Zion Revisited

Elder Jeffrey R. Holland


Brigham Young University–Idaho Commencement

December 20, 2006



I am delighted to be with you on such a wonderful day in your lives.  I congratulate you graduates, your parents and families (and for some of you that includes spouses and children), and the university faculty, staff and administration who have made this possible for you.  Blessings to all of you.  As someone who loves hanging around a university, I can say with authority that there is never a more joyful time than graduation day.  You deserve to be happy and I pray that you will be—forever.


For my remarks tonight I wish to comment briefly on the uniqueness of your experience at BYU–Idaho, and how that uniqueness is such a significant part of the larger experience of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.  To do that I need to speak of the temple that is majestically rising on the skyline overlooking this campus, for it symbolizes one-half of the nature of your education here. 


You see, when the Prophet Joseph Smith drew the plans for the ideal City of Zion—plans which we can still hold in our hands and review to this day—he conceived such a city as being anchored by two great symbolic structures.  A temple and a university—a house of covenant and a house of learning, two institutions dedicated to the exalting of the human soul.  As we know, tragedy overtook the Prophet and the Latter-day Saints before this dream could be fully realized in Nauvoo.  But the dream came west when the Saints came west, and in a few locations even now in the 21st Century that marvelous concept of a house of learning and a house of covenant joined together still exists.  With this institution rising in its mature stature as a four-year university even as the construction of that temple on the hill rises with it, BYU–Idaho and its host environment here in southeastern Idaho becomes the newest of the Lord’s experiments in attempting to create yet again a kind of Zion, or at least the newest opportunity to show how the whole soul is edified when a temple and a university join hands to bless a very fortunate student community.  In short, you graduates have had—and those students who follow you still have—a chance to continue the quest for part of the Prophet Joseph’s dream.


But as exciting as that sounds—and it is truly an exciting concept to me—I want you to know how difficult it will be to really succeed, that it will be a harder undertaking than you think, and that the trails of Church history for nearly two hundred years now are marked by the strenuous efforts of those who have gone before us, and who did so much to give us our chance here in Rexburg today.  Let me trace the trail of tears that marked our early temples to make the point.  I will conclude with what all that has to do with this wonderful university, using the word “commence” and “commencement” in a way that is unique to this student body and faculty.


The divine commandment that led to the building of the first temple in this dispensation was given in January of 1831 at a time when the struggling young church, less than one year into the development of its destiny, was beset by poverty and turmoil on all sides.  The Church, as then centered in Kirtland, Ohio, consisted of only a few hundred members, and all of them labored toward the building and realization of this temple.


Ground was broken finally on May 5, 1833, and one writer said that “every man, woman, and child gave brain, bone, and sinew, all living as abstemiously as possible so that every cent could be appropriated to that grand purpose they had undertaken.”


Indeed the construction of the Kirtland Temple was complicated dramatically with the call to Missouri of Zion's Camp, taking virtually every able-bodied man on a walking journey of 1,000 miles and leaving for all intents and purposes only the older men, the women of Kirtland, children, and the infirm to carry on the work of temple construction.


Of course, in addition to the troubles in Missouri, were the threats and harassment by enemies of the Church in and around Kirtland itself.  Elder George A. Smith recalled that "sometimes guards attended the temple day and night, working with a trowel in one hand and a gun in the other." Sidney Rigdon, then of the First Presidency, recorded walking the walls of the temple "by night and day, frequently wetting the walls with his tears praying for the completion of the temple."


Heber C. Kimball recorded:


Our women engaged in knitting and spinning, in order to clothe these men who were laboring at the building; and the Lord only knows the scenes of poverty, tribulation, and distress which we passed through to accomplish it. (Whitney, Orson F., Life of Heber C. Kimball, p. 67.)


To give the exterior a glaze, a sparkling appearance, the women contributed their meager treasures of china and crystal, watched them be broken into bits and applied to the plaster.  Their tears frequently glistened in the sunlight right along with that beautiful surface.


In his dedicatory prayer, the Prophet Joseph said to the Lord:


For thou knowest that we have done this work through great tribulation; and out of our poverty we have given of our substance to build a house to thy name, that the Son of Man might have a place to manifest himself to his people.  (D&C 109:5.)


But just over a year’s time later, the temple had been abandoned, falling into the hands of apostates and excommunicants in Ohio, with even more severe troubles facing the members in Missouri.  The faithful efforts of the Saints to establish Zion in these two early settlements seemed to have been in vain.


So to some it may have been surprising that not long after those difficulties, including his own incarceration in Liberty Jail, the Prophet Joseph announced a new quest for Zion in Nauvoo, including the building of a temple and plans for a university thereafter.  But this temple would cost a million dollars and take five years to complete.  Indeed by the 27th of June, 1844, with only one story of the temple completed, Joseph Smith and his brother, Hyrum, would lie dead at the hands of a Carthage mob.


Even as the Saints mourned the death of their prophet leader, they nevertheless labored to finish the temple, which like its predecessor in Ohio was also doomed to desertion and in the Nauvoo case, destruction.  By the time the capstone was laid, the city of Nauvoo was virtually abandoned.  Its former inhabitants, who sacrificed so much for its completion, were then spread across the plains of Iowa, seeking and singing of yet another home “far away in the West, where none shall come to hurt or make afraid.”  Temple building and establishing Zion had not proven to be an easy or entirely successful endeavor.   Maybe it was simply too much to expect.  The costs were high, the fatigue was great, and the sorrows were deep.


