“‘A House for Our God’” Revelations in Context (2016)
“A House for Our God,” Revelations in Context
On June 1, 1833, Joseph Smith received a revelation that contained a stern rebuke. “Ye have sinned against me a very grievous sin,” the Lord declared, “in that ye have not considered the great commandment in all things that I have given unto you concerning the building of mine house.”1 That “great commandment” had come five months earlier in a lengthy revelation Joseph called the “olive leaf” (now Doctrine and Covenants 88). It had directed the Saints to “organize [themselves]” and establish “an house of prayer, an house of fasting, an house of faith, an house of learning, an house of glory, an house of order, an house of God.”2
Taken together with instructions to “teach one another” and “seek learning even by study and also by faith,” Joseph Smith and the elders in Kirtland understood this revelation to deliver a twofold mandate.3 They were to “build an house of God, & establish a school for the Prophets.”4 Joseph Smith and the Saints in Kirtland began acting on this instruction almost immediately, but, as the June 1 revelation indicated, they still had only a dim understanding of what it would ultimately mean or of the enormous sacrifices it would require.
Within weeks of the olive leaf revelation, the School of the Prophets was well under way, with as many as 25 men meeting in a small room above the Newel K. Whitney Store (see Nathan Waite, “A School and an Endowment: D&C 88, 90, 95, 109, 110,” on page 174 of this book). The school adjourned for the season by April 1833, and Joseph and the brethren turned their attention to the practical aspects of fulfilling the revelation. Land purchases were soon finalized, and men were appointed to oversee the various industries on those properties.5 On May 4, a conference of high priests met to consider “the necessity of building a school house for the purpose of accommodating the Elders who should come in to receive their education for the ministry.” Hyrum Smith, Jared Carter, and Reynolds Cahoon were appointed “a committee to obtain subscriptions [donations], for the purpose of Erecting such a building.”6
Though the building would come to be known as the Kirtland Temple, the Saints in 1833 did not yet know they were building a temple. They had read of temples in the Bible and the Book of Mormon, but they still knew little about them. Two years earlier, a revelation had indicated that a temple would be built in Jackson County, Missouri.7 Joseph Smith himself had helped set the cornerstone in 1831, but almost no progress had been made, and further revelations gave only a faint view of what the purpose of temples was to be.
The records from the spring of 1833 show that the Saints were thinking of the Kirtland “house” primarily as a “school house,” not necessarily connecting their command with the temple in Zion. Now the June 1 revelation declared that Joseph Smith and the Saints had not sufficiently “considered” the urgency or the importance of the commandment.
That revelation (now Doctrine and Covenants 95) gave some indication of the bigger picture. It revealed that in the “house” the Lord would “endow those whom I have chosen with power from on high”8—connecting the construction of the house with a promised endowment of power.9 It specified the interior dimensions of the building—55 feet wide by 65 feet long—and described the functions of the upper and lower floors of the “inner court,” a phrase that evoked images of the biblical temple in Jerusalem. The revelation also promised further instruction. The house was to be built “not after the manner of the world,” but “after the manner which I shall show unto three of you, whom ye shall appoint and ordain unto this power.”10
Joseph Smith and his counselors, Sidney Rigdon and Frederick G. Williams, were duly appointed “to obtain a draft or construction of the inner court of the house.”11 Williams later described the ensuing vision. “We went upon our knees,” he remembered, “called on the Lord, and the Building appeared within viewing distance: I being the first to discover it. Then all of us viewed it together. After we had taken a good look at the exterior, the building seemed to come right over us.” The finished building, he said, “seemed to coincide with that I there saw to a minutia.”12
One fundamental question settled by this vision was the matter of what materials to use in building the house. Lucy Mack Smith remembered a council meeting in which it was decided that a frame building would be too expensive; a log house was proposed instead. Joseph Smith reminded them “that they were not making a house for themselves or any other man but a house for God.” He said, “And shall we, brethren, build a house for Our God of logs? No, brethren, I have a better plan than that. I have the plan of the house of the Lord given by himself.” Lucy remembered Joseph saying that this plan would show them “the difference between our calculations and his Ideas.” The brethren were “delighted” when Joseph described the full plan, which envisioned a stone structure.13
