The Temple of Our God is Completed: Building the St. George Temple

This article originally appeared in Vol.54, No.4 (2007) of Pioneer Magazine.

by Ann Leavitt

Winter, 1870. was comfortable in the mild St. George climate, but he was restless. For almost 20 years, he had struggled to build the Salt Lake Temple. Progress was slow and there had been many setbacks. He was ailing, and it was clear the temple could not be finished in his lifetime. He was worried.

President Young felt the urgency of having a dedicated temple where the fullness of the temple blessings could be administered. Some eternal ordinances for the living had been performed in the Endowment House in Salt Lake City, but there could be no endowment or sealing ordinance work for the dead until a temple was raised unto the Lord.

Years before, the Prophet Joseph Smith had taken him and other Church leaders into a room above his Nauvoo store. There, he carefully instructed them about the various temple ceremonies. “Brother Brigham,” he had said when he was finished, “this is not arranged right, but we have done the best we could under the circumstances in which we are placed, and I want you to take this matter in hand and organize and systematize all these ceremonies.”

Organizing and systematizing were natural gifts of Brigham Young, and he worked to fulfill the assignment. The responsibility to see to the fruition of the work weighed heavily now, as he faced the realities of his diminishing strength and his inevitable departure from this life. So, in the intensity of these hovering concerns, the concept was born. The Saints would build a temple in St. George.

was president of the southern region, but he was, at that time, confined to his own home with severe sciatica. So Brigham Young called for the bishops, high councilors, patriarchs, and other ecclesiastical leaders to come to a meeting at the Snow home on January 31, 1871. As these brethren gathered, President Young, with a “blast from the blue,” stated the reason for the meeting by asking the brethren what they thought of building a temple in St. George…. The bare mention of such a blessing was greeted with “Glory Hallelujah” from President Erastus Snow and reflected the joyous response of all the brethren. To a person, they voiced their excited approval. Not only would the project enable them to do the work for their kindred dead, but it would become an economic lifeline while they struggled to make the country livable.”

In April, the official announcement came to St. George, In an eagerly anticipated letter, Brigham Young announced the temple project and then outlined the practical preparations.

“We wish the Saints in the South to unite their efforts with one heart & one mind for the prosecution of this work. Preparations should be made this summer to gather teams, corn, oats, corn fodder, hay, & in short, all available teams and feed that can be collected & used to advantage on this work. In order to preserve hay, & corn fodder, & to facilitate the shipment from surrounding settlements, we recommend that in St. George, Pine Valley, Kanarra, Pinto, Cedar City, Parowan, Red Creek [Paragonah], Minersville, Beaver & etc, each get up a hay press for baling of hay and fodder. We think it probable that you are sufficiently well provided now with quarry-men and stone masons, Loggers & Lumbermen, and that the work of quarrying rock & getting out timber may commence when they are organized. Should you lack the requisite men, or tools, such as scrapers & etc, to commence the excavation let us know & we will bring them with us. President George A Smith and myself expect to be with you from the 20th to the 25th of October to commence the work.”

President Young and George A. Smith, true to their promise, came in late October to commence the work. Brigham led an entourage of wagons on a searching tour until he had settled upon the site that satisfied him.

The site was surveyed, and the corner and center posts were set. Brigham Young sent out word for the people to gather at noon on Thursday, November 9, 1871, for the groundbreaking and dedication service. It was a grand event. A large crowd gathered more than 40 carriages and wagons filled with excited people. George Stahel’s Swiss Brass Band from Santa Clara played. John McFarlane’s excellent choir from St. George sang “The Spirit of God Like a Fire Is Burning.” George A. Smith’s dedicatory prayers included these stirring words:

“We thank thee, O God, for these barren hills, and for the shelter of these rugged rocks and deserts as peaceful dwelling places for thy Saints Bless this ground upon which this temple is to be erected that it may be held sacred for this purpose; yea, that it never be under the dominion or control of the wicked. Our Father, do thou bless our brother, Erastus Snow, impart unto him wisdom and power to minister to Thy people in this region.”

Erastus Snow would need the wisdom and power that Apostle Smith had prayed for him, for much responsibility for the endless details of the project would fall upon him.

When Brigham spoke, he asked the people to support Erastus Snow and the First Presidency with one heart and one mind, and he called for them to manifest their willingness with uplifted hands. Every hand went up. And so the grand project was launched.

