From Design Feature to Global Symbol: The Rise and Fall of Angel Moroni

latter-day-saint-temple-no-moroni
Cory Ward

Cory Ward

We're accustomed to a statue of the Angel Moroni on our temples, but is that the norm? Why are newer temples going without the statue?

The gold statue of the Angel Moroni is a near-universal symbol for temples of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.  Many members have embraced it as a symbol of the church in absence of using the cross. But today, the inclusion of the Angel Moroni on new temples is on the decline. How did the Angel Moroni come into common use, and why is it increasingly rare to see one attached to newer temples?

The first Angel Moroni statue was placed as a capstone on the Salt Lake temple. President Wilford Woodruff presided over the event. Thousands of onlookers joined in with the hosanna shout to celebrate the exterior completion of the temple.  Since then, the Salt Lake temple, and its golden angel has become iconic to the rest of the world and a symbol of our faith. The Angel Moroni statue sat atop the temple for 128 years and has only recently been taken down after sustaining damage from the 2020 Salt Lake earthquake during the temple’s current four-year renovation.

We only need to look to our pioneer history to see the first example of an angel atop one of our temples. As the Church News explained in July 2020, the original Nauvoo temple featured a weathervane in the form of an unnamed angel. The identity of the Angel has its origins in the book of Revelation, and later church leaders and theologians began to identify this angel in Revelation as Moroni. Elder Bruce R. McConkie concluded, “The angel may also represent a composite of the many heavenly messengers, including Moroni.” In the April 2020 General Conference, Elder Ronald A. Rasband declared, “Moroni was that Angel.” It’s an interesting evolution – even though we quickly identify Moroni atop our temples, it’s unlikely that Church leaders in the Nauvoo period did the same. Moroni’s identity is more of a contemporary construct.

Original plans for the Salt Lake Temple show it borrowing some elements from the abandoned Nauvoo temple. During the Salt Lake Temple’s 40-year construction period, some components changed, and the Church opted for a statue of an angel to top the highest spire, something not seen on the other Utah temples of the time. Cyrus Dallin, who was not a member of the Church and doubted the existence  of angels, accepted the commission to sculpt a statue after encouragement from his mother. According to Church historic sites curator Emily Utt, Dallin’s early sketches identified the angel as Gabriel. Following the suggestion of an apostle to refer to the angel as Moroni, the angel began to be referred to as Moroni. The name has remained to this day. 

It’s important to note that the Salt Lake Temple’s construction history reveals the Angel Moroni statue was regarded first and foremost an architectural feature. The angel complemented the neogothic design of the temple. Second, it reveals that the identification of Moroni was more of a reflection of the desire to stand out from traditional Christian denominations than it was an inspired symbol meant for all temples.

For many decades, the Angel Moroni was unique to the Salt Lake Temple. A similar looking statue topped a chapel in Washington D.C. from 1933 to 1976. It was not until the 1950s that another temple received the statue, this time in Los Angeles. However, rather than replicate the statue from the Salt Lake Temple, sculptor Millard F. Malin specifically portrayed Moroni as a man of ancient American origin.

In the 1970s, Avard Fairbanks sculpted another Moroni statue for the Washington D.C. Temple, thus giving the three largest and most prominent temples in the Church a version of the statue. Again, this wasn’t the norm. By the end of the 1970s, those 3 temples remained the only ones out of the 17 operating at the time (18%) to have the statue. But the 1980s would give way to a new trend and new branding.

Put a Moroni on All the temples

The Church began to expand temple construction at a faster pace throughout the 1980s. When the Church proposed its initial design for the Atlanta Georgia Temple, a reviewer from the Atlanta Journal-Constitution criticized the lack of spire and Angel Moroni statue. Afterwards, the temple was redesigned to include Moroni. (And this might also be one of the rare cases where a non-Mormon Corridor municipality complained that a proposed temple was not tall or ornate enough.)

