Joseph Smith and the University of Nauvoo

Donald Q. Cannon

Donald Q. Cannon, “Joseph Smith and the University of Nauvoo,” in Joseph Smith: The Prophet, The Man, ed. Susan Easton Black and Charles D. Tate Jr. (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 1993), 285–300.

Donald Q. Cannon was associate dean of Religious Education and professor of Church History and Doctrine at Brigham Young University when this was published.

Was the University of Nauvoo a real university or was it merely one on paper? Did it have a campus? Offer classes? Who taught at it? What was the relationship between Joseph Smith and the university? This paper will discuss these and other pertinent questions. The answers come from a sizeable body of research material gathered over several years of both field and library research.

The origins of the University of Nauvoo are found in the teachings and beliefs of Latter-day Saints. Modern revelation is filled with passages affirming the importance of education. Indeed, the motto “The glory of God is intelligence,” which greets visitors to the BYU campus, comes from Doctrine and Covenants 93:36. In another passage associated with the School of the Prophets in Kirtland, the Lord said, “seek learning even by study and also by faith” (D&C 88:118).

Not only the scriptures, but early LDS periodicals also contained references to the importance of education. The Evening and Morning Star has several references on this subject. The benefits of education are described as helping to “brighten the rough diamond” (“Cultivate” 9). The members of the Church are chastised for failing to cultivate their minds. LDS parents are challenged to bring up their children properly and are counseled that “it is folly to suppose they can become learned without education” (“Schools” 214). The Messenger and Advocate enjoined the Saints to promote education and learning in order to “make Zion the joy and praise of the whole earth” (Rigdon 3:421).

Significantly, Joseph Smith and almost all other early LDS leaders had only rudimentary educations. An examination of dozens of LDS journals showed that almost every person wrote that he or she had little opportunity for education. Recognizing this deficiency in his own life, Joseph Smith encouraged others to obtain education.

Joseph Smith’s biographers recognized his strong interest in education. John Henry Evans talks about Joseph’s personal desire to learn about a wide range of subjects (232). George Q. Cannon wrote “no man of his time loved knowledge more than he” (365). Latter-day Saints who personally knew and observed Joseph Smith attest to his great interest in learning. John Hess, for example, related the following in his journal about the Prophet while he was in Missouri:

At that time Joseph was studying Greek and Latin. When he got tired of studying, he would go and play with the children in their games about the house, to give himself exercise. Then he would go back to his studies. (Andrus and Andrus 101)

The Prophet Joseph Smith made several statements about the value of education. While he was languishing in Liberty Jail, he wrote a letter to his wife Emma in which he encouraged her to take care of educating their children. He wrote: “Do teach them all you can, that they may have good minds” (Arrington 22). Later, in Nauvoo, he related the building of the city to education:

In consequence of the impoverished condition of the Saints, the buildings which are in course of erection do not progress as fast as could be desired; but from the interest which is generally manifested by the Saints at large, we hope to accomplish much by a combination of effort, and a concentration of action, and erect the Temple and other public buildings, which we so much need for our mutual instruction and the education of our children. (Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith 186; hereafter TPJS)

Specifically related to the University of Nauvoo, the Prophet said that it is “necessary for the great work of the last days” (Durham 90). Joseph Smith did not create the university on his own, but he was a driving force behind its development and thoroughly believed in it. The importance of the university in his mind is seen in the way he related the university to the overall plans for Nauvoo.

We have a bill before the legislature for the incorporation of the city of Nauvoo, and for the establishment of a seminary of learning, and other purposes, which I expect will pass in a short time. (TPJS 177)

In a study of education in the LDS Church, Royal Meservy states that “the Prophet had planted deep the seed of an educated faith” (66). Authorization for the University of Nauvoo was included in the Nauvoo Charter from the State of Illinois. The Charter was signed by Governor Thomas Carlin, on 16 December 1840, having previously passed the House and Senate (History of the Church 4:293; hereafter HC; Kimball 67). On 1 February 1841 municipal elections were held, and John C. Bennett became the first mayor of Nauvoo. He pushed for the immediate organization of the university. On 3 February 1841 the newly-elected Mayor and Nauvoo City Council passed an ordinance creating the University of Nauvoo. Its official name was the “University of the City of Nauvoo.” Simultaneously the city government appointed a Board of Trustees for the university. This governing board included the following:

