By Lisle Brown
All rights reserved, March 1999

Joseph Smith purposely included symbolic stones and other symbolic artifices on the exterior of the Nauvoo Temple. These stones were not intended to be mere adornments for beautifying the building - although they did that, but they were designed to enrich the symbolism of the building, thereby providing visual clues for teaching principles of the restored gospel.


The word, "temple" comes from the Hebrew "beth-el," which means the "house of the Lord." Such a structure was viewed as the mountain of holiness (Jer. 31:23). Indeed, temples were the personification of the Mountain of the Lord, and traditionally temples were built on the highest ground available, such as on the temple mount in Jerusalem. The Nauvoo Temple was no exception. Although there were no mountains on the flat Illinois prairie, Joseph Smith chose the most commanding location within the city limits of Nauvoo - on the prominent bluff overlooking the city and the Mississippi River. Reportedly the Temple's glistening stone walls could be seen from twenty-miles down river.


Temples were also meant to be celestial observatories, where men could take their bearings by the heavens. Accordingly it was common for temples to be oriented to the cardinal directions of the compass; the Nauvoo Temple was so situated with an east-west orientation. It was also common for decorations to be placed on the exterior of temples reflecting its cosmic purposes; the Nauvoo Temple retained this tradition, particularly with its unique pilasters.


The Nauvoo Temple had thirty pilasters. Each pilaster was designed with a moonstone base, a polished shaft, and a sunstone capital. On the pilaster rested an entablature with starstones and circular windows in its frieze.

Although the revelation called the Vision (D&C 76) uses the sun, moon and stars as symbols of the kingdoms of glory in eternity (vss. 70-71), the arrangement of the stones bearing these symbols on the Nauvoo Temple, did not neatly correspond to the symbolism in the Vision. The Vision presented the symbols in descending order of glory: the sun as the highest for the Celestial Kingdom; the moon as the intermediate for the Terrestrial Kingdom; and the stars as the lowest for the Telestial Kingdom. On the Nauvoo Temple Joseph Smith arranged these symbols in different order from the ground level up: the moon in the base; sun in the capital, and the stars in the frieze. Clearly the arrangement of the symbolic stones did not reflect the Vision's arrangement, but instead an astronomical scheme: first the earth upon which the temple rested, next higher the moonstones representing the moon; third higher the sunstones representing the sun; and highest the numerous starstones representing the starry heavens above.

Joseph Smith may have had this cosmological arrangement in mind when he said, "God has made certain decrees which are fixed and immovable; for instance, God set the sun, the moon and the stars in the heavens, and gave them their laws, conditions and bounds, which they cannot pass, except by his commandments; they all move in perfect harmony in their sphere and order, and are as lights, wonders and signs to us" (TPJS, p. 197-198). Since the Nauvoo Temple was to be a place of order and harmony, the Prophet may have desired the Saints to see God's orderly cosmos whenever they viewed the Nauvoo Temple's exterior symbolic stones. Indeed, the pilasters may reflect the revelation, which reads: "The earth rolls upon her wings, and the sun giveth his light by day, and the moon giveth her light by night, and tha stars also shine their light, as they roll upon wings of glory, in the midst of the powr of God...and any man who hath seen any or the least of these hath seen God moving in majesty and power" (D&C 88:45,47).

This does not mean that these symbolic stones were only to be interpreted in this manner, because the moonstones and sunstones were personified with faces, suggesting that additional symbolism was incorporated into their design.


One of the most prominent features of the pilasters were the base-stones. The base-stones included a deeply carved relief crescent moon facing downward. Although William W. Phelps stated that the moonstones were "new moons" (Lundwall, Temples of the Most High, p. 47), they were clearly crescent moons. Each moon also had a carved face in profile. The personification of the moonstones was perhaps meant to also represent those who dwell in the Terrestrial Kingdom, because the moon represents the glory of that kingdom on the Vision (D&C 76:71, 78).


The capital of each pilaster was a sunstone, composed of five individual stones. Brigham Young left a detailed description: "There are thirty capitals around the temple, each composed of five stones, viz., one base stone, one large stone representing the sun rising above the clouds, the lower part obscured; the third stone represents two hands each holding a trumpet; and the last two stones form a cap over the trumpet stones, and all these form a capital" (History of the Church, 7:323). President Young neglected to mention that the sun had a face carved into its disk.

