Temples have been important in every dispensation of the gospel and a focus of the divine plan. Jesus plainly venerated the temple of his day. In Exodus 25-27 and 35-40, the Lord gives Moses detailed instructions for building the Israelite tabernacle (a kind of proto-temple). Ezekiel 40-48 represents that prophet as receiving divine specifications for a still-future temple.
Consistent with this ancient pattern, which also existed in non-Israelite cultures, modern prophets too have claimed revealed guidance for the building of temples.
For instance, Doctrine and Covenants 95:14 directs that the temple in Kirtland, Ohio, be erected “after the manner which I shall show unto three of you.” And, in fact, like many of Joseph Smith’s most significant revelations, this one was experienced with others, who thus serve as corroborating witnesses. Together, Joseph, Sidney Rigdon and Frederick G. Williams saw that temple in vision prior to its construction. President Williams recounted the experience:
“Joseph received the word of the Lord for him to take his two counselors Williams and Rigdon and come before the Lord, and he would show them the plan or model of the House to be built. We went upon our knees, called on the Lord, and the Building appeared within viewing distance: I being the first to discover it. Then all of us viewed it together. After we had taken a good look at the exterior, the building seemed to come right over us, and the Makeup of this Hall seems to coincide with what I there saw to a minutia.”
Truman O. Angell, architect of the later Salt Lake Temple, mentioned this event in a March 1885 letter to John Taylor:
“F. G. Williams came into the Temple about the time the main hall 1st floor was ready for dedication. He was asked, how does the house look to you. He answered that it looked to him like the model he had seen. He said President Joseph Smith, Sidney Rigdon and himself were called to come before the Lord and the model was shown them. He said the vision of the Temple was thus shown them and he could not see the difference between it and the House as built.”
Non-Mormons were also aware of the story: “The pattern,” reports an 1836 letter in the “Ohio Atlas” newspaper, “was given by direct revelation from Heaven, and given to those individuals separately.”
Brigham Young saw the Salt Lake Temple in vision on July 28, 1847, four days after the first Saints arrived in the valley, and his first public act upon locating the site for Salt Lake City was to touch his cane to the ground and say, "Here we shall build a temple to our God.”
“Now, some will want to know what kind of a building it will be,” he remarked during a general conference of the church on April 6, 1853. “Wait patiently, brethren, until it is done, and put forth your hands willingly to finish it. I know what it will be. (S)uffice it to say, five years ago last July I was here, and saw in the Spirit the Temple not ten feet from where we have laid the Chief Corner Stone. I have not inquired what kind of a Temple we should build. Why? Because it was represented before me. I have never looked upon that ground, but the vision of it was there. I see it as plainly as if it was in reality before me.”
In 1997, President Gordon B. Hinckley received an important temple-related revelation very much in the manner of earlier prophets. “It was here in Northern Mexico,” he said in his dedicatory prayer for the Colonia Juarez Chihuahua Mexico Temple on March 6, 1999, “that Thou didst reveal the idea and the plan of a smaller temple, complete in every necessary detail, but suited in size to the needs and circumstances of the Church membership in this area of Thy vineyard. That revelation came of a desire and a prayer to help Thy people of these colonies who have been true and loyal during the century and more that they have lived here. They are deserving of this sacred edifice in which to labor for themselves and their forebears.”
Temples are a central element in the restoration of all things, and, often even in the details of their origins, they represent powerful evidence for the divine calling of Joseph Smith and his successors.
Daniel Peterson, professor of Islamic studies and Arabic, founded BYU's Middle Eastern Texts Initiative and MormonScholarsTestify.org, chairs "Interpreter: A Journal of Mormon Scripture," and blogs daily on Patheos.com. He doesn't speak for BYU.