Sculptor Torleif S. Knaphus was born on a farm in Norway on 14 December 1881. By age five, Torleif tended the family’s sheep in the hills just beyond the farm. It was in the fields and hills that young Torleif first discovered his love for art. Having noticed his talent, Torleif’s mother started to provide him with paper and writing materials and encouraged him to draw what he observed in nature. He kept these early sketches hidden from his father, fearing that he would think it was a waste of time. But Torleif found great joy in expressing himself in those early drawings and sketches. He was also an outstanding athlete. As a teenager he loved long-distance swims in the cold blue lakes near his home. He also joined the local track club, regularly taking honors in swimming and high jumping, and in throwing the discus, shot and javelin.
After a short time, Torleif’s father recognized the amazing art talent in his young son. Torleif started to paint the portraits of famous people he saw in the newspaper, and then his father would hang them on the family’s barn by the road to sell to passersby. Young Torleif also learned to carve heads of birds and people out of wood. An entry in his journal reveals his early love of art and the development of his artistic temperament:
As I grew, I turned out to be different than my brothers. . . . One could find me sitting with my little sketchbook eagerly occupied creating what my imagination brought to mind. . . . And in the warm twilight of summer evenings one could have seen me leave my bedroom and run outside to enjoy the spiritual sweetness of the beautiful summer night. . . . This was solace to my soul.
Torleif started his art apprenticeship at 15 in a nearby town by painting houses and decorative furniture. In 1901, at age 19, he traveled to the Norwegian capital of Oslo (then known as Kristiania) to pursue formal studies in art. While Torleif was living in Oslo, one of his roommates persuaded him to attend a Latter-day Saint musical concert, which introduced Torleif to Mormonism for the first time. After being impressed with the LDS concert, Torleif then started to attend Latter-day Saint meetings in the area on Sundays. Torleif recalled, “It was easy for me to see and understand that this was the only true Church of God.”
Some three months after being introduced to the restored gospel, 21-year-old Torleif was baptized in a river frozen over with two inches of ice that had to be cut with a saw. Torleif’s strong desire to join the main body of the Church in Utah led him to turn down a prestigious art scholarship in Rome, Italy and to immigrate to Utah in 1905,despite protests from his Protestant family.
Soon Torleif began to work for the church on numerous art projects. He started with decorative work in the Salt Lake Tabernacle and other church buildings, including carving the large rosette gracing the ceiling of the Salt Lake Temple celestial room as well as the decorative sconces in that room. In 1909 he met and courted Emilia “Millie” Helena Christensen. They were married in the Salt Lake Temple.
In 1913 he was called to serve a mission for the church to study art in Paris for 18 months. On the way back to Utah, he studied monument sculpture for four more months in New York City. During his first year back from his studies, he was hired by the Church to work on the Hawaiian Temple (constructed 1915-19). For half a year he did interior work on the temple in Laie, Hawaii and helped artist Avard Fairbanks sculpt the twelve oxen supporting the basement baptismal font. His children vividly remember him bringing home his pay: a sack of twenty dollar gold pieces. These earnings enabled the growing Knaphus family to buy a modest Salt Lake City home.
Next he was commissioned to sculpt the oxen for the Alberta Temple’s baptismal font as well as the inspiring frieze “Jesus, the Fountainhead of the Church,” which depicts Jesus teaching the woman of Samaria at the well. For the Arizona Mesa Temple, the Church commissioned him to sculpt the baptismal font and the terra-cotta friezes around the temple’s exterior walls.
During his lifetime Torleif’s skilled hands beautified many temples. He fashioned the oxen and font for the Idaho Falls Temple (dedicated 1945), crafted busts of many Church presidents, created other interior decorations for the Salt Lake Temple, did touch-up painting inside the Hawaii Temple, helped M. F. Malin do sculpture work for the Los Angeles Temple and grounds, and helped with the Oakland Temple baptismal font.
In the mid-1920’s, Torleif completed one of his most notable artworks-the original Handcart Pioneers statue. In 1947 he completed a larger-than-life replica of that statue which is now displayed on Temple Square.
Torleif Visited by an Angel on Ensign Peak
From the time the church first acquired the two farms comprising the Hill Cumorah in 1928, Torleif often spoken to the Brethren about the need to create a monument to commemorate the many sacred events which occurred there. He especially wanted to honor the sacred event of the angel Moroni’s visit to Joseph Smith and when he gave Joseph the gold plates.
