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Mormon Temple, Nauvoo, Illinois

A work made of chromogenic print, from the series "sweet earth: experimental utopias in america".

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  • A work made of chromogenic print, from the series "sweet earth: experimental utopias in america".


May 2005


Joel Sternfeld
American, born 1944

About this artwork


Currently Off View


Photography and Media


Joel Sternfeld


Mormon Temple, Nauvoo, Illinois


United States


Made 2005


Chromogenic print, from the series "Sweet Earth: Experimental Utopias in America"


No markings recto or verso Nauvoo was a swampy backwater on the Mississippi River in 1840 when Joseph Smith and his disciples, fleeing persecution in Missouri, descended upon it. In just four years, they transformed it into a thriving city of twenty thousand. Mormonism, a distinctly American religion, was founded in 1830 when the twenty-four-year-old Smith published the Book of Mormon (translated from “reformed Egyptian” by the young Vermonter after the angel Moroni revealed its existence to him in a series of nighttime visits). The book contains an abridged history of a Jewish clan that arrived in America by boat and became the American Indians. Among its other revelations: the true location of the Garden of Eden is in Missouri, on a piece of land that’s now a parking lot—near Harry Truman’s home. The years between 1841 and 1844, during which the Temple in Nauvoo was under construction, were particularly febrile ones for Smith. Influenced by Masonic ceremonies and the Jewish mystic tradition known as the Cabala, Smith expanded the rituals and practices of Mormonism. In particular he introduced “celestial” marriage, in which not only men but a few women secretly took “plural” spouses. When rumors of this practice surfaced, scandalized residents of Nauvoo bought a printing press and published the first issue of an oppositional newspaper. In response, Smith, who maintained the second largest standing militia in America, declared martial law and ordered his followers to smash the printing press. When subsequently charged by the governor of Illinois with treason, Smith surrendered to the jail in nearby Carthage. There, he and his brother were shot to death by a mob, composed, in part, of members of the state militia assigned by the governor to protect him. The remaining Mormons were further persecuted and eventually forced to leave Nauvoo in the dead of winter. The town was soon bought by French communist followers of Etienne Cabet. Fifteen hundred “Icarians,” so called because of their belief in Cabet’s novel, Travels in Icaria, an eight hundred-page amalgam of utopian thought, moved in. Writing in America’s Communal Utopias, Robert P. Sutton reports that they led a particularly rich cultural life for frontier America, with a library housing four thousand volumes. But financial difficulties and a series of strict edicts promulgated by Cabet— forbidding tobacco, hard liquor, complaints about the food, and hunting and fishing “for pleasure”—brought about dissension and the eventual dissolution of the community. The town of Nauvoo is now a major Mormon tourist destination, attracting a million visitors a year. In 2004 the lieutenant governor of Illinois expressed official regret to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints for the events that occurred in 1844. From the portfolio, Sweet Earth: Experimental Utopias in America, 1982–2005


26.5 × 33.2 cm (image); 27.9 × 35.5 cm (paper)

Credit Line

Gift of Ralph and Nancy Segall

Reference Number


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