Episode 8: “An Old City, a New Temple”

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Spencer: In April 1999 at the end of a general conference of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, church president Gordon B. Hinckley arose to offer his concluding remarks. Under President Hinckley’s leadership, the church had witnessed a rapid growth in the number of temples operating throughout the world. Temple building had quickly become a hallmark of Hinckley’s tenure. But in these concluding remarks, he announced a new temple that caught almost everybody by surprise.

[Audio of Gordon B. Hinckley]1: In closing now, I feel impressed to announce that among all of the temples we are constructing, we plan to rebuild the Nauvoo Temple. A member of the church and his family have provided a very substantial contribution to make this possible. We are grateful to him. It will be a while before it happens, but the architects have begun their work. This temple will not be busy much of the time; it will be somewhat isolated. But during the summer months, we anticipate it will be very busy. And the new building will stand as a memorial to those who built the first such structure there on the banks of the Mississippi.

Spencer: To many Latter-day Saints who were watching this conference of the church, they can tell you exactly how they felt when President Hinckley made this announcement. There was a palpable excitement that this building that had meant so much to the early Latter-day Saints would be rebuilt. Rebuilding a historic temple for modern usage comes with unique challenges, but it also results in unique insights.

In this, the podcast’s final episode, we talk about the reconstruction of the temple at Nauvoo and what it means to Latter-day Saints today. This is The Nauvoo Temple: A Joseph Smith Papers Podcast, and I’m your host, Spencer McBride.


Spencer: Episode 8: An Old City, a New Temple


Spencer: As I sought to better understand the process of rebuilding the Nauvoo Temple, I spoke with Emily Utt. Emily is a curator in the Historic Sites Division of the Church History Department. Her specialty is in architectural history.

Emily: Buildings go through cycles. Every thirty or forty years, mechanical systems fail, electrical systems get out of code, and you reach a point where things are no longer available that were available, or building codes have changed, or other things have changed. So, when you are restoring a historic building, it’s largely because codes have changed so much, and things are just broken.

Spencer: What about reconstruction?

Emily: Reconstruction is a very different animal. Reconstructions often happen because something important was lost in a catastrophic way. So, not even talking about temples, but if you’re just talking about reconstructions in general, things are reconstructed when they catch on fire. So, much of Europe was rebuilt, was reconstructed after World War II, because so much of major city centers were bombed. Historic churches are often reconstructed after a catastrophic event, like a fire or an earthquake or things like that. So, one of the things you have to ask is why reconstruct? Why not just let it go? There’s something picturesque about ruins, and there’s something about the unfolding story of the building that sometimes the loss of the building is part of the story and reconstructing it changes that story. So, one of the things that you have to really ask when you’re getting into a reconstruction project is why, why does this place matter enough to reconstruct? Why not just put it online? Why not put a marker out front?

Spencer: Now, the Nauvoo Temple site had historical markers. People could learn about the temple from these markers and from tour guides. So, why rebuild the temple?

Emily: Reconstructing the Nauvoo Temple I think was done because Latter-day Saints wanted that connection. There was a sense of loss that had happened over the decades, and then when that building was destroyed first by fire and then by a tornado, you go to Nauvoo, when you visit that site and you see the excavated basement, and you see a hole. And in some ways, it reflects the hole that’s been left in us by having to leave that place. So, I think when President Hinckley said let’s reconstruct the Nauvoo Temple, was that let’s reclaim our story, let’s fill that hole that we have and connect to our past in a really powerful way.

Spencer: But the reconstructed Nauvoo Temple was going to be more than a historic site. Rather than a living history museum to be toured, the leaders of the church intended it to be an operating temple, a place where Latter-day Saints could go and participate in temple ordinances. And that distinction mattered to questions of how the temple would be rebuilt.

Emily: So, when we reconstruct historic sites on behalf of the church, for example, we do it because the tangible story of Joseph Smith living in that home matters. So, the materiality matters a lot, getting the floor plan matters a lot. You need to be able to say this is where this person stood when this event happened. So, if you compare the reconstruction, for example, of the Joseph Smith log home in Palmyra, we rebuilt an 1820s log structure using the same materials, the same techniques, the same floor plan. It had to be accurate down to the eighth of an inch. And we didn’t put electricity in it, we didn’t put plumbing in it, because those things didn’t matter for the story we’re trying to tell. When you reconstruct a historic temple, the materiality matters less than the connection. So, while the Nauvoo Temple may look old, it is in fact a completely new building using modern building techniques, modern materials, modern building codes, all of those things that you need to be to be a new building.

