Houses of the Lord

Though temple design and construction materials have changed through the years, these edifices are all holy places where we make covenants with the Lord and receive sacred ordinances.

The dedication of the St. Louis Missouri Temple this month brings to 50 the number of operating temples in the Church and marks more than 160 years of temple building by Latter-day Saints.

When the Church was just two years old, the Prophet Joseph Smith received direction from the Lord to build a temple: “Organize yourselves; prepare every needful thing; and establish a house, even a house of prayer, a house of fasting, a house of faith, a house of learning, a house of glory, a house of order, a house of God.” 1

Beginning with the first temple of the latter days, dedicated in Kirtland, Ohio, on 27 March 1836, Latter-day Saints have consistently sacrificed to raise up these dedicated houses of the Lord to make covenants and receive sacred ordinances. Since the building of the Kirtland Temple, there have been many changes in the way temples are designed and in the materials used to construct them, but each one is a sacred place where our Heavenly Father’s children may serve him according to his plan and purposes.

Nineteenth-Century Temples

The first two latter-day temples, in Kirtland, Ohio, and then in Nauvoo, Illinois, were built as the Church was growing in numbers and its members were growing in doctrinal understanding. The design of these first two buildings was rectangular. Because the Saints had been given only a portion of the ordinances that would one day be offered in temples, these two edifices did not include all of the rooms or functions found in modern temples. The Kirtland Temple had two large meeting rooms. The first floor was used for meetings, the second floor for the School of the Prophets, and the attic for many purposes, including office quarters for some Church leaders, space where ordinances were performed, and rooms used for high school classes. When the Saints left Ohio, the temple was abandoned.

The Nauvoo Temple had curtained-off ordinance rooms in the upper story, where all the saving ordinances for the living were performed. It also had a baptistry at ground level and was the first temple where baptisms for the dead were vicariously performed. In connection with vicarious work for the dead, the Prophet Joseph Smith wrote to the Church in 1844, two years before the dedication of the temple: “Let the dead speak forth anthems of eternal praise to the King Immanuel, who hath ordained, before the world was, that which would enable us to redeem them out of their prison; for the prisoners shall go free. … and let us present in his holy temple, when it is finished, a book containing the records of our dead.” 2

The Nauvoo Temple was used only a short time, then destroyed after the Saints were driven out of Illinois. However, those early beginnings showed an increasing understanding of the purpose of temples. Attention shifted from the meeting hall–style temple in Kirtland toward the architectural plan of the Salt Lake Temple, with an interior plan centered on ordinances rather than on meeting halls, even though an assembly hall was included.

The construction history of the Salt Lake Temple is filled with bends and turns. President Brigham Young originally thought of constructing it with adobe bricks stuccoed and scored to appear like dressed stone. 3 Construction delays resulted in consideration of other materials. One of the most significant delays came when President Young directed that the construction site be hidden away before the United States Army regiment commanded by Colonel Albert Sidney Johnston marched through Salt Lake City. Worried Saints filled in the site so that it appeared to be nothing more than a plowed field, hoping to preserve the temple’s foundation from desecration or destruction.

In June 1862 President Young directed the uncovering of the Salt Lake Temple foundation. He found the upper masonry courses cracked and crumbling, having been hastily constructed with stone that was too soft. Sizing up the failed masonry, he instructed that the foundation be taken apart until solid masonry was reached and then rebuilt with the right size, quantity, and quality of stone. Said he, “I want to see the Temple built in a manner that it will endure through the Millennium.” 4

One significant finding during the years of delay that enabled President Young’s goal to become a reality was the discovery of granite in the Little Cottonwood Canyon. When granite was added to available building materials, it became the preferred choice because “this material, enduring as the everlasting hills, was a fitting emblem of the eternal nature of the sacred ordinances to be administered within the Temple.” 5

In all, the corrective work consisted of “many improvements,” recorded Elder Wilford Woodruff of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles in his journal, noting that it took seven months to complete (June–December 1862) and brought with it the “Blessings of God … upon Zion.” 6 However, it would be another 30 years of stops and starts before the temple was completed in 1893.

Meanwhile, as Latter-day Saints colonized the West’s Great Basin area, they felt deeply the need to build other temples. They had been told in Nauvoo, “How shall your washings be acceptable unto me, except ye perform them in a house which you have built to my name?” 7 Truman Angell, the architect who helped design the Salt Lake Temple under direction from President Brigham Young, was initially involved in designing the other Utah temples built during this time. The St. George Temple was completed in 1877, the Logan Temple in 1884 under the direction of Truman Angell Jr., and the Manti Temple in 1888 under the direction of William H. Folsom.

