Ardis E. Parshall: ‘Mark’ of cane, Moroni myth, Napoleon’s cannon, Brigham’s lightning — St. George LDS Temple legends abound

As the newly renovated building reopens, we revisit the tall — and short — tales about the historic southern Utah landmark.

(The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) The recently renovated St. George Temple, left, and an architectural drawing of the temple in 1871 with a different proposed spire.

I don’t even remember whom I was with that day in 1975 — a youth group from my Las Vegas congregation? Maybe my family?

It was cool within the St. George Temple of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints that day, with long lines of tourists snaking through the corridors and assembly rooms of the refurbished pioneer-era building, shortly before its rededication for religious ordinances by members of the faith.

What I do remember from that day was the delicious narration of the storytelling guide who brought life to what might have been a routine recitation of names and dates as he talked about the construction of that stately building in the raw desert of southern Utah, and the purposes for which it had been built. One memorable moment came with his pantomime reenactment of Brigham Young, the church president under whose direction the pioneers had built that temple, at the pulpit of the assembly room. The builders had done their work well, Young said, but he was not satisfied, and would not be satisfied, until the devil had been whipped from the earth. To emphasize his passionate determination to bring about that end, Young raised his hardwood cane and brought it crashing down on the pulpit, permanently scarring the soft pine of which it had been built.

(Tribune file photo) Brigham Young, second president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, saw the St. George Temple dedicated shortly before he died.

His words and actions are documented in contemporary accounts, but is it true that the mark of his cane remains there as a testament to his desires? I don’t know. I wasn’t invited to inspect the pulpit that day in 1975, or since, and I cannot vouch for that part of the guide’s story.

Latter-day Saint temples and their construction and dedication have been a rich source of beloved stories — some historically defensible and others doubtful, even debunked — that spring forth anew with every generation. The St. George Temple, which has reopened after a nearly four-year renovation, has its share, beginning almost immediately after selection of the site in 1871 for what would be the first completed Latter-day Saint temple in Utah.

The location was chosen by Young, and men with picks and wagons went to work the same day to begin excavating for the temple’s foundation. They found the north edge of the site to consist of limestone, but the other three sides were (ironically, given the desert setting) so boggy with underground springs that a fence post could be driven many feet into the soil with ease. Workers suggested moving the site a few feet away to avoid the springs. Young told them no, they would find a way to make it work in the place he had designated.

The Moroni myth

(Salt Lake Tribune archives) The Angel Moroni is depicted on many Latter-day Saint temples. A debunked myth is that early members said the site of the St. George Temple had been selected by this ancient Book of Mormon figure.

In this account arose the first debunked legend related to the St. George Temple, although it probably didn’t arise until many years after work had begun. According to David H. Cannon Jr., 11 years old at the time and son of a longtime temple president, Young declared that the site had been chosen by Moroni, an ancient prophet whose story is told in the faith’s signature scripture, the Book of Mormon. “They could not build it, but we can and will build it for them,” the boy recalled the pioneer-prophet declaring. As an elderly man in 1942, Cannon gave a detailed statement of what he remembered from that day, but his memory betrayed him. The story he told is far more commonly associated with the site of the Manti Temple, not St. George, and even its connection to Manti cannot be historically supported.

(Michael Stack | Special to The Tribune) The Manti Temple, shown in 2021. The Moroni myth about the St. George Temple may have been confused with a similar one about the Manti Temple.

While that legend was imaginary, the springs were not. Something would have to be done to make solid earth of the mud and loose soil. A drainage system was dug in and around the site, parts of which remain in use today. But builders also would have to compact the soil by driving rock and gravel into the mud until it was solid. Nearby limestone and sandstone were ruled out as filler because crews worried such material would soon decay in the wet soil, returning the site to its boggy condition. Hard black lava is plentiful near St. George and would be impervious to the underground water. Men built a road, and teams began hauling large amounts of the stone to the construction site.

How to drive the stone into the soil, though? A pile driver was the answer: A heavy enough object, hoisted by horses and pulleys some 30 feet in the air and dropped onto rock in the excavation — over and over and over — eventually would pound the hard rock deep enough into the dirt to create a firm foundation.

Cannon legend misfires

(Church History Library) The St. George Temple under construction in 1876.

St. George workers found their pile driver — and another legend — in an old cannon that had once been used in drills by the area militia. Cast of heavy iron, and filled with lead, the cannon was just what the job called for — and the lead-filled cannon remains on display today in St. George.

