NAUVOO, Ill. Memorializing the sacrifices of early Latter-day Saints and their martyred leaders, President Gordon B. Hinckley presided Thursday at what many believe will be the largest dedication ceremony ever held for one of the faith's temples.
With a worldwide audience of faithful members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in 72 nations joining via satellite, the first of 13 dedicatory sessions was held Thursday at the approximate hour that church founder Joseph Smith and his brother, Hyrum, were murdered in the nearby Carthage Jail on June 27, 1844.
During the dedicatory prayer, President Hinckley acknowledged the sacrifices of the martyrs and the original builders, pleading for God's protection on the new structure. He asked Latter-day Saints to recommit themselves to the same type of dedication as their ancestors.
More than 1,200 chairs were set up inside the newly rebuilt Nauvoo Temple, and still temple workers inside scrambled to find enough seating for the throngs that lined up outside the building more than two hours before the service began.
Both the temple and the nearby LDS stake center, one of thousands where the proceedings were broadcast, were filled to capacity, President Hinckley said.
Hundreds of people without tickets to either of the local venues filled the street in front of the temple during the services.
The event is widely considered to be a watershed moment for Latter-day Saints, whose members believe their gospel is Joseph Smith's restoration of Christ's original church to Earth through divine revelation.
Members believe temple ordinances were revealed by God to Joseph Smith. First practiced in the original Nauvoo Temple, Latter-day Saints believe the rituals will bind them together eternally as families in the afterlife, with proxy ordinances being performed for those who have died.
Because such beliefs are the foundation of their faith, few announcements in the church's recent history have created as much interest churchwide as that by President Hinckley when he said in April 1999 that the Nauvoo Temple would be rebuilt.
"This is one of the most significant events in our 172-year history and a defining moment for us as a people," said Elder Donald L. Staheli, president of the church's North America Central Area, which includes Nauvoo.
Many church members view the reconstruction as a vindication of the sacrifices made by their ancestors, who gave time, money and a tenth of all their assets to forward its construction.
President Hinckley's father served as a mission president in the area that includes Nauvoo during the centennial celebration of the city in 1939. President Hinckley spoke earlier in the day of his gratitude at being able to oversee the temple's reconstruction after his father had longed to see it happen. His emotion during the dedicatory ceremony was evident several times as he paused before resuming his discourse. Church members also wept openly during the proceedings.
Driven from Nauvoo in 1846 after the original temple was finally completed, early Latter-day Saints knew as they left they would never see the structure again, he said. The building was subsequently burned by an arsonist and its remains destroyed by a tornado.
The return of the church's prominence here, with the reconstructed temple and the Williamsburg-style restoration of original homes and businesses, says much about the growth of the church worldwide, President Hinckley told reporters earlier in the day.
He predicted a bright future for the church and continued growth for a faith that sociologist Rodney Stark has called "a new world religion."
Music for the dedicatory services was provided by selected members of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, whose size prohibited participation by the full group. Singing hymns of praise specifically connected to Joseph Smith and the early Latter-day Saints, their musical tributes echoed those of several church leaders who spoke during the ceremonies.
With the recent placement of a new satellite system, the church was able to broadcast the services to several areas of the world that have never before received any type of direct satellite feed, including Japan, Korea, Australia, New Zealand, Samoa, Fiji, Tonga, the Philippines, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Thailand, Armenia, Bulgaria, Ukraine and Russia.
President Hinckley noted the participation of those in distant lands, thousands of whom he said had lined up in the dark to witness the live broadcast from Nauvoo.
The first and the last of the 13 dedicatory sessions are being broadcast live via satellite, with the final session scheduled for Sunday at 4 p.m. MDT. Dedication ceremonies are closed to the public, with entrance available only to church members considered worthy to participate in temple ordinances, either for themselves or by proxy for others who have died.
More than 330,000 people toured the temple during a record-setting, six-week open house, whose crowds had officials in this town of about 1,000 residents worried at the outset about how they would handle the throngs.
Before the dedicatory service began Thursday, President Hinckley thanked Nauvoo Mayor Tom Wilson publicly for his cooperation during a coverstone ceremony outside the temple.
Crowds are expected to remain heavy in town through Sunday, and tourist officials believe that though the temple is now closed to the public, it will become a permanent draw for thousands of additional visitors annually.
Ordinance work in the temple will open to Latter-day Saint patrons July 3, becoming the church's 113th operating temple worldwide.