All four of these 19th-century temples had load-bearing masonry exterior and interior walls that rested on stone foundations and rose in steplike fashion to castlelike battlements at the top of the walls. Inside these fortresslike structures, wooden floor joists and trusses spanned between the load-bearing masonry walls. Interior walls were made of lath (wooden strips) and plaster and were finished with elaborate wood and plaster moldings trimmed with the finest materials available. The walls were then adorned with murals and paintings. All of this work was done by the best local craftsmen and artists of the day. Examples of Utah’s 19th-century building tradition, these temples are truly mighty fortresses of God, both spiritually and physically.

The St. George Temple, completed in 1877, used black volcanic stone for the foundation and light-red sandstone for the main building. Upper stories were then painted with lime mortar and a lighter whitewash. 8

Though Truman Angell began the Logan Temple’s original design, his son, Truman Angell Jr., was the supervising architect. He made several modifications to his father’s design. The temple was constructed from a locally quarried limestone with sandstone laid in a lime mortar.

The architect for the Manti Temple was William H. Folsom, who also modified Truman Angell’s original plans. Brother Folsom designed the large, distinctive towers that give the Manti Temple its monumental look. The temple was constructed with oolitic limestone quarried from the mountainside where the temple now stands.

Early-20th-Century Temples

As the Church moved into the 20th century, the need for temples outside Utah became apparent. Because of the need to make binding and eternal covenants, such as eternal marriage, it seemed highly desirable for Latter-day Saints to have temples in their midst. For the Lord had said, “If a man marry him a wife in the world, and he marry her not by me nor by my word, and he covenant with her so long as he is in the world and she with him, their covenant and marriage are not of force when they are dead.” 9

The first temple to be started outside of the United States was begun in 1913 in Cardston, Alberta, Canada, nearly 700 miles from Salt Lake City. While construction proceeded on the Alberta Temple, President Joseph F. Smith announced plans to build a temple in the Hawaiian Islands, at Laie, about 3,000 miles distant from Salt Lake City; it was dedicated in 1919. Four years later, in 1923, the Alberta Temple was completed and dedicated, and in 1927 the Church’s seventh operating temple was dedicated in Mesa, Arizona.

As design concepts and building technologies changed, so did the designs of Latter-day temples. The most noticeable difference was the absence of any towers or spires on these three newest temples, a design feature reintroduced in mid-20th-century temples. The design of the Alberta Temple came about through a temporarily anonymous design competition; that is, each design was considered solely on its merits, not on the reputation or past work of the architectural firm that submitted it. The winner was a little-known architectural partnership of Hyrum C. Pope and Harold W. Burton, both relatively young men. They designed a modern, steel-framed superstructure, covered with dressed granite stone on the exterior. Inside, the steel framing was covered with reinforced concrete and fireproof tile. These construction techniques reflected advances in 20th-century engineering.

When the Church announced its intention to build a temple in Hawaii, Pope and Burton were asked to design this temple as well. The temple was built of reinforced concrete made with a mixture of crushed volcanic rock. Generally, concrete had been used for foundation work, so when the cast-in-place concrete walls were used in the Hawaii Temple, the technique was considered innovative both for Church temple construction and for architecture on the Hawaiian Islands.

Mid-20th-Century Temples

Through President Joseph F. Smith, the Lord foretold about “the great work to be done in the temples of the Lord in the dispensation of the fulness of times.” 10 Between the completion of the Arizona Temple in 1927 and the completion of the temples dedicated during the 15 years following World War II (Idaho Falls, 1945; Swiss, 1955; Los Angeles, 1956; New Zealand, 1958; and London, 1958), a tremendous amount of change occurred in Church members’ lives. The Great Depression, World War II, military service, and employment opportunities were factors that influenced Church members to move far beyond the western United States. Also, more than 100 years of missionary efforts worldwide—newly intensified in the post-war years—brought the gospel to thousands of people, many from cultures distinctly different from those of previous convert groups. Church leaders also strongly reaffirmed the Church’s position—first expressed at the turn of the century—that Church members remain in their respective countries and strengthen Zion’s stakes at home. For a growing number of these international members, travel for temple blessings was all but out of reach unless temples were to be built nearer to them. At the same time, strides in the acquisition, management, and preparation of genealogical information throughout the world produced an unprecedented volume of individual names made ready for vicarious temple work.

