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Latter-day Saint History

How Was the St. George Temple Built?

This post discusses the history and significance of the St. George, Utah Temple.

The St. George Temple was the only temple completed in Utah Territory during President Brigham Young‘s administration. Precedents were set there for clothing, performing ordinances in behalf of those outside of family, endowments for the dead, and record keeping. In addition, the endowment ceremony was put in writing for the first time in association with the temple’s construction. It was also in the St. George Temple that Wilford Woodruff saw the Founding Fathers in vision. This post discusses the history and significance of the St. George, Utah Temple.


Read more about the St. George Temple in All That Was Promised: St George Temple and the Unfolding of the Restoration.


Table of Contents


How did people react to being called on missions to settle St. George?

Settling St. George was no light undertaking. The community was planned as a central settlement for the Cotton Mission in southern Utah—an initiative to take advantage of the warmer climate to produce cotton and grapes while the Civil War threatened to cut off access to those resources from the southern United States.

Others refused.

But the land was not hospitable to settlement, with alkaline soils, volatile rivers subject to flash floods and changes in course, and an arid and hot climate.

George A. Smith once described southern Utah thus: “I think if the Lord had got up all the rough, rocky and the broken fragments of the earth in one he might have dropped it down there.”[1]

Southern Utah was not seen as a hospitable place.

A photograph of Kolob Canyon near St. George, Utah.
Kolob Canyon, near the St. George Temple, demonstrates some of the landscapes the early Latter-day Saint colonists encountered.

The calls to settle St. George were extended during the October 1861 General Conference without prior warning. Those to whom the calling was extended were chosen for their varied skills and commitment to the Church.

Reactions varied.

John Pulsipher, for example, wrote:

At an evening meeting in the City I was informed by Bro Geo. A. Smith that I was selected for a missionary to the south—on, what was known as the cotton mission.

This news was very unexpected to me. Volunteers were called for at conference to go on this mission—but I did not think it meant me, for I had a good home, was well satisfied & had plenty to do.”

But when the apostle Geo. A. told me I was selected to go I saw the importance of the mission to Sustain Israel in the mountains—we had need of a possession in a warmer climate, & I thot I might as well go as any body. Then the Spirit came upon me so that I felt to thank the Lord that I was worthy to go.[2]

Others were very stoic in accepting the call. When the Jarvis family arrived at their lot (which consisted of a mesquite bush on a sand knoll), Mr. Jarvis said: “Well, we are home. Get out mother.” Mrs. Jarvis looked around and began to cry. She got herself under control, then told their children: “Don’t you dare cry. Father says this is home so let’s get started.”[3] It was far from her ideal, but she was committed to carrying out their mission.

Yet others refused. William Fawcett observed that: “Some made excuses, some backed out. … Some would not sell without sacrifice, others clung to their property or deserted their mission. Some thought they were called for a punishment.”[4] I’m not sure the exact chronology of events, but one of my ancestors was already under pressure to take a second wife when the call to move to southern Utah came. He was quite successful with his farms in the Jordan area, and the dual push of plural marriage and settling in southern Utah led the whole family to quit the Church rather than abandoning the life they had built.

Brigham Young felt a sense of urgency to have the temple built.

Given the challenges of the call, St. George was thought of as a community of very committed Latter-day Saints. Ongoing challenges of food and water supply led some to leave, creating further selection pressure in favor of those committed enough to the Church to risk and sacrifice everything to fulfill their mission.

This commitment to the Church was one reason they were host to the construction of the first completed temple in Utah (along with the logistical reality that the warmer climate allowed for a longer working season).


Why is the St. George Temple significant?

There are several reasons that the St. George Temple is significant. Asides from the temple pro tem known as the Endowment House in Salt Lake City,[5] the St. George Temple was the earliest temple completed in Utah Territory. Unlike the Logan, Manti, and Salt Lake City temples, the railroad did not run to St. George, making it, in some senses, the only pioneer temple in the western United States.

The St. George Temple was the first fully operational temple to be used by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints after they abandoned the Nauvoo Temple while fleeing Illinois.

Brigham Young strongly believed that endowments for the dead and adoption sealings should be performed only in full-fledged temples. Thus, the first endowments for the dead took place in the St. George Temple. Also, as the first fully operational temple in the west, many of the conventions of record keeping, dress, and administration in temples were developed while operating the St. George Temple.

