The History and Symbolism of Temples

While looking for something else, deep in a desk drawer I stumbled upon my notes for a fireside I was asked to give on the captioned subject in my ward back in 2011. I thought I would share them here in case some of you may find them useful.

History and Symbolism of Temples Fireside
May 22, 2011 Schaumburg Second Ward
I. Natural Temples
A. Our word “temple” derives from Latin templum, which originally was not necessarily a building, but rather a sacred space ritually surveyed and plotted by the priest (called an augur). The root *TEM in the word has the connotation of “cutting” both space and time. In the classical world the temple was a sort of observatory along the cardinal directions for the purpose of reading divine portents in the skies and heavens. In this sense the temple is a place of revelation from God to man.
B. The opposite of sacred space is profane space, from pro fano, meaning outside or out in front of the temple (and not admitted therein with the initiates). The temple is sacred because it is separated from the outside world. (Story of why my dad liked going to the temple—everyone dressed in white, class distinctions don’t apply.) This is why we require certain temple admission standards, evidence of compliance with which is reflected in a document called a “temple recommend.” One obtains a temple recommend by having an interview with the bishop (or one of his counselors), in which he will ask you questions about your belief in God, the Restoration, whether you live the Word of Wisdon, the law of tithing, the law of chastity, whether you are honest in your dealings with your fellow man, and so forth. You then have a second interview with a member of the stake presidency in which he asks the same questions and then countersigns the recommend. (Temple recommends are good for two years before they need to be renewed.)
C. In biblical tradition, Genesis 28 is a good example of a natural temple. Recall that Jacob was travelling to Haran and lay down to sleep. He had a dream in which he saw a ladder (sullam, more like a staircase) reaching up to heaven, and angels ascending and descending on it. God then speaks to him from above and promises him and his seed blessings. When he awakes, he sets up a stone pillar and pours oil on it, and calls the name of the place Bethel, which means “House of God.” So one of the prominent themes of the temple is that it is the House of the Lord, the place where God dwells.
D. The temple represents the primordial hillock, the first land to appear as the flood waters receded. And this of course is a mountain. The temple represents our ascent to God, and symbolically stands for a mountain, just as Moses removed his sandals on the holy ground of Mt. Sinai, or as Brigham Young conducted temple ceremonies on Mt. Nebo when the Saints first arrived in the Great Basin of the mountain west. As we read in Isaiah 2:2: “And it shall come to pass in the last days, [that] the mountain of the LORD’S house shall be established in the top of the mountains, and shall be exalted above the hills; and all nations shall flow unto it.” “Mountain of the LORD’S house” is an epexegetic genitive, meaning that the mountain is the Lord’s house.
II. The Tabernacle
A. The Tabernacle (“tent”) was the first man-made structural temple. Moses received the design for it from God himself, based on the heavenly temple (for details, see Exodus 25-30). A rectangular fence created an outer courtyard, facing to the east. Moving from east to west, one would encounter first the altar of burnt offerings, then the laver (a large pot of water for ritual ablutions). Actually entering through the door of the holy place, on the left is a seven-branched golden lampstand, called the menorah. This burns olive oil and symbolically represents the tree of life. On the right is the table of shewbread, or bread of the presence, which holds twelve loaves of bread that are consumed and replaced each Sabbath day by the priests. In the center is the incense altar. Going further one encounters a veil, and beyond the veil is the Holy of Holies (Hebrew lacks a superlative; this means “most holy” place, in contrast to the holy place), featuring the ark of the covenant. (The Holy of Holies is a square; the holy place is a rectangle equaling two squares.) The ark is a chest with two cherubim (human-headed hybrid winged creatures) on top; inside are relics of Israel’s history (the ten commandments, a jar of manna, Aaron’s rod). There are rings along the top edges of the ark through which staves may be placed to move it. The ark represents the throne of God.
