Abstract of Bennett, Richard E. “‘Which Is the Wisest Course?’: The Transformation in Mormon Temple Consciousness, 1870-1898.”

Bennett, Richard E.  “‘Which Is the Wisest Course?’: The Transformation in Mormon Temple Consciousness, 1870-1898.”  Brigham Young University Studies 52, no. 2  (2013): 4-43. [Mormon/St. George/Salvation of the Dead/Ritual/Liturgy/Worship]

If not creating a paradigm shift, this article is certainly path breaking.  Its thesis places many important elements of LDS Church History between the Martyrdom and the death of Brigham Young, indeed, to the end of his century, in an completely new light.  To do this Bennett takes President Woodruff seriously when he said that he issued the Manifesto to save the temple(s) which under Bennett’s analysis places the cessation of plural marriage in a religious rather than political context.

Bennett’s study demonstrates the first element of his thesis that between 1844 and 1877 there was a significant retreat from temple labors.  Temple work was simply not a priority in this period. For example, endowments in the Endowment House averaged about1,900 per year, or “about one-third the number performed in the Nauvoo Temple in the early weeks of 1846″.  Many, and the word is not too strong, many things combined to cause this retreat, beginning with the syphoning off of church spiritual and physical energy as the church passed through the Martyrdom, Exodus and building the Kingdom in the desert lands of the Great Basin.  The loss of the Nauvoo Temple and not having one until 1877 were powerful depressants, despite the use of the Council and Endowment Houses for live ordinances and some baptisms for the dead.  The public announcement of polygamy in 1852 with its consequent persecutions, the Utah War of 1857 which brought an almost two-year cessation of work in the Endowment House (p. 12 and n. 21), and successive legislation to pressure the Church into abandoning plural marriage also diverted energy and attention away from temple activity.   A great deal of vim was devoted to desert colonization, missionary work and gathering tens of thousands to Utah, and “economic self-preservation.”   Interestingly, after ten years of kingdom building the Reformation was launched to try to infuse new spiritual commitment into church members, but temple work was not included in that new emphasis. The beginning of the Civil War engendered renewed interest in returning to Missouri to build the great temple there, but those dreams faded with the defeat of the Confederacy.  The end of the Civil War and the coming of the transcontinental railroad also threatened the relatively isolated Zion with an invasion of outsiders.  Brigham’s response was establishment or re-establishment of auxiliaries, a reorganization of the priesthood,  his own version of the “United Order” which stressed living the law of consecration; and finally, the slowness of the building of the Salt Lake Temple ultimately led to the building of four temples in Utah.  Brigham could see that Salt Lake was not going to be finished in his lifetime so he hastened the erection of one in St. George announced less than a year after Promontory Point.

Two events in 1876 and 1877 were the major catalysts for a new emphasis of orthodoxy and orthopraxy.  In 1876, a new Edition of the Doctrine and Covenants was published.  It contained a number of revelations relevant to the priesthood and temple work that were little known to the saints in the last quarter of the 19th century.  Chief among them was Section 110, but others such as 2, 13, 109, and129-132, gave a new understanding, importance and relevance to temple ordinances.    The second was the completion of the St. George Temple early in 1877.  In failing health, Brigham was anxious to have a temple because Joseph had laid upon him the obligation to systematize and complete the temple ordinances.  Apparently he did not feel he could do that in the Endowment House because, he said, there were ordinances for the dead that could not be given outside of a true temple.  As St. George neared completion Brigham went south and labored with Wilford Woodruff and others to systematize and record the temple ordinances.

Bennett has shown convincingly that a new orthopraxy followed the new orthodoxy which placed the family and temple work at the center of the plan of salvation.  It was not really new because Joseph Smith taught these principles, but it was a new emphasis now that a temple was available and others under construction.  An illustration of the impact the St. George Temple had upon the practice of the Church lays in the simple statistic that in just its first year of operation 1/4 as many ordinances were performed in the St. George Temple as were done in the Council and Endowment Houses over their 34 years of operation!  That was just a beginning.  With one temple operating, before the end of the century three more were completed and Wilford Woodruff had received a revelation largely discontinuing the practice of adoption in favor of children being sealed to parents and linking one’s personal ancestors together through the sealing ordinances.  So, by the end of the century, actually by 1898, the four temples had completed over 2 million ordinances as people now had a reason to return to the temple to repeat the endowment and sealing ordinances for their kindred dead.

With this as background the Manifesto of 1890 and Woodruff’s reasoning for it take on a new significance.  As the brethren began to give temple service and worship a new emphasis “the line between defending plural marriage and protecting the expanded role of temple ordinances,” Bennett writes, “became increasingly thin, especially after 1880.”  (p. 40.)  He goes on to assert that what the Church was preserving in keeping its temples was  “as great as what they were giving up” (plural marriage.)  “Only in appreciating fully what was abandoned does one begin to plumb the Church’s allegiance to temple work for the dead. … the expanded mission of redemption for the dead was a vision of such newfound importance that nothing could be allowed to get in its way.”  (p. 42) “The sunset of plural marriage heralded a new sunrise of Mormon temple work and worship.”  (Ibid.)  Thus, for Bennett the Manifesto was more than just a political document responding to unparalleled political pressure; more importantly, it was “very much a religious one whose roots preceded plural marriage and which extended back to the very beginnings of Mormonism.”  (p. 43, see also p. 7.)

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