Saints, Episode 4: An Ensign to the Nations

Ben Godfrey, Shalyn Back, and Jake Olmstead

Ben Godfrey and Shalyn Back talk to Jake Olmstead, Curator of Historic Sites for the Church History Department, about Brigham Young and Wilford Woodruff's arrival to the Salt Lake Valley as they seek a refuge to build their temple. Olmstead explains Wilford’s role as record keeper and witness to Brigham Young's vision of the temple site, and the importance of those two acting together as the prophet who begins work on the Salt Lake Temple and the future prophet who completes and dedicates the temple after President Young's death.



Ben Godfrey, Shalyn Back, and Jake Olmstead


These guys that had nothing are going to stand there in the Valley of Salt Lake, where there is nothing but tall grass and a few scrub oak and sparse trees there. We are going to fulfill this prophecy, this prophecy that was uttered by Isaiah thousands of years ago.  That prophecy is about us.

Back:   Hello, and welcome to Saints.  I’m Shalyn Back. And I'm Ben Godfrey. In today's episode, we'll be talking about chapter four of Saints, Volume Two, ”An Ensign to the Nations”. We're very excited today to welcome Jake Olmstead with us. He's a curator of historic sites for the Church History Department.   

Godfrey:  Welcome Jake.  In today's episode, we're talking about Chapter Four.   You have some expertise and knowledge in this area, and we're excited for you to share that with us. First of all, let's go back just a little bit and remember that the saints are moving west, and the way that we normally think about that is they're running from persecution and you have some additional insights on that topic. Tell us how this might work. 

Olmsted:  Sure. I think a really interesting way to frame this up, as you mentioned, there is this kind of push factor, the persecution they're leaving during winter, just getting out of the city.  But oftentimes I think we forget that they are destined to go to a location, which Brigham has seen in  vision.   The jtemple that is so central to this migration, this exodus. So it's almost as if they're being pulled to a destination which Brigham has seen in vision. He knows what he is looking for. He doesn't know precisely how to get there, but he knows that there's a destination where the saints are going to build a new community there.  And it's going to be based on the plan of Zion that Joseph had introduced several years earlier. And at the center of that plan is a Temple. And so, there is this push factor in persecution, but there's also this pull factor in looking for this place where they are going to build another Temple, and they're going to establish another Zion community. You hear that Brigham wants the people to be righteous. He's chastising them. Saints talks about this. He's encouraging them to repent and to pray and to get along. He wants these to be saintly people so that they can actually build this city that's going to have a temple at its center. 


Godfrey:  When did he have the vision and how widely had that been communicated to the pioneers, the people who were traveling west?  

Olmstead:  That's a good question. And I don't know if I have a good answer for that. He was in Nauvoo. He was in the temple. He was praying desperately, seeking direction for where to take the Saints. And he sees in vision while he's in the temple what comes to be known as Ensign Peak, this kind of oddly shaped conical formation that everyone who lives in Salt Lake Valley has seen. And in this vision, Joseph is there and says, “Build the city under this Ensign, under this flag.” And that's what he's searching for.

Back:  I love the idea that they're seeking. They're not necessarily just fleeting.   They're looking for this place. And in fact, the book mentioned this, that when a member of the company would ask Brigham where they were going, he just answered, “I will show you when we come to it.  I've seen it in a vision, and when my natural eyes behold, I shall know it.”   So he's just kind of saying, “I'll show you when we get there”.   


Olmstead:  What a great metaphor this is for our own lives. Oftentimes we know the destination, right? We know why we're here on earth. We know what we're trying to accomplish.  We're often shown a bigger picture, but we're not told exactly how to get there. And Brigham was not told exactly how to get there. He was doing everything in his power to learn more about where the good locations might be. He's seeking maps, he's consulting explorers. He has a general idea, but he doesn't know precisely.  And he's of course, working through this and praying and hoping that the Lord will bring them to the location. Ultimately that happens and he's received confirmation of that pretty quickly upon arriving in the Valley. He knows that he has found this location and what a remarkable illustration that is for our own lives.

Godfrey:   So let's talk a little bit about that arrival in the Valley. We have a scene. I think lots of us who've been members for a long time have a picture come into our mind from an illustration or even a movie kind of come to our mind of this is the place. Can you tell us a little bit about what we know from the historical record of what happened? Who was there? What was said. 

