JKC continues his series
In the last two Parts (Part I & Part II), I explained my suggestion that despite the fact that the endowment liturgy that is now familiar was first administered in some form, in Nauvoo, the essential principles of the endowment were all revealed in the Kirtland-era revelations in the early to mid 1830s, and that the Kirtland endowment experience was not just a single event, but ranged from late 1830 to early 1836, culminating in the 1836 vision of Jesus in the temple, declaring that his servants had been endowed in that house.
In this part, I’ll sketch out my new perspective on the Nauvoo endowment liturgy as an ordinance that perhaps looks back toward the Kirtland endowment.
III: A new perspective
For the reasons explained in the last two posts, I think I was mistaken to say that the endowment did not happen until Nauvoo. Kirtland was the time and the place where Jesus himself appeared and accepted the temple as his house, filled it with his presence as with a mighty rushing wind, poured out the Holy Ghost and the gifts of the spirit on his church, and bestowed upon them the keys of the priesthood, and I think I was wrong to think of it as just a “pre-endowment” that would later be superseded and could be safely forgotten.
If we don’t see the endowment in Kirtland, maybe that is because we are looking too much for what President McKay called the “mechanics” of the endowment, rather than the principles that those ceremonial details are based on and designed to teach:
“Do you remember when you first went through the House of the Lord? I do. And I went out disappointed. Just a young man, out of college, anticipating great things when I went to the Temple. I was disappointed and grieved, and I have met hundreds of young men and young women since who had that experience. I have now found out why.
“There are two things in every Temple: mechanics, to set forth certain ideals, and symbolism, what those mechanics symbolize. I saw only the mechanics when I first went through the Temple. I did not see the spiritual. I did not see the symbolism of spirituality. . . . I was blind to the great lesson of purity behind the mechanics. I did not hear the message of the Lord. . . .
“How many of us young men saw that? We thought we were big enough and with intelligence sufficient to criticize the mechanics of it and we were blind to the symbolism, the message of the spirit. And then that great ordinance, the endowment. The whole thing is simple in the mechanical part of it, but sublime and eternal in its significance.
Quoted in Gregory Prince and Wm. Robert Wright. David O. McKay and the Rise of Modern Mormonism, p. 277 (Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 2005).
If we look for the “mechanics” of the current temple endowment in the historical experience of the Kirtland endowment, we will not find them, at least not in more than a few of them, and in a very abbreviated way. But if we look for the principles and the covenants of endowment–the idea that we must become sanctified by receiving God’s law, including principles of obedience, sacrifice, holiness, chastity, and consecration, that we must bind ourselves to live these principles, and the promise that as we do become so sanctified, we will receive God’s presence–then we find those principles all over the Kirtland endowment.
We often think of the Kirtland endowment experience as being at most an incomplete shadow of the Nauvoo endowment that was to come later. But what if it were something like the other way around? What if, rather than Kirtland only anticipating the real thing that would only later come in Nuavoo, instead Nauvoo looks back to the real thing that had already come before in Kirtland?
So here’s a new perspective: Maybe Kirtland was not just a pre-endowment that was superseded and erased by the Nauvoo endowment; Maybe Kirtland was the promised endowment. If so, then maybe the endowment liturgy that developed in Nauvoo does not supersede that endowment, but rather preserves the memory of the endowment–the moment when the saints were “endowed with power from on high,” and systematizes and organizes the essential principles of that endowment into a ceremony that not only preserves the memory of that event, but, more importantly, provides a point of access for all saints throughout the ages to participate in that event, overcoming the distances of time and space.
This does not, I think, make the Nauvoo and post-Nauvoo endowment liturgy less important than the Kirtland endowment. To the contrary, by transcending the distances in time and space between the two it makes them really part of the same event. In fact, this is, I believe, why the endowment liturgy does not explicitly mention the Kirtland, despite the fact that I think it does implicitly call Kirtland to mind. The point is that Kirtland was the moment when the endowment came to this dispensation, but the endowment is bigger than just Kirtland, it belongs to all the ages.
 This becomes even more poignant as the idea of vicarious temple work for the dead develops, so that the Nauvoo endowment liturgy becomes a point of access to the endowment received in Kirtland not only for future generations, but for past generations as well.
Next Part: how the Endowment and the Eucharist both turn memory into reality.