Spencer: In late 1840, Joseph Smith and other church leaders appeared to have selected a lot on which to build the temple. Yet, to any passerby, the lot looked like any other unimproved plot of land on the bluff overlooking the Mississippi River. In fact, while a bustling settlement had sprung up at a relatively quick pace, the citizens of the fledgling city were still struggling to rise out of their poverty.
For a group of religious refugees seeking to recover after losing almost all the possessions they had, it may seem odd that the Latter-day Saints would attempt to build a temple so soon after arriving in Illinois. After all, they could have determined that such a construction project could wait several years for more convenient circumstances.
But convenience was hardly a factor in this decision; the Latter-day Saints believed that the revelation to build the temple was a commandment from God. And it made sense to them, in part because in the nearly ten years since the establishment of the church, temples had come to play an increasingly important role in their religious devotion. These Saints believed that temples were more than symbols of their faith—they saw temples as an essential component of the gospel of Jesus Christ.
In this episode we will talk about why the early Latter-day Saints built temples—and how they planned to accomplish such an undertaking in their new home. This is The Nauvoo Temple: A Joseph Smith Papers Podcast, and I’m your host, Spencer McBride.
Spencer: Episode 2: Revelations, Designs, and Quarries
Spencer: In a podcast dedicated to the history of a specific temple, it’s important to understand why Latter-day Saints started building temples in the first place, and to consider the development of their understanding of the temple’s place in their Christian worship, as a place where they could more closely access the presence of God.
Of course, temples are not unique to Latter-day Saints. Various civilizations throughout the world have had temple building and temple worship as key components of their religious practices. And Christians today find descriptions of temple worship in the Old and New Testaments.
For Latter-day Saints in the 1830s, the building of temples was closely connected to the concept of gathering. Brent Rogers, an associate managing historian of the Joseph Smith Papers Project, spoke to me about this.
Brent: The concept of gathering in the church, for church members to come together to build temples and create unified Zion societies, is something that can be found very early in the church’s history.
I think the temple comes to occupy the symbolic center of Joseph Smith’s life, and we could look at this in a physical way, a spiritual way, a temporal way. Just overall, the temple develops to be the center of, I think, both Joseph Smith’s documentary record, but of his everyday life. It demonstrates the importance of the House of the Lord to the development of Joseph Smith in his thinking, but also to the administrative and theological development of the early church.
Spencer: As the Latter-day Saints gathered in Kirtland, Ohio, and in Jackson County, Missouri, they planned to build large cities. And at the center of each of those cities were temples.
Brent: So, the plat of the City of Zion, which the Saints are trying to impose upon the landscape in Kirtland, Ohio, and in Jackson County, Missouri at the same time, that map has in its very center of the city the temple. That’s where the temple is to be built is right in the middle. And so from the drawing of the city plat, I think that it’s pretty clear that a city of Zion’s physical landscape was to revolve around the temple, and from that central space the beauty and the power of what the Saints could access inside the temple could radiate out and be a constant reminder in church members’ lives. And this is the pattern that the Lord gives to Joseph Smith, and through him Frederick G. Williams draws that plat, and they draw the plans for what the early temples would look like and where they were to be built is right there in the center of the city. And I think when you move to Nauvoo it’s a very similar outlay, but it’s not quite as central because a lot of the housing and things like that are down closer to the riverbank. But having that space on the bluff, on the top of the hill to put the temple there, makes it even more dominant in the Saints’ view because now when they wake up and they go out and they look over that bluff, they’re going to be looking up at the temple, and it’s then also looking down on them, and so you kind of have that inverse looking back and forth. The House of the Lord looking down on the Saints and the Saints looking up at the House of the Lord, and I think that the physical location of the building of the temples is pretty symbolic.
Spencer: The temple would serve as a physical reminder of the Saints’ devotion to God. However, Joseph Smith and other church leaders anticipated civic and ecclesiastical functions for these buildings, as well. They would be meeting places, both for community functions and for religious worship.
On the religious side, early revelations published by Joseph Smith mentioned an endowment of power that would occur in the temple. Now, I’ll mention here that in a later episode we will discuss the introduction of the ceremony that Latter-day Saints know as “the endowment.” But in these early revelations, the term “endowment of power” appears to have referred to more general spiritual manifestations.