Spencer: It seems that building codes, issues of practical use, and historical accuracy were all factors in how the temple was built. I asked Emily to what extent the temple in Nauvoo today looks like the temple built in that spot during the 1840s and in what ways they are different.

Emily: Well, the first thing is that the building technique itself is very, very different. So, the 1840s temple, that site would have been excavated by hand, and then the walls would have been what we call full-depth stone, so if your wall is three feet thick, that means it’s three feet thick of stone, and the timbers would have been cut using 1840s techniques, all of those things. The Nauvoo Temple today is a reinforced concrete building with a stone veneer, so basically you have the thick concrete walls and then the stone is attached at the surface, so the stone today is a couple inches thick, as opposed to the several feet of the original building. So, from the outside it may look like a historic building, but in reality, it’s a new building.

Spencer: But where the exterior of the building and parts of the interior are concerned, the architects designing the new temple paid close attention to historical detail. And in several instances in which they could not match the new temple to the old, they paid tribute to the original design.

Emily: The architectural team that worked on the reconstruction had the best evidence for what the exterior of the building looked like except for the rear. There were no photographs of the rear of the building, so that is a complete conjecture. They found historic stone that was being used in people’s cellars and sheds and whatever else in Nauvoo, and they were able to then to measure those stones, so they tried to match the tooling the way that the stone is finished, they tried to match stone width and height. Historic photos show that the top portion of the building, actually, the stone was taller than the bottom part of the building, and so in the reconstruction, you’ll notice that the bottom part of the building, the stones are eight inches tall, the top half of the building, the stones are sixteen inches tall, and they based that on a historic photograph. But the stone itself is different. The stone that was used in the 1840s was from Nauvoo, and that stone was just not available and not of the quality they needed to meet current codes, so they used a stone from Alabama on the exterior. The interior of the building is completely different. In the restoration, they tried to re-create a few details, so there is a staircase in about the same location as a historic staircase. The baptismal font is in about the same location as the historic font. And the original 1840s temple would have had two large assembly rooms, much like the Kirtland Temple, stacked on top of each other. So, in the reconstruction, they rebuilt one of them, but smaller, and then put other offices and things around that area. So, the floor plan is totally different from the 1840s temple. It is a modern twentieth-century building with an exterior veneer that looks old.

Spencer: Emily’s explanation made sense to me. But there was one feature of the temple that I still wondered about. That feature is the angel atop the temple. As we discussed in an earlier episode, the original Nauvoo Temple featured an angel on a weathervane positioned in a way that it appeared to be in flight. But most temples built in the twentieth century featured a standing angel.

So, when the Nauvoo Temple was rebuilt at the turn of the twenty-first century, what conversations about the angel occurred? And why did church leaders ultimately decide on the standing angel?

Emily: Yeah, so again, that’s part of the discussion of what are you trying to reconstruct. If you’re reconstructing the Nauvoo Temple to be a museum to help us understand 1840 temple ritual, they would have made some very different decisions. By the time the Nauvoo Temple reconstruction was happening, the standing angel, this one carved I think by LaVar Wallgren, had become such a standard symbol in the church, every temple has an angel, that of course we’re going to put one on. And I’ve been told that there was some conversation between the architects and church leadership of, well, do we do the historic angel, or do we do our new modern standard angel? The decision was made to put a standard angel on it to give a little bit of an idea that this is a new temple. So, if you’d put the weathervane on, this is a historic building. If you put the standing angel on, this is a new building with a nod to the past. So, from what I understand, President Hinckley recommended that they put the standing angel on to maybe help bridge that gap. You know, this is both an old building and a new building and the standing angel in some ways I think represents that.


Spencer: President Gordon B. Hinckley dedicated the rebuilt Nauvoo Temple on June 27th, 2002, the 156th anniversary of the martyrdom of Joseph and Hyrum Smith. The dedication was broadcast via satellite to church meetinghouses throughout much of the world to enable more church members to participate than could travel to Nauvoo. It was a special—and historic—moment.

