Movies, a Scale Model of the Salt Lake Temple and a Museum Introduced Me to LDS Church History

As one of Utah’s most popular tourist attractions, Temple Square offers complimentary access to nearly 20 attractions. Many of those attractions provided me with a welcome opportunity to learn more about the history of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. 

My introduction to LDS Church history began at the South Visitors’ Center. There, I learned about the Salt Lake Temple, which took 40 years to build, between 1853 and 1893. In front of a large window facing the temple sits an 88-inch-tall, scaled replica model that reveals what the interior of the temple looks like. Interactive kiosks show still photos and videos of ordinance rooms like the Baptistry, the Celestial Room, the Creation Room, the Garden Room, the Solemn Assembly Room, and the World Room. To see a short video of and read more about the model, click here.

 In the Legacy Theater at the Joseph Smith Memorial Building, we watched “Joseph Smith, Prophet of the Restoration.” The 68-minute movie tells the story of the church’s founder and first president from the viewpoint of his mother, Lucy Mack Smith. You can watch the film in its entirety online at and on YouTube. 

“Legacy: A Mormon Journey,” a 1993 motion picture depicting the heritage of the LDS Church and the legacy of the Mormon faith, is on view in the North Visitors’ Center. Eliza Walker Williams, the film’s main character, is a composite of several actual pioneer women. The hour-long film depicts Eliza’s experiences as a young girl meeting Joseph Smith and her struggles as a young woman in trying to find Zion. The movie follows Eliza as she endures hardships in Missouri, and then meets her husband, David Walker, a stonemason from Liverpool who learned of the gospel from her father when he was serving as a missionary in England. It follows the couple as David works on the Nauvoo Temple and joins the Mormon Battalion, leaving Eliza and their two children on their own to endure the bleak winter of 1846-1847 at Winter Quarters. It concludes when the reunited family enters the Salt Lake Valley in 1847. Most of the main characters’ dialogue – including everything Joseph Smith says — comes from pioneer journals and letters. 

Located at 45 North West Temple Street, the Church History Museum displays Mormon art and artifacts to tell the story of the Latter-day Saints. 

The museum’s permanent exhibit presents an attractively displayed collection of artifacts documenting the history of the LDS Church from its beginnings in upstate New York, Joseph Smith’s efforts to establish communities in Ohio, Missouri and Illinois, and its westward trek to the valley of the Great Salt Lake under Brigham Young’s leadership. 

In this gallery, you can learn about Nauvoo, Illinois, the city overlooking a bend in the Mississippi River that Joseph Smith founded in 1839. You can see a replica of a sunstone from the Nauvoo Temple, which was built between 1841 and 1846. According to the museum’s descriptive text, the sunstone symbolizes the celestial kingdom and was drawn from Joseph Smith’s dream vision. The top section with trumpets rests upon the sun face so that the stone carver could align the rays and smooth surface details before they were hoisted in place. One of the original Nauvoo sunstones is at the Smithsonian. 

Also on display are the death masks of Joseph Smith and his brother, Hyrum, as well as manuscripts of “Come, Come Ye Saints” and “Hail to the 12 Pioneers,” two Mormon hymns by William Clayton. You can also see original drawings of the Salt Lake Temple, including one of the clasped hands you see over one of the east doors of the temple, the “Holiness to the Lord” dedicatory inscription on the East Tower of the temple, and an all-seeing eye from an arched tower window. 

On the plaza between the Church History Museum and the Family History Library, you can look inside one of two surviving log homes built by Mormon pioneers when they arrived in the Salt Lake Valley in 1847. The 15-by-20-foot cabin built of Douglas fir and lodgepole pine was the home of New York natives Osmyn and Mary Deuel, as well as Osmyn’s brother, Amos, from Fall 1847 to Spring 1848. Gardens surrounding the furnished home represent the native vegetation the pioneers found during their early years in the Salt Lake Valley. Lombardy poplars, black locust trees, corn, potatoes, beets, hollyhocks, mountain maples, gambel oaks and river birches are also planted here. 

In the Church History Museum’s store, you can browse books by LDS authors, music, prints of LDS artwork, and souvenirs. One of my favorite Salt Lake City souvenirs that I brought home is a graph to recreate a cross-stitch sampler of the Nauvoo Temple that a girl named Ann Eckford completed in the late 1840s. The design is based on a plate produced by the Twigg Pottery Company of England in 1846 to commemorate the temple’s completion. The names bordering the central design of the temple represent the Twelve Apostles and other LDS Church leaders. 