Brent: In an early revelation, January 1831, that had instructed Joseph Smith and the church members to gather in Ohio, it also told them that it would be there that they would be endowed with power from on high, and so what does that mean? It’s interesting to look at the development of what that means in the revelations and how Joseph comes to understand what it means to be endowed with power from on high. A little over a year later, another revelation tells that the endowment is going to happen in a house, he’s going to establish a house, a house of prayer, a house of faith, a house of glory, but most importantly, a house of God. And so, it’s this House of the Lord that is the place. And so, on June 1, 1833, Joseph Smith has another revelation, and it’s concerning the building of the Lord’s house. So in that revelation, the Lord says that the building of the house is “for the preparation wherewith I design to prepare mine apostles to prune my vineyard for the last time.” And it goes on to say: “In the which house I design to endow those whom I have chosen with power from on high.” And so it’s about preparation.
Spencer: What did this preparation entail? Did the revelation explain this further?
Brent: It specifically mentions the Apostles, but I think it’s talking about preparing all Saints who are worthy to enter the temple to be able to help prune the Lord’s vineyard. And that happens in a variety of ways, but one of the things that Joseph Smith really emphasizes leading up to the building and the completion of the Kirtland Temple is spiritual preparation. In one discourse in October 1835, he tells the Twelve Apostles that they must prepare their hearts in all humility in order to receive the endowment of power from on high in the temple. And so, Joseph Smith is constantly urging preparation, repentance, humility, and unity as the key ways to access the knowledge and power that God had promised that they would receive in the temple. And so, as he speaks about preparation, he says, “All who are prepared and are sufficiently pure to abide the presence of the Savior will see him in the solemn assembly to be held in the temple.” So again, the temple is a place where the Saints can access the presence of the Lord, to hear from him more directly and more clearly, and I guess for some, to abide in the presence of the Savior.
Spencer: The Saints were expelled from Jackson County, Missouri, before they could build their temple there. And nothing more than the cornerstone of a planned temple in Far West, Missouri, was ever laid. But on March 27, 1836, the Saints dedicated the House of the Lord, as they called it, in Kirtland, Ohio. According to the surviving accounts, on that day and on several later occasions, men, women, and children experienced visions and spiritual manifestations in that building. They believed that they had been “endowed with power from on high” through these experiences. In short, they believed that they had come closer to God.
Joseph Smith recorded several spiritual manifestations that he experienced in the temple. In our conversation, Brent discussed a particularly poignant experience.
Brent: A good example of this is when Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery have a miraculous vision of the Savior Jesus Christ, who came on April 3rd, 1836, about a week after the temple in Kirtland was dedicated, and he comes to them and accepts the House of the Lord and according to the vision they have, this is what the Savior says: “For behold, I have accepted this house, and my name shall be here; and I will manifest myself to my people in mercy in this house. Yea, I will appear unto my servants and speak unto them with mine own voice, if my people will keep my commandments and do not pollute this holy house.” And I think that’s a meaning for the temple then, it’s a meaning for the temple when they build it in Nauvoo, and it continues to be a meaning for the temple for Latter-day Saints today. It is a place where they can feel and access the power and the love of the Lord, and to hear his whisperings, and to be closer to Him, to have His love manifested to them.
Spencer: As a historian immersed in Joseph Smith’s surviving documents, it is clear to me that bringing men and women closer to God, to feel His presence in their lives, was a constant theme of Joseph Smith’s ecclesiastical ministry. And the temple was part of this. This is why Latter-day Saints built temples then—and continue to build them today. Today these buildings no longer serve a civil purpose. Instead, they are solely houses of Christian worship, places where Latter-day Saint men and women who have sufficiently prepared themselves can go and be closer to Christ, to hear the voice of God through revelation. And in many ways, the Kirtland Temple accomplished this. It helped church members learn how to humble themselves and repent. And, as a result, many had spiritual experiences that far surpassed any they had ever had before.
And so, it is likely that when the Nauvoo Temple was announced in the October 1840 General Conference of the church, Latter-day Saints were imagining a building similar to what they had built in Kirtland. But a revelation published by Joseph Smith three months later informed them that this new temple promised something more.
