Tabernacle was built as St. George sprang up
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ST. GEORGE, UTAH
It seemed at first an unlikely locale for a tabernacle.
But as early as 1862 — a year after St. George was settled — Brigham Young directed Latter-day Saints in St. George to construct the edifice, "a building designed not only for Church services but that would also serve as a cultural and social center for the entire community," said Michael N. Landon, an archivist in the Libraries Division of the Church History Library, at his May 27 presentation for the Mormon History Association Conference in St. George.
"In a letter to Erastus Snow, Brigham Young clearly noted that the tabernacle would be more than a place of worship," Brother Landon said.
The letter from President Young read: "As I've already informed you, I wish you and the brethren to build as speedily as possible a good, substantial, commodious, well-finished meetinghouse, one large enough to comfortably seat at least 2,000 persons and that will be not only useful but also an ornament to your city and a credit to your energy and enterprise."
President Young went on in the letter, placing all the produce and tithing from Cedar City south at the disposal of Elder Snow, a member of the Quorum of the Twelve, in getting the project completed, Brother Landon said.
"Brigham Young's efforts to encourage Latter-day Saints to settle in St. George — indeed all of southern Utah — had met with mixed results," he said. "Even George A. Smith, his longtime friend and counselor in the First Presidency, described the area as 'the most wretched, barren, God-forsaken country in the whole world.'" (Ironically, St. George was named in honor of Elder Smith.)
Yet, along with the St. George Temple, dedicated in 1877, the St. George Tabernacle "would represent the long-term commitment Brigham Young envisioned for the area," Brother Landon said.
"Brigham Young did not base his efforts to make St. George a viable settlement simply on a policy of economic self-determination or because the area had strategic importance to the Church," he said. "Brigham determined that the settling of St. George came in response to revelation."
In an 1863 message — two years after the establishment of the settlement — President Young remarked: "Some have asked why this place should have been located. I will tell you. It's the very place I intended the city of St. George to be built upon."
He went on to say that on his first visit to Santa Clara and nearby settlements, he saw the then-unsettled area of St. George "inhabited by a multitude of people, and large domes were towering up in every direction. I shall yet see this with my natural eyes."
"The tabernacle undoubtedly formed part of that vision," Brother Landon said. "And facing the task of constructing the tabernacle, most St. George settlers found that the harsh living conditions they endured made it virtually impossible to speedily prosecute the work to completion as Brigham Young desired.
"Even with considerable cooperative assistance provided by not only neighboring Cedar City but many other communities in Utah territory, it took nearly a decade for the basic structure to be completed and longer for additional features to be added, such as the tower bell and clock."
While the temple was certainly the most important religious structure, the tabernacle "helped create a strong sense of community within southern Utah that continues to this day," Brother Landon said.
The tabernacle was only one of several public works projects to be undertaken in St. George, he said. "A September 1862 Deseret News article noted that St. George was intended to be 'a local headquarters, a miniature Salt Lake City, the statehouse block being in St. George: the public square, tithing office and tabernacle respectively. The city is well supplied with building stone, the hills to the north being once single sandstone for an area of two miles by three.'"
Construction of the tabernacle actually commenced before a design for the building was firmly established.
In November 1862, Erastus Snow wrote these words to Brigham Young: "We would like your suggestions on the size and style of the meetinghouse as well as the material you would choose. We contemplate, if you approve, building it upon the public square, not far from the present site of our bowery. But we have not determined whether to adopt a flat ceiling, a full arch like the Salt Lake City tabernacle, an arch through the center and the building have galleries after the old Gentile style, a circular building having a dome, or some other style."
Though the design remained unresolved, residents decided to begin construction no later than June 1863, anticipating a visit from Brigham Young prior to that date.
He spoke in the city on May 10 and resolved the issue of the basic design. According the Deseret News, he thought it a good time to speak about the tabernacle, with the dust blowing on the congregation assembled in the city's bowery. He proposed that it be 100 feet by 50 feet with a spire 150 feet high and that one end of the building be constructed so the edifice could be enlarged.
On June 1, 1863, President Young's 62nd birthday, at least one cornerstone was laid in a ceremony attended by three apostles: Erastus Snow, Amasa Lyman and Orson Pratt, Brother Landon said.
Still, doubts about the design lingered, ultimately to be resolved by two talented architects: William Harrison Folsom and Miles Romney.
Brigham Young remained actively involved in the design and construction, his desire being to have the building completed before the temple construction began.
"The task of keeping the labor force working at the site became increasingly difficult because of the community's strained circumstances," Brother Landon said. "Without community support, workers began to desert the project, apparently needing to find other means to support their families."
Frustrated by the lack of progress, Erastus Snow held a meeting in 1866 to recommit the people to building the tabernacle. He also asked outlying communities to concentrate their means to support the workers.
The efforts were fruitful, and by August 1867, Church leaders were confident enough of completion that they deposited books and records into a tabernacle cornerstone.
With the basement completed enough to accommodate meetings, one was held there on March 20, 1869.
"Perhaps to help local residents enjoy the benefit of the work they had accomplished in spite of hardship, President Young and other Church leaders felt the Church meetings should now be held regularly in the tabernacle utilizing the completed basement," Brother Landon said. "Consequently the semi-annual conference of the Church in southern Utah was held in the basement beginning May 1, 1869."
Despite worker distractions from mining interests, work progressed.
"Finally, on Dec. 29, 1879, a special meeting was held to celebrate the laying of the last stone on the tower," Brother Landon said.
Charles Lowell Walker summarized his five-year labor on the structure: "Many weary, tiresome days have I worked on the St. George Tabernacle, lifting the heavy rocks in the wind, dust, cold, and scorching heat of this climate, yet I have felt happy and contented. I was called to labor there by the priesthood, letting my own affairs go to work on those walls. Yet through the hard times of scarcity and want and the necessaries of life I have been blessed and have only had about three days of sickness during that time."