Sponsored by BYU Studies—Richard Bennett is a professor of Church History and Doctrine and BYU, and the author of Temples Rising: A Heritage of Sacrifice (Deseret Book, 2019).
Welcome! Before we begin, would you tell us a little bit about yourself and your work with the early history of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints?
I was born and raised in Sudbury, Ontario, Canada where my father worked as an underground miner for the International Nickel Company for almost 40 years. My parents, Cliff and Evelyn Bennett, converted to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in 1952 when I was six years old. My older brother, Gary, and I grew up in a very small branch and enjoyed many speaking and teaching opportunities when very young. His dramatic conversion as a young adolescent, influenced me greatly.
Almost every year we as a family went on summer vacations to many Church history sites in the east and along the Mormon trail. It was during such trips that I first gained a taste and appreciation for the Restoration and an abiding love for Church History. My grandfather, Oscar George Simpson, experienced a remarkable conversion in the Sacred Grove in about 1959, which day I remember well.
Thus the intersections of family life and Church history were poignant and beautiful in my childhood and adolescence. I later served a mission to Texas from 1967-1969 in the hopes of bringing the gospel to families there in the same way it had come into our lives, a hope richly fulfilled.
How has your history career uniquely prepared you to write Temples Rising? Can a history of the Church be written without recognizing the central role of temples?
Within weeks of my marriage to the former Patricia Dyer, my wife and I were hired by incoming Church Historian, Leonard J. Arrington, to be his personal research assistant. It was a remarkable learning experience and even then, back in the early 1970s, we were given access to many temple-related documents and collections.
I then continued to work under the able direction of Professor Marvin S. Hill as he and his sister, Donna, were preparing their manuscript on Joseph Smith – the First Mormon.
Soon afterwards I was hired to be researcher and ghostwriter of the BYU Centennial History, a four-volume work edited by former BYU president, Ernest L. Wilkinson. If Arrington taught me the joy of Church history research and Marvin Hill the tools of research, President Wilkinson taught me the need to write to the publisher’s deadline.
Later, while pursuing graduate studies at Wayne State University, I had the blessing of working under the tutelage of Professor Phil Mason, one of the finest archivists/historians of his time, and there wrote a dissertation on the Mormon Exodus. I learned from him the essentials of archival science and the role careful record-keeping plays in understanding our past.
Meanwhile I came to sense early on the void in LDS Church history of temple-related studies and the deep need for a careful study of the great rails on the Church history track—missionary work and temple studies.
As I wrote my earlier works on the Mormon Exodus, I realized that temple ordinances and the rise of temple consciousness were topics of extreme importance, undeniably central to the understanding of the unfolding Restoration.
What is the connection between your two BYU Studies articles on the temple and your latest book?
While researching and writing my two books on the exodus—Mormons at the Missouri 1846-1852 “And Should We Die” (University of Oklahoma Press, 1984) and We’ll Find the Place: The Mormon Exodus, 1846-1848 (University of Oklahoma Press, 1997) and (Deseret Book Company, 2009)—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.
They would find their place, they so deeply believed, if they would follow their God. It was a time when Mormonism was in the raw, learning its way under a new prophet-leader, with his belief in the power of temple covenants and faith-based allegiances.
It is what later inspired me to edit and publish the Horace K. Whitney Journals – The Journey West: The Mormon Pioneer Journals of Horace K. Whitney with Insights by Helen Mar Kimball Whitney (Deseret Book Company and Religious Studies Center, 2018).
Why were temples an obsession for Joseph Smith?
I have remarked on several occasions, most recently at BYU’s Education Week 2019, that Joseph Smith came to an early realization of the central place temples would hold in Church History.
Certainly Moroni, his tutor in all things pertaining to the Restoration, taught him much about being a Prophet. Joseph Smith—History 1:54 states that he received from Moroni “instruction and intelligence about what the Lord was going to do and how, and in what manner, to conduct his Church and kingdom in the last days.”
Later, as a budding prophet, he received the Aaronic Priesthood from John the Baptist in preparation for the sons of Levi offering one great and final sacrifice, presumably in a restored tabernacle of the wilderness. And from Peter, James and John he received the keys of the apostleship to the Melchizedek Priesthood and attendant thereto were understandings of temple worship.
Later, in February 1832 in Ohio, as a Seer, he received knowledge and revelation in what is today Section 76 on spirit world redemption and the hope for heavenly glory for those who once sinned in serious ways. Then with the appearance of the Savior, Moses, Elijah and Elias, as well as a vision of his older deceased brother, Alvin, in the Kirtland Temple, he came to a fuller appreciation of proxy salvific ordinances that were to be reserved for the temple.
