The Nauvoo Temple: Destruction and Rebirth

Museum Treasures

By the time London-trained artist Frederick Piercy traveled through Nauvoo in 1853, a crumbling facade was all that remained of the Nauvoo Temple.

Only four years after the Nauvoo Temple was dedicated, it lay in ruins. In October 1848, arsonists’ fire left only the limestone outer walls intact. In May 1850, a tornado toppled the north wall and weakened two others. Local citizens dismantled these walls as a matter of public safety. By the time London-trained artist Frederick Piercy traveled through Nauvoo in 1853, only the building’s crumbling facade remained. Piercy wrote, “The first objects I saw in approaching the city were the remains of what was once the Temple, situated on the highest eminence of the city.”1 He drew this image of the ruined temple, which was later engraved and included with engravings of scenes from the pioneer trail in his book Route from Liverpool to the Great Salt Lake Valley, published in 1855.

The story of the Nauvoo Temple is one of faith, sacrifice, loss, and redemption. In 1839, Church members had begun gathering in Illinois after persecution forced them from their homes in Missouri and Ohio. In August 1840, Joseph Smith and the First Presidency formally announced their intention to build another temple.2 The Saints were undaunted by the fact that they had been forced to leave the Kirtland Temple behind and abandon two temple-building projects in Missouri. They unanimously accepted the proposal to build a temple and began to excavate the foundations.3

In January 1841, the building project was given the sanction of formal revelation: “And again, verily I say unto you, I command you again to build a house to my name, even in this place, that you may prove yourselves unto me that ye are faithful in all things whatsoever I command you, that I may bless you, and crown you with honor, immortality, and eternal life” (Doctrine and Covenants 124:55). The temple cornerstones were laid three months later, on April 6, 1841.4

For four years, Church members worked tirelessly to build a house of the Lord, sacrificing their time, talents, and possessions. In June 1844, work on the temple stopped when the Saints learned of the death of the Prophet Joseph Smith. Within weeks, however, building recommenced and even intensified as Church members fervently worked to complete the structure in order to receive promised temple blessings.5

Pressure from enemies of the Church made it clear that the Saints would soon have to leave Nauvoo. Leaders had hoped to complete the temple before departing, but as persecution intensified, Brigham Young saw that Church members would need to leave Illinois earlier than planned.6 In September 1845, Church leaders decided they would abandon their beloved city and temple the next spring.7

The attic story of the temple was dedicated in November 1845, and the first endowments given in the temple were administered shortly afterward. Soon the temple was operating around the clock while work to finish the rest of the building continued.8

Brigham Young had planned to leave Nauvoo on February 4, 1846, but as he left the temple the night prior, he saw a large crowd of people waiting to receive their endowments. He delayed his departure for two weeks in order to serve them. Temple records relate that more than 6,000 Saints were able to receive the temple endowment before leaving Nauvoo.9

In October 1845, Brigham Young and the Twelve decided to sell the temple. They designated three trustees to carry out the sale and help sell other Church property in Nauvoo.10 They advertised the temple as being “admirably designed for Literary and Religious Purposes.”11 While the trustees found mild interest from some parties, ultimately the Church received no payment for the temple, and the trustees left Nauvoo to join the Saints in the Great Basin.12

Then, on October 9, 1848, fire destroyed the temple. The History of Hancock County describes the scene:

“About 3 o’clock (in the morning) fire was discovered in the cupola. It had made but little headway when first seen, but spread rapidly, and in a very short period the lofty spire was a mass of flame, shooting high in the air, and illuminating a wide extent of country. It was seen for miles away. The citizens gathered around, but nothing could be done to save the structure. It was entirely of wood except the walls, and nothing could have stopped the progress of the flames. In two hours, and before the sun dawned upon the earth, the proud structure, reared at so much cost—an anomaly in architecture, and a monument of religious zeal—stood with four blackened and smoking walls only remaining.”13

In 1849 the Icarians, a French communal group, purchased the charred superstructure in hopes of renovating it for use as a school. After the tornado in 1850 rendered the walls unsalvageable, they abandoned their project. The Hancock Patriot, a newspaper published in Nauvoo at that time, reported, “There now remains nothing of the gigantic work of the Mormons, except the west face.”14 It was in this condition when Frederick Piercy made his sketch, but in time the ruins were completely dismantled and some of the stone used for other buildings.

The redemption of the temple began in 1937, when the Church acquired a large parcel of the original temple block. Eventually all of the original land was purchased.15 The temple site became a destination of historical significance and was visited by tens of thousands of people each year.

Then, at the April 1999 general conference, President Gordon B. Hinckley made the dramatic announcement that the Nauvoo Temple would be rebuilt. At the cornerstone ceremony, President Boyd K. Packer said, “The temple was destroyed and burned, and the stones of the temple were scattered like the bones had been cremated, and the temple, in effect, was dead. . . . So the temple died. But now, this day, it has come to a resurrection. The Temple stands here again.”16

Today the Nauvoo Illinois Temple serves as a symbol of the promises of the Lord to His people and a monument to the early pioneers who sacrificed so much to build it.