The Mormon temple is a place out of time. When I enter, I lose track of clocks, hours, minutes, and obligations. For the hour and a half or so that an endowment session lasts, I forget whether it is morning, afternoon, or evening. Admittedly, this effect is surely due in part to the fact that endowment rooms lack windows or natural light; I have sometimes experienced a similar loss of my sense of time during academic sessions in interior rooms of conference hotels. Yet the comparison emphasizes the difference. When in an academic meeting I lose track of time, it always seems to pass more slowly than it really does. In an endowment session, time instead seems to stop altogether, or better still to be entirely beside the point.
It seems to me that the timelessness I experience inside the temple is essential to its purpose. By walking through the doors of the temple, we leave behind secular time. We walk away from a world that is billions of years old, in which humanity has been evolving for longer than I can really even imagine. We leave behind the cycle of appointments, bills, and paychecks, of crimes and misdemeanors. The temple doors, check-in desk, dressing rooms and so forth bring us into a radically streamlined sacred timelessness. The creation of the world and all its subsequent ages pass before our eyes. The immense, even colossal, realities of the physical world become a striking backdrop for the eternal drama of us.
The temple can have this effect, can offer this sacred space of timelessness, because it stands for us outside of time and the flow of history. Hugh Nibley expresses this aspect of our experience of the temple as well, perhaps, as anyone in his essay on “The Meaning of the Temple.” In understanding the central quote to which I want to draw attention, it is vital to remember Nibley’s view that Egyptian sacred rituals were identical to modern LDS sacred rituals:
The ordinances of the Egyptian temple were essentially the same as those performed in ours. (“The Meaning of the Temple,” pg. 26)
This perspective is presented at some length in Nibley’s volume on the Joseph Smith papyri. In his shorter essay on the temple’s meaning, Nibley obliquely states that this ancient-Egyptian/LDS connection in terms of temple rites is “an open secret among scholars today” (pg. 27) — an assertion that, typical of Nibley’s colorful and demi-rational style, comes without footnotes, clarifications of which scholars in particular have this knowledge, or really any additional explanation whatsoever.
With this idea in hand, we can turn to the really valuable stuff. Nibley writes:
Someone once asked me concerning the Egyptian ordinances contained in the Joseph Smith manuscripts, Is this stuff relevant to the modern world? My answer is no. It is relevant to the eternities. The modern world is as unstable as a decaying isotope, but the temple has always been the same. The ordinances are those taught by an angel to Adam. The bringing of the temple into the world was a reminder in the days of Enoch, Noah, Abraham, Moses, Christ, and Joseph Smith that the world as a going concern is coming to a close. (pg. 34)
This epoch-spanning transcendence is just what I experience when fully immersed in the temple ceremony, and I think it is a substantial part of what the ceremony is supposed to be for. Nibley’s insistence that the temple has always been the same is at the heart of this experience; the temple must stand outside of history in order to transcend secular time.
Yet of course the temple and its ordinances have a history. Most of us are aware that, in 1990, there were significant changes in the way the endowment was performed. More recently, the ritual form of the initiatory has been substantially modified. In fact, there is a extensive record of such modifications. The ceremonies were in a state of some flux through much of the 19th century before they were finally stabilized and made uniform during the early 20th century — a few further changes, like those mentioned earlier, notwithstanding. Furthermore, the temple ceremonies have had, and to a substantial extent continue to have, extensive and intimate connections with Masonic ritual practice.
How, then, are we to think about the temple? One option is provided by ex-Mormons and various Christian ministries. We might conclude that a temple ritual with a history cannot be timeless, that the temple is a simple fraud because it has changed and because it has connections with other 19th-century social institutions. If this were our only option, we would be in some considerable trouble. My sense of the divinity and timelessness, the very sacredness, of the temple experience would be cast adrift.
