One hundred fifty years ago, the Saints finished building the Nauvoo Temple in Illinois. It wasn’t easy. It took more than five years, during which the Prophet Joseph Smith was murdered, preparations were made for the trek west, and Church members struggled with increasing persecution.
Although the Saints had already been forced to leave the Kirtland Temple because of persecution by their enemies, they dedicated themselves to completing their second temple, the Nauvoo Temple, which the Lord had commanded Joseph Smith and the Saints to build. (See D&C 124:31.) Joseph taught that the sacred ordinances of endowments and marriage sealings, and the performing of temple work for the dead, would be available for every faithful member of the Church as soon as the temple was finished.
The Saints began building it in March 1841; since they had little money to pay workers, it was built mostly by donated labor. Most able-bodied men in Nauvoo worked in the quarry, where the limestone for the temple came from, or on the temple site. Many donated one day in ten as tithing labor. Relief Society sisters helped by sewing clothing and preparing meals for the workers, and by donating one penny a week to the temple fund. Those who were able to do so contributed large sums of money to it. Joseph Toronto handed Brigham Young $2,500 in gold, saying that he “wanted to give himself and all he had” to the Church.*
When the temple was first being built, the Saints thought that at last they had found a place where they could live the gospel and worship in peace. Then, on June 27, 1844, Joseph and Hyrum Smith were murdered in Carthage Jail by an angry mob. Grief-stricken, the members wondered what they would do without Joseph to lead them.
At the time, most of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles were in the east on missions. Two days before the murders, Parley P. Pratt, one of the Twelve, was impressed to leave New York and return to Nauvoo. He learned of the martyrdom on his journey home. As he walked across the plains of Illinois, filled with sorrow and wondering how to comfort the members in Nauvoo, he stopped and prayed for help. He wrote, “The Spirit said unto me: … ‘Go and say unto my people in Nauvoo, that they shall continue … to build the House of the Lord which I have commanded them to build in Nauvoo.’”
Because the members carried on so well and the temple was still being built despite the death of the prophet, anti-Mormons increased their persecution of the members and made attempts to drive away the Saints. And so, on September 24, 1845, the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles announced that the Saints would leave the following spring. Even though the members knew that they would again be forced to leave their temple behind, they worked harder than ever to finish it. They wanted very much to receive its sacred ordinances before moving west.
Rooms in the temple were dedicated as soon as they were completed so that ordinance work could be performed immediately. The October 1845 general conference was held in the partly finished building. Brigham Young offered the opening prayer, calling the temple “a monument of the saints’ liberality [generosity], fidelity, and faith.” He and Heber C. Kimball began giving endowments to faithful Latter-day Saints on December 10, and so many people wanted to receive them that endowment sessions were continued until three o’clock the next morning.
The Church’s enemies, upon seeing all the activity at the temple, tried to have Brigham Young arrested. On December 23, government officials waited outside the temple to arrest him. Learning that they were there, Brigham prayed for guidance and protection so that he could “live to prove advantageous to the Saints.” Then he saw William Miller, a man his same height, nearby.
Brother Miller agreed to act as a decoy. He wore Brigham’s cloak and climbed into Brigham’s carriage. The officers arrested him and took him to the Mansion House, where the Church members also pretended that he was Brigham Young. It wasn’t till his captors had taken him to Carthage that someone identified him! Meanwhile, Brigham Young and the other Apostles had gone into hiding.
The Brethren endowed as many faithful members as possible before leaving Nauvoo. In January 1846, Brigham Young wrote, “Such has been the anxiety manifested by the Saints to receive the ordinances [of the temple], and such the anxiety on our part to administer to them, that I have given myself up entirely to the work of the Lord in the Temple night and day, not taking more than four hours sleep, upon an average, per day, and going home but once a week.”
On February 3, Church leaders had planned to stop the ordinance work. Brigham Young left the temple to make final preparations to leave for the West the next day, but when he saw a large crowd gathered to receive their endowments, he returned to the temple to serve them. This kept him there another two weeks! More than five thousand Saints received their endowments before heading west.
The Nauvoo Temple was dedicated privately on the night of April 30, 1846. Orson Hyde, one of the Twelve Apostles, dedicated it publicly the next day, even though only a few members were still in Nauvoo to see it, most of the Saints having already started the trek west. By the end of the year, the majestic temple stood unused. Two years after the Saints left Nauvoo, an arsonist set fire to the temple, and in 1850 a tornado destroyed three of the walls. The remaining wall was leveled in 1865 for safety reasons.
Soon after the Saints settled in Utah, they began the construction of the Salt Lake, St. George, Manti, and Logan Temples. The St. George Temple, completed in 1877, was the first temple to be built in the west—and the first temple the Saints were not forced to leave.