Spencer: Perhaps no document framed the way that church members living in Nauvoo conceived of the temple they were building more than a January 1841 revelation did. It’s published as section 124 of the Doctrine and Covenants, a collection of canonized revelations from the early periods of Latter-day Saint history.
Alex: As early as spring of 1840, Joseph was already talking publicly about building a temple in Nauvoo, But the temple is officially announced in the October 1840 General Conference, and then becomes really a mandate to the Saints with the 19 January 1841 revelation.
Spencer: That’s Alex Smith, a historian who works on the Joseph Smith Papers Project.
Alex: And that revelation becomes kind of a road map for what Nauvoo would be for the duration of the Saints’ stay there, and I think in order to figure out what the Saints felt about having a temple in the City of Nauvoo, I think we have to look at what that section meant for Latter-day Saints. Because as they have come from Missouri and Ohio and New York and from experiences of ostracism, they arrive in Nauvoo and that revelation that commands the building of the Nauvoo House and the Nauvoo Temple tells the Saints that this would be a resting place, and it would be a place that rather than necessarily going out and reaching out to the world, it would be a place where the world would come to them and “contemplate the glor[ies] of Zion.”
Spencer: Do you remember in episode 1 how we talked about the civil charter of the City of Nauvoo? Well, in a way, this January 1841 revelation served as the city’s spiritual charter.
Included in that revelation is this admonition for the Saints to gather in Nauvoo and to there build a temple. It reads:
“And again, verily I say unto you, let all my saints come from afar. . . and build a house to my name, for the Most High to dwell therein. For there is not a place found on earth that he may come to and restore again that which was lost unto you, or which he has taken away, even the fulness of the priesthood.”
In those verses alone it is clear that there was going to be something different about the temple that the Saints built in Nauvoo. They believed that in completing the Kirtland Temple God had poured out blessings upon them, that they had come closer to the presence of God in that temple. But in this revelation, they were promised that there was still more that God wished to reveal to them, even “the fulness of the priesthood.”
But, as Alex mentioned earlier, the revelation actually instructed the Saints to construct two buildings. One was the temple. The other became known as the Nauvoo House, which would serve as a place where visitors to Nauvoo, including those who came “to contemplate the glor[ies] of Zion,” could stay while in the city.
Alex: So, section 124 actually gives more weight to building a Nauvoo House, a hotel, than it does the temple itself; more of the actual language of the revelation is devoted to that than to the temple or to reorganizing the church. But that revelation also says that the Saints are to write up a proclamation to the kings of the earth, you know, to send out to all the world. It quotes Isaiah about temple construction; bring your wealth, bring all your goods, come to Nauvoo, see what we’re doing. Become one of us. Glory in God’s kingdom here on earth and help us build this temple. But in doing so, the revelation also calls for a hotel, so we have two kind of twin huge edifices that are planned in the city, a temple up on the bluff, up on the hill that will kind of dominate the landscape, the scenery, for miles in every direction, that will show the neighbors of Nauvoo and visitors to Nauvoo that religion is the center of Nauvoo and of the Latter-day Saints. But then you also have this Nauvoo House, this large multi-story brick hotel and stone that will be built right on the south end of the river on the main landing. So right as anyone comes up the Mississippi River to stop in Nauvoo, they’re going to be confronted with this huge edifice that kind of will represent the industry of the Saints.
Spencer: I think that church members today generally know at least a little about the Nauvoo Temple. But it seems that despite expressions of its significance in the Doctrine and Covenants, most church members have not heard of the Nauvoo House. So, I asked Alex why he thinks knowing the history of this second building project in Nauvoo is important as Latter-day Saints today seek to better understand this part of their church’s history.
Alex: I think the Nauvoo House is, first, essential for understanding the actual revelation that [is] section 124 itself. When you read through there, you read about “build a house to my name, build a house, a holy house.” We read those phrases over and over again, and half the time they’re talking about the temple, and half the time or more they’re talking about the Nauvoo House, and so to really understand that section, you have to kind of go through and work through verse by verse, and piece together which building is being referred to. So, part of it is simply understanding revelation and commandment. Section 124 was going to be a kind of road map for the Saints, and I believe that it captures what Joseph believed this kingdom of God on earth would look like.
