Thinking the Temple

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.”[1] 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.[2] 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.[3] 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.[4] 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.[5] 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.[6] 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.


  1. This is a nice post, JNS. First, I agree that Flake’s article is excellent. I think that we can have all things. Having some historical context to the endowment has been very important for my own conceptions and theology of the temple. But I think you are right that the ritual is most profoundly experienced as part of the timeless narrative in which it is natively situated.

  2. thanks for a stirring reminder of the power of the temple.
    can someone email me the Flake essay? sounds interesting.

  3. Joshua Madson says:

    Part of the beauty I feel in the temple is my belief that I am connected to those who have gone before me. That in some small way the ritual is connected for thousands of years. I like to think that the ritual unites me in some way to a community of seekers, even those in following Egyptian ritual, Greek mystery plays, etc., stretching back to Adam or even farther.

  4. I have a good friend who was a Protestant minister before his baptism. He is one of the best “self-taught layman Biblical scholars” I have met. After experiencing the temple in its fullness for the first time (in Columbus, OH – one of the small local temples), he told me, “The temple feels so much bigger on the inside than it looks on the outside.” I will never forget that, since it sums up the experience so well and speaks to the idea of connection to the extra-worldly divine.

  5. JNS,

    Thanks for this thoughtful post. You managed to put into words some of my own feelings that I have not been able to articulate.

    I can remember once getting dressed for a session and noticing the wristwatch which I always wear. I looked at it and realized there was no point in wearing it in the temple, and it felt liberating to leave it behind in the locker.

  6. Thank you for the post, and the associated comments. My wife and I are attending the temple this week with a purpose relating to a member of my immediate family. I am grateful for this sacred space.

    I also feel the timelessness of the temple, and often think about my parents, grandparents, and others who have died and are now beyond the veil. In that sense, I feel close to them, and the sense of eternity is tangible.

  7. Aaron Brown says:

    I have never taken much interest in Masonry, so its alleged connections to the Mormon endowment are something I’ve never seriously looked at. But this post is very interesting; I was not aware that frank acknowledgement of the direct relationship between the temple ceremony and Masonic ritual was now kosher (or at least kosher enough to appear at FAIR). I wonder how widespread Kearney’s understanding is among the LDS faithful, and I wonder how easily his distinction between historical ritual forms and the timeless essence of the endowment message would be accepted by most Saints who confront it for the first time.

    In my experience, a lot of us are invested in the “Masonry-is-a-bastardized-version-of-the-temple-endowment-and-not-vice-versa!” line, often quite vociferously so.

    Aaron B

  8. I confess that my temple going experience is both ritual (things-done) connection with past and also ac connection that transcend or temporality. Before I ever went to the temple, I had read dozens of ascension texts like the Ascension of Isaiah, the Apocalypse of Abraham, the Testament of Levi as well as the Nibely book regarding the Egyptian temple endowment. As a result, as I went through the ordinances they were very familiar to me. The temple experience has always been a form of ascension to the presence of God, of Christification, of negotiation and passing by the challenges that bar the way to God’s presence. It is an experience of what others have actually experienced which we experience ritually (and perhaps also actually).

    There are so many dimensions to the experience — of connection to those who have gone before us to whom we owe so much; of giving the greatest gift I possess without expectation of return; of experiencing the ascent to God that the prophets having experienced and that has been embodied in the rituals of so many diverse cultures (including the Hopi and early American cultures); of a near death experience; of becoming identified with Christ and ritually recapitulating his own experiences in my life; of family sealing and sharing. Only a few years ago the endowment became a springboard to revelation and flashes of insight and break-through that I didn’t know how to access before that time.

    So I suppose my response is that for me it is not either timeless or historical; but both. It recapitulates what so many have experienced in their ascent to God but the drama and means of recapitulating that experiences are varied and have been adapted in many, many different forms (including masonry).

  9. makakona says:

    my husband is a recommend-toting descendant of pioneers and his best friend is a mason. it’s been fascinating to learn more about our friend’s beliefs and to learn about us through his eyes. i’m still learning what i think and believe and know about all of it… and what i’m SUPPOSED to think, believe, and know.

    as a young mother of three under (almost) four, i wonder when i’ll feel a sense of timelessness at the temple. i’m constantly thinking about how the kids are, have i been away too long, is grandma/dad/good friend doing okay with them, holy cow are we done yet because baby needs to eat an hour ago! i’m still very young in my temple worship and i find that my life has too many distractions to focus exclusively while in the temple. i’m hoping this changes as the kids grow? for now, much of my temple-going is in obedience only.