B. The Tabernacle accompanied the children of Israel during their wandering in the wilderness. During the conquest of Canaan it was erected outside the Israelite camp at Gilgal. After the conquest and division of the land into tribal territories, it was moved to Shiloh in the land of Ephraim, where it stood throughout the 300-year reign of the Judges. The ark was captured by the Philistines, and Saul moved the tent to Nob, near his home town of Gibeah, and later moved it again to Gibeon. When the ark was returned, Solomon incorporated elements of the Tabernacle into his new temple in Jerusalem.
III. The Temple as a Microcosm
A. To understand this, we must understand ancient Hebrew cosmology, or how they perceived the universe. The earth is a circular disk and is essentially flat, interrupted by geographic features like rivers, seas and mountains. At the four corners of the world are pillars, and upon these pillars rests a giant, solid dome, called the raqiya’, translated as “firmament” in the KJV. The sky is blue because above the firmament is a celestial ocean. There are windows in this firmament through which water is released as rain (cf. Malachi 3). The celestial bodies (sun, moon, stars) are attached to the firmament, which revolves around the earth. Beneath the earth is the netherworld, Sheol. Above the firmament is the highest heaven, the place where God dwells.
B. The veil of the temple represents the firmament, and when we pass through the veil we are entering the highest heaven, the place where God dwells, represented originally by the ark of the covenant, which is God’s throne. Thus the temple is a microcosm, or model version of how the universe works (in a religious sense). Our modern temples are a little more detailed; in addition to rooms representing the creation and the garden, we then move through rooms representing the Telestial and Terrestrial worlds, and finally when we pass through the veil we symbolically enter the Celestial realm, or the highest heaven.
IV. The Temple as a Place of Atonement
A. When the temple was still standing, the Day of Atonement was a ritual in which the High Priest entered the Holy of Holies and sprinkled sacrificial blood on the Ark of the Covenant.
B. Apart from that, the temple is meant by its architecture to be suggestive of atonement. Theologically, the atonement is made necessary and preceded by the Fall. In the Garden of Eden, you have the trees of life and knowledge, you have Adam and Eve cast out of the Garden to the East, the way back blocked by cherubim and a flaming sword, and the waters of the Garden consisting of four rivers flowing from a common source.
C. The temple symbolically represents a reversal or inversion of the Fall. One enters from East to West. The laver represents the waters of the Garden. The altars represent the flaming sword. And in the Tabernacle, there were images of cherubim embroidered in both the door to the Holy Place and on the veil. The menorah represents the tree of life. So as you pass through the temple, you eventually pass through the veil and are reunited with God. (“Atonement” coined by Tyndale; pure English, “at one.” At the veil we engage in a ritual embrace in which we are once again reunited as one with the Father, we are spiritually reconciled and return to live in His presence.)
V. First and Second Temples
A. Solomon built the first permanent temple structure in Jerusalem. It was destroyed by the Babylonians in 587 B.C. The ark of the covenant was taken at that time, and thereafter the ark was not a part of the temple, since it no longer existed.
B. When Persia came to power and the Jews returned from Exile in Babylon, they rebuilt the temple, from 520 to 515 B.C. Physically it was a pale shadow of Solomon’s temple. This is called the Temple of Zerubabel or the Second Temple.
C. The Second Temple was greatly improved and expanded by Herod the Great.
D. The temple was finally destroyed by the Romans in A.D. 70.
E. Many (not all) Jews look forward to a third temple, built after the pattern described in Ezekiel, to be erected when the Messiah comes.
VI. Restoration of Temple Worship—Kirtland
A. Mormonism is a restorationist Christian faith. Temple worship was a profound religious institution as reflected in both the Old and New Testaments, but with the destruction of the temple in A.D. 70 such worship had not been a part of the church for almost two millennia. So it was natural for temple worship to be renewed as part of the Restoration of All Things. A revelation directing such a restoration was received by the Prophet Joseph in 1832 (D&C 88:119): “Organize yourselves; prepare every needful thing; and establish a house, even a house of prayer, a house of fasting, a house of faith, a house of learning, a house of glory, a house of order, a house of God.”
