On April 6, 1877 LDS Church President Brigham Young presided over the dedication of the newly finished St. George Temple in Southern Utah. This was a momentous day for the LDS Church, which had been without an operating temple since they were driven from Nauvoo, Illinois in 1846. President Young noticed something was off about the steeple, but he let that thought go and oversaw the opening of the pristine, white edifice.
The St. George temple was significant for President Young. He had been blocked in building a temple in Salt Lake City by the federal government, which had continually halted construction. President Young was adamant that an operating temple be completed before he passed away. He had set up a colony in Southern Utah to help the Saints maintain self-sufficiency by growing their own cotton. A dry land, St. George had been a difficult place to build up, but many Saints, called by President Young, had done just that. In 1871 President Young visited the area and had a distinct impression that a temple should be built there. It, of course, helped that St. George was 300 miles south of Salt Lake and off the federal map.
The temple was announced and a groundbreaking ceremony was held on November 9, 1871. The gathered Saints sang the hymn “The Spirit of God Like a Fire is Burning.” George A. Smith said in his dedicatory prayer, “We thank thee, oh Lord, for these barren hills, and rugged rocks, and desert as peaceful dwelling places for thy Saints.” Later, as he dug into the red dirt, President Young stated, “The idea may arise that this is a hard land… I am very thankful for the Lord just as it is.”
The construction over the next 6 years would require the hard work and sacrifice of numerous Latter-Day Saints. The spot that Brigham Young had chosen for the temple sat upon numerous underground streams, which caused the soil to be swampy. However, David Henry Cannon Jr., of the St. George temple presidency reported that President Young had stated: “This spot was dedicated by the Nephites. They could not build it (the temple) but we can and will build it for them.” The Saints also believed that Moroni, a Book of Mormon prophet, had been to the site, and so swampy soil was not going to stop them. A complex drainage system was put in place before any building began.
The temple site was surrounded by cliffs of the red rock that makes up most of the landscape of Southern Utah. Massive chunks of this rock were brought to the site to be crushed into gravel to create the dry foundation. However, the Saints had no means to crush the rocks. A solution was found when the city donated an old canon that the Mormon Battalion had purchased years before. A pulley system was constructed and the canon was used as a pile driver to crush the rock. Interestingly, the canon had previously been used by Napoleon during the siege of Moscow.
It took two years to complete the foundation. Red Sandstone was brought in from a nearby Quarry to construct the walls of the temple, another two-year process. The interior work was completed over the final two years, and the residents in Southern Utah marveled at such a massive and beautiful building in their midst. Of course, it would not do to have a red temple and so President Young ordered wagons full of white paint. However, when the paint arrived it was found to be green! President Young donated the paint to the citizens of Southern Utah for their fences and gates. To this day, there are still green fences and gates throughout the region. Another load was ordered and the foundation and outer walls were painted white to complete the construction in 1877.
And so The Church held its annual General Conference in St. George that year to celebrate the opening of the temple. It was a joyous occasion. But President Young couldn’t shake that feeling that something was wrong: After starring at it all day, he’d decided that that the tower and steeple at the top of the temple were too “squatty” and wanted them to be higher, to reach for the heavens. He made his concerns known to a few Saints, but concluded that beginning temple work was more important. Feeling his work was done in St. George, President Young returned to Salt Lake City.
The St. George temple remains this day as the longest active operating temple in the LDS church. It has seen renovations and rededications and been the subject of many faith-inspiring stories. Included in those is church President Wilford Woodruff being visited by the founding fathers of America, including George Washington, asking why their temple work had not been done? President Woodruff was baptized for each of them in the St. George temple and oversaw their endowments.
Brigham Young passed away on August 29th of the same year that the St. George temple was completed. That temple retained a special place in his heart as the only one completed during his presidency. But, still, there was the issue of the too “squatty” tower and steeple. A few months after Brigham Young’s death, lighting struck the top of the St. George temple starting a fire, which destroyed tower and steeple.
The rebuilt steeple and tower were much higher and majestic and remain intact today.
Written By Bryce Clark