  10. Thomas Parkin says:

    “The temple experience … negotiation and passing by the challenges that bar the way to God’s presence.”

    Cherubim and the Flaming Sword. I love this!

    Does anyone know any really good scholarly work on either the Knights Templar or Scottish Freemasonry? I look – but I’ve got nothing but my instincts to guide me, but it is pretty clear that a lot of what is written is … out swiming in a pretty odd lake. I would want real information, no strange theories nor anything debunking strange theories.

    Not meaning to threadjack: but in the early 90s I lvied in house, for a couple years, with some real honest to goodness new-ager hippies. I came to care about them quite a bit – but they did present me constantly with pretty outside information. I could tell stories for hours: there was how to build homes that will attact alien attention, negative-ion generators, various communistic proposals about how to pay one another’s bills. One day this: there are 10 billion atoms in a brain cell, 10 billion brain cells in a human brain, and when the earth’s population reaches 10 billion we will all become one: one great “Global Brain.”

    Anyway, one day my friend Steve comes home and says the following to me. “I’ve just been to see (some dude), and I need you to tell me why I belong to Melchezedick and everything you know about the Knights Templar.”

    A few years later he called and told me he needed to see me depsperately. We met in the coffee shop at Elliot Books, in Seattle. He was obviously freaked out. He told me that a goverment agency was after him, right after him, and had been every since he sent an e-mail to Hillary Clinton.


    *runs away*


  11. Thanks for the helpful and respectful comments, folks! I think most of your comments speak for themselves, so I’m only going to specifically respond to two.

    First, Blake, thanks for your comment. I agree that, in experiencing the temple as in so many other religious things, it’s helpful to have the broadest possible set of images as symbols for our experience to resonate against. Among the many symbols out there, it’s worth noting that there’s really an amazing, crescendoing pattern of atonement imagery in the temple rite — something I love about it. When people complain that Christ isn’t in the ordinance, it tells me that they aren’t paying attention to symbolism.

    Second, Aaron Brown, right, the idea of Masonry as an apostate relic of the endowment has been pretty extensive in Mormonism. It’s an attractive theory in a lot of ways, but the least attractive aspect is its empirical base. While some aspects of Masonry seem to date back into the Medieval period, the more complex ritual elements that closely parallel our temple ceremonies can only be dated back to the 17th and especially the 18th centuries — where they were developed by Scottish and English gentlemen. Those gentlemen clearly drew on their knowledge of the Bible and their readings regarding Middle Eastern mystery religions in developing Masonic ritual. But they equally clearly had no direct access to ancient ritual, so the details of physicality that are important to us can be seen as responsive to ancient texts but originating during the Enlightenment. We are, of course, free to conclude that these Scottish and English gentlemen were guided by inspiration or revelation in developing the rituals. Sources on this history are a bit noisy, because the people who know best about Masonry are bound by oath not to discuss it. This Wikipedia article provides a reasonable overview of various perspectives.

    I should reiterate that there’s no reason to suppose that a ritual with history, parallels, and sources isn’t divine.

  12. Thanks JNS- what a wealth of information and good stuff to think about… this makes me excited about our first trip to the Temple this fall.

  13. John Taber says:

    Not only a place out of time (note how few clocks there are inside the building) – but also a place out of place.

  14. I found this reading list:

    Masonic Enlightenment

  15. I was a Rainbow Girl as a teen (the teen chapter for girls of the Masons). Nothing remotely like the temple ceremony involved in the initiation rites. Really. I’m sure there must be something to this claim, but it’s over emphasized imho.

  16. I mean, the initiation is ritualistic, I suppose some dim comparison could be made. But then, if we’re going to do that kind of comparison, why not to mass? It’s similar in the same way that the Masonic rituals are. Perhaps we’re all closet Catholics.

  17. Great point, John Tabor. The same friend I mentioned in #4 also said: “I have never felt as connected to God and the universe as I did in the temple.”

