Today Utahns celebrate Brigham Young's entrance into the Salt Lake Valley, so I figured a look into the events preceding this day was in order.
In March of 1836, Joseph Smith dedicated the Kirtland Temple. Building this temple had been an intense labor of love for the Ohio Saints, and the dedication was one of Those Events that true sacrifice and devotion make possible: every person present and many who weren't were granted glorious glimpses into heaven. People were spontaneously animated by the Spirit, angels were everywhere, and several people saw the Savior. These were not unexpected events, because when God commanded the building of this temple, he said that if they did all he was asking, “Behold, and lo, I will come quickly, and receive you unto myself” (D&C 88:126).
There needed to be a temple built so that God himself could come to instruct his people. The point of the Kirtland Temple was to endow those present with the additional power they needed to go forth with his message to the world. This happened. There were mass exoduses by missionaries following this event, and miracles ensued. God’s promises were fulfilled due to their faithfulness. Which is cool.
Several years later, things were a bit of a mess. We sometimes make a point to emphasize the persecution the early saints suffered, and it was very real, but sometimes we forget to acknowledge that God warned his people that such scourgings would occur if they did not cease from various weaknesses. Even way back in 1832, he declared that “vanity and unbelief have brought the whole church under condemnation. And this condemnation resteth upon the children of Zion, even all” (D&C 84:55-56). Various renditions of this message dot the pages of the Doctrine and Covenants as we follow the Saints from Kirtland to Far West to Independence. Despite the faithfulness of so many of the Saints, it is clear there was enough mischief going on to prevent them from building up any permanent earthly home for their Lord in each place they tried.
But once again, God offered another opportunity to establish Zion, this time in Nauvoo. In order to do that, another temple was required, “For there is not a place found on earth that he may come to and restore again that which was lost unto you, or which he hath taken away, even the fulness of the priesthood” (D&C 124:28). The fulness had been taken away due to wickedness, and no earthly place is able to safely contain the presence of God, which he just told us is necessary to restore necessary elements for a people who desire to build Zion. So he commanded them to build another temple so he could come to it.
Here's what he told them would happen if they did all they could to build this temple: “If ye labor with all your might, I will consecrate that spot that it shall be made holy. And if my people will hearken unto my voice, and unto the voice of my servants whom I have appointed to lead my people, behold, verily I say unto you, they shall not be moved out of their place” (D&C 124:44-45). There's more talk throughout the revelation about this being an opportunity to establish the physical Zion of the last days. Nauvoo could be The Place, if they so chose.
Knowing there had been multiple failures already, however (P.S. NO JUDGMENT HERE, these people amaze me), this time a warning accompanied his wonderful promises: “But if they will not hearken to my voice, nor unto the voice of these men whom I have appointed, they shall not be blest, because they pollute mine holy grounds, and mine holy ordinances, and charters, and my holy words which I give unto them. And it shall come to pass that if you build a house unto my name, and do not do the things that I say, I will not perform the oath which I make unto you, neither fulfil the promises which ye expect at my hands, saith the Lord. For instead of blessings, ye, by your own works, bring cursings, wrath, indignation, and judgments upon your own heads, by your follies, and by all your abominations, which you practice before me, saith the Lord” (D&C 124:46-48).
A couple years ago, these verses suddenly stuck out to me in a way they hadn't before. God said that if they did as he asked, the saints would be protected from their enemies in a land they'd helped make holy, never to be moved out of their place again. If they didn't, no such protection was promised, and in fact, they were told they'd be driven out in judgment. This didn't make sense to me, because the saints WERE driven out of Nauvoo, when the scriptures say right there they wouldn't be moved out of their place. Why did God lie to them after everything they'd been through?