Olmstead:  Sure. And I'd have to tell you, I love this scene for a couple of reasons. Of course, Brigham is sick. He has Rocky Mountain Spotted fFever, and he's being pulled by Wilford Woodruff. Wilford brings him up to a point where he can overlook the Valley and we know that in the process like we've been talking about,  the temple has been on the mind of Brigham Young and other church leaders during their entire exodus moving west.  In fact, Brigham speculates about what the design is going to be of the temple very early on. He's asked William Weeks to come be part of the Vanguard Company. So in his mind is a temple and he's looking for this location for a city where a temple is going to be at its center. Not surprisingly, if you look at Wilford Woodruff’s diary, who was there with Brigham, the two of them are sitting there looking at the Valley.  It would not be surprising to anyone that the temple is on their mind.   Now we often spend time here on this statement - -this is the place, or this is the right place.   Well, this is what Wilford records: “Thoughts of pleasing meditation ran in rapid succession through our minds while we contemplated that in not many years the house of God would stand upon the tops of the mountains.”   President Young expressed his full satisfaction in the appearance of the Valley as a resting place for the Saints. So he sees immediately and was amply repaid for his journey. So I think that's wonderful. They're thinking of a temple and not only you can, you can see the language. They're maybe thinking a little bit about Isaiah's prophecy in 2:2 that the mountain of Lord's house shall be established at the tops of the mountains.  But what is really cool is that here you have Brigham Young, who in a few days will actually see in vision the temple when he's walking through the Valley. And you have Wilford Woodruff who has seen a vision of the temple as well during the journey west. But here you have the prophet who is going to begin the construction of the temple and the prophet who is going to finish the construction of the temple there together, looking at the valley for the first time with the temple on their minds.   It's quite a wonderful scene.

Back:   That's an incredible connection. 

Godfrey:  Well, those two  continue to play an important role, Brigham and Wilford Woodruff together. Can you tell us a little bit more about how the site was selected and how these two individuals, as you pointed out really remarkably, the prophet who begins and the prophet who finishes the Salt Lake Temple, how are they involved in selecting the site for where the temple will be built?

Olmstead:   So let me review just briefly kind of the timeline after they arrive in the Valley. Of course, July 24th is when Brigham and Wilford Woodruff see the Valley for the first time. Some Saints and some of the members of the Twelve had been there a few days earlier and they had already started planting crops to hopefully ensure the temporal salvation of the Saints because they don't know what the future is going to hold.  But Brigham, of course,  sees the Valley and he knows that this is the place.  The next day is Sunday, and at the end of Sunday they start talking about organizing exploration parties to head out Monday morning, the very next day.   Brigham is set to head out on one of these exploration parties, but doesn't because he's too ill to do this, but they send exploration parties in all different directions, trying to go find a location that may be better--Cache Valley, Utah Valley.   They're looking for maybe points further west. They're looking for a location that may be better, but Brigham doesn't head out because he's too sick and he's sleeping in the back of  Wilford Woodruff’s coach, and the next morning he gets up on Monday morning and he feels better. And so he gets up and he wants to go for a walk. He goes out and he's walking the landscape with Wilford Woodruff and a few of the members of the Twelve. You can imagine the scene right there in this new valley, and they're talking about where we are going to build a city? Where we are going to have the best water access?  Where's the best soil to be found? They're having these kinds of conversations. And so they're walking around and as they come to this point that's kind of right between these two branches of what comes to be known as City Creek, and Brigham kind of halts in his tracks and sees in vision the temple.  Wilford Woodruff is there and he talks about this later in his life that after this experience, he finds a piece of sagebrush, a stick, and drives it in the ground to remember the location. That's Wilford Woodruff who does this. And so here again, you have the prophet who is going to commence the temple and the prophet who's going to complete the temple. Just a little side note, what is really fascinating, Wilford Woodruff tells this story five times during his life in all but one instance during the 24th of July celebration. So it's kind of like his contribution to the pioneering story that he observed this. He doesn't actually tell the story until after Brigham Young has passed away, and I think that's because he sees this as Brigham’s story.   He saw the vision. So if he's going to tell the story, it's going to be Brigham telling it. But once Brigham passes on, it becomes Wilford Woodruff’s story. And every time he tells this story, the whole point is a testimony for Wilford Woodruff of Brigham Young's prophetic accuracy. Because he's saying, “ look, I was here when Brigham had this vision and I planted a little piece of sagebrush in the ground. And I'm testifying to you now that that location is the same location where this massive building is.”   And that this happens right for Wilford Woodruff. It's a, it's really a testimony of Brigham Young's mantle, right?

