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The history, power of the pioneer-era Nauvoo Temple

SHARE The history, power of the pioneer-era Nauvoo Temple

It was the temple Joseph Smith had been commanded to build. He had seen the Nauvoo Temple of the young Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in a vision.

He often gave the workers counsel, such as the following: “In the afternoon, Elder William Weeks (whom I had employed as architect of the temple) came in for instruction. I instructed him in relation to the circular windows designed to light the offices in the dead work of the arch between stories. He said that round windows in the broad side of a building were a violation of all the known rules of architecture, and contended that they should be semicircular — the building was too low for round windows.

“I told him I would have the circles, if he had to make the temple 10 feet higher than it was originally calculated; that one light in the center of each circular window would be sufficient to light the whole room; that when the whole building was thus illuminated, the effect would be remarkably grand. I wish you to carry out my designs. I have seen in vision the splendid appearance of that building illuminated, and will have it built according to the pattern shown me” (see “The Nauvoo Temple,” from “Temples of the Most High” by N.B. Lundwall).

It was the temple that was in the beautiful City of Joseph, as Nauvoo, Illinois, was known.

When Joseph Smith, the first president of the LDS Church, died at Carthage Jail in June 1844, Brigham Young, then a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles and later the second president of the church, and the grief-stunned Saints were left to carry the vision into reality, and to do so in the midst of ever-increasing persecution, insecurity and loss. It was theirs to keep the faith.

This was a course they had long pursued, and their bodies, wills and hearts were fit for the challenge.

John Pulsipher, an early member of the LDS Church, wrote in his diary: “The teachings of the Twelve was to build the temple and finish the work Joseph had begun. The people were obedient to counsel … our enemies continued their depredations … drove our brethren from their homes … in about two weeks they burned 200 houses to ashes. A great amount of grain and property was destroyed … many … died from exposure after being robbed and driven into the wood. But the Saints gathered into Nauvoo, labored and toiled to finish the temple” (see Lundwall's “Temples of the Most High”).

The practical was never divorced from the spiritual in Brigham Young’s mind. There was nothing he could not tackle with a will, and his example was a great strength to the weary Saints.

In an article printed in the Deseret News on March 13, 1861, and as recorded in "The Nauvoo Temple," Brigham Young had this to say: "Every time we put forth our ability to do good and build up the Kingdom of God … we shall receive tenfold, and, as Joseph said, an hundredfold. I will mention one little circumstance. When we were finishing the temple in Nauvoo, the last year of our stay there, I rented a portion of ground in what we called the church farm, which we afterwards deeded to Sister Emma. Brother George D. Grant worked for me then, and planted the corn, (and) sowed the oats. They called for teams to haul for the temple, and could not get them. Says I, put my teams on the temple, if there is not a kernel of grain raised. I said I would trust in God for the increase, and I had as good corn as there was on the farm, though it was not touched from the time we put it in to the time of gathering. I proved the fact; I had faith.”

On Jan. 19, 1841, the revelation to build a temple was received; on April 6, the cornerstone was laid. On Nov. 8, Brigham Young dedicated the baptismal font, and the Saints no longer had to perform baptisms for the dead in the river; the first baptisms for the dead in the font were performed on Nov. 21 (see Improvement Era, Vol. 28, p. 191).

The first meeting was held in the still-uncompleted temple on Oct. 30, 1842. As the months and years progressed, the Saints continued their struggle, and every day seemed an exercise in endurance and faith.

Despite increasing persecution and hardship, despite bending every effort to build wagons and to gather food and supplies for a journey away from the beloved city, the building of the sacred edifice had progressed far enough that by October 1845, the general conference of the LDS Church could be convened there. This was the last conference in Nauvoo.

In January 1845, the Nauvoo Charter was revoked, leaving the entire community without support of organized law.

