Doctrine and Covenants 95, a revelation given through the Prophet Joseph Smith on June 1, 1833, contains directions on the building of a house of worship and instruction at Kirtland, Ohio. Eventually these would result in the construction of the first temple of this dispensation, which was dedicated on March 27, 1836.
“Now here is wisdom,” it reads, “and the mind of the Lord — let the house be built, not after the manner of the world, for I give not unto you that ye shall live after the manner of the world; therefore, let it be built after the manner which I shall show unto three of you, whom ye shall appoint and ordain unto this power” (Doctrine and Covenants 95:13-14).
And, in fact, Joseph Smith, Sidney Rigdon and Frederick G. Williams — who, at that time, constituted the First Presidency of what would shortly thereafter be called The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints — saw the temple prior to its construction, in a remarkable vision. Some years afterward, when the temple was actually complete, Williams recounted what he had experienced:
“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.”
The journal of Truman O. Angell, who, decades later, served as the architect of the Salt Lake Temple, is our source for Williams’ reminiscence. He also mentioned it in a March 11, 1885, letter to President 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” (see “The Revelations of Joseph Smith: A Historical and Biographical Commentary of the Doctrine and Covenants," edited by Lyndon W. Cook, Deseret Book, 1981).
A roughly contemporary non-Mormon source, otherwise rather disdainful of the design of what it called “a huge misshapen edifice,” confirms the essence of the story, as well: A letter in the Ohio Atlas newspaper, dated March 16, 1836, reports that “The pattern was given by direct revelation from Heaven, and given to those individuals separately.”
This relatively little-known story about the Kirtland Temple is significant for at least two reasons:
First, it seems to represent a modern repetition of the experience of Moses, who, according to Exodus 25-31, 35-40, knew by revelation exactly what the Tabernacle was to look like and how it was to be built. Similar accounts have been given of subsequent temples such as the ones in Nauvoo, Illinois, and Salt Lake City, and President Gordon B. Hinckley reported a revelation on the construction of small temples that he received while driving back to the United States from the Latter-day Saint settlement at Colonia Juarez, Mexico (see "Inspiration came for smaller temples on trip to Mexico" in the LDS Church News, Aug. 1, 1998).
Second, as with so very many of Joseph Smith’s revelations, there were co-witnesses; he wasn’t alone (see "Many of Prophet's revelations were shared experiences," published on Feb. 24, 2011).
In my judgment, this fact represents a substantial challenge to critics who would dismiss Joseph Smith’s prophetic claims. Simply brushing him aside as mad or dishonest isn’t enough when other people — and more than just a few of them —corroborate his prophetic experiences.
Some critics, responding creatively if not very persuasively, have suggested that Joseph’s fellow witnesses, in their supposedly fanatical enthusiasm and because they were expected to do so, followed Joseph’s prompts and, thus, “saw” what he claimed to be seeing. In that light, it’s important to note that, according to Truman Angell’s account, Frederick G. Williams reported that he himself was the first among the members of the First Presidency to see that three-dimensional image of the future Kirtland Temple suspended above them.
(For information on the Kirtland Temple experience described above, see Cook's “The Revelations of Joseph Smith: A Historical and Biographical Commentary of the Doctrine and Covenants” (1981), 198, 322.)
Daniel Peterson teaches Arabic studies, founded BYU’s Middle Eastern Texts Initiative, directs MormonScholarsTestify.org, chairs mormoninterpreter.com, blogs daily at patheos.com/blogs/danpeterson, and speaks only for himself.