As he had done on prior occasions, Torleif sought guidance and inspiration on the Hill Cumorah project (still just an idea in his mind) by climbing historic Ensign Peak overlooking the Salt Lake Valley and made the project a matter of personal prayer. He had not yet been commissioned or even assigned by the Church to even work on such a project. He just felt compelled and inspired that a special monument was needed for the Hill Cumorah. (Allen P. Gerritsen, “The Hill Cumorah Monument: An Inspired Creation of Torleif S. Knaphus”, Journal of Book of Mormon Studies: Volume – 13, Issue – 1, Pages: 124-35, 173, Provo, Utah: Maxwell Institute, 2004 (hereinafter referred to as the ” Maxwell Institute”)).
Torleif’s plans for a future Hill Cumorah Monument were not written in any of his journals, but two accounts from other individuals who knew him well provide glimpses into the unforgettable experience that accompanied his nighttime visit in 1929 to Ensign Peak in Utah to pray for inspiration.
Willard and Rebecca Bean
The first account is associated with Willard and Rebecca Bean, who lived at the Joseph Smith family farm during their 24 year mission in Palmyra, New York, to help the Church acquire historic properties in that area. During their lengthy assignment, the Beans became good friends with Torleif Knaphus. In 1964, at a fireside in Salt Lake City, Sister Bean shared these rather remarkable details of what happened to Torleif one night on Ensign Peak:
Brother Knaphus told me this story… As soon as he heard that we owned the Hill Cumorah, he started making sketches of what he thought an Angel Moroni monument and statue should look like. No one asked him to do this or knew what he was doing. After he had finished seven sketches, one evening, all alone, he climbed Ensign Peak which looks southward over Salt Lake Valley. In the darkness of night he laid the seven sketches out on the ground and then he knelt in prayer asking the Lord if he had done the wrong thing.
He asked the Lord to show him which one would be the right one to take to the Church Authorities, and if it was right and proper for him to even go to them. When he opened his eyes there was a light all around him and he could see every one of the seven sketches, even though it was dark. And then he saw an angel pointing with his finger to the one that he [Brother Knaphus] thought was the best and heard the angel say, “This is the one.” And then he asked, “How will I approach the Brethren? What will they think? Have I done the right thing to do this?” Then he, the angel, said, “You go to the Church offices in the morning. They will be waiting for you.”
Torleif went unsolicited to the Church Administration Building early the next day to meet with the Brethren as he had been instructed. Most of the Brethren were very familiar with this important church artist. After proposing that a monument be constructed on the recently acquired Hill Cumorah property, he placed before the Church leaders his seven drawings containing various depictions of the monument and the angel Moroni. The Brethren looked them over and unanimously adopted the same design that the heavenly messenger had pointed out to Torleif the previous night. Permission was soon given for Torleif to continue working on this special project that would inspire countless visitors for generations to come.
Was Moroni the Angel Who Visited Torleif?
Concerning the identity or name of the angel who appeared to Torleif on Ensign Peak, Rebecca Bean remarked, “I say ‘angel,’ [but] I don’t know. I asked Brother Knaphus, when he told me the story, if it was the Angel Moroni that came to him [on Ensign Peak]. He said, ‘Sister Bean, that’s my secret.’ But I really feel that it was the Angel Moroni who came [to him].” (Rebecca Bean, fireside address given in Salt Lake City in 1964. See Maxwell Institute.)
Rebecca Marie Knaphus
The second account of Torleif’s sacred experience comes from his second wife, Rebecca Marie Knaphus. Rebecca was a bit more specific about the identity of the angel. She said that Torleif once told her that when he was planning the monument, Moroni had indeed personally visited him. She said that Torleif described Moroni as being dressed on that special occasion in white military-type clothing. She said that Torleif gave her no other details regarding specifically how, when, or where the sacred event occurred and that he seldom spoke about it. (Marie Knaphus James (Torleif’s daughter), personal interview by Allen P. Gerritsen, September 2003 (See, Maxwell Institute, 2004).) If Moroni was indeed the heavenly visitor who helped select the final design, it seems only appropriate.
The Church eventually commissioned Torleif to sculpt the 10 foot, gold-plated statue of the angel Moroni and to design and create the granite pillar and base of the monument (totaling 30 feet in height). He spent five years on the design and creation of this monument-more than double the amount of time that he spent on any other single art project during his lifetime.
With approval given for the monument, Torleif immediately started his search for a model to pose for the angel Moroni-with the image of the heavenly visitor still fresh in his mind. He needed to find someone who resembled the Moroni who he had both seen and sketched. He soon found the appropriate physique in Elwin Clark, a bricklayer who had recently constructed a fireplace for Torfeif at his home in the Sugarhouse area of Salt Lake City. Clark had the muscular body that Torleif sought to depict, and Elwin Clark agreed to pose for this special new assignment.