Back:  He even says, after Brigham Young says here will stand the temple of our God, Wilford said that those words struck him like lightning. And so I feel like that moved him to that action. You know, this is where the temple is going to be in to actually see that fulfilled. that's  amazing. 

Olmstead:  Oftentimes when we hear this story, that's kind of where the story ends.   We have this remarkable story that is shared by Wilford Woodruff about Brigham seeing the vision, but the story doesn't end there. And it's really quite remarkable. Like I mentioned, there are exploratory parties going out that Monday and they have not returned yet. Brigham himself is okay on Tuesday to head out for an exploratory party of his own and they go up and they explore the Great Salt Lake and they end up over by the Oquirrh Mountains and then they come back.   When they get back on this Wednesday afternoon, and this is July the 28th. After they get back, Brigham Young goes and refines this location where the temple was seen in his vision.  We actually have this nice scene captured by Thomas Bullock, where he waves his hand, and says here will be the temple, the 40 acres for the temple lot and all the Twelve come. And they  had this outdoor Quorum of the Twelve meeting.   Those members of the Twelve that were there voted unanimously to ratify Brigham's vision for the location of the temple, and also that the city will be built there. So here you have a vision, then ratified by the Twelve, but then two hours later, and it's getting closer to evening time, all of the priesthood brethren who are in the camp are invited to this same location. And I can just imagine, there's tall grass everywhere and they kind of are  just sitting down. It was apparently a full moon that night. It was getting dark, but they're sitting there and there probably was a campfire there and this idea of where we are going to settle and where we're going to build the temple is raised for a third time.   By this time all of the explorers have come back and Brigham opens it up for debate. “What are your thoughts about where we should stay? Have you found any place that's better than what we have here?”  And there are some differing opinions that folks feel like they should maybe seek out other possibilities, but at the end of the day, everyone comes to agreement after discussion.   They decide that this is the place,  and Brigham of course, bearing valiant testimony that I've seen this in vision. I know that this is the place. And I actually even knew it before any of the explorers got back that this was the location and this is the place where we should build the city.   And so they again have a vote, a sustaining vote to sustain the prophet’s vision. And so, I think that what is so remarkable about these particular lines of events is that we witness in the modern Church today.  Every time we go to General Conference, we have a prophet who receives vision for his people or receives the direction of the Lord.  It is then ratified by the Twelve and they have a perfect agreement.  Even though they have discussed, and they often disagree,  when they're going to present things, they're in unanimous agreement. And then that's presented to the full body of the Saints for a sustaining vote. So this process was in place a long time before what we see today.  And it was in place with the location of the Temple and thus the city of Salt Lake.

Godfrey:   So it's amazing how similar it really is to how we still do things today. 

Back:  Jake. now that they've decided this truly is the place, this is where we're going to be and stay. this is where we're going to build the temple, what happens next? What do they do? 