By three o’clock that afternoon, men had returned with whatever implements they possessed to begin the tedious process of excavation with pick and shovel. They began loading dirt, shovelful by shovelful, onto wagons to be drawn away. The digging had not gone far when they realized that the south end of the site was wet and marshy, Edward L. Parry, appointed as the chief mason, wrote of the discovery, “It was so soft in places that a fence pole could be pressed in from twelve to fifteen feet with ease. This caused considerable anxiety as to the best way of making it substantial enough to sustain the enormous weight of the building. ”

Making a firm foundation would require extraordinary measures. George A. Smith recounted their search for a solution for both the soft earth and the foundation:

“President Young, Erastus Snow and myself went in search of rock. We examined both sides of the Black Ridge, west of St. George. … It is black volcanic rock—too hard to be worked with ordinary tools. It was thought by culling over considerable territory that we could find enough to build the foundation and carry the building above the dampness of the ground and mineral when sandstone may be safely used.”

It was a fortunate find. Thousands of tons of the volcanic rock would be laboriously quarried, hauled to the site, and pounded into the marshy ground before the ground would be sufficiently stable to hold the 12-foot thick foundation. The genius of the accomplishment would be William Carter, who contrived a heavy pile driver from a lead-filled cannon and then rigged a horse-powered hoist that could drop it a million times or more, driving the hard rock deep into the soft ground.

Miraculously, it seemed, there were men qualified to match the demanding requirements. Brigham Young appointed Truman O. Angell to create the design. Miles P. Romney, the master builder, became the general building superintendent. Robert Gardner was assigned to be the chief lumberman. Edward L. Parry supervised the stone cutting and the mason work: George Jarvis was responsible for designing and building the scaffolding. Archibald McNeil took charge of the rock quarrying, William Burt headed the plastering and the decoration; Alexander McDonald was the dispenser of commodities from the Tithing Office, and John O. Angus was the timekeeper.

The men of the surrounding valleys, devoted as they were, were a small force compared to what was needed. They needed an army of men: men to quarry stone and men to shape it. Men to manage mule teams to transport the heavy stone. Men to cut timber, men to mill it into lumber, and men to haul it from the mountain to the site. Men to build roads to the quarries and across the desert to the mountains. A call to enlistment went forth through the northern settlements. The Brethren rode from settlement to settlement, declaring the need and summoning help.

All over the territory, the people responded. A dedicated temple was the desire of their collective hearts. The people were willing to make the necessary sacrifices to help the work along. By the time the temple was completed, men and materials had come from more than 50 settlements throughout the territory

As men finished their fall harvest, they left their families to fend for themselves, while they spent the winter months in the various labors of temple building. From Sanpete County came 100 men, 10 or more from each settlement. Their coming left women and children at home to care for farm chores and provide for themselves, Mary Larsen Ahlstrom, home with four children, expecting her fifth, wrote cryptically “Fourteen men were called from Ephraim to go down to St. George to work on the Temple, Peter was one of them. He was away all winter and we got along as best we could. ” The journey itself demanded hardiness, Thomas Crowther of Fountain Green recorded,

“Myself and 10 others were called to spend the winter working on the St. George Temple,… We started on the 10th of November and had a very rough journey. We were caught in a very severe blizzard. Some had their ears and some had their feet frozen. We finally arrived in St. George and spent the winter employed on the Temple….. We were released sometime in March 1874. We returned home feeling well over our labors.”

They came, often not knowing the nature of the labor they’d be assigned. Lars Peter Oveson left his young wife in a small unfinished adobe in Manti. His journal relates,

“That day I was called to go to St. George to work on the Temple as a carpenter, together with a crowd of twelve to fourteen men to work at whatever there was to do. That was my wife’s first experience at living alone.  had been sent down there as a carpenter, but they were not ready for many carpenters. … So I was sent to Mt Trumble [Trumbull] to the sawmill after lumber. This sawmill was on the Buckskin or Kaibab mountain, not far from the Grand Canyon of the Colorado. This was the most beautiful timber I ever saw,”

Oveson’s account of the trip to Mt. Trumbull reveals much about the challenge of obtaining the lumber for the temple. Traveling by oxen-drawn wagons with three of his Manti friends, they made only a few miles each day and twice awakened to find their oxen had strayed in the night. Both times, they searched all day on foot. He writes,

“I followed their tracks back to the river and found all the oxen, I rounded them up and started back towards camp, but it was no small job to drive sixteen head of loose cattle through the hills where there was no road, and the sand was almost ankle deep for most of the way, four or five miles I guess. When I got to camp that night I was about all in. My feet were blistered from toe to heel,”

The return trips took seven days and were fraught with hazards as well, each trip presenting its unique pitfalls. But they kept it up, trip after trip, load after heavy load, until they had furnished the one million board feet of lumber that would go into the studding, joists, floors, pillars, window frames, stairways, and baseboards.

