"Peter Neilson, A life of Consecration"
By 1862, discouragement had overcome many of the saints called to settle southern Utah. The Virgin River continued to flood sporadically, washing the pioneers* crops and topsoil downstream. Anticipated harvests were lost affecting the hopes and faith of these early settlers. In the midst of these tribulations, President Brigham Young traveled by buggy to view conditions and encourage the saints. Undaunted by seemingly endless challenges, Young was determined to maintain the "Cotton Mission." On returning from his tour of the Rio Virgin Valley, he penned the following to Erastus Snow, then presiding over St. George:
"As I have already informed you, I wish you and the brethren to build, as speedily as possible, a good, substantial, commodious, well furnished meeting-house; one large enough to comfortably seat at least two thousand persons, and one that will not only be useful, but also an ornament to your city and a credit to your energy and enterprise. I hereby place at your disposal, expressly to aid in building the aforesaid meeting-house, the labor, molasses, vegetables and grain tithing of Cedar City and all places and persons south of that city. I hope you will begin the building at the earliest possible date, with the aid herein given, to speedily prosecute the work to completion.
Brigham Young saw the tabernacle serving a three-fold mission. First, it would demonstrate to the faithful saints that the General Authorities of the Church had confidence in the future of southern Utah.2 Second, it would provide work and wages for many penniless and unemployed pioneers in the region. Third, the new tabernacle would enable the saints to move from the old Bowery constructed of posts and willows to a structure more
appropriate for their worship services and other meetings.
After reviewing Young*s request with other local leaders, Snow addressed the assembled saints, read the letter and asked for their sustaining vote. No doubt he was aware that many of the congregation had still not finished their own homes or provided for their own families* needs. Nevertheless, to their credit, the saints voted in favor of erecting the tabernacle, December 1862. Over the next decade of construction, these same saints remained faithful to their word.
By the following June, plans were under way, supervised by architect, Miles Romney. On Young*s sixty-second birthday, the tabernacle*s cornerstones were laid by Apostles Orson Pratt, Amasa Lyman, and Erastus Snow with local leaders taking part in the activities. Romney designed the building to measure 106-feet long, 56-feet wide, with 2/2 foot thick supporting walls to support a 29-foot high interior ceiling. All building materials, including sandstone, limestone, and the components for the
interior stucco, were found locally. However, the 2,244 window panes, clock, and bell would have to be imported from distant regions.
Over the next several years, the saints struggled for their physical survival. The tabernacle was an added burden, but one they feverishly attempted to finish. It was more than just an ordinary building—a monument to their faith and devotion to their Lord, and to his prophet*s request. Workmen from every craft and trade were expected to work on the tabernacle. Its construction was followed closely by the surrounding settlements as the sandstone walls inched closer to their full stature. Skilled artisans meticulously created the awe-inspiring interior. Spiral staircases, beautiful woodwork, hanging chandeliers, woven carpets, molded designs, and symbolic art adorned the heart of the structure. By the waning months of its completion, the St. George Tabernacle had truly evolved into an "ornament" and "credit" for all to behold. The clock was shipped from London and the bell from New York City. Still, the expensive glass window panes were lacking.
The Glass Panes
Aware of the need, Church leaders ordered the precious glass at the cost of $0.75 per 8" by 10" pane from a New York manufacturer. With railroads not yet spanning the United States, the Church did not want to risk the glass being shattered while being freighted across the plains. Instead, the glass was ferried nearly fifteen thousand miles from New York around the Cape Horn and up the Pacific Ocean to Wilmington, California, a suburb of modern-day Los Angeles.
While the glass was transported, local leader, David H. Cannon was called upon to raise the needed $800 for the freight bill due at the Wilmington docks. Cannon faithfully attempted to carry out his fund-raising responsibility over a six month period. Many a day was spent by Cannon, making the rounds of St. George and the neighboring communities, petitioning the saints to give any amount of hard currency. Unfortunately, the saints were generally able to give only produce or labor—neither of which would pay for the freighting costs. Cash was not readily available. As a result, Cannon was able to collect only $200 from the entire vicinity, one-fourth of the required sum. As the contracted freighter*s departure for California loomed closer, he petitioned the Lord for assistance. Obtaining the last $600 would constitute a miracle.
A Danish Immigrant
Peter Neilson, Sr, was a relatively wealthy Danish immigrant living in the nearby community of Washington with his wife Karren and two sons, Israel and Peter Jr. Several years earlier, he had received his patriarchal blessing in Ephraim, Utah. Specifically, he was promised that "the earth will yield her increase under the labor of thy hands. Flocks and herds will be given thee for the occupancy of thy Stewardship." And so it was. Economic prosperity seemed to follow Peter wherever he went and in whatever enterprises he entered. Back in Denmark, he had been a successful tailor. In Ephraim, he quickly became one of the most prosperous farmers in the district. And by the late 1860s in Washington, cattle, fields, freighting, and his sewing talents provided him with a sizable income and economic well-being. Since his arrival in Washington, Peter had worked hard to save money to expand his small two-room adobe home to accommodate his family. No doubt his wife Karren was eager to have additional space to decorate into a comfortable dwelling. Their sons, Israel and Peter Jr, welcomed the idea of additional play and living quarters. Stashed in a secret hiding place within the Neilson home, Peter had saved a small fortune, $600 in gold coins. Sacrifice and toil were contained in each precious coin.
