Considering what it must have taken to withstand a harsh arid environment and struggle to maintain life in the desert—as well as build homes for their families and establish a community—it’s obvious that early Arizona settlers who were members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints had an abundance of two things: fortitude and faith.
The sacrifices of these men and women who pioneered Arizona by giving up existing comforts and begin anew are some of the most poignant stories of the West. Their greatest motivation was a personal desire to maintain their faith through obedience to church leaders. So, when they were asked to go, they went; when they were asked to stay, they made a home and a legacy.
The first members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in what is now Arizona marched with the Mormon Battalion in the winter of 1846. This was a group of men and women who had volunteered at the request of the U.S. government to prepare to fight in the Mexican-American War, although their journey ended up being a peaceful one.
More members of the Church began arriving in Arizona in the 1870s. They were sent from their homes in Utah by Church leaders to explore and colonize the Arizona territory.
The settlement of Mesa began with the migration of two groups of Latter-day Saints.
The first group consisted of 15 wagons, led by Daniel Webster Jones. This group found their way to an area about 20 miles east of Phoenix along the Salt River and established the community of Lehi in 1877. Immediately, they began digging ditches so they could grow crops. They would be known as the Lehi Company. Since 1970, this area has been included in city of Mesa boundaries.
The second group—the Mesa Company—with 25 wagons led by Francis M. Pomeroy, came in 1878, encouraged by Henry C. Rogers, who had been with the Lehi Company. He wrote of fertile soil (when water could reach it) and said, “The Spanish speaking people here call this the Valle del Sol (Valley of the Sun)… With this naming I can find no fault for sunshine we do have aplenty.”
Mesa—Spanish for table—was founded in 1878 on the bluff above the Salt River. These settlers discovered an extensive irrigation system established by the first inhabitants of the Salt River Valley, now referred to as Hohokam. While time had practically erased most of these canals, outlines of the system could be seen, and, when re-dug, would provide the lifeblood of water for these settlers. After arriving here and spending nine months of backbreaking toil through summer’s blistering heat, this small group of pioneers carved out a 12-mile canal to bring river water to the parched soil of the “Mesa.”
When the population grew to 300, local citizens petitioned for a local form of government, and in 1883, Mesa was incorporated as a village. In 1897, it would become a town, and in 1929 it would become a city.
A monument was erected on Main Street at the south end of Pioneer Park in 1988, honoring four men considered the “founding fathers” of Mesa: Charles I. Robson, George W. Sirrine, Charles Crismon, and Francis M. Pomeroy. Their statues hold the tools they labored with: a shovel, a gun, a spirit level, and a map of the townsite. A mother and her child—without which a community is impossible—also appear as part of the monument.
The area grew, and, for decades, devout members of the Church in Arizona longed for a temple for sacred temple ordinances. The closest temple was in St. George, Utah, causing young couples desiring to be married there to travel by wagon, and the well-trod path became known as the Honeymoon Trail.
In 1918, Church president Heber J. Grant announced the decision that Mesa would be the location of the first temple in Arizona. In a single month following the announcement, $125,000 was pledge by local residents. But, in 1920, a depression came along and plans were delayed.
Undaunted by adversity, Church leaders moved forward with their plans and on April 25, 1922, ground was broken on a 20-acre lot bordered by Main Street, Hobson, First Avenue and LeSueur. The design was inspired by Solomon’s Temple in Jerusalem.
Instead of a formal open house, tours were offered during the last two years of construction. From May 1925 until its dedication in October 1927, it was estimated 200,000 people visited the structure.
The Arizona Temple’s dedication was a four-day event and newspapers across the country reported on it, stating that “5,000 of the faith and 5,000 of the friendly” attended the first day’s gathering, and, on the second day, a choir of 300 Americans, Indians and Mexicans on the temple roof gave a public concert of “simple thanks and praise.”
The Arizona Temple opened in 1927, dedicated by Church President Heber J. Grant. It dominated Mesa’s skyline for decades and was often called a “sermon in stone.”
In 1945, the temple began offering sessions in Spanish—the first to present in a language other than English.
In 1974, the temple was closed for renovation after serving the Saints in Arizona, as well as a number of neighboring southern states as far as Florida and much of Mexico, for 47 years. After the renovation was complete, the temple was open to the public for two weeks, in which more than 205,000 visitors toured the temple.
In April 1975, Church President Spencer W. Kimball performed the historic rededication, as this was the first time a temple had been reopened and rededicated.
President Kimball had deep Arizona roots, having been a long-time resident of Thatcher, a small town in eastern Arizona. He became the 12th president of the Church in 1973, serving in that position until his death in 1985. In his dedicatory address in 1975, he recalled that he sang on the roof of the temple with the St. Joseph Stake Choir for the original dedication in 1927.
Other church leaders with ties to the area include Delbert L. Stapley of Mesa, who became a member of the Council of Twelve Apostles in 1950. He served until his death in 1978.
Five more temples were built and dedicated in Arizona in the last 20 years: In Snowflake in 2002, The Gila Valley in 2010, Gilbert and Phoenix in 2014, and in Tucson in 2017. As these other temples were built, the original Arizona temple became known as the Mesa Arizona Temple.
Under the direction of Church President Russell M. Nelson, church officials announced that the Mesa Arizona Temple would close in 2018 for major renovation of the building and surrounding grounds.