Following the redesign of the Atlanta Temple, the Angel Moroni statue became a standard feature for essentially all temples going forward. A standard fiberglass statue of Moroni was created and placed on every temple, regardless if it complemented the architectural design. And this is why, in part, we’ve come to expect a statue of Moroni on every temple. With the exception of the communist-funded then-Freiberg East Germany Temple, all temples dedicated from 1981 to 2016 included a Moroni statue at the time of dedication.

Interestingly, 1981 is also the year Gordon B. Hinckley joined the First Presidency. While this is conjecture, it’s safe to say that he had a great influence on temple designs during his decades of leadership, and he seemed to see the Moroni statue as a necessary inclusion on temples in an effort to create a common identifier for the sacred buildings. This effort even involved adding a Moroni statue to existing temples. In 1983, a statue was placed on the Idaho Falls temple, decades after its dedication. An additional seven temples—Provo, Ogden, Bern, Freiberg, Tokyo, Sao Paulo, and London—received Moroni statues during renovations from 2001 to 2008. 

When Moroni was placed on the London England temple in 2008, only eight temples (5%) of the Church did not have a statue of Moroni. All of those temples had been dedicated prior to 1965.

With the Paris France temple in 2017, the number went up to nine. However, the situation in Paris seems to be an outlier rather than something that portended things to come. Construction of a temple in France was a long and arduous process, as President Hinckley stated in 1998, resulting in temples built around France—England, The Netherland, Germany, Switzerland, and Spain—but not in France itself, as local opposition remained high for a temple in France proper. When the time finally came to give the Gallic saints their own temple, the Church made some concessions that caused the design to deviate from the norm, including not including a spire in the design, let alone a Moroni statue. This was likely in part because of the temple’s proximity to the famed Palace of Versaille, and including even a steeple would have obstructed sightlines from one of France’s national heritage treasures.

Around the time of the Paris temple’s dedication, the Church Newsroom published a brief topic section about the Angel Moroni statue. It offered a short explanation about why some temples might lack the iconic statue:

“Occasionally building codes, possible cultural misconceptions, or architectural designs preclude the use of an angel Moroni statue.” 

Therefore, a Moroni statue was preferable on every temple, except when doing so was unfeasible. Paris was likely restricted by building codes and consequently the architectural design. The temples in St. George, Logan, and Manti were built before Salt Lake, so church leaders may not have wanted to alter the design of these pioneer temples. Temples in Laie, Hawaii; Cardston, Alberta; and Mesa, Arizona; do not even have towers or spires upon which to place a statue (although the Meridian Idaho Temple follows a similar design and managed to include a statue).

In 2018, the Hamilton New Zealand temple and Oakland temple closed for renovations. However, unlike what occurred during the closures of other temples in the previous decade, these temples did not receive an Angel Moroni during their closures. President Nelson had only become Church president days before the Hamilton announcement; the Oakland announcement came nearly a year before the closure. We can only wonder, but had President Hinckley made these plans, would there now be a statue of Moroni atop Oakland’s famed five-spire temple?

Let’s back up to the presidency of Thomas S. Monson. This is when strict adherence to the “Give Me All the Moronis You Have” effort appeared to wane.

In 2015 and 2017, renderings were released for the Kinshasa Democratic Republic of the Congo Temple and the Port-au-Prince Haiti Temple respectively. Notably, neither temple featured an Angel Moroni in its artist’s rendering. These new temples feature only one endowment room, are noticeably simpler in appearance, and were the smallest the church had built since the hastily constructed “mini temples” of the Hinckley era a decade prior.

Other than the Church stating it has tried to make temples relevant and architecturally appropriate for the areas the serve, we have nothing on the record to indicate why these temples are more austere, although many would argue that making these temples grander and topping them with a large golden statue would be a poor contrast to the developing regions that they serve.

The Freiberg temple was also built in a simpler style, but this was because the East German government assisted with the process, and you know, communism and all that. It later received an Angel Moroni. Perhaps a similar situation could be in store for Kinshasa and Port-au-Prince if it were to be deemed appropriate one day.  

