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History of Mormon Temples

vernal mormon temple

Latter-day Saints are a temple-building people. Theirs is a history of temples projected and built, often under intense opposition. An early revelation declared that "my people are always commanded to build [temples] unto my holy name" (D&C 124:39-40). In the last weeks of his life, the Prophet Joseph Smith affirmed: "We need the temple more than anything else" (Journal History of the Church, May 4, 1844).

The functions of latter-day temples parallel in some aspects those of the ancient Tabernacle and biblical temples, which were dedicated as sacred places where God might reveal himself to his people (Ex. 25:8, 22), and where sacrifices and holy priesthood ordinances might be performed (D&C 124:38). Although the Bible does not clarify the precise nature and extent of these rites, it is clear that sacrifice by the shedding of blood anticipated the supreme sacrifice of Jesus Christ.

The New Testament uses two words that are translated as temple: naos for the sanctuary, and hieron for the general grounds and courtyards. Although Jesus vigorously condemned abuses in the temple courts, he nevertheless held the holy sanctuary in highest esteem as "my Father's house" (John 2:16) or as "my house" (Matt. 21:13). His cleansing of the temple and condemnation of abuses (John 2:13-16; Matt. 21:12-13) related to the hieron rather than the naos.

RESTORATION OF TEMPLE WORSHIP AND ORDINANCES. Latter-day Saints built their first temple at Kirtland, Ohio. A solemn cornerstone-laying ceremony in 1833 marked the beginning of construction. Over a period of about three years, the saints sacrificed their means, time, and energies to build the House of the Lord (the word "temple" was not generally used at that time). Even though the temple's exterior looked much like a typical New England meetinghouse, its interior had some unique features. A revelation specified that the building should include two large rooms, the lower hall being a chapel, while the upper was for educational purposes (D&C 95:8, 13-17). There were no provisions for the sacred ceremonies that were yet to be revealed.

Notable spiritual blessings followed the years of sacrifice. The weeks just preceding the Kirtland Temple dedication witnessed remarkable spiritual manifestations. On January 21, 1836, when Joseph Smith and others met in the nearly completed temple, they received washings and anointings and saw many visions, including a vision of the Celestial Kingdom. They learned that all who had died without a knowledge of the gospel, but who would have accepted it if given an opportunity, were heirs of that kingdom (D&C 137:7-8). This was the earliest latter-day revelation on the subject of salvation of the dead, a major doctrinal principle related to ordinances in LDS temples.

On Sunday, March 27, 1836, the Kirtland Temple was dedicated. Toward the conclusion of the daylong service, Joseph Smith read the dedicatory prayer that he had previously received by revelation (D&C 109). Following this prayer, the choir sang "The Spirit of God," a hymn written for the occasion by William W. Phelps (see Appendix, "Hymns"). After the Sacrament was administered and several testimonies were borne, the congregation stood and rendered shouts of "Hosanna, Hosanna; Hosanna, to God and the Lamb!" Formal dedicatory prayers, the singing of this hymn, and the Hosanna Shout have characterized all temple dedications since (see Hosanna Shout).

Significant manifestations occurred in the Kirtland Temple on April 3, one week after its dedication. Jesus Christ appeared and accepted the temple. Moses, Elias, and Elijah then appeared and restored specific priesthood powers (D&C 110). Through the sealing keys restored by Elijah, priesthood ordinances performed on earth for the living and the dead could be bound or sealed in heaven, thus helping to turn the hearts of the fathers and children to one another (Mal. 4:5-6).

At the time when Joseph Smith was planning the temple in Kirtland, he was also giving attention to developments in Missouri. In 1831 he had placed a cornerstone for a future temple at independence in Jackson County, which had been designated as the "center place" of Zion (D&C 57:3). In June 1833 he drew up a plat for the city of Zion, specifying that twenty-four temples or sacred buildings would be built in the heart of the city to serve a variety of priesthood functions. When the Latter-day Saints were forced to flee from Jackson County that fall, plans to build the city of Zion and its temples were postponed.

In 1838 cornerstones were laid for a temple at Far West in northern Missouri. This structure was to be for the gathering together of the Saints for worship (D&C 115:7-8). However, persecution prevented construction.

The Nauvoo Temple, dedicated in 1846, was the first temple designed for the recently restored sacred ordinances for the living and the dead. Vicarious baptisms for the dead were inaugurated in 1840. They were first performed in the Mississippi River until a font was completed in the basement of the temple. In 1842 the Prophet gave the first endowments in the assembly room above his red brick store (TPJS, p. 237). Given at this time only to living persons, this ceremony reviewed the history of mankind from the creation, emphasizing the lofty standards required for returning to God's presence. The first sealings or marriages of couples for eternity were also performed at about this time. Then all such ordinance work was stopped until the temple was completed.

