Zion and My Semester at Nauvoo

The Joseph and Hyrum Statues at Sunset.

Every autumn whenever the leaves change color and the weather turns cooler, I remember Nauvoo.

In the fall of 2004, I spent a BYU Travel Study semester in Nauvoo…and it was one of the most incredible, Zion-like events of my life.

For over three months, I—along with 110 other students—studied Church History, American Literature, Pioneer Living, Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, and many other subjects at the Joseph Smith Academy, a building that was a mere 180 steps away from the Nauvoo Temple.

Me with author and church history instructor Paul Thomas Smith.

We were fed both spiritually and physically by the most devoted, Christ-like examples that I have ever met. Our instructors were seasoned teachers that had fasted and prayed for the opportunity to serve at the JSA and every lesson was a spiritual feast. Our cooks were elderly service missionaries, called by the Church, and the literal feasts they gave us prompted us to call the cafeteria “the weight room.”

We visited the historic sites on the “flats” of Nauvoo and the historic areas surrounding Nauvoo. We went on two major field studies, one to Church history sites in the East (Palmyra, Kirtland, Harmony, et cetera) and another to sites in the West (Independence, Far West, Winter Quarters, et cetera). We watched the October General Conference together. We went to Wal-Mart in Keokuk together (a bigger deal than you’d think). We celebrated

Holding a piece of the an original Nauvoo Temple star stone.

Halloween, Thanksgiving and the beginnings of Christmas together. In short, we lived a blissful life in beautiful Nauvoo.

Since the end of that semester, I have revisited Nauvoo a number of times. But truth be told, it hasn’t been the same for me.

I love Nauvoo. But I don’t love it because of it’s stunning beauty, the historic sites, or even the rebuilt temple itself (although those are certainly wonderful aspects of it). No, I love Nauvoo because of what it taught me about Zion.

Church history is replete with references to Zion as Joseph Smith seemed very anxious to teach this principle to the saints.

Said he:

“The building up of Zion is a cause that has interested the people of God in every age; it is a theme upon which prophets, priests and kings have dwelt with peculiar delight; they have looked forward with joyful anticipation to the day in which we live; and fired with heavenly and joyful anticipations they have sung and written and prophesied of this our day; but they died without the sight; we are the favored people that God has made choice of to bring about the Latter-day glory” (Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Joseph Smith [Melchizedek Priesthood and Relief Society course of study, 2007], 186).

In the film, American Zion, Joseph Smith said that “Zion isn’t a place.” My time at Nauvoo taught me the truth of that statement. Zion isn’t a place, it’s a way of life—it’s a way you live with others.

Standing with a handful of the students from the Nauvoo Semester program.

Our travels through and our studies of Church History reinforced this idea. God was less concerned about his people having having “a Zion” (Palymra, Kirtland, Independence, Far West, and Nauvoo) and more concerned about his people living Zion.

My semester at Nauvoo—that is, the people at Nauvoo—taught me about living Zion. We ate together, celebrated together, traveled together and looked out for one another. We served each other, taught each other and loved each other.

“Therefore, verily, thus saith the Lord, let Zion rejoice, for this is Zion—the pure in heart.” (D&C 97:21)

In the final edition of Our Times and Seasons, our semester newspaper, Megan Cook (one of the students at the program) wrote an amazing, sentimental expression of gratitude of our experiences at Nauvoo. Wrote she:

“In a few short weeks, our time here will come to a close and we will go our separate ways. Let us never forget the sweet memories we have all enjoyed here.

  • Having the spirit abound in everything we do!
  • The unconditional love the teachers show us.
  • Being taught 24/7 by the examples of pure disciples of Christ (all of you!)
  • Early morning baptisms and the fact that the temple is 180 steps away (I counted them!)
  • Reading Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith in the grove where many of those lessons were taught.
  • Brother Smith’s corny jokes.
  • Brother Lambert’s ability to turn every conversation into a deep evaluation of life.
  • Brother Ivie’s humility.
  • Brother Ed’s high, raspy voice.
  • Sunday night firesides with the Pinegars followed by ice cream (could life possibly get any better!)
  • The green carpet and orange curtains
  • How there are hundreds of signs that say “11:00 Quiet Time” that nobody seems to notice anymore.
  • Watching the sunset on the Mississippi beam through the statue of Joseph and Hyrum.
  • Midnight snack parties in the cafeteria.
  • The “far beneath the surface” discussions in American Literature.
  • The spirit of the Prophet Joseph!
  • Walking down Parley Street and never ceasing to be amazed at the faith of the saints.
  • Bonding on bus trips.
  • Being fed food by Christ-like servants three times a day.
  • Life changing experiences on field studies that reinforce and strengthen my testimony.
  • The unforgettable feeling we all experienced as we stood as a family outside of the Kirtland Temple.
  • The fact that my life, mortal and eternal, will never be the same…”

And that is why every autumn, whenever the leaves change color and the weather gets cooler, I remember Nauvoo and miss it.

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Seth Adam Smith

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