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Book Review: All That Was Promised: The St. George Temple and the Unfolding of the Restoration

By: Ryan T. - February 06, 2014

Blaine M. Yorgason, Richard A. Schmutz, and Douglas D. Alder, All That Was Promised: The St. George Temple and the Unfolding of the Restoration (SLC: Deseret Book, 2013). 348 pp.

Those who have been to St. George, Utah, know that the LDS temple there is something of a spectacle. Blindingly white against the red-rock bluffs that surround it, the contrast is startling enough that it seems to demand some kind of compelling explanation. St. George is now flourishing as Utah’s warm-weather mecca, but for generations it was a quiet and dusty desert outpost like many others throughout the state. Then, the incongruity must have been even more glaring. Why build a temple of worship at such an early date and in such remote place? To what purpose? And, retrospectively, to what effect?

All That Was Promised CoverThese are some of the questions taken up in a relatively recent book: All That Was Promised: The St. George Temple and the Unfolding of the Restoration. As the teleological “unfolding” in the title implies, this is a history with devotional elements, published under the aegis of Deseret Book. The authors are Blaine Yorgason—novelist and writer of historical fiction—together with Richard A. Schmutz and Douglas D. Alder, emeritus historians of BYU and Utah State, respectively. Alder and Schmutz, as I understand it, are responsible for the substantive research of the book; Yorgason gave it some panache.

Like some other recent research, All That Was Promised is an effort to recover the significance of St. George, and to incorporate this into broader narratives of Mormon history. [1] Unsurprisingly,  most of this attention has centered on the temple liturgy, and its development during the nineteenth century. The authors of All That Was Promised find a special symmetry in Kirtland, Nauvoo, and St. George: these three temple form a restoration trifecta, in which the temple liturgy was progressively unspooled across time and space. These alone are “pioneer” temples, built in a pre-modern Mormon age. Like the other two, the St. George temple was the site of new and vital liturgical developments, in its case the practices of endowing and sealing the dead.

The focus on temples and temple ritual yields a relatively rare sense of continuity between the Nauvoo and Utah periods. Indeed, the book’s prologue frames the work as a story of continuity, in which the priesthood authority and proprietary knowledge essential to performing ritual temple work were passed on from Joseph Smith to Brigham Young. In the late 1850s, with Utah War still boiling and work on the Salt Lake Temple at standstill, Brigham Young began to grow anxious and turned his gaze southward. The driving force behind the construction of a temple, the authors assert, was Young’s urgent need in the face of his approaching death to redeploy and to further pass his temple authority and knowledge on to others. Interestingly, this assertion about Brigham Young coincides with John Turner’s recent assertion that one of Young’s primary identities was as a holder of ritual knowledge and authority, early on a “priestly leader” and eventually the “chief Priest” of the Church. [2]

To be sure, both of these arguments about the evolution of temple work simplify what was actually a asymmetrical and complex process of evolution. Seeing the past as the “unfolding” of something already defined and intact is gratifying to Latter-day Saints, who can recognize in it a natural and providential progression. But among the things this teleological perspective forecloses is a appreciation of how early Latter-day Saints, like those in St. George, conceived their temple experience—in the midst of dynamic development and without the benefit of generations of hindsight. More research is needed to see precisely what this experience was like, and indeed to better understand what broader importance the St. George temple actually held in terms of broader influence, ritual practice, and theology. Nonetheless, the elevation of St. George into the company of Kirtland and Nauvoo makes for a fresh and important turn in the conventional story, a story that underscores the ongoing development of temple ritual beyond Nauvoo.

The strength of the book, however, and the utility it will have for most scholars is in the depth of what it has to say about the early days of Utah’s Dixie. Tracing the evolution of St. George and its surroundings from the initial settlement and the founding of the “Cotton Mission” in the early 1860s through the dedication of the temple in 1877, the authors of All That Was Promised build upon and draw together the important work of scholars like Juanita Brooks and Andrew Karl Larson. They also incorporate the scholarly insights that have accumulated in the twenty or more years since they wrote, and the product is a new and needed synthesis of this fascinating—and underappreciated—theater of Mormon history.