Olmstead:  So just within a matter of days they kind of line out where the temple will be, what we call Temple Square today, is going to be.  Initially they thought it would be 40 acres, which is actually four times the size that it is today. And they ultimately decided that's too much space. That's too ambitious and they reduce it to 10, but they start surveying the city of Salt Lake from the southeast corner of Temple Square within a matter of days, I think it's August 2nd.  So it's like within a week they start surveying the city.   Orson Pratt is the one taking the lead of that. And they start at that southeast corner.  Even today, when you go down to Temple Square, still base and meridians there, that's where they are rectifying the entire city from that southeast corner. And so they start laying out the blocks in the grid-like pattern. So I think that's notable, right? That the city starts from the temple. The temple is the center, but then later as they're talking about, okay, of course the streets move out in the four cardinal directions. So every street in Salt Lake is oriented according to the temple. And as they start to talk about what we should name these roads, they talk about how they wanted to number them outwards from the temple. And you see that today, First, Second, third South, that is how many blocks you are away from the temple. And so Latter-day Saints that live in Salt Lake City, non Latter-day Saints that live in Salt Lake City, whether or not they know it or not, their geographic landscape is organized and oriented according to the temple.  Another remarkable metaphor for our lives temporally, they were oriented according to the temple, but obviously spiritually we need to be oriented in our own spiritual landscapes according to the temple.  The temple needs to be the center of our lives, as covenants and ordinances.  For those of us who've lived in Utah and our listeners. If you haven't been here before,  it's really easy to find something in this Valley because it's second nature, right? Somebody says, “Oh, I live on 120 third South and fifth West. Well, I know exactly where that is. I don't need a GPS.   I don't need anything to get there. It really is kind of a cool thing to think of.   The reason that it's easy is because we know where the center point is and that's the temple.

Godfrey:   Jake. Can you tell us a little bit about the first Sunday meeting that happened here, who was preaching and what was their message?

Olmstead:   This is another one of my favorite stories, favorite scenes of those early days here. Like I mentioned before. The second day after Brigham's arrival on the 24th, is a Sunday. And I guess many will know as it is talked about in Saints, that Brigham Young is encouraging people not to go and explore; not to  start their farms - he's encouraging them to keep the Sabbath day holy.   Interestingly enough, though, Brigham Young is still very sick.  Brigham was very verbose, he talked and he gave these great long shoot-from-the-cuff sermons, and this may have been one of the shortest sermons in his life.   Well,  he only says a few words about not exploring and keeping the Sabbath day holy and he's done.  He   doesn't have it in him to continue, but there are other Apostles that are there who speak. And in fact, the very first sermon that's delivered is by apostle George A. Smith and George  is an uncle to Joseph Smith and a member of the Twelve.  He's actually the Apostle who ends up becoming most known for his work with Southern Utah, and St. George is named after him. But we have from Thomas Bullock, which was the Vanguard Company scribe record keeper, he says in his record, G.A. Smith preached about the House of the Lord being established on the tops of the mountains. Of course, this is a reference to Isaiah 2:2.  So they're clearly the Saints and bringing them even when he sees the Valley and what Wilford Woodruff records, there's reminiscence to this scripture as well, but they're seeing what they're doing there and what they will do there is tied to fulfilling this prophecy about the last days.  And when you think about the Saints, They had nothing.  They've left most of their worldly possessions behind. They've gone through this thousand mile journey to find this new location where they're going to build a temple in a city, but they pretty much arrive with seeds and some cattle and oxen and their wagons and that is it.  But they do have their faith and just the sheer audacity, I think. And maybe audacity is the wrong word, but I think it's pretty audacious. Honestly, these guys who had nothing are going to stay there in the Valley of Salt Lake where there is nothing but tall grass and a few scrub oak and sparse trees.  We are going to fulfill this prophecy, this prophecy that was uttered by Isaiah thousands of years ago.  That prophecy is about us and we're going to do it. And we're going to build this house of the Lord in the tops of the mountains. This drive and the faith led them that that based on this kind of thinking, led them to do something truly extraordinary.   Anyone who stands in the presence of the temple and knows anything about it,  understands how impressive this is. And the fact that that effort is driven, at least in part by fulfilling of prophecy is really amazing. And the amount of sacrifice it would take to do that over the course of 40 years,  it's just amazing, but it all started at this Sabbath day meeting where George A. Smith gets up and says, you know, a few words, but that is what they are planning to do. This is really remarkable.

Back:   You mentioned earlier Ensign Peak and that Brigham Young had seen Ensign Peak as part of his vision and knew that this is where the Saints were going to be.  Can you tell us more about the significance of Ensign Peak? 

