The Rise and Decline of the Angel Moroni

If you were to ask someone what the founding vision of the Restoration was at different points in our history, I suspect that you would get different answers.  Certainly, for us today, the First Vision stands out.  Throughout much of the nineteenth century, however, it seems that the visit of the Angel Moroni was what came to mind for Latter-day Saints.  While the First Vision was spoken of and appeared in some Church publications from the 1840s onwards, the visit of Moroni was more central to Latter-day Saint thought and proselyting efforts.  Yet, it was eventually eclipsed by Joseph Smith’s vision of the Father and the Son in importance, taking a secondary role in the story of the Restoration.  Today, we seem to be seeing a similar transition take place in the symbolism of the Church, with the formerly dominant image of Moroni taking a backseat to Jesus the Christ.

Early Latter-day Saints seem to have looked to the story of Moroni visiting Joseph Smith and the resulting Book of Mormon as the beginning of the Restoration.  For example, when Oliver Cowdery wrote a brief history of the Church in 1834, he described the earliest vision of the Restoration as the visit of the Angel Moroni.[1]  Even when Joseph Smith told the story of the First Vision to a visitor in 1835, he described it as merely part of “the circumstances connected with the coming forth of the book of Mormon.”[2]  Throughout much of the 19th century, Latter-day Saint literature focused on the story of Moroni’s visit to Joseph Smith rather than the First Vision.[3]  James B. Allen explained that:

The first generation of Mormon theologians placed so much emphasis on the idea that the restoration of the gospel began when the angel Moroni delivered the Book of Mormon. This event, after all, was depicted from the beginning as fulfilling the prophecy in Revelation 14:6, where John declared: “And I saw another angel fly in the midst of heaven, having the everlasting gospel to preach unto them that dwell on the earth.” Even Orson Pratt, who first published the vision in 1840, … continued to emphasize the idea that the restoration was inaugurated by the angel. In an 1848 tract he asked the question “In what manner does Joseph Smith declare that a dispensation of the gospel was committed unto him?” His answer was that Joseph Smith testified of the visit of an angel of God and that this claim was in fulfillment of biblical prophecy.

“Though Mr. Smith had taught a perfect doctrine, yet if he had testified that this doctrine was not restored by an angel, all would at once have known him to be an imposter….  John testifies that when the everlasting gospel is restored to the earth it shall be by an angel. Mr. Smith testifies that it was restored by an angel, and in no other way. This is another presumptive evidence that he was sent of God.”

Since much, if not most, of this early doctrinal material was published in works intended for non-Mormon consumption, it may be that the emphasis continued to be placed on the angel and the Book of Mormon because that fulfilled biblical prophecy, while the First Vision took a back seat in the literature only because it did not fulfill the prophecy[4]

In general, the First Vision held a place of secondary importance to the visit of the Angel Moroni for 19th century Latter-day Saints.

Later, however, this began to change.  In 1880, the Pearl of Great Price was canonized, with the First Vision as the opening story of the Joseph Smith History in that volume.  Not long before then, C. C. A. Christensen included a now-lost paining of the First Vision in his “Mormon Panorama” of Church history paintings, which, in turn, inspired George Manwaring to compose “Oh How Lovely Was the Morning.”  This era seems to have been a hinge point, when the First Vision began to become more important in the Latter-day Saint historical consciousness.   As one scholar observed: “References to the First Vision in general convergence began to multiply almost exponentially starting in the 1880s.  … Instead of the angel Moroni introducing the Restoration, ecclesiastical leaders were now referencing the First Vision as ‘the beginning of this great latter-day work.’”[5]  At the turn of the twentieth century, President Joseph F. Smith began emphasizing the First Vision even more heavily, and by 1938, President J. Reuben Clark would include the First Vision alongside the resurrection of Jesus Christ as one of the “two prime things that may not be overlooked, forgotten, shaded, or discarded.”[6]  By then, the First Vision had come to be the foundational event of the Restoration.