John C. Bennett, chancellor; William Law, registrar; and Joseph Smith, Sidney Rigdon, Hyrum Smith, William Marks, Samuel H. Smith, Daniel H. Wells, Newel K. Whitney, Charles C. Rich, John T. Barnett, Wilson Law, Don Carlos Smith, John P. Greene, Vinson Knight, Isaac Galland, Elias Higbee, Robert D. Foster, James Adams, Robert B. Thompson, Samuel Bennett, Ebenezer Robinson, John Snider, George Miller, and Lenos M. Knight, Regents of the “University of the City of Nauvoo.” (HC 4:293)

We can readily see that this list includes many prominent men in Nauvoo. They are roughly equivalent to a board of trustees for a state university in the twentieth century. Most of them were Latter-day Saints.

The person who heads this list, John C. Bennett, is of special interest because he also ranks among the most notorious “bay guys” in Mormon history. The subtitles listed for Bennett in a biographical sketch tell us much about the man—“Soldier of Fortune, Physician, Member of the First Presidency, Author of An Exposé of Joe Smith.” Born 3 August 1804 in Fairhaven, Massachusetts, Bennett studied medicine and taught at a medical school in Willoughby, Ohio. In religion, he was a Methodist, Campbellite, and Mormon, in that order. He joined the LDS Church in Ohio and soon after moving to Nauvoo became a community leader, serving as Mayor, Chancellor of the University of Nauvoo, and Assistant President of the Church. He came to his position at the university with a good deal of experience in higher education, having helped found Indiana University at New Albany, where he served as president. He had also been affiliated with several other schools in Ohio and Indiana.

After only 18 months as a member of the Church, John Bennett was accused of teaching an adulterous system of spiritual wifery and was subsequently excommunicated. As an apostate he gave numerous anti-Mormon lectures all around the country and published The History of the Saints: Or An Exposé of Joe Smith and the Mormons. John C. Bennett initially contributed substantially to the building of the Kingdom, but, unfortunately, he worked hard against the Church later on in his career (Van Wagoner and Walker 10-14).

The person selected as president of the University of Nauvoo is not as notorious as Bennett, but he certainly was as mysterious. James Kelley is described as having an A.M. from Trinity College in Dublin, Ireland. He was further described as “a ripe scholar . . . [who] will . . . greatly advance the cause of education” (Meservy 73). He was apparently not a member of the Church. A search of early Church membership records revealed that there was a James Kelley, but he was born in 1836 in Ohio, and is, therefore, not the person who was appointed as president of the University of Nauvoo in 1842. President James Kelley remains somewhat an elusive figure. His actual impact on the institution is likewise obscure (Hill 282; Black 26:276).

Considering the relative lack of formal education among the early Latter-day Saints, the faculty appointed to teach at the university is astonishing. The following are listed among the faculty: Orson Pratt, Orson Spencer, Sidney Rigdon, Gustavus Hills, and John Pack (Smith 30, Blum 48). Of those on this list, Orson Pratt played the most prominent role at the university. He was born 11 September 1811 at Hartford, New York, and was converted and baptized by his brother Parley. He served as a missionary for the Church several times both in the USA and overseas. Appointed as a member of the original Quorum of the Twelve in 1835, he published several tracts and pamphlets, including An Interesting Account of Several Remarkable Visions. Throughout his life Orson Pratt pursued a strong interest in mathematics and astronomy, fields in which he was essentially self-taught. Elder Pratt’s greatest impact on the Church came as a result of his carefully written theological studies. He was selected by Brigham Young to make the Church’s first public announcement of plural marriage in 1852. David Whitaker in his Encyclopedia of Mormonism article on Orson Pratt noted, “he was an elaborator, a systematizer, and a popularizer of LDS thought, rather than an innovator or an originator” (3:1115).

In relation to the University of Nauvoo, Orson Pratt played a very important part. It is perhaps helpful to view Joseph Smith as the architect and Orson Pratt as the builder of the university. He took the ideas of the Prophet and translated them into reality. Orson Pratt’s name appears more frequently in the historical records pertaining to the university than any other name.