So imagine their wonder when only four days after the Saints had arrived in the Valley of the Great Salt Lake, President Brigham Young marched to a center site, stuck his cane in the ground and announced, "We shall build a temple unto the Lord." No one knew then that it would take four million dollars to construct and forty years to complete, but they did know what they had just been through.


Surely there must have been a few in the congregation that day who heard that announcement for whom the memory of Kirtland and Nauvoo was simply too fresh and too painful.  "Why spend this time and this money, these tears and this labor to build another temple we will only have to abandon?  Surely this is too much too ask.  Surely this sacrifice is too great.  Surely such a gesture cannot be that important to the work of the kingdom of God."


Perhaps there were some who had such thoughts that day.  We cannot know, but presuming that a few may have been so troubled and weary, President Brigham Young said:

Some will inquire, "Do you suppose we will finish this temple, Brother Brigham!" I have had such questions put to me already.  My answer is, I do not know, and I do not care. . . .  I have never cared but for one thing, and that is, simply to know that I am now right before my Father in Heaven.  If I am this moment, this day, doing the things God requires of my hands, and precisely where my Father in Heaven wants me to be, I care no more about tomorrow than though it never would come.  I do not know where I shall be tomorrow, nor do I know when this temple will be done. . . .


This I do know―there should be a temple built here.  I do know it is the duty of this people to commence to build a temple.  (Journal of Discourses, Vol. 1, p. 132.)

I have traced that history for you today primarily to capture that marvelous declaration by the remarkable Brigham Young.  Some things he didn’t know, and about some of those that he did know he didn’t care.  He didn’t know exactly when the building of the Salt Lake Temple would be completed nor exactly what the final product would ultimately contain.  He didn’t know that Johnson’s Army would soon be coming, nor that the railroad would bring the world to the Saints, even as they were trying to escape the world.  Nor did he know he would die some 15 years before the temple would be completed.  But he knew God intended that he and the Saints undertake this task—that they could begin and be faithful and be true, even if they couldn’t see the end from the beginning.  His concern was not with future vindication but with present duty.  “I have never cared but for one thing,” he said, “and that is simply to know that I am now right before my Father in Heaven.  If I am this moment, this day, doing the things God requires of my hands, and precisely where [He] wants me to be, I care no more about tomorrow than though it never would come.”  He knew that the journey of a thousand miles, or ten thousand miles, begins with one step and he put his shovel in the ground to once again build an anchor to the city of Zion.


Well, now let’s shift from the temple example to the university experience.  That history of faith and that spirit of determination and courage seem very much the moment you are experiencing at BYU–Idaho right now. For that matter it is faith and determination and courage that has marked the history of this school from its inception as a Church academy.  But you have begun a newer, bolder chapter in your history than ever before.  What you are undertaking here, and what you graduates have been blessed to be a pioneering, ground-breaking part of, is virtually unprecedented in the world of higher education.   You are making your own inspired, pioneering journey and you will have some Kirtland’s and Jackson County’s, and some Nauvoo’s along the way.  Not every aspect of the future goal is clear; for that matter not every aspect of the present challenge about how to get there is clear.  But everything about the BYU–Idaho experiment in education, just as with everything about that temple rising on the edge of campus is a declaration of faith, a declaration of sacrifice, a declaration of prophecy and purity and miracles.  You have been at this long enough to know that what you are doing here regarding some aspects of both student and faculty life will require tremendous faith and divine direction if it is to succeed as you and your Board of Trustees want it to succeed. 


But what is so new about that? The children of Israel have always undertaken quests, journeys if you will, that have required tremendous faith and divine direction.  So as the modern bearers of that covenant heritage, I ask you to believe in the virtues and values of the BYU–Idaho experience.  Indeed, to the extent that I have a charge to leave with you graduates tonight, I charge you to cherish what you have been part of here, to think about it over and over and over again, and to take it into the world wherever you go—whether that is to Ririe and Rigby or to Roanoke and Rio and Rome.  I charge you to tell your story wherever you go.  Spread it far and wide that you were part of something new and bold and creative educationally, but it was newness and boldness based on the tried and true doctrine of the gospel of Jesus Christ which is as old as mankind itself.  Declare that what you did at BYU–Idaho mattered in the quest for a unique way to teach and learn and ultimately live, that wherever you are you are still trying to be “right before your Father in Heaven, doing the things God requires at your hands, standing precisely where he wants you to be,” at least in part because of what you saw and felt and experienced here.  Think of Joseph, think of Brigham, and think of Brigham Young University–Idaho.   In so doing please know that the future will roll into place for you and for this school just the way it has for the other aspects of the Kingdom of God during the hundred and seventy-six years of this Church’s existence.  Congratulations on laying the foundation of yet another latter-day symbol that has really only just begun.  God bless you to be grateful as long as you live for the privilege you have had to be here at such a crucial, pivotal time.  As the Prophet Joseph prayed at that first temple dedication in Kirtland, “Holy Father, we ask thee to assist us . . . with thy grace . . . that we may be found worthy, in thy sight, to secure a fulfillment of the promises which thou hast made unto us. . . .” (D&C 109:10-11.) 


Be faithful.  Stand steady.  Believe in what God intends for you personally and for this university.  If you will persevere as you have begun and be true to what LDS temples and universities stand for, what “Zion” stands for, I promise you your future will take care of itself and will be very bright indeed.  As Brother Brigham said, so say I with “commencement” application to you:  “I do not know where I shall be tomorrow, nor do I know when this university experience will be fully realized, but this I do know—there should be a great university built here.  I do know it is the duty of this people to continue as you have commenced—to build a great university unto the Lord.”  In the name of Jesus Christ, amen.


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