Temples hold a central place in Latter-day Saint history. The narrative of building the Kirtland and Nauvoo Temples and the impact it had on our theology is a dominant theme of the early Church. Even going beyond that, however, much of the history that followed has temples looming in the background, even though it would be decades before another temple was completed in Utah Territory. In one of the recent Kurt Manwaring 10 questions interviews, Richard Bennett discusses some of his thoughts on the subject and his recent publication Temples Rising: A Heritage of Sacrifice. This is only a summary with some commentary here, but I suggest reading the full interview.
Richard E. Bennett is a professor of Church History and Doctrine at Brigham Young University. He has been deeply involved with Mormon studies journals as a former president of the Mormon History Association, a former Associate Editor of the Journal of Book of Mormon Studies and a current member of the editorial board for BYU Studies. Bennett is the author of several historical works, including The Nauvoo Legion in Illinois: A History of the Mormon Militia, 1841–1846, We’ll Find the Place: The Mormon Exodus, 1846-1848, Mormons at the Missouri: 1846-1852, and Temples Rising: A Heritage of Sacrifice.
Bennett’s attention was turned to temples by his studies of the Latter-day Saint exodus:
While researching and writing my two books on the exodus … I learned that temples and temple covenants played a highly significant role in the success of the Mormon exodus west, beginning in 1846.
In fact, one does not understand that episode in Church History without understanding the central place of temple covenants.
Before the Saints left Nauvoo, Brigham Young, then acting in his capacity as president of the Quorum of the Twelve, demanded that most able-bodied priesthood holders in the Church covenant at the temple to do all in their power to bring on the widow, the orphan, the sick and the afflicted in their journey west.
And he would hold them to that covenant all the way west.
Furthermore, the temple endowment, in all its sacred particulars, is what gave to many the faith and power to overcome sickness and to endure suffering and death at the Missouri during their difficult stay at Winter Quarters.
It was the temple, or at least the temple covenants that they had made, and the reciprocal temple promises and blessings, that energized the Saints in their westward movements.
While Dr. Bennett noted this, he also came to feel that there was a “void in LDS Church history of temple-related studies” and turned to writing Temples Rising.
In writing Temples Rising: A Heritage of Sacrifice, Bennett’s target audience is active Latter-day Saints. While it is a scholarly work, it is faithful history that has a devotional side. This is particularly true when it comes to dwelling on the sacrifices early members of the Church made to build and participate in the temples. When asked for three notable sacrifices the saints made in building the Kirtland, Nauvoo, and Salt Lake temples, he referenced some of the well-known challenges of finances and labor for the first two but also made an interesting point when it came to the Salt Lake Temple:
The greatest sacrifice the Saints made in building the Salt Lake Temple was not of money, time or ever talent, but in the abandonment of that which had defined them for so many years since arriving in the Valley in 1847—the sacrifice of the “Principle” of plural marriage.
This was what so many had so fiercely defended for so long, both men and women, not a few of whom had served prison sentences defending. It was the practice and belief that had defined for many what it meant to be a Latter-day Saint.
To sacrifice this principle in the fire of persecution and opposition tested the faith and allegiance of a great many.
It’s something that I overlooked for a long time but has stood out to me as well in my studies of Latter-day Saint temples. A close reading of President Wilford Woodruff’s remarks that are published with Official Declaration 2 in the Doctrine and Covenants indicates that one of the foremost considerations he took in deciding to end the practice was the fact that it was interfering with temple work. In effect, when faced with choosing between plural marriage and temple work, President Woodruff sided with the latter.
If the decision had been made a few decades beforehand, however, it might not have had the same conclusion. While Latter-day Saints valued temples, practiced temple rituals for the living in temples pro tem like the Council House in Salt Lake City or the Endowment House on Temple Square, and looked forward to building temples in Utah Territory, the type of temple consciousness that we have in the Church today took time to develop. Richard Bennett described some of the events that took place along the way, including the revival of baptisms for the dead, the introduction of endowments for the dead in St. George in 1877, and the canonization of a new edition of the Doctrine and Covenants in 1880 that left temple work with a more “solid doctrinal footing and support” by including Sections 109, 110, 121-123 and 132. Through these events as well as visions and revelations connected to endowments for the dead, “it became clear to President Wilford Woodruff and others, that families could be safely sealed to past generations of ancestors and that they should be sealed to such, and not to General Authorities.” Hence, Bennett concluded that:
Not only did this open the way for performing saving ordinances for the dead well beyond baptisms, but also for the need for the living to return to the temple over and over again and a commitment to live in such a way as to be worthy to do so.
Thus, this expanded vision of redemption work for the dead exercised an enormous influence on the living.
For more insights into the history of temples, Joseph Smith’s obsession with them, the sacrifices Latter-day Saints made in the 1800s to build temples, the roles Brigham Young and Wilford Woodruff played in developing modern temple work, and a lesson Joseph Smith struggled with learning, read the 10 questions with Richard Bennett here. You can also pick up a copy of the book Temples Rising: A Heritage of Sacrifice and give it a read. I recently checked it out of the library and have found it interesting and insightful thus far.