Abstract: This essay traces the modern-day usage and understanding of temples from the Kirtland Temple to Nauvoo and the Salt Lake Temple. Architecture was used to teach principles. While the Kirtland Temple was preparatory (think of the vision of Christ and the conference of keys by Abraham, Moses, Abraham, Elias, and finally Elijah), the Nauvoo Temple was dedicated to ritual usage. In 1879, the Church reduced temple usage to rituals, and thus assembly rooms are missing from later temples. Through his paper, Cowan shows how temples have changed according to revelation and how prophets have seen models in vision that then have been incorporated in the temples God’s people built.
[Editor’s Note: Part of our book chapter reprint series, this article is reprinted here as a service to the Latter-day Saint community. Original pagination and page numbers have necessarily changed, otherwise the reprint has the same content as the original.
See Richard O. Cowan, “Latter-day Houses of the Lord: Developments in Their Design and Function,” in Temple Insights: Proceedings of the Interpreter Matthew B. Brown Memorial Conference, “The Temple on Mount Zion,” 22 September 2012, ed. William J. Hamblin and David Rolph Seely (Orem, UT: The Interpreter Foundation; Salt Lake City: Eborn Books, 2014), 203–218. Further information at https://interpreterfoundation.org/books/temple-insights/.]
[Page 92]I am honored to participate in this conference, which pays tribute to Matthew Brown, and to talk about temples, a subject he loved. Elder James E. Talmage spoke of “a definite sequence of development” in understanding the purposes for which temples are built and that these changes are reflected in the buildings themselves.1 The piecemeal restoration of temple understanding in the latter days is reflected in the design of temples built during this dispensation.
Some basic patterns were set in earlier dispensations. The layout of the tabernacle and its grounds emphasized its sacredness and separation from the world. The tabernacle tent was divided into two rooms. The larger outer room was known as the “Holy Place,” and the innermost room was regarded as “The Most Holy Place” or “Holy of Holies.” The tabernacle was surrounded by a courtyard secluded by a fence of fabric panels. As the Israelites pitched their camp, the twelve tribes were arranged around the tabernacle as if to provide a protective shield from the outside world. Only those who were worthy could enter the courtyard, only priests were admitted into the tabernacle’s outer room, and only the high priest could enter the innermost room — The Holy of Holies — once a year on the day of Atonement. This illustrated the principle that the more holy the area, the fewer the number of people who could enter there.
Since Old Testament times, temples have served two major functions. They have been places of contact between heaven and earth — revelation between God and man. They also have been places where sacred ceremonies or “ordinances” have been performed by which the faithful enter into covenants with God. Both of these functions would need to be restored as part of the “restitution of all things” (see Acts 3:19–21) “in the dispensation of the fullness of times” (Ephesians 1:10).
The Kirtland Temple
The first of the functions mentioned above was restored at the Kirtland Temple. In 1833, the Lord promised to endow the Saints “with power from on high.” He specified that the temple was not to be built “after the manner of the world,” but according to a plan that He promised to reveal to three whom the brethren would appoint (see Doctrine & Covenants 95:1-4). Heeding the Lord’s admonition, a conference that convened just two days later appointed the three members of the recently organized First Presidency to obtain a draft (or plan) for the building.2
“Joseph not only received revelation and commandment to build a Temple,” President Brigham Young later testified, “but he received a pattern also, as did Moses for the Tabernacle, and Solomon for his Temple; [Page 93]for without a pattern, he could not know what was wanting, having never seen [a temple], and not having experienced its use.”3 Truman O. Angell, one of the Church’s supervisors of temple construction, later testified that the Lord’s promise to show the building’s design to the First Presidency was literally fulfilled. On an occasion when Joseph Smith invited his counselors to kneel with him in prayer, the building appeared before them in vision. “After we had taken a good look at the exterior, the building seemed to come right over us,” testified Second Counselor Frederick G. Williams. Later, while speaking in the completed temple, he affirmed that the hall in which they were convened coincided in every detail with the vision given to the Prophet.4
Even though the temple’s exterior would look much like a typical New England meetinghouse, its interior had some unique features. The revelation specified that the building’s “inner court” should include two large rooms, one above the other, each measuring 55 by 65 feet. The lower hall was to be a chapel used for praying, preaching, and administering the sacrament. The upper hall was for educational purposes (see D&C 95:15–17).
