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.
One 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?