When the Provo Tabernacle, a historic building belonging to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, was destroyed by fire, many were devastated by the loss of the historically significant building. However, the Mormons (a nickname for members of the Church) quickly turned the tragedy into a blessing by deciding to build Provo’s second Mormon temple on the site. Archaeologists were brought in to assist with the excavation, to ensure no historical artifacts were lost. This provided an opportunity for archaeology students at nearby Brigham Young University to gain valuable field work experience.
During the excavation, a baptistry from the 1870s was uncovered. It was the oldest in the area, and at least the fifth oldest in Utah. Prior to its building, Mormons had to be baptized in rivers and lakes. The baptistery, which has a 5×9 foot font, was built around 1875 and was used until at least 1906. Archaeologists knew it existed, but were not sure where it was on the block of land. The Church history department chose to find and excavate the font, using high powered lasers that detect underground objects. This allowed them to know where to dig and to protect the font as they worked.
The original site contained a meetinghouse, first built in the 1850s and 1860s, the baptistry, and the tabernacle. The tabernacle was built in the 1890s. There was also a caretaker’s cottage.
A news release from the Mormons describes the original font construction:
“The font floor has three layers of wood laid in crisscross fashion and was held together with nails and screws. As the screws were tightened, the wood was pulled together to form a floor solid enough to hold water. The excavation unearthed a water pipe used to fill the font and a drain to empty it. In early photographs of the baptistry a chimney is shown, which archeologists believe vented a stove that heated the water to make the facility usable year-round. Large quantities of painted plaster fragments were also discovered, revealing the original sky-blue color of the baptistry’s interior walls.”
A temple is now being built at the location. Mormon temples are not used for weekly Sabbath worship. Those regular worship services are held on Sundays and are open to the public. Temples are closed on the Sabbath. They are, after the initial open houses, dedicated and then are open only to Mormons who have been members of the Church for at least a year and are keeping the commandments of God. Teenagers fourteen and older are admitted to a small portion of the temple for special ordinances and children may enter only to be “sealed” (joined) to their parents if the parents receive an eternal marriage after having children or if children are adopted. Children born to parents already married in the temples are automatically sealed to their parents. Mormon believe families are meant to last for eternity, not just this life. Only in a Mormon temple can this ordinance take place.
Read about the discovery of the historic Mormon baptistry.
Terrie Lynn Bittner
The late Terrie Lynn Bittner—beloved wife, mother, grandmother, and friend—was the author of two homeschooling books and numerous articles, including several that appeared in Latter-day Saint magazines. She became a member of the Church at the age of 17 and began sharing her faith online in 1992.