An unusual feature of the temple’s two main rooms would be multiple pulpits. At both ends there would be a stair-stepped stand with three pulpits on each of its four levels. Those on the west were for the use of the Melchizedek Priesthood, while those on the east were for the Aaronic. Initials on each pulpit would represent the specific priesthood office held by the individual occupying it. These arrangements would help Church members to understand the relative authority of various groups of priesthood leaders.5 Elder Erastus Snow later declared that the Kirtland Temple was built “to show forth the order of the Priesthood, Aaronic and Melchizedek.”6 Thus, the Kirtland Temple was a multipurpose building designed to accommodate a variety of functions.
The Saints built the temple despite poverty and persecution. A popular Latter-day Saint hymn declares, “Sacrifice brings forth the blessings of heaven.”7 The Saints’ sacrifice in building the Lord’s house truly was rewarded. The weeks before the temple’s dedication were a Pentecostal season, as the Prophet Joseph Smith put it, “long to be remembered.”8The climax came one week after the temple’s dedication. On April 3, 1836, which was Easter Sunday, Moses, Elias, and Elijah restored priesthood keys, and the Savior Himself appeared to accept the temple. Joseph Smith recorded: “We saw the Lord standing upon the breastwork of the pulpit, before us; and under his feet was a paved work of pure gold, in color like amber. His eyes were as a flame of fire; the [Page 94]hair of his head was white like the pure snow; his countenance shone above the brightness of the sun; and his voice was as the sound of the rushing of great waters.” The Lord promised to manifest Himself there if “my people will keep my commandments, and do not pollute this holy house” (D&C 110). Clearly, therefore, the Kirtland Temple was a place of revelation — the first function listed above.
The Nauvoo Temple
Sacred ordinances, the other major function of temples, were unfolded while the second temple was being built at Nauvoo, Illinois. In 1840 Joseph Smith taught the Saints that they could be baptized in behalf of the dead (compare 1 Corinthians 15:29). They eagerly went into the Mississippi River to perform this ordinance, thus making gospel blessings available to their loved ones who had died without this opportunity. In 1842 the Prophet presented the endowment, which was a “course of instructions” describing the path that leads back into the presence of God and “setting forth the keys” by which this can be achieved.9 Soon couples were also being “sealed,” or married with solemn covenants “for time and for all eternity” (see D&C 132:7–20).
The revelation directing that the Nauvoo Temple be built reflected that it was to accommodate both of the two main functions of temples. First, the Lord promised to manifest Himself there and restore “that which was lost unto you.” Second, the temple was to be the place for baptisms and other sacred service that “belongeth to my house” (see D&C 124:27-30). When completed, the Nauvoo Temple repeated the Kirtland Temple’s pattern of two large meeting rooms but added a baptismal font in the basement and facilities for other ordinances on its uppermost floor.
Specific parts of the temple were completed and dedicated piecemeal so that ordinance work could begin as soon as possible. During the summer and fall of 1841, the Saints eagerly pushed the temple’s construction. In July, William Weeks began preparing plans for a baptismal font to be located in the temple basement. On October 2 when the Prophet preached on salvation for the dead, he emphatically declared: There shall be no more baptisms for the dead, until the ordinance can be attended to in the Lord’s House; and the Church shall not hold another general conference, until they can meet in said house. For thus saith the Lord!”10
“Just five weeks later, the basement rooms were enclosed by a temporary frame building sided up with split oak clapboards.” Its roof [Page 95]was so low that it fit under the beams of the ground floor.11 A wooden font, carved by Elijah Fordham under Weeks’s direction, measured twelve by sixteen feet. It rested on the backs of twelve oxen, four on each side and two at each end. These were patterned after the most beautiful five-year-old steer that could be found in the country.”12 Joseph Smith dedicated these facilities on Monday, November 8. The first baptisms were performed there two weeks later.
