I was privileged to introduce my longtime friend and former BYU and Maxwell Institute colleague Dr. Noel Reynolds for his plenary address on Friday night at the meeting of the Society for Mormon Philosophy and Theology. Dr. Reynolds is currently serving as president of the Mount Timpanogos Utah Temple of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
He had many interesting things to say, but I’ll mention one brief comment here:
As far as he can tell, he said, the first place where vicarious endowments and sealings were ever performed in the history of the world was the St. George Temple. I think he’s probably right on that.
Vicarious baptisms for the dead had been performed in the Mississippi River and then in the Nauvoo Temple, but the remainder of the ordinances had to wait until the dedication of the St. George Temple in 1877.
I wonder how many zooming past on I-15 between Las Vegas and Salt Lake City recognize the cosmic importance of the large white building that they see off to the side of the freeway. For that matter, I wonder how many believing Latter-day Saints grasp the significance of that place. I couldn’t help but be reminded of an implicitly rather sneering comment in Fawn Brodie’s secularizing (and largely uncomprehending) 1945 biography of Joseph Smith:
“It is doubtful whether Joseph sensed the truly staggering implications of his endowment system. 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 also of the universe.” (Fawn M. Brodie, No Man Knows My History: The Life of Joseph Smith, the Mormon Prophet, 2d ed. [New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1975], 282-283)
And, indeed, for a time, it had. To those familiar with the ancient concept of the temple — as Mrs. Brodie plainly wasn’t — this is no surprise. In fact, it’s exactly what one would expect.
But actually putting the system into effect took a long time. Joseph Smith was murdered in 1844 by an anti-Mormon mob, the Saints were driven out of Nauvoo during the middle of winter in 1846, their temple was destroyed, and it wasn’t until 1877 that another temple was dedicated — in St. George. And, if Latter-day Saints are correct, this temple, with those that have followed, represents the nexus of heaven and earth, the living and the dead. It is, yes, in a sense, the center of the universe. (The ancient order of things, shown by the arrangement of the tribes of Israel around the tabernacle, shows up again in the numbering of Salt Lake City streets according to their proximity to Temple Square.)
Seemingly important places like the battlefields at Gettysburg and Hastings and Waterloo, and the palace of Versailles, and the White House, will carry little or no significance in the eternities. It will be certain buildings in St. George, and Salt Lake City (and Apia, Samoa, and Sao Paulo, Brazil, and Zollikofen, Switzerland, and Lingfield, Surrey, and Hamilton, New Zealand, and the like) that will prove to have really mattered.
“It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest, most uninteresting person you talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare. All day long we are, in some degree, helping each other to one or the other of these destinations. It is in the light of these overwhelming possibilites, it is with the awe and the circumspection proper to them, that we should conduct all of our dealings with one another, all friendships, all loves, all play, all politics. There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilizations — These are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit — immortal horrors or everlasting splendors.” (C. S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory)