"Establish a house, even a house of prayer, a house of fasting, a house of faith, a house of learning, a house of glory, a house of order, a house of God."
There are now 144 temples of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints operating worldwide, but when Joseph Smith first dictated the words of this revelation in December 1832, the Saints had never constructed such a building. In response to this revelation, the Saints worked and sacrificed to build a temple in Kirtland, Ohio — to construct a building that was known at the time simply as “the House of the Lord.”
Significant details about the construction and development of the House of the Lord are now becoming widely available. The Joseph Smith Papers project is currently compiling and publishing all documents created, authorized or owned by Joseph Smith, and many of these documents, including revelations, architectural plans, city plats and letters, demonstrate the centrality of the House of the Lord in Joseph Smith’s life and in the lives of members of the early church.
A January 1831 revelation instructed church members to gather to Ohio, where they would “be endowed with power from on high.” Nearly two years later, a December 1832 revelation called on church members to “establish a house of God,” where the endowment would be given. However, by early summer 1833, church members had made little progress toward construction. In fact, on June 1, 1833, another revelation chastised church members for their failure to begin construction. Thereafter, the House of the Lord remained a high priority.
During the week following the June 1 revelation, Joseph Smith, Sidney Rigdon and Frederick G. Williams, who together constituted the presidency of the high priesthood (later known as the First Presidency), were appointed as a committee to whom God would show how the temple was to be built. These three men recorded that shortly after receiving this appointment, they knelt in collective prayer and had a vision in which they viewed the exterior and interior elements of the temple. This vision allowed them to draw architectural plans for the House of the Lord.
On June 7, 1833, Hyrum Smith began clearing the land and digging trenches for the building’s foundation. By the end of that month, Joseph Smith and others wrote to Missouri church members to inform them, “We have commenced building the House of the Lord in this place, and it goes on rapidly.” As instructed in an Aug. 2, 1833 revelation, church leaders created a city plat for Kirtland, similar to one they had drawn for the city of Zion (in Jackson County, Missouri) in June 1833. The new plat revealed the centrality of the temple: it would stand in Kirtland’s central block, a sacred space and a focal point of the town.
In the fall of 1833, the effort to build the temple walls temporarily ceased due to a lack of sufficient building materials and because of the urgency to help church members who had been expelled from Jackson County. Construction resumed in the spring of 1834, even as Joseph Smith and 200 others traveled to Missouri in what became known as Zion’s Camp. A June 22, 1834, revelation ended the camp and informed the church’s elders that they needed to receive their endowment of power in the House of the Lord at Kirtland.
When Joseph Smith returned from Missouri in the summer of 1834, he praised the Kirtland Saints for their diligence in building the temple. Development on the building progressed, though funds were scarce. During the first mission of the twelve apostles to the Eastern United States in the summer of 1835, Joseph Smith sent a letter reminding them to raise funds to complete the “house in which to receive an endowment, previous to the redemption of Zion.” This is just one example of many fundraising efforts to build the House of the Lord.
Meanwhile, men and women worked side-by-side to construct and complete the House of the Lord. Some did masonry work, others drove cattle and hauled rock, while others spun and knit clothes for workers, “all to forward the work of the Lord.” Several women worked on the veils, or curtains, for the House of the Lord and Joseph “pronounced a blessing upon the Sisters for the liberality in giving their services so cheerfully for the Lord’s house.”
Men likewise found great satisfaction in building the religious edifice. Newel Knight, for instance, “rejoiced in his labors” because it had been “a long time since the Lord had a house on the Earth.” Lucy Mack Smith perhaps summed up the general sentiments of the Saints best when she wrote, “There was but one main spring to all our thoughts and that was building the Lord’s house.”
On Sunday morning, March 27, 1836, a crowd of approximately 1,000 men and women filled the completed temple to capacity for the dedication. More than 400 others unable to enter the temple met in the adjacent school in hopes of hearing the dedicatory prayer, while others returned home. A second dedicatory event was eventually held on the last day of March 1836, and as at the first, “the spirit of God rested upon the congregation and great solemnity prevailed.”
From the dedication until most of the Saints left Kirtland in 1838, the House of the Lord remained at the heart of the administrative, theological and physical development of the church.
For more information on the centrality of this sacred building, see "The Joseph Smith Papers, Documents, Volume 3: February 1833–March 1834."
Brent M. Rogers is a volume editor for the Joseph Smith Papers project.