SPRINGFIELD, Ill. — A statue of young Abraham Lincoln, depicted on the Illinois state commemorative quarter, was sculpted by a Mormon from Utah, but not many people know that.
"In many ways the New Salem sculpture of Lincoln has become a symbol of the state of Illinois — the land of Lincoln," said the luncheon speaker at the 44th annual conference of the Mormon History Association. "But almost nobody in Illinois (church members included) knows its Mormon connection. The statue is a fitting symbol for the often unknown or forgotten connections between the Mormon people and the Springfield area."
Bryon C. Andreasen, who spoke to the gathering on Friday, is uniquely qualified to explain that connection. He is a research historian at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum in Springfield. He is also bishop of the LDS Church's Springfield 1st Ward.
As this year is the Lincoln bicentennial, some 400 conference attendees have gathered in Springfield, where the 16th U.S. president rose to prominence. The four-day event concludes Sunday.
Andreasen said the Sons of Utah Pioneers paid for the statue in New Salem and commissioned prominent Utah artist Avard T. Fairbanks to sculpt it.
"It was Bryant Hinckley, the father of recent LDS Church President Gordon B. Hinckley, who dedicated the New Salem statue 55 years ago next month," Andreasen said.
"(President Hinckley's) grandfather, Ira Nathaniel Hinckley, was a young teenager in Springfield around the time Abraham Lincoln was courting Mary Todd in the early 1840s," Andreasen noted. "He eventually found himself in Nauvoo (the church's headquarters from 1839-46) but not before he may have witnessed some interesting events regarding the Latter-day Saints here in the Springfield area."
Among those events, he said, was the Zion's Camp march, an unsuccessful expedition led by Joseph Smith to reclaim property wrested from the Mormons by mobs in Missouri. The march came through the Springfield area.
Lincoln was still living in New Salem at the time, so it's doubtful he met any of the Zion's Camp Mormons, Andreasen said. "But three years later, Lincoln moved here, and construction began on the Old State Capitol building. So by the next time Mormons came through in big numbers, Springfield was a bigger, busier place."
By 1839, when the Mormons established Nauvoo on the banks of the Mississippi River in Illinois, a fair number of church members were already living in the area as a result of a group from Kirtland, Ohio, having come through the previous autumn, some of whom were too exhausted to go on.
Joseph Smith passed through Springfield a second time on his way to Washington, D.C., in 1839 to seek redress from the federal government for wrongs suffered in Missouri, Andreasen said.
"Did Abraham Lincoln meet Joseph Smith over the four days he was in Springfield Nov. 4-8, 1839?" he asked. "Legal records show that Lincoln was in town during those days, working away in his law office."
Andreasen said he thinks it is likely that Lincoln did talk with the Mormon prophet, as he was working to help his law partner solidify support from local Mormon voters.
On Dec. 12, 1840, the Illinois House of Representatives passed the Nauvoo city charter by voice vote with few nay votes; one of the yes votes was Lincoln's. Mormon lobbyist John C. Bennett reported that Lincoln came forward after the vote and congratulated him on the passage of the charter, Andreasen said.
Another Mormon connection to Springfield came in 1842, when an attempt to extradite Joseph Smith, accused in the attempted assassination of former Missouri Gov. Lilburn Boggs, was defeated. When Joseph Smith was in Springfield for the hearing, he may have met Abraham and Mary Lincoln at a New Year's Eve Party given by newly elected U.S. Sen. Sidney Breese, Andreasen said.
And it is certain that Mary Todd Lincoln was among the women who crowded the courtroom during the hearing to glimpse the Mormon prophet, he said.