Spencer: More than the October 1840 General Conference of the church where the temple was formally announced, this January 1841 revelation lit a fire under the Saints at Nauvoo and they got going on the new temple and on the Nauvoo House. But a big part of starting such building projects was designing the buildings.
Spencer: Who designed the Nauvoo Temple and the Nauvoo House? Seems like a straightforward question, right? After all, there was an architect-of-record on both of the projects, a man named William Weeks. But it turns out that the question of who designed the Nauvoo Temple is a little bit harder to answer.
Matt: So, you’ve got several people that make major contributions.
Spencer: That’s Matthew McBride, a historian and the Director of the Publications Division of the Church History Department. He has spent years studying the history of the Nauvoo Temple.
Matt: You could start with William Weeks, who is the architect, and Joseph Smith, who was his client—or that’s what we would call Joseph Smith today is William Weeks’s client for this building—and the client and the architect together drive the design of the building. And in some client-architect relationships, you have a client who will basically just say, “hey, here’s like a really broad functional specification for this building, here are the things we want to do in it, and the purposes for the building, and what our intention is, what we need the building to accommodate,” and then leave it almost entirely up to the architect to design it, maybe with a little input along the way. On the other end of the spectrum, sometimes you’ll have a client that is just extremely involved in the design and has very, very strong ideas about how the building needs to come together, what the form is that the building needs to take in order to support the function of the building, and they might even have really strong ideas about the decor and the materials and the colors, that sort of thing.
Spencer: So, what kind of client was Joseph Smith? How involved was he in directing elements of the temple’s design?
Matt: The sources that we have make it easy for us to say with confidence that Joseph Smith was very, very heavily involved in the design of the building. I think if you were to press Joseph Smith and say, “Are you a designer or the designer of this building?” He might even demur and say, “No, God designed this building.” And the way he would say it and the way that the sources say it is that he saw a building in vision, and I like to think of it a little bit like the way we think about Joseph Smith dictating his inspired translations, like he has this vision and this revelation, this idea of what needs to be put down on paper, he dictates it to a scribe who writes it down, and with the Nauvoo temple design, he’s had this vision and then working with his architect and dictating aspects of the building to William Weeks, he contributes to the building’s design.
Spencer: Of course, William Weeks the architect brought his own background and preferences to the design process as well.
Matt: If Joseph Smith is channeling revelation, William Weeks is channeling Edward Shaw. And Edward Shaw is an early American architect of the Greek Revivalist school, and we know that Weeks is consulting a book that Edward Shaw wrote called Civil Architecture. And this book basically adopts this architectural philosophy that we need to go back and recover and bring back and revive the classical architectural styles, the Greek, the Roman, and look at the Greek orders of architecture, and Edward Shaw’s book goes through all of this in a lot of detail. And William Weeks is not like an architect the way we think of architects today. We think of architects as the genius that brings together the engineering side of things and the artistic side of things, they have training, not only in engineering, but also in design theory, and they know the laws and the codes, they bring all of this together to create these public buildings that are great works of art in a lot of ways. And there were certainly architects like this in Joseph Smith’s day, Edward Shaw perhaps maybe being one of them. William Weeks, though, was not one of those architects. We don’t have a lot of information about his training and background. We don’t have evidence that he had any formal training or that he studied or that he apprenticed with some great architect or in a school somewhere. Basically, he was a builder that had this book by Edward Shaw, he had a proclivity for design, and he took Edward Shaw’s ideas about how a building should be built in one of these styles, and then channeled them, brought them into the conversation and into the design of the Nauvoo Temple, and there they mix, I guess, with Joseph Smith’s ideas. And so that relationship between the two of them is really critical, and that’s how the design develops.
Spencer: So, where the architectural style of the Nauvoo Temple is concerned, how do we classify it? Weeks was drawing from the Greek Revival style. Joseph was asking for design elements based in part on the pragmatic use of the building for the ceremonies and religious rites that he would introduce to the Saints. And then there was the symbolism carved into the exterior stone. How do we describe the style of such a building?
