The building of the Nauvoo Temple was “an event of the greatest importance to the Church and the world,” wrote the Prophet Joseph Smith.1 In September of 1842 he issued a rallying call and affirmed the importance of temple ordinances: “The earth will be smitten with a curse unless there is a welding link of some kind or other between the fathers and the children. … For we without them cannot be made perfect; neither can they without us be made perfect. … Brethren, shall we not go on in so great a cause? Go forward and not backward. Courage, brethren; and on, on to the victory! Let your hearts rejoice, and be exceedingly glad” (D&C 128:18, 22).
Such was the motivation for the Saints as they willingly sacrificed everything to complete the temple and receive their endowments and sealings before being driven from Nauvoo. The written accounts of those who participated in this effort reveal their love for the Lord and their reverence for His house. It is a story filled with trials and triumph.
At the October 1840 conference, the Prophet called upon all to help. Though some of the construction would require payment, he explained that the temple would be built by the tithes of the people and that male members would perform nearly all the labor. The response of one of the stonecutters, Charles Lambert, was typical. He “committed with Brother William Player that [he] would stick to the temple pay or no pay until finished and did.”2
The extent to which the Saints sacrificed is recorded in a letter from the Twelve: “Many have volunteered to labor continually, and the brethren generally are giving one-tenth part of their time, or one-tenth part of their income, according to circumstances; while … sisters … are knitting socks and mittens, and preparing garments for the laborers, so that they may be made as comfortable as possible during the coming winter.”3
Mercy Fielding Thompson told of her experience: “At one time after seeking earnestly to know from the Lord if there was anything that I could do for the building up of the Kingdom of God, a most pleasant sensation came over me with the following words. Try to get the Sisters to subscribe one cent per week for the purpose of buying glass and nails for the Temple. I went immediately to Brother Joseph. … He told me to go ahead and the Lord would bless me.”4 This “penny subscription” soon became a major fund-raising effort.
Others sold their china dishes. Elizabeth Kirby wrote: “I could not think of anything that would grieve me to part with in my possession, except [my deceased husband’s] watch. So, I gave it up to help build the Nauvoo Temple.”5
Louisa Barnes Pratt’s writings reflect the reality of their sacrifice: “I started in good faith to go to the Temple office to bestow my offering. Suddenly a temptation came over me … that [this] money would relieve my present necessities. Then I resisted. Said I, ‘If I have no more than a crust of bread each day for a week, I will pay this money into the treasury.’”6
In August 1840 at the funeral of Seymour Brunson, the Prophet gave the first sermon on baptism for the dead. “The moment I heard of it,” wrote Elder Wilford Woodruff, “my soul leaped with joy; for it was a subject in which I felt deeply interested. I went forward and was baptized for all my dead relatives I could think of.”7
Initially the baptisms were performed in the Mississippi River, but the Saints hastened to prepare the basement of the temple with a temporary wooden font, which rested upon the shoulders of 12 carved oxen. It was dedicated on 8 November 1841.
The faithful Saints rejoiced in the prospect of laboring on behalf of their loved ones who had passed away. Sally Randall expressed her excitement in a letter to her family: “What a glorious thing it is that we … can … save them as far back as we can get any knowledge of them. I want you should write me the given names of all of our connections that are dead as far back as grandfather’s and grandmother’s at any rate. I intend to do what I can.”8
On 4 May 1842 the Prophet Joseph Smith administered for the first time what we know as the temple endowment to nine men in a large upper room of his red brick store. Elder Heber C. Kimball, who was present in those sacred councils, wrote to fellow Apostle Parley P. Pratt, “We have received some precious things through the Prophet on the priesthood that would cause your Soul to rejoice.”9
Though ordinances had been committed initially to just a few, the Prophet Joseph foresaw that “there was nothing made known to these men but what will be made known to all the Saints of the last days, so soon as they are prepared to receive, and a proper place is prepared to communicate them.”10
During this pivotal Nauvoo period, the Prophet also taught of temple sealing ordinances that assured family relationships would continue after the Resurrection. Of this Elder Pratt wrote: “It was at this time [winter 1839] that I received from [the Prophet Joseph Smith] the first idea of eternal family organization, and the eternal union of the sexes in those inexpressibly endearing relationships … which are at the very foundation of everything worthy to be called happiness. …
“I had loved before, but I knew not why. But now I loved—with a pureness—an intensity of elevated, exalted feeling. … I felt that God was my Heavenly Father indeed; that Jesus was my brother, and that the wife of my bosom was an immortal, eternal companion. … My dearly beloved brother, Joseph Smith … had … given me a single glance into eternity.”11
Early in 1844 the Prophet Joseph called together the Quorum of the Twelve and administered to them all the ordinances of the house of the Lord. He proceeded to confer the keys of the sealing power on Elder Brigham Young. The Prophet then declared, “Now if they kill me you have got all the keys, and all the ordinances, and you can confer them upon others.”12
On 27 June 1844, the Prophet and his brother Hyrum were martyred at Carthage. Construction on the temple then stopped, but only briefly.
On 30 November 1845 the attic story was dedicated, and the administering of endowments commenced on 10 December. Over the next eight weeks, about 5,600 Saints received their temple ordinances.
As the pressure to leave Nauvoo increased, President Young addressed the Saints on 3 February 1846. The plan was to leave the next day, but Saints still filled the temple. President Young urged the Saints to return to their homes and prepare for their departure.
In his history, President Young recorded: “Notwithstanding that I had announced that we would not attend to the administration of the ordinances, the House of the Lord was thronged all day, the anxiety being so great to receive. … I … informed the brethren that I was going to get my wagons started and be off. I walked some distance from the Temple supposing the crowd would disperse, but on returning I found the house filled to overflowing. Looking upon the multitude and knowing their anxiety, as they were thirsting and hungering for the word, we continued at work diligently in the House of the Lord. Two hundred and ninety-five persons received ordinances.”13
The first wagons left on 4 February, temple work finally ceased on 8 February, and the great exodus from Nauvoo went forward. Looking back on that remarkable period, Elder Erastus Snow declared, “All felt satisfied that during the two months we occupied [the temple] in the endowment of the Saints, we were amply paid for all our labors in building it.”14
As they journeyed over the Mississippi and began the trek across Iowa, many Saints cast a parting glance backward at their beloved temple and city. Priddy Meeks wrote: “While crossing over a ridge seven miles from Nauvoo we looked back and took a last sight of the Temple we ever expected to see. We were sad and sorrowful.”15
A few Saints remained in Nauvoo to continue work on the temple interior. The temple was dedicated in private on 30 April 1846 and in public the following May morning.
Never fully finished, the temple was set on fire by arsonists on 9 October 1848. The building was destroyed, but the “great cause” for which it had been built lived on in thousands of Latter-day Saints who had received their endowments and sealings and performed baptisms for their deceased ancestors.
“And the light will not go out,” wrote Elder Woodruff, referring to the future opportunity for covenant making. “The Saints had labored faithfully and finished the temple and were now received as a Church with [their] dead. This is glory enough for building the Temple.”16