The care and feeding of this army required contributions from the whole of the Church, Surely the poorest of the Saints were those living in the valley where the temple would be built. Where would all these imported men live? How could they be fed?

President Brigham Young ordained that the tithing from Beaver south would be sent to St. George. Most of the tithing would be “in-kind” and would consist of commodities, wheat, and potatoes, chicken or eggs, woven cloth, or knitted socks. There were organized efforts to gather donations in the northern settlements, as well. Priesthood brethren rode through the towns, imploring the people to give what they could. A few days later, wagons would come through to collect the donated supplies and carry them back to St. George.

At Mt. Trumbull, where so many labored at lumbering and a constant stream of wagons came and went, a boardinghouse was built to lodge them. But down in town, where quarrymen and excavators, rock-haulers, and masons worked, a sort of shanty-town grew up around the building site. Some lived in their wagons, some in tents, and others hastily constructed shelters.

Young wrote of the enterprise at Winsor Castle, the fort at Pipe Spring, where his father, Anson P. Winsor, was fattening 2000 head of “tithing and donation” cattle:

“In 1873 we started driving thirty head of beef in twice a month. So many workers were busy laying masonry for the walls. . . . My father came along with us and drove the baggage wagon loaded with butter and cheese made on the ranch. We were milking 100-150 cows during the spring, summer and fall. All this milk was made into cheese and butter, also to feed the temple hands. The cheese ranged in size from 40 to 80 pounds and father took about 13 cheese each trip to St. George.”

There must have been a crew to butcher the beef and a crew to cook it, or perhaps it was dispersed and cooked over campfires, by hungry, weary men, at the close of their day.

The Church established a bakery for the benefit of workers from distant places. A building was constructed, and Joseph Oxborrow and Charles Bennett were the bakers. They became renowned for their good bread and for the enormous cakes they provided for holidays and celebrations.

Celebrations occurred when benchmarks were achieved. On March 10, 1873, the ground was deemed to have been made firm enough from the pounded-in tons of volcanic rock, and the masons had begun laying up the foundation. Almost a year later, on February 21, 1874, the foundation was up to ground level, ready for the red-sandstone walls. On that day a party was held in the Tabernacle for all the temple hands.

Charles Lowell Walker, a remarkable journalist, poet, and songwriter, whose journal on most days began with “At work on the Temple,” wrote songs and poems by request and chronicled nearly every phase of the project in song or verse. He recorded the party to celebrate the foundation:

“21 Feb 1874.”Today the walls were finished to the required height with the black rock and are now ready to receive the red rock. At 7 P.M. I went to a social gathering of the Temple hands held in the Basement of the Tabernacle. , , , Pies and cakes were handed round and wine, all participating in the good feeling which pervaded the assembly. The Brethren of the north expressed themselves highly pleased [with] the treatment they had received while laboring here ”

A little more than a year later, on March 5, 1875, the last red rock was laid to bring the Temple to the square, ready for the roof timbers.

As this stone was set in its place and made firm with mortar, “a tremendous shout of joy [broke] from the workmen. Many congratulations were given to each other and joy seemed to pervade every heart and face. The Brass Band came down and enlivened the ceremony with tunes. The Workmen then formed into line and headed By the band marched up town, [where] they were dismissed with loud cheers for the Boys and Brass Band,”

It seems there was, among the workers, a general spirit of good humor and joy that accompanied the work. Many times an original song or poem bursts forth from Charley Walker, and the feeling is always exuberant.

Once the rock structure reached the square, the carpenters were at work, readying the structure for the roof. The laying of joists for floors, the studding for the walls and hallways of the interior, the laying of floors, and the building of the great circular stairways went ahead at a rapid pace.

The enlistment of workers and the search for provisions and materials never slackened. A new call would be heard at every general conference. In May 1874, George A. Smith spoke from the newly completed Tabernacle. He spoke of the pleasant climate in St. George, the fine fruit grown there, and extolled all the pleasant conditions of the place. Then he said,

“We invite a hundred and fifty of our brethren to go down there this summer to put up this building and find themselves while they are doing it.. ., We call upon the stakes of Zion to find these brethren if they can, who are willing to go and do this work, so that by Christmas the building may be ready for the roof, so that we may in a very short time have a font dedicated, and the ordinances of the holy Melchezidek priesthood performed in that place. We appeal to our brothers and sisters in behalf of this St. George Temple. Our brethren in that vicinity are doing all they can to push forward the work, but five or six months help from a hundred and fifty men is very desirable.”