Yet, there was another moment associated with the dedication that may not be as well known. The day after the dedication, the Mormon Tabernacle Choir performed in concert at Quincy, Illinois. Recall that in episode 1 of this podcast we described the generosity of the people of Quincy toward the Latter-day Saints in 1838 and 1839 as they crossed the Mississippi River in the dead of winter. The people of Quincy had shown immense charity to these refugees, giving freely to men, women, and children who were strangers but who needed help.

Well, during this concert, President Hinckley spoke about that kindness:

[Audio of Gordon B. Hinckley]: In the annals of our church, the city of Quincy and its citizens will always occupy a position of the highest esteem. We shall always be grateful for the kindness, the hospitality, the civility with which your people met our people who were exiles from the state of Missouri. When Gov. Boggs issued his infamous extermination order, our people were compelled to leave the state of Missouri. It’s almost impossible to comprehend in this day and time that such a thing could occur. But the fact is it did occur, and they traveled across most of the state of Missouri seeking asylum, not knowing where to go or what to do. And the citizens of Quincy welcomed them, took them in, sheltered them from the winter which was all about them, and were so kind to them, until they were able to find a place up the river in Nauvoo, where they established that beautiful city on the Mississippi.

In behalf of the church, the entire church across the world, and in behalf of this great and wonderful choir, this organization of volunteer singers, I express my gratitude to those who are successors of those who were here long ago and say thank you with all of our hearts. The choir is singing tonight as an expression of appreciation to this community to say thank you for what occurred so very long ago.

And as an expression of our appreciation, they are contributing all of the proceeds of this concert to the city of Quincy and its charitable purposes. We have had the pleasure of presenting 75,000 dollars. I don’t have the check with me, they already have it in the bank. And there will become a corpus for great civic endeavors and the blessings of the people of this wondrous community, which we shall always hold in sweet remembrance. Thank you so very much, God bless you my beloved associates. Thank you so much.


Spencer: With the Nauvoo Temple rebuilt and functioning as an operating temple of the church, I wondered how this had affected Nauvoo’s other historic sites. It appears to have significantly boosted the number of visitors to Nauvoo to an average of more than 100,000 people per year. Still, the rebuilt temple presented the church’s Historic Sites team with a new and unexpected challenge.

The temple site was no longer a historic site open for tours. It was once again a place of religious worship. How can we teach about the historical significance of the temple in Nauvoo without disrupting temple worship in the present?

To understand how the church’s Historic Sites team has addressed this issue, I spoke with curator Steven Olsen. He told me that the challenge presented the church with new opportunities.

Steven: There was a great opportunity to interpret the spiritual significance of Nauvoo as never before. There was almost a compelling need to do that now that the temple was present on the hill. And so, in the development of the first phase of this long-range master plan that under the direction of the First Presidency, we proposed to develop a little neighborhood just surrounding the Nauvoo Temple that featured a number of properties that were salient to the development of the temple. The home, for example, of William Weeks, was still standing and yet it had never been restored or used as a tour home. The home of Edward and Ann Hunter, where Joseph was living when he wrote the letters that are now section 127 and 128 of the Doctrine and Covenants that outline the doctrine of baptism for the dead and the glories of eternity that are available through the temple. The West Grove, which was right next to Edward and Ann Hunter’s home, where these doctrines of eternity connected with the temple were first made available to the Saints in conference assembled. So, there was a number of really distinctive properties in this area just down the hill from the temple that had never been developed or interpreted. That was our first contribution, if you will, in this new master-planning effort to develop those properties and interpret them to help people understand how the temple came to be.

So, what we’ve done is we’ve re-created settings, if you will, physical settings in those homes, that allow us to interpret these grand and glorious events preparatory to the construction and use of the temple.

Spencer: So, visitors to Nauvoo today learn about the place of the temple in the city’s history by visiting the homes of the men and women who helped build it. The Hunters, the Weeks, the Joneses, and countless others who resided in Nauvoo and whose names we might not otherwise know contributed to the temple construction in one way or another. The temple was an important part of their lives.

This conversation got me thinking about something that Emily Utt told me about the connection she feels to these largely unknown men and women and how that connection, in part, makes historical preservation so meaningful for her.