Because of the great importance of temple ordinances and service in the lives of Latter-day Saints, President David O. McKay (1951–70) and other General Authorities began to grapple with how temple blessings could be shared with all Church members, no matter what language they spoke or where they lived. 11 In general, the discussions held during these post-war years resulted in four guidelines: (1) to build temples in areas of concentrated membership or near major transportation hubs; (2) to adopt standard plans in order to reduce time and construction costs; (3) to evaluate the size of each temple, the number of ordinance rooms needed, and the most efficient use of space; and (4) to use new building and management technologies as they became available. The priesthood ordinances remained paramount, but the space allocation and the means of administering these ordinances changed. Two significant alterations occurred.

The first came in the area of design. In 1952 President McKay invited Church architect Edward O. Anderson to design a small temple that could be used internationally. Soon after, plans to build the first temple in Europe were announced. While the Swiss Temple was under construction, another aspect of growth needed to be considered: many different languages were spoken in Europe. President McKay formed a special temple committee made predominantly of General Authorities; Gordon B. Hinckley, then executive secretary of the Radio, Publicity, and Literature Committee of the Church, was invited to participate also. The committee was to recommend how to conduct temple ordinances in multiple languages—at least 10—using only the usual number of temple workers. Otherwise, the number of people required to conduct ordinances in so many languages might surpass the supply of workers available.

After considerable research and thought, the committee proposed using motion pictures for presenting some of the instruction. In 1953, working with technical advisers from southern California, Brother Anderson designed and supervised the construction of a one-twelfth scale model of a proposed media ordinance room. The scale model was studied in three-dimensional form and approved conceptually by the committee, who then invited the First Presidency (Presidents David O. McKay, Stephen L. Richards, and J. Reuben Clark Jr.) to inspect the model. At the conclusion of the demonstration, all three members of the First Presidency readily gave it their approval. With only two years before the Swiss Temple’s scheduled dedication, the temple committee supervised preparation of the first motion picture endowment ceremony, initially produced in a separate film for each of the languages. 12

Once the Swiss Temple was dedicated, it became quickly apparent that this new style of conducting temple ordinance sessions through motion pictures was a success, and media ordinance rooms became standard in all subsequent temples. The Oakland Temple, designed by Church architect Harold W. Burton and dedicated in 1964, contained two large ordinance rooms with a celestial room between them. The Provo and Ogden Temples in Utah, both designed in 1968 to 1969 by Church architect Emil B. Fetzer and dedicated in 1972, included six smaller media ordinance rooms, with 92 seats in each, that fed into a central celestial room.

The second significant change in temple building came about as President Spencer W. Kimball (1973–85) carried forward his resolve to make temple blessings available to more members. Between 1980 and 1983, he announced 20 new temples to be built in locations ranging from Sydney, Australia, to Stockholm, Sweden. The announcement set the pace for aggressive temple building worldwide. 13 This sudden and heavy design load was more than one Church architect and his staff could administer. In 1980 and 1981, the work once performed by the Church architect’s staff was distributed officially among a number of divisions in the Physical Facilities Department, mainly the newly created Temple and Special Projects Division and the Architecture and Engineering Division.

Temples Today

Today, major decisions regarding temples continue to be made by the First Presidency. The Temple Sites and Construction Committee is currently chaired by President Gordon B. Hinckley. The Temple Department and Physical Facilities Department work together during the planning and design processes, and the Temple Department handles the day-to-day management of temples. To address local government requirements or make design modifications to harmonize construction with local building codes and conventions, the Temple and Special Projects Division contracts with a local architect or architectural firm, which completes the design team for each temple planned. Working together, these ecclesiastical leaders, Church professionals, and local architects seek to meet the unprecedented need for more temples in the Church.

In some special circumstances, a new flexibility in thinking about how temples can be built is authorized. In Vernal, Utah, the Uintah Stake tabernacle is being renovated to become a temple. In Hong Kong, the building where the temple is located also houses two wards, mission offices, and residences for the temple president, a mission president, and the mission office staff.

In the meantime, today’s temples continue to utilize the finest in new materials and technologies as they become available. Building materials used in recent temples include reinforced concrete, steel superstructures, precast concrete panels, and precast fiberglass for decorative details. In the 1960s escalators and elevators were early signs of new technology. Today new electronic systems for the endowment presentation are used, and computers prepare ordinance materials, record completed ordinances, and otherwise simplify record keeping.

