Reassassing Robert Flanders’s NAUVOO: KINGDOM ON THE MISSISSIPPI, Fifty Years Later

By June 14, 2016

This post resurrects an old and unfortunately infrequent JI series, “Reassessing the Classics,” where we look at important books from days of Mormon history past. And the post’s title is partly a lie–it’s actually been 51 years since the book’s publication, but 50 is a much nicer number.

FlandersI recently commenced a book project on Nauvoo that has provided the opportunity to return to one of our field’s earliest and most important works, Robert Bruce Flanders’s Nauvoo: Kingdom on the Mississippi (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1965).[1] One of the first books on Mormon history to be published by a university press–it was preceded by, among others, Leonard Arrington’s Great Basin Kingdom–it was a very early academic treatment that inaugurated the New Mormon History movement. It also still reads remarkably well. But of course it wears the marks of its age. In this post I want to highlight not only the strengths and weaknesses of this work deservedly called a “classic,” but also highlight some historiographic developments in the past half-century.

One of the hallmarks of New Mormon History was its ability to draw from broader contours in American culture to explain the rise of Mormonism. This is certainly the case with Kingdom on the Mississippi, as Flanders expertly points out the social and economic conditions of the Illinois frontier in the Age of Jackson. The book is at its strongest when discussing the “land mania” of the period, as many people, including Joseph Smith, sought to make a profit off of all the real estate suddenly available. Indeed, the chapter on the economics of the city–which was land rich but cash poor–is crucial for understanding how Nauvoo actually operated. Flanders also has a keen eye for the political activities of Hancock county, as he is able to tease out the meanings of party fights and voting trends. The end result is a portrait of Smith–and it indeed focuses a lot on Smith–and the Mormons that make them partly ignorant and partly mischievous in their attempts to take advantage of a frontier culture. For instance, when discussing politics, Flanders notes that Smith?s ?political understanding was inadequate for the exacting game he was set to play? (226).

Yet also like most of even the best books in New Mormon History, Kingdom on the Mississippi seeks to draw too bright a line between Mormonism and the culture from which it dissented. Smith and his followers are influenced by their surrounding environment, but they are then always out of step with it as well. Perhaps this is a remnant of Mormon parochialism, or perhaps this is just a perpetuation of the quest for Mormon uniqueness, but Flanders is very hesitant to claim that Mormon Nauvoo stands in as an example for larger cultural trajectories during the period.[2] For instance, he casts the Mormon attempt to establish a theocratic empire as unique to American democratic culture, yet scholars have since emphasizes the subversive and even domineering role that religion played in the early republic. That is, Mormons were far from alone in trying to find a “shelter” from democratic excess, and they were far from unique in seeking to manipulate democratic politics. These are mostly lessons learned in the decades since the book’s appearance, of course, so they should not be cast as Flanders’ faults, but they do embody the shifts in Mormon history since the 1960s.[3]

Nauvoo MapThe book is mostly an institutional history because it relies on an institutional record. I didn’t make a systematic study, but I doubt it’s an exaggeration to say that 70% of his sources come from the problematic History of the Church. Modern readers might be shocked at how frequently he draws from this (justifiably) derided documentary history; at times, the book reads more as a supplemental commentary on the books themselves. Yet Flanders likely didn’t have a choices. Researching in the 1950s and early 1960s, access to LDS sources would have been limited–to put it lightly. The depository sleuthing of non-LDS institutions (especially in other Utah repositories) by archive rats like David Whittaker, Davis Bitton, and D. Michael Quinn would not happen for another decade. The RLD Church’s own holdings were far from organized and available. So Flanders worked with what was available.[4] (Another remnant of the referencing oddities of the day were the occasional footnotes that supported important factual statements by citing personal testimonials, like when he cited the size of Main Street’s plats with “Correspondence of the author with Dr. T. Edgar Lyon, historian of Nauvoo Restoration, Incorporated” (188).) We take for granted the archival camelot we currently enjoy, with numerous sources not only available, but often digitized. As I embark on my own Nauvoo project, not only do I have Flanders’s interpretation to build upon, but I have access to sources he could not have even dreamed of. (Indeed, this autumn the Council of Fifty Minute Books will be mine!) And since New Mormon History was still in its infancy, Flanders also did not have much secondary work upon which to build: his bibliography only had four pages of scholarship.

