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Building: a supreme act of faith

Construction of the Nauvoo Temple in the 1840s, under conditions existing with early Church members, was a supreme act of faith, said historian Don F. Colvin.

In painting by Gary Smith, Joseph Smith views work on Nauvoo Temple.
In painting by Gary Smith, Joseph Smith views work on Nauvoo Temple. Photo: Courtesy Audiovisual Department

"The decision of Church leaders to build the Nauvoo Temple presented a dramatic challenge for Church members and their resources," said the retired Church Educational System employee who served on the Church's Historical Review Committee that examined the architectural plans for the rebuilt temple.

"When the call to build the [original] temple was first announced most of the Saints were impoverished," he said. "Many had inadequate shelter. They were struggling with sickness, disease and death. They faced a constant struggle to find food to sustain themselves."

These struggles intensified as the temple neared completion and mobs drove outlying members from their farms.

"During this time, times were very hard. I have known families that had nothing to subsist upon but potatoes and salt, our own family in particular," Eliza Ann Sprague wrote in an unpublished biographical sketch, as quoted in Brother Colvin's book, Nauvoo Temple, a Story of Faith, p. 73.

Those who built the temple, said Brother Colvin, may have been poor in Nauvoo, but were skilled, capable, quality craftsmen. Brigham Young, he said, noted that some worked on the temple without shoes or shirts, "even at the risk of their lives and the sacrifice of their labor and earthly goods." (Nauvoo Temple, a Story of Faith, p. 57.)

Take for example Charles Lambert, a master workman and contractor in England, who arrived in Nauvoo in early 1844 after joining the Church. Showing his credentials, he applied for work at the temple. He recounted that Reynolds Cahoon of the building committee said, " 'If you can work we can do with your work but we have nothing to give you.' I replied sharply I have not come here to work for pay I have come to help build that house, pointing to the temple."

Having no new clothes, Charles Lambert appeared for work in what he had worn as a contractor in England: a good suit and a high silk hat. (p. 57.)

Another example is William W. Player, the principal setter of stones on the temple, laboring on its walls from June 1842 until they were completed. A new convert, William Player came to Nauvoo from England fully intending to work on the temple; he was recruited for that purpose by the Brethren. "During the fall and early winter of 1842 he continued at his post in spite of sickness and cold weather," wrote Brother Colvin. "Before work on the walls stopped for the winter season, he nearly lost the use of his hands and feet, and he fell several times on his way home because of fatigue and weakness." (p. 57.)

Brother Colvin said those who worked on the temple did not let adverse conditions affect the quality of their work. "There are many people outside the Church who praised the quality of workmanship back in the period of the 1840s," he said. "They did magnificent work."

Quality of work and financial contributions to the temple did not diminish when the Saints realized they would leave Nauvoo and move west, he added.

Brother Colvin said the funds to build the temple came largely from the tithes and offerings of members. The law of tithing, instituted through a July 1838 revelation, was employed in connection with the temple from the beginning, he added. Then on Jan. 19, 1841, members were asked to contribute gold, silver and other precious things to the temple's construction.

Men also tithed labor, working on the temple one day in ten. "The men would come with tools and teams and work as they were assigned," Brother Colvin said. "The women would knit shirts and pants and socks and gloves and provide room and board for the temple workers."

"I marvel at the faith of the people to follow [Joseph Smith's] leadership under these conditions," said Brother Colvin. "Most of us would think: 'Why don't we just build a place to hold meetings? Why don't we build our own house? Now we are asked to build a temple. My family doesn't have adequate shelter and you are calling me to do this?' "

But, he said, few complained — even when it became evident that they would have to leave all their work and sacrifice behind. From Dec. 10, 1845, to Feb. 7, 1846, members performed 5,634 endowments in the Nauvoo Temple.

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