Mormon Temples – How They Work. Part 2.

Part 1 is here.

Most temples have their own unique design elements directed to setting the stage for what the Saints regard as sacred activities. They also represent architectural design trends from the era in which these temples were built, the preferences of the architect(s) and the direction of Church leaders. On the inside, despite the uniqueness of design vision that may exist, there are certain necessities required by function.[1]

How does a Temple function?

The service structure of a Temple is engaged with the sacramental purposes of a Temple. Basically these currently are:

1. Perform proxy baptisms (and confirmations) for the dead.
2. Perform proxy ordinations for the dead (males only).
3. Perform proxy “endowments” for the dead.
4. Perform endowments for the living.
5. Perform proxy sealings (marriages) for the dead.
6. Perform sealings (marriages) for the living.

In contrast to a number of other Mormon sacerdotal expressions, nearly all of temple liturgy is prescribed in detail, word for word, by the Church. The temple is an engine for distributing much of the blessings, sacral knowledge and Divine promises and covenants of Mormonism.

Once a Latter-day Saint has received the ordinances and instructions of the endowment, he or she may act as proxy in any of the other sacraments found in the temple for a deceased person, often an ancestor. Thus, much of temple activity involves patrons acting as proxy for a deceased person, to grant them the sacramental promises and grace associated with the temple ordinances.

Acting as a proxy involves having the name of a dead individual already registered with the temple, performing the ordinance in behalf of the deceased person (in their name) and having that action recorded by the temple which in turn reports the action for permanent record at Church headquarters. The form of the proxy ordinance was suggested by early Saints and Joseph Smith himself.[2]

For example, baptism is the method for a convert to Mormonism to become a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The prescribed form (in English) for the person performing the baptism is: “(speaks the name of the person being baptized), having been commissioned of Jesus Christ, I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.” The person is then fully immersed by the baptizer. In the case of a proxy baptism Latter-day Saints believe that the dead are proselytized by authorized souls in the world of spirits. Since Mormons believe that the salvific sacraments are necessary for all who have lived on earth and that those ordinances must be performed on earth, they must be performed by living proxies in behalf of the dead. The spoken portion of the baptismal ordinance for the dead is “(living proxy person’s name) having been commissioned of Jesus Christ, I baptize you, for and in behalf of, (name of dead person) who is dead, in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.” The proxy is then completely immersed.[3] Other ordinances like confirmation, etc. are similarly modified when performed by proxy for a dead person.

To understand the duties of the main temple functionaries, the temple ordinance workers, certain aspects of the endowment ceremonies should be understood. The endowment consists of two distinct parts which were obliquely referred to above.
(1) The “initiatory ordinances” and
(2) the endowment proper.
The initiatory ordinances are signaled by revelation and consist of symbolic washing and anointing. For example, Joseph Smith’s 1841 revelation text (D&C 124) reads in part:

37 And again, verily 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?
38 For, for this cause I commanded Moses that he should build a tabernacle, that they should bear it with them in the wilderness, and to build a house in the land of promise, that those ordinances might be revealed which had been hid from before the world was.
39 Therefore, verily I say unto you, that your anointings, and your washings, and your baptisms for the dead, and your solemn assemblies, and your memorials for your sacrifices by the sons of Levi, and for your oracles in your most holy places wherein you receive conversations, and your statutes and judgments, for the beginning of the revelations and foundation of Zion, and for the glory, honor, and endowment of all her municipals, are ordained by the ordinance of my holy house, which my people are always commanded to build unto my holy name.
40 And verily I say unto you, let this house be built unto my name, that I may reveal mine ordinances therein unto my people;

The endowment proper consists of instruction and covenant-making partly displayed in dramatic form, partly in symbolic procedure. Like any sacramental exercise, viewing it out of context, absent the devotional setting and foundational knowledge which gives it meaning, could make it appear strange, a rote thing of no value. At its heart, the endowment symbolizes the challenges of living a Christian life, illustrating the process of sanctification and the reward which comes with striving for the holy life. At the end of the ceremonial session, the participants exit the instructional area to the Celestial Room, symbolizing heaven, or the presence of God.
A Celestial Room is therefore beautifully and tastefully appointed to represent that sanctuary. The Celestial Room serves no formal liturgical purpose beyond being a place for private prayer and meditation.[4]

To provide such service requires human assistance. Someone must perform said sacraments or ordinances for those temple patrons who come to the temple for that purpose. This brings us to the personnel structure of a temple.

