In memory of Matthew Brown
"It is doubtful whether Joseph sensed the truly staggering implications of his endowment system," Fawn Brodie wrote in her imaginative 1945 biography of Joseph Smith. "Upon his church now rested the burden of freeing the billions of spirits who had never heard the law of the Lord. Nauvoo had become the center not only of the world, but of the universe. But Joseph laid no great emphasis on the temple ordinances."
As she usually did, Brodie portrayed Joseph here as a thoughtless but sometimes likable scamp, improvising his frauds on the run. This time, though, she got one thing right:
The temple is, and has always been, at the center of the universe, the intersection between human and divine, living and dead, heaven and earth, the world above and the world below. Ancient peoples around the globe associated temples with the "axis mundi" or "world axis," the mountain of the gods, "the navel of the earth," the primeval hill that first emerged from the waters of creation.
The numbering of the streets of Salt Lake City from Temple Square echoes the arrangement of the camp of Israel around its portable temple, the tabernacle. (See Numbers 2.)
How seriously did Joseph Smith take temple ordinances?
He called the work of redemption for the dead the "most glorious of all subjects belonging to the everlasting gospel" (Doctrine and Covenants 128:17).
And subsequent presidents of the church have agreed.
"We that are here," Brigham Young said in the new St. George Temple on Jan. 1, 1877, "are enjoying a privilege that we have no knowledge of any other people enjoying since the days of Adam, that is, to have a Temple completed, wherein all the ordinances of the house of God can be bestowed upon his people. Brethren and sisters, do you understand this?
"Suppose we were awake to … the salvation of the human family," he continued, "this house would be crowded, as we hope it will be, from Monday morning until Saturday night.
"What do you suppose the fathers would say if they could speak from the dead?" he asked. "Would they not say, 'We have lain here thousands of years, here in this prison house, waiting for this dispensation to come.' What would they whisper in our ear? Why, if they had the power the very thunders of heaven would be in our ears, if we could but realize the importance of the work we are engaged in. All the angels in heaven are looking at this little handful of people, and stimulating them to the salvation of the human family. … When I think upon this subject, I want the tongues of seven thunders to wake up the people" (Journal of Discourses 18:303, 304).
"To accomplish this work," he taught, "there will have to be not only one temple, but thousands of them, and thousands and tens of thousands of men and women will go into those temples and officiate for people who have lived as far back as the Lord shall reveal" (Journal of Discourses, 3:372).
The exciting announcement of six new temples at the most recent general conference of the church, including two in Africa, brings that goal somewhat closer. But do we comprehend its significance?
A set of posted photographs of African Latter-day Saints making their laborious way from Cameroon to the newly dedicated Aba Nigeria Temple in 2005 rebukes (my own) lax and inconsistent commitment to temple service. See them here.
"Brethren," said Joseph Smith, "shall we not go on in so great a cause? Go forward and not backward. Courage, brethren; and on, on to the victory! Let your hearts rejoice, and be exceedingly glad. Let the earth break forth into singing. Let the dead speak forth anthems of eternal praise to the King Immanuel, who hath ordained, before the world was, that which would enable us to redeem them out of their prison; for the prisoners shall go free" (Doctrine and Covenants 127:22).
On the notion of the temple as cosmic center, see Hugh Nibley, "Temple and Cosmos" (Salt Lake City, 1992), and John M. Lundquist, "The Temple: Meeting Place of Heaven and Earth" (London, 1993). Lundquist, "The Temple of Jerusalem: Past, Present, and Future" (New York, 2007), and William J. Hamblin and David Rolph Seely, "Solomon's Temple: Myth and History" (London, 2007), are both dedicated to Nibley.
Daniel C. Peterson is a professor of Islamic studies and Arabic at BYU, where he also serves as editor in chief of the Middle Eastern Texts Initiative and as director of outreach for the Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship. He is the founder of MormonScholarsTestify.org.