Historian Matthew McBride talks about Latter-day Saints and the building of the St. George Temple.

In addition, one of the major reasons Brigham Young felt a sense of urgency to have the temple built was so he could pass on the temple ordinances. (He proved somewhat prophetic in that regard, since he died before any other temples were completed in Utah Territory.)

As part of that process, Brigham Young worked with Wilford Woodruff to write down and refine a script for the endowment ceremony (which had only existed as an oral tradition up to that time).


How were people working on the temple provisioned?

The construction of the temple took a lot of work from a lot of people, and they had to be fed and clothed. While St. George had come a long way from its first few years of starvation, there was still not a superabundance of supplies available.

In fact, one of Juanita Brooks’s favorite stories to tell was of her grandmother meeting with some of the wives of Brigham Young:

They came down to establish the Retrenchment Society. They told us how it was the wish of the President that we should do away with all our extravagences in dress and habits. I looked around at the women in the audience. We were all in homespun, coarse and faded-looking … and the speaker wore a silk dress with wide bands of velvet ribbon and lace edging. I sat there and listened as long as I could stand it, and then I said: “Which do you want us to retrench from, Sister Young, the bread or the molasses?”[6]

Throughout construction, the temple workers always felt short on supplies, but managed to pull through.

Leaders did not allow people to lift the covers and see what they were transporting.

The efforts of members to donate and transport supplies were what made it possible. For example, Charles Pulsipher (John Pulsipher’s brother and one of Zerah Pulsipher’s sons) traveled extensively around southwestern Utah to collect and coordinate these donations.

As he recalled:

I went down and went to work with the carpenters on the Temple I had worked a few days when I attendid a meeting in the evening and after meeting was out their was severel Standing around the Stove before starting home[.] B[isho]p Mcarthur said [“]Bro Snow what are we agoing to do for provisions to keepe these Temple hands at work[?”] for the most of the hands had not got their Suplies … but dependid on the tithing Office to furnish them[.] [“]We have sent for the last load of corn that I have any acct of to get[.”]

Bro Snow Studdi[e]d a little and said to him [“]dont you think considerable could be raised by freewill Offerings[?”]

[“]well[,”] the Bp said [“]perhaps a little might be got in that way but nothing to what it take to feede those 40 hands and their families[.”] he then turnd round to me putting putting the question derectly to me [“]and what do you think about it Bro Charles[?”] I was Suprised that he should ask me that question[.]

I said [ “]about 3 week ago I was up to Sedar City to get my flour for the winter and I found quite a lively intrest manifested in regard the building of a Temple and I think that if Some thorough arangements was enterd into and persevereing missionaries Sent that considerable means could be geatherd[.”]

Charles learned that he had to be careful about making suggestions. In one instance, he was the person assigned to carry out his own suggestion:

he Slapt his hand on my sholder and Said [ “]wont you Start out and See what can be done[?”]

I said [“]why Bro Snow I ant a preacher and not one of the missionaries[.”]

[“]well we can well we can make you a missionary and you can learn to be a preacher.[”]

[“]Well if you Say go[,] of course I will go and do the best I can.[”]

[“]When you get your pardner of your choice come around and I will see you off[”] …

So we prepaird our selves … and went from one settlement to the <next> holding a meeting at every settlement urgeing the necessity of donateing of our means to help along the noble work and as Soon as we got a load we would ♢ome one or two to go and take it rite dowen So that the hands might keepe at work and thus we kept them agoing[.][7]

Through these donations, the temple construction work was provisioned.


Were there problems with the St. George Temple foundation?

Brigham Young rejected locations proposed for the temple by the local Latter-day Saints and selected a spot that was known for turning to wetlands through portions of the year. Apparently, an underground limestone formation blocks the flow of groundwater from a nearby hill, causing the water to flow to the surface.

When the logistical difficulties of building in a bog were pointed out by Robert Gardner and others, Brigham Young still insisted that it was the spot where the temple needed to be built, saying: “This site was selected by inspiration and dedicated to the Lord.”[8] When work on digging the foundation began, it became apparent that the bog would not support the weight of a heavy building like the temple and construction work stopped for a time, until Brigham Young inspected the situation and made the decision for them to keep moving forward.

