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Sarah Jane Weaver: How President Russell M. Nelson made the Salt Lake Temple renovation relevant worldwide


It is a single moment I will never forget: President Russell M. Nelson wearing a yellow vest and a hard hat — walking on scaffolding and inspecting the roof of the Salt Lake Temple.  

The work underway at the temple is a modern miracle — a seismic upgrade and preservation of the temple as a whole. Still, President Nelson’s efforts to oversee the project are, for me, as impressive as the project itself — a strong, engaged leader well into his 10th decade of life being involved in the smallest details of the Church’s largest renovation project in history. Crews are replacing obsolete systems, updating accessibility and strengthening the temple’s historic foundation — laid by early Latter-day Saints struggling during the 1850s to build a new city around a planned temple.

President Nelson personally touched that foundation and asked numerous questions of the experts who are reinforcing it.

President Russell M. Nelson, President of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, tours renovation work at the Salt Lake Temple in Salt Lake City on Saturday, May 22, 2021.

President Russell M. Nelson, President of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, tours renovation work at the Salt Lake Temple in Salt Lake City on Saturday, May 22, 2021.

Credit: Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

He spoke about the experience during his October 2021 general conference talk.

“As I examine the craftsmanship of this entire building, I marvel at what the pioneers accomplished. I am totally in awe when I consider that they built this magnificent temple with only tools and techniques available to them more than a century ago.

“These many decades later, however, if we examine the foundation closely, we can see the effects of erosion, gaps in the original stonework, and varying stages of stability in the masonry.

“Now as I witness what modern engineers, architects and construction experts can do to reinforce that original foundation, I am absolutely amazed. Their work is astonishing!”

The foundation of any building — particularly one as large as the Salt Lake Temple — must be strong and resilient enough to withstand earthquakes, corrosion, high winds and the inevitable settling that affects all buildings. He promised that the complex task of strengthening the temple will ensure that it will stand into the Millennium.

President Russell M. Nelson, President of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, tours the renovation work at the Salt Lake Temple in Salt Lake City on Saturday, May 22, 2021.

President Russell M. Nelson, President of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, tours the renovation work at the Salt Lake Temple in Salt Lake City on Saturday, May 22, 2021.

Credit: Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

Then he asked each of us to replicate the process in our own lives and strengthen our own personal foundations.

“My dear brothers and sisters, these are the latter days,” he declared. “If you and I are to withstand the forthcoming perils and pressures, it is imperative that we each have a firm spiritual foundation built upon the rock of our Redeemer, Jesus Christ.

“So, I ask each of you: ’How firm is your foundation? And what reinforcement to your testimony and understanding of the gospel is needed?’”

Last month President Nelson became the oldest living President of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints — having lived 97 years, seven months and six days. A few weeks earlier, however, he marked a much more important milestone: He announced his 100th temple as the leader of the Church.

I personally love the hope and faith he has demonstrated with those announcements, which have consistently been part of his ministry — even in 2020 when temples worldwide were closed because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

At the decision to close temples, he would later say, he felt “wracked with worry.”

“I found myself asking: ‘What would I say to the Prophet Joseph Smith? What would I say to Brigham Young, Wilford Woodruff and the other presidents, on up to President Thomas S. Monson? I’m going to meet them soon.’ To close the temples would deny all for which all those Brethren gave everything, but we really had no other alternative.”

President Russell M. Nelson, president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, right, and Elder Jeffrey R. Holland, of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, stand together at the BYU Jerusalem Center in Jerusalem on Saturday, April 14, 2018. Elder Holland told students at Utah State University on April 23, 2021, that perfect leadership is exemplified by the Savior Jesus Christ.

President Russell M. Nelson, President of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, right, and Elder Jeffrey R. Holland of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles stand together at the BYU Jerusalem Center in Jerusalem on Saturday, April 14, 2018.

Credit: Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

Temples have been such an important part of President Nelson’s ministry that he offered his first public address as President of the Church from the Salt Lake Temple annex in January 2018. The Old City’s Temple Mount in Jerusalem served as the backdrop on his first global ministry a few months later in April. In March 2019, he invited every member of the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve Apostles to participate in the historic Rome Italy Temple dedication — describing the event as “a hinge point in the history of the Church.” 

A month later, during the closing session of the October 2019 general conference, President Nelson said “the crowning jewel of the Restoration is the holy temple.”

In addition, President Nelson has also withdrawn the one-year waiting period for a temple sealing to follow a civil marriage; allowed women to participate in witnessing temple baptisms and sealings and youth to participate in witnessing temple baptisms; and made adjustments to the temple endowment.

And under President Nelson’s inspired leadership, every member of the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve Apostles has had the opportunity to personally dedicate or rededicate at least one temple.

It is hard to remember a time when President Nelson spoke without mentioning the important work of gathering of Israel on both sides of the veil. He even enlisted the youth of the Church in this work early in his prophetic ministry.

President Russell M. Nelson, President of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, tours the renovation work at the Salt Lake Temple in Salt Lake City on Saturday, May 22, 2021.

President Russell M. Nelson, President of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, tours the renovation work at the Salt Lake Temple in Salt Lake City on Saturday, May 22, 2021.

Credit: Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

On the day President Nelson inspected the progress of the Salt Lake Temple, I watched from the ground as he walked the scaffolding six stories above. From this vantage point above, he waved to visitors on the grounds at Church headquarters below. I still wonder if they realized they were being acknowledged by a powerful Prophet — almost a century old — seconds before he inspected the temple’s metal trusses. (Those trusses were attached with metal gussets and bolts instead of welding, to protect against fire hazards during the temple’s historic renovation project, a fact that did not get by our detail-oriented Prophet.)

He would also visit the celestial room that day, asking specifically about efforts to protect and preserve the temple’s pioneer craftsmanship. He used three words to describe the project: “massive, amazing and inspiring.”

Then he made the project relevant for every Latter-day Saint in every land.

It is easier to build a temple than it is to build a people worthy of the temple, he said. “It’s the ordinances and covenants in the building that are the things that really matter.”

Last month during April 2022 general conference he echoed that important sentiment.

“Positive spiritual momentum comes as we worship in the temple and grow in our understanding of the magnificent breadth and depth of blessings we receive there,” he said. “I plead with you to counter worldly ways by focusing on the eternal blessings of the temple. Your time there brings blessings for eternity.”

Read more: A look at the latest on the Temple Square renovation project in 10 photos

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