[Part 3.]
[1] Joseph Smith and early temple initiates regarded temple activities as representing both a restoration of ancient practice as well as new elements pertaining to the times, unknown in earlier eras. We do not explore those questions here, neither will we consider the history of temple liturgy among Latter-day Saints. Our study here involves present praxis.

[2] In its early institution, those who received the endowment, could and did receive it over again not only as a training experience but as a kind of renewal experience much as early members could be rebaptized and reconfirmed to renew the baptismal vows as well as the remission of sins.

[3] Joseph Smith’s sermon of 27 March 1842 reflects the language of the proxy version, which was established in 1840.

[4] The dedication exercise for a new temple takes place in the Celestial Room of the temple [unless the temple was constructed with an assembly room]. The Celestial Room design is essentially unique to each temple, again reflecting the time period of construction, the architect’s concept and Church leader’s input and approval as with the temple in general. Typically, temples have historically been the province of the First Presidency and that responsibility is not usually shared with other Church officers in terms of decision to build, site selection, design and other basic factors.


  1. Kevin Barney says:

    When you’re done with this series, we should make it available for people about to go through for the first time. This is way more explanatory than what people get in the temple prep lessons, which are totally useless.

  2. Kevin makes a good point.

    I think it is helpful to consider the initiatory rituals with the context of the Israelite temples. The temple is the place where priesthood, family and community become one, being bracketed with the initiatory on one end and sealing rituals on the other.

  3. J., agreed on the initiatory ordinances. I tried to at least hint at this in part 1. Your second sentence is well put. I may have to steal it.

    Ok by me Kevin.

  4. J: Would you mind elaborating on how the temple is the place where priesthhod, family and community become one?

  5. Make that “priesthood.”

  6. Very concise. I like how you owned up to Joseph’s encounter with Masonry both early and efficiently.

  7. In Temples with an Assembly Room, the dedication takes place in that room, not the Celestial Room. But as nearly all Temples being constructed now are of the smaller design, this note is more of a historical point than anything.

  8. Good point, Alex. Pres. Hinckely had some larger temples then in planning stages redesigned with assembly rooms. The point being to have a spot for instruction of local leaders.

  9. As far as I know, the only temples with assembly rooms are St. George, Logan, Manti, Salt Lake, Los Angeles, and Washington.

  10. Seattle has an “Assembly Room” that is not designed like the Pioneer archetypes. It is basically just a big space. Not sure how many other period temples have such things.

  11. I don’t know for sure which temples were involved. I heard E. Maxwell say this. He added this in regard to the First Pres. in the context of temples: “they never tell us anything.”

  12. Oh, and of course Kirtland and Nauvoo.

    10: When I attended the Jordan River open house, we entered through a large unfinished basement space. I can only speculate as to its purpose, but it seemed big enough to play football in. It didn’t seem designed for any kind of assembly, though.

  13. I just remembered one of temples Elder Maxwell was talking about: Dominican Republic. I’m sure he said it was redesigned with an assembly room.

  14. Peter Henderson says:

    The paragraphs on proxy work are an excellent summary of the doctrine. One point I would add is to say that Saints believe that by performing temple work by proxy, we offer an opportunity to the deceased individual to accept the work done in his or her behalf. We do not have the convenience that we do with living people of receiving their consent before performing the ordinances, so instead we perform ordinances for every deceased individual whose name we can locate and believe that he or she can choose to accept the work at any time in the future. Thus, the proxy ordinances are not binding upon the deceased unless (or until) they are accepted.

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