February 4, 1996 in Nation/World

Celebration And History Merge At Mormon ‘Mecca’ Thousands Gather At Nauvoo, Ill., 150 Years After Church Members Fled Persecution And Began Trek West

Christopher Wills Associated Press

Religious celebration, history lesson and family reunion all combined into one event for hundreds of Mormons who gathered Saturday in a tent beside the frozen Mississippi River.

Huddling for warmth around kerosene heaters, they marked the 150th anniversary of their ancestors fleeing Illinois to escape persecution and start over in the West.

“I don’t think I’d be part of this church if it weren’t for the people who braved this kind of weather,” said 14-year old Laura Hammond of St. Charles, Mo. “This is history, and it’s a part of myself.”

The church was founded by Joseph Smith, who led his followers from New York to Ohio to Missouri in search of a place to settle. They met opposition wherever they went and finally bought land in western Illinois. They founded Nauvoo in 1839.

They built it into a town of 11,000, making it one of Illinois’ largest cities at the time. Today its population is just a tenth of that.

But at the peak of their influence, they built a huge militia, creating tension with neighbors. A mob killed Joseph Smith in 1844, and church leaders decided the next year to move west for fear of further violence.

Their wagon train left Nauvoo on Feb. 4, 1846, the first stage of an exodus that took 70,000 Mormons westward over the next two decades. Along the way, they founded towns across Iowa and helped settle the West.

Security officials estimate 1,800 people poured into Nauvoo for the anniversary. Young missionaries in “Mormon trek” orange safety vests directed traffic.

A band played, a chorus sang through feedback on the sound system, the master of ceremonies introduced visiting dignitaries and made housekeeping announcements - including a warning not to try walking across the river.

Despite the light atmosphere, participants took the event seriously, remembering a key point in the history of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Kendall Jenson of Chicago called his participation “kind of a pilgrimage to Mecca.”

“Nauvoo is still a very significant place - a lot of roots here. I had great-great grandparents who were born here,” Jenson said.

Lectures and events were scheduled throughout the weekend. Towns across the river in Iowa planned to light bonfires Saturday night to mark the Mormon Trail.

The anniversary activities also extend to 1997 as the church marks key events along the trail. Mark Uhlenhake, of Moravia, Iowa, will lead a wagon train across part of Iowa this summer.

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