The main outside walls of the temple were only partially completed when Joseph Smith and his brother Hyrum were murdered in 1844. The martyrdom, however, caused only a temporary lull in temple construction. Even though the Saints knew they would soon be forced to leave Nauvoo and lose access to the temple, they were willing to spend approximately one million dollars to fulfill their Prophet's vision of erecting the House of the Lord. By December 1845, the rooms in the temple were sufficiently completed that endowments could be given there. During the next eight weeks 5,500 persons received these blessings even as they were hurriedly preparing for their exodus to the West. Brigham Young and other officiators stayed in the temple day and night. To maintain order, Heber C. Kimball insisted that only those with official invitations be admitted to the temple, which perhaps marked the beginning of issuing temple recommends.

TEMPLES IN THE TOPS OF THE MOUNTAINS. Temple building remained a high priority for the Mormon pioneers as they made their trek to the Rocky Mountains. Only four days after entering the Salt Lake Valley, Brigham Young selected the site for the temple there. Temporary provisions were made for giving the Endowment until this temple could be completed, and an adobe Endowment house opened on Temple Square in 1855. President Young explained that not all ordinances could appropriately be performed there, however, so in the mid-1870s he encouraged the Saints to press forward with the construction of other temples in Utah.

The site for the temple at St. George was swampy, but Brigham Young insisted that it be built there because the spot had been dedicated by ancient Book of Mormon prophets (statement by David H. Cannon, Jr., Oct. 14, 1942, quoted in Kirk M. Curtis, "History of the St. George Temple," Master's thesis, Brigham Young University, 1964, pp. 24-25). An old cannon, filled with lead, became an improvised pile driver to pound rocks into the soggy ground. In 1877 the St. George Temple was completed, the first in Utah. Endowments for the dead were inaugurated there in January of that year, enabling the Saints to perform these important rites as proxies on behalf of their forebears.

As the number of endowments for the dead increased, the basic design of temples was modified to accommodate the ordinance. The Logan and Manti temples (dedicated in 1884 and 1888, respectively) contain large upper assembly rooms and a series of smaller lower rooms especially designed for presenting the Endowment instructions. Murals on the walls depict different stages in man's eternal progression. Because of outside political hostility in 1888, Church leaders dedicated the Manti Temple first in private ceremonies. At the public dedication a short time later, members of the congregation reported unusual spiritual experiences including hearing heavenly choirs.

Completion of the Salt Lake Temple lifted the Saints' spirits during dark days of persecution. Symbolic stones on the great temple's exterior represent the degrees of eternal glory and other gospel principles. The east center spire is topped by a statue of the angel Moroni, symbolic of John's prophecy of a heavenly herald bringing the gospel to the earth (Rev. 14:6). The interior includes council rooms for the General Authorities. On the afternoon prior to its dedication on April 6, 1893, visitors of many faiths were invited to tour the temple. Such prededication open houses have grown in importance and become the norm during the twentieth century.

TWENTIETH-CENTURY TEMPLES. During the first third of the twentieth century, temples were built more and more distant from Church headquarters, reflecting Church expansion and growth. President Joseph F. Smith spoke of the need to provide temple blessings to scattered Saints without requiring them to travel often thousands of miles to the intermountain West to receive them. The temples built at this time were comparatively small, without towers or large assembly halls.

President Smith, who had served a mission to Hawaii as a young man, selected the temple site at Laie on the island of Oahu. Because traditional building materials were scarce on the island, the temple was built of reinforced concrete. It was dedicated in 1919, one year after President Smith's death. Meanwhile, construction had also begun on a temple at Cardston, Alberta, Canada. Following its dedication in 1923, Church members from Oregon and Washington organized annual caravans to attend that temple, the forerunners of temple excursions that became an increasingly important facet of religious activity for members not living close to these sacred structures.

At the 1927 dedication of the Arizona Temple in Mesa, President Heber J. Grant petitioned divine blessings for the American Indians and other modern-day descendants of Book of Mormon Peoples. In 1945 the Endowment and other temple blessings were presented there in Spanish, the first time these ceremonies were offered in a language other than English. In subsequent decades, members in the southwestern United States, Mexico, and as far away as Central America traveled to attend Spanish temple sessions in Mesa.

President Grant also approved sites for temples in California and Idaho. Although construction of the Idaho Falls Temple began in 1937, shortages of materials during World War II delayed its completion until 1945.