In addition to this synthesis, however, I was delighted to find that the book engages substantially with many of the primary sources themselves. The authors utilize the invaluable writings of James G. Bleak, secretary and historian of the Cotton Mission, as well the remarkable journals of Charles Lowell Walker, Charles Pulsipher, Robert Gardner, George Kirkham Jr., and other diaries and correspondence. Some may be, like me, a bit circumspect about the provenance and reliability of some of these accounts. Citations often refer to typescripts, and to accounts and family records that have been privately published. Still, these are valuable and important sources that the authors weave into a colorful and textured narrative.

The product of this is a compelling picture of pioneer life on the red dirt of the Mormon frontier—one which recovers even the quotidian details that made up so much of the experience. The perils of floods, the vagaries of travel, the strenuousness of labor, the power of community, the satisfaction of hard-won victories in the face of natural austerity: these are the stuff of the early Mormon settlement in the West. On my reading, what shined through from the firsthand accounts in the book is the personality of settlers like English immigrant George Jarvis, who after the land was divided, jovially raced his wagon through the sagebrush to be the first to settle the new community, spilling some of his goods along the way. Pulling up at the plot, nothing more than sand and mesquite bushes, he announced exuberantly to his aristocratic wife: “Well, we are home. Get out, mother.” (47). If the book only begins to probe the significance of the St. George temple, it offers many of these fully formed and wonderfully rich portraits of individuals and life in the community that built it. Surely the settlement experience captured in the book reflects that of many desert saints of the period, well beyond St. George.

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[1] See Richard E. Bennett, “Line upon Line, Precept upon Precept”: Reflections on the 1877 Commencement of the Performance of Endowments and Sealings of the Dead,” BYU Studies 44:3 (2005): 38-77.

2] John G Turner, Brigham Young, Pioneer Prophet (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2012), 83-85, 117-118.

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6 Comments

  1. Thanks, Ryan. This sounds interesting!

    Comment by Saskia — February 6, 2014 @ 11:23 am

  2. Some may be, like me, a bit circumspect about the provenance and reliability of some of these accounts.

    That is one of the strengths of this book: that it doesn’t take all the accounts at face value. If it did, they’d be rehashing certain old fish stories about the early days of the temple. (Of course, then it turns around and uses others at face value, like describing George Jarvis as a former sea captain and his wife as aristocratic, but those are minor details in the overall story.)

    Thank you for the review, Ryan. Much to its credit the book doesn’t ignore the women in the story, and besides that, it’s a fascinating book, well-documented, a great introduction to Washington County sources, a good lesson for any historian about how to tell stories, and a must-read for anyone interested in the history of the temples.

    Comment by Amy T — February 6, 2014 @ 12:59 pm

  3. Thanks for your comments, Amy. You could very well be right about the way that sources are used in the book; I did notice some judicious editorializing along the way. I just get nervous when citations refer, without comment, to documents for which the original manuscripts aren’t available or haven’t been consulted.

    That said, I believe that you’re right that for its audience and purposes, it’s quite a fine book.

    Comment by Ryan T. — February 6, 2014 @ 3:08 pm

  4. Nice review, Ryan. Thanks.

    Comment by Christopher — February 6, 2014 @ 4:27 pm

  5. Great review Ryan and it sounds like a facinating book. My interest in LDS Church History continues to grow. Based off your review I’m thinking this book could be informative as well as spiritually motivating.

    Comment by CJ Wilkinson — February 6, 2014 @ 4:46 pm

  6. My husband’s third (or fourth, forgot which) great grand father worked on the Salt Lake Temple, the St. George Temple, and the Logan Temple. He was an expert in carpentry.

    Comment by jg — February 19, 2014 @ 9:45 pm