B. Cornerstone laid in 1833; took three years to construct. Was referred to first as the “stone chapel” and then as the “House of the Lord” (the word “temple” was not yet generally used). One of its major uses was for education, including even secular subjects like math, grammar and geography, as well as Hebrew and theology. The temple continues to be a house of learning, albeit not in the secular sense that obtained at Kirtland.
C. In terms of temple ordinances, washings and anointings were restored in connection with the Kirtland Temple. Washings refer to ritual water ablutions (“ablution” comes from Latin and means to “wash away”). Priests performed such ablutions at the laver, and Christian baptism is one example of such water purification rites. In the ancient Christian church, baptism was immediately followed by an anointing with oil called the “chrism” (related to “Christ,” anointed one). The anointing symbolizes preparation for priesthood and kingship (as both priests and kings received anointings with oil in ancient times). Healing was also an important part of the development of the Kirtland liturgy, and we continue to anoint with oil in healing blessings to this day.
D. The Saints planned to build several temples in Missouri, and had even laid cornerstones for one in Independence and another in Far West, but the persecution they suffered there prevented these structures from actually being built.
VII. Nauvoo and the Fullness of Temple Ordinances
A. The full panoply of temple ordinances we know today was instituted by the Prophet Joseph in Nauvoo. In August 1840, while preaching a funeral sermon for Seymour Brunson, he announced the concept of baptism for the dead. The first such baptisms were performed in the Mississippi River, until the baptismal font in the uncompleted Nauvoo Temple was finished in November 1841 and dedicated for that purpose.
B. The temple liturgy includes five salvific ordinances (what other Christians would call “sacraments”): (i) baptism by immersion for the remission of sins, (ii) confirmation, or the laying on of hands for the Gift of the Holy Ghost, (iii) for men, ordination to the priesthood, (iv) the temple endowment, and (v) the temple sealing. The first three one receives for oneself outside the temple; the last two within the temple. All five of these ordinances may be received by our deceased ancestors in the temple with us acting as proxies for them. A sixth temple ordinance, the Second Anointing, was considered salvific until the early decades of the 20th century, but while this ordinance still exists it is much less common than it used to be and is no longer considered necessary for salvation.
VIII. The Endowment
A. The first endowments and sealings were performed in the upper room of Joseph’s Red Brick Store in 1842. These original ordinances were performed only for living persons. After this work had been initiated, such ordinances were stopped until the Nauvoo temple could be completed. The walls were only partially complete when Joseph and Hyrum were killed in 1844, but the work continued and in December 1845 the interior rooms were sufficiently finished to perform endowments. Over the next two months 5,500 endowments and 2,000 sealings were performed, even as the Saints prepared for the trek west.. Ordinances were performed day and night. Heber C. Kimball insisted that only those with official invitations be admitted to the temple, which is the origin of our modern practice of temple recommends.
B. When we think of an “endowment,” we think of an investment portfolio held by a university or a charitable institution of some sort. This endowment is different, and derives from the Greek verb enduomai, which means “to be clothed upon.” In the endowment we are both figuratively clothed upon or endowed with power from on high, and also actually clothed upon with ritual clothing. First is the temple garment, which is white (to symbolize purity) and contains four marks meant to be constant reminders to us to live a Christ-like life. Bill Maher likes to mock them as “magic underwear,” but in principle they are no different than the Jewish prayer shawl, called a tallit, which features four tassles or tzitzit. [When the woman with a hemorrhage touched the “hem” of Jesus’ garment, she was touching the tzitzit on his tallit.] These tzitzit are tied in a certain way so as to represent the number 613, which is the traditional number of commandments from God given in the Hebrew Bible. And Orthodox Jews actually wear a version of this, the tallit katan or “little” tallit, as an undergarment under their clothes. In principle, that is what our temple garment is as well. (The idea that the garment will protect us from physical danger is a folk belief; the protection it actually affords us is by its constant reminder to us to keep our temple covenants.) In addition to the garment, we also wear special clothing in the temple, which is reminiscent of the robes worn by the temple priests in antiquity.
