Most people don’t really “get” Mormon Temples. As I’ve traveled in the US and other countries, if the subject comes up, I always find genuine confusion about temples and why we have them. Explaining the temple to people can be interesting, depending on the background of the listener. But I would guess that most Latter-day Saints share a similar ignorance about how temples currently operate. I’m here to clean up this mess, pull the curtain back, and tell you what happens inside a Mormon Temple. Sitting on the edge of your seat yet?
First, Mormonism is sacramental, believing in salvation mediated by Christ but having a necessary sacramental component, thus differing from Protestantism, depending somewhat on the strain of Protestantism. On this point it is more closely aligned with historic Catholic and the various Orthodox traditions.
Very briefly, the focal point of Mormon Temples is
(1) to give the Mormon sacraments of endowment and marriage (sealings) to Latter-day Saints.
(2) to allow Latter-day Saints to grant the same sacraments (Mormons would say ordinances) to their dead ancestors by proxy. (It is part of Mormon doctrinal heritage that these activities are restricted to a temple when such a structure can be had.) The reasons for the latter service for the dead stem from Joseph Smith’s ideas regarding evangelization of the dead and his position that the dead must be on an equal footing with the living in terms of salvation. Indeed, for the Saints, the whole human family must eventually be linked together in one great Divine Chain as the family of God. (A position firmly established with Wilford Woodruff’s revelation of 1894.)
Hence a reason for the emphasis on marriage and family among the Latter-day Saints. As noted, temples of necessity form a key part of this. Certainly there is much more here, but the forum limits the possibilities of explication. Very briefly, Joseph Smith combined as he often did, elements of Old Testament (OT) religion with New Testament teaching. The OT consecration of tabernacle priesthood was restored in the Mormon practice of washing, anointing and ceremonial clothing of men and women in the temple. Mormonism is by announcement from its beginning a coming together of practice, faith, scripture and conception from all ages of the world including the most recent.
Smith’s encounter with Masonry inspired him in various aspects of temple liturgy, drawing on a number of Masonic motifs but introducing a rather unique Mormon cosmology combined with scriptural texts to provide structure and ritual meaning in the temple. Early Mormons clearly acknowledged these imprints and the idea that Joseph Smith took them under heavenly inspiration and forged the basic liturgical forms still used in Mormon temple worship. Continuing revelation has provided modifications and adjustments to that liturgy based on cultural, developmental or other imperatives. Temple worship involves a living liturgy to bless the lives of Saints who participate. Changes in temple ritual and teaching will undoubtedly take place in the future, while providing for the same basic need of covenant making and blessing.
But enough of that. To perform such service for the Saints requires human structure and function in the Temple, as well as architectural structure and function based on the services provided. Architecture and design may also be used to convey the spiritual mission of the buildings and that is another story unto itself. But briefly, Mormon temples are symbolic structures, with many having intricate design elements, both on the exterior and the interior. In part 2, it’s down to brass tacks.
[Part 2 is here.