President Young's descriptions helps in interpreting the symbolism of this stone. First, some persons have felt that the trumpets were "horns of plenty," but President Young's words clearly settle the question. At the Jerusalem Temple a trumpet call heralded the dawn of each day, and special silver trumpets called the people to come and assemble at the temple (Num 10:2-10). So too, it appears that the Nauvoo Temple trumpet stones above the rising sun were symbols reminding the Saints to come the temple for the same purpose, to assemble at the temple for their worship and devotions.

The personification of the sunstones also suggests that they also represented those in the celestial kingdom, whose glory was likened to the sun in the Vision (D&C 76:70).


The Nauvoo Temple had a variety of "stars" on its exterior. There were three types of stars depicted on its exterior walls. One was an inverted five-pointed starstone, which was carved into the frieze above the capitals. The circular windows in the frieze were also designed to have panes of glass worked into an inverted five-pointed star, but it is not certain that this was actually done in the finished building. (The photographic evidence is not clear and there are no descriptions of such windows.) Six-pointed stars on a vertical axis were carved into the panels interspersed along balustrade at the roof line, and into the soffit of the roof. William Weeks' second drawing of the temple's facade also indicates that the round windows between the arched windows were to have panes of twelve-pointed stars. Again, it is not clear if this was done in the completed building.


The five-pointed star is often represented as the morning star. The descending ray of the Nauvoo Temple's inverted five-point starstones (there is only one surviving example and it is damaged) was extended downward. Such an orientation suggests the rising morning star. This "star" is not a star at all, but the planet Venus. Venus' brightness is a reflection of the sun, which invisible below the horizon. The extended ray portrays the source of the morning stars brightness, not the planet itself, but the sun's brilliance.

Through a unique orbital characteristic Venus shares a relationship with the five-pointed star. Carl G. Liungman explains: "If one knows the ecliptic and can pinpoint the present position of the planets in relation to the fixed star of the zodiac, it is possible to mark the exact place in the 360 degrees of the zodiac where the Morning star first appears shortly before sunrise after a period of invisibility. If we do this, waiting for the Morning star to appear again 584 days later (the orbital time of Venus) and mark its position in the zodiac, and then repeat this process until we have five positions of Venus as the Morning star, we will find that exactly eight years plus one day have passed. If we then draw a line from the first point marked to the second point marked, then to the third, and so on, we end up with a pentagram [five-pointed star]" (Dictionary of Symbols, 1991, pp. 333-334). No other celestial object, whether planet or star, has this orbital characteristic; it is wholly unique to Venus (the Morning/Evening Star).

Furthermore, between the starstones in the frieze were circular windows. The architect's drawing of these windows repeated the motif of the starstones with inverted five-pointed stars, unifying the design of this part of the temple.

Jesus Christ is called the "bright and morning star" (Rev 22:16). The starstones on the Nauvoo Temple, some with their unique lengthened ray, are a fitting symbol of Jesus Christ as the morning star. Additionally, the circle is a symbol of eternity and it is wholly fitting that the symbol of Jesus Christ in the circular windows (five-pointed stars) was framed by a circle.


The six-pointed stars commonly represented the stars in the heavens, and clearly this was the intended purpose in placing them along the soffit, where only when persons looked upwards were they visible. There placement also on the balustrade, the highest point of the temple's walls, also suggests that they represented the stars in heaven.

Although the six-pointed stars were not personified lke the moon and sun on the Nauvoo Temple, it is likely that they too could be likened to the glory of those in the Telestial Kingdoms, who glory will be as varied as the stars in the heavens (D&C 76:81).


The intended use of twelve pointed-stars in the circular windows of the main body of the Temple, may suggest the priesthood, as well as the fulness of the priesthood. (See, Draper, Opening the Seven Seals, p. 46,56,83-84). Such symbolism would be fitting for the windows, which illuminated the interior. Those righteous leaders who hold the priesthood in its fulness are the source of power, revelation and light to the Saints, and it is through their teaching and officiating in the temple, that the building and its ordinances are empowered in the lives of those who enter the temple.


Apparently the Nauvoo Temple was to include the depiction of the all-seeing eye in the center of the top portion of the large rounded windows. Whether this was done or not cannot be determined from photographic evidence. This symbol is based on the statement that the "eye of the Lord is upon them that fear him" (Ps 33:18). Brigham Young called this symbol "the all-searching eye of the Great Jehovah" (J.D. 2:32).