A New Kind of Church President

President Russell M. Nelson became president of the Church in early 2018. Many guessed that he would not make many changes to the church and be more of a “caretaker” president, given his age. Those people were quickly proved wrong. President Nelson has been keen to observe how the Church is viewed by the outside world. He has made many changes that have sought to better align the church with a Christ-centered vision

With two and a half years being church president, President Nelson has announced 49 temples in six General Conferences. During his tenure he has brought the church to distance itself from the term “Mormon” and has emphasized using the correct name of the church. He also introduced a new symbol (not a logo) to emphasize a Christ-centered church. In 2019 and 2020, renderings of new temples have been released to the public, with a growing trend of temples being designed without the iconic Angel Moroni statue. Neither the church nor any church leader has made any official statements to indicate why so many temples are being designed without statues. A church spokesman recently declined to comment on the matter. Regardless, the goals of President Nelson and the decline in use of the Angel Moroni do not seem unconnected. 

In 2018, the church released the renderings of four new temples in Bangkok, Thailand; Pocatello, Idaho; Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire; and Urdaneta, Philippines; all of which had presumably been in the planning stages for a number of years. All feature Angel Moroni statues. Interestingly, the design for the temple in Abidjan features a silver Moroni statue. This kind of experimentation has echoes to the Monticello Utah Temple, which originally featured a white Moroni statue (which was later replaced by a gold one).

In early 2019, three temples announced by President Nelson in April 2018 had renderings released and groundbreakings scheduled. The small amount of time between announcement and groundbreaking stood in contrast to the temples of the previous decade. It was not uncommon for temples to pass by several years without groundbreakings. 

The designs of temples in Puerto Rico, Guam, and Cape Verde are similar in size and design elements. These three temples are less than 10,000 square feet and have multipurpose spaces that can be used as both endowment rooms and sealing rooms. In addition, the designs of these three temples are simple in ornamentation and do not feature statues of Moroni. The trend seemed to follow the precedent of temples in Kinshasa and Port-au-Prince. The lack of Moroni statues may be explained by an effort to cut costs or maintain a modest appearance.

With President Nelson announcing 19 temples in 2018, it was apparent that he had plans to dramatically increase the number of operating temples. The strategy of constructing three small temples of similar design echoes when President Hinckley directed the construction of three small temples in Monticello, Utah; Anchorage, Alaska; and Colonial Juarez, Mexico. These three temples featured small, experimental floor plans and served as a template for the 43 temples built thereafter, with little variation in design.

The cookie cutter nature of those temples allowed the church to double the number of operating temples in a few short years, meeting President Hinckley’s goal of having 100 operating temples by the year 2000. It also appears the lack of local adaption in design also contributed in a number of these temples being completely rebuilt during recent renovations.

In our time, the absence of a Moroni statue on small temples initially appeared to be unique to the three experimental temples previously mentioned, specifically because in the latter half of 2019, the majority of temple rendering released featured Moroni statues: Quito, Ecuador; Belém, Brazil; Richmond, Virginia; Saratoga Springs, Utah; Puebla, Mexico; Feather River, California; and Layton, Utah

In contrast, the rendering of the Lima Peru Los Olivos Temple does not feature a Moroni statue, let alone a spire. The design harkens back to the temples built in the early 20th century in Hawaii, Alberta, and Arizona.

Also in 2019, the Hong Kong China Temple closed for renovation. The exterior of the temple was redesigned and the Angel Moroni and supporting spire was removed. This occurred in a climate of massive protests sparked from the government of China threatening the autonomy of Hong Kong. Was the redesign an effort to be in greater compliance with the Chinese government, or was this an opportunity to further dilute the Moroni “brand”?

Spotting a Change

President Nelson took a trip to Southeast Asia in late 2019 and made a stop in Cambodia. In a meeting with members, he revealed the design of the Phnom Penh Cambodia Temple. The temple is overtly Cambodian, designed in the Khmer style, and is similar to religious buildings in the region. 