Along with the canonization of the First Vision in the Pearl of Great Price, there have been a few reasons suggested for the growing emphasis.  First, controversies over “Darwinism” (the early understanding of organic evolution) and efforts to dismiss the existence of God, such as those found in the influential writings of Marx, Freud, and Nietzsche in the late 19th century, called for a response.  The First Vision seems to have been brought up as evidence against both, with its description of an anthropomorphic God visiting and speaking to humankind in modern times.  As Dr. Richard Bennett put it: “This revelation of a living, immanent God anew in this modern age was in and of itself a direct response to the encroaching atheism.”[7]  Second, the Church was undergoing some seismic shifts in how it functioned at the turn of the twentieth century as Church leaders discarded plural marriage, “theodemocratic” rule, and communitarian projects to preserve the Church in the face of intense opposition by the United States.  Thus, in the words of Dr. Kathleen Flake, this placed Church leaders in the position of having “to find a way to rationalize convincingly the subordination of prophecy to democracy” and “to remove [their] people’s faith in one revelation without undermining their confidence in all revelation, as well as the revelator, namely, Joseph Smith and [Joseph F. Smith] as prophetic successor.”[8]  One of the ways this was accomplished was by “re-placing memory” through focusing on the First Vision and early Church history rather than the later revelation about polygamy.[9]  Whatever the cause, though, by the turn of the 20th century, the First Vision had eclipsed the visit of the Angel Moroni in importance.

Yet, around the same time that the First Vision began overshadowing the visit of the Angel Moroni, statues of the Angel Moroni began to become a symbol of our religion.  While earlier temples used weather vanes (including one of an angel with a trumpet on the Nauvoo Temple), the Salt Lake City Temple was the first to place a statue on its spire specifically identified as Moroni.  Sculpted by Cyrus E. Dallin, the statue became one of the most widely recognized symbols of Mormonism both within and without the Church.  Yet, it would take almost a century more for the statue to become a standard part of Latter-day Saint Temples.  Sixty-three years and five temples would pass before the next Angel Moroni statue would sit on top of a temple—in this case, the Los Angeles, California temple.  Then, 18 years and 6 more temples would pass before the Washington D.C. Temple received the third Angel Moroni statue to be used on a temple spire.  Since the 1980s, however, almost every temple has included a Moroni statue in its design.  The trend towards having a statue of Moroni on top of the temples became so strong that most temples that initially went without have been retrofitted to include one, such as the Idaho Falls Temple, the old Ogden and Provo Temples, the Bern Switzerland Temple, and several others.

Designs for the Moroni statues were also not standardized until relatively recently.  Copies of the Cyrus Dallin statue only adorn three temples (Idaho Falls, Idaho; Atlanta, Georgia; and Boston, Mass.), with a fourth copy on display at the Church History Museum that used to adorn the Washington D.C. Ward chapel building in the 1930s through the 70s.  The Los Angeles Temple’s statue, sculpted by Millard F. Malin, is the most unique, with a Mesoamerican look to the angel and his clothing, and the statue holding the gold plates of the Book of Mormon under his arm.  Avard Fairbanks sculpted the Washington D. C. Temple’s Moroni, which also held the plates, but reverted to the more European appearance of the Dallin statue overall.  Copies of the Fairbanks statue were used with the Jordan River, UT; Seattle, WA; and Mexico City, Mexico temples.  Most of the remaining temples in the Church have used two variations designed by Karl A. Quilter (designed in 1978 and 1998, respectively), created using gold-coated fiberglass (making it easier to mass-produce).  While a few of these hold scrolls (and there was a brief flirtation with making the statues white instead of gold), the Quilter statues eliminated the gold plates and depicted Moroni in a more muscular and masculine way than previous designs had done.[10]  Over 100 temples use Quilter’s renditions of the Angel Moroni, marking it as the standardized version used in the Church today.

Recently, however, there seems to have been a shift away from using Moroni on temples.  In 2010, there were only eight temples that did not hold statues of Moroni, all of which were built before 1965.[11]  More recently, however, there is becoming a pronounced trend to design temples without an Angel Moroni statue.  For example, consider the following list of renderings released since General Conference in April of this year:

Of these 16 temples, only 2 (Red Cliffs Utah and Salta Argentina) incorporate an Angel Moroni statue into their design.  Notably, several of these that are in areas that traditionally have included Moroni lack one (i.e., the Utah temples in Tooele Valley, Taylorsville, and Orem).  There seems to be a shift underway in temple design that is excluding Moroni to a notable extent.

