Fear of a Mormon return/Illinois town's fundamentalists feel threatened by giant temple
Monday, April 29, 2002 (SF Chronicle)
Nauvoo, Ill. -- At fundamentalist church gatherings in this bend of the Mississippi River, Rocky and Helen Hulse paint a menacing specter: legions of impeccably groomed Mormons pedaling house to house on bicycles, robbing anyone at home of their immortal souls.
They sound the alarm because of a $30 million temple to be dedicated June 27 in this farm town of 1,100 that is also a revered historical and religious site for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Mormon founder Joseph Smith is said to have received many of his revelations in Nauvoo. The town's early history is intertwined with church scripture and doctrine; many Mormons can trace their family histories directly back to the area.
In the three-state region around Nauvoo, fundamentalist churches have prepared their flocks for what they see as an army of Mormon invaders who will attend the temple's open house beginning May 6.
"The pastors know they are going to lose people to the Mormons, and they want their people warned," said Colleen Ralson, who runs the Nauvoo Christian Visitors Center, a storefront exhibit and clearinghouse that counters the Mormon presence in town.
"The temple is an insult to Christianity," said Rocky Hulse, a former Mormon who wants to "educate" his fellow born-again Christians about Mormonism.
He recently spoke to more than 200 people packed into the First Christian Church in Dallas City, Ill., about 15 minutes down Highway 96 from Nauvoo. "The Mormons aren't bad people," he said. "They are just deceived people."
While only 250 or so Mormons live in the region, their influence exceeds their numbers. The expected influx of up to 300,000 visitors at the completed temple worries some that 150 years after they were driven out, the Mormons will again seek to dominate the area's economy, culture and politics.
"Many feel that the Mormons will reoccupy the town," said Ralson, noting that Mormons had bought the hardware store and turned it into a Latter-day Saints bookstore. They also own the town's largest hotel.
For their part, the Mormons have tried to avoid arguments.
"It serves no purpose," said Ann Orton, a spokeswoman at the Nauvoo Visitors Center, run by the Mormons. "We believe what we believe, and they believe what they believe. Hopefully, there is common ground so we can be good neighbors."
While they are neither Protestants nor Catholics, the Mormons say, they are Christian.
The church is treating the Nauvoo temple dedication much as it did the Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, Orton said. "This will not be a proselytizing event," she said. "There will be no big push for baptisms or conversions. This will be a soft, neighborly approach."
Dean May, a social historian and Mormonism specialist at the secular University of Utah, said the Nauvoo temple was of enormous importance to the Mormons. "They regard its rebuilding much like the Jews would the building of a temple in Jerusalem," or, even more accurately, he said, "like rebuilding the synagogue in the Warsaw ghetto."
Mormons fleeing persecution in Missouri arrived in Nauvoo in 1839. Work on a temple began in 1841, and the town soon expanded to about 20,000 people, exceeding Chicago at the time.
But as the town grew, so did the unease among its neighbors. In 1844, a mob broke into the jail in Carthage, Ill., and killed Smith and his brother, who were being held on suspicion of destroying an anti-Mormon newspaper in Nauvoo.
Within two years, the Mormons were forced to leave town, and Brigham Young led the party west to Utah. In 1848, a fire believed to be arson destroyed much of the Nauvoo temple. In 1850, a storm leveled what was left. The temple's stones were scavenged for other buildings.
The Mormon settlement is now a registered historic landmark, similar to places like Nevada City, with restored buildings and interpretive exhibits.
Like all Mormon temples, the new structure will be used only for special ceremonies and not for regular worship. With an exterior entirely of limestone from Alabama, the 55,000-square-foot temple stands 165 feet tall. Atop the cupola is a golden statue of the Angel Moroni, who Smith said had appeared to him as a teenager and called him to work for God. Interior features include a baptismal font resting on 12 limestone oxen, representing the 12 tribes of Israel.
The area's evangelical churches, meanwhile, see menace rather than grandeur.
The Hulses and a national ministry that serves many of these churches are focused on keeping their followers away from Mormonism.
The Hulses, who moved recently to the area specifically for this task, have been going from church to church, attempting to warn that Mormonism is a cult with secret handshakes, blood oaths and bizarre rituals.
In sessions that can last more than four hours and draw as many as 600 people, the Hulses humorously recount their own conversions to Christianity, then tear into one Mormon teaching and ritual after another.
The Harmony Bible Church of Danville, Iowa -- of which the Hulses are members -- took out a full-page ad in a regional newspaper, questioning the Mormon teachings and prompting a holy war of words in the letters to the editor columns.
Nauvoo Mayor Thomas Wilson said the temple construction had prompted Mormons to begin buying up more property in the area. "A lot of people are leaving because of this," Wilson said. "I think they got some pretty good prices for their property." He also expects a surge of new Mormon settlers, especially retirees.
Wilson said there were not many job opportunities for people with young families to support. "Either you're a farmer . . . or you're a farmer," he said.
Ralson of the Christian Visitors Center insists it's not just what the Mormons teach that has her upset. "It's their attitude," she said. "Their arrogance: 'This is my town -- I will do what I please.' "
Orton, meanwhile, asks for tolerance. "In the United States of America, we should all be able to worship as we choose," she said. "We would support them in the ways they worship, and we ask that they do the same for us."