Then, on November 30, 1845, Brigham Young and twenty others who had received their endowment from Joseph Smith gathered to dedicate the attic story for ordinance work. During the next 10 days, Brigham Young, Heber C. Kimball, and others were busy preparing the attic’s central “council chamber” for the presentation of the endowment. It was divided by means of canvas partitions into separate areas representing distinct stages in man’s eternal progress. Saints contributed furnishings for these rooms. Potted plants, for example, were gathered for the area representing the Garden of Eden. The east end of the room had a large gothic window and was furnished with fine carpets and wall hangings. This most beautiful area represented the celestial kingdom. When Joseph Fielding entered this part of the temple for the first time, he felt as though he had truly gotten out of the World.13
The early Saints commonly referred to the Kirtland Temple as the Lord’s “house.” The Nauvoo edifice, on the other hand, was more consistently called a “temple.” Perhaps this change in designation reflected the fact that the latter structure was associated with sacred priesthood ordinances while the first was not.
|Doctrine and Covenants||History of the Church|
Early Utah Temples
Baptisms for the dead were introduced at Nauvoo, but endowments for the dead were not inaugurated until the St. George Temple was completed in 1877. Because these latter ordinances required a much longer time to receive, they quickly became the activity occupying most of the time in the temple.
The St. George Temple was very similar to the temple at Nauvoo, consisting mostly of two large meeting halls, one above the other. There was a font in the basement for baptisms, but the endowment needed to be [Page 96]accommodated by dividing the lower hall into sections using temporary partitions. Several Church leaders indicated that the design of future temples could be changed to more adequately meet these new needs.
In 1879 Elder Orson Pratt pointed out that the Church by then had tabernacles and other buildings for the Saints’ regular meetings. Therefore, temples could be dedicated especially for more “sacred and holy purposes” — for ordinances associated with “the Priesthood of the Most High God.” Elder Pratt insisted that the Lord is “not confined” to a single pattern in temple building any more than He is in the creation of worlds, “but He will construct His Temples in a great variety of ways.”14 Two years previously, Elder Pratt explained, “The Lord begins little by little; he does not reveal everything all at once.” There were no rooms for ordinances in the Kirtland Temple. When baptisms for the dead were restored, a font was provided in the Nauvoo Temple. Endowments for the dead, not known in the first two temples, were now being performed at St. George. Therefore, “by and by,” Elder Pratt concluded, “we will have Temples, with a great many things contained in them which we now have not.”15
That there would be variations in temple design had been made known to President Brigham Young in St. George. “Oh Lord,” he had prayed, “show unto thy servants if we shall build all temples after the same pattern.” Men do not build their homes the same when their families are large as when they are small, came the inspired response. “So shall the growth of the knowledge of the principles of the gospel among my people cause diversity in the pattern of temples.”16 Years earlier, at the time ground was broken for the Salt Lake Temple, President Young had taught that the order of priesthood ordinances is made known by revelation, and therefore we should know what facilities must be included in our temples.17
The pattern of separate endowment rooms had first been seen in the adobe Endowment House, dedicated in 1855. After receiving preliminary ordinances and instructions, one would pass successively through the garden, world, and terrestrial rooms, each with corresponding murals on the wall. All were located on the ground floor, and each was one step higher than the preceding room. One would then ascend a stairway to the second floor, where the terrestrial, celestial, and sealing rooms were found.
This new concept in temple design would be reflected in the Logan, Manti, and Salt Lake temples, completed during the last two decades of the 19th century. The space formerly occupied by the lower of the two [Page 97]large assembly rooms would be divided to provide the specific rooms needed for the endowment and other ordinances. The basic architectural concept for these new temples was worked out by Truman O. Angell under the personal direction of the Prophet Brigham Young. Both the Manti and Logan temples would have similar dimensions, be built in the “castellated” (or castle-like) style with local stone, and would have two towers. By the later 1870s, however, Angell was in poor health and tied up with other projects, so the task of completing the design for these buildings was turned over to his two capable assistants. William H. Folsom, who had helped design the Salt Lake Tabernacle, became architect for the Manti Temple, while Truman O. Angell Jr. received the assignment to complete the plans for the temple in Logan.18
Early the following year, the younger Angell proposed that rather than having two large assembly rooms with elliptical ceilings, as had been the case in Nauvoo, the Salt Lake Temple should follow the pattern that Presidents Young and Taylor had already approved for Logan and Manti. There would be only one assembly room on the upper floor, and it would have balconies under the elliptical windows along each side. The temple’s main floor would contain spacious rooms for presenting the endowment, while an intermediate floor would provide smaller council rooms for the use of various priesthood groups, including the general authorities. This plan would accommodate 300 people in the endowment sessions — more than twice the number that could be served in the basement under the original arrangement. These changes were consistent with Brigham Young’s 1860 instructions that the temple would not be designed for general meetings, but rather it would be for the endowments — for the organization and instruction of the Priesthood.19 Thus, the design even of the Salt Lake Temple reflected the Saints’ unfolding understanding of temple functions.