Further analysis is revealing.  According to my count, out of the 55 temples announced since the start of 2010 that have renderings or finished images, only 27 include an Angel Moroni statue (less than half, see Figure 1).[12]  The Paris France Temple and the Kinshasa Democratic Republic of the Congo Temple were the first temples to buck the trend and forego an Angel Moroni in recent history, both of which were announced in 2011.  The next was the Port-au-Prince Haiti temple, announced in 2015.  As the chart below indicates, beginning with temples announced in 2015, more temple designs began to lack Moroni, culminating in all 12 temples announced in 2019 (that have renderings released) foregoing the statue.  It bears pointing out that 25 of the 28 temples without Moroni, though announced as early as 2015, have had their renderings released only since President Nelson became President of the Church in 2018 (the three earlier exceptions being the temples mentioned above, see Figure 2).  Another interesting item of note is that the 2019 renderings of renovations being performed on the Hong Kong China Temple seem to show that the Angel Moroni statue will be removed from the building.  While we still are waiting for renderings of 18 temples, taken together, these data seems to indicate that the trend is to design temples without Moroni more frequently as we move forward.

Figure 1. Number of temples announced each year with and without an Angel Moroni included since 2010

 

Figure 2. Number of temples with and without statues of the Angel Moroni by year in which the rendering was released. If no year could be found, the year the rendering was released was assumed to be the year following the temple’s announcement.

There are a few possible reasons for this. According to a recent post on the Church’s Historical Record Blog, “factors such as building codes and cultural perspectives play a large role” as does temple size, since “many of the smaller or remote temples do not include it in their designs, such as the Paris France and Port-au-Prince Haiti Temples.”[13]  An older Ensign article also gives further reasons:

In certain geographic locations, building codes or use permits restrict use of the statue…. In some areas, a statue may give more ornamentation than desired. In other areas, the statue is absent because a wrong impression may arise from its presence (such as in areas where statues on church buildings are understood to represent objects of worship). Limits imposed by the architectural design of some temples may be another reason.[14]

These things do explain several of the temples lacking the Angel Moroni, but not all.  Many of the Moroni-less temples are being built in countries and areas that have previously had temples built with Moroni and are not particularly remote (Brazil, the United States, Tonga, etc.).  The trend towards excluding Moroni has become most pronounced in the era since Russell M. Nelson became president of the Church, and it is well known that a major initiative of his administration has been to make Jesus Christ more central to how the Church is spoken of and branded in the public arena.  This initiative has included the announcement earlier this year that the Christus statue would become central to the Church’s official symbol, displacing Moroni from his position as the de facto symbol of the Church.  That drive for a Christ-centered image (along with the reasons listed above by the Church) may be the major factor at play in the decision to exclude Moroni from more and more temple designs.

Now, I don’t think that there will be total erasure of Moroni Statues.  There are still temples being designed with Moroni, such as the Red Cliffs Utah and Salta Argentina temples.  The recent addition of the statue to the Winnipeg Temple indicates that the statues will also remain in place where they were previously planned to go. This includes the Salt Lake City Temple, according to the renderings that the Church has released.  What seems to be happening however, is that as we celebrate the official 200th anniversary of the First Vision as a Church, the Angel Moroni is being eclipsed and placed in a secondary position to Jesus Christ in the iconography of the Church—even with our temples—much as happened in the commonly discussed narrative of the Church’s founding story over a century ago.

 

Updated 2 October 2020 to reflect new renderings of temples released to the public.

 

Footnotes:

Lead image of the Angel Moroni statue on the Idaho Falls Idaho temple, taken by Chad Nielsen, July 2020

[1] See http://www.boap.org/LDS/Early-Saints/Cowdery-hist.html.

[2] “Journal, 1835–1836,” p. 23, The Joseph Smith Papers, accessed August 31, 2020, https://www.josephsmithpapers.org/paper-summary/journal-1835-1836/24.

