Kurt Manwaring published an interview with Richard Bennett at his site, From the Desk, discussing Bennett’s most recent book Temples Rising: A Heritage of Sacrifice (2019, Deseret Book).
Richard E. Bennett is a professor and former chair of the Department of Church History and Doctrine at Brigham Young University. Born in Ontario, Canada, he holds a PhD in American history from Wayne State University. Before joining the BYU faculty in 1997, he was head of the Department of Archives and Special Collections at the University of Manitoba for twenty years. We’ve published an excerpt here: for the full interview, click here.
How did temple consciousness in the general membership of the Church evolve from the dedication of the Kirtland temple in 1836 through the end of the 19th century?
As thoroughly discussed in my book, the great advances in temple consciousness in the West were the recovery of the ordinance of baptisms for the dead beginning in 1869 and the introduction of endowments for the dead beginning at the St. George Temple on 11 January 1877.
With regards to the former, baptisms for the dead had gone into hibernation from the time the Saints left Nauvoo in 1846 until the coming of the transcontinental railroad in May 1869. Save for a scattered few baptisms for the dead performed by Wilford Wodruff at Winter Quarters and then again in Salt Lake City in the mid-1850s, this ordinance was virtually in abeyance.
However, with the coming of the railroad, the ordinance of baptisms for the dead dramatically revived and began to be practiced on a scale never seen before—with thousands of such ordinances being performed annually after 1869.
Eight years later came the introduction of endowments for the dead which changed everything forever in Latter-day Saint temple history.
For a whole variety of reasons, the Law of Adoption in which Latter-day Saints were being sealed to prominent Church leaders who held priesthood keys, had not been particularly successful. With the reclamation of past revelations, including Sections 109, 110, 121-123 and 132, all of which were canonized in 1880, temple work received more solid doctrinal footing and support.
In a gradual process of understanding, it became clear to President Wilford Woodruff and others, that families could be safely sealed to past generations of ancestors and that they should be sealed to such, and not to General Authorities.
This dawning realization of the possibility for redemption of the dead in the spirit world translated into Woodruff’s dreams and visions in the St. George Temple that gave hope and life for those who had passed on.
Hence, the beginning of endowments for the dead and with it, intergenerational sealings and linkages to families long deceased. Not only did this open the way for performing saving ordinances for the dead well beyond baptisms, but also for the need for the living to return to the temple over and over again and a commitment to live in such a way as to be worthy to do so.
Thus, this expanded vision of redemption work for the dead exercised an enormous influence on the living.
An added point: from 1849 to 1854, some temple ordinances—endowments for the living and living sealings—were performed in the Council House in Salt Lake City, on a spot kitty-corner from the present Joseph Smith Memorial Building. Later, in 1855, this building was superseded by the Endowment House which was not torn down until 1889.
In addition, several of the Twelve performed certain temple ordinances in the homes of the Saints throughout the Territory, essentially bringing the temple to the people in times of their greatest need.
Such proved enormously comforting to the Saints as they struggled to colonize and make a living in often the most harsh and difficult conditions.