Because of its location at Church headquarters, the intermediate floor for the general authorities plays a unique and significant role in Church governance. Key decisions are reached following prayerful consideration by the Council of the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, who meet weekly in their council room on that floor in the temple. These decisions include such matters as ordaining and setting apart new presidents of the Church, appointing other general authorities, creating new missions and stakes, and approving Church programs. Notable examples have included the 1952 decision to build temples overseas, the determination in 1976 to add what we now know as sections 137 and 138 to the standard works, and the 1978 revelation [Page 98]extending the priesthood to all worthy males (Official Declaration 2). Reflecting on these weekly meetings in the temple, Elder Spencer W. Kimball affirmed that those who could witness the prophet’s wisdom in reaching decisions would surely believe he was inspired. “To hear him conclude important new developments with such solemn expressions as ‘the Lord is pleased’; ‘that move is right’; ‘our Heavenly Father has spoken,’ is to know positively.”20
The Salt Lake Temple’s exterior was designed to teach important gospel principles. The intent of the temple’s design, one architectural historian observed, was “to aid man in his quest to gain entrance back into the presence of God from whence he came.”21 I have valued Matthew Brown’s insights into the meaning of these symbols.
Brigham Young testified: “I scarcely ever say much about revelations, or visions, but suffice it to say, five years ago last July  I was here, and saw in the Spirit the Temple not ten feet from where we have laid the Chief Corner Stone. I have not inquired what kind of a Temple we should build. Why? Because it was represented before me. I have never looked upon that ground, but the vision of it was there. I see it as plainly as if it was in reality before me. Wait until it is done. I will say, however, that it will have six towers, to begin with, instead of one. Now do not any of you apostatize because it will have six towers, and Joseph only built one [on the Kirtland and Nauvoo Temples]. It is easier for us to build sixteen, than it was for him to build one.”22
An early account described what happened when it came time to design the temple’s specific features: “Brigham Young drew upon a slate in the architect’s office a sketch, and said to Truman O. Angell: ‘there will be three towers on the east, representing the President and his two counselors; also three similar towers on the west representing the Presiding Bishop and his two counselors; the towers on the east, the Melchizedek Priesthood, those on the west the Aaronic Priesthood. The centre towers will be higher than those on the sides, and the west towers a little lower than those on the east end. The body of the building will be between these.’”23 Angell pointed out that each tower would have twelve pinnacles, symbolizing the Twelve Apostles.24
As with the Nauvoo Temple, special ornamental stones were an important feature of the Salt Lake Temple’s exterior. An earthstone formed the base of each of the temple’s fifty buttresses. These were the largest stones in the temple, weighing more than six thousand pounds and having on their faces a representation of the globe, four feet in diameter. These stones served as a reminder, architect Angell explained, [Page 99]that the gospel message had to go to all the earth.25 Each buttress had a moonstone about halfway up, and a sunstone near its top. Because the earth is presently in a telestial condition, the three ornamental stones on each buttress might represent the three degrees of glory in ascending order — telestial, terrestrial, and celestial. These, together with the starstones on the temple’s towers, also reminded Latter-day Saints of these kingdoms. One scholar has suggested another possible interpretation. Referring to Abraham 3:5, he pointed out that “as we move upward into the heavens, the time sequences become longer. Likewise, the temple stones that communicate time begin with a short period of time, the day, and move toward the eternal present, where time almost ceases to move.” The earthstones at the temple’s base represent our planet, which rotates once every day. Stones about halfway up the building depict the moon’s monthly cycle. Sunstones near the top symbolize yet a longer period of time — the year. The depiction of stars even higher on the building suggests yet longer periods of revolution.26
The constellation of Ursa Major (the Big Dipper), depicted on the west center tower, is positioned so that the two “pointer stars” at the end of the dipper are literally aligned with Polaris (the North Star) in the heavens. This star appears to be a fixed point in the sky around which other stars revolve; hence, it might be thought of as representing eternity, or the absence of time. Angell suggested another message to be gained from this constellation on the temple — “the lost may find themselves by the Priesthood.”27
