The Salt Lake Tabernacle Organ: Celebrating 150 Years!
This year marks the 150th anniversary of the Salt Lake Tabernacle organ. The then-newly constructed pipe organ made its debut in October 1867 during the first general conference of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints held in the Salt Lake Tabernacle. In the 150 years that have followed, the Tabernacle organ has served as the iconic backdrop for meetings and events broadcast throughout the world. The image of the Tabernacle organ itself has become widely known as a symbol of the Church and of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir.
At that first 1867 meeting in the Tabernacle, Church president Brigham Young announced from the pulpit, “We have commenced [an organ] that I think will do credit to the wilderness we inhabit.” Prior to the industrial revolution, organs were considered one of the most complicated man-made creations. Brigham Young asked 35-year-old Joseph Harris Ridges, who had built only one other organ while living in Australia, to build the organ for the Salt Lake Tabernacle.
Ridges determined that such an instrument could be built by using native resources insofar as possible and by obtaining other parts and materials from an established organ builder on the East Coast. Since the transcontinental railroad was not completed until 1869, gathering the needed supplies and equipment for constructing the organ in Salt Lake City proved to be a complicated endeavor.
The organ has undergone several changes over the 150 years. When the organ debuted in 1867, only 700 pipes were used. The organ case was not completed for another two years. The most visible change occurred in 1915 when the casing was expanded 15 feet on each side to accommodate additional pipes. Today the organ features 11,623 pipes, 147 stops, and 206 ranks.
An organ, particularly one of this stature, requires talented organists to bring its sound to life. More than 20 people have held the title of Tabernacle organist or assistant organist for the Tabernacle organ. Today we enjoy the talents of five skilled organists: Richard Elliott, Clay Christiansen, Andrew Unsworth, Bonnie Goodliffe, and Linda Margetts.
Joseph H. Ridges once remarked, “[The] organ will continue to stand as a memorial of the trials and difficulties that were overcome by the pioneers, breathing out strains of sweet music to delight future generations.” Today the Salt Lake Tabernacle organ is one of the most notable instruments in America, not only because of its size but also because of the success of its tonal design. Aided by the unique acoustical properties of the Tabernacle, the organ’s warmth and richness are immediately recognizable. It is perhaps more widely heard and enjoyed than any other organ in America.
To celebrate this historic milestone, the Church History Museum—just west of the Tabernacle—has opened a new exhibit to showcase the history of the organ and display unique artifacts from past organists and memorabilia marking the organ’s legacy.
May 19, 2017, to April 17, 2018
Church History Museum
45 North West Temple
Monday–Friday: 9 a.m. to 9 p.m.
Saturday:10 a.m. to 5 p.m.