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The Eminent Women of the St. George Temple

By: Amy Tanner Thiriot - November 09, 2011

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:

 

Martha Washington and Lucy Bigelow Young

Ann Fairfax Washington Lee

Susanna Mehitable Rogers Sangiovanni Pickett Keate

Anna Charlotte Eldridge Hinkle Chidester and Charlotte Corday

Mary O’Connell

Ann Crosby Thomas

Christiane von Goethe

Roseinia (Rose) Sylvester Jarvis

(Extra post) The Sylvesters: The Fire and Light Was Always Free 

Isabell Hill Romney Platt and Charlotte von Schiller 

Mary Lockwood Ross Kemp and Lady Sydney Morgan

(Extra post) Childhood Memories (Seth Austin Pymm and Eliza Dent Pymm)

Matilda Hoffman

Eliza Ann (Grazen) Brace Lund

(Extra post) Behind the Scenes at the Eminent Women Project

Mary Parker Chidester

Catharine Maria Sedgwick

(Extra post) A Response to the Salt Lake Tribune on Utah’s Dixie and Slave Culture

(Extra post) Reintroduction: The Eminent Women of the St. George Temple

Jennett Potter Oxborrow and Mary Philipse Morris

(Extra post) Historical News Flash: Wilford Woodruff’s Vision of the Founding Fathers

Caroline Blake Hardy

Jane Mary Nugent Burke

Jean Armour Burns

Elizabeth Thomas Morse

Lucy Celestia Bigelow Bunch and Sarah Creagh Philpot Curran



12 Comments »

  1. I’m looking forward to this. Lucy in particular is one of my favorite women of the Restoration. Love her and her ministry.

    On the broader context of Woodruff’s dream/vision, Brian Stuy had an article in the JMH a decade ago or so that is worth checking out. Fortunately, USU will soon be hosting the JMH archive, which will render such things much more accessible.

    Comment by J. Stapley — November 9, 2011 @ 9:08 am

  2. Great project! I can’t wait to read of all the women involved – those who performed the work and those they performed the work for in the temple.

    Comment by Chocolate on my Cranium — November 9, 2011 @ 9:32 am

  3. I’m looking forward to this. Particularly how Sarah Church was involved.

    Comment by Bruce Crow — November 9, 2011 @ 10:38 am

  4. What appeals to me most, I think, is the anticipation of being introduced to some lesser-known Latter-day Saint women who were willing to donate their time (much more time than today’s experience, and in an environment when women’s labor was needed at home for even a subsistence level of life) in temple service to women who were not their blood kin — we have a model of over a century of such service, and most of us would never get to the temple a second time if we didn’t have that opportunity to serve utter strangers, but in the early days of modern temple work there was no such pattern. These Saints all must have had work to do for their own dead, but they offered themselves to help others, too.

    Anyway, I’m eager to hear about these sisters most of all.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — November 9, 2011 @ 11:42 am

  5. Thanks, J., Chocolate, and Bruce. The women of St. George, including Lucy B., had amazing and varied experiences and made substantial sacrifices to gather to Utah and then settle in St. George, and I hope that comes through in the series.

    I do have a copy of Stuy’s article, J., and he answered some major questions I had about this story and raised other questions. Stuy also brings into the story an old Keepa favorite, John M. Bernhisel.

    And speaking of Stuy, the acknowledgements list on this project is already substantial and keeps growing. I have been touched at the excitement shown by descendants of these women, who have been so happy to share the stories of their pioneer ancestors.

    Comment by Amy T — November 9, 2011 @ 10:45 am

  6. looking forward to the series

    Comment by The Other Clark — November 9, 2011 @ 1:15 pm

  7. Amy, I always enjoy your research and writing! I’m excited for this series!

    Comment by Robin — November 9, 2011 @ 1:39 pm

  8. I look forward to this series. Sounds fascinating.

    Comment by kevinf — November 9, 2011 @ 2:27 pm

  9. Thanks, all. And it wasn’t the first time that the women had worked together like this. John Nuttall mentioned earlier that year:

    At the temple, this being Bro. W. Woodruff’s 70th birthday. 54 of the sisters of St. George and Santa Clara volunteered their services to receive endowments for so many of his dead relatives and friends…. Afterwards at 4 P. M. all the workers were invited to a cold collation at St. George Hall as a surprise to Bro. Woodruff…. Closed at 6 P. M., all feeling this was the best day of our life.

    Comment by Amy T — November 9, 2011 @ 1:54 pm

  10. Great stuff, Amy! Terrific!

    Comment by Mark B. — November 9, 2011 @ 2:55 pm

  11. If you need any info on my St George ancestors who worked there in the temple then (Annie Thorne Wells, Orpha and Rachel Sanders Everett, and Agnes Calkin Thompson), contact me at http://www.familytreerings.org

    Comment by anita — November 9, 2011 @ 9:31 pm

  12. Wonderful, Anita! I’ll send you a note.

    If anyone has information to contribute or questions about the project, feel free to contact me at amy ancestor files (that’s all one word) at gmail dot com.

    This is a multi-year project, and after this first post went up yesterday I had some trepidation about the scope of the project, but that disappeared with the excitement of working through these biographies. Biography is my favorite kind of history, and it’s a pleasure to spend some time with all these amazing women and their stories. Thanks again, everyone, for the encouragement.

    Comment by Amy T — November 10, 2011 @ 2:29 pm

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