These events expanded the vision of Joseph Smith and the Saints regarding the physical appearance of the house of the Lord to be built in Kirtland; other revelations contributed to an understanding of Zion and its geography. In June, three weeks after the presidency received their assignment to obtain the Lord’s will regarding the design of the house of the Lord in Kirtland, they produced a plat map for the proposed city of Zion in Missouri that placed the temple at the center and included a sketch of its size, form, and dimensions.14 The presidency directed Missouri leaders to build according to these patterns “immediately in Zion.”15
Meanwhile, a revelation of June 4, 1833 (now Doctrine and Covenants 96), instructed that Bishop Newel K. Whitney take charge of the property on which the house of the Lord was to be built in Kirtland. Kirtland would be the “city of the stake of Zion”—a secondary gathering place patterned after the center place in Missouri. As directed in a revelation dated August 2, 1833 (now Doctrine and Covenants 94), it would be laid out similar to the plan for Missouri, with the house of the Lord at the center, much as the temple was the focus of the envisioned city of Zion.16 The revelation also called for the construction of two additional buildings—a “house” for the presidency and another for a printing operation—to be built alongside the temple in the city’s center.17 Also on August 2, a revelation (Doctrine and Covenants 97) reiterated the command that a “house” be built in Zion (Missouri), “like unto the pattern which I have given you.” It was to be “built speedily” for a place of thanksgiving and instruction.18
Guided by the revelations, the presidency drew a Kirtland plat map and revised the plat for the city of Zion in Missouri.19 They sent the revised plans and copies of the revelations to leaders in Missouri, but by the time the letter arrived, mob violence had broken out. Within months, Church members were forced to vacate Jackson County and put on hold any plans to build a temple there.
Joseph Smith’s efforts at city planning were not unique in 19th-century America. They have been called “one flake in a blizzard of town plans” during that era of rapid westward expansion and urban development.20 The plans for the city of Zion also appeared similar to those of many other towns—drawn up in a grid pattern and carefully laid out in the cardinal directions, with wide streets and spacious lots. But there was a crucial difference: Zion was centered on temples, not markets. It was a place of gathering, where converts came to live in sacred space and from which missionaries fanned out to preach the gospel—which led more people to gather. This spiritual and geographical pattern established in the summer of 1833 would shape Latter-day Saint communities for the rest of the century and beyond.21
After the violence in Missouri, efforts to build the house of the Lord in Kirtland began to accelerate. Responding to the aforementioned revelations, the previously appointed committee of Hyrum Smith, Reynolds Cahoon, and Jared Carter was now called the “building committee,” and its mandate was expanded from fundraising to construction. They were to “proceed immediately to commence building the House or obtaining materials, Stone Brick Lumber &c.”22 On June 7, Hyrum Smith recorded in his diary, “This day commenced making preparations for the Building of the House of the Lord.”23
Building the temple would be a huge challenge for the Saints. In the summer of 1833, there were only 150 members of the Church living in the area.24 None of them had the traditional qualifications to oversee such an ambitious construction project—there was not a single architect or engineer among them, or even an experienced draftsman to draw up the plans.25 Money was already tight, and the construction of the large, distinguished building, at an estimated cost of $40,000, stretched the Church’s financial resources beyond capacity over the next three years.26
While the building’s dimensions and functions and some aspects of its appearance were specified by revelation, other elements were left up to the leaders and workers on the site. The building’s design shows that they drew on their own experience and assumptions about what a church building should look like. Its shape reflects the popular Greek Revival style. Like many builders of the time, they also borrowed an eclectic mix of features from standard building manuals.27 The Gothic windows were widely associated with religious buildings, and the tower and steeple had become iconic features of New England churches.