The rapid growth of Church membership in southern California during and following World War II led to the construction of the Los Angeles Temple, the largest in the Church at that time. Dedicated in 1956, it was the first in the twentieth century to include a large upper hall for priesthood leaders to conduct solemn assemblies, as well as an angel Moroni statue on its 257-foot tower. Architectural plans called for the angel to face southeast, as did the temple itself. President David O. McKay, however, insisted that the statue be turned to face due east. Most (but not all) LDS temples face east, symbolic of the anticipated second coming of Christ, which Jesus compared to the dawning in the east of a new day (Matt. 24:27). Members in California regarded this temple as the fulfillment of Brigham Young's prophecy that the shores of the Pacific would one day be overlooked from the Lord's house, and that temples would have a central tower and would feature reflecting ponds and have plantings on their roofs.

THE FIRST OVERSEAS TEMPLES. The decision to build temples abroad signaled a new emphasis. Although for decades Church leaders had counseled the overseas Saints not to gather to America, but to build up the Church where they were, the blessings of the temple were not available in their homelands. The Swiss Temple near Bern in 1955 and the New Zealand and London temples in 1958 partially met this need. The use of film and projectors allowed the Endowment ordinance to be presented in one place of instruction rather than in a series of muraled rooms. President McKay had announced that future temples would be smaller, so that more of them could be built around the world. Furthermore, on film, these ceremonies could be presented in several languages with only a small group of attending temple ordinance workers.

Those responsible for locating these temples were convinced that they had divine assistance. Swiss Mission officials experienced prolonged difficulties in acquiring a site they had selected and petitioned the Lord for help. Immediately they found a larger site at half the cost; they soon learned that the original site was rendered useless by the unexpected construction of a highway through one portion of the lot. When the original price asked for the New Zealand temple plot seemed excessive, attorneys representing the owners and the Church reviewed the matter and independently arrived at exactly the same lower figure. Engineers cautioned against building the London Temple on the ground selected by President McKay because it was too swampy, but bedrock was discovered at the proper depth to support the foundations.

MODERN TEMPLES IN NORTH AMERICA. During the decade 1964-1974, four more temples were dedicated in the United States. The Oakland Temple (1964) had been eagerly anticipated by the Saints in northern California. Forty years earlier, Elder George Albert Smith had spoken while in San Francisco of the day when a beautiful temple would surmount the East Bay hills and be a beacon to ships sailing through the Golden Gate. During World War II property became available high in the Oakland Hills. However, two decades passed before Church growth in the area warranted construction of a temple. The Oakland Temple now uses film projection to present the Endowment ceremony. Three spacious rooms allow large groups to receive these instructions simultaneously.

Even though early leaders had spoken of future temples in Ogden and Provo, the 1967 announcement of these two Utah temples came as a surprise to many Latter-day Saints. Church leaders explained that the Salt Lake Temple was being used beyond its capacity, so building two new nearby temples would ease the pressure and also reduce travel time for the Saints in Ogden and Provo. When the temples were completed five years later, each featured six Endowment rooms, enabling a new group to begin the presentation every twenty minutes for up to sixty sessions daily.

The Washington D.C. Temple not only met the needs of Saints living in the eastern United States and Canada but, located close to the U.S. capital, became a monument to the restored Church. Architects designed it as a modern and easily recognizable adaptation of the familiar six-towered pattern of the Salt Lake Temple. Its 289-foot east central spire is tallest of any LDS temple in the world. The Washington Temple included a complex of six Endowment rooms, and it became the second twentieth-century temple to have the large upper-level priesthood assembly room.

During the 1970s, the Arizona Temple and several other temples were remodeled to utilize film projection in presenting the Endowment. Because these renovations were extensive, open houses were held for visitors prior to rededication of the temples. During this same decade, construction began on three other large temples in North America: the Seattle Temple (dedicated in 1980), first in the U.S. Pacific Northwest; the Jordan River Temple (1981), second in the Salt Lake Valley; and the Mexico City Temple (1983), which features a Mayan architectural style. While at the dedication of the Mexico City Temple, Elder Ezra Taft Benson was impressed to emphasize the Book of Mormon—a theme that later characterized his administration as President of the Church.

WORLDWIDE EXPANSION. In 1976 two revelations (now D&C 137 and 1 38) were added to the standard works. One recorded Joseph Smith's 1836 vision of the Celestial Kingdom. The other was an account of President Joseph F. Smith's 1918 vision of the Savior's organizing the righteous to preach his gospel in the world of departed spirits. Both contributed to the Saints' comprehension of salvation for the dead, and provided new stimulus for unprecedented temple building.

Plans had already been announced for temples in Sao Paulo and Tokyo—the first in South America and Asia, respectively. Then, in 1980, a dramatic acceleration came when the First Presidency announced that seven new temples were to be built. These included the first temple in the southeastern United States, two more temples in South America, and four in the Pacific. The following year, plans for nine more temples were announced—two each in the United States, Europe, and Latin America; plus a temple each in Korea, the Philippines, and South Africa. By 1984, plans to build ten additional temples were announced, including one in the German Democratic Republic. These temples were smaller than most built in earlier decades. Since many were built at the same time, they are of similar design.

