PALMYRA, N.Y. — The strong winds and heavy rains on this historic morning in upstate New York were abruptly different from the "beautiful, clear day, early in the spring of 1820" when Joseph Smith walked into a grove of trees to pray.
Yet, as President Gordon B. Hinckley entered the Palmyra New York Temple on April 6, 2000, an hour before the dedication was to begin, the rains ceased and the clouds began to lift.
By the time the dedication began, large patches of blue reclaimed the sky. And when President Hinckley emerged from the temple during the first dedicatory session to seal the cornerstone, bright sunshine beamed over the temple grounds and nearby Sacred Grove.
"To me, it's a miracle," said President Hinckley to the delight of the media and others gathered around the cornerstone area.
The sudden change in weather seemed a fitting synopsis of all that has happened in the past 180 years since 14-year-old Joseph walked into a grove of trees and, in response to his humble supplication, was visited by God the Father and His Son to usher in the Restoration of God's kingdom on earth.
It was here — not in a palace, and not in a castle — but on land which the Smith family once farmed that "the curtain that had been closed for centuries was parted."
"Thy work, begun here so humbly and with so few, has now blossomed into a vast family," said President Hinckley during the dedicatory prayer. "Thy people are spread over the earth. They speak many languages. Great has been the growth, and greater yet it will become as it moves forward in the nations of the earth."
President Hinckley was accompanied by his wife, Marjorie; and by President Boyd K. Packer, acting president of the Quorum of the Twelve, and his wife, Donna; and by Elder W. Craig Zwick, of the Seventy and second counselor in the North America Northeast Area, and his wife, Janet.
Unique to the Palmyra temple are the stained glass windows that create the ambiance of the Sacred Grove. Nearly 17,000 individual pieces of glass were used to create mosiac window panes in the front doors, and in windows in the celestial room and baptistry. Each piece of glass representing a leaf was bevel cut to refract light. A specially backlit mural within the temple depicts the First Vision. The face of Joseph Smith catches the illumination of the Father and His Son.
Also, the temple design was altered to accommodate a lobby where special windows of clear glass overlook the Sacred Grove to the west.
"I am particularly pleased with the beauty of the Palmyra temple," President Packer said after the temple was dedicated. "In one sense, a scripture is being fulfilled in the adornment of the temple. The stained glass windows representing the Sacred Grove brought to my mind the statement in the Doctrine and Covenants where the Lord said, 'Send ye swift messengers, yea, chosen messengers, and say unto them: Come ye, with all your gold, and silver, and your precious stones, and with all your antiquities; and with all who have knowledge of antiquities, that will come, may come, and bring the box-tree and the fir-tree, and the pine-tree, together with all the precious trees of the earth.' (Doctrine and Covenants 124:26.)
"The Egyptians learned to make and color glass," President Packer continued. "The Greeks and the Romans as well. Those are ancient arts. Those are true antiquities. And now in this temple the artist who designed these windows, Thomas Holdman, and the men who helped him create them, have knowledge of antiquities. In using that knowledge, they have adorned this temple in a way that is beautiful, even inspiring."
The Palmyra New York Temple was built on a gently-sloping hilltop — known as a drumlin — on the eastern side of the Smith family farm. Portions of a rock hedge, built by Joseph and his brothers as they cleared the land for farming, line the temple grounds to the north and to the east.
The temple overlooks the site of the Smith family farm. Below the drumlin on the north is a replica of the Smith's first log home. A few hundred yards to the south, almost directly west of the temple, is the white frame home, which was a second home for the Smiths begun by Joseph's oldest brother, Alvin, as a gift to his parents. Farther west, across the farm, is the Sacred Grove. Three miles to the south is the Hill Cumorah.
The sacred significance of dedicating a temple on April 6th in the Cradle of the Restoration exactly 170 years after the Church was organized in nearby Fayette, was not lost on the 1,400 members who attended one of the four dedicatory sessions that day.
The universal interest of the Church in the Palmyra area prompted Church leaders to organize a satellite broadcast of the first dedicatory session to the Tabernacle on Temple Square in Salt Lake City, reminiscent of the broadcast from the Peter Whitmer replica log home during general conference in 1980.
When it became apparent that interest in the dedication was more widespread than just the Wasatch Front area of Utah, the First Presidency extended the broadcast to approximately 1,300 stake centers and other selected Church facilities in the United States and Canada.
"The challenge with this broadcast," said Lyle Shamo, director of the Church's audio-visual department, "was transmitting a broadcast to one time zone and then beginning another broadcast for a second time zone before the first was complete."
