Stained Glass a Curiosity in Latter-day Saint Chapels

Stained Glass a Curiosity in Latter-day Saint Chapels

This article originally appeared in Vol.66, No.2 (2019) of Pioneer Magazine. by Bridger Talbot

The use of by The Church of Jesus I Christ of Latter-day Saints, especially in its meetinghouses, has not been studied as often I as other aspects of Latter-day Saint architecture. Indeed, even members of the Church of Jesus Christ are largely unaware of the use of stained glass in chapels. At present, no official registry of stained glass is publicly available, and even some of the better-known windows in Church chapels have unclear origins and histories.1 This article provides an overview of historical stained-glass windows in Latter-day Saint meetinghouses and tells how they have been modified or adapted over the years.

The Use of Stained Glass

The earliest examples of stained glass being incorporated in Church buildings are from the late 1800s. Joyce Janetski writes that the patterned windows in the Millcreek Ward chapel were brought to Utah by oxcart in 1866 and mark the first use of such glass in Church architecture—but documentation is thin.2

It is nevertheless true that, even with the arrival of the railroad in 1869, stained glass would not become popular in Utah for another twenty years. Among the earliest uses of stained glass by Latter- day Saints are windows in the Salt Lake Fourth Ward (1888) and in the Assembly Hall on Temple Square (1893).3 Other windows may date from this period. The Coalville Tabernacle, for example, was built in 1883, and its stained glass was likely installed soon afterward. But the lack of documentation makes it difficult to pinpoint dates.

The use of stained glass rapidly increased at the beginning of the twentieth century. Only a handful of meetinghouses incorporated stained glass before 1900, but between 1900 and 1910 at least sixteen additional buildings followed suit.4 And between 1910 and 1930, another forty Church buildings adopted stained glass. While most Church stained glass is found in buildings in Utah, scattered examples appear in chapels of Church buildings in Idaho, Arizona, Nevada, California, and Toronto, Canada. An early-era Washington, DC, meetinghouse with stained glass has been sold.

Each Latter-day Saint stained-glass window has a unique history, but in most cases, such windows were the gifts of generous donors. Annie D. Watkins donated to the Salt Lake Seventeenth Ward the cost of a large, gothic-style chapel window depicting the First Vision5 (seepage 9, this issue). The chapel window in the Salt Lake Eighteenth Ward building was donated by ward member John T. Caine,6 while windows in the chapel of the Salt Lake Twenty-ninth Ward were donated by the bishop.7 The window in an early meetinghouse in Santa Monica, California, was donated by the McCune family of Salt Lake City.8

Many windows were donated in memory of other people. A window in the Twelfth and Thirteenth Ward (Salt Lake City) building, depicting Christ and His Apostles, was a gift honoring the donors parents.’ In memory of his son who passed away as a small child, Eugene Christensen donated to the Yale Ward (Salt Lake City) a window depicting Christ knocking at the door.10 In memory of their husbands, two widows donated to the Murray First Ward a window of a haloed Christ.11

Sometimes congregations acted as group donors to raise funds for stained-glass windows for their buildings. In 1938 Mary Louise Bunker, a young woman in the Alhambra Ward in California, was told by her Young Women leaders that they were going to raise money for a stained-glass window for their chapeL The group sold Christmas cards, donuts, and cupcakes to raise money to install a window of Christ.12

Traits and Patterns in Latter- day Saint Stained Glass

The types and patterns of stained glass found in chapels of Latter-day Saint meetinghouses vary greatly depending on the location and architecture of the building and when the glass was installed. The earliest stained-glass windows across the Mormon Corridor tended to be gothic windows. Examples are those in the buildings of the Salt Lake Second Ward, Provo Third Ward, and Payson Second Ward. Other buildings adopted the prairie style, installing stained- glass windows grouped in horizontal bands featuring geometric patterns. Such windows are found in buildings of the Salt Lake Eighth Ward, Parowan Third Ward, and Brigham City Fifth Ward. A few Latter-day Saint stained-glass windows are unique. The Kaysville Tabernacle (Utah) features neoclassical windows, the Huntington Park Ward (California) building has mission-style windows, and windows in the Wilshire Ward (California) building follow Art Deco style.

While the majority of early Latter-day Saint windows are patterned and feature geometric or abstract designs, some of these integrate religious iconography into the patterns. A significant number of early windows are pictorial and portray specific religious events. Many Church windows feature traditional Christian symbols or icons alongside imagery unique to Latter-day Saints.

