This coming month of April we commemorate the one hundredth year since the dedication of the St. George Temple, the oldest Latter-day Saint temple still in use. That event has great historical significance for members of the Church; the St. George Temple was the first in this dispensation where endowments and sealings for the dead were performed. The dedication occurred on 6 April 1877, just four months prior to President Brigham Young’s death.
The closing years of President Young’s life and the work on the temple were closely intertwined. Those years are examined here by William G. Hartley, research historian with the Church Historical Department.
Aging Brigham Young, unable to walk comfortably due to rheumatism, was lifted gently from his carriage on that New Year’s day, 1877. Two men carried him in a special chair through the newly painted temple doors. The waiting crowd flowed indoors after him, hoping to find seats before the dedicatory service began at 12:30 P.M.
For President Young, the dedication of the St. George Temple had to be a memorable and spiritually moving event. Forty years earlier, he had marshalled his professional skills to supervise the glazing, painting, and finishing work on the Kirtland Temple, a temple accepted of the Lord at its dedication with an outpouring of heavenly visitations. Then the Saints had built again at Nauvoo. Both temples were now lost to the Saints, and although some eternal ordinances for the living had been performed in the Endowment House in Salt Lake City, President Young himself had warned that no endowment or sealing ordinance work for the dead could be performed until a temple was raised up unto the Lord.
Construction started on the Salt Lake Temple in 1853, but the work was slow, and was to take forty years to complete.
President Young alone held the sealing keys for temple work. The responsibility weighed on him, and he must have felt the urgency to share the temple ordinances with others in a House of the Lord. Years before, the Prophet Joseph Smith had taken him and other Church leaders into a room above his Nauvoo store. There he divided off the room as best he could and carefully instructed them about the various temple ceremonies. “Brother Brigham,” he said when he was finished, “this is not arranged right, but we have done the best we could under the circumstances in which we are placed, and I want you to take this matter in hand and organize and systematize all these ceremonies.” (L. John Nuttall diary, Feb. 7, 1877, typescript, Church Archives.)
President Young fulfilled that assignment from the Prophet, and he personally directed the completion of the Nauvoo Temple and the administering of ordinances so Saints could hurriedly receive their endowments before fleeing Nauvoo in early 1846.
It was while in St. George, where he spent the last few winters of his life, that President Young determined to have a temple built there, and the feelings of the southern leaders were expressed in Region President Erastus Snow’s exultant shout: “Glory Hallelujah!”
The site was dedicated 9 November 1871, Erastus Snow’s birthday, and hardly were the “amens” uttered to the closing prayer before diggers, using shovels and scrapers, attacked the ground.
Erastus Snow, construction superintendent Miles Romney, and others, had the responsibility of finding the laborers and their lodgings, organizing their schedules, and obtaining the building materials, and they accepted it willingly. They felt it a blessing and reward for persevering in colonizing the desert country. And, as a public works project, it financially blessed many devout and struggling Saints.
The men worked on the temple for wages, receiving pay half in cash and half in Tithing Office checks. Local Saints were expected to labor one day in ten as donated tithing labor. Women did laundry for the workers, teenagers helped guard the site, farmers loaned valuable teams and wagons for the project, and skilled workers from many countries shared their talents. George Jarvis, a former sailor from England, made the scaffolding; David Milne, the interior decorator, was from Scotland; Edward L. Parry, chief stonecutter, was trained in Wales; and Robert Gardner, chief lumberman, learned his trade in Canada.
But even with the enormous sacrifice of time, money, goods, and labor by the southern Utah Saints, help from other Saints was needed. Calls for help brought good responses. In one year some 400 men from northern towns labored on the temple as missionaries, usually for forty days or longer.
Construction progressed rapidly. First, underground water was channeled off the site and the ground was excavated down twelve feet. The bottom soil was too soft and wet for the foundation, so black volcanic rock was pounded into it by a makeshift pile-driver—an old cannon barrel filled with lead, harnessed, lifted thirty feet into the air by horse-power, then dropped.
By February 1874 the foundation and the basement were in place; in April the cornerstone was laid; and by March 1875 the red sandstone walls were erected. Plasterers and whitewashers later gave the red sandstone a coat of white to symbolize purity and light.
As the temple neared completion, thousands of loads of rich soil were hauled in to make the barren ground support lawns, trees, and shrubs. Relief Societies sent handmade rag carpets for the floors, and home-grown and spun silks for the altar and pulpit fringes. The Provo Woolen Mill and other factories sent more than 1,000 yards of carpet. Three immigrant artists painted murals and other art work: Dan Weggeland from Norway, and C. C. A. Christensen and Samuel Jepperson of Denmark.
Despite the rapid progress, President Young was reportedly worried. “You cannot realize … how anxious he is to get this temple completed,” Elder George A. Smith told a worker. “He feels he is getting old, and is liable to drop off anytime, and he has keys he wants to give in the Temple.” (“Journal Diary of Robert Gardner,” Heartthrobs of the West, 10:321.)
Finally came that New Year’s Day when Brigham Young was carried in and the basement, the main floor, and the sealing rooms on the east side dedicated by Elder Wilford Woodruff, Brigham Young, Jr., and Erastus Snow. Then the expectant congregation looked toward President Young.
The prophet, earlier unable to stand up, suddenly arose, carefully walked to the stand, and preached to the assembled Saints. “The house seemed filled with a heavenly host,” reported the Woman’s Exponent, “and the President’s face fairly shone with the light of the Holy Ghost.”
“All the angels in heaven are looking at this little handful of people,” he said. “Can the fathers be saved without us? No. Can we be saved without them? No.” In the nearly completed temple, he said, the Saints could finally commence that all-important work. (Journal of Discourses, 18:303–5.)
He asked if the people were satisfied with completing a temple. He thundered, “I am not half satisfied, until I have whipped … the devils from off this earth.” With that, he crashed his hickory cane down on the pulpit, so hard it left the prints of the two knots on the stick in the soft pine. (John Nuttall’s Journal, 1 January 1877.)
On 9 January 1877, for the first time in more than thirty years, baptisms for the dead were performed in the temple. President Young, propped on a crutch and his cane, personally witnessed the work—224 that first day. Endowments for the dead began two days later, being the first such endowments given in this dispensation—3,208 by the end of March.
President Young personally directed the temple work for his father, mother, and other kindred dead. He also spent time developing a “perfect form of the endowments,” which was then read and taught to temple workers in late March. (Wilford Woodruff Diary, “Journal History,” March 21, 1877, Church Archives.) Final dedication took place in April, with general conference taking place in Saint George for that purpose. On August 29, Brigham Young died after dedicating temple sites at Manti and Logan.
His concern for the completion of the temple for the “perfect form” of the eternal work that was to be conducted there was highlighted by speakers at his funeral. Elder Erastus Snow said: “It is a great joy and comfort to know that he had the privilege of living to complete one Temple and to see it dedicated, and that he superintended the setting in order of the priesthood and the ordinances for the redemption of the dead … something he greatly desired to see done before he should pass away.” (Brigham H. Roberts, A Comprehensive History of the Church, 5:516–17.)
No doubt President Young and those of his generation who built the St. George Temple a hundred years ago take pride in the ordinance work accomplished to date in that temple: almost 500,000 baptisms for the dead; more than 4,000,000 endowments for the dead and 70,000 for the living; approximately 1,000,000 sealings of deceased husbands and wives and about 35,000 sealings of living couples; more than 2,300,000 sealings of deceased children to parents and almost 40,000 sealings of living children to parents.