And finally, his understanding of temple ordinances resulted, in no small degree, from his work as a Translator with the inspired translation of the Holy Bible (particularly the Book of Moses) and from his translation of Egyptian papyri into the Book of Abraham. These translations of new books of scripture introduced new doctrines and temple practices.
Temples, not chapels, were the central edifices in his thinking and family relationships were preservable through righteous living and temple-based ordinances.
What effect did the financial crisis in Kirtland have on the vision of temple work?
Joseph Smith should have learned, and to some extent learned the hard way, that his talents were not in business or financial matters. “In temporal labors thou shalt not have strength, for this is not thy calling. Attend to thy calling and thou shalt have wherewith to magnify thine office, and to expound all scriptures, and continue in laying on of the hands, and confirming the churches.” (D&C 24:9).
In other words, Joseph was a prophet, not a bishop. And the excruciating financial setbacks and disappointments in Kirtland were a schooling in such things, a cruel lesson he found hard to abide.
But if nothing else, they taught him to delegate to others more trained in such things the temporal duties of the Church and to attend to the more spiritual matters. Not one given to delegation, Joseph Smith found this a very difficult lesson to learn, even in later Nauvoo where his political ambitions sometimes outstripped his capacities.
I doubt if the Prophet Joseph could have brought forth so many temple doctrines if he had not had the strength and wisdom of such temporal leaders as bishops Edward Partridge and Newel K. Whitney at his side, and the careful common-sense judgments of men like Brigham Young.
How did temples and temple ordinances influence the faith of saints as they journeyed west? Share an example or two that you find inspiring.
As hinted at above, the Mormon Exodus cannot be understood without a full appreciation and understanding of how temple covenants played a central role in that unfolding drama.
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.
“And should we die . . . all is well.”
This explains in large measure why it was that so few defected from the Church during the ‘Valley Forge’ era in Church History.
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.
This also explains how it was that at Winter Quarters, Brigham Young began to offer temple ordinances of sealings and other blessings to a people in great suffering and need.
They came to associate President Young with the temple and therefore gave him their allegiance and deference in times of acute pain and difficulty.
What are three notable sacrifices the saints made in building each of the Kirtland, Nauvoo, and Salt Lake temples?
The building of the Kirtland Temple came at the remarkable sacrifice of time, labor, talent and whatever little means the Saints then possessed. One must remember that the Church was in its infancy during the three year period of construction—1833-1836—and was simultaneously trying to establish a gathering place 900 miles away in Missouri.
There was precious little money and many of the men were exhausted from participating in Zion’s Camp. Meanwhile, the Saints were being persecuted in Ohio by a vicious campaign of deliberate misunderstanding and calumny.
How they ever constructed that temple in their poverty and in a climate of persecution and with such a paucity of building talent is astounding.
The challenges building the Nauvoo Temple were no less impressive.
The Saints had just been expelled from Missouri and had lost everything in the process. Sickness and death plagued their early settlement efforts. But once construction efforts got under way, they were blessed with a gradual increase in skilled workers and craftsmen, many of whom resulted from the brilliantly successful mission to Great Britain by the Quorum of the Twelve from 1838-1841 which resulted in over 5,000 new converts, many of whom were now making their way to Nauvoo.
Completing the temple in the face of intensifying persecution that led to the martyrdom of Joseph and Hyrum Smith in 1844 was a remarkable sacrifice since most came to realize that what they were now building would be something that they would inevitably have to abandon.
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.
Why were the saints willing to sacrifice so much to build temples?
The motivation to sacrifice for building the Kirtland Temple owed much to the promised “endowment” which the Prophet Joseph Smith would be poured out upon the faithful Saints in Kirtland.
This was a particular expectation of those about to serve on missions or to fulfill other duties and responsibilities for the Church. There was the expectation in Kirtland, if not of the imminent Second Coming, then certainly of a divine acceptance of all their labors.
The motivation for the Nauvoo Temple was of a different kind.
Joseph Smith’s revelation of 1840 announcing baptisms for the dead came at a time when the Saints were suffering from post-Missouri persecutions, afflictions, and death. Little wonder this revelation was hailed with joy and enthusiasm. It meant redemption for their past and present sufferings and a more excellent hope for future eternal salvation.
Add to this the developing doctrines of the endowment and the hoped-for promise of eternal marriage and of family exaltation and one begins to see how temple consciousness played a central role in Latter-day Saint appreciation for the temple and its covenants.
