The Salt Lake Temple is reportedly the single visual symbol that most quickly communicates “Mormon” to others. And as members of the Church, we tend to see it as the center of our unique character in more ways than one. In its upper rooms the presiding quorums pray, deliberate, and make the decisions that govern the Church. Its southeast cornerstone is the initial point of the Salt Lake City survey, and the address of almost any house in the city can be computed in terms of its distance north or south, and east or west, of the temple.
Brigham Young saw the temple in vision four days after the Saints arrived in the Valley, 28 July 1847, and selected the site. Truman O. Angell was sustained as church architect in October conference 1852, the site was dedicated on 14 February 1853, and the cornerstones were laid on 6 April 1853. Forty years later to the day, 6 April 1893, the temple was dedicated.
It is massive. The footings far beneath the ground are sixteen feet wide. The courses of cut granite forming the walls are nine feet wide and nine feet high above the foundations, tapering to an almost-slim five feet thick at the top of the side walls. Edward O. Anderson, Church architect when the new annex was built in the early 1960s, measured the walls with modern instruments and found that the pioneer craftsmen had been so meticulous that the south side differed in height from the north side by only one-eighth of an inch—out of 181 feet!
The architectural symbolism continues and elaborates that of the Nauvoo Temple. Brother Angell said, “The whole structure is designed to symbolize some of the great architectural work above.” Brigham Young commented at the laying of the cornerstones, “I never looked upon that ground but the vision of it was there. I see it as plainly as if it was in reality before me. … It will have six towers to begin with, instead of one.” Those towers represent the Melchizedek Priesthood on the east and the Aaronic Priesthood with the slightly lower west towers.
Of the symbolism, Hugh W. Nibley has said, “The crenellated walls and buttresses are familiar from the oldest monumental temples as ‘the pillars of heaven’; the series of stars, moon, and sunstones on the buttresses indicate the levels of … glory; at the lowest point in the Temple is a brazen sea on the back of 12 oxen, and there are the waters through which the dead, by proxy, pass to eternal life, the Gates of Salvation; on the centre of the west towers is the North Star and its attendant constellation, a symbol recognized throughout human history as depicting the centre of time and the revolution of the universe; the battlements that impart a somewhat grim air to the building signify its isolation from a hostile world; on the main tower the inscription in gold ‘Holiness to the Lord,’ serves notice that this place is set apart from the world of mundane things; as do the gates that shut out all but a few.”
Overwhelmed by the building itself, people may not realize how extensive the ornamentation is, each of which, commented President George A. Smith, “conveys a moral lesson, and all point to the celestial world.” There are fifty Earth Stones weighing 3 1/2 tons apiece, fifty moon stones, several Saturns, numerous sunstones, sixty-eight star stones, two stones showing rays of truth and light breaking through clouds of error on the east, stones inscribed “I Am Alpha and Omega” on the east and west center towers with accompanying stones representing an all-seeing eye and clasped hands.
Brother Nibley continues, “The temple itself is a reminder that none can receive the highest blessings without entering its portals. … Here all time and space come together; the barriers vanish between this world and the next; between past, present, and future. What is bound here is bound beyond, and only here can the gates be opened to release the dead who are awaiting the saving ordinances.”
References: Summary of Salt Lake Temple information prepared by Anna Mae Robison, Church Library; James H. Anderson, “The Salt Lake Temple,” The Contributor, April 1893; Hugh W. Nibley, “What Is a Temple? The Idea of the Temple in History,” Provo, BYU, 1968; Edward O. Anderson, “Salt Lake Temple,” Improvement Era, 66 (Nov. 1963):1008.