Early Christianity and Mormonism:
The LDS Temple Endowment: An Introduction
©Barry Bickmore. All rights reserved.
Reference Info - glossary of ancient Christian writers and documents, guide to abbreviations, bibliography.
Introduction - Why So Hush-Hush?
The reinstitution of temple worship was an integral part of the "Restoration of All Things", and yet the content of these ordinances is so shocking to much of the rest of the Christian world that they are routinely labelled as satanic in anti-Mormon literature.1 A large part of the information purveyed in these "exposes" is patently false, however, so perhaps the average Christian would be quite a bit less shocked by LDS temple ordinances if he could be disabused of his wild notions about what goes on in them. This is easier said than done, unfortunately, since Latter-day Saints do not speak openly about certain aspects of these sacred ordinances, especially the Endowment.
Certainly this is the crux of the problem encountered by a site such as this, which seeks to present parallels to LDS beliefs and practices in ancient Christianity. As a Latter-day Saint who has participated in these rites, I am bound not to discuss certain aspects of them outside of our temple walls. This is no attempt on the part of Mormons to make their rituals seem more mysterious and impressive. Rather, Latter-day Saints do not discuss certain things in order to follow Jesus' command: "Give not that which is holy unto the dogs, neither cast ye your pearls before swine, lest they trample them under their feet, and turn again and rend you."2 That is, even though many may be curious about certain aspects of the gospel, they are probably not willing to take on the added responsibility which goes along with that knowledge. For anyone who is willing to learn the mysteries of God "precept upon precept; line upon line,... here a little, and there a little"3, and to make such commitments, the doors to the knowledge of the temple are soon opened. (Latter-day Saints may qualify to enter the temple after only one year of membership, as long as the candidate has been living in accordance with his or her covenants.) As Jesus said immediately after he charged his disciples not to cast their pearls before swine, "Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you...."4 The Book of Mormon explains this principle clearly:
And now Alma began to expound these things unto him, saying: It is given unto many to know the mysteries of God; nevertheless they are laid under a strict command that they shall not impart only according to the portion of his word which he doth grant unto the children of men, according to the heed and diligence which they give unto him. And therefore, he that will harden his heart, the same receiveth the lesser portion of the word; and he that will not harden his heart, to him is given the greater portion of the word, until it is given unto him to know the mysteries of God until he know them in full. And they that will harden their hearts, to them is given the lesser portion of the word until they know nothing concerning his mysteries....5
Therefore, I will begin this series of essays with an explanation of the temple Endowment which will consist exclusively of the information available in publicly published statements of various Latter-day Saint general authorities. I will neither go beyond the substance of these statements in my commentary nor comment very much on those parts of ancient ceremonies presented which parallel the Endowment. That is, certain aspects of the ancient ceremonies I will present are very similar to the temple ceremony, and certain aspects are not. (Very little doctrine or practice was transmitted through the apostasy without changes or corruptions, and given their esoteric nature, the temple ceremonies would probably have been among the first ordinances to become corrupted and/or lost.)
In large part I will leave it up to the reader to judge the significance of each article of information presented. Thus, those readers who have participated in the Endowment will necessarily be better equipped in their judgement than those who have not. However, much of the information presented will be related to those parts of the temple ceremony which are public knowledge, so even one who is only cursorily familiar with this aspect of Mormonism will be in a position to examine much of the evidence.
The temple Endowment is primarily a vehicle to present knowlege to the Saints. Therefore, the Plan of Salvation is presented to the participants in symbolic form, reminding them of their covenants before God and the way to exaltation. If one gains this knowlege and lives by it he has the keys he needs to come into the presence of God in the world to come. The public descriptions and explanations of the Endowment by prophets and Apostles of the LDS Church which follow should give the reader some idea of what goes on in this sacred ordinance.