Once endowment work in the temple was begun, the response was overwhelming. Brigham Young’s journal is peppered with such statements as: “I officiated in the temple until midnight”; “officiated in the temple until 3:30 a.m.”; “my son Joseph A. remained with me in the temple all night” (see “Journal of Brigham” as quoted in “Brigham Young, an Inspiring Personal Biography”).

At one point, when President Young suggested taking a Saturday off to wash the robes and garments used in the ceremonies, the workers became very distressed and offered to wash clothes during the night “that the work might not cease” (see “Journal of Brigham” as quoted in “Brigham Young, an Inspiring Personal Biography”).

As the dangers of persecution increased, the temple seemed the only place of refuge. On more than one occasion, the Saints gathered there to celebrate weddings and to praise the Lord in song and dance, enjoying the sweet fellowship, free from fear.

“The spirit of dancing increased,” the prophet wrote, as recorded in “Brigham Young, an Inspiring Personal Biography,” “until the whole floor was covered with dancers, and while we danced before the Lord, we shook the dust from off our feet as a testimony against this nation.”

By the beginning of the new year in 1846, he recorded in his journal, as published in “Brigham Young, an Inspiring Personal Biography”: “One-hundred and forty-three persons received their endowments in the temple. I officiated at the altar. Such has been the anxiety manifested by the Saints to receive the ordinances, and such the anxiety on our part to administer to them, that I have given myself up entirely to the work of the Lord in the temple night and day, not taking more than four hours sleep, upon an average, per day, and going home but once a week.”

On Feb. 2, 1846, the official decision to move out was made; on Feb. 4, the first families crossed the Mississippi and left Nauvoo, and President Young stayed behind to complete the last endowments given in the temple.

Each day became crucial, and the Saints little knew how short their time was.

On Monday, Feb. 9, 1846, a stovepipe ignited drying clothes and caught the roof on fire (see “Nauvoo Temple Milestones, 1840-1850,” Ensign, July 2002).

But bless Brother Brigham for his down-to-earth insight and faith.

“I saw the flames from a distance,” he wrote, “but it was out of my power to get there in time to do any good towards putting out the fire and I said, ‘If it is the will of the Lord that the temple be burned, instead of defiled by the Gentiles, amen to it’” (see “Journal of Brigham,” as quoted in “Brigham Young, an Inspiring Personal Biography”).

Another fire in October 1848, allegedly set by Joseph Agnew, destroyed the building except for the walls, according to “Nauvoo Temple Milestones, 1840–1850.”

How can we even imagine what was in the hearts of the Saints?

Today, there are 149 operating temples of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, with four more undergoing renovation, 16 under construction and eight announced — a total of 178 from Nigeria to Argentina to Ukraine, and dotted all over the United States. That number includes a rebuilt Nauvoo Illinois Temple.

But in those days of Nauvoo, it was the hearts of the people responding to the heart of the Lord — not knowing what glories and blessings the great, unknown future would hold, but knowing what had to be done.

In a report on the October 1845 general conference, it was written: “Through the indefatigable exertions, unceasing industry, and heaven-blessed labors, in the midst of trials, tribulations, poverty, and worldly obstacles, solemnized, in some instances by death, about 5,000 Saints had the inexpressible joy and great gratification to meet for the first time in the House of the Lord in the City of Joseph. From mites and tithing, millions had risen up to the glory of God, as a temple where the children of the last kingdom could come together.

“Brigham Young opened the services of the day with a dedicatory prayer, presenting the temple, thus far completed, as a monument to the Saints’ liberality, fidelity, and faith — concluding: ‘Lord, we dedicate this house, and ourselves unto thee.’

“(We are) offering up the gratitude of honest hearts, for so great a privilege as worshipping God, within … an edifice whose motto is ‘Holiness to the Lord’” (see "Times and Seasons," Vol. 7, as quoted in Lundwall's “Temples of the Most High”).

Susan Evans McCloud is author of more than 40 books and has published screenplays, a book of poetry and lyrics, including two songs in the LDS hymnbook. She has six children. She blogs at susanevansmccloud.blogspot.com. Email: susasays@broadweave.net