One summer Ron Smith, the main researcher on the oral histories of Mormon tabernacles, and his family were on their way to Fish Lake when his father had them stop at an old church building.
“We were all anxious to get to the lake, it was our summer vacation, and it wasn’t even Sunday,” said Smith, who has a doctorate in public affairs and distance education instructor for Brigham Young University-Idaho, who was just a boy at the time. “But it turns out that old church was the Loa Wayne Stake Tabernacle and my mother’s great-great uncle had had a hand in building it.”
Thirty-five years later, Smith was able to interview one of his cousins about their common ancestor who had contributed to this historic building and remembered that he had visited it as a boy. He realized that his interest in tabernacles of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was deeply rooted.
“I’ve always had an interest in architecture and I have a great love for my pioneer heritage,” Smith said. “These things have drawn me to the unique and under-told story of the these early Mormon tabernacles.”
Earlier this month, Smith presented “Tabernacle Memories and Meanings: South Central Utah” at Utah Valley University, a presentation on the oral histories he has collected about the tabernacles in American Fork, Provo, Heber City, Vernal, Spring City and Manti.
Smith said there were 92 Latter-day Saint tabernacles built in history, and about 42 remain in use today, 25 of which are located in Utah. Last year, Smith presented at Southern Utah University the oral histories he had collected about the southern Utah tabernacles, and next he plans to continue his research on the northern Utah tabernacles.
An LDS tabernacle in an area was — and in some cases remains — the center of both secular and religious community life, Smith said.
“It is a powerful expression of devotion and sacrifice by those who built and maintained it using primitive tools, limited resources and abundant faith,” he said. “When the building is lost, pictures remain. When memory is lost, the images are barren, bereft of life and meaning.”
Smith’s hope, through this project, is to preserve the people’s memories of these tabernacles before they are lost.
Simon Fass, co-researcher with Smith and associate professor of public policy and public affairs at the University of Texas at Dallas, said Smith had been his student and came to him asking for help to do research about the tabernacles.
“It began as just me doing him a favor,” he said. “Then I got involved and realized, now it’s a labor of love.”
At first they wanted to make a tabletop book with pictures of the tabernacles, but as they applied for grants, the Utah Humanities Council gave them money to do oral histories about the buildings instead. Fass said neither of them had a background in oral histories, but decided if that was the price they had to pay to take the pictures they wanted, they would do it.
Then, as they began to talk to the people in the communities of these tabernacles, they began to see, Fass said, that these were more than just pretty buildings — they represented the community.
“They were a central part of life,” Fass said.
Over time, their project changed to center around what these tabernacles meant to people and the role it played in their lives.
“Really, our target is wider than just the LDS community,” Fass said. “This is a piece of America that a lot of people don’t know, that a lot of members in Utah don’t know. It’s a consciousness-raising thing for other people, as well as for us.”
At the presentation at UVU, Smith went through each of the central Utah tabernacles he had studied and related some of the most meaningful quotes from the oral histories he had done. Many represented the firm attachment community members felt to these buildings, to the extent that they would fight for them not be torn down.
In Heber City, their tabernacle is now the city hall. But in the 1960s, church leadership had announced plans to take it down. The community members fought for it long and hard, and now it still stands today.
“For over a hundred years (the tabernacle) has been a part of the community and everybody felt that presence when they were there, like the building had a soul,” said Lavon Provost, oral history contributor from Heber City.
The recent fire at the Provo Tabernacle was fresh in everyone’s minds when Smith did his interviews there. Like the former Vernal Tabernacle, the historic building in Provo will now be preserved as an LDS temple.
Wayne Snow said what amazes him about the Provo Tabernacle, and the other church buildings the pioneers built, is its beauty far exceeded that of the people’s own homes.
“And that means to me that their love of God was greater perhaps than even the love for themselves,” Snow said.
Smith said an important thing to be gained from this experience is a strong understanding of what these buildings mean, which he hopes will lend credibility to their preservation.
“It’s valuable to be able to quantify what these buildings are worth,” he said. “Not in a monetary sense, but in what they mean, in their intrinsic value.”