Faith Promoting Rumors - Exploring Latter-day Saint Myths and Culture

The Night the Temple Caught Fire

Episode Summary

"The Spirit of God Like a Fire is Burning" -- That's how the hymn goes, isn't it? Let's talk about the time when the Spirit supposedly rested upon the Saint Louis Temple as a fiery glow. Video by John Stanley, Faith Promoting Rumors Check out the YouTube channel!

Episode Notes

To members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, temples are sacred—the most sacred places we have on earth. Because some of our holiest ordinances take place in these buildings, Latter-day Saints revere them and most would be devastated at the thought of one of them up in flames.

And unfortunately, that’s happened. Thankfully only twice has a temple actually been destroyed by fire, though there have been a few other close calls over the years.

But you may have heard the tale of a temple that was consumed in a spiritual fire— so that if you were to look at it, you’d swear the building was burning down, but the flames are actually a miraculous vision from heaven.

Growing up near Saint Louis, Missouri, I’ve heard this particular story quite a bit in casual conversation, in Sunday School, even shared over the pulpit. There are a few different versions of the story, but this is my favorite:

It was the night of June 1, 1997—the first of several dedication sessions at the newly finished Saint Louis Missouri temple.

A dedicatory prayer had been given, the ritual of Hosanna Shout was conducted, and as is tradition, a choir began to sing the hymn The Spirit of God.

Now the temple sits right alongside a major highway with trucks and cars speeding past it every second. A traveler would be pretty hard-pressed to miss this towering white church with a golden statue on top, especially since it was so well-lit against the evening sky. In fact, it looked like it was shining, it was gleaming, it was... wait a minute, was it actually on fire?

At the very moment that the choir sang “The Spirit of God Like a Fire is Burning” The roof was set ablaze, burning hot with yellow tongues of flame lapping up against the spire.

At least one passerby on the highway was shocked enough to call the fire department. Several firetrucks were dispatched and with lights flashing and sirens wailing, they rushed to the scene and roared to a halt right at the front entrance. Just as the first responders were about to storm in, they were met by a gentle old man at the door.

President Gordon B. Hinckley (who was there for the dedication) coolly raised his hands and explained that this was no real fire; it was a spiritual flame, the power of God descending upon His house, and that there was no real need for fear.

And then, with a twinkle in his eye, the prophet turned around and strolled back into the burning building.

Anyway, that’s the way I’ve heard it. If you’re from this neck of the woods, you’ve probably heard the tale before, or some variation of it. Sometimes it's the temple president instead of the prophet or the 911 call was made from an old car phone... little details like that—I've even heard people claim that it was some other temple instead of Saint Louis, but the core ideas of the narrative always seem to stay the same.

And this isn’t the first time something that like this has happened. There are at least two other similar events recorded in Church History: one in Kirtland, and one in Nauvoo.

You may have heard that in 1836 when the Kirkland Temple was dedicated, there were all kinds of miracles, both inside and out. People speaking in tongues and prophesying, and visions and angels descending from heaven. There are journal entries describing some of the most glorious events in Church History.

And when the townspeople heard what was described as “the sound of rushing wind” coming from inside the temple, they gathered around and saw a “bright light like a pillar of fire resting upon the temple”. This lasted well into the night. It may be interesting to note that W.W. Phelps wrote the hymn The Spirit of God specifically to be sung that day.

Now as for Nauvoo, we already know that the original Nauvoo temple has had its share of fire damage—like real fire damage, once, during its construction when an overheated stove pipe set the roof ablaze and then of course when the whole building was burned down by arsonists in 1848.

But I’m not talking about those events. I’m talking about the night a few weeks after that stovepipe fire when the Temple was once again seen going up in flames but this time it was different:

16 March 1846 “...last night Chester Loveland was called out of bed by his mother-in-law stating that the Temple was again on fire. He dressed as quick as lightning and ran out of doors and saw the Temple all in a blaze. He studied a few seconds, and as it did not appear to consume any, and as there was no others running, he was satisfied it was the glory of God, and again went to bed. Another brother saw the belfry all on a fire at a 1⁄4 to 10. He ran as hard as he could but when he came to the Temple he found all dark and secure... Thus was the Spirit, power and glory to God manifest.”

And in the scriptures, we can find even more accounts of sacred places being filled with glorious bursts of light or flames that don’t seem to actually burn anything up.

So there’s some precedent in the Church’s first two temples, but did something like this actually happen again in 1997? Surely, something happened. It’s rare for this sort of hearsay to get spread without some seed of truth.

I’ve scoured all the chatrooms and the blogs and everybody seems to have their own opinion on the matter, but I’m after the facts, so I needed to talk to this man:

Is that good? You gotta balance it or anything? You will edit all this and take out all the...?

I found perhaps the most qualified person on Earth to talk about the Saint Louis Temple fire. Because of his profession, we’ve agreed not to mention his full name.

Well, I mean I can say name is Lon and I was a part of the first maintenance crew of the Saint Louis Temple.