One of the most common stained-glass images in Latter-day Saint chapels is that of Christ knocking at the door. At least seven such windows are still in place, including those in buildings of the Yale Ward (Salt Lake City), the Weston Ward (Idaho), and the Wilshire Ward (Los Angeles, California). Other windows depict Christ as the Good Shepherd or praying in Gethsemane or inviting His followers to “Come Unto Me.” Such windows were easily ordered from firms in the eastern United States or Europe that catered to mainstream Christian tastes and understanding. But sometimes mainstream tastes were an awkward fit with Latter-day Saints. The depiction of Christ in a window in the Murray First Ward (Utah) chapel, fer example, employs a haloed head and softer features than appear in most portrayals of Christ embraced by Latter-day Saints.

Many Latter-day Saint pictorial windows— and those throughout Christendom—are adapted from famous Christian paintings. This means that windows in altogether different buildings may seem nearly identical in appearance despite their having been created by different firms in different years. Buildings of the Binghamton (Tucson, Arizona), Bonneville (Salt Lake City), and Farmington (New Mexico) Wards all have windows based on Heinrich Hoffmann’s Christ in Gethsemane (1890).15 The windows were purchased in 1927,1949, and 1957, respectively, yet are remarkably similar. A window in the old Millcreek Ward (Salt Lake City) building was derived from Bernhard Plockhorst’s The Good Shepherd (ca, 1885), as was the window recently installed in the Provo City Center Temple, originally made ca. 1900 for a Presbyterian church,14

Uniquely Latter-day Saint religious scenes can be found in various chapels. In Salt Lake City, two chapels—the Second Ward and the Seventeenth Ward- feature a magnificent depiction of Joseph Smith’s First Vision modeled after the original gothic-style Tiffany window in the Holy of Holies in the Salt Lake Temple.15 The Brigham City Third Ward and Salt Lake Liberty Ward (both Utah) have similar “First Vision’’ windows, as once did the San Bernardino Ward and Adams Ward (Los Angeles) buildings in Southern California.16 Other uniquely Latter-day Saint pictorial windows depict Joseph receiving the gold (dates from the Angel Moroni—as in meetinghouse chapels in Santa Monica and Redondo Beach, California—or, in the case of the Cedar City Second Ward (Utah) chapel, a natural landmark with spiritual implications—The Great White Throne in nearby Zion National Park.

Latter-day Saint stained glass may also emphasize brief scriptural passages or other language central to indigenous belief. The Pleasant Grove Second Ward (Utah) had a window reading “The Glory of God is Intelligence,” taken from Doctrine and Covenants 130:18; windows in the Rexburg Tabemade (Idaho) display the initials “LDS,” and the Twenty-first Ward (Salt Lake City) has a window that reads, “Prayer is the Soul’s Sincere Desire.”

As previously mentioned, traditional Christian iconography—an opened Bible, clasped hands, the Greek letters for Alpha and Omega, bundles of wheat, a chalice, doves, anchors, an olive branch, grapes, oil lamps, and crowns—is often depicted in Latter-day Saint stained glass alongside iconography unique to the Church, including the beehive, the sego lily, seagulls. Latter-day Saint scriptures, and temples.17 The crown depicted in a window in the Richfield First Ward (Utah) building is missing the cross that generally accompanies it in traditional Christian church windows. Indeed, the Church’s emphasis on a living, resurrected Christ has limited the appearance of the cross in stained-glass or other Latter-day Saint media. Elder Henry D. Moyle of the Quorum of the Twelve requested that, in the Liberty Ward (Salt Lake City) building, two window panels—each depicting a cross—be removed from either side of a central First Vision window.1* President David O. McKay once refused a donated stained glass window that depicted angels with wings.19 President Heber J. Grant was unhappy with a window in the San Bernardino Ward (California) building, since its depictions of the Father and the Son were not exactly alike—in contrast to information in Joseph Smith’s History.20

The Decline of Stained Glass Use

Latter-day Saint use of stained glass declined significantly after the 1920s. The author has found only a handful of buildings that installed stained-glass windows during the 1930s; even fewer installations occurred during the 1940s and 1950s. The decline in stained-glass use within the Church followed national trends resulting from the Great Depression and the austerity accompanying World War II. Christian congregations across the country were hard-pressed to fund stained glass in their buildings. Too, during the 1920s the Church had begun standardizing plans for ward meetinghouses, plans that—by the 1930s— deliberately avoided stained glass or other luxuries.21 By 1940 Church leaders were calling for even greater frugality. In his opening address of General Conference in April of that year, J. Reuben Clark, Jr., of the First Presidency of the Church, declared, “We have a tendency, I think, to make our buildings just a little too elaborate and too ornate.”22 The use of standardized plans accelerated during the 1950s, particularly after 1954, when the Church Building Committee was formed.23 Stained-glass installations were the exception rather than the rule during this time—and have remained so ever since.

