The Unfolding Restoration of Temple Work
December 2001

“The Unfolding Restoration of Temple Work,” Ensign, Dec. 2001, 34

Doctrine and Covenants and Church History

The Unfolding Restoration of Temple Work

The Doctrine and Covenants is a handbook for learning about and deepening our appreciation of the covenants and ordinances of the temple.

“Thus saith the Lord God: I will give unto the children of men line upon line, precept upon precept. … For unto him that receiveth I will give more” (2 Ne. 28:30). Through the Prophet Joseph Smith has come the restoration of all necessary priesthood keys and gospel principles taught in our temples today.

This came in an unfolding, “line upon line” process that is reflected in the revelations of the Doctrine and Covenants. Likewise, when we attend the temple the spiritual meanings of the symbols in these ordinances will be unfolded to our minds “line upon line.” Just as the Prophet gained greater understanding of the temple ordinances by his faithfulness and prayers, so may we deepen our appreciation of the richness of the temple ordinances through our own diligence.

The Purpose of Temples Anciently

In Old Testament times, temples served two distinct functions. First, they were places of revelation. God promised, for example, to manifest himself to His people in the temple-tabernacle made in the wilderness by Moses and the children of Israel (see Ex. 25:8, 22). Secondly, they were places where sacred ordinances were performed. God revealed these ordinances to Moses in the tabernacle (see D&C 124:38), to the prophet Nathan in the temporary temple-tabernacle at Jerusalem (see 2 Sam. 7:2; D&C 132:39), and to Solomon in his temple (see 1 Kgs. 6:12). Both of these temple functions would necessarily have to be part of the latter-day “restitution of all things” (Acts 3:21).

The Promise of Priesthood Power

The first latter-day revelation on temples contains words from the angel Moroni received 21 September 1823 (see D&C 2). Moroni paraphrased Malachi’s Old Testament prophecy emphasizing that the ancient prophet Elijah would bring priesthood powers (compare Mal. 4:5–6). This prophecy meant that Elijah would restore the priesthood authority to perform temple ordinances that seal families together beyond the grave. Thus from the very beginning of this dispensation, the restoration of the crowning ordinances of the temple was foretold.

The first recorded latter-day revelation referring specifically to a temple came in December 1830, when the Lord reaffirmed that He would “suddenly come” to His temple (D&C 36:8). Shortly thereafter, on 2 January 1831, in Fayette, New York, the Lord gave encouragement and instruction for the Church to move from New York to Ohio. In it the Lord further explained, “For this cause I gave unto you the commandment that ye should go to the Ohio; and there I will give unto you my law; and there you shall be endowed with power from on high” (D&C 38:32). Just a few days later the Lord reiterated these promises: “And inasmuch as my people shall assemble themselves at the Ohio, I have kept in store a blessing such as is not known among the children of men, and it shall be poured forth upon their heads” (D&C 39:15).

Once the members arrived in Ohio the Lord gave them His promised law as recorded in Doctrine and Covenants 42, which includes instructions relating to chastity (see D&C 42:22–26) and consecration (see D&C 42:30–39).

The Lord then continued to give instructions in the revelations regarding His promise to endow His people with power: “And ye are to be taught from on high. Sanctify yourselves and ye shall be endowed with power” (D&C 43:16). This promise was fulfilled when priesthood keys necessary to perform temple ordinances were restored in April 1836 (see D&C 110:13–16).

The Building of a Temple

The first recorded latter-day instruction that a temple be built came in the summer of 1831 as the Prophet Joseph Smith and other elders arrived for a visit in western Missouri. The Lord revealed that the center place of Zion and its temple was at Independence, Missouri (see D&C 57:1–3). Before the Prophet’s return to Ohio, the Lord instructed: “Let my servant Sidney Rigdon consecrate and dedicate this land [Independence, Missouri], and the spot for the temple, unto the Lord” (D&C 58:57). The Lord expected the Saints to begin to build a temple in western Missouri as soon as possible (see D&C 84:1–4). On 2 August 1831 Elder Rigdon dedicated the land as assigned, and in a solemn ceremony the following day, the Prophet laid a cornerstone for the temple.