Fortunately, we do have other alternatives. One is ably and charismatically presented by Greg Kearney, a Mormon Mason who has discussed the history and origins of our temple ceremonies in several different places online. The heart of Kearney’s argument is as follows:
Let me get to the crux of my issue here. Everybody wants to know, ‘Okay Greg, did the temple ritual come from Freemasonry?’ And I’m going to answer that with a qualified yes. (Everybody inhale!) I draw a bright line between the temple endowment and the temple ritual.
The endowment is revealed doctrine necessary for the salvation of the Saints. It teaches us God’s relationship to man; our duties and our responsibilities. The endowment has never changed and if you think about it, what the endowment is are commitments to the law of sacrifice, to the law of consecration, to the law of chastity. These things are fixed and these things can be found throughout every dispensation of time. That is the endowment….
So we have the endowment and then we have the messenger: the ritual. How the endowment is taught and this is where I believe Masonry played a part. Joseph Smith sat in Lodge, he watched as humble farmers–most of whom he knew probably couldn’t read and write well–learned complicated, difficult ritual and he said in his mind, ‘Ah! This is how I’ll do it. This is how I’ll teach the endowment to the Saints.’ Why? Because they already knew the ritual. They wouldn’t pay attention to the ritual; they’d pay attention to the message because they already knew the ritual. And so, there is that kind of genesis, that ritualistic form, that asking of questions back and forth that we get. All of that comes as Joseph Smith tries to communicate these truths. (Quote available from this web page.)
In essence, Kearney’s argument is that we are free to see the endowment ritual as changing, temporal, and embedded in history because what Kearney sees as the true endowment — covenants to obey a series of laws — is nonetheless endless and eternal. This approach defines a great deal of the ritual we experience in the temple as not really essential to the endowment. This allows Kearney to agree with various antagonists that the temple ritual itself has clear sources in the 19th century, while nonetheless rejecting those antagonists’ desired conclusion that the temple is not sacred. This result is of some real value, not to be neglected.
Yet what is lost? Can we adopt this view of the endowment ritual as adrift in history and still appreciate that same ritual as timeless and eternal? More particularly, can we mentally divide the ritual into the essential and the ephemeral without losing the experience of sacred otherness the ritual is designed to create?
A ritual is not reducible to its rational message, any more than a song is reducible to its lyrics. The physicality of ritual, what we see and touch and do, give the ritual experience its distinctive power. Attending an endowment session can be profoundly different from, for example, reading the Book of Abraham exactly because of the non-rational power of ritual, physicality, and action. I believe the way of being created by the experience of the endowment ritual is as sacred as anything said during the ritual. So also is the sense of community across time created by our experience of the endowment as timeless and outside of history. If we can feel ourselves saying the same words and doing the same things that have been done in Mormon temples since Nauvoo — and indeed in all places and at all times under God’s direction — we are able to ritually elide the very real differences among times and places and come closer to the unity of all believers that God and Christ so urgently command.
How then to reconcile this spiritual and ritual imperative with our intellectual need for a satisfactory response to our antagonists, or (rather more urgent in my view) for a cogent interpretation of historical evidence regarding the endowment’s form and history? On the intellectual front, something in the vicinity of Kearney’s view of a meaningful part of the structure and physicality of the endowment ritual as sourced to Masonic practice is probably a winner. The parallels are highly evident, the mechanisms of transmission are extremely well-documented, and the connections are noted and discussed by some of the earliest participants in the Nauvoo endowment. Yet the cost is to distance us from the experience of the ritual, and to force us to draw artificial lines between components of a unified experience.