The legend associated with that cannon has not endured so well. For many years, folks told the story that the cannon, manufactured in France, had been taken by Napoleon on his 1812 invasion of Russia and abandoned in the French retreat from Moscow. The Russians supposedly took the cannon to Siberia, then across the Bering Strait to Alaska, after which it was carried to California, where it was bought by veterans of the Mormon Battalion and hauled to Utah.

But no. The truth is nothing so romantic. Whatever the cannon’s origins (that debate continues), there is no evidence connecting it to Napoleon or Moscow or Alaska, and certainly not with the Mormon Battalion. In reality, southern Utah leader Erastus Snow commissioned area resident Jesse W. Crosby to buy a cannon while on a trip to California in 1860, believing that the Legislature would pay for it with militia funds for use in the defense of St. George from feared attacks by Native Americans. Crosby retained ownership when lawmakers refused to pay, although he allowed the militia to drill with his cannon — and, in 1871, he donated his white elephant to the cause of building the St. George Temple.

The long and short of the steeple story

(Church History Library) The St. George Temple shortly after completion in 1877. Lightning later struck and damaged the tower and water tower, seen below to the right, used for the baptismal font.

Without question, however, today’s most widely believed legend connected with the St. George Temple is one with a surprisingly modern origin: the belief that its tower, now gracefully in proportion to the rest of the building, but once short and stubby, was disliked by Young.

That stubby tower was struck by lightning shortly after Young’s death — and some now assert, whether joking or otherwise, that the lightning was sent by Young himself, so badly damaging the spire that it had to be rebuilt, this time in the proportions that the church leader had wanted all along.

The temple plans, drawn by architect Truman O. Angell, called for neither the stubby tower nor the taller one. His surviving drawing shows a tall, pointed steeple rising atop a square base, very much like the spires of the iconic Salt Lake Temple. Sometime in the five years of temple construction, plans were changed to replace that pointed spire with an eight-sided tower. Historian Darrell E. Jones, who documented the tower’s changing design in a detailed account for the spring 2008 issue of the Journal of Mormon History, notes that Young’s son Brigham Young Jr. recorded some private dissatisfaction with the tower before the temple’s completion but found no suggestion that Young ever requested changes in its design. He was far more critical of the poor workmanship of the stairs leading to that tower than with the tower itself.

(Jesse Askew Tye via Church History Library) The St. George Temple under construction in 1876.

The temple, with its short tower capped with a dome, was dedicated in early 1877; Young died that summer; and it seemed that all was well ... until August 1878, when lightning struck the temple tower. A detailed report of the damage — a splintered dome, shattered window frames, melted nails, burn marks on plaster — was telegraphed to Salt Lake City. Surprisingly, though, the spire was not repaired for two years, when it was rebuilt, much taller and in more pleasing proportions with the rest of the building. No one has found any contemporary (1870s-80s) discussion of who made the decision to boost the tower’s height, or why. There is no known report linking its redesign to Young’s dissatisfaction, and certainly not to any supposed action from beyond the grave.

That assertion appears for the first time in 1977, and seems likely to have originated in a joking remark by historian Paul L. Anderson, in response to reading Brigham Young Jr.’s record of his father’s inspection of the nearly completed temple. The imaginary link between Young’s supposed dissatisfaction and the “divine retribution” visited upon the tower a year after the church president’s death was too good not to share, and the modern joke has taken firm — but faulty — root in public imagination.

(The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) The St. George Temple, released Wednesday, Sept. 5, 2023.

Will the Dec. 10 rededication of the refurbished, restored, and, in some respects, rebuilt St. George Temple result in new stories entering our folklore? That wouldn’t surprise me. Significant events, beloved characters from our past, half-remembered tales from grandparents with ties to that important pioneer building — those are intriguing ingredients in a potent recipe for the creation and perpetuation of folklore. Even when my historian’s sensibilities insist on documentable facts, my heart thrives on the squishier stories of our shared past.

Ardis E. Parshall is an independent research historian who can be found on social media as @Keepapitchinin and at Keepapitchinin.org. She occasionally takes breaks from transcribing historical documents to promote the aims of the Mormon History Association’s Ardis E. Parshall Public History Award.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Tribune guest columnist Ardis E. Parshall is surrounded by books.

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