Olmstead:  Of course, Brigham recognizes it immediately and he says, I want to go and explore this. And so the group goes up there and has a look from the very top.  For those who haven't been there, you can see the entirety of the Valley from up there.  It is quite a remarkable thing.  But tied up into this notion when they get up there, there is this notion of ensigns to the nations, right? That this place, this Temple, this location is going to then reach out and pull in, which I think connotes not only the missionary work, but also the gathering of Israel from all the corners of the world.  They again have this opportunity there, where they're filled with this notion and they want to do something--Brigham Young and Wilford Woodruff, and all the other Apostles are out there looking over the Valley. They want to raise a physical standard of physical ensign to the nation, but they don't have it, but they do want to do something. So they take a little poll or whatever, and they, I think it's Heber C. Kimball has a yellow bandana, as these guys typically carry with them, big bandanas to wipe sweat or whatever.   They hang this bandana  as the first ensign to the nation. This is again, another one of these examples of a people that really have nothing. They don't even have a flag to raise, but they have this bandana they're going to do it with.   It's symbolic that yes, this will be the ensign to the nations and people will eventually flow to this place.  And it happens rather rapidly. Salt Lake kind of becomes known as this crossroads of the West. You know, people are coming back and forth north and south, east and west. But then looking forward to the missionary work that's going to head out and the gathering that's going to take place is really a remarkable scene there.

Godfrey:   As you're talking, Jake, I literally have just had running through my mind over and over a hymn, “ High on a mountain top a banner is unfurled.  Ye nations,  now look up;  It waves to all the world.  In Desert’s sweet peaceful land, On Zion's Mount behold it stands!” And I can just remember, because it was one of the only hymns that was translated into Tagalog, where I went to my mission in the Philippines, but those words are in my mind in another language and they're so powerful and meaningful. It's just a testimony to me. When I think about people all over the world who sing this hymn in their own languages, celebrating this moment of Heber C Kimball, tying a bandana to a stick and waving it and saying, this is it. We are starting here.  And they did. Yeah, truly, truly amazing. When you think about that.  

Back:   I was a teenager for one of our youth conferences we went on a trek and reenacted that by pulling handcarts and packing our stuff in buckets and things like that. And I just remember after finishing the trek and we were driving back in our lovely air conditioned car, we came through the canyon and I could just see the Valley  That was really the first time I imagined, truly what the pioneers went through as far as coming here and just seeing, grasses and streams and beyond that, nothing but that they had to build from scratch. Then to see now, 150 years later, what has come of their efforts, it was completely overwhelming to me that there's just such a prosperous, thriving community as far as you could see within these mountains.   Like Ben said, you can see that throughout the world.

Godfrey:   Hopefully it doesn't take us too far from our topic, but what is the value? What is the meaning of that building for a church that is now global?

Olmstead:   So for a long time, when the Church was based in the Wasatch front of the West, it was either part of their religious experience, they either had temple ordinances done there, or they actually had ancestors who participated in the construction. They obviously felt a connection to that building, but now we're in a church where people have their temples in their own lands.  That is where they tie their spiritual roots.  They are tied to their historic sites and their temples in their own areas. Their religious experiences are not necessarily connected to Salt Lake anymore, but yet we are all connected to Salt Lake. We all look to Salt Lake at General Conference time when we hear the prophet’s voice.   The Salt Lake Temple is a part of that. They often show it and it remains kind of an icon. But I think that these stories about fulfilling prophecy; pioneering; making something out of really nothing and having that vision of what can be accomplished if you're on the Lord's errand;

 those things are all tied up in the temple and those things, I think, transcend geography. Yes, it's universal. And so if you're a new Latter-day Saint in any other country, this is something that is your heritage now.

Godfrey:   Well, we thank you so much, Jake for being here with us today.  This has been a super fun conversation to learn more about what happened in those very early days when they arrived in the Valley, and as our listeners are reading Saints, I  just invite you to sort of suspend your memory for a minute and live with the Saints. What it is going to be like to build this temple. You know, it's already going to be built and we fulfilled the prophecy, but, In Saints Volume Two, you get to sort of experience what it was like to go through all that they had to go through to complete this temple.  And it is a fun journey. And we're excited to continue to share more with you here on the Saints podcast. 

Back:  And for those of you who are reading along online, you can always click through the footnotes to learn even more about the topics that peak your interest. There's a lot of information about the Salt Lake Valley, the Salt Lake Temple, and all of the people in places that we've talked about today.  And we invite you to share with us your feedback. You can email and visit our website St. Stock church of Jesus I'm Shaylin back and I'm Ben Godfrey. Thank you so much for listening.