At the October conference, he appealed again. The people responded to the urging of the General Authorities, John Taylor, in a discourse a few days later, declared:

“I was very much pleased at the meeting we held the other night, to learn that more than 300 men could be found who would go down to St. George, and work as teamsters, stone cutters, carpenters and any other calling necessary to forward the work on the Temple.”

The Deseret News, November 9, 1874, reported that about 50 men from Cache Valley and 30 from Nephi were on their way to St. George to work on the temple. The more men who came, the more challenging was the search for food to keep them nourished. Erastus Snow wrote to C. J. Arthur of Cedar City to say that the grain they had sent was gone and to ask how many potatoes they could send. He also suggested that the Cedar City men haul the potatoes down since every available team was engaged in the building. Wrote President Snow:

“I hereby extend to the brethren of Cedar the privilege of donating to the Temple by hauling Tithing potatoes to the place, or donating potatoes with or without hauling them, all of which will be just as acceptable as though they worked on the Temple ground.”

While the building progressed toward completion in St. George, the baptismal font and the 12 oxen upon which it would be mounted, were being cast in Salt Lake City at the excellent Davis and Howe Foundry. The font, at a cost of $5000, was a gift from President Brigham Young. Gifted craftsmen, Nathan Davis and Amos Howe had arrived in Salt Lake City and had formed their business just in time for the assignment. It speaks again of the right men raised up in the right place, at the right time.

Transporting the font and oxen the 300 miles to St. George was a dramatic undertaking. The heavy cargo, weighing 18,000 pounds, was shipped by rail as far as the railroad extended, somewhere near Spanish Fork. From there, it required three specially built oxen-drawn wagons and six strong men. As the wagon train passed through the towns, it created something of an event in each place, with the teamsters being royally entertained with the best of the townspeople’s hospitality.

Only the bishops in the wards they passed through were allowed to view the canvas-covered font and oxen. One of the company of young men, C.L. Christensen of Ephraim, wrote of the font delivery,

“We did not leave until all the pieces were put in place and bolted together. Apostle went in and saw the font in place and came out weeping with joy. He thanked God he had lived to see another font in place in a temple of the Lord. He said this people would never be driven from the Rocky Mountains. I believed him, for I had heard him prophesy before. “

The Deseret News frequently reported the progress on the temple.

The Temple of Our God is Completed: Building the St. George Temple
View of north side of temple and annex. Original photograph mount is included on which Charlotte Spackman Sullivan inscribed: “My wedding present given by [photographer] J. Booth, St. George, 1888 May 22nd.”
In mid-December, they reported 90 men putting up 50 tons of rock a day, with another 120 men, stone cutters, fitters, and haulers, at work at the quarry each day. There was often news of President Brigham Young’s presence on the site. All were aware of his eagerness to have the work move as rapidly as possible.

On Christmas Day, 1876, Charley Walker wrote in his journal,

“At work on the Temple as Br Brigham wishes to have the Basment in readiness for Dedication on New Years day. The sisters are busy sewing the carpet and getting the screen ready. All are busy pushing the good work along.”

The sisters of the southern settlements made rag carpets for the hallways. The Provo Woolen Factory made about a thousand yards of carpets for the rooms. The factory in Washington produced the remainder of the carpets. Fringes for the altars and pulpits were made from Utah-produced silk.

William H. Thompson’s autobiography illustrates Brigham Young’s intensity as Dedication Day neared:

“I had put the boiler into the building for heating purposes, and while at work finishing up. President Brigham Young called me outside and inquired if all would be ready for Monday morning, the day set for the dedication. I assured him that all would be ready. He then said, ‘Brother Thompson, I want you to go in there and work for nothing, board yourself, and stay until it is all finished. Will you do it?’ I replied that I would work in there as long as I had anything to go on. I looked upon it as a mission, and labored without pay until I was down to bedrock.”

On New Year’s Day, 1877, two thousand rejoicing people filed into the temple. Three areas were sufficiently completed to be used: the lower floor with the baptismal font, the main floor area, and one sealing room in the east tower.

They first assembled in the basement level where Elder Woodruff, acknowledging that there was no room to kneel, admonished the people to bow their heads and hearts to God and silently repeat the words of his prayer. He then offered a very long and very moving prayer of dedication. At the conclusion of the prayer, sang a song he had written for the dedication. It was indeed a song of praise and thanksgiving, with the chorus repeated after each solemn verse:

“Glory to God! Oh praise the Lamb!