While the number of operating temples dotting the globe is now 50, Church leaders have consistently said that this is only the beginning. Speaking to the Temple Sites and Construction Committee, President Hinckley said: “We must build more temples, and we must build them more quickly. This is the season to build temples. They are needed, and we have the means to do so. The Lord will hold us accountable if we do not work with greater accomplishment than we are now doing.” 14

After more than 160 years of temple building, the reason for constructing these houses of the Lord is that which the Lord gave to the Prophet Joseph Smith: “For therein are the keys of the holy priesthood ordained, that you may receive honor and glory.” 15

[photos] Majority of photos courtesy of Museum of Church History and Art and LDS Church Archives

[photos] Upper left and right: Photos of the Los Angeles Temple show the raising of the angel Moroni statue and the intricate design work of the doors. Lower left and right: Detail of a door of the Salt Lake Temple and workers quarrying stone for the temple.

[photos] Scaffolding around the St. George Temple allowed construction workers to whitewash the upper stories. Below: Iron wedges such as these were inserted in holes drilled in the granite face of Little Cottonwood Canyon and pounded until blocks split from the stone face.

[photos] Left: Scaffolding around a spire of the Salt Lake Temple. Clockwise above: Top photos show construction stages of the Manti Temple, whose foundation was built into the stone quarry; tickets issued for Salt Lake Temple dedicatory sessions; and the completed Logan Temple.

[photos] The beehive, an early symbol of industry in Utah, was used to adorn the portals of the St. George Temple. The beehives were made by forming gray plaster rings over a red sandstone base, which was then whitewashed. Left: Ground survey equipment such as this was used during the 19th century.

[photos] Early-20th-century temple building used advances in engineering, such as steel framing covered with reinforced concrete. The Arizona Temple, above, demonstrates the most noticeable design change for temples built during this period: the absence of towers or spires. Right: This bas-relief sculpture of Christ with disciples beautifies the exterior of the Oakland Temple.

[photos] Scenes of mid-20th-century temples, clockwise above: Oakland Temple dedication with, from left, Joseph Fielding Smith, Hugh B. Brown, President David O. McKay, and N. Eldon Tanner; painting murals at the Los Angeles Temple; workers setting steps at the London Temple; and laying the cornerstone of the Swiss Temple.

[photos] The New Zealand Temple, shown here during an early construction phase, included on site a school and an accommodation center for temple patrons. Below: President Heber J. Grant at the dedication of the Alberta Temple.

[photos] Present-day temples reflect graceful lines and arches, such as these at the Bountiful Temple, above, made possible by contemporary construction techniques. (Photo by John Luke.) Below: Baptismal font under construction for the Washington [D.C.] Temple.

[photos] The angel Moroni statue from the Washington [D.C.] Temple symbolically calls to all nations as temple building continues the world over. Above: The Hong Kong Temple was adapted to local conditions by providing innovative use of limited space. (Photo by Craig Dimond.) Clockwise from top left: Architectural details from the Lima Peru Temple; the spacious courtyard at the Manila Philippines Temple; a special postage stamp portraying the Nuku‘alofa Tonga Temple, issued to mark the Church’s centennial in that country; and workers preparing the Mexico City Temple.

Brad Westwood, an archivist-historian in Special Collections and Manuscripts at Brigham Young University’s Harold B. Lee Library, serves as Gospel Doctrine teacher in the Hobble Creek Sixth Ward, Springville Utah Hobble Creek Stake.

Show References


  1.   1.

    D&C 88:119.

  2.   2.

    D&C 128:22, 24.

  3.   3.

    “The Salt Lake Temple,” Contributor, Apr. 1893, 249.

  4.   4.

    Discourses of Brigham Young, sel. John A. Widtsoe (1978), 395.

  5.   5.

    Contributor, Apr. 1893, 264.

  6.   6.

    Wilford Woodruff Journals, 31 Dec. 1862, Historical Department, Archives Division, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints; hereafter cited as LDS Church Archives.

  7.   7.

    D&C 124:37.

  8.   8.

    James E. Talmage, “Why Do the Latter-day Saints Build Temples?” Improvement Era, June 1914, 721.

  9.   9.

    D&C 132:15.

  10.   10.

    D&C 138:48.

  11.   11.

    See Sheri L. Dew, Go Forward with Faith: The Biography of Gordon B. Hinckley (1996), 176–78.

  12.   12.

    See Dew, Go Forward with Faith, 176–84; Paul L. Anderson, “Oral History of Edward O. Anderson,” 12 Dec. 1973, The James Moyle Oral History Program, LDS Church Archives, 1–6.

  13.   13.

    President Kimball announced the construction of seven temples in 1980, nine in 1981, and four in 1982 (1983 Deseret News Church Almanac [1982]), 243.

  14.   14.

    Gordon B. Hinckley Journal, 11 June 1992, published in Dew, Go Forward with Faith, 481.

  15.   15.

    D&C 124:34.