To early Church members, the sun breaking through clouds symbolized the dawning of the Restoration and the coming of gospel light to illuminate a dark earth. It is little wonder, then, that sunstones were featured prominently on the Nauvoo Temple. Above each sun are two hands holding trumpets, heralding the dawning of the gospel in this dispensation. Parley P. Pratt’s hymn “The Morning Breaks” declares:
The morning breaks, the shadows flee;
Lo, Zion’s standard is unfurled!
The dawning of a brighter day,
The dawning of a brighter day
Majestic rises on the world.
The clouds of error disappear
Before the rays of truth divine;
The glory bursting from afar,
The glory bursting from afar
Wide o’er the nations soon will shine. [. . .]
—Angels from heav’n and truth from earth
Have met, and both have record borne;
Thus Zion’s light is bursting forth,
Thus Zion’s light is bursting forth
To bring her ransomed children home.1
The walls of the temple featured 30 pilasters, each with a moonstone at the base and a sunstone at the top. A sunstone served as the capital, or head, of each pilaster. A star stone was placed above each sunstone. The order of the stones recalled the woman described in Revelation 12, “clothed with the sun, and the moon under her feet, and upon her head a crown of twelve stars” (Revelation 12:1).2 When the original temple was under construction, the New York Spectator published the following review of the temple sunstones in an article about Nauvoo: “On the top, not far from fifty feet high, is an ideal representation of the rising sun, which is a monstrous prominent stone face, the features of which are colossal and singularly expressive. . . . These all stand out on the stone boldly. Their finish is admirable and as complete as any of the best specimens of chiseling on the Girard College at Philadelphia.”3
Benjamin Mitchell and Charles Lambert carved the first sunstones. Lambert was a skilled stonecutter from Yorkshire, England.4 After he was baptized in England, he decided to go to Nauvoo. Lambert recorded in his autobiography about the day after he arrived in Nauvoo: “I went up to the Temple [and] saw there was work for me.” He went to those in charge and offered his skills. They told him, “If you can work we can do with your work, but we have nothing to give you.” He replied, “I have not come here to work for pay. I have come to help to build that house,” pointing to the Nauvoo Temple.5
He records, “I worked and finished the first capital [sunstone] and part of eleven others. I [committed] with [Brother William] Player that I would stick to the temple pay or no pay until finished and did. I quarried and worked the last stone called the capstone.”6
The first sunstone was installed on September 23, 1844.7 The original sunstones were actually two pieces of stone. The lower, face portion was carved from one piece of limestone, and the trumpets from another. The sunstones were six feet high and six feet, six inches wide at the top.8
Only two complete original sunstones are known to exist. The first, owned by the state of Illinois, is displayed on the grounds of the Nauvoo Visitors’ Center. The second was purchased by the Smithsonian Institution from the Historical Society of Quincy and Adams County. It is currently on display in a prominent position in the Museum of American History and Technology.
This replica, based on the Smithsonian’s original, was hand carved by a master stonemason using the same type of Illinois limestone that was used for the original temple.
In 2002, President Gordon B. Hinckley dedicated the rebuilt Nauvoo Temple. With few exceptions, the exterior of the temple followed the original design, including the 30 sunstones. Artisans from Pennsylvania, Indiana, and Ontario labored to replicate these iconic symbols of the restored gospel.9