Returning to Nauvoo in July 1841, from a mission in the British Isles, Pratt was in desperate need of means to support his family. As his biographer, Breck England, put it, “Rather than trading to support his family, he signed on to teach at the fledgling University of the City of Nauvoo” (72). Characterized for the first time as “Professor Orson Pratt” in a newspaper account (Bennett and Law 517), Orson showed that was a valid title through the remainder of his life. There is good evidence to show that he taught classes at the university during 1841, 1842, and 1843, serving as Professor of English literature and mathematics (England 72, 84). Commenting on his work at the university, the Times and Seasons proclaimed that Orson Pratt

is a self-made man, and has had to encounter great difficulties in the acquisition of an education; but he has surmounted them all. As a teacher of Mathematics and English literature, he is equaled by few, and surpassed by none this side of the great waters; as the proficiency of the matriculates of the university now under his care abundantly testifies. (“University” 3:631)

Frequent newspaper advertisements refer to his courses and to books for sale. He was also consulted on questions by the common citizens of Nauvoo as well as Church leaders. Wilford Woodruf for example, recorded material from Professor Pratt in his journal entry for Sunday, 2 April 1843. Woodruff described halos and pharhelia (mock suns) which appeared between 6 and 9 o’clock on that day. To round out his description, Elder Woodruff included the proper measurements and scientific descriptions of the heavenly phenomena he had witnessed (Woodruff 2:223-25).

The picture of Professor Orson Pratt, which emerges from historical records, depicts a man who is playing an active part in the development of a frontier university. He would continue to play such a role when the Saints moved West. His interest in education was a blessing to the Church and to the City of Nauvoo. John Henry Evans’ statement on Orson Pratt’s work related to the University of Nauvoo is an appropriate tribute: “In the first century of ‘Mormonism’ there is no leader of the intellectual stature of Orson Pratt.” Likewise, while he resided in Nauvoo, W.W. Phelps called Pratt the “Gauge of Philosophy” (Whittaker, Essential Orson Pratt xv).

At Orson Pratt’s side stood Orson Spencer a man eminently qualified to perform educational tasks. With a better formal education than most early Mormons, Spencer stood ready to make a lasting contribution to education among the Saints. Born at West Stockbridge, Massachusetts, 14 March 1802, he had the privilege of attending Lenox Academy in Berkshire County. At age 22 he graduated from Union College. After a period of service as a teacher and a student of the law, he entered Theological College at Hamilton, New York, where he graduated in 1829. While serving as a Baptist minister in Middlefield, Massachusetts, he and his wife and children were converted to the Church in 1840 by his brother Daniel Spencer.

Gathering to Nauvoo, Orson Spencer put his skills to work in the community. He served as a teacher in the public schools, as a faculty member of the university, as chancellor of the university, and also as mayor of Nauvoo. He continued his educational contributions to the LDS community through his service as the first Chancellor of the University of Deseret, organized 28 February 1850 in Salt Lake City. Unfortunately, Orson Spencer’s career came to an early end when he died of typhoid in 1855 (Whitney 4:320-23).

Another professor at the University of Nauvoo was Sidney Rigdon, who was perhaps the best-known of the people who joined the Church in its early years. He had been a popular Campbellite minister in northern Ohio and brought a large part of his congregation with him into the Church. Self-educated in the same way as Orson Pratt, Professor Rigdon also had the capacity and skill to function as a faculty member of the university. He taught Church history, rhetoric and literature. While he is frequently listed along with Orson Pratt and Orson Spencer as one of the regular professors, Rigdon apparently did not play as prominent a role in the university as the other two professors did (McKiernan 110).

These aforementioned professors are the ones most often referred to in studies of the University of Nauvoo, but there were others who participated as active faculty members. Most prominent among these others was Gustavus Hills. Even before the university was founded, he was referred to as “Professor Hills.” His musical interest and ability is demonstrated by the fact that he was president and director of the choir of the Nauvoo Stake. The choir petitioned the trustees to add a Department of Music to the university. The request was approved, and Gustavus Hills was appointed professor of music. Little is known about his background or his musical training, but his skill as a musician was widely recognized. Professor Hills sponsored a musical lyceum during the Christmas holidays in 1841, which featured Lowell Mason’s Manual of Instruction. The lyceum and other singing schools were attended by Joseph Smith (French 44; Hicks 393).