In a scholarly paper that we don’t talk about often enough, Kathleen Flake has offered what I think is perhaps the best solution to this dilemma. The problems of origins or of change over time are really one and the same: how do we simultaneously affirm the endowment is unchanging/the endowment is historical? Flake argues that a central answer lies in the oral nature of the endowment tradition:
…the effect of oral traditioning, in conjunction with ritual practice, is to preserve the legitimacy of the canon and the solidarity of the community it orders and reorders. (pg. 2)
Flake’s article expresses concerns parallel to those I have sketched above about the potential negative consequences of adopting an intellectual and historical view of the endowment ceremony:
Rituals are, however, not only meaning but event… Generative rituals are ill suited to being fixed and are undermined by the self-consciousness or historical-consciousness of writing down or writing about. (pg. 7)
Flake’s broader argument here is that rituals need a base in history, and the ability to change, if they are to speak to changing, historical beings like us. Yet, at the same time, rituals need to be experienced as changeless. The inherent contradiction between these two ritual imperatives is brought into dangerous view when the ritual is written down — as our ritual has been, several times, by enemies and friends — or written about, as by Nibley, Buerger, Kearney, Flake, and, alas, myself in this post. For those who never read or write about the temple, the oral traditioning of the ritual, perhaps, heals all wounds:
…with each performance, the conventional forms of the ritual… restore the sense of the ritual’s timelessness and immutability. Personal knowledge and experience of change is neither remarked upon nor long remembered and the sense of collective shared experience in one eternal round of ordered life is retained. Thus, notwithstanding changes to the rite since its inception and increasing publicity about modern adaptations, the perception of the faithful remains that the temple rite and its canon are today as they were first revealed to Joseph Smith. (Flake, pg. 9)
Can those of us who have eaten the apple of text about the temple regain this Edenic timelessness? I think perhaps we can if we check our intellectual apprehensions in the dressing room with our street clothes and let ourselves experience the endowment on its own terms. If the sacrament on Sunday can be a small cup of water and a scrap of bread, and yet still fulfill Christ’s instruction that we eat of his flesh and drink of his blood, then surely the temple ceremony can exist in history while still remaining timeless and eternal. If we would follow Kearney’s distinction between form and content with our minds, let us nonetheless remember to marry form and content in our hearts.
Note: the LDS temple ceremonies are sacred to the author of this post, and also to most readers of this website. Offensive comments will be deleted on sight. In particular, comments disputing the sacredness of the temple are not welcome here; comments regarding different ways of experiencing the temple as sacred are appropriate. It goes without saying that attempts to post any part of the text of the temple ceremony will result in banning from the site.
Hugh Nibley, 1992, Temple and Cosmos: Beyond this Ignorant Present. Salt Lake City: Deseret Book and Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies. Pgs. 1-41.
Hugh Nibley, 2005, The Message of the Joseph Smith Papyri: An Egyptian Endowment Salt Lake City: Deseret Book and Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies.
As far as I know, the best overall history of these changes is David John Buerger, 1994, The Mysteries of Godliness: A History of Mormon Temple Worship. San Francisco: Smith Research Associates. A note of caution: this book is not for the faint of heart. It contains fairly clear descriptions, almost all taken from previously-published sources, of most Mormon temple rituals.
Kearney has written two statements on the history and origins of the Mormon temple rituals for the Mormon apologetic organization FAIR. He has also recorded a podcast interview with John Dehlin as an episode of Mormon Stories. Kearney’s discussions are rich and informative, although some of his claims about details are historically unhelpful. For example, regarding the topic of “Special Handshakes”, Kearney says that “They are different both in form and meaning [between Mormonism and Masonry].” Reference to William Morgan’s 1826 expose of freemasonry, especially pages 23-24, 53-54, 76-77, and 84-85, make clear that the statement regarding form is an exaggeration. I can see several ways this may have occurred. Perhaps the Morgan expose provides inaccurate descriptions of Masonic ritual; if so, it remains a source of value since its contents were surely well-known among Nauvoo Mormons and Joseph Smith in particular. Alternatively, Kearney may be familiar with different versions of Masonic ritual than those Morgan knew. Finally, Kearney may simply be hedging the issue because of the oath-bound character of both sets of rituals. None of these explanations suggests deception on Kearney’s part, but they do point to limitations on his work.
See Buerger, 1994, pgs. 49-58.
Kathleen Flake, 1995, ‘Not to be Riten’: The Mormon Temple Rite as Oral Canon. Journal of Ritual Studies 9 (Summer): 1-22.