One who returned for the dedication was Bryant Rossiter, who serves as a counselor in the San Diego temple presidency, and his wife, Betty. Brother Rossiter was called as the first stake president in the area when the Cumorah Stake was organized in 1962.
"Five years later we polled the stake and found that 75 percent of the stake were recent converts," he remembered. "Now there are seven stakes in an area where we used to have just one. Today, I see that the children of those early members are the leaders."
Brother Rossiter recalled one investigator in those days who was enthusiastically taking the missionary lessons. "He was a skilled tile mason by trade," Brother Rossiter said. "At the time, we were building a baptismal font, so we asked him to tile the font. When the font was completed, he was the first one baptized in the font he tiled. His name was Bob Winebrenner and he is now the second counselor in the temple presidency."
For Kay Whitmore, who has lived in the Rochester area since moving here with his wife, Yvonne, in 1957 after graduating from college in Utah, building a temple comes as the natural result of the maturing Church in the area.
"We both came from communities in Utah where the Church was well established and where we attended beautiful meetinghouses," he said. "The first Sunday we attended branch meetings here, we told the other members that we'd be back the next week.
" 'Not here,' they said. We were informed the branch had lost its lease and was looking for new facilities, but at the time, had no idea where meetings would be held the next Sunday. We were transient. It was hard to invite investigators as we wandered from facility to facility.
"For a while we met in a YMCA where we walked past pool tables and spent the first part of the day cleaning the building from the activities of the night before. At one point, my wife was feeling homesick and, with tears in her eyes, asked 'What have you gotten me into?' " Brother Whitmore said.
Even though the environment was rough, "the Spirit was strong and developed a strong sense of camaraderie," he said. "Where the Church was once a novelty in the area, it has now grown to have some presence," Brother Whitmore said.
Eager to serve
"What impresses me," said Bill Sherwood, who served as the chairman of the local temple committee, "is the eagerness of the members to do their part, no matter how small. They have gone to tremendous efforts to do their tiny piece," he said. "Of the 2,500 assignments that were made, each was filled with a full complement of workers. Most assignments were filled with more people than were requested. Work assignments included volunteers each night and on Saturdays to clean the construction site. A multi-stake youth project cleared the grounds of broken limbs during a steady rain storm. Another three-stake youth project rebuilt the rock wall that was originally built by the Smith family after construction crews moved rocks to begin construction.
The enthusiasm of the members seemed to influence the feelings of the media toward the temple, Brother Sherwood said. "A headline in a local newspaper noted how the beauty of the temple stemmed from the high values espoused by the Church."
Many members in the area believe that the high-profile publicity the Church received during the open house and dedication — drawing 32,000 spectators — is a result of the friendly relationship developed between the Hill Cumorah Pageant and the local service clubs. But such an amiable relationship was not always the case.
"Over the years, many villagers resented the pageant and the congested traffic it created for 10 days each summer," said Roger Adams, former president of the Hill Cumorah Pageant who served from 1987-91. "Some merchants closed their stores to avoid the influx of people. But villagers now talk about it as 'our pageant.'
"The difference in attitude," said Brother Adams, "came when local service clubs were invited to provide concessions during the pageant.
"There was much discussion at the time about whether to open the pageant to outside vendors," explained Brother Adams. "There was a need for food concessions because of the lack of services in the area for those attending the pageant. But many in the Church feared that opening concessions to private vendors would create a carnival atmosphere that would detract from the spiritual nature of the pageant.
"These service organizations now use the pageant as their major fund raiser of the year. They've used their proceeds to build restrooms at parks and bridges over the canal. Small plaques are posted throughout the town citing improvements made by funds from the pageant.
"That decision has done an immeasurable amount of good," Brother Adams said.
Beauties of temple
One of the unspoken beauties of this temple, noted Dave Richards, local architect for the Church, is the way the temple stands as a beacon on the hill, commanding a stately pose over the valley, while at the same time blending into the serenity of its surroundings.
"There is this sense, as patrons drive up the hill, that they are ascending to something loftier. From certain points in the distance, the temple appears to be hovering over the area. The marbled granite has been finished in such a way as to glisten in the light," he said.
Brother Richards, who joined the Church as a teenager in the 1970s after filling out a missionary referral card following a performance of the Hill Cumorah Pageant, said he used the design "to pay tribute" to the Prophet Joseph Smith and the great events of the Restoration that took place below the temple.