Because of the magnitude of public notice the tabernacle generated, Peter along with the rest of the community was aware of Cannon*s financial predicament. The night before Cannon was to deliver the required $800 to the teamsters, Peter envisioned his forthcoming remodeling. Some nights previously, he had spent time drawing the actual plans and calculating the projected costs. The very next day, Peter was intent upon purchasing the requisite lumber.4
That crucial night, neither Cannon nor Peter slept soundly. Cannon ealized that although he did not have the necessary funds, postponing the trip until the following spring would expose the tabernacle*s nearly completed interior to the ravages of the winter storms. To Cannon, there was no option. They must get the glass! Six miles away, Peter tossed and tumed miserably in his bed. The $600 had been saved specifically for his family*s comfort. Already he had sacrificed repeatedly for the kingdom. Did the Lord require his entire savings? Thoughts of his baptism in Denmark, his missionary labors among his native brethren, his harrowing voyage across the North Sea and deliverance from a watery grave, his crossing the Atlantic, his trek across the plains, and his arrival with the saints in the Salt Lake Valley consumed his slumber. He was cognizant of his covenants of consecration and sacrifice made years previously in the Endowment House. Eventually, he dozed off for several hours, only to have his sleep interrupted by a persistent dream which gave him no rest. Peter was encouraged to take his entire savings to Cannon that next morning.5
Obedient to this divine mandate and prior awareness, Peter rose before the sun, dressed for the day, lit a candle, and pulled his secret cache from its hiding place. After laying out a large, clean, red bandanna, he dumped the gold coins on top of the cloth. Half-eagles, eagles, and double-eagles clanked against each other, forming a large, golden pile. Awakened by Peter*s activity, Karren asked him what he was doing with the family savings. Peter replied that the Church was in greater need of the money then they were, and the entire $600 needed to be taken to Cannon immediately. As in all other situations, Karren supported her husband as he followed the prompting of the Spirit.6
The $600 Gift
The city of St. George nestled between red sandstone cliffs and black volcanic rock ridges six miles away from Peter*s home. Determined, Peter walked the entire distance early that morning, contemplating his actions and thinking of the kingdom. In his hands was a fortune that he would never have the opportunity to spend. Finally, he reached Cannon*s home and prepared to deliver the wrapped bundle. Before Peter*s early arrival,
Cannon*s teamsters had arrived. Easton Kelsey, Alex McDonald, Isaac Hunt, and Shadrack Weeks were the men appointed to trek to California to obtain the glass. Still, Cannon had no idea how to obtain the additional $600. Suddenly there was a knock at his door. There stood Peter, holding a heavy bandanna. Peter somberly greeted the assembled group by handing the wrapped gold coins to a surprised Cannon. "Good morning, David. You will know what to do with this." Bewildered, Cannon poured the contents onto the table and began counting. Before him lay the needed $600. All those present must have felt the spirit of the moment as they witnessed the magnitude of Peter*s sacrifice.
Within an hour, Peter was on his way back to Washington empty handed, and the teamsters were riding down the Old Spanish Trail to California, armed with gold coins.7 Only Peter was aware of his thoughts. Nevertheless, personal experience on a much smaller scale leads this author to believe that Peter was filled with an overwhelming sense of divine love and an outpouring of the Spirit. Filled with these feelings, he did not find it necessary to share his philanthropy outside the walls of his home to gain the praise of men. For it is only through Cannon*s personal writings that the events of that morning were revealed. Peter*s own autobiography remained silent.
Since that time, two members of the First Presidency have told the story of "the $600 gift" in General Conference. President Antoine R. Ivins spoke the following words in 1947:
"I wonder how many of us today, if we were faced with that same problem, would have the courage, with an outlook such as he [Peter] had, to do the thing he did. It was a noble gesture, a wonderful thing. And why do you think he did it? Do you think he had any idea that in making that contribution the brethren would look at him and maybe make him a bishop or something of that sort? Not in the world. It was sheer devotion to the work of the Lord that prompted him to do it. Can we do it today? That was one of the high and lofty ideals of those pioneer grandfathers of ours. "8
In 1987, President Thomas S. Monson added, "Tabernacles and temples are built with more than stone and mortar, wood and glass.. .they are built with faith and fasting. They are built with trials and testimonies."9 That day, Peter not only helped build the tabernacle, but a legacy.
1. H. Lorenzo Reid, Brigham Young*s Dixie of the Desert: Exploration and Settlement (Zion National Park, UT: Zion Natural History Association), 119.
2. Ibid., 97-125.
3. Charles M. Brown, "The Past Restored: Historic St. George Tabernacle Reopens," St. George Magazine, May/June 1993, 29.
4. Janath Russell Cannon and Beatrice Cannon Evans, ed., Cannon Family Historical Treasury (Salt Lake City: George Cannon Family Association), 309. This account, "The Glass for the St. George Tabernacle," was actually featured on one of Columbia Broadcasting System*s "Death Valley Days" program entitled "Faith of Our Fathers" aired January, 1943.
5. Ibid., 307. According to the official tourist brochure distributed today at the tabernacle, it appears that Peter Neilson had already lent considerable funds to the Perpetual Emigration Fund over several years to help European Saints migrate to Zion but had not been reimbursed for these previously volunteered funds. Furthermore, once Peter was willing to sacrifice the $600 for the Tabernacle, the P.E.F. moneys began to be repaid in full to Peter, enabling him to remodel his home. See "The St. George Tabernacle: An Architectural Marvel Restored-Renewed," Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
6. Larson, 312.
7. Cannon and Evans, 309.
8. Antoine R. Ivins, Conference Report, October 1947, p. 89.
9. Thomas S. Monson, "Tears, Trials, Trust, Testimony," Ensign, May 1987, 44.
Return to main page