Granite and Faith: The Story of the Salt Lake Temple

Granite and Faith: The Story of the Salt Lake Temple

Additional Resource

There was a time when the Salt Lake Temple of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints dominated the city's skyline, its six granite spires towering majestically over the homes and workplaces of Utah's largest city.

While those days are gone, the temple is still instantly recognizable by visitors. Immaculately set among trees, shrubs and flowers, it continues to be one of the enduring images of the community, regularly appearing in newspaper photographs and on the cover of news magazines as journalists attempt to capture a single, defining symbol of the Church.

Within days of the arrival of the first company of Latter-day Saint pioneers in July 1847, their leader, Brigham Young, waved his hand over a spot of hard, dry ground. He announced that at that precise location they would build a temple, their most sacred place of worship.

Church leaders designated a 10-acre plot of ground as Temple Square, instructing surveyors to lay out the city on a grid pattern that would be square with the compass and place the temple literally at the heart of the city. They named streets according to their distance and direction from Temple Square—600 South is six blocks south of Temple Square; 300 West is three blocks to the west.

More than just a matter of functional design or conceptual convenience, the temple was central to the faith of the pioneers who settled the Salt Lake Valley. Unlike Latter-day Saint meetinghouses, where anyone may attend Sunday services and other meetings, temples are open only to faithful Church members for the performance of their highest, most sacred rites.

The religious persecution that drove Latter-day Saints from their homes in Nauvoo, Illinois, in 1846, also forced them to abandon the stately Nauvoo Temple to the whims of mobs and the ravages of nature. Little wonder that one of their first acts on arriving in the Salt Lake Valley was to select the spot for another "House of the Lord."

Building the temple was a long and laborious process. With the painful experience of Nauvoo still fresh in their minds, Church leaders determined that the Salt Lake Temple would be almost fortress-like in its design and construction. They discovered a deposit of granite 20 miles southeast of Temple Square in Little Cottonwood Canyon—now the home of the Alta and Snowbird ski resorts.

Workers painstakingly chiseled out of the canyon walls huge granite blocks that weighed from 2,500 to 5,600 pounds each and carefully transported them to Temple Square, first by ox-drawn wagon and later by railroad. There, expert stone cutters carved the blocks to fit perfectly into place.

Annie Wells remembers "the sight of the great stones ... being hauled along the streets by two yoke of oxen and we would all stand for them to pass with a feeling of awe and reverence."

Skilled workers used similar craftsmanship and artistry on temple interiors, where they applied their best expertise to draperies, furnishings, tapestries and floors in the building's more than 170 rooms.

Most of the work was donated labor as pioneer men and women took time off from the backbreaking work of establishing their "Zion" to contribute their time, skills and materials to the temple project.

Brigham Young called upon many skilled artisans who had joined the Church during its early days. These new members had brought their tools and techniques with them as they gathered to Utah from England, Wales, Scotland, Scandinavia and the eastern United States.

Although Church leaders and members wanted the temple to be the finest they could erect, it was a time of frugality for the Latter-day Saint community. At one point, two or more tiers of blocks had to be taken down and replaced because the workers were using chips of granite between the blocks in order to minimize the use of expensive mortar. "Build not for today nor tomorrow," Brigham Young counseled the workers, "but for all eternity."

There were, of course, challenges throughout the long construction process, even beyond the anticipated travails of the limited technology of the day. When workers discovered large cracks in the foundation walls, they started all over again, removing all the original stones down to the bottom layer and replacing them with higher quality stones. The new stones could be cut to fit without mortar.

On another occasion, Church leaders halted construction and directed workers to bury the entire foundation in order to hide the temple site from a U.S. Army contingent sent to occupy the territory. Mistrustful of a government that had failed to protect them in Illinois, Missouri, Ohio and New York, work on the temple proceeded slowly as Church leaders and appointed federal governors learned to trust each other and work together in moving Utah toward statehood.

The temple was completed in 1893, more than 40 years after construction officially began. Brigham Young did not live to see its completion.

Wilford Woodruff, the fourth President of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, asked in his dedicatory prayer that God would "look down from thy holy habitation in mercy and tender compassion."

The journals of the day, many of which survive, hint at the feelings of a grateful community:

"I am only one of thousands who have watched the rearing of those walls and seemed to be a part of them, so much have our thoughts dwelt upon and longed for the day of completion.... This dedication is to the Saints the greatest event for many years. How long we have watched the building of the Temple and as stone has been laid upon stone our faith and prayers have been offered for the safe and perfect completion of the building and now that it is so handsomely completed well may we feel proud and happy." (Annie Wells Cannon, "Passing Thoughts," Woman’s Exponent, 15 Apr. and 1 May 1893, 157)

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