During our first evening in Salt Lake City, we attended a presentation by Rita Wright, the museum’s curator of art and artifacts, to celebrate the 150th anniversary of Cyrus Dallin’s birth. One of Dallin’s signature accomplishments was creating the statue of the Angel Moroni for the spire of the Salt Lake Temple in 1893. Dallin’s statue became a symbol for the LDS Church and was the model for other Angel Moroni statues on the spires of LDS temples. 

Born in November 1861 in Springville, Utah to a family with a strong Mormon heritage, Dallin moved to Boston when he was a young man to pursue his interest in art. He taught art for over 40 years at the Massachusetts College of Art and Design. 

Besides sculpting the Angel Moroni, Dallin also created the Brigham Young Monument at the intersection of Main Street and South Temple in Salt Lake City. 

Dallin developed an interest in Indian life and is well- known for his sculptures of Native Americans. Appeal to the Great Spirit can be seen outside the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. Dr. Wright told us that for his sculpture of Massasoit (1920), opposite Plymouth Rock in Plymouth, Massachusetts, Dallin used the same model that John Singer Sargent used for his murals that are now in the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. A copy of Dallin’s sculpture of Massasoit stands outside Utah’s state capitol building. 

Next month, we’ll be tracking down several of Dallin’s sculptures that are in the Boston area. He competed and was awarded for the commission for a statue of Paul Revere near Old North Church, a project which took him 58 years to complete. Dallin’s sculpture of Anne Hutchinson is outside the Massachusetts Statehouse in Boston; another depicting Governor William Bradford is at Pilgrim Hall Museum in Plymouth, Massachusetts. 

Dallin also competed in archery in the 1904 Summer Olympics in St. Louis, Missouri, where he won the bronze medal in the team competition. His papers are at the Smithsonian Archives of American Art, and the Cyrus E. Dallin Museum is located in Arlington, Massachusetts. 

While I keep in mind some ways I can live and share the teachings of Jesus Christ that I saw in the North Visitors’ Center, I’ll be reading the following books to help me learn more about the Mormon faith. These include Exhibiting Mormonism: The Latter-day Saints and the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, by Reid L. Neilson; A Peculiar People: Anti-Mormonism and the Making of Religion in Nineteenth-Century America, by J. Spencer Fluhman; The Mormon People: The Making of an American Faith, by Matthew Bowman; and The Book of Mormon: A Biography, by Paul C. Gutjahr. I’m going to watch The Mormons, a DVD of the PBS Frontline and American Experience program. True Sisters is a new novel by Sandra Dallas about four sisters who pushed and pulled handcarts 1,300 miles from Iowa to Salt Lake City. The characters are fictional, but their experiences are based on journals and other accounts of women who participated in the 1856 journey. 

For more details about the 40-year history of building the Salt Lake Temple, I watched The Mountain of the Lord, a 1993 video from the LDS Church.  I will read The Salt Lake Temple: A Monument to a People, by C. Mark Hamilton, and Sacred Walls: Learning from Temple Symbols, by Gerald E. Hansen and Val Brinkerhoff. 

I’m tempted to travel to Illinois sometime to see Nauvoo. Today, Nauvoo is a National Historic Landmark District, where you can tour many early buildings that have been restored or rebuilt. As with Temple Square, there is no admission fee to see the sights in Nauvoo. For more information, visit Reading Excavating Nauvoo: The Mormons and the Rise of Historical Archaeology in America, by Benjamin C. Pykles, is also in order. 

To learn more about Joseph Smith’s wife, Emma, I’ve checked out Mormon Enigma: Emma Hale Smith, by Linda King Newell and Valeen Tippetts Avery. 

Finally, my visit to the Church History Museum led me to discover that Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, the author of a favorite book of mine titled The Age of Homespun: Objects and Stories in the Creation of an American Myth, is a Mormon. So, in addition to reading A House Full of Females: Plural Marriage and Women’s Rights in Early Mormonism, 1835-1870 and rereading The Age of Homespun, I’ll be checking out “Rachel’s Death: How Memory Challenges History,” an essay about her great-grandmother that was published in The Collected Leonard J. Arrington Mormon History Lecture Series, and All God’s Critters Got a Place in the Choir, a collection of essays about the lives of Mormon women that she co-edited with Emma Lou Thayne.  

This entry was posted in Art, Books, History, Museums, Salt Lake City, Travel. Bookmark the permalink.

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