By that fall, stone foundation walls were in place, but construction soon ground to a halt.28 Workers at the Church-owned brickyard had not been able to produce enough bricks of sufficient quality for use in construction.29 A decision was made to “discontinue the building of the temple for the winter for want of materials and to prepare and get all things ready to recommence it early in the spring.”30
The next major phase of construction began with the arrival in April 1834 of Artemus Millet, a convert and experienced masonry builder from Canada. Millet’s crucial contribution was the suggestion to use a rubblework-and-stucco building technique instead of the more expensive brick construction.31 Following his counsel, the Saints built the walls of rough stone, hauled in from the nearby sandstone quarry, which was then faced with stucco to give it a finished look.
The spring and summer of 1834 were difficult seasons for construction on the temple because most of the men in the community went with Joseph Smith to Missouri in the Camp of Israel, hoping to aid the Saints who had been driven by mob violence from their homes. With the men gone, women carried on the labor. Some did masonry, others drove cattle and hauled rock, and still others sewed, spun, and knit to make clothing for workers.32
The return of Joseph Smith and most of the men from the Camp of Israel meant constructing the temple once again became the primary focus of activity in Kirtland. Joseph himself “acted as foreman in the temple stone quarry” and labored on the building “when other duties would permit.”33 By February 1835, the walls were in place and work had begun on the roof. A meeting was held on March 7, 1835, at which Joseph Smith expressed appreciation to those “who had distinguished themselves Thus far by consecrating to the upbuilding of said house as well as laboring [on its construction].” Sidney Rigdon then gave blessings to 120 individuals who had assisted in building the house of the Lord through their work and consecration.34
By that fall, there was even greater urgency to finish the temple. Lucy Mack Smith expressed the dedication of Church members to the effort. “There was but one main spring to all our thoughts,” she said, “and that was building the Lords house.”35 Truman Angell, a carpenter’s apprentice from Providence, Rhode Island, took the lead on the carpentry work in the upper level.36 Brigham Young and his brother Joseph employed their expert craftsmanship to build and install the windows.37 Another Young brother, Lorenzo, worked with Artemus Millet on the exterior stucco, a challenging job in the cold winter weather. The plastering of the interior was overseen by Jacob Bump, a skilled carpenter who had also built the pulpits and crafted the beautiful woodwork in the lower court. Stoves were strategically placed to warm the interior and aid in the drying of the plaster.38
Women worked on the veils that would be hung from the ceiling to subdivide the lower hall and made other furnishings for the temple. Joseph Smith later “pronounced a blessing upon the Sisters for the liberality in giving their servises so cheerfully to make the veil for the Lord’s house.”39 Children even helped by gathering broken dishes and glassware, which were added to the stucco to help it glisten in the sun.40
The interior of the temple was completed in stages, and as rooms were completed, Church leaders and members began to use them for various purposes. Meanwhile, Joseph Smith labored relentlessly to prepare the Saints spiritually for the manifestations promised in the revelations. “I returned to my house being weary with continual anxiety & labour in puting all the Authorities in [order] & in striving to purify them for the solemn assembly according to the commandment of the Lord,” he recorded in his journal on January 30, 1836.41 Just a few days earlier, in the midst of such preparations, Joseph had received a vision of the celestial kingdom (Doctrine and Covenants 137); other spiritual outpourings during this period offered a glimpse of even greater experiences to come.
The dedication of the house of the Lord was a moment of celebration and satisfaction for the early Saints. The revelations of three years earlier had taken shape through immeasurable sacrifices of labor and resources. In the dedicatory prayer, now found in Doctrine and Covenants 109, Joseph Smith pleaded, “We ask thee, O Lord, to accept of this house, the workmanship of the hands of us, thy servants, which thou didst command us to build; for thou knowest that we have done this work through great tribulation: and out of our poverty we have given of our substance to build a house to thy name, that the Son of Man might have a place to manifest himself to his people.”42
The promised manifestations did come. The Savior appeared and declared his acceptance of the temple, and other heavenly beings committed priesthood keys to Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery.43 Those manifestations opened the way for future temple revelations and ordinances. Having shown their willingness to build the Lord a house, the Latter-day Saints had only just begun to learn the purpose of temples.