Once the faculty of the University of Nauvoo had been appointed, attention turned to where they would teach their classes. A building committee consisting of Vinson Knight, Daniel Wells, and Charles C. Rich was appointed to take charge of creating a campus (Meservy 74).

Although this committee had authorization to raise money and erect buildings for the University of Nauvoo, no specific buildings were constructed. At least, no unified campus was ever built. The failure to establish a campus resulted in large measure from lack of financial resources and the emphasis on the temple and other construction projects. Time was also a factor. If the Saints had been allowed to stay longer in Illinois they probably would have created a centralized campus.

As it was, an informal campus did emerge on the scene. In fact, there was both an upper and lower campus. Examining a map of the city, one sees that Nauvoo was built on two levels; the mud flat down along the river and the section up on the bluffs which rise sharply from the flood plain. On the lower campus the public buildings used included the Masonic Hall, the Seventies Hall, and the Red Brick Store. Private homes included the residence of Sidney Rigdon. The upper campus public buildings included the residencies of Orson Pratt, Parley P. Pratt, Orson Spencer, and Gustavus Hills (Cannon Research Files; Miller 90). While no unified campus was ever built, some of the buildings used for classes clearly grew out of the atmosphere created by the university. The Concert Hall, the Seventies Hall, and the Masonic Hall—all had distinctly educational functions. Consequently, one could assert that buildings for the University of Nauvoo were actually built.

The courses offered by the University of Nauvoo varied widely. Orson Pratt offered several mathematics courses including arithmetic, algebra, trigonometry, geometry, conic sections, measuration, surveying, navigation, analytical, plan and spherical trigonometry, analytical geometry, and differential calculus. Professor Pratt also taught astronomy, chemistry, and philosophy (Meservy 76). Sidney Rigdon offered courses in English literature, language, rhetoric, and Church history. Professor Gustavus Hills offered various courses in music, including science of music, and the art of sacred singing. He also sponsored a Lyceum of Music (French 45). Apparently some foreign language courses were offered, including German, French, Latin, Greek, and Hebrew, but it is not certain who taught these courses (Smith 32).

There is more information on the textbooks used in the common schools than those of the university. Nevertheless, it is possible to identify some of the books used by the students and faculty at the university. In music they used Parker’s Encyclopedia of Music and Lowell Mason’s Manual of Instruction. Orson Pratt probably used common mathematics books of the day, but we don’t have any specific information on which ones he employed.

The University of the City of Nauvoo also granted degrees. While regular degrees were conferred, no official record of them is extant. The university also granted honorary degrees for two main purposes: first, to lend stature and credibility to the faculty; second, to honor those who had helped the Saints. Orson Pratt received an honorary degree of Master of Arts to help “compensate for his lack of formal education” and to provide stature for the university (Meservy 84; Halford 126). At least three honorary degrees were conferred upon men who had given the Latter-day Saints favorable treatment. Two editors received such degrees, John Wentworth of the Chicago Democrat and James Gordon Bennett of the New York Weekly Herald. Both men had run favorable editorials about the Saints in their respective papers (French 47). James Arlington Bennett, an influential lawyer and friend of the Church in New York, was also grated an honorary degree. He later joined the Church. All of these men received an honorary LLD degree (French 47; Meservy 84).

The University of Nauvoo had a pronounced impact upon Nauvoo. When the citizens of Nauvoo had questions about subjects that required intellectual expertise, they went to the university faculty for answers. Wilford Woodruff’s question about solar phenomena has been referred to earlier in this paper (2:223-25). Taking classes and participating in other university-sponsored activities likewise involved the people of Nauvoo in university affairs. These classes and activities clearly impacted their lives. Samuel Miles, for example, was a student at the university and received instruction from Orson Pratt and others (Jenson 1:536).