Emily: Most members of the church, and really most people in general, don’t leave behind a grand legacy. Most of us are never going to be famous, most of us are never going to be president, most of us are never going to author that great American novel. We’re never going to be a big deal. And most of us don’t leave anything behind. We don’t have institutional archives clamoring for our personal papers. But all of us leave behind a building, all of us leave behind a place where we have lived, where we have worshipped, where we have gathered. So, why these historic places matter so much is that when you go into the Nauvoo Temple or to one of the other historic places in Nauvoo, there’s that connection, there’s that sense you are walking in the footsteps, yes, of Joseph Smith and these great names, but you’re also walking in the footsteps of people that you will likely never hear about. Those common everyday people, that stonemason, who, we don’t even know his name, but spent a year carving stone, or the person who wove carpets. Those small, nameless sacrifices, I think, are what makes historic places so powerful.


Spencer: In reflecting on the history of the Nauvoo Temple, both its construction in the 1840s and its reconstruction at the turn of the twenty-first century, I spoke with Elder Dale G. Renlund, a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. I asked Elder Renlund what he thought the Nauvoo Temple meant to the people who built it in the 1840s. In his reply, he drew from a section of the Doctrine and Covenants associated with the Kirtland Temple and explained how the language of that section continued to influence the way that the Saints thought about the temple once most of them had moved to Nauvoo.

Elder Renlund: This was something that they saw as the pinnacle of their membership in the church. And I think if you go back to section 109 and you see the blessings that are promised—that no weapon formed against you will prosper, in essence saying that here you’re going to get a fullness of the Holy Ghost; you’ll grow up in the Lord—that once endowed with that power in Nauvoo, they felt that there really was nothing to worry about. I think it’s that kind of a thing that prompted the writing of the hymn “Come, Come Ye Saints,” that if you die before your journey’s through, it’s okay, all is well. And if you don’t die, well, let’s keep working. I think that is the nuts and bolts of what they felt about the temple experience, that once that had happened, they were safe, they were protected, that all would be well. And I think that fired their imaginations and helped them through the trials and as they went through trials on the plains, as they went through difficulties wherever it was, they harken back to that great blessing that they’d received, this endowment that continues to give blessings.

In so many ways, the endowment continues to bless, even though you’re not in the temple. It continues to bless as you keep those covenants. And I think they felt safety, they felt protection, and they felt that God knew them, was mindful of them, because they had more fully taken on themselves the name of Christ in the temple.

Spencer: Of course, as we have discussed in this podcast, most church members who helped build the Nauvoo Temple in the 1840s did not fully understand what would occur in that temple. But they believed in the promises found in revelations that the fulness of the priesthood would be restored to them there. I asked Elder Renlund what parallels he sees in this history today of the relationship of church members to the temple.

Elder Renlund: I was assigned by President Nelson to dedicate the Kinshasa Democratic Republic of the Congo Temple. The majority of the members of the church there had not been endowed. And they came to that temple dedication not knowing much about what happens in the temple. As a matter of fact, the majority didn’t understand the difference between a regular temple recommend and a limited-use temple recommend. Those who had been to the temple thought that when you went to the temple, you had to do everything from the initiatory ordinances through the sealing in one sitting because that’s how they had experienced it. They didn’t know that when you did it by proxy, it was separable. Many didn’t understand, not just the nuances, but anything about it. But their faith in Jesus Christ, their faith in the restored gospel, made it so they knew it would be a great blessing, they knew it would be, and they trusted in that, and then they were willing to do anything to have it happen.

I suspect the people in Nauvoo were not a lot different. I think my Congolese friends and Saints and brothers and sisters understood what those Saints in Nauvoo did, that God through His prophets had promised great blessings, and then it happens, and I think what we see is, is people come with that hunger and thirst, that God pours out remarkable blessing on them, and gives them endowments of power, of understanding, of spiritual strength and insight that blesses them and their families forever.

So, I think there’s an exact parallel, the other parallel, I think is in our own lives. I suspect that all of us know a little bit more about the temple and have a deeper understanding than when we received our own endowment. I know that’s true for me. And so, we learn as we go. And it just gets better and better and better and more meaningful. And I think that is something that is a modern-day parallel, even in people who are prepared and who think they know what they’re going to get, they trust in the blessings that are promised.

Spencer: Our conversation then turned from what the Nauvoo Temple meant to Saints in the 1840s, to what Elder Renlund himself has learned from studying this history. His answer included a reflection on the ongoing restoration, and on the restoration of the gospel as a process. Specifically, he reflected on how keys restored to Joseph Smith in the Kirtland Temple helped bring about the introduction of baptism for the dead in Nauvoo several years later.

