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9 stories you might not have heard about the Nauvoo Temple(s)

by | Apr. 30, 2021

This year marks the 175th anniversary of not only the Saints’ exodus from Nauvoo but also the anniversary of the dedication of the original Nauvoo Temple. As the first temple where baptisms for the dead and eternal marriage ordinances were performed, the Nauvoo Temple played a critical role as the Saints were forced west. Nearly 6,000 Latter-day Saints received their endowment in the two short months the temple was in operation, and those temple blessings and covenants sustained them through future hardships. Many of the stories about this beloved temple are familiar, but we’ve searched for some lesser-known but just as inspiring stories about the original and present-day Nauvoo temples to celebrate.

1. Temple Work Around the Clock

You may have heard the story of the Latter-day Saints who were eagerly waiting at the Nauvoo to receive their endowment the night before Brigham Young had planned to leave Nauvoo. When President Young left the temple and saw the crowd, he delayed his departure for two weeks in order to help more than 5,000 people receive their temple ordinances. However, even before this story occurred, temple work was in full swing at the Nauvoo Temple. In fact, Mercy Fielding Thompson lived with one of her children in the temple while she was helping with female temple work, “laboring night and day.” In addition, a Deseret News article compiled several stories of these 24/7 temple efforts, including some of Brigham Young’s journal entries from that time, which indicated that he sometimes stayed at the temple until 3:30 a.m.

You can find more stories of others who sacrificed for and worked in the Nauvoo Temple in the Latter-day Saint History Institute Teacher Manual

2. Nauvoo Temple Architecture

Image: Utah Historical Society

Joseph Smith had seen a vision of the Nauvoo Temple and worked closely with architect William Weeks to make sure it was built as he had seen it. At one point, after Joseph told William about the large circular windows that should go between stories, Weeks told him they were “a violation of all the known rules of architecture” because the building was too low and suggested semicircular windows instead. Joseph’s response was that the circular windows needed to be built, even if it meant making the temple 10 feet taller than originally planned.

When the temple was rebuilt in the early 2000s, there was an effort to make the exterior appear as close to the original as possible. Instrumental in this effort were William Weeks’ original plans for the building—plans that miraculously resurfaced 100 years after they were drawn. Weeks had kept his drawings of the temple, and even after leaving the Church, he passed the drawing down to his daughter, who gave them to her son. It wasn’t until 1948 when a chance meeting between some missionaries and Weeks’s nonmember grandson ultimately led the grandson to give the drawings to one of the missionaries with instructions to give the plans to Church headquarters. The missionary did so upon completing his mission and the plans became a blessing when construction began on the new Nauvoo Illinois Temple.

More detailed versions of these stories can be found in a 2016 Deseret News article as well as on history.churchofjesuschrist.org and on LDS Living.

3. The Nauvoo Temple on Fire

Construction on the original Nauvoo Temple was not without its delays and challenges. One such challenge was when a small fire erupted on the roof of the temple on the afternoon of February 9, 1846. Gratefully, the damage was minor, and though enemies of the Church were originally suspected of starting the blaze, it was ultimately discovered that clothes drying near a stovepipe in the attic were the culprit.

On October 9, 1848, two years after the Saints were driven out of Nauvoo and forced to abandon their temple, the structure was again endangered by fire. This time, however, it resulted in the destruction of the beautiful building, leaving only the west-facing wall and parts of the other three walls standing. These final remaining walls were demolished in a violent tornado that appeared on the temple hill in May 1850.

In addition to actual fires, Nauvoo residents also recorded an instance of spiritual fire consuming the House of the Lord. About a month after the stovepipe fire, on March 15, 1846, several Saints were awoken by cries that the temple was on fire. Alarmed, they ran toward the temple but found it unharmed. That same night, a small group of Saints holding a sacrament meeting inside the temple had their own miraculous spiritual experience, seeing visions, speaking in tongues, and witnessing angels in the room.

