St. George Utah Tabernacle

The 13 years it took to complete this building might seem like a long time compared with modern construction. However, consider this. The limestone for the three-foot thick basement walls was hand-quarried from the foothills north of the city. Red sandstone boulders for the two-and-one-half foot walls were hand-quarried from a site near the Red Hills Golf Course and then hand-cut into serviceable stones. The 56-foot trusses were cut 32 miles distant and hand-hewn with a broad axe. The twin spiral staircases were hand-carved complete with balustrades and railing. The interior plaster of Paris ceiling and cornice work were locally cast and prepared. The clock was made in London and shipped to St. George via New York. The fact that the Tabernacle was completed at the same time the temple and the courthouse were under construction (not to mention the family homes simultaneously being erected) is indeed a tribute to the industry of early settlers. (Note the individual chisel marks on each sandstone block.)

The Prophecy

In the spring of 1861, Brigham Young, president of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, looked out over the vast desert that later became the city of St. George and said, "There will yet be built between these volcanic ridges, a city, with spires and towers and steeples, with homes containing many inhabitants." Today it is clear that the prophecy has been fulfilled. But it was not an easy victory. Those who founded this community endured an arid climate of searing heat and frequent flash floods. They endured the hardship because they knew that a call from a prophet was the same as a call from the Lord, and Brigham Young was a prophet, just as Moses and Abraham were prophets, each called for his own time.

The Call

As the Saints trudged across the great plains on their westward journey they sang, "Come Come Ye Saints. No toil nor labor fear. But with joy, wend your way." Now 309 families sang again as they made the arduous trek southward to the outer boundaries of the territory. They did not fear toil nor labor. They had already toiled to build homes and labored to clear farms in the Salt Lake Valley. Then just as the orchards and fields were beginning to bear, the call came again to settle yet another place. And so they sang as they came, "We'll find a place, Which God for us prepared, Far away in the West." This was a place prepared; a place prepared for the strengthening of a people.

A Place Prepared

Is it a coincidence that Brigham Young sent a weary group of Pioneers to settle in the barren St. George valley in 1861 ? Was it by accident that these early settlers were able to find within near-by distances the gypsum and limestone quarries and the lumber resources that would make possible such majestic structures as the Temple and the Tabernacle. A look into the Old Testament gives many examples of how the Lord works, moving his people into situations and areas to build spiritual refinement, where they must sacrifice to survive.

Long ago these people had left lush farmlands in the East and midwest. Now they were to face years of struggle in the St. George area. But they found a place prepared with all that was necessary to erect a Temple to their God, and a Tabernacle in which to worship Him. Here was beautiful building rock, timber awaiting the sawmill or the skilled hand-saw, gypsum to make plaster for the interior finish and perhaps most amazing of all, on a red rock knoll just west of here, was a great collection of crucial lime rock scattered over the surface of the hill. Where it came from, no one knew. But without it the plaster would not harden. And there had arrived from England, a man whose family had been lime burners for generations. Strangely, there was just enough. When these structures were completed the supply of lime rock was exhausted. It seemed an unseen hand had provided just what was needed for these sacred buildings.

Did they succeed ?

The evidence is clear. Over a hundred years later in a bustling, growing town, the Temple and the Tabernacle are still here, still in use. Churches dot the skyline and people are enjoying a modern lifestyle. But, for the descendants of those early pioneers, there is always a reminder and feeling of gratitude for their sacrifice. A Three-Fold Purpose They dealt with the relentless requirements of the wilderness, flooding rivers, grasshoppers and every foot of ditch, carrying water to the land, channeled through the red dirt with a shovel. Yet in the first year they grew 100,000 pounds of cotton, managed to maintain themselves and establish a settlement. But their situation was far from secure. When Brigham Young saw their condition he instituted the building of the Tabernacle.

There was a need for a building. There was a need for employment at which people could earn their sustenance and maintain their dignity with meaningful work and there was a need for a unifying purpose to bond them together as a community. So Brigham Young declared that they should build the Tabernacle, a magnificent structure in New England style, a jewel in the desert which would seat at least 1200 people.