Other Temple-Related Principles

Near the end of 1832 the Lord directed the convening of a “school of the prophets” (D&C 88:127) in Kirtland, Ohio. In His instructions to this school the Lord taught many temple-related concepts: We must live the celestial law in order to inherit the celestial kingdom (see D&C 88:21–22). Members were told to “cast away your idle thoughts and your excess of laughter” (D&C 88:69). The Lord also promised to testify to the Father that if they would sanctify themselves they would be declared “clean from the blood of this wicked generation” (see D&C 88:74–75). Sessions of the school were called solemn assemblies (see D&C 88:70, 117), and only the worthy were to attend (see D&C 88:134). Participants in the school also accepted a commitment not to wilfully divulge sacred matters discussed in the school.1 Clearly the Lord was preparing His people for the restoration of His temple ordinances.

The Lord wanted the school, like His temple, to be “a house of prayer, a house of fasting, a house of faith, a house of learning, a house of glory, a house of order, a house of God” (D&C 88:119; compare D&C 109:6–9). Furthermore, by this time the Lord had already revealed to the Prophet Joseph Smith the eternity of the marriage covenant (see D&C 132, section heading). The Lord was preparing to endow His Saints.

While Church members in Ohio were establishing the School of the Prophets in Kirtland, members in Missouri were struggling to establish Zion and preparing to build the temple at Independence. As persecutions mounted, members were admonished to build the Lord’s house “for the salvation of Zion” (see D&C 97:10–12). It was to be “a place of thanksgiving” and of “instruction for all those who are called to the work of the ministry” (D&C 97:13). The Lord promised: “My glory shall rest upon it,” and “my presence shall be there, for I will come into it” (D&C 97:15–16).

Unfortunately, members did not carry out the Lord’s direction to build a temple in Missouri. In time, persecutions forced them to flee their homes in Jackson County. Meanwhile, the Lord had given further instruction concerning building the temple in Kirtland, Ohio.

The Lord’s House in Kirtland

In May 1833 the Lord directed the Kirtland members to move forward with building His temple (see D&C 94:1–2). Apparently they did not heed this direction, because in a revelation given the following month they were chastised for their failure to build the Lord’s house (see D&C 95:1–3). The Lord repeated His promise “to endow those whom I have chosen with power from on high” and urged the Saints not to delay (see D&C 95:8–9). He specified that the temple was not to be built “after the manner of the world” but according to a plan He promised to reveal (see D&C 95:13–14). His plan called for a chapel on the main floor, to be used for praying, preaching, and administering the sacrament. A similar hall on the second floor was “for the school of mine apostles” (see D&C 95:15–17). Hence this temple’s design was different from all subsequent temples. As President Brigham Young pointed out, the Kirtland Temple “had no basement in it, nor a font nor preparations to give endowments for the living or the dead.”2

Power and Blessings from on High

Following a period of sacrifice to build the Kirtland Temple, the Lord poured out marvelous blessings upon His people. On Thursday evening, 21 January 1836, the First Presidency met with the Patriarch, Joseph Smith Sr., on the upper floor of the nearly completed temple. They anointed one another with consecrated oil and pronounced blessings and prophecies.3 The heavens were opened, and the Prophet Joseph “beheld the celestial kingdom of God, and the glory thereof” (D&C 137:1). When he saw his brother Alvin in that kingdom, he “marveled” because Alvin had died without being baptized by proper authority. The Lord declared, “All who have died without a knowledge of this gospel, who would have received it if they had been permitted to tarry, shall be heirs of the celestial kingdom of God” (D&C 137:7). This assurance to the Prophet has become the foundation of our doctrine of salvation for the dead and the great vicarious service in the temples today.

Hundreds of Church members crowded into the Kirtland Temple on its day of dedication, Sunday, 27 March 1836. The highlight of the service was the dedicatory prayer given by revelation to the Prophet (see D&C 109). After expressing gratitude for God’s blessings, the Prophet, with hands raised to heaven and tears flowing freely, prayed that the Lord would accept this temple, which had been built “that the Son of Man might have a place to manifest himself to his people” (D&C 109:5). The Prophet Joseph then petitioned that the promised blessing in prior revelations of “power from on high” be realized (see D&C 109:6–9, 13, 22, 35). This prayer has become the pattern for all other temple dedicatory prayers. The Prophet Joseph Smith and many others testified that they beheld numerous divine messengers and heard heavenly choirs during the services.

