Less than three weeks after Brigham Young died in 1877, Wilford Woodruff stood in the Tabernacle in Salt Lake City and delivered an address that was mostly sermon, part eulogy. He ended it by speaking at length about the doctrine of temple work:
Before I close, I want to say one thing to the Latter-day Saints, which is resting upon my mind. President Young having now passed away, his labors with us have ceased for the present. He, with his brethren, built and completed one Temple, also laid the foundation for one at Manti and one at Logan, and besides a great deal of work has been done on the one in this city. He left this unfinished work for us to carry on to completion; and it is our duty to rise up and build these Temples. I look upon this portion of our ministry as a mission of as much importance as preaching to the living; the dead will hear the voice of the servants of God in the spirit world, and they cannot come forth in the morning of the resurrection, unless certain ordinances are performed, for and in their behalf, in Temples built to the name of God.
Members of the church did ordinance work in the Endowment House in Salt Lake City starting in 1855, but as Brigham Young explained in 1874,
We can, at the present time, go into the Endowment House and be baptized for the dead, receive our washings and anointing, etc. … We also have the privilege of sealing women to men, … in the Endowment House; but [other ordinances] … cannot be done without a Temple.
The work on the Salt Lake Temple continued, but Leonard Arrington noted that:
… Brigham Young had concluded that the Salt Lake Temple, a massive undertaking, would never be completed in his lifetime. Observing the effectiveness and beauty of the work that had gone into the St. George Tabernacle, and the faithfulness of the workers, and considering the need of these colonists to receive support from the central church, he wrote to Erastus Snow, in the spring of 1871, that the time had come for the southern Saints to build a Temple, the first Temple in the Mountain West.
As soon as the lower story of the St. George Temple was finished in January 1877, the temple was privately dedicated and thousands of ordinances were done, even as workers labored to finish the temple.
General Conference was held in St. George, Utah, in April 1877 with a failing Brigham Young presiding, and Daniel H. Wells publically dedicated the completed Temple on April 6, 1877.
When Wilford Woodruff, Apostle and President of the St. George Temple, spoke in the Tabernacle in Salt Lake City after Brigham Young’s death, he encouraged the members of the church to continue building the other temples in Utah. He told them:
The dead will be after you, they will seek after you as they have after us in St. George. They called upon us, knowing that we held the keys and power to redeem them. I will here say, before closing, that two weeks before I left St. George, the spirits of the dead gathered around me, wanting to know why we did not redeem them. Said they, “
You have had the use of the Endowment House for a number of years, and yet nothing has ever been done for us. We laid the foundation of the government you now enjoy, and we never apostatized from it, but we remained true to it and were faithful to God.”
These were the signers of the Declaration of Independence, and they waited on me for two days and two nights. … I straightway went into the baptismal font and called upon brother McCallister [sic] to baptize me for the signers of the Declaration of Independence, and fifty other eminent men, making one hundred in all, including John Wesley, Columbus, and others; I then baptized him for every President of the United States, except three; and when their cause is just, somebody will do the work for them.
Now, this is a familiar and beloved story in the church. It has often been retold and there are even paintings commemorating the event.
Less well known is the fact that ordinances were also done at the time for about seventy women. Wilford Woodruff noted in his diary: “Sister Lucy Bigelow Young went Forth into the font and was Baptized for Martha Washington and her family and seventy (70) of the Eminent women of the world.”
In an occasional series that has been in the planning stages for several years now, I’ll present the stories of the women whose work was done, but much more importantly, will present the stories of Lucy Bigelow Young and the women of St. George who did the ordinance work in their newly-built temple.
These women lived in one of the dustiest reaches of civilization, a community stricken not only with poverty, but also with malaria and scurvy, a community that may have only survived its first few years due to church building projects, the Tabernacle and Temple. But even in those extreme circumstances, the women loved and cherished the best of Western civilization, from George Washington and his family to women such as Jane Austen and Elizabeth Barrett Browning.
These women of St. George and the surrounding communities worked together to support the building of the temple, to furnish it, and to do the temple work for their deceased relatives as well as the temple work for the Eminent Women.
Many thanks to J. Stapley who sent the list of the temple work, to Ardis who is making this project possible, and to Sarah Ann Arterbury Church, who finally got the project going.
Editor’s Note, July 24, 2013: An index to the biographies can be found at Keepapitchinin’s “Topical Guide” if you do a search for “Eminent Women.” An index can also be found at TheAncestorFiles: Eminent Women Biographies, complete with links to other guest posts written during the course of this project. Here are links to the histories as of today:
(Extra post) The Sylvesters: The Fire and Light Was Always Free
(Extra post) Behind the Scenes at the Eminent Women Project
Lucy Celestia Bigelow Bunch and Sarah Creagh Philpot Curran