Let all th’ Angelic Legions sing.

The Temple of our Gods completed

Hossanna! Praise the Lord our King!”

The people then moved upstairs to the main floor. Brigham Young was carried in his chair, at the head of the procession, for he was not strong enough to walk. Erastus Snow offered a long and moving prayer of dedication. Following this part of the ceremony the Quorum of the Twelve and a few local leaders, again carrying Brigham Young, ascended to the upper floor, where President Young dedicated the sealing room.

By January 9, 1877, ordinances were beginning to be done in the dedicated parts of the temple, while workers continued to put finishing touches on the remaining parts. There was again urgency, for April General Conference was to be held in St. George and then the final dedication of the temple would occur.

April 4, 1877, the conference convened. Almost all the General Authorities were present, and many stake presidents and other leaders were in attendance. Meetings were held from the 4th to and including the 8th, with the final dedicatory prayer offered by President Young’s counselor, Daniel H. Wells, on April 6, Brigham Young was extremely unwell, but despite his infirmities he spoke, briefly, at five of the meetings. He spoke with his usual strength and conviction, but those hearing felt a mixture of joy and sadness, for it was clear he would not come to St. George again. In fact, it was the last general conference he ever attended.

A week later, on April 16, President Young and his fellow Apostles departed north, for the long journey back to Salt Lake City. Some local leaders and their wives accompanied them a little distance. As they reached higher ground, they had a wondrous view of the Temple. In Orson Pratts’s words, “It looked like a beautiful mansion descended from the skies.” That one last look must have engendered in the heart of Brigham Young a peaceful sense of culmination. President Brigham Young died four months later, on August 29, 1877.

Many years hence, in about 1993, it was found necessary to make repairs to the dome and the structure around it. The workmen found, to their delight, that those first craftsmen had left small personal messages inscribed on the old pine wood. Some crudely carved signatures, some left a small expression. One, who seemed to see the far-reaching effects of their labor, wrote: “Many Men of Many Minds; Many Firsts of Many.”

Consider that many men of great diversity worked harmoniously together to bring to reality the first temple completed in the West. And count the firsts: the first baptisms, the first endowments, and the first sealings for deceased persons. And surely the first temple of what we now know to be a very great many Perhaps the simple workman who etched those words had a vision beyond what he could see from the tower atop the temple.


Sources

L. John Nuttall Diary, February 7, 1877, typescript, Church History Library

Andrew Karl Larson, Erastus Snow, The Life of a Missionary and Pioneer for the Early Mormon Church (Salt Lake City : Univ. of Utah Press, 1971), 464,

Letter from Brigham Young to Erastus Snow, April 5, 187L Church History Library.

James G. Bleak, “Annals,” Book B, 125-31, Church History Library

Edward L. Parry, Memorandum on St. George Temple, February 8, 1878, BYU Special Collections, Provo, Utah.

George A. Smith, in George Jarvis, George A, Smith Family, qtd. in Andrew Karl Larson, I Was Called to Dixie (Salt Lake City: Deseret News Press, 1961), 247.

For stories about the building of the St. George Temple, see Kirk M. Curtis, “A History of the St. George Temple.” M.S. thesis Brigham Young University 1964; Janice Force DeMille, The St. George Temple; First 100 Years (Hurricane, Utah: Homestead Publishers, cl977).

Independence, Mo,: Zions Printing & Publishing Co., cl943).

Lars Peter Oveson, Personal History of Lars Peter Oveson, Pioneer. Church History Library.

Life of Joseph Winsor, by Manila Cook, qtd, in Larson, Called to Dixie, 247.

Diary of Charles Lowell Walker, ed. A Karl Larson and Katharine Miles Larson (Logan: Utah State Univ. Press), February 21, 1874, 1:383-84.

George A Smith, Journal of Discourses, May 19, 1874, 17.

John Taylor, Journal of Discourses, May 1874, 87-88.

Deseret News, November 9, 1874.

Margaret M. Cannon, “The St. George Temple Baptismal Font,” typescript, St, George Temple Library.

Juanita Brooks, The Story of the Mormon Temple at St. George, Utah, photocopy, in Arizona Highways 23, no. 4 (April 1947): 1, 32.

William H. Thompson, Autobiography, Church History Library.

Walker, April 1, 1877, 1:453, Charley Walker used the image “Like a beautiful monument, just draped from the skies” in a July 24, 1902, poem entitled “Dixie Pioneers,”

Interview with Steven Goesser, St. George Temple engineer.

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