However, Torleif felt that Elwin Clark’s face was too young to represent the mature image and face of the prophet Moroni that the artist desired to depict. Torleif prayed and fasted to find a suitable model for the face of the angel Moroni. One day an older, bearded gentleman caught his attention on the sidewalk in downtown Salt Lake (Torleif never drove, but took public transportation or walked). The man was a rancher who had just moved back to Utah from Wyoming. After following the older man for a while and observing his face, Torleif eventually explained to the man in his “thick Norwegian accent,” that he would like to use the gentleman’s face to depict Moroni. Torleif persuaded the older man to immediately follow him to his nearby art studio.
The young Elwin Clark was already waiting in the studio when Torleif brought in the older rancher to pose for the face of the angel Moroni. To Torleif’s surprise, the older gentleman was none other than Hyrum Don Carlos Clark, young Elwin Clark’s father. This experience confirmed to Torleif and the two Clark men, father and son, that they had clearly been chosen as an answer to Torleif’s prayers to find two suitable models for the image of the angel Moroni. (Antone Clark, Clark Family History, “Finding the Face of an Angel here. )
Tragedy struck in 1931 when his wife Millie died. Torleif was left with six children at home, the youngest just fifteen months old. Although several people offered to adopt the youngest three, he refused to allow his family to be divided. He remained single for eight years, taking the youngest child to work with him and trying his best to be both father and mother to his six children.
The statue of Moroni was eventually finished and a likeness of the unique father/son combination made its way into bronze. The monument now sits atop the Hill Cumorah, beckoning to others to come and find the magic behind the place and the message it represents. In 1934 when Torleif visited the hill to determine the exact placement for the monument, the hill was fairly devoid of trees. By the time the monument was dedicated the following year, 10,000 trees had been planted on the Hill Cumorah, adding to its beauty.
The monument was dedicated on 21 July 1935 by President Heber J. Grant. In remarks during the ceremony, President David O. McKay (Second Counselor in the First Presidency) stated that, “There is no monument in the world today with which greater things are associated.”
Each of the four sides at the base of the monument received a bronze plaque created by Torleif depicting different but important aspects of the coming forth of the sacred record which lay hidden in Cumorah: Moroni delivering the plates to Joseph Smith (west); the three witnesses being shown the plates by an angel (south); the Prophet showing eight witnesses the plates (east); and a scripture from the Book of Mormon, Moroni 10:4-5 (north). The nine-foot bronze statue of Moroni stands on top of the granite shaft. In his left arm the angel holds ancient records. His right arm is raised to call attention to the gospel message. Torleif covered the monument in beautiful religious symbolism that is explained to visitors on nearby plaques.
In his later years, a reporter from Life magazine interviewed Torleif in his Salt Lake studio, surrounded by statues, oil paintings and clay models.
When asked what his greatest work was, he pointed to some photos of his family and a large genealogical pedigree chart hanging on the wall. He replied, “My family and this genealogical research have been my greatest work in life.” (Church News, Feb. 7, 2009, “Sculpture Bound for Norway.”) It is estimated that he personally submitted the names of at least 10,000 of his Norwegian ancestors for temple work.
Torleif passed away 14 June 1965 at the age of eighty-three. At his funeral Elder LeGrand Richards of the Quorum of the Twelve said that he knew of no single man in the Church who had done more genealogy work than Torleif Knaphus. The Deseret News eulogy concluded: “Our world of beauty is richer for his having lived and worked among us.” The beautiful monument atop the Hill Cumorah has inspired countless thousands of visitors each year since its dedication in1935, in the midst of the Great Depression.
The “What If” Moments in our Lives
In retrospect, it is somewhat staggering to consider the importance of young Torleif being invited to the LDS fireside in 1901, while a young college student living in Oslo. What if there had been no LDS musical concert? What if no friend had extended an invitation to Torleif to attend the fireside? What if he had gone to Rome to study art instead of immigrating to Utah? These “what if” moments are truly the hinges of destiny and history. We need to try and not be so judgmental regarding which friends we invite to missionary opportunities. Only heaven knows their potential and what they may contribute and accomplish in the future. It is highly doubtful that the young college friend who invited Torleif to attend an LDS concert in 1901 could possibly have envisioned the significant impact this amazingly talented artist would later have on the church and its temples, monuments and artwork around the world in the decades that followed. It is also important to know that each of us can make important contributions to the Kingdom of God. Important contributions are not limited to a few talented individuals. As Elder Scott said last month:
“Anywhere you are in the world, with prayer, faith, determination, diligence, and some sacrifice, you can make a powerful contribution. Begin now. I promise you that the Lord will help you find a way. And it will make you feel wonderful.”-Richard G. Scott, “The Joy of Redeeming the Dead”, Liahona and Ensign, November 2012.