The largest number of people involved in university activities were students in the common schools or public schools. These schools were directly under the control and supervision of the university. The Saints had organized schools everywhere they went, and Nauvoo was no exception. Under the direction of the university, schools were held in the Arsenal, in the red Brick Store, and in some homes. On a more personal note, my great-grandfather Angus M. Cannon and Joseph Smith III were classmates in a school held in the Red Brick Store (Cannon and Whittaker 394).

Frequent references to the University of Nauvoo were found in the newspapers of Nauvoo. Those references ranged from advertisements to feature stories, news items, and poems. Eliza R. Snow published the following poem in the Times and Seasons:




Dedicated to the Students of the Nauvoo University;

under the tuition of Elder O. Pratt.


I saw a thing of rudest form,
From mountains’ base brought forth—
A useless gem—devoid of charm,
And wrap’d in cumbrous earth.

Its rough exterior met the eye
With a repulsive show;
For every charm, was forc’d to lie
In buried depths, below.

The Sculptor came,—I wonder’d, when
His plaint tool was brought;
He pass’d it oe’r the gem, and then
I mark’d the change it wrought.

Each cumbrance from its surface, clear’d—
The gem, expos’d to view—
Its nature and its worth appear’d—
It form expansive grew.

By gentle strokes, it was set free—
By softer touch, refin’d;

Till beauty, grace and majesty,
Were with its nature join’d.

Its luster kindled to a blaze—
‘Twas Wisdom’s lamp begun.
And soon the splendor of its rays
Eclips’d the noon-day sun.

That gem was chain’d in crudeness, till
The Sculptor, lent his aid
I wonder’d at the ready skill
His potent hand display’d.

But ‘twas the virtue of his tool
Of fine, transforming edge:
Which serv’d for pencil, mould and rule—
For polisher and sledge.

The tool requires a skilful hand—
That gem, no charm should bind;
That tool is Education, and
That gem, the Human Mind.

A part of the impact of the university on Nauvoo came in the area of intellectual activities sponsored by the community. Numerous public lectures and lyceum events were held in Nauvoo. These events were well attended and enthusiastically supported. Sometimes the Saints gave lectures and sometimes guest speakers were brought in from outside. For example, Dr. Reynolds from Iowa City lectured on the subject of astronomy. The Nauvoo Lyceum sponsored debates and public speakers (HC 6:281; Givens 171).

There was also a movement to create a library for the use of the citizens of Nauvoo. This was not a tax-supported library, but rather a subscription one, to which the members were asked to donate books. Joseph Smith was a member of the library and contributed a substantial number of important books on such subjects as philosophy, religion and archaeology to the Nauvoo Library and Literary Institute (Godfrey 386-89; Givens 256-57).

Joseph Smith’s involvement in the Institute is just one of many ways where the Prophet was involved in activities related to the University of the City of Nauvoo. Meetings of the Board of Regents were often held in the President’s Office. As a member of the Board, Joseph Smith was directly involved in these meetings (Bennett and Law 517).

In both its origin and its operation the Prophet Joseph Smith was intimately involved in the University of the City of Nauvoo. To properly evaluate his overall contribution as a Church leader, one must assess his work related to the university.

The University of Nauvoo had a short-term impact of Nauvoo, but it has also had a long-term impact on the Church. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in the twentieth century is fully committed to education and sponsors worldwide educational programs. Much of the current program had its basic beginnings in the University of Nauvoo.

In the early years in Utah, the church founded two institutions of higher learning which were based on the model of the University of the City of Nauvoo. The University of Deseret was the first state university founded in the west of the Missouri River. It later became the University of Utah and has achieved a world-class reputation in many academic fields. An interesting connection between the University of the City of Nauvoo and the University of Utah is found in the person of Orson Spencer, who was a professor on the faculty of the University of Nauvoo and served as Chancellor of the University of Deseret (Whitney 4:320-23).

The second institution with a direct connection to the University of Nauvoo is Brigham Young University, formerly Brigham Young Academy. Brigham Young University could have easily been named Joseph Smith University. In fact, the building which houses the religion faculty and many religion classes is appropriately called the Joseph Smith Building. There is a real tie between Joseph Smith, the University of Nauvoo, and Brigham Young University. The thousands of students who study on the BYU campus are heirs to the legacy established over 150 years ago by Joseph Smith and the University of Nauvoo.


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