Even the placement of the moonstones can remind us of the Savior. Proceeding from right to left, they successively represent the moon’s new, first-quarter, full, and third-quarter phases. Since the fifty buttresses cannot be divided evenly by these four phases, of necessity, there will be a break in the sequence at some point. One student of the Salt Lake Temple concluded that this was done on purpose.28 This break occurs on the north wall — the full moon and third quarter being skipped so that a new moon follows directly after a first quarter. A plan of the temple drafted in 1878 carefully plotted each moonstone according to lunar phase and month of year.29 The date of January 1 could then be assigned to the new moon immediately after this break; dates can then also be assigned to each of the succeeding phases. The right buttress on the face of the temple’s main east center tower would thus represent April 6, regarded by many as the date of the Savior’s birth.30 Gilded letters on this same tower identify April 6 as the date of the temple’s commencement and completion.31 The left buttress on this tower includes a representation [Page 100]of the full moon. Because Easter is celebrated on the Sunday following the first full moon after the beginning of spring, this moonstone may remind us of the Savior’s atoning sacrifice, which was completed with His Resurrection on that first glorious Easter morning.
The buttresses of the east center tower also include cloudstones, which show rays of light penetrating through the clouds. These may be representations of the gospel light piercing the dark clouds of superstition and error (see Isaiah 60:2–3). Or they may recall how a cloud of glory filled the ancient temple (see 1 Kings 8:10) and will rest on the latter-day temple in the New Jerusalem (see D&C 84:5).
On the same tower, the keystone at the top of the lower large window depicts clasped hands. These remind us of the power that comes from gospel fellowship and of the unity that must exist among those who would build Zion (see Galatians 2:9; Moses 7:18; D&C 38:24–27; 88:133). The hands also suggest the importance of honoring sacred commitments. The keystone above the east center tower’s upper window depicts God’s “all-seeing eye” that watches over both the righteous and the wicked (see 1 Kings 9:3; Psalms 33:13–14, 18–19; Proverbs 15:3).32
At the dawning of the twentieth century, Church leaders instructed architects designing the new Alberta Temple that they should depart from nineteenth-century patterns in two ways. They did not need to include towers or the large upper assembly room. Thus there would be no accommodations for general meetings, and the remaining facilities were focused specifically on temple ordinances. This became the pattern for almost all temples built since that time.
During the second half of the twentieth century, new audio-visual means were used to present the endowment. In early temples, they were presented in a series of rooms with murals on the walls, beginning with the creation of this earth and depicting successive stages in our quest to return to God’s presence. However, when President David O. McKay announced the first overseas temple that would be built in Switzerland, he indicated that “the Church could bring temples to these people by building smaller edifices for this purpose and more of them.”33
Harold W. Burton, a Latter-day Saint architect then living in Southern California, recalled how in 1952, Howard McKean, then chairman of the Church Building Committee, wanted to discuss with him President McKay’s challenge to find a less costly way to build temples. Burton realized that it would be necessary to reduce the size of these sacred structures without diminishing their functional capacity. His experience in the motion picture industry a decade earlier led him [Page 101]to a possible solution: “It was my opinion that if the first four Temple Ordinance Rooms could be combined, and with picture projection substituted for mural paintings to create a proper setting pertaining to the Creation, the Garden, and the World, very substantial reduction in the size of the Temple could be effected.” Although some felt this idea was “too revolutionary,” it nevertheless was adopted for the Swiss Temple.34
This made it possible to present the endowment in a single ordinance room, in more than one language, and with far fewer than the usual number of temple workers. The film was produced under the supervision of Elder Joseph Fielding Smith and Elder Richard L. Evans of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles and architect Edward O. Anderson. Gordon B. Hinckley, secretary of the missionary committee (not yet a general authority), had the prime responsibility for creating the film. “It was a charge of enormous significance,” Brother Hinckley’s biographer declared. “The ramifications of this project were enormous, as they would extend far beyond the temple in Switzerland.” In the fifth-floor room of the Salt Lake Temple where Elder James E. Talmage completed his monumental book, Jesus the Christ, Brother Hinckley spent many evenings, Saturdays, and some Sunday mornings outlining ideas. Although other members of the committee were helpful, Brother Hinckley soon found himself working personally with President McKay.35 Together they spent considerable time reviewing the temple ceremonies and praying for divine guidance. President McKay later remarked: “There is no other man in the church who has done so much in assisting to carry this new temple plan to the Saints of the world as has Brother Hinckley.”36
The Swiss Temple, dedicated in 1955, set the pattern for the New Zealand and London Temples that opened three years later. Originally, each of these newer temples had only one presentation room, meaning that a new session could begin only once every two hours. The Oakland Temple, dedicated in 1964, had two large endowment rooms, enabling a new session to start every hour or so. The next two temples would be even more convenient.
