Statue of limitations? Under Russell Nelson, fewer and fewer temples have an Angel Moroni

(Images courtesy of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) Renderings of the planned Red Cliffs Temple in St. George and the Tooele Valley Temple.

The gold-plated Angel Moroni seems to be losing his perch atop Latter-day Saint temples.

Not on the Salt Lake Temple, of course. That angel was taken down for repairs amid the iconic structure’s ongoing renovation and refurbishment but will definitely regain his rightful place on the historic building.

In recent years, however, dozens of temples that have been announced — and for which there are renderings — do not have the statue on their peak.

In all, 225 temples have been dedicated, announced or are under construction across the globe, according to church spokesman Doug Andersen. Of those, 156 of the operating temples have Moroni statues, he added, along with 15 others that have renderings. That means 54 either don’t have them or may not when renderings are released.

In Utah, for instance, the planned Saratoga Springs and Layton temples, along with the Red Cliffs Temple in St. George, will have a statue, while the Taylorsville, Tooele and Orem temples will not. A rendering of the Syracuse Temple has yet to be released.

Andersen did not comment on why the sudden cutting back of the angel statues, pointing to an updated statement on the church’s newsroom site.

“While the Angel Moroni statue occupies a prominent place on many temples throughout the world — symbolizing the restoration of the gospel of Jesus Christ — it is not a requirement of temple design. Some temples may include the statue, while others may not,” it reads. “A temple’s design, both internal and external, is secondary to its primary purpose, which is for people to draw closer to God and his Son, Jesus Christ, by participating in sacred ceremonies that teach of God’s plan and unite families forever.”

Observers have noted that the escalating Moroni-less temple trend coincides with the leadership of President Russell M. Nelson, who took the reins of the 16.5 million-member Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in January 2018.

Since April 2018, the month of Nelson’s first General Conference as president, 43 temples have been announced. Of the 26 with available renderings, Andersen said, only five have Moroni statues.

Nelson famously has been pushing for members and media to use the church’s full name, rather than “Mormon” or “LDS,” as a way to emphasize the faith’s theological commitment to Jesus.

During the church’s conference last spring, he unveiled a new symbol for the church, which includes the Christus marble statue, carved by Danish Lutheran sculptor Bertel Thorvaldsen.

“Organizations are always looking at rebranding if they think the current brand is antiquated, if it no longer is valid or in favor,” says Allen Roberts, a Salt Lake City architect who worked on many temple exterior designs. “I suppose they are trying to Christianize a church that claims to be Christ-centered. They would want to gradually pull away from images that don’t seem to reinforce that.”

Such messaging, he says, “gives the church a wider appeal.”

Why Moroni?

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Crews and the general public gather to get a closer look of the Angel Moroni statue after it was pulled from atop the Salt Lake Temple on May 18, 2020.

Latter-day Saints believe that Moroni, the final prophet from ancient America in the Book of Mormon, visited church founder Joseph Smith in a vision and told him where to find gold plates that yielded the faith’s signature text.

Angel Moroni, as he was known, became the symbol of the “restoration” of Christ’s gospel, the harbinger with his horn sounding a clarion call of the last days.

Throughout much of the 19th century, most Latter-day Saints believed that the angelic visit was the beginning of Mormonism, Times and Seasons blogger Chad Nielsen writes in a recent post.

By the start of the 20th century, however, the “First Vision,” when members believe Smith saw God and Jesus, had “eclipsed the visit of the Angel Moroni in importance.”

At the same time, Nielsen writes, “statues of the Angel Moroni began to become a symbol of our religion.”

Early temples, particularly the one in Nauvoo, Ill., used weather vanes with an angel and trumpet, thus the Salt Lake Temple was “the first to place a statue on its spire specifically identified as Moroni,” he says.

It was sculpted by renowned artist Cyrus E. Dallin, Nielsen says, “yet it would take almost a century more for the statue to become a standard part of Latter-day Saint temples.”

The next one — on the Los Angeles Temple — wasn’t placed on top for another 63 years, he explains. Then, 18 years later, the Washington, D.C., Temple “received the third Angel Moroni statue."

Since the 1980s, the trend toward having a Moroni statue on temples “became so strong,” Nielsen writes, that many temples without them were “retrofitted to include one, such as the Idaho Falls Temple, the old Ogden and Provo temples, the Bern Switzerland Temple, and several others.”

They are not all copies of the Dallin design, though.

The Los Angeles Temple’s statue was sculpted by Millard F. Malin 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,” Nielsen writes. “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.”

Most of the remaining temples have used two variations designed by Karl A. Quilter (designed in 1978 and 1998, respectively), he says, which “eliminated the gold plates and depicted Moroni in a more muscular and masculine way than previous designs had done.”

More than 100 temples use Quilter’s renditions of the Angel Moroni, Nielsen says, “marking it as the standardized version used in the church today.”

Beyond temples, the Moroni image became ubiquitous in the church. It graced Book of Mormon covers, pamphlets, seminary and institute materials, even Latter-day Saint gravestones. It still appears on the Latter-days Saints TV channel.

What seems to be happening is that “as we celebrate the official 200th anniversary of the First Vision as a church, the Angel Moroni is being eclipsed,” Nielsen writes, “and placed in a secondary position to Jesus Christ in the iconography of the church.”

Symbols come and go

(Image courtesy of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) New church symbol.

In the faith’s early years, the church adorned many of its buildings with iconographic symbols, says Roberts, the architect. The old Endowment House, which predated the Salt Lake Temple, had a “compass and square” and a “beehive.”

The all-seeing eye also could be seen on temples and even storefronts, he says. “Some of these symbols came from Freemasonry, but could have come from the Book of Mormon, instead of borrowing from other faiths.”

The Assembly Hall on downtown Salt Lake City’s Temple Square has round windows in its gables. In their centers are six-pointed stars, commonly associated with Judaism’s “Star of David.”

Temple Square guides, though, got so tired of answering questions about the stars, Roberts says, that “they inserted gold flowers [in the middle of the stars] and patched them into panes of glass.”

Still, as late as 1971, the high-rise Church Office Building, Roberts says, featured a giant bas-relief of the world on its face, looking to North Temple.

The architect believes the Utah-based faith is backing away from symbolism, he says. “If you are insecure about your identity, then you are insecure about using symbols to signal that identity.”

For his part, Nielsen applauds the church president’s move to help Latter-day Saints focus more on Christ in its messaging.

It is “a good thing,” he says in an interview. “[The temple] is the ‘House of the Lord,’ not the ‘House of Moroni.’”

But the blogger is torn.

“It’s part of our history and traditional culture to have Moroni on temples,” Nielsen says. “If it’s going away with future temples, it does make me a little sad.”