Excavation to create the footings and basement was a difficult process. Mud had to be removed and then the space was walled off to prevent more mud from refilling the space from which it had been removed. Some of the removal work was done using horses, but most of it was done by hand, loading wheelbarrows and buckets that were taken away from the site to be emptied. The process took ten months, but parts of the lot were still too unstable to support a heavy structure.

They dealt with the problem by packing the ground with small lava rocks (which were abundant in the area and known to resist leaching from the alkaline soil). The whole community worked to gather and deliver the rocks to the site, gradually building piles of rubble in the excavation.

An iron cannon that the community had purchased for the local militia was filled with lead and then lifted with a derrick and dropped onto the lava rock to drive it into the ground. This was repeated until they had made the ground compact enough to make the footings stable, with the test being that the cannon had to bounce three times after impact with the ground. Drain lines were also created to funnel water away from the temple foundation.

All told, it took from November 1871 to March 1873 to get the land to the point where they could start laying the foundation stones in place.[9]


What’s something unique donated to build the St. George Temple?

Hair. The temple was built out of red rock, so the white facade was created using plaster. Plasters were also used inside the temple for decorative elements, covering the walls and ceilings, etc. In order to give the plaster more stability and resilience, hair was sometimes added as a binding agent.

For example, during one of the trips that Charles Pulsipher and John L. Smith made to gather supplies, they reported bringing back “forty bushels of hair for use in plastering the Temple.”[10]

Sometimes the hair came from horses and other livestock and sometimes the hair came from the Latter-day Saints themselves.


What role did the United Order play?

On February 9, 1874, Brigham Young organized St. George’s residents into a United Order. The practical reality for starting in St. George was that pooling resources would allow work on the temple to speed up through freeing up the labor force and reducing the effects of a recent recession (as mentioned above, Brigham Young was anxious to see a temple completed quickly).[11]

I received a revelation concerning the redemption of my dead.

Beginning in St. George, Brigham Young went through the rest of the territory and established similar United Orders in most Latter-day Saint settlements. At one point, President Young even contemplated recording the promptings he had experienced that urged him to take this action in the form of a revelation, akin to those in the Doctrine and Covenants.

As he stated on one occasion:

The word of the Lord that was reveal[e]d to his People, by his servant the Prophet sear and Reverlator, President Brigham Young, Feb[r]uary 1874[.] He speak unto the people saying,

Thus saith the Lord it is my will that this people should enter into A Holy united order, by concentrating their labour, there time, and their means together for the interest of my Kingdom, and for their own mutual benefit, And I the Lord will bless them abundantly, they shall get along with less labour, and less means, And become a great deal richer, and happyer, and be enabled to do a great deal more good, And if not the curse of the Lord will be upon them, for we are got as far as we can get in our present position, for the time is fully come that we should enter into this Holy Order, the Lord is saying come, and Holy angles are saying come, and all good men are saying come, and I say come let us enter into this Holy Order, that the Kingdom of Heaven may continue to advance, till it fill the whole earth with the knowledge and love of God, Hear this oh Israil, I tell you the Kingdom of God cannot advance one step further until we enter into this Holy Order.[12]

This was never published as an official revelation, but serves to demonstrate how committed to the idea Brigham Young was and why St. George—along with other communities—were encouraged to establish these orders.


Why was it tricky to transport the baptismal font?

The baptismal font was one of the main components of the temple that was constructed outside of the St. George area. Brigham Young commissioned the font with an ironworking foundry in Salt Lake City, paying for it as a donation to the St. George Temple. The oxen came first, though when Brigham Young saw the first draft of a wooden model by Amos Howe, he declared: “That won’t do, Amos,” and initiated a search in Utah and Idaho for a perfect ox to use as a live model.

It took a few months, but they found it, and the result was excellent enough that Brigham Young declared: “Brother Howe, you have even registered the disposition of the live ox.”[13]

The work moved forward, with Amos Howe and Nathan Davis creating the oxen, font, and steps.

A black-and-white photograph of the St. George Temple baptismal font.
The St. George Temple Baptismal Font.