Elder Renlund: We were talking about the ongoing restoration, and I think that the history of the Nauvoo Temple doesn’t start with section 124. The history of the Nauvoo Temple starts earlier, at least in section 110, as Elijah comes and bestows keys that relates to the children and the fathers, and I think in the ongoing restoration, Joseph Smith knew that he’d received those keys. He totally understood it. But as his vision for that expanded to go beyond just sealing, but to fathers-children and the expanse of that, we get to this remarkable point in the history of the Nauvoo Temple. And in August of 1840, Joseph Smith had a friend who died, Seymour Brunson, and he’s going to preach at the funeral. And he looks around and he sees a woman whose son had died without being baptized. And Joseph Smith teaches for the first time in that funeral, the doctrine related to the salvation of the dead, and how God’s work unfolds even on the other side of the veil. And as you read the story, you realize everything clicked. This was an amazing aha moment, because so many of the difficulties associated with Christian baptism were resolved.

They were totally resolved. And so, people recognize that this doctrine was something remarkable. This was revolutionary, and yet the keys for this to be done were bestowed in the Kirtland Temple some years earlier, but now it was clear to the prophet and he then shared it, and then he went on talking about it, and then we get more revelations about it.

Spencer: What about members of the church today? What does it mean to know that a temple stands once again on the bluff overlooking the Mississippi River? For some members of the church, there is a direct connection to the temple through their ancestors who helped build it. But for far more of them, the connection is less familial, and more about the heritage of their faith.

Elder Renlund: Well, I think you have both of those scenarios with the contrast between my wife and me. She’s a descendant of Reynolds Cahoon who was part of the Temple Committee. And so, she has ancestry that was directly involved with the building of the Nauvoo Temple. And so, for her, it is, it brings great joy. None of my ancestors were at all involved with it, but I claim the same pioneer heritage of faith because it is mine. This is my faith, this is the heritage that I’ve adopted in my life, and so it brings the same great joy.

I view it as a great vindication of the church, of Joseph Smith, and of Hyrum Smith, that the reconstruction of the Nauvoo Temple is vindication for the faith that they had. It is an honor and a tribute to those pioneer ancestors, but it’s also, even if you don’t have pioneer ancestry, it still is saying that when times are difficult, wait. God will deliver on His promises. That brings faith to all of us, no matter what our situation. It’s a reaffirmation of faith in the restoration of the Gospel. And indeed, it is a manifestation of the ultimate success of God’s kingdom here on earth.

So, I think if you have ancestry that was literally there, or whether you have adopted yourself into that pioneer heritage, you derive the same blessings.

Spencer: Throughout my conversations with the various historians and scholars we interviewed for this podcast, we reflected together on what the Nauvoo Temple meant to Latter-day Saints in the 1840s. And our conversations inevitably turned to questions about what the temple’s reconstruction means to Latter-day Saints in the present. What does the renewed presence of the temple on that bluff overlooking the Mississippi River signify? What does it represent?

In a very clear sense, the rebuilt Nauvoo Temple stands as a monument to the devotion of the men and women who built the original temple in that city; it’s a symbol of the determination they exhibited to build such a sacred edifice in their poverty and amid intense trials and tribulations. It’s a monument to their perseverance, a reminder of their faith.

But I think it might be more than that. Maybe the story of Nauvoo and the Nauvoo Temple is also a story of connections—a story of men and women who built a community on the western frontier of the United States in order to forge a stronger connection to heaven. And at the heart of that community was a temple, the ordinances of which formed a welding link between members of the community and their ancestors. In Nauvoo, these Latter-day Saints strengthened their connections to each other, to past generations, and to their God.

In addition, the rebuilt Nauvoo Temple symbolizes our connection to the past. Early Latter-day Saints built the city and the temple and then were forced to leave it behind. But, for many church members today, the reconstruction of the Nauvoo Temple is akin to reclaiming part of the past—and establishing stronger ties to the people of a bygone era. If the people who founded Nauvoo built the city—and the temple at its center—to forge a stronger connection to the divine, their story can inspire us to seek a similar connection in our own day. So, in a very real way, the story of Nauvoo, filled as it is with triumphs and defeats, is a story about connections.

This has been The Nauvoo Temple: A Joseph Smith Papers Podcast. Thank you for listening.

1. Gordon B. Hinckley, “Thanks to the Lord for His Blessings,” 4 April 1999.