Most of these new temples were located where they could make temple blessings available to the living even though they might not contribute large numbers of ordinances for the dead. More than ever before, temples were within the reach of Latter-day Saints living around the world, who greeted the construction of these temples with gratitude and joy. When President Spencer W. Kimball announced the intention to build the Sao Paulo Temple, for example, there was an audible gasp that swept the huge congregation gathered for the Brazil area conference; tears flowed freely as families throughout the hall embraced one another at the news. Church leaders suggested that rather than sacrificing lifetime earnings to reach a distant temple, members would now need to make a different kind of sacrifice—finding time for regular attendance at their temple.

Latter-day Saints expect that this rapid expansion of temple building will continue. Sacred temple ordinances are to be made available to all. Brigham Young prophesied that during the Millennium there would be thousands of temples dotting the earth. At that time, tens of thousands of the faithful are to enter and perform sacred ordinances around the clock.

TEMPLE BLESSINGS FOR THE DEAD. When the Saints in Nauvoo performed vicarious baptisms for close relatives, information on them was readily accessible. More difficult genealogical research became necessary, however, as Church members met their responsibility to provide temple blessings for all deceased ancestors as far back as they could trace them. The introduction of endowments for the dead in 1877, which took far more time than baptisms, represented a significant expansion in Church members' temple commitment.

Heretofore the Saints had performed vicarious ordinances only for their own deceased relatives or friends. While directing the unfolding of the vicarious service at the St. George Temple, however, Elder Wilford Woodruff declared that the Lord would allow members to help one another in this important work.

A further innovation came during the early twentieth century when those living in faraway mission fields were allowed to send names of deceased loved ones to the temple where other proxies would perform the ordinances. Church leaders then exhorted members living near a temple to take time to perform this unselfish service. In the Salt Lake Temple, for example, there had been at first only one Endowment session per day. By 1921, however, that increased to four, and in 1991 to ten.

With the growing number of temples, the number of endowments performed increased. Beginning in the 1960s, therefore, Church leaders directed genealogical society of Utah employees to obtain names from microfilmed vital records and make them available for temple work. By the early 1970s, three-fourths of all names for temple ordinances were being submitted in this manner.

To facilitate the members assuming a greater share in providing names for the temples, in 1969 they were permitted to submit names individually rather than only in family groups. Computers could then assist in determining family relationships. Beginning in 1978, small groups of Church members were called to spend a few hours each week in the name extraction program copying names and data from microfilm records. In this way most names for temple work were supplied by members rather than by professionals at Church headquarters. In 1988 the 100 millionth Endowment for the dead was performed; over five million were accomplished that year.

THE HOUSE OF THE LORD. As did ancient Israel, Latter-day Saints regard temples as sacred places set apart where they can go to draw close to God and receive revelations and blessings from him (D&C 97:15-17; 110:7-8). The physical structure as such is not the source of its holiness. Rather, the character of those who enter and the sacred ordinances and instructions received there nurture the spiritual atmosphere found in the temple. When members enter this holy house and center their thoughts on serving others, their own understandings are clarified and solutions to personal problems are received.

Because of the spiritual nature of temple activity, personal preparation is essential. Latter-day Saints insist that temple ceremonies are sacred. This is consistent with ancient practice when, for example, only specifically qualified persons were admitted into the holiest precincts of the Tabernacle. The function of local Church leaders in issuing temple recommends is not only to establish the individual's worthiness and preparation but also to assure the sanctity of the temple.



For a scholarly treatise of temples and their ordinances, see James E. Talmage, The House of the Lord (Salt Lake City, 1962); Boyd K. Packer in The Holy Temple (Salt Lake City, 1980) explains the spirit and importance of temple work; Richard O. Cowan in Temples to Dot the Earth (Salt Lake City, 1989) traces the history of LDS temples and temple service. For an in-depth discussion of some of the ancient background, see Hugh Nibley, Message of the Joseph Smith Papyri: An Egyptian Endowment (Salt Lake City, 1975); N. B. Lundwall, Temples of the Most High (Salt Lake City, 1971) includes dedicatory prayers and descriptive data about individual temples; Royden G. Derrick in Temples in the Last Days (Salt Lake City, 1987) has a collection of essays on temple-related topics; and Laurel B. Andrew explains architectural influences in her Early Temples of the Mormons (Albany, N.Y., 1989).




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Encyclopedia of Mormonism,Vol. 4, Temples

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