Another mark of the time is the very presence of Flanders’s RLDS background. Kingdom on the Mississippi was written prior to the cooling relationship between the LDS and RLDS churches, and that schism undergirds much of his analysis. Especially at the end of chapters, Flanders couldn’t help but look forward to the division within Smith’s kingdom. “But not all Mormon shared the general enthusiasm for the [Nauvoo] Legion,” he closed his chapter on military and political developments, emphasizing that many came to see this as the downfall of the city (114). “Dissenters who broke with the Church over the radical innovations in doctrine,” he closed his chapter on the Nauvoo temple, “tended to view the Temple as a symbol of apostasy” (210). “The notion that the Mormon Kingdom should present a solid front politically matured in Utah,” he closed his chapter on Smith’s political aspirations, and extended to Deseret’s theocracy so derided in modern times (240). Chapter 9, which includes the primary discussion of polygamy, ends with William Marks’s disgust toward the practice (276-277). When discussing the debates over mormonism’s “empire,” he says the battle “tended to divide those who went to Utah from those who did not” (286). And to cap the tragic narrative, Flanders gives the last word to a dissident who decried Utah Mormonism’s turn from its “liberal” origins to its “deogmatic” theocratic end (340).

Indeed, Flanders always had an eye to later developments in both the Midwest and the Rocky Mountains. Nauvoo was understood to be the tragic prelude to ecclesiastical divorce, with implications that remained to his day. Ironically, this meant he fell into the same flaw he accused scholars of doing in an essay of his published in the very first Dialogue issue, where he said “the early formative period of the [Mormon] movement…has traditionally been viewed as merely preliminary to the Great Basin experience.”[5] Yes, Flanders’s work looked forward to the RLDS Church as much as the LDS kingdom, but it still looked forward all the same. Indeed, part of the book’s message was that there was a non-violent, non-theocratic, and non-political core of Mormonism that was shed by the Utah faction yet buttressed the message of Joseph Smith III.[6]

Nauvoo Temple 1846As with most books from the period, there is little room for women, and certainly no space for gendered issues. This is a man’s history, save for the requisite sections on the founding of the Relief Society. Flanders does not spend much time on polygamy, and doesn’t even mention the topic until the final fifty pages. Indeed, in his Dialogue essay, he dismisses Fawn Brodie’s extensive discussion on Smith’s plural wives as being based on “circumstantial” evidence.[7] Part of this is his overly cautious approach to sources, as the sources that were then available to researches required imaginative leaps to piece together. Ironically, the scant attention the book did give to polygamy became arguably the defining feature of the volume. For an RLDS background, the mere admission that Joseph Smith practiced polygamy was scandalous. So rather than seeing the lack of polygamy as a historiographical sin, it should rather be interpreted as a hint of the cultural constraints in the 1960s.

It is easy to pick at methodological holes in a fifty-year-old-book. But the fact that the book is still worth dealing with is a testament to its importance. More, historiographical classics are often representative of the scholarly settings in which they were written. Kingdom on the Mississippi was one of the foundational works of New Mormon History, and it helped move the field in new and important trajectories. Yet just like the historical craft itself, revisiting it is like traveling to a foreign world, and the voyage is quite instructive not only for your destination, but also the land from which you came.


[1] I quickly note that I do not aim to do an exhaustive overview of the period. Glen Leonard’s Nauvoo: A Place of Peace, a People of Promise (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 2002) does that admirably, though framed as an internal, devotional history. My project is more thematic driven. Perhaps I’ll blog about it at some point.

[2] This sharp dichotomy between “Mormon” theocracy verses “American” democratic culture also framed Marvin Hill’s Quest for Refuge: The Mormon Flight from American Pluralism (Signature, 1989).

