Nauvoo: A Temple Reborn


Once again a temple stands overlooking the Mississippi, a holy house where today’s Latter-day Saints can serve their God.

Nauvoo:

As Latter-day Saint pioneers left Nauvoo in 1846, many looked back longingly at the temple they left behind. For some, the sight of the temple on the hill above the Mississippi River may have been their last mental picture of their beautiful city.

If they could gaze on the same spot today, they would recognize the temple that stands there now. The new Nauvoo Illinois Temple has been made to look like the first one. Yet under the surface it is a thoroughly modern working temple.

Planning and building were preceded by thorough research on the first Nauvoo Temple: examination of photographs, written descriptions, and drawings, including some donated by the descendants of William Weeks, architect of the earlier temple. “Piecing everything together, we think the outside of the new temple is as close as humanly possible to the original,” said Keith Stepan, managing director of the Temple Construction Department.

The most immediately visible difference would be the standing angel on top of the new temple instead of a horizontal angel as on the original. Other than that, observers might have difficulty detecting differences between the Nauvoo Illinois Temple dedicated in June of this year and the one seen in photographs or drawings from the 1840s.

The stone on the outside of the new temple was carefully chosen to have, as nearly as possible, the same color and texture as the limestone of the original temple. But the stone for the new temple came to Nauvoo after journeying through several other states. Quarries near Nauvoo from which stone was taken for the original temple are flooded now, and limestone from those quarries was found not to be the most durable. Stone for the new temple was taken from quarries in Alabama; transported to Idaho Falls, Idaho, for cutting into blocks; then shipped to skilled carvers in several cities, including Salt Lake City, for carving.

The carvers used modern methods to recapture designs and decorative features created for the original temple. Glass fiber molds were made from sunstones and moonstones preserved from the earlier temple so modern carvers could have patterns to reproduce these works of art. Toolmakers had to design and build steel tools that could make the basket weave pattern found on stones from the walls of the original temple.

The new temple was not built with stone piled on stone and cemented, as was the original. Instead, the exterior of the new temple is a stone facing created by modern methods that fasten it securely in place. The superstructure of the new temple is concrete, to meet modern construction codes. The more than 10,000 hand-tooled stones on its exterior were “panelized” before being put into place. They were mounted on stainless steel frames with stainless steel fasteners, and the panels were then hoisted into position and secured to the walls of the temple.

Despite the use of modern methods and tools, today’s stone carvers took almost the same amount of time as the original craftsmen to re-create the carved sunstones, moonstones, and other features on the temple. That is because of the individual artistry that went into the work. No two of these carved stone features are exactly alike.

Similar attention has gone into re-creating other exterior details such as the temple’s clock tower and its windows, including the row of red, white, and blue windows installed just under the roofline. The temple’s windows were built in Nauvoo by a local craftsman who employed the same processes used to create the original windows. The glass put into the new windows was also cast by the same process used in the 1840s (see accompanying story on page 23).

The interior of the temple, however, is a different story.

“The inside is a modern temple that works for modern needs,” Brother Stepan said. The baptismal font on the lower level resembles the one in the original temple; the new font rests on the backs of 12 carved stone oxen. On the temple’s ground floor and upper levels, however, are ordinance rooms and six sealing rooms that serve the purposes of temples as we know them now. There are also ancillary rooms associated with temple operations, and there is a separate mechanical building as well.

While the first Nauvoo Temple had spiral stairways in two corners, this temple has only one, built as a reflection of the first temple’s design. The new temple also has modern fire alarm and suppression systems and other electrical and cooling systems. Lighting levels in the temple will be somewhat lower than in other temples, however, reminiscent of the candle lighting in the original temple.

There are other parallels, less visible but important, between the building of the original Nauvoo Temple and the new temple.

“When the Saints built the first temple, they gave it their all,” Brother Stepan said. They sacrificed in their poverty to help pay for materials, and they donated much of the labor. While conditions were much less harsh during the building of the new temple, modern Saints have nevertheless been generous in their donations.

More than 77,000 hours of labor were donated during construction of today’s Nauvoo Illinois Temple, much of it by skilled craftspeople who took time away from their regular jobs—plumbers, electricians, and others. A retired painter who had worked in the Salt Lake Temple and was serving a mission in Nauvoo stayed on after that mission ended to work on the new temple. A Church Educational System instructor from Washington state came to donate his labor during parts of two summers. He was just one of many members who donated labor on the temple out of love for what it represents (see accompanying story on page 19).