Of special interest to Saints along the Wasatch Front are the designs for the Ogden and Provo temples. At the August 14, 1967, meeting where the Ogden and Provo temples were announced, Church leaders explained that these new temples “will be of the smaller type” following the pattern developed for the first overseas temples, “but so designed to have a high capacity.”37
[Page 102]A few days later, President McKay assigned Emil B. Fetzer to design the new temples. The prophet explained that “in the coming years, many Temples will be built. Of necessity, these Temples must be functional in design and cost so that they may accomplish their sacred purposes and to be blessings to the Church membership.”38 Specifically the prophet instructed them to use the “same architectural plan for both temples,” include no solemn assembly room, have only “a single spire rather than multiple spires,” not place an angel Moroni atop the spire, and not include any unnecessary “footage” or “cubage.”39
Shortly afterward, Emil Fetzer and Fred Baker needed to fly to Europe on Building Committee matters. They met in the Kennedy Airport in New York before boarding a Pan-American DC-8 for the overnight trans-Atlantic flight. After the midnight dinner, they proceeded to discuss the “grand assignment” to design the two temples. Brother Fetzer recalled: “After we had discussed Temple design for some time, all of a sudden I felt as though I were walking through a Temple Building. I described to Brother Baker what I was seeing in my mind as I was walking through the Temple — the Temple recommend desk in the main entrance foyer, the inner foyer, the offices and ancillary spaces and facilities on the ground floor. On the second floor I saw and described the Chapel and Sealing Rooms. However, the most important of all that I was seeing was the unusual plan configuration of the third floor. There was a large, beautiful, center room (Celestial Room) surrounded by a cluster of six rooms (Ordinance Rooms) which completely surrounded the Celestial Room. A broad, circular hallway went completely around the six rooms with access to them from this hallway. It was a wonderful concept and a very unique and distinctive plan arrangement.” Before they knew it, it was daylight, and the plane was landing in Frankfurt. They had been discussing the temple “all night long.”40
Fetzer later reported that the idea for this specific arrangement came from a park in Copenhagen that was completely surrounded by a roadway in the form of an elongated ellipse. He called this a “Danish ellipse,” and “a modification of this idea was adapted to be exactly what I needed to accommodate the rooms and corridors of the upper two floors.”41 Still, he insisted, this “unique and fundamental modification of Temple design concept was more than my own thinking. It was a direct inspiration given to me by the Holy Spirit.”42
While “most monumental structures have been designed with first emphasis on the outside appearance, with the interior fit to the outside design,” Fetzer instead “gave first consideration and emphasis to the [Page 103]needs of the interior and then designed the exterior to enclose the areas.” Hence the outside walls of the temple’s main upper portion followed the rounded course of the third floor hallway.43 Thus the Ogden and Provo temples fit the architectural maxim, “form follows function.”
At the end of the 20th century, President Gordon B. Hinckley directed the construction of much smaller temples around the world; though significantly smaller in size than most earlier temples, they retained the same high standards of construction and accommodated the same functions that had characterized larger temples over the years. Throughout all these developments, temples have been designed to accommodate their sacred functions as effectively and efficiently as possible.