That much metal is heavy (around 8165 kg or 18,000 lb), and the railroad only made it to the Cedar City area. After arriving at the railroad terminal, the components of the font were loaded onto a series of wagons that made their way to St. George as a caravan. The hot weather and heavy loads were hard on the oxen, making it difficult to stop the oxen from stampeding when they smelled water.

Another difficulty was that, given the sacred nature of what they were transporting, leaders of the wagon train generally did not allow people to lift the covers and see what they were transporting. This even applied to federal soldiers, who were in the area because of John D. Lee’s trial and execution in connection with the Mountain Meadows Massacre.

On at least one occasion, the soldiers suspected that the wagon train was transporting weapons that might be used against them and stopped the wagon train, but ultimately, the train moved forward without them seeing what was inside the wagons.

When they made it to St. George, the components of the font were assembled and welded together in the basement. Once assembled, they had to move it into final position. It was decided that oxen would not be able to bring the font in for a smooth and safe landing, so men would have to do the pulling. A group of former sailors carried out the task, safely maneuvering the font in the temple with ropes and pulleys. It was then anchored into place directly onto the compacted rock footing. The flooring was then added around it, giving the appearance of the hooves being buried in the floor.[14]


Which actions of Wilford Woodruff were significant?

As mentioned above, Wilford Woodruff worked closely with President Brigham Young as he worked on writing down and editing the endowment script. This became the basis of the temple ordinances moving forward, even with them undergoing editing and revision from time to time afterwards.

Wilford Woodruff was called as the first president of the St. George Temple. One thing he chose to do that has become traditional is to wear white while attending to temple work. President Woodruff also received a revelation (that Brigham Young approved), which allowed people to perform ordinances for the dead for people beyond their family and close friends.

As he noted in his journal on February 23, 1877: “While meeting at the altar I received a revelation concerning the redemption of my dead.”[15]

He later explained:

When I inquired of the Lord how I could redeem my dead, while I was in St. George, not having any of my family there, the Lord told me to call upon the Saints in St. George and let them officiate for me in that temple, and it should be acceptable unto Him. Brother McAllister and the brethren and sisters there have assisted me in this work, and I felt to bless them with every feeling of my heart. This is a revelation to us. We can help one another in these matters, if we have not relatives sufficient to carry this on, and it will be acceptable unto the Lord.[16]

This formed an important precedent for temple work moving forwards and also serves as context for the Wilford Woodruff vision of the U.S. Founding Fathers.


Did Brigham Young burn down the tower because he didn’t like how it looked?

The tower burned after Brigham Young died. It ended up being short and squat during the first construction. Brigham Young thought it looked bad and expressed displeasure with how the tower had turned out, but left it as it was.

A photograph of the St. George Temple, complete with its original tower that has since been burned down.
The St. George Temple with the original Tower.

On August 16, 1878, however, lightning struck the tower, causing it to catch fire. The tower burned down before the fire was stopped, and smoldering embers continued to threaten to burn down the rest of the structure for a few days. In the immediate aftermath of the fire, the opening was just covered over, but eventually construction began on a new tower, which was completed in 1883. They were able to make the tower taller and better looking this time around, and it has not burned down since.

At the time the tower was struck by lightning, Brigham Young had been dead for about a year. Given the displeasure he expressed about the tower during his lifetime, people have joked from time to time that he arranged for the lightning to strike the tower from the other side of the veil, kind of like Yoda’s force ghost did with the Jedi temple in Star Wars VII: The Last Jedi. Most likely, it was natural causes that led to the lightning striking the tower, but you never know.


What changes have been made to the St. George Temple?

The St. George Temple has undergone several renovations and changes over the years. For example, when the temple was constructed, it was organized like the Kirtland and Nauvoo temples, with two assembly halls stacked on top of each other forming the majority of the interior.