An emotional group of men and women in the frontier town of St. George Utah, only three years from settlement, met together to dedicate the beginning of their much needed Tabernacle. After meeting in make- shift willow bowery, so anxious were they to have a place for worship and other public gatherings, that the minute the basement was completed, they moved in. They offered a dedicatory prayer and for the next eight years this basement became their meeting place. When finally the building was completed with the Tower in place, the formal dedication was scheduled on the birthday of their beloved prophet, Brigham Young, whose original vision of building a Tabernacle had given this pioneer people so much hope for the future. William H Folsom was given the task to design the building as the architect. Eagerly, they left the basement and with feelings of pride and awe, moved upstairs into the main hall. It was a glorious time. In thirteen years, with almost non-existent cash flow these settlers had created an unbelievable treasure. A building that stands today as a reminder of their amazing courage in the face of almost insurmountable obstacles.

The Glass;  Intent upon having the very best for their beloved Tabernacle, they ordered 2244 panes of glass from New York City. It was a daring move. There was little cash flow among the residents of St. George and glass couldn't very well be brought across the plains in a bouncing wagon. Instead, it was transported by ship all the way around South America and into the harbor at Los Angeles. Then they had a serious problem. Before the glass could be released a freight bill of $800 was due. David Cannon, local church leader and well-respected citizen of St. George was assigned the challenge of raising the money to bring the glass from California. As the time of departure arrived he had only $200 in his pocket. Nevertheless, with great faith, he prepared to make the journey, praying that the Lord would open the way. At the same time in the near-by town of Washington, a Danish immigrant named Peter Nielson had saved $600 in gold pieces to enlarge his two-room adobe house. He knew of David Cannon's dilemma, but he had already lent money to a perpetual emigration fund over the years to help new members come to Utah from Europe. They were supposed to pay him back but so far no one had. After spending a sleepless night, and struggling with the problem, Peter arose early, walked the distance from Washington to St. George. Just as the wagons were ready to leave for California, Peter arrived and placed the $600 in gold into David Cannon's hand. An amazing thing then happened to Peter. The money that had been owed him for so many years began to trickle in and soon he had enough to finish his home. Today visitors will notice that many of the original panes are still in place. A closer examination reveals some really wonderful examples of old glass.

The Balcony Incident; One of the most unusual events in the building of the Tabernacle happened after the U-shaped balcony was crafted and firmly in place. Miles Romney, master builder, schooled in English architecture and supervisor of the Tabernacle construction designed two elegant circular staircases. He called them his crowning achievements. They were attached to either side of the foyer-type room at the entrance to the main hall. As the people ascended both staircases the top steps lead onto and were even with the balcony. It seemed a perfect architectural arrangement. There was just one problem. Upon close observation, Brigham Young discovered the balcony was so high, people sitting there could not see the pulpit. Miles Romney reminded the prophet the stairways were permanent and could not be moved. So, Brigham Young recommended the balcony be lowered. And while everyone thought this impossible, Brigham Young surprised them by devising an ingenious plan. This caught the interest of Miles Romney who agreed and complied. Strong men were stationed at each post of the U-shaped balcony. With the use of braces and jacks, each man in unison with the others, using his full physical strength lifted the whole balcony in one piece at one time. The posts were cut off to the desired height by other workers and the balcony was replaced, lower than before. Brigham's plan had worked. Today, Tabernacle audiences who climb up the staircases to their original height will step down an easy 8 steps to the balcony, but that is alright, because now They can see the pulpit just fine.

The Clock and The Bell Life changed for the better with the addition of the new bell and clock as part of the Tabernacle tower. Up til then the pioneers had set their few timepieces by the sun as it came up each morning, and signaled townspeople with an old bass drum. As the tower went up they retired the drum and gladly gave up the sun as the way to tell time. Gone were meetings and school classes late in starting and slow to close. Gone were water turns that over-lapped and other inconveniences brought about by everyone's personal interpretation of sun time. Being on time was not only important but now possible with the handsome clock superbly built in London and the clear- ringing bell from Troy, New York, both brought to St. George through much personal sacrifice.

