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Mormon Myths: Early Church Stories

Kate Ensign-Lewis - May 12, 2011

An exploration of the truth behind three commonly told stories of the early Church.

Three Nephites. Bigfoot. President Spencer W. Kimball as a model for Yoda. Alice Cooper as a Mormon.

Precious china crushed to help make the stucco of the Kirtland Temple.

You wouldn’t expect that some of our most beloved stories would be considered part of myth and folklore. But while researching an article about Mormon myths for our May/June 2011 issue, I was surprised to find that a couple famous stories about the early Church may not have happened like we thought. (Although some, of course, did.) 

Read on for all the details I could gather on three common stories.

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Kirtland Temple, photo from Wikipedia, by John Hamer.

Kirtland Temple Stucco
An oft-told story in Mormondom relates how the women of Kirtland sacrificed their fine china to help build the Kirtland temple. Many stories tell of how they were called on to make this sacrifice—that the china was a much needed addition to the stucco. 

It’s true that, when the temple was built, builders used china—or pottery and glass—to strengthen the stucco; this glass and pottery had the added benefit of making the surface glisten in the sun. Artemus Millet, the superintendent of construction of the Kirtland Temple, called the mixture of glassware and crockery with weather-resistant natural cements inspired.

But Millet’s own journal refers to these pieces as “old glass and crockery”—not fine china. (Interestingly, it is usually Millet who is credited with asking for the Saints to donate their china.) His son’s account further exposes the pottery as less than likely to have come from the Saints themselves: “Artemus sent men and boys to the different towns and places to gather old crockery and glass to put in the cement.” Kirtland was situated next to pottery plants, and the discard piles would have easily provided pottery for the stucco. Furthermore, stories that Latter-day Saint women crushed china for the temple do not appear until 1940. In other words, no contemporary accounts tell of such a sacrifice.

Elwin Robison, a professor of architectural history at Kent State and author of The First Mormon Temple, has spent hours analyzing the stucco of the Kirtland Temple and, though he found evidence of tableware in the stucco surface, he believes it is unlikely that the tableware was the Saints’ best china. “While some of it may have come from heirlooms, the bulk of it came from discard piles,” he says. “There are persistent stories of this, so it could have happened, but the direct evidence suggests that wasn’t the case.” 

Still, there is no evidence to directly refute the china stories. And that some of the Saints’ china was used is still a possibility—after all, the temple meant a great deal to the Saints, and it would not have been out of character for them to be willing (and even desirous) to include something of worth in its construction. But it certainly does not appear that they were called on to sacrifice their china—and if some of them did, it would have been the exception rather than the rule.

Robison feels strongly that the evidence indicates that fine china is unlikely to have been crushed for the construction of the temple. But, he adds, “it would be great if that conclusion could be changed, wouldn’t it?”


3057
John Taylor's pocket watch.

John Taylor’s Pocket Watch

Another commonly related story in the Church tells how John Taylor’s pocket watch miraculously saved his life during the martyrdom of Joseph and Hyrum Smith. A picture of the watch shows the timepiece to be preserved almost perfectly, except for a small, roundish blemish just under the “I” mark—a blemish that has long been identified as a hole made by a bullet aimed at Taylor.

This conclusion was made by Taylor himself—but only after the events of June 27, 1844. This is what Taylor later recorded:       
I think some prominent nerve must have been severed or injured [after he was shot in the thigh] for, as soon as the ball struck me, I fell like a bird when shot, or an ox when struck by a butcher, and lost entirely and instantaneously all power of action or locomotion. I fell upon the windowsill and cried out, “I am shot!” Not possessing any power to move, I felt myself falling outside of the window, but immediately I fell inside, from some, at that time, unknown cause. . . . The doctor [Willard Richards] had taken my pantaloon's pocket, and put the watch in it with the purse, cut off the pocket, and tied a string around the top; it was in this position when brought home. My family, however, were not a little startled to find that my watch had been struck with a ball. I sent for my vest, and, upon examination it was found that there was a cut as if with a knife, in the vest pocket which had contained my watch. In the pocket the fragments of the glass were found literally ground to powder. It then occurred to me that a ball had struck me at the time I felt myself falling out of the window, and that it was this force that threw me inside.
But forensic analysis shows Taylor’s assessment to be highly unlikely. Most convincing is the evidence of J. Lynn Lyon, a professor of medicine at the University of Utah. Lyon was doing research on the muskets used by the mob when he discovered there was no hole at all in the watch. Instead, the enamel face was damaged, but intact.

Lyon then conducted an extensive “Mythbusters”-style analysis on watches shot with muskets: he got a hold of muskets similar to those used by the mob as well as comparable pocket watches, and he shot the watches with the muskets from distances of 1 to 100 feet. All the watches were blown to pieces. Hyrum’s own watch, which was hit by a bullet that had already passed through his body, was split and severely dented after the massacre. “Had John Taylor’s watch been struck, there would be visible damage,” Lyon said last year at BYU’s Education Week.

In his book Nauvoo: A Place of Peace, a People of Promise, Mormon historian Glen Leonard sets forth a likely series of events that caused the watch to break and blemish that afternoon: 
Without any way to shoot back, and certain death threatening from the landing, Taylor suddenly dashed toward the east window, intending to jump. A ball from the landing behind him struck Taylor in the left thigh, grazed the bone, and pushed within half an inch of the other side. He collapsed on the wide sill, denting the back of his vest pocket watch. The force shattered the glass cover of the timepiece against his ribs and pushed the internal gear pins against the enamel face, popping out a small segment later mistakenly identified as a bullet hole.