Throughout the Church, members who could not work on the temple gratefully donated funds toward its construction. Some larger donations made possible the purchase of specific items like a piano, carpeting, the angel, and even the bell for the tower of the new temple. The latter donation seemed almost like an echo of the purchase of the bell for the first Nauvoo Temple by Saints from the British Isles.

And that echo reflects the unique place of this newest temple in the Church. It is old as well as new. Like all temples of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, it is a joyful gift of members to a kind Eternal Father and His Beloved Son, who made possible the everlasting blessings available in the house of the Lord. But this temple also is in part a loving tribute to those Saints who helped the young Church put down spiritual roots and flourish. They looked with faith and hope to the future at a time when their present seemed clouded and grim. The new Nauvoo Illinois Temple is for them as well.

Original Nauvoo Temple

  • Dimensions: Approximately 128 feet by 88 feet; top of spire, 165 feet

  • Cornerstone laying: 6 April 1841, President Joseph Smith presiding

  • Dedication: privately, 30 April 1846; publicly, 1–3 May 1846

New Nauvoo Illinois Temple

  • Dimensions: Approximately 128 feet by 88 feet; top of spire, approximately 163 feet

  • Groundbreaking: 24 October 1999, President Gordon B. Hinckley presiding

  • Cornerstone laying: 5 November 2000, President Gordon B. Hinckley presiding

  • Dedication: 27–30 June 2002

Testimonies of the Temple

The new Nauvoo Illinois Temple was changing lives even before its dedication. A number of members who worked on the temple gained added strength for their testimonies, and there was at least one baptism—a young painter from a Latter-day Saint background who had not been baptized as a child. He became interested in the gospel through associating with Church members while working on the temple.

Some 140 of the people who worked on the temple during its construction were volunteers who arranged their personal affairs so they could donate their time. The volunteer program was coordinated by Elder Stan and Sister Mary Hemphill. The volunteers included retirees, students or teachers who had time off, a local doctor, nurses, and a businessman and a judge from other states. A handful of them worked for more than a year.

Following are experiences of just a few of the volunteers.

Dean Lewis. When Brother Lewis retired from his job as a mechanical engineer, he and his wife, Margaret, moved from Virginia to Macomb, Illinois, to live in their fifth-wheel trailer near the Nauvoo Temple. They made periodic trips to the site to watch the progress on its construction. Writing about his experiences as a volunteer, Brother Lewis recalled that each time he visited, this thought came: “If I could only go through that gate and put my hand on the wall!” When he was accepted as a volunteer to work on the temple in September 2000, it was a dream come true, even though his job at first was only to clean up trash. During his year and a half working on the temple, he also helped insulate temple windows. He and his wife never missed a day of their assigned work as volunteers despite two separate crashes with deer during the one-hour drive from Macomb to Nauvoo.

Margaret Lewis. Sister Lewis volunteered after seeing her husband’s love of his work. The work was often physically hard, and it made her reflect on the sacrifice of the early pioneers who built the first Nauvoo Temple. Then one day as she started down a hallway toward the center of the temple while no one else was inside the building, Psalm 46:10 [Ps. 46:10] came to her mind—“Be still, and know that I am God”—and she stopped to ponder what she was doing there. “Those moments of silence left me feeling strong and confident. I was up to the task before me, whatever it might be. Someone stronger and greater and with more power was in control.”

Ashlee Taft. Sister Taft, daughter of one of the officers of an electrical contracting firm involved in the project, came to Nauvoo from Utah with her family. She was caught up in the spirit of the place and volunteered several days of labor on the temple. “There is a definite feeling, a spirit about these sacred grounds. At times I would have an intense feeling of companionship come over me,” she wrote. “Once as I was gathering some tools, wandering from floor to floor, I had a great sense of thankfulness rush over me like a swift breeze. I couldn’t pray intently enough to express my thanks.”

Margaret Valenta. Daughter of a former construction company owner, Sister Valenta surprised workers on the job who thought this small woman volunteer wouldn’t last more than a day. She knew how to do the work, how to use the tools, and soon she was offered a full-time job. But she declined. Working on the temple was a labor of love. She recalls reverently touching the words on the face of the building, “Holiness to the Lord,” and writing in her journal: “I’ve never been this motivated on a construction site. Then again, this is the Lord’s house.” She made friends among the workers and had the opportunity to talk with some about the gospel. Her work as a volunteer ended after two weeks when she had to return to school. Before leaving, she wrote poignantly: “When I start my drive west Monday morning, I’ll be fighting back the tears and pain of having to leave the temple,” and “I can almost understand a small portion of what the early Saints felt for the temple as they left. However, I know I can come back.”