The Bengaluru India Temple rendering was revealed in January 2020. It also features a design that reflects the traditional architecture of religious buildings common to the region. Both of these South Asian temples do not feature an Angel Moroni statue.

Near the end of 2019, the design of the Bangkok Thailand Temple was quietly revised to remove the planned Moroni statue. By this point, a pattern began to emerge that indicated new temples in Asia were not going to have a Moroni statue. So was this regional? Not quite.

In 2020, the church released several more renderings. It became apparent that the trend would extend to new temples all over the world. These temples include Alabang Philippines, Auckland New Zealand, Brasília Brazil, Moses Lake Washington, and Tooele Valley Utah. Of particular note is the Brasília temple. Back in August of 2019, when temples were being designed with Moroni statues, a rendering of the temple in Brasília circulated through unofficial sources and social media. This unofficial rendering featured the Angel Moroni. When the official rendering of the temples was released in 2020, Moroni was nowhere to be found. 

The same time that rendering were being released of temples in the United States without Moroni statues, the new temple in Washington County (later rechristened as the Red Cliffs Utah Temple) was revealed to have a Moroni Statue. With a new precedent being set, one can’t help but wonder why Red Cliffs appears to be an exception. Was Utah simply more special than other areas? Was it because the St. George Utah Temple lacked a statue and this provided balance? 

Furthermore, two temples in Argentina had renderings released in June of 2020. The Salta Argentina Temple features a Moroni while the Mendoza Argentina Temple does not. 

Other than these two exceptions, all other temple rendering released in 2020 so far have not featured Moroni. These temples include: Cobán Guatemala, Okinawa Japan, Orem Utah, San Pedro Sula Honduras, Taylorsville Utah, Neiafu Tonga, Pago Pago American Samoa, Bentonville Arkansas, McAllen Texas, Davao Philippines, Port Moresby Papua New Guinea, Harare Zimbabwe, and Antofagasta Chile. 

temples without angel moroni

When all this data is laid out, a clear demarcation point emerges. Before November of 2019, temples without a Moroni statue seemed like an exception to a rule. After this date, the norm flips, and temples including a Moroni become the exception. Considering that the First presidency is involved with approving the designs of new temples, it appears like a decision was made in late 2019 to design
temples without Moroni from that point forward. The removal of the Moroni on the temple in Brazil’s capital is evidence to support this hypothesis. It’s possible that Church leaders asked temple architects to stop including a Moroni in future designs.

Some have tried to hypothesize that temples announced on or after the October 2018 general conference will no longer feature Moroni statues. This is a fair idea. However, it fails to explain why temples announced before this date don’t have Moroni statues. In addition, a number of temples announced in the October 2018 conference will have a Moroni. It is true that all temples announced in 2019 do not feature a Moroni. However, this could be explained by the fact that these temples are further down the development pipeline.

Red Cliffs Utah and Salta Argentina remain anomalies. Perhaps the designs of these temples were approved earlier in 2019 and the renderings were released later. Or perhaps as Salta and Red Cliffs are both near borders (Boliva and Arizona, respectively), we need Moroni’s trumpet to reach far into neighboring territories. OK, probably not that.

Regardless, the timeline supports the idea that a decision to stop including an Angel Moroni on every temple came at a specific date. The date of announcement does not necessarily influence the exclusion of Moroni. Many temples in the backlog of development will likely follow the design trends of the present. 

For example, the Harare Zimbabwe Temple had been slow to progress since its announcement in 2016. Prior to the announcement of groundbreaking, a landscape architect gave us a glimpse of what the temple could end up looking like. It is notable this placeholder rendering of the temple featured an Angel Moroni. When the official rendering was released, it did not feature an Angel Moroni.

