What Did We Lose?

In 70 AD, the Romans capped their extended campaign to crush a Jewish revolt by destroying the magnificent temple in Jerusalem. The Jews lost their temple. Earlier, they had lost political autonomy and the kingship; later, in 132 AD, another Jewish revolt was suppressed and Jews were barred from living in or even entering Jerusalem. Despite this loss of temple, king, and land, the Jews adapted and Judaism endured. In the 19th century, Mormons had their own sharp if somewhat less dramatic struggle with American government and culture. What did we Mormons lose?

What the Jews Lost

First let’s consider how Judaism managed to endure despite losing the temple, which had been the focus of its ritual worship for almost a millennium. Simon Goldhill’s The Temple of Jerusalem (HUP, 2005) recounts the challenge Judaism faced.

When the Temple was destroyed, it was quite unclear what form Jewish religion should or would take. Without the central institution of sacrifice, the pilgrim festivals and the roles of the priesthood and Levites, the social and religious structure of worship was crushed. Synagogues had existed for many centuries as places of gathering for Jews, especially in the Jewish communities outside Palestine, where, along with a range of other social and intellectual activities, prayer took place …. By the time that the Talmud was written down in its edited form [between about 400 and 700 AD], the synagogue had become the prime focus of religious life. But what parts of Temple worship could take place in the synagogue? … [C]ould sacrifice take place anwhere but on the altar [of the Temple]? Could pilgrim festivals be observed away from Jerusalem and, if so, how? (p. 86-87.)

Judaism refocused religious culture and worship on prayer and study conducted in synagogues led by rabbis, but that change was not a simple process.

The answers to such questions took many years and much debate …. Sacrifice was not again performed: that means of communication between man and God was silenced. But the pilgrim festivals did continue in a changed form. … Passover no longer had the paschal sacrifice, but continued to hold the ritual meal of the Seder-night feast. But for neither, of course, did people leave their villages to travel to Jerusalem. The complex system of sin and guilt offerings was stopped, and how people thought about the relation between action and punishment had to alter radically as a consequence. (p. 87-88.)

What the Mormons Lost

First, let’s compare the Mormon experience with what the Jews lost, temple, king, and land. The Mormons did lose some political power: In January 1845, the Nauvoo Charter was repealed. That partial loss of autonomy reduced the ability of Mormons in Nauvoo to protect themselves from their adversaries in adjoining communities. In 1846, when the bulk of the Mormon community left Nauvoo for good, they left behind their land (the latest place of gathering) and the partially completed Nauvoo temple. But I don’t think these parallel Mormon losses were felt as deeply as the Jewish losses. These did not change the course of Mormonism. Utah became a new place of gathering, with some political autonomy regained (if only because of the remote location). New temples were built in Utah. Relocating Mormons felt ill-treated by their government, but their identity was not lost: most still regarded themselves as loyal Americans.

smith-carthage-martyrdomOne thing that was irrevocably lost in 1844 was Joseph Smith and his burst of revelation, imagination, and innovation. While a successor was eventually installed as President of the Church and that office has continued, no successor in office has regularly exercised the variety of prophetic and revelatory gifts displayed by Joseph. Yes, Brigham Young and Orson Pratt discussed several novel and interesting doctrinal ideas in the next few decades, but those ideas were never canonized and are largely forgotten. For the most part, religious innovation died with Joseph.

Related to the loss of Joseph was the loss of the First Presidency as an independent quorum. In the crisis that followed Joseph’s death, Brigham Young and the Quorum of the Twelve emerged as the leadership of the Church. When the First Presidency was reorganized several years later, it was essentially as an executive committee of the Twelve, filled by apostles. It was no longer an independent quorum as it had been under Joseph. With the loss of the First Presidency, the scope of potential disagreement within the senior leadership of the Church was signifcantly reduced.

The final loss was polygamy. Ironically, what was initially lost in 1844 was the option to reverse course and abandon the practice. Only Joseph had the institutional power and credibility to end polygamy at that time. After his death, its continuation became something like a test of faith for the Church and for individual leaders. After the death of Joseph and the emergence of the Twelve to lead the Church, we were stuck with polygamy for the short term.

In 1890, the other shoe dropped. Faced with mounting pressure from the United States government, Wilford Woodruff announced (more or less) that the Church would abandon the practcie of polygamy. It was that or lose control of and title to LDS temples. Good choice. In hindsight, it’s safe to say that temples have done us a lot more good than polygamy. In fact, it’s hard to even describe the loss of polygamy as a loss. In the wake of the abandonment of polygamy, Utah gained statehood, national politics came to Utah, and the LDS Church gradually entered the social and cultural mainstream. This permitted the sustained growth of the Church, first within North America and later on other continents, over the course of the 20th century.

Any other ideas on what we lost or gained as we moved from the struggle and conflict of the 19th century to the acceptability of the 20th and 21st centuries?

8 comments for “What Did We Lose?

  1. Dan
    July 13, 2010 at 9:15 pm

    First of all, thank you for posting this, which should give us some much needed perspective when discussing the whole “loss of religious freedom” schtick some argue about these days. Truly we are a spoiled generation here in the United States.

    I can’t speak of hypothetical scenarios, but I appreciate greatly the loss of polygamy. It just would not have worked in the post-feminist days we’re currently in. I appreciate greatly the loss of racism which just would not have worked in the post-racism days we’re currently in.

    I don’t know what else we’ve lost. We’ve gained much religious freedom since moderating our theological views. Our missionaries are protected in every corner of the land from persecution and threats of violence, or even actual violence. Religious tolerance probably is at its all time best in this nation. And of course, because of our moderating views, we are allowed in countries we otherwise would not be allowed in, so a win for freedom. :)

  2. Mark D.
    July 14, 2010 at 9:11 am

    We lost a distinctly LDS political party – that is probably a good thing. We also lost most of our economic communitarianism, if in part for pragmatic reasons. And of course the Adam God theory did not survive contact with Pauline orthodoxy.