Indeed, one of the most recent Latter-day Saint examples of an elaborate stained-glass window installation was tied to the building of the Fairfield Stake Center (California) in 1977—and that was more than forty years ago. Initially Fairfield Stake leaders had received Church permission to purchase a building owned by another reli gious denomination, and members had raised funds to replace its stained-glass panels with ones having Latter-day Saint iconography and themes. When the church building was not purchased and a new stake center was constructed instead, one of the newly commissioned windows was placed at the front of its chapel.24 In other rare cases where stained-glass windows have been installed in Church meetinghouses since the mid-1950s, the windows are generally historic artifacts preserved from buildings that were sold or demolished.23

Historic Windows in Modern Settings

By the 1960s the Church owned a growing number of aging buildings in need of repair or replacement Tensions grew between preservationists, who sought to save historic Church buildings, and those who saw preservation as inefficient or unfeasible.

These responses were tied to larger cultural disputes throughout the United States, disputes that eventually led to the passage of the National Historic Preservation Act in 1966.*

For a variety of reasons, Church leaders are not governed by an overarching preservation policy, but instead determine, on a case-by-case basis, whether to preserve, upgrade, sell, or raze older buildings. A similar course of action is followed with the furnishings of such buildings, including (if relevant) their stained-glass windows. Sometimes stained glass is removed from a building before it is sold or razed; sometimes the glass is sold or destroyed along with the building.17

In a few cases—such as that involving the old San Bernardino Ward (California) building- local members have purchased back stained-glass windows from the buyers of older Church buildings, making the windows available for future Church use.1* Shortly before the razing of the historic meetinghouse of the Eighteenth Ward (Salt Lake City), ward member Chris Fonnesbeck purchased its stained glass windows, pulpit, and steeple. When the historic meetinghouse was reconstructed as an events hall on state property near the Utah State Capitol Building by a preservationist group, the windows, pulpit, and steeple were incorporated within it And when the Manti North Ward (Utah) building was sold by the Church, its large stained-glass window was removed, disassembled, and preserved by a local heritage group for possible future use.19

Occasionally, Church leaders determine to fund the incorporation of stained glass from old buildings into new ones. When such decisions are made, the presentation of the windows may necessarily change, given architectural and other differences between older and newer buildings. For example, while the new Twenty-first Ward (Salt Lake City) building was custom-designed to house stained glass from the original building, half the original windows were hung in the new chapel and half in classrooms on the opposite end of the building. The stained glass preserved from the old La Union Stake Tabemade (Oregon) has been incorporated within the chapels of several newer meetinghouses across eastern Oregon. And when the original Springville Second Ward (Utah) building was destroyed by fire in 2006, its pipe organ and stained- glass windows were miraculously preserved and later incorporated into the new Dry Creek Stake Center (Springville), dedicated in 2010.®

Additionally, some windows, when moved to new buildings, no longer serve as windows but as artificially lighted art pieces. Windows in meetinghouse chapels of the Seventeenth Ward and Le- Grande Ward (both Salt Lake City), Provo Pioneer First Ward (from the old Provo Third Ward), Sego Lily Ward (Lehi; from the old Lehi Fourth Ward), and Redondo Beach Ward (California) are all “interior windows” not visible from outside the buildings, and lit from behind by light panels that may be dimmed to control brightness.

In contrast to these, a large stained-glass window depicting Christ is mounted on the exterior of the Murray First Ward (Utah) building. Also illuminated electronically, the window is not visible from the building’s interior; outside, it is most visible at night In still another variation on uses, the largest of three original stained-glass windows from Utah’s historic Coalville Tabernacle, now demolished, hangs without illumination behind the pulpit of the new stake center in Coalville, existing primarily as a beautiful picture. Two additional stained-glass windows from the tabemade flank the new pulpit- each illuminated by natural light from without.

While stained-glass windows are no longer standard elements of Latter-day Saint chapels, they continue as a vital part of temples of the Church of Jesus Christ. This fact emphasizes the sacred, unique, and even ethereal elements of temple architecture and worship. Historic stained-glass windows in buildings across the Mormon Corridor similarly highlight the reverence that early Saints felt for their places of worship and for the God that had blessed and preserved them.


