“And it shall come to pass in the last days, that the mountain of the Lord’s house shall be established in the top of the mountains, and shall be exalted above the hills; and all nations shall flow unto it.
“And many people shall go and say, Come ye, and let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob; and he will teach us of his ways, and we will walk in his paths: . . .” (Isaiah 2:1-2, emphasis added)
The Salt Lake Temple is the fulfilling of this prophecy by Isaiah. At the end of the 19th century the Utah Territory was about to become a state. Church leadership wanted the new state to be named Deseret, after the Book of Mormon word for the industrious honey bee. However, the US government insisted that the new state be called Utah, a Native American word meaning Top of the Mountains. This put the Salt Lake temple, the Mountain of the Lord, in the top of the mountains.
Church Architect Truman Angell designed the iconic Salt Lake Temple. He, under the direction of Church President Brigham Young, and with the assistance of astronomer Orson Pratt, designed several symbols into its exterior. There are stars, moons, suns, clouds and others.
In this architect’s drawing of the moonstones we can see that the original idea was to have much more detail in the carvings. The faces of the moons are very similar to the faces on the Nauvoo temple. That temple had a great influence on the original concepts for the Salt Lake Temple.
The moonstones that circle the Salt Lake temple had much less detail. Rather than faces, the stones depicted the phases of the moon. The phases change as the stones go around the temple in the same way moon phases change through a 28 day cycle.
There are a few schools of thought as to why the final stones lacked the detail of the drawings. One idea is that the original stone to be used in construction was sandstone, a much softer stone and easier to carve than granite. Shortly after the foundation stones were laid, they were buried and hidden when Johnson’s army was approaching the Salt Lake Valley. There had been false rumors spread in Washington D.C. that the Mormons were planning an uprising against the US government. Fearing that the army would think the temple foundation was the beginnings of a military fort, Brigham Young ordered it covered up. A few years later when the soil was removed to begin building again, cracks were found in the sandstone foundation. Brigham Young ordered the foundation removed and granite became the new material for construction.
Around the base of the temple are earth stones. Symbolically they are at ground level, beneath the sunstones, moonstones and stars. Originally these earth stones were to be detailed with the Earth’s hemispheres, but, like the moonstones, a simpler design was selected when granite became the medium. These stones represent the importance of being grounded, or standing fast and immovable, with your feet firmly planted in truth.
In the New Testament Paul taught that there are different degrees of glory in the hereafter.
“There is one glory of the sun, and another glory of the moon, and another glory of the stars: for one star differeth from another star in glory.” (1 Corinthians 15:41)
The Salt Lake Temple depicts these glories in sunstones, moonstones and stars, which represent the telestial, terrestrial and celestial kingdoms.
There are many star stones carved into the temple’s exterior. Most are purely decorative, but others, along with the moonstones and sunstones, represent the degrees of glory Paul spoke of.
Near the top of the corner towers are cloud stones. These stones depict rays of light shining through the clouds. This represents another prophecy of Isaiah concerning the restoration of the gospel:
“Arise, shine; for thy light is come, and the glory of the Lord is risen upon thee.
“For, behold, the darkness shall cover the earth, and gross darkness the people: but the Lord shall arise upon thee, and his glory shall be seen upon thee.
“And the Gentiles shall come to thy light, and kings to the brightness of thy rising.” (Isaiah 60:1-3)
One of the most often overlooked symbols is the constellation Big Dipper (Ursa Major).
On the center tower of the west side are seven stars carved into the stones and they form the Big Dipper. In the left photo we can barely see the stars. In the middle photo we have overlaid star images to allow one to see how they are lalid out. The stars are relief carvings, meaning the are convex rather than concave.
In the Northern Hemisphere the big dipper is used as a guide. If one follows the line created by the two stars that make up the front of the dipper, one can find the North Star, and thus find one’s way when lost. In the right photo we can see how those front stars line up and, interestingly enough, point to the actual North Star.
The symbolism of the constellation on the temple is to remind us that the temple and the things learned there should be our guide through life. If we will look to the temple when spiritually lost, we can again find our spiritual North Star and find our way back.
One temple symbol is not only meaningful, but functional as well. Running along the top of the main walls of the temple – the north and south walls that run east and west — are battlements. Battlements were common features on castles or fortresses. They were used as both lookouts and for defense. They provided protection from attacks by allowing a defending army to fire upon oncoming enemies through a small opening.
The battlements on the Salt Lake Temple are purely symbolic with regards to defense against attack. The temple is often referred to as a place of refuge, and the covenants made there are a protection. Elder Russell M. Nelson said, “A covenant made with God is not restrictive, but protective [ ] Covenants do not hold us down; they elevate us beyond the limits of our own power and perspective.” (Ensign, May 2001)
The temple battlements are not just symbols. They were functional. As you can see in the photo, every other battlement is open. Before the days of modern heating, these served as chimneys for the various fireplaces that heated the rooms of the temple.
The All-Seeing Eye
This is an ancient symbol. It can be found in Egyptian monuments, in religious art, and even on the back of the US dollar bill. There are various interpretations as to what it represents. One is that God is watching you. Another meaning, which makes one feel less threatened and more comfortable, is that God is watching over you. One can look at the all-seeing eye in two ways. One can feel compelled to do good because God sees everything you do, or one can feel loved and protected because God is watching over you in a loving and protecting way. Either way, one can be reminded that God does see everything, and knows everything. To use a contemporary saying, God sees the big picture.
On the exterior of many medieval castles and cathedrals one can find small alcoves known as martyr niches. They are usually found near the door so as to be visible to those entering. Such niches hold statues of people deemed to be martyrs by the local community or parish. The Salt Lake Temple has martyr niches. They can be found next to the main doors. When looking at original architect drawings, it is clear that the intent was that the niches would hold statues of the Latter-day martyrs Joseph and Hyrum Smith. Artist Mahonri Young (1877 – 1957) sculpted statues of the brothers, which were placed in the niches adjacent to the east doors of the temple. Those statues remained there until 1910.
The placement of the Salt Lake Temple niches was not without significance. Around the base of the temple, are large rounded stones known as earth stones. Moving up from there one finds moonstones, then sunstones and star stones. The niches are above the earth stones, but below the moon, sun and star stones. Placing the statues in these niches put the martyred brothers above the earth, yet beneath heaven, meaning they had left earth, but had not yet been exalted. Because the significance was misunderstood by some, many people assumed the church worshiped Joseph and Hyrum. To avoid further questions on the matter, the statues were removed from their niches and placed on the grounds of Temple Square. They can be found today between the Temple and the South Visitors Center. Nowadays young newlyweds stand in the martyr niches to be photographed and few understand the significance.
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Moonstone drawings by: lds.org
All temple photos by: CastleGate Media LLC