Image: Utah Historical Society

4. Church Meetings in the Temple

In a short video narrated by Church historian Spencer McBride, McBride shares that before the temple was completed, it was sometimes used by the Saints for meetings when the weather would not allow them to meet outdoors. There was still no roof on the building, and the walls were only between four and twelve feet high, but a temporary floor was built for meetings. It was not uncommon to see Latter-day Saints walking down the street to their Church meetings carrying benches, stools, or chairs to sit on when they got there.

5. Youth and the Cornerstone 

An article in the May 2002 New Era explains that under the direction of Joseph Smith, the cornerstones of the original Nauvoo Temple were placed by presidents of the various quorums of the priesthood, who in those days were all grown men. However, when the Nauvoo Temple was rebuilt, the same opportunity was given to two much younger Aaronic Priesthood presidents—13-year-old Jared Brown and 15-year-old Hans Smith, both of the Nauvoo Illinois First Ward. You can read more of their story in “The Nauvoo Temple: Cornerstones of Faith.”

6. Early Desires to Rebuild

President Gordon B. Hinckley at the cornerstone ceremony for the Nauvoo Illinois Temple in 2002. Photo by Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News 

According to a 2002 Ensign article, President Gordon B. Hinckley shared a special story at the groundbreaking ceremony for the Nauvoo Temple in October 1999.

President Hinckley’s father had been a mission president in 1939 over the mission that included Nauvoo. At that time, President Hinckley’s father wrote to the president of the Church and suggested rebuilding the Nauvoo temple. However, the country was just emerging from the Great Depression and the Church was low in funds, so rebuilding the temple was not feasible. Nearly 60 years later, President Hinckley called it “something of a strange and wonderful coincidence that I have had a part in the determination to rebuild this temple.” 

7. Angel Statues and the Nauvoo Temple

The historic Nauvoo Temple was the first latter-day temple to have an angel statue placed atop its spire. However, the weathervane-esque angel was not the same Moroni we are familiar with today. It was a non-specific angel of the Restoration.

Photo courtesy of Karl C. Quilter Jr.

When the temple was rebuilt, Karl Quilter Sr. was asked by the First Presidency to come up with some options for the statue that would be placed on top. Though one of his designs included the angel Moroni that we now recognize, one design was what Quilter’s family dubbed the “Super Moroni.” Designed more like the horizontal flying angel on the original temple, the statue was ultimately not chosen. However, Quilter’s family continues to bronze cast small versions, like the one Quilter’s son, Karl Quilter Jr., keeps on his desk.

The Nauvoo Illinois Temple’s angel Moroni statue is also one of only a handful of temples with an Angel Moroni statue that faces west instead of east.

8. Time Capsule Treasures 

There is no record of a time capsule in the original temple, but the modern Nauvoo Illinois Temple has a cornerstone full of treasures. According to a nearby news website, that cornerstone includes the book Standing for Something by President Gordon B. Hinckley; a hymnal; a scrapbook with press packets, brochures, photos, and articles about the Nauvoo Illinois Temple; a knife, trowel, and chisel from the temple’s construction; and a commemorative coin.

Find out what is in other temple cornerstones in “10 Temples and the Amazing Treasures in Their Cornerstones.”

9. Surviving Artifacts

Though the Nauvoo Temple itself was destroyed, a few items connected to the temple have survived until today (in addition to the construction plans mentioned above). Here are a few:

The Nauvoo Bell

Image from Wikimedia Commons

The bell that hung in the Nauvoo Temple was believed to have been donated by the British Saints and sent to the United States in the care of Wilford Woodruff. After hanging only a short time in its intended place, it was placed in a local Protestant church for safekeeping when the Saints left Nauvoo and was recovered and brought to Utah by a pioneer family headed to the Salt Lake valley. It had various uses along the trail and once it reached Salt Lake, but it was ultimately placed in a bell tower on Temple Square in 1942 by the Relief Society and has been there ever since.

Celestial Room Portraits

Image by Jason Swenson, Deseret News

In 2014, the Deseret News reported that the L. Stephen Richards Jr. family donated oil painting portraits of George A. Smith, his wife, Bathesheba W. Smith, and his mother, Clarissa L. Smith, to the Church. The portraits, which date back to the 1840s, are recorded in a pioneer journal as having hung in the celestial room next to portraits of Hyrum Smith, Brigham Young, and other members of the Twelve and were passed down from generation to generation after being removed from the temple.

