Kirtland Temple: 'Scarcely a scrap of history' exists to document laying of cornerstones

On July 23, 1833 - 160 years ago - stalwart saints in Ohio laid the cornerstones of the Kirtland Temple, the first such sacred edifice to be completed in this dispensation.

Considering how momentous and significant was the event, it is surprising that details of the historic occasion are scarce. Delivering an address Nov. 15, 1864, in the tabernacle in Ogden, Utah, George A. Smith (the Prophet Joseph's cousin who was ordained an apostle in 1839) lamented the dearth of information pertaining to the event:"We were not then supplied with reporters and clerks as we are now, and many of the books that were kept have been wrested from the hands of the Church by apostates. The foundation of the Kirtland Temple was laid in 1833, and there is scarcely a scrap of history relating to it to be found, not even the names of the twenty-four elders in their order who laid the foundation of it."

Journals, letters and other records compiled by Church members of the Kirtland era contain personal rather than official transcripts of the building of the temple. Although few mention the actual laying of the cornerstones, these records provide accounts of tribulations and triumphs of a beleaguered people dedicated to carrying out the Lord's will, albeit they were slow to comply.

In December 1832, Joseph Smith received the revelation in which the saints were commanded to build a house unto the Lord. (See D&C 88:119-120.)

While the principal headquarters of the Church at that time were in Kirtland, the Lord had revealed the center place of the Church, or Zion, would be established to the west. The saints in 1831-32 regarded Kirtland as a temporary gathering place. The Lord even said it was His will "to retain a strong hold in the land of Kirtland, for the space of five years. . . . " (D&C 64:21.) The saints felt the temple they were to build would be in Independence, Mo., not Kirtland, Ohio.

In The House of the Lord, Elder James E. Talmage wrote:

"Perhaps because their eyes were directed too steadily toward the `center place,' and because the people were prone to contemplate too absorbedly the glory of the future to the neglect of then present duties, compliance with the requirement to proceed at once with the erection of a temple was not prompt; and the Lord rebuked the people for their tardiness and neglect, declaring again His will that a house be reared to His name and promising success on condition of faithful effort. (D&C 95:3.)

"The Saints were aroused to great activity in the matter of erecting a temple for immediate use. A building committee was organized, and a call issued to all branches of the Church."

Journals of Kirtland saints of that era attest the edifice was constructed by a poverty-laden people. Eliza R. Snow, for example, wrote: "At that time, the saints were few in number and most of them very poor; and had it not been for the assurance that God had spoken, and had commanded that a house should be built to His name, of which He not only revealed the form, but also designated the dimensions, an attempt towards building that Temple, under the then existing circumstances, would have been, by all concerned, pronounced preposterous." (Quoted by Elder Talmage from Life of Joseph, the Prophet, by Edward W. Tullidge.)

Specific instructions were given for building the temple. Speaking in the Tabernacle in Salt Lake City May 5, 1870, Elder Orson Pratt reflected: "[The LordT revealed the pattern according to which that house should be built, pointing out the various courts and apartments, telling the size of the house, the order of the pulpits, and in fact everything pertaining to it was clearly pointed out by revelation."

The first work to be done was to prepare the land upon which the temple was to be built; such work included the digging of trenches for the foundation and cutting and hauling stones from a quarry two miles south of the temple site.

Joseph Smith recorded: "June 1 [1833T - Great preparations were making to commence a house of the Lord; and notwithstanding the Church was poor, yet our unity, harmony and charity abounded to strengthen us to do the commandments of God. The building of the house of the Lord in Kirtland was a matter that continued to increase in its interest in the hearts of the brethren. . . . " (History of the Church 1:353.)

In that same record, the Prophet added: "June 5 - George A. Smith hauled the first load of stone for the Temple, and Hyrum Smith and Reynolds Cahoon commenced digging the trench for the walls of the Lord's house, and finished the same with their own hands."

Several references are made to the Prophet's manual labor on the temple from its beginning. One such mention was in a conference address on April 6, 1863, by President Heber C. Kimball, a counselor in the First Presidency: "Joseph said, `Come, brethren, let us go into the stone quarry and work for the Lord.' And the Prophet went himself, in his tow frock [coarse, heavy linen smockT and tow breeches, and worked at quarrying stone like the rest of us."

Karl R. Anderson, a counselor in the Ohio Cleveland Mission presidency and a recognized Kirtland historian, said: "We know little of the laying of the Kirtland Temple's cornerstones. We do know that 24 priesthood holders met on the temple site July 23, 1833, to lay stones from the quarry. (See box for list of participants.) The First Presidency - Joseph Smith, Sidney Rigdon and Frederick G. Williams - and three others laid the southeast cornerstone. Six additional priesthood holders stood at and laid each of the remaining three cornerstones according to what George A. Smith called `the order of the Holy Priesthood.' We can assume the stones were laid in a particular sequence, but we have no documentation as to the order of that sequence.

"Joseph Kingsbury, 21, was one of the priesthood holders who participated in laying the cornerstones. His biographer, Lyndon W. Cook, wrote: `The Prophet had designated Kingsbury one of the 24 men to participate in the service, but at the last minute it was learned that [KingsburyT was not a Melchizedek Priesthood holder. Instead of giving the honor to another with proper authority, Joseph Smith took young Kingsbury aside and ordained him an elder. . . and [KingsburyT fondly remembered the occasion for the rest of his life.' "

Pres. Anderson noted that the laying of the temple's cornerstones was a significant event in LDS Church history. "At almost the beginning of the Church, the Lord commanded the saints to go to Kirtland to be endowed' and there receivea blessing such is not known among the children of Men.'

"The Kirtland Temple is where Christ stood and declared, `I am he who liveth, I am he who was slain.' It is where God the Father and His Son were seen in the Celestial Kingdom. It is where Christ appeared at least six times as recorded by the Prophet Joseph. It is the first temple of this dispensation. It is the temple where our first temple ordinances were performed. It is where Joseph Smith received the sealing power from Elijah the prophet. It is also where he received the keys to the gathering of Israel and the keys from Moses and Elias to use the priesthood to perfect eternal family units. It was there that Joseph Smith saw prophets of past dispensations such as Adam, Elias, Abraham, Moses and Elijah. Visions and spiritual dispensations were constant as it was dedicated.

"It is truly sacred ground, made sacred in the same way as the ground where the Lord told Moses to remove the shoes from his feet. The Kirtland Temple is also sacred to us because of the unparalleled sacrifice of the saints who built it.

"Today, as we visit this edifice that is owned and being maintained so beautifully by the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, we feel a reverence for this sacred spot. It seems that those who take the Spirit with them and enter with love and appreciation for these sacred events are uplifted."

(Additional information)

Those who participated in laying the Kirtland Temple cornerstones:

Joseph Smith Jr., Hyrum Smith, Joseph Smith Sr., Newel K. Whitney, Orson Hyde, Frederick G. Williams, John Smith, Sidney Rigdon, Samuel H. Smith, Reynolds Cahoon, Joseph C. Kingsbury, Joel H. Johnson, Don Carlos Smith, William Smith, Gideon Carter, Solomon Humphrey, Edmund Durfee, Harpin Riggs, Sylvester Smith, Joseph Coe, Jared Carter, Jacob Bump, Levi Hancock, David Elliott. (Source: Journal History, George A. Smith.)

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