A transcendent spiritual manifestation occurred on Easter Sunday, 3 April 1836, just one week following the temple dedication. After the close of the afternoon worship service, the Prophet Joseph and Oliver Cowdery retired to the Melchizedek Priesthood pulpits in the west end of the temple’s lower main room. A canvas partition, or “veil,” was lowered so that they might pray in private. The Prophet testified that “the veil was taken from our minds” (D&C 110:1) and that he and Oliver beheld a series of visions. The Lord Jesus Christ appeared, accepted the temple, and promised to manifest Himself therein “if my people will keep my commandments, and do not pollute this holy house” (D&C 110:8). Moses, Elias, and Elijah then appeared and bestowed priesthood keys (see D&C 110:11–16). Through the sealing keys restored by Elijah, the priesthood ordinances of temples can be performed today. Latter-day Saints may participate in saving ordinances in behalf of loved ones who have died without the opportunity of accepting the gospel in mortality. In this way the hearts of the children are turning to their fathers and mothers (see Mal. 4:5–6).

The appearance of these messengers confirms that the Kirtland Temple truly was a place of revelation—the first major purpose of temples. Although a partial temple endowment, primarily the ordinances of washing and anointing, was conducted there, the full restoration of sacred ordinances—the second function of temples—would not come until later.

Not long after these glorious occurrences, persecution increased and forced the faithful Saints from Ohio. They fled to Far West in Missouri, where members previously expelled from Jackson County were also gathered. Once again the Lord instructed them to build a temple where they might gather and worship (see D&C 115:8), but within a year persecution forced members to abandon their homes in Missouri. It was not until they found safe haven in Nauvoo, Illinois, that they could turn their attention again to building a temple and receiving therein sacred ordinances for the living and the dead.

The Nauvoo Temple

The Prophet Joseph Smith first preached the doctrine of vicarious baptisms for the dead at a funeral on 15 August 1840. Under priesthood direction, Church members almost immediately began performing this ordinance in the Mississippi River on behalf of deceased loved ones. The Prophet taught Church members that those who neglect this work “do it at the peril of their own salvation.”4 With such encouragement, members eagerly took advantage of this opportunity to make gospel ordinances and blessings available to their departed ancestors, performing nearly 16,000 vicarious baptisms by 1844.

On 19 January 1841 the Lord specifically instructed that the temple be built: “Build a house to my name, for the Most High to dwell therein. For there is not a place found on earth that he may come to and restore again that which was lost unto you” (D&C 124:27–28). This time the Lord wanted a baptismal font included in the temple, and He declared, “For this ordinance belongeth to my house, and cannot be acceptable to me [in such places as the river], only in the days of your poverty, wherein ye are not able to build a house unto me” (D&C 124:30). Thus, the Nauvoo Temple, like holy sanctuaries in ancient times, served both functions—as a place of contact between God and mankind and as a place where sacred ordinances were performed.

In the Nauvoo Temple came the full endowment. The Lord said, “Let this house be built unto my name, that I may reveal mine ordinances therein unto my people; for I deign to reveal unto my church things which have been kept hid from before the foundation of the world” (D&C 124:40–41).

In two letters written during the first week of September 1842, the Prophet gave further instructions concerning the work for the dead. He emphasized that a recorder be present, not only to keep an accurate record but also to assure that each ordinance was done properly (see D&C 127:6; D&C 128:3). He taught members that keeping proper records on earth was linked to the efficacy of the ordinances in heaven (see D&C 128:8–9). He also explained that because temple baptismal fonts symbolize the grave, they should be located “underneath where the living are wont to assemble” (see D&C 128:12–13). Expanding on the writing of the Apostle Paul (see Heb. 11:40), the Prophet declared that without the ordinances for the dead “the fathers … cannot be made perfect—neither can we without our dead be made perfect” (D&C 128:15). He further wrote that there must be “a welding link of some kind or other between the fathers and the children” (D&C 128:18). Vicarious ordinances for the dead, he concluded, are the means of establishing this link.