One townsperson recalled:

"It was grand to have a clock. We loved it because it gave us prestige. It raised the morale of the people. We went to church on time, came home on time, opened and closed parties on time. The old town had moved forward,. they had a clock and a bell. From now on people were born by the clock, they died by the clock."

So proud were they of the new town bell, they first put it to work in a temporary position on the main floor to signal lunchtime for the workers. Once in the tower it triumphantly announced Brigham Young's arrival, sounded the passing of local pioneers, made known the deaths of presidents of the Church and Nation, and on January 6, 1896 it tolled for two hours and forty minutes to proclaim that Utah had become a state.

A Building of Purpose

Since the time of dedication in 1876, the Tabernacle served the people of St. George in grand style. Whether a Sunday worship service, a political town gathering or the funeral of a member of the Mormon faith or a non- member, the Tabernacle provided a respected meeting place for the townspeople. Choirs and singing groups were welcome and patriotic programs encouraged. So grateful were the early pioneers for this enclosed place of beauty, it became the focal point of their life and activities. Often, people who were not Mormons benefitted as well, as told in the story of Father Scanlon.

The Father Scanlon Story

In the 1880's Silver Reef, about 25 miles north of St. George became a booming mining town with the discovery of a silver vein. Miners appeared in this frontier town which was first named Bonanza City and merchants started many frontier businesses. Some St. George settlers even found a market for their farm goods. One person, in particular, remembered from this time was Father Lawrence Scanlon, who with a few other Catholic fathers, was sent to Silver Reef to attend to the religious needs of the miners and some townsfolk. He was an outgoing, friendly person who right away formed friendships with leaders of the Mormon faith. A feeling of mutual trust and respect developed. Through this exchange, they offered him the use of the Tabernacle for a High Mass. Father Scanlon with only the most limited of conditions for holding church services accepted with delight. He would hold the Mass on one condition, that the music and text be learned and provided in Latin by the St. George Stake Choir. They agreed. This was an historical moment for St. George and the Tabernacle when this group of miners, far from their homes filed into this beautiful structure, tall in the desert, rimmed by the brilliant red hills. Many townspeople were invited and attended. There was a feeling of warmth and friendship . The choir under the direction of John M. Macfarlane, performed amazingly well in Latin. The Tabernacle had once again proved its value. It wasn't too much later that the silver mine gave out and the silver boom faded away. The people of St. George were sorry to see Father Scanlon go. He had been a devoted friend.

A Place Chosen

In the 1890's the Church was deeply in debt and the nation was in the midst of a depression when Lorenzo Snow became the fifth president of the Church. After many days of wrestling with the problem and after seeking the answer in prayer he was prompted to call a special conference in St. George. Without knowing why he left for St. George, going part way by train and then by carriage. It was a difficult trip for the 86 year old prophet, but the people were thrilled to welcome their leader and the Tabernacle was packed. As he stood at the pulpit, looking frail, he first praised the people for their faith and courage. Then he paused and the congregation became very quiet. They would soon know what had compelled him to make the long trip to St. George. He seemed to gather strength, and then began to speak, "The time has come for every Latter Day Saint to do the will of the Lord and pay his tithing in full. That is the word of the Lord to you and it will be the word of the Lord to every settlement throughout the land. . . " President Snow returned home by carriage to Salt Lake City, giving this same message to every settlement along the way.The saints did respond, the Lord poured out blessings upon them and the debt of the Church was paid. The rains came to save the crops of the folks here, and a wonderful lesson was learned about the value of sacrifice in the eyes of the Lord. Tithing has always been the law given by the Lord to his people.

The Tabernacle Today

Today, history has been preserved in the restoration of this jewel of a pioneer structure which still serves St. George as a cultural center. From around the world visitors are welcome to enjoy its beauty, take tours and hear programs of music and culture. While much of the Tabernacle has undergone other restoration from time to time, through the years, its new re-opening in 1993 shows a building as close to the original as possible. Many believe the St. George Tabernacle is the finest example of design and chapel builder's art in the entire Mormon experience. And the society these stalwart people formed remains strong and vital.

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20 Apr 2004