[3] The inheritor of this particular framing of Nauvoo was Roger Launius, who co-edited not only a “Revisited” volume that collected scholarly essays reassessing issues in Flanders’s book, but also a documentary volume that included sources from the period that emphasized this cultural divide. For later scholarship that demonstrates the widespread discontent with democratic excesses, see Jon Butler’s Awash in a Sea of Faith and, more recently, Amanda Porterfield’s Conceived in Doubt.

[4] In an essay he published the year after Kingdom on the Mississippi‘s publication, Flanders acknowledged the problematic nature of these sources, and notes that they may “not [be] a reliable edition of the original” documents, but until they were available for examination “such allegations are unproven.” Robert Bruce Flanders, “Writing the Mormon Past,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 1, no. 3 (1966): 60. Ironically, the most recent addition to the Nauvoo corpus, Martha Bradley-Evans’s biography of Joseph Smith’s final five years, is also overly reliant on the History of the Church, though her excuse is less justifiable.

[5] Flanders, “Writing the Mormon Past,”52. The essay’s focus on taking “dissenters” and “apostates” more seriously hints at this anxiety as well, and explains why he saw it as so important to emphasize the dissenting traditions that resulted from the Nauvoo experience.

[6] There is an informative chapter on the relationship between LDS and RLDS scholars in the brand-spankin’-new biography of Leonard Arrington.

[7] Flanders, “Writing the Mormon Past,” 58, fn. 15.

Article filed under Categories of Periodization: Origins Historiography Methodology, Academic Issues Politics Reassessing the Classics


  1. Thanks Ben for this fine look back at a path-breaking work. As you point out, the archival riches available now we’re not even dreamt of in the day and Mormon historiography is a different ballgame. Flanders paid a price for his work in any case.

    Comment by WVS — June 14, 2016 @ 10:04 am

  2. Thanks, Ben. You’ve done a great job of placing the book in its historiographical context. Do you think the book has more to contribute to the studies of Nauvoo? Has anything in the historiography replaced it?

    Comment by Jeff T — June 14, 2016 @ 12:37 pm

  3. Thanks, WVS & Jeff.

    Jeff: in some ways this book has been replaced by a legion of scholarship, if only because of the sources that have become available. And yet, I think I still prefer this volume over more recent books focused on Nauvoo. Glen Leonard’s book, for instance, had access to thousands of more sources, but the story it tells is very different and, I think, lacks the thesis found in Flanders.

    Comment by Ben P — June 14, 2016 @ 3:55 pm

  4. Glad to see KOM recognized as a pathbreaking book. It is where all historians of Nauvoo must begin as I did with my dissertation (later my book Our Common Country 2001). The evidentiary base may be flawed, but its notes contain some great leads. By situating Nauvoo in the context of Midwestern history, he helps us see Joseph’s town was destined to fail. Thanks for the review and good luck interpreting Nauvoo’s past. SSR

    Comment by Susan Rugh — June 22, 2016 @ 7:44 pm

  5. Great post, Ben. Fascinating comments on Flanders’ emphasis on approaching schism.

    Comment by Chris Blythe — June 26, 2016 @ 10:27 pm


Recent Comments

J Stuart on Reassessing the Classics: Armand: “Thanks for this. I think about this book all the time and I'm always glad to have a refresher on its contents and arguments.”

Tyler on Guest Post - Mormonism: “Thank you, all, for your help and support!”

J. Stapley on A Quick Note: Historicizing: “Here is the YM org chart from 1967, which doesn't include a YM's presidency, so perhaps that dating of the presidencies to the mid 1970s…”

Mees Tielens on The Mechanics of Applying: “Just a gentle tip that if you are one of the interdisciplinary folks presenting at MHA your panel will probably not be well attended, but…”

Ardis on The Mechanics of Applying: “Thanks, J. My memory isn't perfect, but so far as it extends I don't recall ever seeing such a comprehensive and easy-to-follow explainer of the…”

J Stuart on 2019 Book of Mormon: “Eccles Conference Center, Rooms 201 and 205. I don't have any further information and their website doesn't seem to be updated.”