    I know I feel a literally physical difference when I step onto the temple grounds – a change in atmosphere, if you will. It’s as if I truly have left “the world” and entered a parallel dimension. That feeling intensifies when I actually step into the temple and the doors close behind me.

    (In that light, it’s interesting to me how the presentation begins – where it places us, both in physical space and in narrative view – seeing the creation from outside our own worldly limits. I absolutely LOVE that aspect.)

  18. Justin, a good reference — thanks.

    Annegb, there are various Masonic rituals, of course. I don’t know what the Rainbow Girl rituals are. However, I do know that the version of Masonry discussed in detail in William Morgan’s book has intricate and detailed connections with Mormon temple practice. People who have looked at both typically describe the links as undeniable. In a spiritual sense, I agree that the connection may be over-emphasized. As a matter of intellectual history, this connection seems to be perhaps the clearest parallel in all of Mormon studies — and one of the few parallels with exact, well-documented paths by which the information has traveled and with early, direct acknowledgment by faithful participants. Here’s a quote from a June 17, 1842 letter by Heber C. Kimball to Parley Pratt (perhaps the most famous single quote on Mormonism and Masonry):

    We have received some pressious things through the Prophet on the preasthood that would cause your Soul to rejoice. I can not give them to you on paper fore they are not to be riten. So you must come and get them for your Self. We have organized a Lodge here of Masons since we obtained a Charter. That was in March. Since that thare was near two hundred been made masons. Br. Joseph and Sidny [Ridgon] was the first that was Received into the Lodg. All of the twelve apostles have become members Except Orson Pratt. He hangs back. He will wake up soon, thare is a similarity of preas Hood in Masonry. Bro. Joseph Ses Masonry was taken from preasthood but has become degenerated. But menny things are perfect.

  19. I recall going to hear Richard Bushman last fall or winter here in Seattle, and hearing him talk about temples as one of Joseph Smith’s unique contributions to American religiousculture, that of a “sacred space”.

    I don’t know if the Masons consider their temples “sacred space” or just secret, but while there are many places we consider “holy” or “hallowed” (ie, Arlington Cemetery, many other churches cathedrals and sanctuaries) Mormonism’s temples are unique in this aspect, Bushman stated.

  20. I also heard Bushman speak recently, and he said something that really resonated with everyone in attendance. He said about Joseph Smith, paraphrasing:

    One of his greatest contributions was how he was able to combine the mundane and the divine. Think about it. In the morning a farmer can be knee deep in mud and muck and manure; later that afternoon that same farmer can be experiencing creation through the eyes of God.

  21. My wife takes better notes than I. What Bro. Bushman said included an important phrase that I didn’t include. Here is the fuller version:

    In the morning a farmer can be knee deep in mud and muck and manure, participating in the creation in a very real, physical way; later that afternoon that same farmer can be experiencing creation through the eyes of God.

  22. Baurak Ale says:

    I liked the article. However I must disagree about this idea that the temple is some kind of timeless vortex, and once you step over the threshold you enter some kind of Twilight Zone where time does not exist.

    I remember my first time as a new patron my escort told me as I glanced at my watch waiting to recieve my initiatories, that time does not exist in here and not to worry about the time. I since pondered that and have come to the conclusion my escort was wrong. I do not know where this idea originated from as far as I know it has no doctrinal or authoritive bases whatsoever it is merely another well circulated mormon myth.

    If like General Zod’s comments on Supermans celestial home the Fortress of Solitude, that it is a merely a poor sentimental replica of a forgotten world and that it has no style at all. I view the temple much like General Zod, merely a poor sentimental attempt at replicating, in microcosm at least a long since forgotten celestial planet. Which isn’t entirely accurate either.

    And according to the Hermetic Maxim ‘that as above so below’. And if I follow Plato theory of forms which would indicated to me that all things in this world are merely a fading shadow of their counterparts in a celestial world, and that everything on this earth has a parallel of things in heaven. Then as there is time on earth so there would be time in heaven, and if the temple is a replica in a small way of heaven then time exists there. And according to the Book of Abraham in reference to kolob we are told there is time in heaven. Timelessness I would say not but I would suggest time slows down in the temple. After all temples are fitted with digital clocks with sessions times in various rooms.

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