“Nauvoo Temple,” Church History Topics
Latter-day Saints settled in Commerce (later Nauvoo), Illinois, in 1839 after being driven from Missouri. Their eventual expulsion prevented them from completing three planned temples in Missouri but did not discourage them from attempting to build a temple-centered city.1 Land for a new temple in Nauvoo was secured in 1840. Construction proceeded slowly for more than five years, and by the time most Saints left Illinois in 1846, they had erected a magnificent temple, largely through consecrated labor and means.
At the October 1840 Church conference, a committee was selected to oversee construction, and Joseph Smith announced that the temple would be built by the tithes of members. Able-bodied men in and near Nauvoo were asked to donate their labor to help extract stone from nearby quarries and haul it to the temple site. Many made in-kind donations to the temple, and members who lived at greater distances were asked to donate cash. Women contributed substantial financial resources through participation in a penny fund. Skilled stonecutters and carpenters were hired to do the finishing work and were paid with donated goods.2
At the same time the temple was under construction, Joseph Smith received revelation and introduced new teachings that transformed the very purpose of Latter-day Saint temples. Joseph introduced proxy baptisms for the dead, marriages for eternity, and a ritual called the endowment, all of which, he taught, were to be performed within the temple. Thus, in addition to functioning as a place of public worship, the Nauvoo Temple was designed to accommodate these sacred ordinances. For example, a font resting on the backs of 12 wooden oxen was installed in the basement for baptisms. The temple’s exterior, designed by William Weeks in collaboration with Joseph Smith, featured unique carvings of suns, stars, and moons, symbolic of Joseph Smith’s temple-related teachings and revelations.3
The ambitious building project also necessitated adaptations to Church organization and policy that have proven enduring. The first Church wards were created as a way of encouraging an even distribution of tithing laborers on the temple: there were ten wards in Nauvoo, and the men in each ward donated one day’s labor in ten to the construction. The Relief Society began in part as an effort to organize women to contribute to the building of the temple. Tithing payment as a requirement for temple attendance likewise began in Nauvoo as Saints were encouraged to pay their tithing as a part of being worthy to use the baptismal font or receive the temple endowment.4
In fall 1845, the Latter-day Saints faced harassment and intense pressure to leave Illinois, but they were determined to finish the temple so that worthy Saints could receive temple ordinances before leaving for the West. They raced to finish the temple and dedicated the attic in December 1845 for the purpose of administering marriage sealings and the endowment. By early February 1846, more than 6,000 Latter-day Saints had entered the temple and received the promised endowment.5 Most of these Saints spoke in reverent awe of the experience and felt repaid for the sacrifices they made to construct the temple. “If it had not been for the faith and knowledge that was bestowed upon us in that Temple,” Sarah Pea Rich asserted, the trip across the Great Plains “would have been like one taking a leap in the dark.”6
Though portions of the temple were unfinished, the entire temple was dedicated on May 1, 1846. Forced to abandon the temple, Church leaders decided to sell it to help finance the Church’s migration to the Great Basin but were unable to do so.7 The temple was burned by an unknown arsonist in 1848, and much of the stone superstructure was toppled by a tornado in 1850. In 1999, President Gordon B. Hinckley announced that the Nauvoo Illinois Temple would be rebuilt on the same footprint as the original building. The Church carefully researched drawings and photographs of the original temple to match the exterior design, and the interior was adapted to the needs of modern temple worship. The reborn temple was dedicated in June 2002.8