In Nauvoo the Prophet Joseph also preached the doctrine of eternal marriage. In May 1843 he instructed Church members that in order to attain the highest degree of the celestial kingdom, one must enter “the new and everlasting covenant of marriage” (see D&C 131:1–4). Two months later he put in writing section 132, a revelation he had received much earlier. It emphasized that for a marriage to be binding in the hereafter it must be a covenant “for time and for all eternity”; it must also be performed by proper priesthood authority and be “sealed by the Holy Spirit of promise” (D&C 132:18).

The Prophet Joseph Smith performed the first full endowments in the upper room of the red brick store. Before his death, many leaders of the Church and their families had received the temple blessings we may receive in the temple today. After the Prophet’s death, many Church members were eager to receive these ordinances and blessings. During the eight weeks prior to their exodus from Nauvoo, about 5,600 people were endowed, including 107 on Christmas Day, 1845.

Prophetic Declarations Since Nauvoo

The “line upon line” process of unfolding the meaning of temples and temple service through modern prophets has continued. Endowments for the dead were inaugurated with the completion of the St. George Temple in 1877. For the first time members had the opportunity of returning to the temple and, while officiating in behalf of their ancestors, renew their own understanding and appreciation of the teachings in the endowment. In 1894 a revelation through President Wilford Woodruff (1807–98) directed Church members to trace their own genealogies and be sealed to their progenitors as far back as possible.5 Then, in 1918, President Joseph F. Smith received a remarkable vision, expanding our understanding of how the Savior organized the righteous to carry on the work of preaching the gospel in the spirit world (see D&C 138). And in 1978 the Lord opened the blessings of the temple to every worthy member without regard for race or color (see Official Declaration 2).

Line upon Line, Precept upon Precept

What a privilege it is for us to study the Lord’s revelations on temples in the Doctrine and Covenants and participate in all the ordinances and blessings of the temple that have been revealed gradually to the Saints. As members of the Church today, we may receive the same promises that were given to the early members: that if we will sanctify ourselves we may receive the law of the Lord and be endowed with power from on high.

For “the endowment which was given by revelation can best be understood by revelation; and to those who seek most vigorously, with pure hearts, will the revelation be the greatest.”6

The Intent of Temple Work for the Dead

Elder Russell M. Nelson

“This doctrine [of temple work for the dead] and its ordinances are laden with love and are intended to perpetuate the sweetest of all relationships—in families forever.”
Elder Russell M. Nelson of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, “The Spirit of Elijah,” Ensign, Nov. 1994, 86.

Temple Doctrines and Ordinances Restored

President James E. Faust

“The opportunity to receive [the] supernal blessings [of the temple] was given by God in His infinite goodness to the people of this earth through the great prophet of the Restoration, Joseph Smith. He was commissioned to restore the fulness of all things in our time.”
President James E. Faust of the First Presidency, “Eternity Lies before Us,” Ensign, May 1997, 20.

More on this topic: See Jay M. Todd, “In His Holy House,”Ensign, Mar. 1993, 32–41; Ronald K. Esplin, “God Will Protect Me Until My Work Is Done,”Ensign, Aug. 1989, 16–21; Adney Y. Komatsu, “House of the Lord,”Ensign, Nov. 1983, 27–28; James B. Allen, “Line Upon Line,”Ensign, July 1979, 32–39.
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  1. See History of the Church, 2:309.

  2. Deseret News Weekly, 17 Jan. 1877, 809.

  3. History of the Church, 2:379–80.

  4. History of the Church, 4:426.

  5. The Discourses of Wilford Woodruff, sel. G. Homer Durham (1946), 157.

  6. John A. Widtsoe, “Temple Worship,” Utah Genealogical and Historical Magazine, Apr. 1921, 63.

  • Richard O. Cowan is a member of the Provo 13th Ward, Provo Utah East Stake.

Photo of woman by Welden C. Andersen; photo of Seoul Korea Temple

The first latter-day temple was in Kirtland, Ohio. (Photo by George Edward Anderson.)

Christ Appearing to Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery, by Gary E. Smith

The second latter-day temple was in Nauvoo, Illinois. (Nauvoo, Illinois, 1859, by John Schroder.)

The dedication of more than 50 new temples under the direction of President Gordon B. Hinckley has brought temple blessings within half a day’s travel for many members. (Photo by Tamra Hamblin Ratieta.)