The women who helped build the Salt Lake Temple

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Margaret Shelton Kinsey is one of the women who contributed to the building of the Salt Lake Temple. (familysearch.org/colleenkinseymoline)

Although the most high-profile stories of the builders of the Salt Lake Temple tend to be men, the women of the Church played a pivotal role in its completion. As we celebrate 130 years of the Salt Lake Temple and the 36th year of Women’s History Month this March, we highlight women’s role in the construction and establishment of the Salt Lake Temple. 

While women did not participate in the construction of the physical edifice of the temple, they were among the key contributors to its interior. In a 1993 article with Church News, Museum of Church History and Art curator Marjorie D. Condor said, “The things they made — veils, temple clothing, altar cloths, rag rugs for the baptistry and initiatory areas — were expendable items. The granite remains, but nothing remains from these women because it wore out.”

In his comprehensive book “Forty Years: The Saga of Building the Salt Lake Temple,” author Mark Henshaw describes how women were included on the temple’s interior decorating committee. According to Henshaw, Wilford Woodruff, president of the Church at the time, appointed a committee to supervise the beautification of the temple. Of the twelve members of the committee, three of those were women. 

“Three women were also chosen for the committee to ensure that the sisters of the Church had a voice in the temple’s decoration — Lillie Staines, P.P. Jennings, and Caroline Elizabeth Dye, a milliner and a businesswoman,” writes Henshaw. 

The sheer size of the temple, over 253,000 square feet, made the decoration of the interior no simple task. Nearly the entire interior of the temple fell within their jurisdiction, “and Wilford expected them to be meticulous in their labor to finish the Lord’s own house.

They were a talented group … but despite their skills and numbers, they would be as busy as anyone trying to procure the goods needed from all over the country during the next year” writes Henshaw. Carpets, chandeliers, marble flooring, onyx wash basins and custom stained-glass windows from Tiffany & Co. were all ordered by the committee, sparing no expense. 

Quarrying the granite necessary for the Salt Lake Temple was also no easy feat. A camp was constructed at the base of Little Cottonwood Canyon, eventually coined Granite City, as a waypoint for those harvesting the granite from the nearby mountains.

Some wives of the temple laborers worked in the small, makeshift city as cooks. This, according to Henshaw, “served the dual purpose of providing help and raising the morale of the camp by increasing the quality of food served.” Although most stone cutters working in the canyon were men, there were also a few women included in the small team. 

As many members were consumed with the construction of the temple, the Church was still surrounded by outside forces that continued to attack its legitimacy. The Church continued to face a series of anti-polygamy bills, one of them being the Cullom Bill. Introduced to the House of Representatives in 1870, the bill proposed that anyone practicing polygamy should be stripped of their right to vote, hold office, serve on a jury, and that foreign-born Latter-day Saints could not receive American citizenship.

Any man convicted of practicing polygamy could face heavy fines and imprisonment. While many men were occupied with the temple’s completion, women like Sarah Melissa Granger Kimball dedicated their time and energy to advocating for the members of the Church’s religious rights and freedoms.  

On January 6, 1870, Sarah organized a “Ladies Mass Meeting,” where women of the Church gathered and decided to show the US government that Utah women were not oppressed. They did this by calling for women in the Utah territory to receive the right to vote, and calling for two women to go to Washington D.C. and lobby against the Cullom Bill. In February of 1870, in response to the requests of many Utah women, the territorial legislature signed a bill extending suffrage to Utah women.

The Cullom Bill eventually failed, as did other anti-polygamy bills that legislative session. Although most women of the Church weren’t at Temple Square hauling granite and carving stone, they indirectly supported its construction by fighting many of the battles swirling around the Church during the time of the temple’s construction. 

Some women, motivated by a desire to have a hand in building this monumental House of the Lord, were creative in their efforts to contribute to the temple. Margaret Shelton Kinsey’s story was shared in a 1993 Deseret News article, written by Alvin D. Kinsey. When Margaret was a teenager, her stake president requested local members to contribute to the Salt Lake Temple fund.

Margaret, who was orphaned when she was young and was being raised by an aunt with nine children of her own, regretted she had so little to give. In a stroke of ingenuity, Margaret began collecting sheep wool that gathered on the barbed wire fences that the sheep would crawl through. After accumulating enough of the leftover wool, she would bring the wool to her bishop and donate it to the Temple fund. 

While stories like Margaret’s are surely not rare, the lack of physical documentation of them can give the appearance of scarcity. As men returned to the temple grounds day after day, laboring on its construction, the women were hard at work behind the scenes with few documenting their stories of sacrifice.

Temple builders were paid meager wages if they were even paid at all. This was a sacrifice for the whole family and placed an added burden upon the women who were left to figure out how they would keep their families warm and fed while the men were away working. 

When asked for further information regarding women’s contributions to the construction of the Salt Lake Temple, the Church History Department was unable to find any scholars who knew enough about the subject to be interviewed. Remarkable stories like Margaret’s are not as sparse as historical records would have us believe, but the sacrifices of women have historically been undervalued and unrecorded.

As disheartening as their absence from most historical records regarding the temple may be, it is important to remember that women did play an integral role in the Salt Lake Temple’s construction.

Without women’s fundraising efforts, assistance within the community, and largely their quiet and diligent care work at home, it is unlikely the men of the Church would have been able to leave their homes and families to complete the temple’s construction.

“These sacrifices (the sacrifices of women) are largely unknown and unvalued. It’s not the kind of sacrifice that makes a story, but it’s the sacrifice that made a temple. It was sacrifice that was unseen and unvalued even perhaps by those who had witnessed it or were giving it. Yet it was known to God and accepted of God as a sacrifice,” Condor shared in the 1993 essay.

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