July 7, 1999
A New Temple or a Vacant Lot? Mormons Consider Symbols of the Past
-- Peggy Fletcher Stack
On Easter Sunday, Mormon President Gordon B. Hinckley announced to an astonished crowd of believers in Salt Lake City and thousands more watching via satellite that the church was going to rebuild a temple in Nauvoo, Illinois. Nauvoo is now a sleepy town on the banks of the Mississippi River, with a population of 1,227. But in the mid-nineteenth century, it was a bustling city of 12,000 that nearly rivaled Chicago. What differentiated it from other American cities was that it was populated mostly by Mormons. It was home to the Mormon prophet, Joseph Smith, and the spiritual center of the movement he founded.
The temple sat on a bluff towering over the city, a gleaming symbol of godly devotion and untiring dedication of the church's new members. It was there that the faith's marriage and family rituals were first introduced. When the Mormons were eventually forced from their homes by neighboring mobs, the temple was torched by arsonists and was later hit by a tornado. Since then, the Mormon church has grown into a global faith with 10 million members. And the empty lot where the Nauvoo temple once stood has come to represent the agonizing loss experienced by the first generation of Mormonsand the persecution they had endured for their faith.
Mormonism began in Palmyra, New York, when Smith, a fourteen-year-old boy, announced that while praying in a grove of trees he had had a vision of God and Jesus Christ. Young Joseph said the otherworldly visitors told him that precious truths of Christianity had been lost but would be restored through him. A few years later, Smith said he was led by an angel to golden plates buried in the ground. He said the plates told the story of Christ's visit to a group of ancient Israelites who had sailed to the Americas. He named the account The Book of Mormon, and it became a body of scripture, along with the Bible.
Smith established the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in 1830 with a handful of family and friends who believed his account. But many other Christians in the area thought Smith was nothing but a charismatic charlatan. They drove the fledgling band of believers, dubbed Mormons, from New York to Pennsylvania to Missouri and Illinois and eventually across the Plains to the Rocky Mountains. Smith was killed in Illinois in 1844.
These events have been discussed and debated for years among American historians, notably by Jan Shipps in her MORMONISM: A NEW WORLD RELIGION; by Leonard Arrington and Davis Bitton in their THE MORMON EXPERIENCE; and by Richard Bushman in his JOSEPH SMITH AND THE BEGINNINGS OF MORMONISM.
For Mormons, though, history is an article of faith. The past is replayed again and again in the Mormon community and persecution is seared into its collective psyche.
Recently the LDS Church broke ground for its hundredth temple. This one is in Palmyra, not far from where Smith claimed his visions.
What does it mean, then, for the twentieth-century church to revisit the sites of sorrow not so much to remember the past as to overcome it?
Building temples in Nauvoo and Palmyra, Shipps says, "is a symbolic triumph over the past." But the question remains: isn't a vacant lot in some ways more meaningful than a spanking new temple, just one of many? An empty place at the table, after all, can be a potent symbol and reminder.
It might be valuable for Latter-day Saints to pause and remember the sting of loss as well as the pleasure of success.