C. The endowment is a ritual drama. It is rather like the passion plays of the Middle Ages, except that the subject matter is the creation and the Fall. In the endowment we make a number of covenants or promises, which constitute our determination to live a Christ-like life.
D. The endowment is not like a normal church service. Rather, it is a liturgical service, in the sense that it is a defined ritual given in a specific order and using specific, set words. (The only liturgical part of our sacrament meetings is the sacrament itself.) It is rather like a Catholic mass in that respect, only more participatory.
IX. Sealing
Jesus gave his apostles the power to bind in heaven as on earth, which we call the sealing power. We believe that exaltation is not accomplished individually, but as a married couple, and that a temple sealing allows a husband and wife to retain that relationship in the highest heaven, to undo the wording of the Book of Common Prayer to the effect that a wedding is only “til death do you part.”
X. History of Modern Temples
A. Only four days after arriving in the Salt Lake Valley, Brigham Young selected the site for a temple there. For a couple of years endowments were performed in the Council House, but in 1855 a temporary structure called the Endowment House was built on the northwest corner of what is now temple square to enable certain ordinances to continue until a temple could be built. The Endowment House was a two-story adobe building, 44’ x 34’ with later additions. It was one of the first buildings in Utah to have indoor bathrooms. Sealings of children and proxy endowments were not performed there, but had to await an actual temple. The Endowment House was razed to the ground in 1889.
B. The first temples in the west were St. George (1877), Logan (1884) and Manti (1888). Finally, the Salt Lake Temple, which took 40 years to build, was dedicated in 1893. At the turn of the century, these were the four operating temples.
C. In the first half of the 20th century, four more temples were built: Hawaii (1919), Cardston, Alberta (1923), Mesa, Arizona (1927) [where Spanish sessions were first offered], and Idaho Falls (1945).
D. The 1950s saw the first temples in Europe, in Switzerland and London. In 1953 under the direction of Gordon B. Hinckley the dramatic elements of the endowment were filmed so that the ceremony could be presented in a single room rather than the much larger space of a live endowment. The first temple films were simply reproductions of a live endowment, but later versions of the film used sets, costumes and other theatrical elements. Today virtually all temples use film, which also makes it much easier to present the endowment in multiple languages. Live endowments are still performed in the Salt Lake and Manti temples. Newer temples, while still using film, have moved back to using multiple rooms with murals (as opposed to a single room); the restored Nauvoo temple is a good example of this recent trend.
E. Since the mid-20th century the construction of temples greatly accelerated. (Chicago dedicated in 1985.) There are now 134 operating temples throughout the world, with ten more under construction and over a dozen others announced.


  1. Anthony Simister says:

    Awesome post. I love symbolism and all that it shows us and is used for. I can’t wait to go through this article more in detail. Thanks.

  2. Awesome post, Kevin!!

  3. Prairie Saint says:

    Nice book outline . . . . hint hint

  4. Thank you, Kevin, for this. These are great notes, and I’m glad you felt to share them here.

  5. Bro. B. says:

    Informative post Kevin. Thanks. What was your source for “Moses received the design for it from God himself, based on the heavenly temple (for details, see Exodus 25-30).” I couldn’t find the word heaven or heavenly in those chapters.

  6. Kevin Barney says:

    I don’t specifically remember what I was thinking of, Bro. B, but it may have been Hebrews 8:3-5:

    3 For every high priest is ordained to offer gifts and sacrifices: wherefore it is of necessity that this man have somewhat also to offer.

    4 For if he were on earth, he should not be a priest, seeing that there are priests that offer gifts according to the law:

    5 Who serve unto the example and shadow of heavenly things, as Moses was admonished of God when he was about to make the tabernacle: for, See, saith he, that thou make all things according to the pattern shewed to thee in the mount.