Poverty and Prosperity
Recently, we studied Section 124 of the Doctrine and Covenants, where the early Church members were instructed to build another temple, in Nauvoo this time, and to cease conducting sacred ordinances outside of temples (following the revelation on baptisms for the dead, a great surge of desire to perform this ordinance led to faithful members utilizing rivers for the task). The precise wording given to Joseph Smith was intriguing to me:
For this ordinance belongeth to my house, and cannot be acceptable to me, only in the days of your poverty, wherein ye are not able to build a house unto me. But I command you, all ye my saints, to build a house unto me; and I grant unto you a sufficient time to build a house unto me; and during this time your baptisms shall be acceptable unto me.
Did you catch it, in that first sentence? “Only in the days of your poverty”—prior to building a temple.
The times preceding the Nauvoo temple construction were not easy; a nation-wide financial panic in 1837 still held the country in the grip of a five-year depression. Many LDS people had lost everything in the Ohio and Missouri troubles. Draining and settling a former swamp at Commerce (now Nauvoo) brought deep hardship and health risks. Constant influx from convert emigrants taxed slim resources even as it brought blessings. Though the great industry of the LDS in Nauvoo did spark the beginnings of a temporary oasis, these were not times of significant ease or leisure.
A thought struck me: perhaps we define “poverty” far too much on economic terms. Perhaps we do “prosperity” a similar disservice.
While recognizing the struggles of the Saints in Kirtland, in Missouri, in Nauvoo, and not discounting the real hardships that economic poverty brings, perhaps we can re-frame the discussion.
Perhaps we are the most impoverished when we lack the availability of opportunities to make sacred covenants with our God, and the sacred spaces in which to make them.
Those sacred spaces provide a set-apart space and time for us, a chance to remove ourselves from mundane and constant cares, and focus on a longer perspective. Our covenants have the capacity to stretch us, and enlarge our mental, emotional, spiritual, and physical borders. Even if none of this stretching involves economic recompense, we’ll find ourselves more wealthy in lasting things, like charity, compassion, forgiveness, and vigor in the gospel.
I think the early Saints got it. The sacrifices and grand cooperative effort that sustained the building of the Restoration-era temples pushed and stretched (and sometimes strained and wearied) the Church, but they accomplished it, anyhow. They developed such an intense desire to create sacred space for redeeming ordinances that they dedicated the Nauvoo temple in pieces, and commenced eternal work even as temporal work continued on the structure around them. Some made the temple their functional home, working through the nights and napping as they were able, to make sure things like clothing were available to those performing ordinances.
As pressures in and around Nauvoo grew to the sadly-familiar fever pitch of Kirtland, and the Saints recognized that another Exodus would surely be on the near horizon, work continued, within and upon the temple. Illness, mobs, failed economic efforts, the murders of Joseph and Hyrum Smith… None of these things seem to speak of ease and prosperity.
Among it all stood the temple, and that temple was the sign of prosperity: a place in which all could fulfill the desire to make covenants with God. The excitement and attention given to this work by the early Saints points firmly to this alternate definition of prosperity, and a desire to escape the spiritual poverty that accompanies a lack of covenant-making and covenant-keeping.
Temple building has increased nearly exponentially in the 21st century. In the continental US, we have a near-embarrassment of wealth in temple availability, and a population that could conceivably keep the temples busy day and night, as they were in those last months in Nauvoo. In many areas of the world, those desiring to make covenants with God sacrifice every material blessing just to be in the House of the Lord one time. Which group has the potential to teach us the most about poverty and prosperity?
What is your experience with this different perspective on poverty and prosperity? What would you sacrifice to experience prosperity in your covenants? Have you felt blessed with abundance through your covenants, when the world’s definition of wealth would not apply to your life?