciously betrayed.[5]

Powers of the Charter

The Nauvoo Charter granted great latitude to the city. The executive head was the mayor, and he was assisted by four aldermen and nine city councilors. The mayor and aldermen were also judges in the city court, so the charter did not have the strict “separation of powers” that we have come to think of as proper. However, this was not unusual for the time. There were five other city charters granted by the state of Illinois before Nauvoo. A comparison is helpful:[6]

Nauvoo Charter Characteristic Compared with other existing charters in Illinois
Councilors and alderman Other cities generally have only one or the other
No waiting period for participation in city government (likely because of the large numbers of immigrants from Canada and the British isles) Other cities required that those in city government be American citizens with a residency requirement.
Can pass any law “not repugnant” to the U.S. or Illinois state Constitution Galena, Quincy, and Springfield had similar provisions
Legislative powers to the council “Nearly identical” to Springfield and Quincy
Presence of Municipal court Alton and Chicago also had courts
City courts can issue writs of habeas corpus Alton charter also grants this right to the city
Mayor is chief justice of city court; alderman are associate justices Not present in other charters
Court cases appealed to Hancock County courts (this is more restrictive than the other cities with courts) More broad powers given to other cities: Chicago and Alton were equal, rather than subservient, to the county courts, and appeals went directly to the Illinois Supreme Court

It should be noted that Nauvoo's charter was similar to other charters granted, and it was granted by the government of the state of Illinois—the Mormons did not impose it by fiat.

After the charter

1 February 1841
John C. Bennett elected mayor of Nauvoo. Joseph Smith, Sidney Rigdon, Hyrum Smith, and Williams Marks were elected as aldermen and councilors.
3 February 1841
the “Nauvoo Legion” formed—this was a militia controlled by the mayor, while most militia were typically controlled only at the county level. While still subject to the governor, the Nauvoo Legion’s internal organization and policies were under the control of the city of Nauvoo. Joseph was approved by the state of Illinois as “Lieutenant General,” which was a fairly high rank (no one but George Washington held a rank that high until 1847). The state officials later realized that only a jury of his peers (i.e., those with the same or equal rank) could convene a court-martial or otherwise remove Joseph, so they had effectively handed him life-time control over the city militia!

Again, one should note that Joseph did not arrogate the rank to himself; it was confirmed upon him by the state legislature.

Apostasy of John C. Bennett

May 1842
John C. Bennett is tried before a Church court. He confessed to “wicked and licentious conduct toward certain females in Nauvoo,”[7] and of past acts of exploiting of women he had attended as a doctor. He may also have performed abortions.[8] He had also frequented, and perhaps operated, a brothel.[9] (Bennett was not alone in this; with his encouragement Chauncy and Francis Higbee—who would write attacks on Joseph Smith in the Nauvoo Expositor—also participated in immoral acts and were disciplined for it.)

Orson F. Whitney said this about Bennett:

In May, 1842, the treachery and rascality of a man whom the Mormon leader had befriended and loaded with honors, became known to his benefactor. That man was Dr. John C. Bennett, Mayor of Nauvoo, Chancellor of its University, and Major-General of its legion. He had become associated with the Saints soon after their exodus from Missouri. Though a great egotist, he was a man of education, address and ability. That he had little or no principle was not immediately apparent. Considerable of a diplomat and possessing some influence in political circles, he rendered valuable aid in securing the passage by the Illinois Legislature of the act incorporating the city of Nauvoo. Hence the honors bestowed upon him by the Mormon people. Prior to that, and subsequently, he was Quartermaster-General of Illinois. Bennett professed great sympathy for the Saints. He joined the Church and apparently was a sincere convert to the faith.
Governor Thomas Ford, in his history of Illinois, styles Bennett "probably the greatest scamp in the western country." But this was not until long after the Mormons, thrice victimized, had become aware of his villainy.[10]

Assassination Attempt on Lilburn Boggs

6 May 1842
an unknown assailant shoots former Missouri governor Boggs through his window, severely wounding him. Later, John C. Bennett encourages Boggs to press charges against the Mormons for their alleged role in the attack.
8 August 1842
a warrant is issued for Joseph Smith’s extradition to Missouri to face charges in the attempted murder of Boggs; the claim is that Joseph Smith was an “accessory before the fact,” and encouraged Orin Porter Rockwell in the deed. Joseph easily proved he had been in Illinois on the day of the shooting (hundreds of miles from Missouri) and obtains a writ of habeas corpus.
1 September 1842
D&C 127 in letter from Joseph, who was in hiding to prevent further writs from being served on him.
6 September 1842
D&C 128 in letter from Joseph, still in hiding.
December 1842
the state Supreme Court of Illinois finds that the writ voiding the governor’s warrant was illegal. However, Joseph went before a federal judge to again challenge the warrant, and this court found that the warrant “lacked foundation” since it went beyond the statements which Boggs had made in his affidavit. The state Legislative Assembly considers repeal of the Nauvoo charter, but does nothing.
February 1843
Joseph Smith announces he will run for President of the United States.
June 1843
Missouri again attempted to extradite Joseph for trial. Joseph proceeded to Nauvoo, was welcomed by cheering crowds, and was again granted a writ of habeas corpus by the Nauvoo municipal court, voiding the warrant. The city council then made it illegal to arrest Joseph within Nauvoo, and gave the mayor (Joseph Smith, since the excommunication of Bennett) power to approve any outside warrants. This only increased the non-Mormons’ sense that Joseph was combining religious and civil power in an effort to put himself “beyond the law.”

For subsequent events, please see the entry on the: Nauvoo Expositor


  1. Joseph Smith, History of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 7 volumes, edited by Brigham H. Roberts, (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1957), 3:423. Volume 3 link
  2. Joseph Smith, History of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 7 volumes, edited by Brigham H. Roberts, (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1957), 5:55–56. Volume 5 link
  3. U.S. Constitution, Amendments, Article XIV, off-site
  4. Edwin Brown Firmage and Richard Collin Mangrum, Zion in the Courts : a Legal History of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1830–1900 (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1988), 133. ISBN 0252069803.
  5. Joseph Smith, History of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 7 volumes, edited by Brigham H. Roberts, (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1957), 4:xxi. Volume 4 link
  6. Derived from Edwin Brown Firmage and Richard Collin Mangrum, Zion in the Courts : a Legal History of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1830–1900 (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1988), 85–onward. ISBN 0252069803.
  7. Joseph Smith, History of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 7 volumes, edited by Brigham H. Roberts, (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1957), 5:18–19. Volume 5 link
  8. Susan Easton Black, Who’s Who in the Doctrine and Covenants (Salt Lake: Deseret Book, 1997), 14. ; see also Zeruiah N. Goddard, affidavit, August 28, 1842 in Affidavits and Certificates, Disproving the Statements and Affidavits Contained in John C. Bennett's Letters (Nauvoo, no publisher, 31 August 1842); cited by Danel W. Bachman, “A Study of the Mormon Practice of Polygamy Before the Death of Joseph Smith,” (1975) (unpublished M.A. thesis, Purdue University), 225.
  9. Bachman, “Polygamy Before the Death of Joseph Smith,” 225; citing L.D. Wasson to Joseph Smith, 29 July 1842 in Times and Seasons 5:891-892.
  10. Orson F. Whitney, History of Utah, 4 volumes, (Salt Lake City: George Q. Cannon and Sons Co., 1892-1904), 1:193–194; cited in Roy W. Doxy, Latter-day Prophets and the Doctrine and Covenants, Volume 4, (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1978), 255–257.