Ray L. Ball. Brother Ball came from Morristown, Indiana, to work as a volunteer. “I was happy to do even the smallest task on cleanup detail or as water boy. It mattered not. I was working on the temple site!” He stayed for 18 months, and his background in electronics proved so valuable that one of the contractors hired him when the volunteer program ended as the temple was nearing completion. Brother Ball was delighted with the opportunity to continue his work. As he looked back on his experiences, he said: “I went from sweeping the floors in the basement to lighting the dome. I feel honored to have had a small part in rebuilding the Nauvoo Temple, the first house of the Lord in this dispensation.”

Seeing 1845 in Windows of 2002

The windows in the new Nauvoo Illinois Temple offer a beautiful example of what was required to re-create the look of the original building while meeting modern construction standards.

Their elegant artistry disguises the fact that they are double-paned, insulated windows built to provide protection from cold and wind at standards that would have been beyond the capabilities of pioneer builders.

In constructing the new windows, craftsmen used materials as much as possible like those in the original windows. The stands of Wisconsin pine that provided wood for the original windows are gone now, so the wood in the new windows is sugar pine from California. Mouth-blown glass, made by an 800-year-old process, was imported from France for the clear windows and from Germany for the colored ones. But behind each pane of this glass is a modern one—its twin in the double-paned construction.

The windows were created in the shop of Charles Allen in Nauvoo. As a builder, Brother Allen was used to having construction supervisors provide specifications and identify the materials to be used. It became apparent early on that this project would be different. When he raised questions about the specifications, he was told by the project architect, “Brother Allen, just make them right.” That’s when Brother Allen realized it would be his responsibility to see that the windows were both historically accurate and worthy of a house of the Lord. “It had to be more of a spiritual pursuit than any other project I had ever worked on,” he said.

As he sought the Lord’s help, it came in various ways. For example, he needed 16,000 board feet of sugar pine and was told that no more than 4,000 could be supplied. Somehow, however, the other 12,000 board feet was found. In designing and building the windows, he often relied on feelings as his guide. If he felt uncomfortable about something, he would redesign it or redo it until he felt comfortable with it, then move on. Approaching his tasks prayerfully, “I just kept finding ways to improve.”

The glass was cut in New Hampshire, according to his specifications, then brought to Nauvoo for assembly in the windows. The work of Brother Allen and his helpers was painstaking. There are 4,191 double-paned pieces of glass in the temple windows, he said, and “I hand-puttied every one of them myself. That was my final quality check.” Then the wood in the windows was painted with four coats of primer and paint from a firm in Holland that has been making the highest-quality paint products for 300 years. The finished windows had to be good enough for such a sacred building.

Someone suggested that the windows would be a legacy of sorts and asked if Brother Allen might sign his work, perhaps in some obscure place where his signature would never be seen. The answer was, “No! It’s not my building.” The craftsmanship was meant to be a gift to the Lord, and Brother Allen’s goal was to sit at the dedication of the temple feeling comfortable about the quality of the work.

When the last window was put into place, he felt the lifting of a weight of responsibility from his shoulders.

Brother Allen worried in the beginning because he knew he could not produce the perfection this building deserved. Eventually, however, he received an assurance that “all the Lord wants is your best effort. He can make up the difference.”

Charles Allen’s best effort was what he gave. Others may judge, if they will, whether it was enough. His own judgment is modest: “I feel humble to have been asked to produce something like this, far beyond my natural ability.”

[photos] Photography for main article by John Luke and Welden C. Andersen

[photos] Above: The baptism of Jesus depicted in stained glass. Right: Circular stairway, close view of newel-post.

[photos] Left: An interior stairway in the temple, a carved wooden bench from one of the rooms. Inset: Detail of decorative carvings.

[photo] Ashlee Taft, right, with family and friends who volunteered time to work on the temple.

[photos] Photos courtesy Nauvoo Temple Project

[photos] Right: Furnishings of an interior room of the temple. Inset: A doorstop. Below: Detail of a sunburst carving.

[photos] Left: View of an assembly room in the temple. Inset: End of a stairway banister. Below left: An exterior window.

[photo] Photo by Steve Jacobsen