Matt: The interesting thing then is to see Joseph Smith’s genius and his inspiration coming into the design. It’s not an Ionic or a Doric or a Corinthian order. In fact, a newspaper reporter, I believe, that came and saw the temple or the designs for the temple, said this is not of any order that I’ve ever seen, we’ll just call this henceforth and forever the “Mormon Order,” because he’s looking at it and he’s saying okay, instead of a plinth that you might expect on an Ionic or a Doric column, at the base of the column, you’ve got this stone with a moon. And on the top, instead of a capital that’s in the Corinthian style or whatever, we’ve got a Sunstone, and the abacus that lays across the top of it has trumpets carved in it, and the entablature across the building doesn’t look like a typical door entablature, it’s got all of these five-pointed stars on it. What’s going on there? Well, this is where Joseph Smith, his inspiration, his theologies, ideas about millennialism, about the Second Coming of Jesus Christ come in and get fused with ideas that William Weeks is bringing in from Edward Shaw and from this Greek Revivalist tradition.
Spencer: And the temple was going to be large. From the ground to the top of the tower would be 165 feet, or 50 meters. And at approximately 35,000 square feet, or 3,251 square meters, on three floors, it would far surpass the Kirtland Temple in size.
Spencer: Winters in Nauvoo can be frigid. In such conditions, digging a hole of any significant depth is almost impossible. So, the Saints in Nauvoo needed to wait for a general thawing before they could break ground on the new temple.
Matt: And I think it’s the second or third week of February that they go mark out the footprint of the building on the site. And then by February 18th, they start to excavate. So, the ground is soft enough now that they can go in and they can start to excavate, and then there doesn’t appear to have been pomp [or] ceremony around the groundbreaking. It was memorable enough that it was recorded by a couple of people, and the names of some of the individuals who were the first to remove earth as they excavated for the foundation are recorded. William Clayton kept a history of the temple and he recorded some of these details, but it wasn’t attended by a lot of ceremony.
Spencer: If the groundbreaking for the Nauvoo Temple was largely devoid of pomp and ceremony, the laying of the cornerstones that April more than made up for it.
Matt: However, a couple of months later on April 6th, 1841, they had a cornerstone laying ceremony, and by contrast, this was a big deal. The laying of a cornerstone had for centuries been something that was attended with ceremony, and it was very common in the early United States to have elaborate cornerstone ceremonies when you would start a major public structure. And they did the same thing in Nauvoo. They sent out word by newspapers, by letter, they invited prominent people from all around Hancock County to come and join them. They had created a wooden stand and some of the dignitaries were able to observe the ceremony from this stand. And the accounts talk about how the crowds were arrayed and brought around, members of the Nauvoo Legion came and formed a hollow square around the footprint of the building. And Joseph Smith III, who’s a very, very young boy at this time, is present and remembers this occasion because it was such a big deal, it was such a moment, and they went through with due ceremony and laid each of the cornerstones of the building. It’s interesting that Thomas Sharp, who was later a rather vicious enemy of Joseph Smith and of the church in Illinois, had been invited to this ceremony, and this is maybe his first exposure to the community and to Joseph Smith and to the church. And he initially thought, oh, this was a nice ceremony, it was well done, he had good things to say, and then as their relationship deteriorated, he changed his tune a little bit. But this was an interesting early moment for him to be introduced to the church, just because of the way that this event had attracted so much attention and brought people in from the surrounding communities.
Spencer: It was a jubilant time in Nauvoo, but there was too much work to do for the Saints to celebrate for long. High on their list of tasks was acquiring the materials necessary to construct the temple.
Spencer: As the Saints were building their own homes in Nauvoo—some out of brick but most out of wood—construction materials were in high demand. Add to this crunch two massive construction projects and church leaders had to look beyond Illinois for building supplies. But, lucky for them, the heaviest material—stone—was in ready supply nearby.