I remembered all the stories I knew of the Saints’ despair when they discovered Joseph and Hyrum had been killed, how they went into overdrive to finish the temple before their enemies ran them out of town, how they didn't have time to finish due to the violence and instead rigged up the attic for makeshift initiatories and endowments and did temple work through the night for weeks on end, how Brigham Young watched lightning strike as he fled with the rest of the Saints and rejoiced to know the temple wouldn't survive to be profaned, how thousands of Saints sacrificed property and life in the exodus across the plains… And for the first time, I wondered if perhaps the narrative I'd cherished my whole life might not be the only interpretation of events.
I started digging into Nauvoo history. And what I found was a whole lot of Joseph Smith begging people to take the Lord seriously and get to work on the temple and, apparently, not getting much of a response. When he was killed, the temple walls were not even built to the second floor yet, despite being situated in what was now a flourishing city that rivaled Chicago.
I also started to notice a lot more scriptures like this one: “Behold, because of their belief in me, saith the Father, and because of the unbelief of you, O house of Israel, in the latter day shall the truth come unto the Gentiles, that the fulness of these things shall be made known unto them… And thus commandeth the Father that I should say unto you: At that day when the Gentiles shall sin against my gospel, and shall reject the fulness of my gospel, and shall be lifted up in the pride of their hearts above all nations, and above all the people of the whole earth, and shall be filled with all manner of lyings, and of deceits, and of mischiefs, and all manner of hypocrisy, and murders, and priestcrafts, and whoredoms, and of secret abominations; and if they shall do all those things, and shall reject the fulness of my gospel, behold, saith the Father, I will bring the fulness of my gospel from among them” (3 Nephi 16:7,10).
The Book of Mormon tells a story about WHEN, not if, the latter-day Gentiles reject the fullness that's offered. It's a story that doesn't end well for them, but it is full of redemption for the House of Israel, as in the scattered remnants the Gentiles all but destroyed upon our arrival in these lands. And it's a story that uses language remarkably similar to what we find in Section 124.
I'm not here to tell people how to interpret scripture or history. But I am saying that there are things in here that require some sort of reckoning.
Did the Saints finish the temple? No. Were they driven out of their place? Most assuredly--they had to flee the United States entirely to acquire any sort of safety. More importantly, did Christ ever appear in and accept the Nauvoo Temple? Nope. There are a handful of apocryphal records of angels making an appearance on the roof at one point, but these are hard to verify in any way, and in any case, angels are not the Savior. And there are no claims whatsoever that he ever accepted this house, which is odd when you consider the dramatic outpourings of the Spirit at Kirtland, which was supposedly a preparatory temple. If the temple was required so Christ could come to restore the fullness that was taken away, but it was never finished, and he never came, was the fullness ever actually restored to the Latter-day Saints? Were the events that followed more indicative of divine favor or judgment? Was Zion established in Nauvoo, never to be removed, or was it not? Does God mean what he says or not?
There are accusations made in scripture, like those listed above, that sound extraordinarily harsh if you apply them to our pioneer ancestors. I couldn't even stomach the thought for months and pushed it out of my mind. Then I couldn't take it anymore and started researching, and I discovered that there is fodder there for making the case that these accusations were not altogether unwarranted. I won't go into any of it here, because I'm not interested in raising cries of attempting to destroy faith or anything like that. I revere the vast majority of the early Saints and entertain no notions that I could've made the sacrifices they made nor kept my faith in the face of the atrocities they encountered. I have no confidence I could've done better. But establishing Zion is hard. It's only been done twice that we know of, in the history of the world. And I am inclined to believe, when I look around me and in the annals of our history, that they did not succeed. When I study our heritage, I am reminded much more forcefully of the Israelites who refused to come up into the mountain with Moses to behold the face of God and were therefore cursed with a lesser law of performances and ordinances than I am of a Zion society where none need ask, “know ye the Lord?” for all know him for themselves, where all are of one heart and one mind and there are no poor among them.
And as much as it breaks my heart, I am inclined to trust God keeps his word--which means we might not be as favored as we've always assumed. We might not possess all the blessings or eternal security we think we do. There might be a great deal more expected of us than we realized.
Exploring the spiritual side of things. Brevity is not my forte.