[3] See Richard E. Bennett, “Not the First but the Second: Changing Latter-day Saint Emphases on Joseph Smith’s First Vision,” BYU Studies 59:2 (2020), https://byustudies.byu.edu/content/not-first-but-second-changing-latter-day-saint-emphases-joseph-smiths-first-vision.

[4] James B. Allen, “Emergence of a Fundamental: The Expanding Role of Joseph Smith’s First Vision in Mormon Religious Thought,” Journal of Mormon History, no. 7 (1980), 52.

[5] Richard E. Bennett, “Not the First but the Second: Changing Latter-day Saint Emphases on Joseph Smith’s First Vision,” BYU Studies 59:2 (2020), https://byustudies.byu.edu/content/not-first-but-second-changing-latter-day-saint-emphases-joseph-smiths-first-vision.

[6] J. Reuben Clark Jr., “The Charted Course of the Church in Education,” address to seminary and institute of religion leaders at the Brigham Young University summer school in Aspen Grove, Utah, on August 8, 1938 (Salt Lake City: Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1992), 1–2, https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/bc/content/ldsorg/manual/seminary/32709_000.pdf.

[7] See Richard E. Bennett, “Not the First but the Second: Changing Latter-day Saint Emphases on Joseph Smith’s First Vision,” BYU Studies 59:2 (2020), https://byustudies.byu.edu/content/not-first-but-second-changing-latter-day-saint-emphases-joseph-smiths-first-vision.

[8] Kathleen Flake, The Politics of American Religious Identity: The Seating of Senator Reed Smoot, Mormon Apostle (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2004), 77–78, 110, 118.

[9] See Steven C. Harper, “Raising the Stakes: How Joseph Smith’s First Vision Became All or Nothing,” BYU Studies 59:2 (2020), https://byustudies.byu.edu/content/raising-stakes-how-joseph-smiths-first-vision-became-all-or-nothing.

[10] Wendy Kenney, “Looking Up to Moroni,” Ensign, Nov 2009.

[11] The Logan, Manti, and St. George temples in Utah; Laie, Hawaii; Cardston, Alberta; Mesa, Arizona; Hamilton, New Zealand; and Oakland, California were never retrofitted with statues.

[12] Much of this analysis was enabled by https://churchofjesuschristtemples.org/.  There are still 21 temples that have been announced but which have no renderings released to the public yet.

[13] “Ask Us: Top Five Reference Questions about the Angel Moroni Statue,” Historical Record Blog, 20 June 2020, https://history.churchofjesuschrist.org/blog/ask-us-top-five-reference-questions-about-the-angel-moroni-statue?lang=eng.

[14] “I Have a Question”, Ensign July 1994, https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/ensign/1994/07/i-have-a-question/how-long-have-statues-of-the-angel-moroni-appeared-atop-latter-day-saint-temples?lang=eng.

8 comments for “The Rise and Decline of the Angel Moroni

  1. Nice write up. Good analysis.

    It’s fascinating to me that something considered so sacrosanct and so iconic–an Angel Moroni statue on our temples–is apparently quietly fading away in importance. (I wonder about all those military headstones of deceased members of the Church that contain an image of Moroni. Will those be replaced in time?)

  2. Hunter, that’s something that I’ve been curious about as well. It probably depends on whether the Church can/is interested in making a change with the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs National Cemetery Administration. It also brings up the question of what to change it to that would identify with the Church (some form of the Christus there as well?). I don’t know if gravestones that already have Moroni would be replaced in the future (just as most temples that have the statue will likely keep it, other than Hong Kong).

  3. Excellent write up. Thank you. I wonder what iconography will be considered “dated” a generation from now.

  4. All of these things run their course. Some day our almost ubiquitous statue of Christ will also face, slowly, as we embrace something else. That statue represents Jesus as essentially European, and such depictions will ebb, I believe.

  5. With the emphasis on Christ now days and the fact that we refer to the temple as the “House of the Lord”, the Church is now realizing the irony of the “House of Moroni”.

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