Lon has had a career as a high-level engineer at a few different temples including Saint Louis, and he still works for the Church in building operations—so, plumbing, electricity... that sort of thing.

I was there that night.

I let Lon tell the story from his unique insider perspective.

So I was standing right next to the security supervisor at the time. He got a call from the people that were helping run the open house and dedication stating that the fire department was at the temple gates—not the front entrance but the gates—and that someone had reported that the Saint Louis temple had flames coming out the top. The supervisor and I of course wanted to verify that. We stepped out of the service entrance and we looked at the building from the high‐ way side and saw nothing that would substantiate flames and fire. So I called an associate of mine and said, “Hey let’s go check out the roof and the mechanical rooms and see what we can verify or not.” So we walked through the mechanical areas, we went up through the roof hatch, up onto the roof and saw no flames.

So you actually went onto the roof?

Yes! We went on the roof and verified no flames.

But, on the way down, we did pass through some of the areas of the Temple and did verify that the hymn “Spirit of God like a Fire is Burning” was being practiced by one of the choirs. And uh... I don’t know... there could be a connection there if you wanna make one. I don’t know.

Now, Lon, is there any kind of practical, non-spiritual way to explain this? Maybe the lighting or something looked like fire?

That could be. Now, the cooling towers for the chillers are located on the west side between the highway and the building and at certain times if their fans were at high speed, you could get quite a mist that would blow up into the air, oh, as far at forty feet even. And the highway being down a little lower and the way the lights shine, you could maybe perceive that... well, it would appear like a fire.

I later looked at the historical records for that night’s weather conditions. It was pretty warm and muggy (just visit Missouri in June and you’ll know what I mean) and these were brand-new air conditioning systems. They were working very hard to keep the building cool. Now, I’m not an engineer or a meteorologist so maybe I’m wrong about this, but I think it’s at least conceivable that the conditions were just right for a plume of mist or steam to come up out of those cooling towers and obscure the view of the temple from the highway, and you know those lights have a slight amber-ish tone... So, to somebody speeding by on the highway, out of the corner of their eye... maybe they could’ve mistaken that for flames.

Lon went on to confirm that it was indeed a driver on the highway made the emergency call and yes, a firetruck did show up on the scene in response to that call, but it didn’t go past the front gate, which it pretty far from the building itself.

But as we kept talking, he dropped this little detail on me:

Now, I don’t know if this is news, but there was a second call and interestingly enough, the first call was the first day of dedication, the second call was the last day of dedication. I pieced that together in my mind, just thinking “oh, okay”.

By then, the response from the fire department was quite a bit different. It was more I think just a phone call instead of showing up. Then we were wondering: Okay, why is this happening? And we were looking at the cooling towers as a potential theory. To me, it was interesting that it was the first and last day.

Was there something there at that dedication? Yes. It definitely seemed like a fire to at least two people driving by on separate occasions. It was convincing enough for them to want to call the authorities and put it out.

Now, was there a huge scene with dozens of firetrucks and the prophet showing up at the door just to baffle the firefighters? Certainly not. There were no news reports about the incident. By all accounts, the firetruck showing up was only a precaution.

Matter of fact, just as I’m finishing up this video, I got a message from my brother Ben, who was recently employed as a groundskeeper at the Saint Louis Temple. As he went inside the building for an endowment session, he got to speak to one of the people who currently run the building facilities. And from the sound of it, there may be another explanation for this gleaming manifestation.

...Just bumped into the Head Engineer who I used to work with. And he said, in all the years he’s worked here, he’s gotten so many rumors and stories and reports of people thinking the temple was just up in flames because, apparently, we have a giant exhaust valve right on top of the temple that sometimes can look like smoke. And so, not only would the water vapor thing might’ve caused the rumor but also, just frequently people think that the temple’s on fire because of the exhaust system up top.

So it sounds like this myth can be explained by a combination of a few quirks of the ventilation and lighting systems, and by the fact that the building itself is situated so visibly to so many drivers. As for me, I’ve passed by the Saint Louis Temple countless times. I’ve never seen this fire phenomenon, but who am I to say what these people saw? Was it a simple trick of the light, a foggy illusion... or did the Spirit of God like a burning fire, rest upon the Lord’s holy house?

I tend not to sensationalize things. I’m more realistic, at least I always thought I have been. I don’t know, we didn’t see any flames. But I’m not gonna say anybody else didn’t see what they perceived to be flames. Some people have eyes to see and some don’t. I wouldn’t discredit that either.

I’m not here to tell you what to believe, I just want to make sure that the facts are out there so that when you tell the story, you can tell it the way that it actually happened, instead of, you know, blowing smoke.

Faith Promoting Rumors tend to spread like wildfire in the Church, and I’ve have been collecting these Latter-day urban legends for years now. There is quite a list. Some of them are true, some are completely made up... maybe you’ve got a story I’ve never heard before. Let me know!