On Feb. 9, the Provo Utah Temple will celebrate its 40th anniversary. Early residents of Provo cherished Brigham Young’s prophecy that one day a temple would be built on the hill overlooking the town. However, some wondered how this could be realized when the Brigham Young University campus began filling “Temple Hill” during the twentieth century.
The idea of a temple in Provo revived during the 1950s as university enrollment soared from 4,510 to 10,305. The first student stake was organized in 1956. At this same time, Church leaders began considering the possibility of missionary language training at BYU and having a temple nearby.
In 1967 the First Presidency announced that two new temples would be built — at Provo and Ogden, the first temples to be erected in Utah in over three-quarters of a century. The First Presidency explained that 52 percent of all temple work worldwide was being done in three temples in Utah — the Salt Lake, Logan and Manti temples, which consequently were seriously overcrowded. Rather than expending funds to enlarge these temples, Church leaders decided to build two new ones in order to reduce the amount of travel required of the Saints.
Seventeen acres at the mouth of Provo’s Rock Canyon remained undeveloped even though they were surrounded by subdivisions. This property still could be considered part of “Temple Hill,” though situated higher up rather than at the lower corner overlooking the original town. Easily visible from most parts of the Utah Valley, this site became an appropriate location for the new temple.
The Provo and Ogden temples were designed by Church Architect Emil B. Fetzer. He served in this capacity from 1965 to 1986 and would design more than twenty temples. Church leaders decided to build the Ogden and Provo temples from the same basic plan in order to expedite construction and to economize. Efficiency and convenience were prime concerns.
Traditionally, such as at the Salt Lake Temple, instructions of the endowment had been presented in a series of rooms with murals depicting various stages in our journey back into the presence of God. With the construction of the first overseas temples during the mid-1950s, however, films were made to present these instructions in various languages in a single room. Brother Fetzer’s assignment was to create a design that would accommodate large numbers of people at a reasonable cost. The first three overseas temples had just one presentation room, meaning a new session could begin only every two hours. To achieve the desired efficiency at Ogden and Provo, however, there would be six ordinance rooms, making it possible to start a new session every twenty minutes.
The endowment rooms in the Ogden and Provo temples would be surrounded by a continuous hallway, and the celestial room would be in the building’s center. Brother Fetzer reported that the idea for this arrangement came from a park in Denmark, which was completely surrounded by a roadway (Doyle L. Green, “Two Temples to Be Dedicated,” Ensign, January 1972, pp. 6-11).
Ground was broken for the Provo Temple on Sept. 15, 1969. The cornerstone was laid May 21, 1971, while the temple was still being built. When temples were constructed of large hewn stones, placing the cornerstone had marked the beginning of construction, such as at Kirtland, Nauvoo or Salt Lake. When reinforced concrete became the norm, cornerstone layings became purely symbolic and were conducted during construction after completion of the walls. Beginning in the early 1980s, however, this ceremony became part of the dedication proceedings after the temple was finished. Hence, over the years, the placing of cornerstones shifted from the beginning to the completion of construction.
These cornerstones remind us of Paul’s describing the Church as “built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ himself being the chief cornerstone” (Ephesians 2:20). A space was left in the Provo Temple’s wall to receive a sealed metal box containing relevant historical memorabilia. The commemorative plaque was then placed over the opening under the direction of President Joseph Fielding Smith.
The completed temple was open for viewing Jan. 8-29, 1972. Special tours were conducted for groups with unique needs. For example, a group of people who were visually impaired enjoyed a personal tour by the temple president, who provided vivid descriptions of what the temple looked like. A total of 246,201 persons visited the temple during its open house (Church News, Feb. 5, 1972, p. 11).
In contrast to the six dedicatory sessions for the Ogden temple three weeks earlier, only two sessions were required for the dedication at Provo on Feb. 9, 1972, because several large auditoriums on the BYU campus carried the proceedings by means of closed-circuit television. Seeing throngs leaving the 23,000-seat Marriott Center in reverent silence was an unusual experience.
President Joseph Fielding Smith’s dedicatory prayer reflected the temple’s specific location. He petitioned, “Let that great temple of learning — the Brigham Young University… be prospered to the full. Let Thy enlightening power rest upon those who teach and those who are taught” (“Dedication Prayer of Provo Temple,” Church News, Feb. 12, 1972, p. 5).
President Smith’s prayer continued, “May all who enter have clean hands and pure hearts, and may they be built up in their faith and depart with a sweet feeling of peace and praising thy holy name having a great desire to return. And now, finally, we dedicate this temple as an abode for thee and for thy Son and for thy Holy Spirit… In the name of the Lord, Jesus Christ, thine only Son. Even so, Amen and Amen” (Church News, Feb. 12, 1972, p. 5).
From the time the new temples opened, they were very busy. During 1973, the first full year they were in service, 60.5 percent of all ordinances worldwide were performed in the Logan, Ogden, Salt Lake, Provo and Manti temples; 17.7 percent of the Church’s total was performed in the Provo Temple alone. For the next quarter of a century this temple led the Church in the total number of endowments performed for the dead, even when the estimated participation from Brigham Young University and the nearby Missionary Training Center was subtracted.
Various improvements have been made to the temple during the four decades since it was built. Permanent stairways replaced noisy escalators. Marble flooring replaced carpeting in several of the most-used corridors. Gold leafing was added to ordinance room ceilings. The most visible addition to the temple was a statue of the angel Moroni. The 13.5-foot figure was placed on the tower May 12, 2003. Some wondered if it would face west toward the temple’s entrance, but the statue actually faces east as though watching for Christ’s Second Coming.
At almost any time of the day, a steady stream of faithful Saints, young and old, pass through the doors of the temple to engage in the selfless service of providing gospel ordinances to those who died without the opportunity. In the process, they renew their own understanding and commitment to the teachings of the endowment and the unspeakable promises of the sealing ordinances. In the baptistry, there are almost always several rows of high school or college students waiting for the privilege of entering the font to provide similar service. Two events last October pointed to a time when the Provo Utah Temple will be less crowded — the announcement of plans to rebuild the Provo Tabernacle as a temple and the groundbreaking for the Payson Utah Temple 14 miles south of Provo.
When plans were announced to completely reconstruct the Ogden Utah Temple, the Church indicated that there were no similar plans for the temple in Provo. Thus the Provo Utah Temple remains a unique and beautiful spiritual beacon to the faithful Saints living in the area as well as to the thousands traveling each day along the freeway through Utah Valley.
Richard O. Cowan, a religion professor at BYU, and Justin R. Bray, a member of the staff at the Church History Library in Salt Lake City, are writing a book on Provo’s two temples.