Given that temple ordinances had become the primary function of temples (with tabernacles and meetinghouses serving as meeting spaces), the lower assembly hall was partitioned using heavy canvasses to function as an endowment space with room-to-room movement, as was the case at the Endowment House in Salt Lake City. This was made permanent in 1938 by installing walls on the main floor to divide the different rooms.[17]

Here are some of the notable renovations over the years:

  • 1883: The tower was replaced after the original had burned down a few years beforehand. Temple annex buildings were constructed sometime within the next decade as well, though those annexes burned down in November 1928.
  • 1903: An additional annex was constructed, work was done to patch up ceiling, repainting, etc.
  • 1917: Two marriage rooms were added.
  • 1938: The lower Assembly Hall was rebuilt with permanent walls dividing it into four ordinance rooms. An elevator was added for the first time and the landscape was remodeled. Annexes were added in subsequent years to replace the former ones that had burned down in 1928.
  • 1975: The annexes were demolished and rebuilt as a structure larger in total volume than the temple itself. The basement was expanded to match, with additional marriage rooms, office areas, a chapel, elevators, a cafeteria, laundry room, and engineering room. The interior of the temple was remodeled to allow for use of the endowment videos rather than live ceremonies. Utilities were updated Renovations were extensive enough to require a rededication.[18]
  • 2019: This is the renovation that was just barely completed. Additions include a new brides’ plaza on the east side, a new baptistry entrance added on the south side, steel added to the original wood trusses of the temple, and a new heating and cooling system. Demolition crews removed the 20th-century additions to the north and west sides of the temple and replaced them with ones that match the temple better. A rededication ceremony is planned for December 10, 2023.[19]
Watch a video tour of the St. George Temple after the 2019-2023 renovation.


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Further Reading

Temple Resources

Sources

[1] Cited in Ronald W. Walker, Richard E. Turley Jr., Glen M. Leonard, Massacre at Mountain Meadows: An American Tragedy (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2008), 68.

[2] John Pulsipher, Part of the Life and Doings of John Pulsipher: From 1827 to 1874, 2 vol.(unpublished manuscript, copy in author’s possession), 1:138.

[3] Cited in Blaine M. Yorgason, Richard A. Schmutz, and Douglas D. Alder, All That Was Promised: The St. George Temple and the Unfolding of the Restoration (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 2013), 47.

[4] William Fawcett, “William Fawcett Version of the Dixie Settlement,” Washington County News, 12 January 1961, in Andrew Karl Larson Papers, Dixie State University Special Collections.

[5] See Lisle G Brown, “‘Temple Pro Tempore”: The Salt Lake City Endowment House,” Journal of Mormon History, 34/4 (Fall 2008): 1-68.

[6] Juanita Brooks, Quicksand and Cactus: A Memoir of the Southern Mormon Frontier (Salt Lake City: Howe Brother, 1984), 112.

[7] Pulsipher, Charles, 1830 – 1915. Charles Pulsipher reminiscences, https://zerahpulsipherplace.wordpress.com/2023/06/21/charles-pulsipher-reminiscences-and-diary/.

[8] Cited in Yorgason, Schmutz and Alder, All That Was Promised, 88.

[9] See Yorgason, Schmutz and Alder, All That Was Promised, 98–117.

[10] Yorgason, Schmutz and Alder, All That Was Promised, 222.

[11] See Leonard J. Arrington, Great Basin Kingdom: Economic History of the Latter-day Saints, 1830–1900 (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1958, 1966), 323–329.

[12] Thomas C. Haddon, writings, circa 1882, MS 3216, Church History Library, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Salt Lake City.

[13] Cited in Yorgason, Schmutz and Alder, All That Was Promised, 199.

[14] See Yorgason, Schmutz and Alder, All That Was Promised, 197–204.

[15] “Journal (January 1, 1873 – February 7, 1880),” February 22, 1877 – February 28, 1877, The Wilford Woodruff Papers, accessed September 18, 2023, https://wilfordwoodruffpapers.org/p/MQoG.

[16] “Discourse 1894-04-08,” p. 10, The Wilford Woodruff Papers, accessed September 18, 2023, https://wilfordwoodruffpapers.org/p/nJY7. See also Jennifer Ann Mackley, Wilford Woodruff’s Witness: The Development of Temple Doctrine (Seattle: High Desert Publishing, 2014), 178–180.

[17] Richard O. Cowan, Temples to Dot the Earth (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1989), 138–139.

[18] See Yorgason, Schmutz and Alder, All That Was Promised, 317–338.

[19] “St. George Utah Temple,” Temples of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, https://churchofjesuschristtemples.org/st.-george-utah-temple/. Accessed September 18, 2023.

By Chad Nielsen

Biotech professional. Armchair historian. Latter-day Saint.

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