For 20 years Nauvoo was the center of two experiments in religious/political communitarianism.

Mormonism was nine years old when its members fled to Illinois from riots in 1839. Enthusiasm within the group ran high, and by 1842 Hancock County counted 16,000 Mormons in the vicinity of Nauvoo. The Mormons reversed the traditional separation of church and state; and under an extraordinary charter granted by a legislature fully appreciative of their political power, they presided over their own courts and maintained a military force (the Nauvoo Legion) second in size only to the US Army. Mormon Prophet Joseph Smith, according to a recent historian, became "mayor and chief magistrate as well as lieutenant general, newspaper editor, real estate promoter, and bankrupt businessman."

After supporting the Whigs in 1838 and 1840, Smith directed the Mormons to back the Democrats in 1842. Nauvoo was now the largest city in the state, its political potency increased by home rule and bloc voting. In 1844 Smith formed his own Reform party, and began to campaign for the Presidency of the United States.

Meanwhile, the introduction of polygamy and wild tales spread by disillusioned converts increased antagonisms of non-Mormon neighbors in Nauvoo. Rumors and accusations flew between Mormons and Gentiles, and Smith's apparent autocratic control of the courts outraged church enemies further.

In the face of disruptions, Governor Ford called out the militia to keep order. He had Smith and his brother Hyrum placed in the Carthage jail in protective custody, guarded by the anti-Mormon Carthage Grays. The militiamen lived up to their already dismal reputation, offering only token resistance to a mob that stormed the jail and murdered the Smiths on June 27, 1844. Troops remained in the area, and by 1846 Brigham Young had taken most of the community on its historic trek to Utah.

Between 1849 and 1860, a group of French communitarians occupied Nauvoo. On Feb. 3, 1848, a group of 69 left France to form a utopian community on the American frontier, far from the contaminating influences of industrial society. They were joined by another contingent of settlers in 1849. The French were Icarians, followers of Etienne Cabet. Cabet based his philosophy on the moral teachings of Christianity, declaring that Jesus was a true communist. He abolished private property and individual enterprise, believing that with all working for the common good the evils of society would disappear.

The Icarians bought the deserted Mormon buildings, foolishly deciding to purchase the half-finished Mormon Temple instead of buying land. It was a move that forecast doom, for the magnificent stone building was destroyed by a tornado in 1850.

Unlike the polygamous Mormons or the celibate Bishop Hill community, the Icarians stressed the importance of conventional marriage, with a few important variations. Husband and wife were allotted one room in the community dwelling, a building 120 x 40 feet. All meals were taken at the-80-foot community dining room, and requests for such items as new clothes were submitted to the community council. More important, children were kept rigidly segregated from adults. They lived in the school building and were allowed only a brief Sunday visit with their parents.

Although each new member turned over his worldly goods plus an $80 entrance fee, debts began to mount. The more ambitious and energetic quickly tired of working harder without improving their own lot, and they left. An estimated 1800 Icarians lived in Nauvoo within six Years, but no more than 500 were ever there at one time.

By 1855 a majority of the group opposed Cabet's dictatorial methods. When he attempted in 1856 to appoint a group of "inspectors" to ensure efficient work, the dissidents elected a new president. The Cabet loyalists responded with a three-day strike, demonstrations, and violence. They then moved to St. Louis, but the new leaders fared no better. In 1860 the group disbanded, $25,000 in debt and disillusioned with utopian communism.

The ante-bellum years knew many utopian experiments which rejected some element of modernism. Only a few found the proper combination of leadership, economic solvency, doctrinal appeal, and isolation (a "favor" bestowed on the Mormons by Illinoisans) which led to permanency.