23 February 2023
Transatlantic Mormon Connections and Historical Fiction
Naomi Krüger is a senior lecturer in Literature and Creative Writing at the University of Central Lancashire and author of the novel May; she was a 2021 Eccles Centre Visiting Fellow at the British Library.
My current research project is a historical novel set in 1842 in two very different cities: Nauvoo, Illinois and Preston, Lancashire. These places, though geographically distant, are linked by the arrival of Mormonism and its turbulent growth, movement, and ongoing legacy.
Growing up as a Mormon in Preston, I was acutely aware of this history. I regularly heard stories about the missionaries who crossed the Atlantic, arriving in England in 1837 and travelling straight from Liverpool to Preston due to a family connection. I was told of their astonishing success in baptising converts, finding an unexpectedly warm welcome in Lancashire, the Ribble Valley and beyond. Subsequently, there were thousands of baptisms, and these new members were very quickly encouraged to emigrate and join with the American Saints in Nauvoo – a growing city on the banks on the Mississippi. By 1844 over four thousand British converts had made this journey, making them a significant minority in a city that was about to face new challenges after the death of the founding prophet Joseph Smith.
While I was proud of living somewhere that had such historical significance, I also became aware that my access to stories of these early converts in Lancashire was circumscribed. In the official narratives found in lesson manuals and church histories, these people usually became nameless, swallowed into a wider mass of emigrants, and later assimilated into the ideal image of hardy pioneers who made the trek west to Utah. In this oversimplified narrative, Preston is Babylon - a place of smoke, corruption and exploitation - and Nauvoo is Zion - the land of promise, a place of hope, community, and righteousness. Missionaries are unfailingly heroic, intelligent, and filled with power. Converts, on the other hand, are poor, humble, and self-sacrificing.
As a writer and researcher, I am eager to move beyond this. What about the converts who stayed in Preston because they couldn’t afford to go, or wouldn’t make the sacrifice? What about those who lost their faith part-way through the journey or found that Zion was not exactly what they expected when they got there? What would it have felt like to be a missionary who began to doubt? How did the social, economic, and religious conditions of Preston at that time, intersect with the desire so many people had to start a new life elsewhere?
My novel-in-progress follows a herbal physician converted to Mormonism and trying to establish himself in Nauvoo. He finds hope and spiritual sustenance there but is also drawn into a web of secrets, rituals, and unspoken rules. When he is challenged by the charismatic prophet to sacrifice his growing medical practice, travel to England, and persuade the converts in Lancashire to emigrate back to Zion, he discovers a town divided. Preston is still reeling from the aftermath of a massacre of striking millworkers and simultaneously preparing for a lavish, once-every-twenty-year celebration of civic pride. As he grapples with cultural differences, and his unsuccessful attempts to convert a woman still bitter after being left behind by a family member who has previously emigrated, disturbing dreams of Nauvoo begin to disrupt his present calling and his still fragile faith is put under increasing amounts of pressure.
The Eccles Centre's Mormon Americana bibliographic guide has been an invaluable tool for me as I explore these questions and develop my fictional world. From primary sources like pamphlets, hymnbooks, and scriptures, to a wealth of secondary texts that detail the challenges of life in Nauvoo as a frontier city, I have been able to gather important context - details that will not only inform my world-building, but even, in some cases, change the actions and decisions that my characters make.
Seeing illustrated plans of the Nauvoo temple during my research, for example, sparked new curiosity about ritual baptisms that has led to the development of an important subplot in the novel.
Reading letters written by women in Nauvoo discussing death and doctrine alongside recipes and household tips has enabled me to create a more detailed and textured picture of life in an unfamiliar place and time.
Handling a well-loved British hymnbook covered in the owner’s urgent annotations reminded me of the importance of honouring sacred experiences of faith as much as I seek to complicate them.
The challenge of writing historical fiction is to negotiate a balance between research and imagination, the needs of a story alongside the demands of historical evidence. I am still in the middle of this complex process, but I have no doubt that the notes and images I have gathered from my time as an Eccles Centre Visiting Fellow will continue to find their way into the creative work in unexpected and transformative ways.