3059
The Founding Fathers in John Trumbull's Declaration of Independence.

Founding Fathers Asked for Temple Work
Many Latter-day Saints are familiar with the story that the Founding Fathers of the United States appeared to Wilford Woodruff, demanded that their temple work be completed, and waited on him for two days while the work was completed.

This singular event certainly appears to have happened, as it is recorded in several places, including in Woodruff’s own journal. According to Woodruff, it occurred in August 1877, just seven months after the first endowments for the dead had been performed. (Endowments for the dead were initiated more than 30 years after baptisms for the dead had been introduced.) Woodruff, who was serving as the St. George Temple president at the time, related the experience at a conference later that summer:
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 thought it very singular, that notwithstanding so much work had been done, and yet nothing had been done for them. The thought never entered my heart, form the fact, I suppose, that heretofore our minds were reaching after our immediate friends and relatives.
Woodruff’s journal recounts that, on August 19, he spent the evening making a list of “Noted Men”  of the 17th and 18th centuries, intended for baptism on August 21. On that day, over 100 baptisms were performed for these people. But he didn’t stop there—as he says in his August 21 entry: “I Called upon all the Brethren & Sisters who were present to assist in getting Endowments for those that we had been Baptized for to day.” 

Some have questioned Woodruff’s recollection of the appearance on the basis that baptisms—the main function of the Endowment Houses—had, in fact, been done (several times) for many of the Founding Fathers. Why would they have specifically referenced the Endowment House if their baptisms had already been performed? 

It’s hard to say why this would have been the thrust of his recollection, but it is important to remember that, while Woodruff recalled them making reference only to the Endowment House, he did not think his responsibility was discharged with simply completing the baptisms. There had, in fact, been “nothing” done in the way of endowments—an important ordinance Woodruff made a point of completing for these people at this time. He specifically recorded his and other temple patrons’ efforts for these people in journal entries August 21 through 24. All endowments for those baptized in August were completed by February 1878.

Interestingly, not only was temple work completed for the Founding Fathers, but work was completed for other “eminent” men and women—including Abraham Lincoln, Americus Vespucius, Charlotte Bronte, Christopher Columbus, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Jane Austen, John Wesley, Marie Antoinette, Martha Washington, Napoleon Bonaparte, and Washington Irving.

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© LDS Living 2011.
Comments 11 comments

smalllady said...

02:17 PM
on May 12, 2011

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Kate, some stories are what I call Mormonisms. You mess with the Three Nephites and you got it coming....slingshot accuracy.

mamamarsha said...

04:03 PM
on May 12, 2011

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It is wise to debunk myths. I must share this link from the official church website about sacrifice. It includes a story about a girl named Hilda who helped her mother pack their nice china to make the walls of the temple sparkle. This is in the Young Women's manuel #2. http://lds.org/manual/young-women-manual-2/lesson-25-the-law-of-sacrifice?lang=eng&query=china+kirtland

sara said...

06:01 PM
on May 12, 2011

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I want to know about Spencer W. Kimball as the model for Yoda and Alice Cooper as a Mormon.

kmo98 said...

11:43 PM
on May 12, 2011

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HolyFetch.com is the best site for this kind of stuff. Here's a link about the Alice Cooper connection http://www.holyfetch.com/famous%20people/alice_cooper.html

susieblue said...

05:21 PM
on May 15, 2011

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Thanks Kate for your research into Mormon myths. I believe that we need honest and accurate reports of the experiences and events that make up Mormon history - which is filled with extraordinary reports of divine interventions and the sacrifices and faith of the early pioneers. The passing on of myths can bring into question the church's and our own integrity and call into question the veracity of actual events.

poisongirl said...

01:28 PM
on May 16, 2011

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Fascinating... Great information and research. I look forward to more. I thought that china in the temple stucco was Nauvoo. I remember going there around 1995 and the missionaries talking about it and displaying china at Brigham Young's house. The other two myths are interesting as well. We seem to have too many of them.

lange said...

01:18 PM
on May 17, 2011

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no good can come from repeating and believing in falsehoods. Thank you for this article. It is the truth that sets us free.

randyhut said...

05:02 PM
on May 17, 2011

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When John Taylors watch use to be on diplay, there was a notible round indent on the front face about the size of a .40-.50 cal ball. The picture shown is not of the same watch. Also, was any testing performed with a watch against a body which would act to abosrb the energy of the impact!?

rht said...

08:10 AM
on May 21, 2011

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Just a small correction: It was Napoleon's namesake, his nephew, Napoleon III not actually Napoleon Bonaparte who requested and received temple ordinances.

runner4life said...

06:30 PM
on Jun 08, 2011

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@ mamamarsha, The story you have linked to is a fictional story that was originally from the Friend's 1975 March issue and re-printed in the Young Women's manual. I believe that story was cited in the manual which one then can trace back to its origin. The Young Women's manual never stated that it was a true story. The story is simply a re-print of a fictional story once told in the Friend magazine.

troyboy1 said...

09:56 PM
on Jun 17, 2012

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Why were we always taught these things as fact? I clearly remember and have books and manuals that teach these things. Why is it now coming out that they are myths? Was the discernment just not as good in the old days?
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