The center bay of the fore-attic contained a tablet with the following inscription in bright gilt letters: "THE HOUSE OF THE LORD / Built by / THE CHURCH OF JESUS CHRIST / OF LATTER-DAY SAINTS / Commenced April 6, 1841 / HOLINESS TO THE LORD." A similar inscription was also engraved in the east wall of the portico. This inscription with its words symbolizes the dedication of the Saints to the Temple's construction. Each of the statements is significant.

"The House of the Lord" identifies the Temple as "bethel," or the Lord's House - the place upon the earth, which is especially built and dedicated to him, where me may now come and "lay his head" (Matt 8:20).

The name of the Church was revealed to Joseph Smith in 1838 (D&C 115:3-4). Thus, this name was not the invention of man, but was revealed by the Lord. Similarly the temple, its design and purpose was not the creation of man, but the result of revelation to the Prophet Joseph Smith and this was fittingly symbolized by the name on the inscription.

April 6 is also looked upon by many members of the Church as the day upon which Jesus was born (D&C 20:1). It was on this day in 1830 that the Church was organized.

"Holiness to the Lord" was also the inscription engraved on the crown, worn by the high priest in the temple at Jerusalem (Ex 28:36). This phrase reflects the Psalm, which reads, "Holiness becometh thy house, O Lord, for ever" (Ps 93:5). The words were to be constant reminder of the of sacred nature of the temple and all those who enter should have "clean hands and a pure heart" (Ps 24:3-4).


A weather vane was placed on top of the tower. William Weeks made a sketch of the weather vane, likely to guide the artisan who crafted the object. A contemporary description indicated that it was a "representation of an angel in his priestly robes with a book of Mormon in one hand and a trumpet in the other which [was] over laid with gold" (Perrigrine Sessions Journal, 30 Jan 1846, Church Archives). Above the angel was the symbol of the square and compass, and surmounting that was a stylized flame of fire. Each element of the weather vane possessed its unique symbolism.

The angel, flying in an horizontal position, represented the "angel flying in the midst of heaven, having the everlasting gospel" (D&C 133:36; cf. Rev, 14:6). Traditionally, Latter-day Saints have identified this angel as Moroni. This identification is further strengthened, becasue the angel was holding a book (apparently the Book of Mormon) in his hand. Moroni held the keys for revealing the Book of Mormon (D&C 27:5), which has the fulness of the gospel of Jesus Christ. The figure wore "priestly robes," including a round bonnet (its feet are bare without slippers), all similar to the attire worn by the priests in ancient Israel who served in Tabernacle and later the Temple in Jerusalem (Ex 28:40). One source indicated that when Joseph Smith saw Moroni he was wearing temple robes (Brown and Smith, Symbols in Stone, p. 114). The robes suggest the sacral nature of the priestly functions carried on in the Nauvoo Temple.

The trumpet in the angel's hand symbolizes that the gospel shall be declared "as with the voice of a trumpet, both day and night" (D&C 24:12), and that the Lord has commanded his servants "to declare [his] gospel with the sound of a trump...unto a crooked and perverse generation" (D&C 33:2).

There exists no account for reason of the placement of the square and compass on the weather vane. One scholar has suggested that, since the compass, which is used to draw circles, points towards the bowl of the sky, and that the square, which is used to draw squares, points towards the earth, that the combination of the two symbols respresent the powers of God in creating the bowl of the starry heavens and the four corners of the earth (Brown and Smith, Symbols in Stone, p. 105). Since the symbol is associated with "the angel flying through the midst of heaven" (D&C 133:36), it may suggest that the gospel will be "declared by holy angels" (Moses 5:58) from above to the four corners of the earth, even "unto every nation, and kindred, tongue and people" (D&C 133:37).

Atop the pole supporting the weather vane is a stylized flame of fire. Tongues of fire are a symbol of the gift of thee Holy Ghost (Acts 2:3-4). A fitting symbol resting a top the highest pinacle of the Nauvoo Temple, where the Spirit of the Lord, even the Holy Ghost, rests down upon those assembled. One account even reported that "a flame of fire" was seen "to rest upon the temple" (Brown and Smith, Symbols in Stone, p. 107).