  1. Information in this article comes from the author’s registry of stained-glass windows in Latter-day Saint meetinghouses. The list is not comprehensive and reflects the author’s own research and travels. As far as possible, each stained-glass panel is referenced by the name of the building where it originally hung. See Idspioneerarchitecture. blogspot.com/
  2. Joyce A. Janetski/A History, Analysis, and Registry of Mormon Architectural Art Glass in Utah ‘M A thesis, University of Utah, June 1981,175-6. The old Millcreek Ward building no longer stands; its original windows may be those now hanging in the Stratford Ward (Salt Lake City).
  3. Janetski 120,259.
  4. Because of challenges in documenting early Latter-day Saint stained-glass use, this is likely a low estimate.
  5. The Story of the Salt Lake Stake of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints: 150 Years of History 1847-1997 (Salt Lake Stake, 1997), 217. Gothic windows have a peaked arch, long sides, and a flat bottom, and may include three interior arches, the middle one higher than (and often “floating above”) those on either side.
  6. Ruby K. Smith, One Hundred Years in the HeartofZion:A Narrative History of the Eighteenth Ward (1961) 59.
  7. Fawn P. Burt and Herbert Gorzitze, The First 60 Years of the Twenty-ninth Ward in Salt Lake City (1964), 17.
  8. Leo J. Muir, A Century of Mormon Activities in California, Volume 1: Historical (1952), 117; Rulon H. Cheney, “Chapel in Ocean Park Dedicated,” Improvement Era (Nov 1922): 47.
  9. The window, on display at the Church History Museum, has an explanation stating: “This window was a gift from Mary Ellen Spencer Lonsdale to the Salt Lake Twelfth-Thirteenth Ward in memory of her parents, John and Mary Ann Butler Spencer.”
  10. A Tradition of Excellence: Salt Lake Bonneville Stake, 79357975(1977), 147.
  11. Janetski 185.
  12. Mary Louise Bunker, interview with author, 25 Feb 2016.
  13. Salt Lake Bonneville Stake 51; Catherine H. Ellis, Latter-day Saints in Tucson (2013), 76.
  14. Mormon Newsroom, “Provo City Center Temple Ready for Public Tours,” 11 Jan 2016, online.
  15. While the composition of each of the windows is different, the figures themselves are very similar.
  16. The picture in the Liberty Ward seems identical to the one in the Adams Ward, although it is much smaller, suggesting a shared design or designer. The Adams Ward window is now displayed in the Church History Museum; the San Bernardino Ward window hangs in the lobby of the Redlands California Temple. The author has documented seven First Vision windows in Latter-day Saint buildings, and there are likely more.
  17. Portrayals of a beehive appear in windows in at least nine different ward buildings. Windows once hanging in the Washington DC Ward and Casper Wyoming Ward buildings depicted the Book of Mormon.
  18. Bishop 0. H. Nelson recounted that Elder Moyle asked if the building itself was originally built by the Church (it was), and then asked that the crosses—which he referred to as “Catholic emblems”—be removed. A local member replaced them with small panels containing a beehive, sego lily, and rose (Janetski 180-1). Nevertheless, there are still two windows in the Liberty Ward building—outside the chapel—with crosses at the bottom, the only two documented Latter-day Saint windows with crosses.
  19. Janetski 88.
  20. Janetski 99.
  21. Martha Sonntag Bradley,”The Church and Colonel Sanders: Mormon Standard Plan Architecture,” MA thesis, Brigham Young University, Aug 1981,47.
  22. J. Reuben Clark, Jr., untitled address, subsection “Economy in Erection of Buildings,”Conference Reports, April 1940,17.
  23. Bradley 59.
  24. Thomas E. Clark, letter to the author, 27 Mar 2016.
  25. Larry E. Rust, in an e-mail to the author, 20 Jun 2016, describes one such case involving the old Millcreek Ward building and the new building of the Stratford Ward (both Salt Lake City).
  26. “Laying the Preservation Framework: 1960-1980,”National Park Service: History, online.
  27. Previous buildings used by the Heber Second Ward, Logan Sixth Ward, Provo Fourth Ward, and Washington DC Ward, among others, represent cases where existing glass was sold along with the building. In such cases, it was believed that the relationship between the relevant glass and building needed to be preserved.
  28. Stained glass in the old San Bernardino Ward (California) building, including a depiction of the First Vision along with twelve smaller windows, was sold with the building in 1960. In 1978, a local member, Charles Eastwood, succeeded in purchasing the First Vision window from the new owner; the other twelve windows were also purchased. The First Vision window now hangs in the Redlands Temple (see n. 16 above), two of the smaller windows are in a newer local meetinghouse, and the remaining ten windows are privately owned. See Marilyn Mills, “History of the Chapels in San Bernardino ofThe Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints” (2011), 5-6, online.
  29. Shannon D. Miller, e-mail to the author, 5 Dec 2015.
  30. Locals assert that one pair of windows from the old Springville Second Ward (Utah) building was installed in a Payson, Utah, meetinghouse constructed after the Springville fire.
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