Elder John A. Widtsoe, formerly an apostle in the Restored Church, outlined the Endowment thus:
The endowment and the temple work as revealed by the Lord to the Prophet Joseph Smith fall clearly into four distinct parts: The preparatory ordinances; the giving of instruction by lectures and representations; covenants; and, finally, tests of knowledge. I doubt that the Prophet Joseph Smith, unlearned and untrained in logic, could of himself have made the thing so logically complete.6
Boyd K. Packer, of the Twelve, explains that the first phase of the Endowment ceremony deals with preparatory or "initiatory" ordinances wherein the participant is washed and anointed. He points out that these ordinances are "mostly symbolic in nature."7
The Lord has said concerning these ordinances: "I say unto you, how shall your washings be acceptable unto me, except ye perform them in a house which you have built to my name?"8 Also: "I say unto you, that your anointings, and your washings... are ordained by the ordinance of my holy house."9 Elder Packer goes on to explain that in connection with the washings and anointings, candidates are officially clothed in a symbolic white garment and promised certain blessings.10
The next phase consists of Christ-centered instruction about one's place in the Plan of Salvation. Apostle James E. Talmage gave the following description:
The Temple Endowment, as administered in modern temples, comprises instruction relating to the significance and sequence of past dispensations, and the importance of the present as the greatest and grandest era in human history. This course of instruction includes a recital of the most prominent events of the creative period, the condition of our first parents in the Garden of Eden, their disobedience and consequent expulsion from that blissful abode, their condition in the lone and dreary world when doomed to live by labor and sweat, the plan of redemption by which the great transgression may be atoned, the period of the great apostasy, the restoration of the Gospel with all its ancient powers and privileges, the absolute and indispensable condition of personal purity and devotion to the right in present life, and a strict compliance with Gospel requirements.11
Elder Packer explains that much of the instruction in the temple is given in symbolic fashion. This should come in no surprise, since so much of the teaching in the scriptures is done symbolically, as well.12
Associated with this instruction are various covenants the participants make in relation to their daily conduct. Elder Talmage made the following observations about this phase of the ceremony:
The ordinances of the endowment embody certain obligations on the part of the individual, such as covenant and promise to observe the law of strict virtue and chastity, to be charitable, benevolent, tolerant and pure; to devote both talent and material means to the spread of truth and the uplifting of the race; to maintain devotion to the cause of truth; and to seek in every way to contribute to the great preparation that the earth may be made ready to receive her King,-the Lord Jesus Christ. With the taking of each covenant and the assuming of each obligation a promised blessing is pronounced, contingent upon the faithful observance of the conditions.
No jot, iota, or tittle of the temple rites is otherwise than uplifting and sanctifying. In every detail the endowment ceremony contributes to covenants of morality of life, consecration of person to high ideals, devotion to truth, patriotism to nation, and allegiance to God. The blessings of the House of the Lord are restricted to no privileged class; every member of the Church may have admission to the temple with the right to participate in the ordinances thereof, if he comes duly accredited as of worthy life and conduct.13
In relation to the final phase of the endowment, the tests of knowledge, not much can be said beyond the following statement by the prophet Brigham Young:
Let me give you a definition in brief. Your endowment is, to receive all those ordinances in the house of the Lord, which are necessary for you, after you have departed this life, to enable you to walk back to the presence of the Father, passing the angels who stand as sentinels, being enabled to give them the key words, the signs and tokens, pertaining to the holy Priesthood, and gain your eternal exaltation in spite of earth and hell.14
The Encyclopedia of Mormonism, which was approved for publication by the Church leadership, also reveals that there is a symbolic "prayer circle" associated with the Endowment, which, along with the rest of the ceremony "precedes the symbolic entrance into the celestial world and the presence of God."15
The temple Endowment is a profound experience for those who participate in it seeking light and knowlege from above, so one could say that its own fruits justify it, no matter whether it was ever practiced by the ancient Church, or not. However, significant evidence does exist that not only ancient Christians, but ancient Jews practiced similar rituals, including both "orthodox" and gnostic divisions of these groups. Therefore the next task at hand is to describe various of these rites in the context of the people who practiced them.
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1 e.g. see Decker and Hunt, The God Makers, p. 209.
2 Matthew 7:6.
3 Isaiah 28:10.
4 Matthew 7:7.
5 Alma 12:9-11.
6 Widtsoe, "Temple Worship," p. 58.
7 Packer, The Holy Temple, p. 154.
8 D&C 124:37.
9 D&C 124:39.
10 Packer, The Holy Temple, p. 155.
11 Talmage, The House of the Lord, pp. 99-100.
12 Packer, The Holy Temple, p. 38.
13 Talmage, The House of the Lord, p.100.
14 Widstoe, Discourses of Brigham Young, p. 416.
15 Compton, T., "Symbolism", in Encyclopedia of Mormonism, vol. 3.