A rare daguerreotype

Image: Church History Library

Not long after the celestial room portraits were donated, a Church historian made an interesting discovery while at an old museum. An item in the museum had been labeled as a pioneer mirror, but the historian quickly recognized it for what it was—a faded daguerreotype. The “mirror” ended up being one of only six images of the original Nauvoo Temple known to exist.

Tools and a Relief Society penny fundraising box

Image: Church History Library

Some of the treasures highlighted by the Church History Museum on the Church history website are various tools that belonged to some of the craftsmen who worked on the Nauvoo Temple, including Francis Clark, George Washington Clyde, and Hiram Mace. The same article highlights a special Relief Society Penny Box, which was used to gather pennies donated by the sisters to help with the temple’s construction. Their penny campaign ultimately brought in more than $2,000.

Sunstones

Image: Utah Historical Society

Though replicas of the Nauvoo Temple sunstones abound, only two complete original sunstones are known to exist. One is owned by the state of Illinois and displayed on the Nauvoo Visitors’ Center grounds and the other was purchased by the Smithsonian Institution and is displayed in the Museum of American History and Technology.

How many of these stories did you know? We hope you learned a few things about this beloved, iconic temple. Keep scrolling for more fun facts and numbers!


To learn more about the process of rebuilding the Nauvoo Temple to closely resemble or match the original, check out ChurchofJesusChrist.org, or read about the history surrounding the Nauvoo Temple in Saints, Volume 1 , chapter 46 in particularFor more photos and information about historic Nauvoo and the historic Nauvoo Temple, you can also visit this online exhibit from the Church History Department.


By the Numbers: Side by Side 

CONSTRUCTION

Original: Able-bodied men donated one day in every ten to work on the temple

Rebuilt: 77,000+ volunteer hours donated, many by skilled craftsmen


Original: Was under construction for five years

Rebuilt: Was under construction for a little over two years


Original: Approximately 128 X 88 feet, 165 feet to the top of the spire

Rebuilt: Approximately 128 X 88 feet, 163 feet to the top of the spire


DEDICATION

Original: Private dedication April 30, 1846 with public dedication sessions from May 1–3, 1846

Rebuilt: June 27–30, 2002, with the first dedicatory session held on the 158th anniversary of the martyrdom of Joseph and Hyrum


Original: It was the second latter-day temple built

Rebuilt: It was the 113th operating temple built


Original: About 25 people were safely able to attend

Rebuilt: Thousands of people from 68 countries watched the broadcast dedication


Original: The temple was used for ordinance work for only 2 months

Rebuilt: The temple has been in operation for nearly 19 years 


Fast Facts: 

  • • The font and oxen in the original Nauvoo Temple were made of wood. Today they are made of stone. 

  • • The attic of the Nauvoo Temple was dedicated and used for endowment ordinance work before the rest of the temple was completed and dedicated. 

  • • Construction on the Nauvoo Temple temporarily stopped from June 27 to July 7, 1844, after Joseph and Hyrum were killed.

  •  The original Nauvoo Temple had 60 rooms. 

  •  The original sunstones were actually carefully pieced together from several different stones. 

  •  At one point, Brigham Young and the Twelve decided to sell the temple and left three trustees in charge of selling both that and other Church property in Nauvoo. Though the temple was advertised as “admirably designed for Literary and Religious Purposes,” the trustees were ultimately unsuccessful in selling the building and left to join the Saints in Salt Lake.
Sources for By the Numbers and Fast Facts: 
Lead image: Intellectual Reserve, Inc.
Author photo

Jannalee Sandau

Jannalee worked as an LDS Living staff member for seven years before embarking on the adventure of full-time motherhood. She enjoys writing about a variety of gospel topics, but particularly enjoys mining Church history for little-known stories. She is an avid organizer, a casual pianist, and an aspiring scrapbooker when she is not spending time with her family.

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