  3. July 14, 2010 at 9:33 am

    Your timing in posting this is quite good – next week on Monday/Tuesday falls the 9th of Av (Tisha b’Av) which is the calendar date on which both the first and second temples were destroyed.

  4. KLC
    July 14, 2010 at 9:56 am

    “With the loss of the First Presidency, the scope of potential disagreement within the senior leadership of the Church was signifcantly reduced.”

    It’s not a loss in the 19th century but your quote reminds me of a more recent loss similar to this one. The reincarnation of the Quorums of the 70 as general authorities in the late 1970s led to even more centralized power exclusively held by the Quorum of the 12. Any member in their mid 40s or older remembers a time when GA 70s were people like Marion Hanks, Vaughn Featherstone and Paul Dunn, people with real personalities instead of the relatively anonymous 70s of today who function more as administrative assistants to the 12 rather than forceful leaders in their own sphere of authority.

  5. Raymond Takashi Swenson
    July 14, 2010 at 4:19 pm

    When there were only 7 presidents of the 70, and a few Assistants to the 12, it was a lot easier to remember who they were, plus they would come out and speak at your stake conference frequently back in the days when there were a lot fewer stakes than now.

    When I lived in Idaho Falls, we had a member of the First Quorum of 70 who was preparing to become emeritus at age 70. He bought a house and farm within our ward boundaries and would show up several Sundays a year in the Gospel doctrine class I taught. However, his retirement was delayed about 5 years when he was made president of the consolidated Mexico area presidency. He was a real personality, distinctive and decisive and opinionated. One Sunday, while I was struggling with hauling the TV and VCR down to our classroom, he chastised the members of the class for wasting the time I should be in there teaching by not helping me. I think we would find the current mem bers of the Seven Presidents and other members of the First and Second Quorums to be distinctive personalities, except we just don’t get to spend as much time with them.

    We don’t have as much opportunity nowadays to have informal relationships with the Brethren the way the Saints did in the 19th Century. On the other hand, the saints outside Utah, in places like Africa and Asia, have far more opportunities to be directly exposed to the General Authorities through internet and satellite broadcast and instant translation. We have a great leveling of exposure to the Brethren, just as the opportunity to have temple experiences has expanded greatly around the world.

    As far as losing the Nauvoo Temple is concerned, this is an interesting question in light of the rebuilding of that temple. Imagine the Jews going back to Jerusalem and rebuilding the Temple of Herod or the more modest Temple of Solomon. Many historians have remarked on how Nauvoo itself was to a great extent the City of Zion translated from the Missouri site, where it never rally got off the ground, to the banks of the Mississippi, and then relocated again to Utah and replicated in smaller communities on the edge of wilderness like Logan, Manti and St. George. The temple was preserved for the Saints because, when Joseph was martyred, they did not abandon the temple, but insisted on completing it and receiving its ordinances, the most important part of it, before abandoning it to the elements and looking into the west to a place where they would rebuild it and its function. Imagine the Sephardic Jews building a temple in Seville or Granada during the era of Al Andalus. Remember that the Nephites built temples for at least 600 years, presumably with many of the original functions of the First Temple they left behind in 1 Nephi 1, even while their brethren of Judah captive in Babylon abandoned the idea of maintaining an active temple. As Christ announced to the Nephites, the sacrifices of animals were no longer part of the acceptable worship at the temple.

  6. charlene
    July 14, 2010 at 5:53 pm

    Referring to the early part of the OP and comparing the Jewish exile with the Mormon exile from the midwest, I think we lost a lot of good people. The physical limitations of communication and travel in the 19th century meant that folks unable to pick-up and go were excluded not only physically but also theologically. When ‘belonging’ is defined by a geographic location and gathering, that requires a life-style change much larger than WoW issues.
    The loss of close relations with leadership is a natural consequence of growth but, as has already been noted, it’s also a result of institutional decisions.
    What we’ve gained in our short history is a conscious effort to distill the essential Mormon elements. Physical gathering has been replaced with ‘build the kingdom where you are.’ The temple service is essential, although not the massive, very distinctive buildings. Sacrament service is clearly defined, though we’re still trying to determine if white shirts and ties are an essential part of that ordinance.

  7. KLC
    July 14, 2010 at 6:15 pm

    Raymond, I have no doubt that many of our current 70s have distinctive personalities, but I was talking about their public personas. Modern 70s uniformly come across as bland assistants to the 12. Before those quorums were reconstituted the 7 presidents of 70 had distinctive public personas that we only see in the quorum of the 12 today (and I’m even tempted to say that we only see it in the older members of that quorum, the younger ones seem as publicly bland as the modern 70s.)

    I would agree that part of that comes from sheer numbers, but I’m not convinced that is all of it, or even most of it. The former 7 presidents of 70 had their own sphere of authority distinct from the 12; that is no longer the case and I think we are poorer because of it, much like the loss of the distinctive first presidency that Dave spoke of in the OP.

  8. Zack
    July 15, 2010 at 11:53 am

    I highly recommend Kathleen Flake’s masterful book “The Politics of American Religious Identity: The Seating of Senator Reed Smoot, Mormon Apostle.” Among other things, it argues that Mormons were only accepted into wider American society when they were willing to elevate “American civic religion” above their own faith. At least in the United States, I would say that has truly been our greatest loss. Our religious faith and practices are almost wholly subservient to our sense of patriotic devotion and loyalty to the United States. The Church now even seems to encourage such divided loyalties.

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