The Mormon Exodus from Nauvoo is reckoned as having begun on 4 February 1846 when the first wagons crossed the ice-covered Mississippi River, heading west. But in one sense, Mormons never abandoned Nauvoo – letters throughout the 19th century contain references by missionaries who stopped there on their way to the mission fields in the 19th century, first by those who had lived there under the leadership of Joseph Smith, and gradually by those who had no personal memories tied to the city but for whom the name “Nauvoo” held some of the same romance as “Camelot.” In the early 20th century, photographs began appearing in Church publications documenting visits to Nauvoo, and at least by 1933 the traffic was so great that the first monument to the women of the Relief Society was built at Nauvoo.
The early summer of 1951 brought its share of Mormon visitors to the old city. Two missionaries – Elders Richard C. Jensen and Rulon N. Jorgensen – were on their way home from their missions to Denmark and decided to see Nauvoo. G. Carlos Smith, Jr., president of the Cottonwood Stake in the Salt Lake Valley, was on vacation in the Midwest with his wife LaVon and sons Bud and Jerry; the family headed toward Nauvoo to see the place so closely associated with their great-grandfather Hyrum Smith.
Elder Hyrum A. and Sister Cordelia Knight, from Bountiful, Utah, had come to serve as missionary guides at the Carthage Jail, owned for a number of years by the Church; they had arrived in early June, and two weeks later, when the couple headed to Nauvoo on June 17, they had already counted 841 tourists – about one-quarter of them LDS – calling at the Jail. Utah transplants Brother and Sister Dale Young (from Brigham City) and Brother and Sister Eldon Drake (from Ogden), all then living in Ames, Iowa, were in town. So were Brother and Sister Harold Creer and Brother and Sister Parley R. Neeley, all of Spanish Fork, and the family of Robert C. Walburn of Sidney, Ohio. There may have been others.
Some of these Saints were in Nauvoo on June 17 simply by chance. Others had deliberately come there that Sunday morning because Walter F. and Ruth Hogan were there.
The Hogans, of Bountiful, were missionaries who had been sent to Nauvoo – not merely passing through, but with the intention that they would live and work in Nauvoo. They had been in town only a few days, but they were already making contacts and friends. They had been greeted by Nauvoo’s civic and church leaders on their arrival on June 14, and had already shared a meal with those local leaders. And they had moved into their new quarters … a building on the northwest corner of the block where the Nauvoo Temple had once stood. The Church had recently purchased that building, the first Church-owned property in Nauvoo since the Saints had left over a century earlier. The building was intended to provide not only living quarters for the Hogans, but also to serve as a Bureau of Information (or, in contemporary language, a visitors’ center), a place for tourists to learn about the Mormon past of Nauvoo and to be introduced to the Church.
And on that June 17, all those visitors named above converged on the new Bureau of Information, where Elder Hogan conducted a Sacrament meeting. Those who were there reported it as the first sacrament service held in Nauvoo since the Exodus. They may be right, but prudence suggests caution in making that claim – with so many Saints, particularly missionaries, having visited the town, it seems more than likely that some of them may have held private services from time to time. But June 17, 1951, whether or not it was the first such service, did mark a new era in the Mormon presence at Nauvoo.
The Sacrament was administered that day by the two returning Danish elders, and was passed by the Smith boys, one a teacher and the other a deacon. Then Elder Hogan invited the visitors to bear their testimonies. It was a simple gathering of Saints … and a beginning.