A 19th-century baptistry is the newest discovery on the site of the Provo Tabernacle.
Excavators made the discovery as they helped to prepare the area for the Provo City Center Temple, which will be built on the site of the Provo Tabernacle. The Provo Tabernacle was destroyed in a fire in 2010.
Richard Talbot, director of the Office of Public Archaeology (OPA), has led the excavation team that has included archaeology majors from BYU.
“It was a privilege and humbling for all of us to participate (in excavating the site),” Talbot said. “The baptistry, as much if not more than the original meetinghouse, connects the pioneer past to the future temple work. We felt a sense of that connection, knowing that the pioneers and their children who were baptized here would have been thrilled to know that the tabernacle they had sacrificed so much to build — just a few feet away from the baptistry — would someday be a temple where ordinance work would continue.”
The five-by-nine- foot baptismal font was discovered along with the pipe used to fill it and the drain used to empty it.
This font is one of the earliest in the LDS Church, the first in Utah County, and shows just how important baptism was for early members of the Church. Instead of being baptized in a lake, river or other body of water, the Saints could get baptized in this font.
“Construction of this baptistry allowed year-round baptisms to occur, and per Stake President Abraham O. Smoot’s desire, it also allowed much more privacy for baptismal services,” Talbot said.
While excavators weren’t actively searching for the baptistry, they knew it was there. Talbot said that old fire insurance maps detailed the whereabouts of “the tabernacle, the meetinghouse, the baptistry, and the caretaker’s cottage,” and Ground Penetrating Radar (GPR) allowed Dr. John McBride to pinpoint exact locations. While details were kept when built it was difficult to know if anything remained after years of rebuilding, demolishing and then the fire.
The fire that gutted the tabernacle has had a large silver lining for citizens of Provo and the LDS community.
“As tragic as the tabernacle fire was, it’s been interesting to see so many positive things come out of it,” Provo Mayor John Curtis said. “Our city has a rich history, and this adds a few more layers to what was known. We appreciate the LDS Church and BYU exploring the historical properties of the site and sharing their findings with the broader community.”
LDS Church member Doug Kroll said that he, like most people, didn’t realize baptisms had been taking place in the tabernacle so long ago.
“It’s interesting to find new and historic facts, about how the Church progresses and how blessed we are to have baptismal fonts in all the church buildings,” Kroll said.
Talbot and his crew of excavators have been hard at work finding not only old coins and other materials from decades ago but also other things of importance.
“To date we have excavated three structures: the original meetinghouse (or first tabernacle), which was dedicated in 1867; the bapistry, which was constructed in 1875–76; and the caretaker’s cottage, which was probably built in the 1890s. … We have also documented portions of the drainage system for the tabernacle. We also expect to soon excavate an old well that was located in the area between the two tabernacles and the baptistry.”
It is not currently known what will happen to everything that is found, but Talbot has some ideas.
“We anticipate that the BYU Museum of Peoples and Cultures, located at 700 N 100 East … We’ll have an exhibit in place next year where the story of the excavations will be told and many of the materials recovered from the excavations can be seen,” Talbot said.