The Nauvoo Temple became their guarantor, their fortifier and preparer for the ensuing trials of crossing the Great American Desert in their exodus to the west. Without that temple, and the sacrifices they were willing to make even though they knew they would be leaving it, their pending exodus would have been in doubt.
How did temple consciousness in the general membership of the Church evolve from the dedication of the Kirtland temple in 1836 through the end of the 19th century?
As thoroughly discussed in my book, the great advances in temple consciousness in the West were the recovery of the ordinance of baptisms for the dead beginning in 1869 and the introduction of endowments for the dead beginning at the St. George Temple on 11 January 1877.
With regards to the former, baptisms for the dead had gone into hibernation from the time the Saints left Nauvoo in 1846 until the coming of the transcontinental railroad in May 1869. Save for a scattered few baptisms for the dead performed by Wilford Wodruff at Winter Quarters and then again in Salt Lake City in the mid-1850s, this ordinance was virtually in abeyance.
However, with the coming of the railroad, the ordinance of baptisms for the dead dramatically revived and began to be practiced on a scale never seen before—with thousands of such ordinances being performed annually after 1869.
Eight years later came the introduction of endowments for the dead which changed everything forever in Latter-day Saint temple history.
For a whole variety of reasons, the Law of Adoption in which Latter-day Saints were being sealed to prominent Church leaders who held priesthood keys, had not been particularly successful. With the reclamation of past revelations, including Sections 109, 110, 121-123 and 132, all of which were canonized in 1880, temple work received more solid doctrinal footing and support.
In a gradual process of understanding, 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.
This dawning realization of the possibility for redemption of the dead in the spirit world translated into Woodruff’s dreams and visions in the St. George Temple that gave hope and life for those who had passed on.
Hence, the beginning of endowments for the dead and with it, intergenerational sealings and linkages to families long deceased. 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.
An added point: from 1849 to 1854, some temple ordinances—endowments for the living and living sealings—were performed in the Council House in Salt Lake City, on a spot kitty-corner from the present Joseph Smith Memorial Building. Later, in 1855, this building was superseded by the Endowment House which was not torn down until 1889.
In addition, several of the Twelve performed certain temple ordinances in the homes of the Saints throughout the Territory, essentially bringing the temple to the people in times of their greatest need.
Such proved enormously comforting to the Saints as they struggled to colonize and make a living in often the most harsh and difficult conditions.
How has your appreciation of early saints and the temples changed over the course of writing this book? Are there any research discoveries that deeply impressed you?
The more I have studied the rise of temple consciousness among the Latter-Day Saints from 1830 to 1900 the more impressed I am with the leadership of two individuals in particular: Brigham Young and Wilford Woodruff.
Some today are critical of the second president of the Church because of some of his views and personal character trains. He was certainly a product of his time. However, he was the “lion of the Lord” when it came to saving the Church and in having his people covenant to bring out the poor and the lonely, the widow and the orphan to their new destination homes in the West.
He was also willing to listen to his people in their greatest times of suffering and need, as evidenced by the fact that he began giving temple sealings and other blessings at Winter Quarters and in early Salt Lake City long before the construction of a temple.
He was both a pragmatic as well as a spiritual leader. His determination to build the St. George, Manti and Logan Temple was evidence of his deep commitment to save what Joseph Smith had begun, not only the Church politic but the Temple spiritual.
Wilford Woodruff was, in many ways, the father of modern temple work for the dead.
He forever carried the torch of baptisms for the dead, received visions and dreams about the importance of endowments for the dead, and served as the first temple president in Church History.
It was President Woodruff who later directed the discontinuance of the Law of Adoption in favor of intergenerational sealings of past families and who ordered the establishment of the Genealogical Society of Utah in 1893.
His imprint on the history of temple work and upon the soul of the Church is wildly impressive and must never be forgotten.
He had the vision and the courage to cease the practice of plural marriage in order to save temple work in all its redemption for the dead particulars and ordinances. He certainly had the vision of the future of the Church in mind when he placed the question of “Which is the Wisest Course?” in the context of either continuing the practice of plural marriage or preserving the temples and his ever-expanding vision of redemption for the dead.
Most observers then and now would agree that he chose the better part and placed the Church on a new and lasting temple-based foundation.
If you could go back in time and witness a single event in the 19th century associated with temples, what would you most want to witness?
January 11, 1877, would be the day I would choose.
I would want to witness the introduction of endowments for the dead, under the personal direction of Brigham Young (then acutely suffering from rheumatism) and Wilford Woodruff.
It was a day in our history that changed forever the future of temple attendance, worship and consciousness.
This interview is made possible thanks to the generous sponsorship of BYU Studies.