When the Orem City council met in April 2020 to basically rubber stamp temple plans in the city, it discussed the possibility of the Orem Utah Temple not including a statue of Moroni:

During the presentation, council members noticed on a line drawing of the temple concept plan there was no indication of the iconic Angel Moroni on the central spire. Tom Heath, project manager for the temple construction, said, “Right now that’s in discussion with the First Presidency and the Presiding Bishopric. Not all temples are having Moroni installed. Councilman Terry Petersen said if he had a choice he would like to see Moroni on the top spire.”

In the end, the Orem Temple did not receive an Angel Moroni, indicating that the Church is firmly moving in a new direction. It is obvious that there has been a deliberate choice not have an Angel Moroni on these new temples.  

Church public affairs has remained quiet on addressing the prevalence of Moroni-less temples. When people have asked on social media why new temples no longer feature the Angel Moroni, social media moderators have linked to the same outdated explanation published when the Paris France temple was being constructed. The statement was taken off the newsroom in September 2020 and replaced with a new statement. It now states:

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.

 

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.

A New Direction

President Nelson has often been juxtaposed with President Hinckley regarding how the church should project its image to the world. In 1990, then Elder Nelson gave a conference talk where he seemed to want to shy away from the word Mormon, and instead embrace the term Saint. The very next conference, President Hinckley, then a counselor in the First Presidency, expressed his desire to embrace the term Mormon and to set a good example to the outside world. It’s a good reminder that while the Brethren act in concert, they still work through issues with their own opinions and perspectives.

Decades later under President Nelson’s leadership, the Church went from promoting the “I’m a Mormon” campaign to rebranding Church entities to reflect the full name of the Church more appropriately. President Nelson has emphasized that using the full name of the church and refraining to identify as Mormon will assist in sharing the gospel and avoiding common misconceptions.

Does President Nelson believe removing the Angel Moroni from new temples will help non-members better understand the purpose of temples? President Hinckley clearly supported the Angel Moroni as a design feature meant to unify temples around the world. President Nelson seems to be making another departure from his predecessor in this regard.  If current trends continue, as many as one in four (25%) operating temples will be Moroni-less by the year 2026. If the Angel Moroni Statue were to be taken down from more temples, the statistic would accelerate. 

 

It’s worth noting Moroni is on the outs in a few other areas. The Gospel Library app, for example, featured a silhouette of Moroni as its icon for years until April 2020, when the new “symbol” of the Church, based on Thorvaldsen’s famous Christus statue, replaced it. (This has led some to ask whether Moroni statues on temples will be replaced by Christus statues, but we think that’s unlikely out of reverence for the Savior.)

We know the effort to move away from Moroni is deliberate even if we have not read a disclosed purpose. Will this result in a shift in public perception? If so, is the designed goal to get non-Latter-day Saints thinking less about Moroni? Is the Church worried the public thinks we worship Moroni? Will the lack of a Moroni statue give the impression to others that these buildings are simply generic places of worship? Will President Nelson’s successors want to go back and add Moroni statues to these temples? Will this issue ever be addressed directly by the Church? After all, it’s one thing to have a few outliers without a Moroni statue. It’s another to get to a point where half the temples have Moroni and the other half doesn’t. Then you find yourself in a public affairs conundrum.

Currently the Angel Moroni from the Salt Lake temple has been removed as part of the temple’s renovation. Will he make his return? Considering the historic significance of the statue, and the fact that it is architecturally part of the building, to say nothing of the spiritual implications, we expect to see Moroni atop the building when it returns to use.

Given that Moroni was a fixture on temples for 40 years, many Church members have expressed confusion and frustration about new temples not featuring the statue. Feeling that way is understandable. Moroni has been symbolic of our temples for the better part of a generation. However, those individuals should be reminded that the more important things are the existence of the temple and the work carried out therein. And by understanding that Moroni only started to appear en masse in the 1980s, there’s no reason to assume temples topped with the statue need to be the norm. Furthermore, It also helps to know that the first Angel Moroni, placed on the Salt Lake Temple, was placed there primarily as a design choice; it was likely not a matter of divine inspiration or prophetic dictation.

After all, it’s just a statue.

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