Matt: There are several quarries that they open near Nauvoo, some of them were owned more publicly, some were privately owned, but there’s an abundance of this gray-white limestone in the area. They open these quarries, and men who live in Nauvoo give one day in ten to come work, often in the quarry to blast and remove and do the rough preparation of stone and then to haul it to the temple site. All of the superstructure of the building, the whole stone superstructure of the building, is made of this native Illinois limestone that people are getting out just with their donated time. And then you have a group of stonecutters that have some skill and some craftsmanship, the ability to shape and to polish and to carve the design elements into some of the stones, and those people, they’re hired by the temple committee, and they are paid through a temple store, and that store is stocked by goods that are donated by other Latter-day Saints who are trying to make their effort to give and to be a part of the construction.
Spencer: So, the stone came from local quarries.
But what about timber? They would need wood to finish the temple, and a lot of it. But, again, the temple was not the only building project in town and wood was scarce. While there were trees near the Mississippi River, once you traveled east on the bluff you quickly found yourself in vast prairielands. In fact, the prairies in Illinois are so large that the state earned the nickname “the Prairie State.” And, to the east of the city, in Iowa Territory, there were considerably more trees, but not necessarily the type and size required for this construction. The Saints had to look elsewhere for a large supply of timber.
Matt: You’ve got to go through and frame up the flooring and the other framed elements of the building, the trusses that support the roof and so forth, and so, for that they need wood, and north of Illinois in Wisconsin, you have these large pine forests, and they make a decision fairly early on to negotiate the purchase of a mill up in Wisconsin, and the rights to some timber near the mill, and they send a group of men up to what they call the Wisconsin Pineries. And, using that mill and just with their labor, they extract all of the pine they need, and using the mill, you strip off all of the smaller branches off the pine trees, leaving you with just this nice long straight pine log. They’re not planing them or preparing them to be included in the building at this point, they’re just kind of stripping off the branches, preparing these large logs, then they put them on the river and tie them all together loosely into a large raft of pine logs, and then they would just hop on top and ride it down the river until they arrive at the landing at Nauvoo. And that’s where most of the lumber comes from to build the temple, not only the temple, but also other major construction projects in Nauvoo, including the Nauvoo House.
Spencer: And maybe this is a part of the Nauvoo Temple’s construction that you never imagined. Cutting trees in Wisconsin Territory and then floating them a few hundred miles down the Mississippi River. But once the logs got to the lumber mills in Nauvoo, questions of appropriation arose. When building materials are limited and needed for both the temple and the Nauvoo House, which building should be privileged?
Matt: So, both of these buildings are competing for some scarce resources, including the pine, and it’s also true that other construction going on in the City of Nauvoo is competing for some of these same kinds of scarce resources. And so there’s a balancing act that’s always going on between residential construction, the construction of the Nauvoo House, the construction of the temple. Who gets what time? Who gets what materials? And there’s even a moment where Joseph Smith feels enough urgency about the temple being completed that he asked them to stop work on the Nauvoo House for a little bit so that the labor and resources can flow toward the temple, and they can get that work done more quickly.
Spencer: It wasn’t just church leaders in Nauvoo who were working hard to procure materials for the temple. Even church members elsewhere in the United States were on the lookout for building supplies that could prove useful. A church member in New York named John Bernhisel wrote to Joseph Smith in August 1842 asking the prophet if he had determined from what material the temple’s roof would be constructed. That letter no longer exists, but based on Joseph’s reply, Bernhisel apparently made a case for using tin, stating that it could be obtained cheaply from the mines in Cornwall, England.
Joseph informed Bernhisel that they had not yet made a decision on the temple’s roof, but they were open to the idea of procuring tin from England. But I think the story is instructive as it demonstrates that even for church members living far from Nauvoo, the construction of the temple was on their minds.
Spencer: Before we move too quickly along in the account of the temple’s construction, I think we should back up in the story just a bit to talk about the religious rites, or, what Latter-day Saints call ordinances, the temple was being built to perform. Because months before the April 1841 cornerstone ceremony, and even before the official announcement of the temple at the October 1840 conference of the church, the Saints in Nauvoo began to eagerly participate in one ordinance in particular that was destined for the temple. It was an ordinance that, in an instant, expanded church members’ conceptions of the gospel of Jesus Christ, and the role of the family therein. That ordinance was baptism for the dead, and we’ll dive into its history in the next episode of The Nauvoo Temple: A Joseph Smith Papers Podcast.