Nauvoo, Illinois is an important place in both Mormon history and in the faith of today’s Latter-day Saints. After being displaced from their homes in Missouri in 1839, the Mormons settled on the eastern bank of the Mississippi River and built the town of Nauvoo. While LDS Church headquarters resided in Nauvoo from 1839 to 1846 many distinctive doctrines of Mormonism were developed and introduced. Joseph Smith preached his famous King Follett Discourse in the western grove of Nauvoo in 1844 and died in nearby Carthage, Illinois a few weeks later. A majority of the Mormons left Nauvoo in 1846 to settle in the Great Basin, what is today known as Salt Lake City, Utah.
However, Nauvoo as a town continued; but until fairly recently it had been a small farming community virtually unknown outside of the surrounding area. That changed when the LDS Church began renovating and rebuilding the old Mormon properties in Nauvoo. Today the town is a tourist attraction. It has been called the Williamsburg of the West, though I think that’s a bit of a stretch. Most of the tourists coming to Nauvoo are Mormons trying to connect with the history of their faith, wanting to experience a faith-promoting vacation with their spouses or families. However, there is definitely an element of planned proselytizing in the restored areas of the town. The LDS Church views Nauvoo as a missionary tool with over 100 missionaries serving the area at any given time.
So back in 1987 a group of Christians sent their own missionary to Nauvoo for the express purpose of providing tourists with the “other side of the story”—to share the good news of freedom in Christ. Colleen Ralson built a ministry there on the main street of Nauvoo, a visitors center. Colleen provided historic and spiritual information which shed light on the carefully-crafted but deficient message being given to tourists at the LDS sites. As you can imagine, she and her ministry were not welcome by the Mormons. But she kept a fairly low profile and was therefore tolerated—this is America.
Last fall Colleen Ralson retired from her Nauvoo mission and moved to Texas. She turned over the Nauvoo Christian Visitors Center to new directors, Rocky and Helen Hulse. Rocky and Helen don’t plan to keep a low profile as they continue the work Colleen has begun. This became evident in a recent newspaper report out of Burlington, Iowa.
On 23 January 2006 The Hawk Eye wrote about the Nauvoo Christian Visitors Center in Billboard’s authors hope it brings attention to the debate. It seems the Hulses have set up a new billboard 4 miles south of Burlington, on the main highway to Nauvoo (another 20 miles distant). According to Rocky Hulse the purpose for the billboard is two-fold: 1. To let people know there is a Christian Visitors Center in Nauvoo; and 2. To alert people to the fact that there is tension between Mormonism and historic Christianity.
When The Hawk Eye contacted the LDS public affairs office for a statement, LDS spokesman Jon Larson said, “I think he [Hulse] is trying to stir things up…If he wants a billboard, that’s OK.”
Nauvoo’s LDS Visitors Center maintains 24 billboards in the area of southeastern Iowa promoting the LDS sites in restored Nauvoo.