If recently-released renderings of soon-to-be constructed temples of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints are any indication, it seems possible that use of the iconic angel Moroni might be drawing to a close. If so, perhaps it is an architectural counterpart of other signals of the Church’s increasingly global outlook and greater focus on the Lord Jesus Christ.
For Latter-day Saints, the angel Moroni gracing the spires of most of the Church’s 168 dedicated temples is traditionally identified with an angelic figure in the New Testament, described in Revelation 14:6 as “having the everlasting gospel to preach unto them that dwell on the earth, and to every nation, and kindred, and tongue, and people,” heralding the preparation of the world for the return of Jesus Christ to reign upon the earth.
Since President Russell M. Nelson’s tenure began in January 2018, there have been 46 temples that have been dedicated, are currently under construction, or have had renderings released. (More have been announced, with renderings not yet released.) Of the 26 of these with designs available through October 2019, 19 of them (73%) include the angel Moroni. Of those with renderings released since then, only 2 of 20 (20%) have included Moroni. Notably, the most recent 9 in a row have not included Moroni — perhaps the longest such string in the Church’s history?
I think it would be fair to say that the presence of Moroni on a temple came to be expected by default, unless it made a poor fit architecturally or culturally. But the recent span of 9 temples without Moroni includes all sizes, designs, and locations, including those that historically would have been regarded as eminently amenable to Moroni’s presence. If it turns out that Moroni will be phased out of the design of future temples (still admittedly an “if” — nothing along these lines has been announced), what could it mean?
The Oakland Temple — dedicated in 1964, and designed with an Asian influence that was both historically and presciently appropriate to the demographic trajectory of the Bay Area, is a rare and prominent example of a temple without Moroni in the latter half of the 20th century. The designs of the Phnom Penh Cambodia and Bengaluru India temples, with renderings released in November 2019 and January 2020 respectively, are thematically similar; might design work on these have influenced a broader shift away from Moroni?
At least part of the meaning of a turn away from Moroni could indeed include the fact that the Church will increasingly look beyond the West towards the East. I can think of two recent instances in which President Nelson used the phrase “hinge point” to describe the present moment in the history of the Restoration, and both could arguably be related to this eastward-facing outlook.
One of President Nelson’s mentions of a “hinge point” was at the dedication of the Rome Italy Temple in March 2019. President Nelson did not explain what exactly he had in mind with this phrase, but one indication of the significance of this particular temple dedication was the presence, unique in recent times, of all members of the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve. As a historic seat of Christianity on the doorstep of the Near East, Rome represents the westernmost reach of apostolic authority in the times of Peter and Paul.
For Latter-day Saints, who see the subsequent western expansion of Christianity into Europe and the Americas as having proceeded under a cloud of apostasy, the dedication of the Rome Italy Temple could be regarded as marking the return of the fulness of the gospel of Jesus Christ to the historic location where Peter and Paul left it — and as a signal of its incipient return to the Near East, including Palestine itself. Having planted a branch of the House of Israel in ancient America, and having brought that people’s ancient record forth in modern times as the Restoration began in earnest (through none other than Moroni, the last of those ancient American prophets), the Lord is now returning the gospel in its fulness from West to East (the direction Moroni, depicted with trumpet in hand, traditionally faces).
Beyond the Near East are the Middle East and Far East. A second time President Nelson used the term “hinge point” was in connection with our preparation for this past general conference in April 2020, which commemorated 200 years since the First Vision of the prophet Joseph Smith. That conference included a quiet development that, while not a point of focus, was nevertheless of considerable significance: the announcement of forthcoming temples in Dubai, United Arab Emirates; and Shanghai, People’s Republic of China. Such a presence in the Middle East and on mainland China is remarkable. President Nelson’s personal history with China, ranging from taking up Mandarin Chinese in the 1970s in response to a talk by President Spencer W. Kimball, to his subsequent engagement in professional exchanges as a surgeon, leading to his official designation as an “old friend of China,” seem to have uniquely prepared him to open the doors that swing on hinges the Lord is providing.
While for its first century and a half since 1830 the restored Church of Jesus Christ carried its message mostly to those already somewhat familiar with and accepting of Him whose church it is, this is increasingly not the case. As the Church looks eastward, the focus must shift from that which distinguishes the Saints from other Christian denominations (symbolized by Moroni) towards the Savior Himself. But this is not just for the sake of Eastern cultures: it is increasingly important in the West as well, in which trending secularism and materialism, and an ethos of individualism, self-help, and personal fulfillment, alienate us Westerners ever more from the central messages of Jesus of Nazareth.
Under prophetic direction, our language, and now visual symbolism, increasingly reflect this focus on the Savior. We are firmly set upon a path of using the correct name of the Church, and of referring to its members accordingly (this move has also been reported as being influenced by linguistic impact in Asia). And as of April 2020, Thorvaldsen’s Christus is central to the official visual symbol of the Church. (Some have remarked upon the Eurocentric impression it gives; perhaps this could be regarded as emblematic of this moment of reversing flow from West to East.)And perhaps it just wouldn’t make sense for there to be two visual symbols of the Restoration. Just as the prophet Mormon — Moroni’s father, and the principal compiler of ancient record that is The Book of Mormon: Another Testament of Jesus Christ — is, I should think, happy to see his name invoked less frequently as our focus shifts, I can only imagine Moroni would feel similarly about his visual representation. As a faithful herald ultimately must, perhaps the time is approaching when this angelic trumpeter will give way to Him whose return he heralds: the Lord Jesus Christ Himself.