The Unfinished Endowment

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Cory B. Jensen is a longtime temple worker and author of Completing Your Endowment, which traces the history of the endowment.

In May of 1842, Joseph Smith first introduced the temple endowment to nine men in the room above his Red Brick Store. Over the next eighteen months, Joseph continued to add to this basic endowment. He introduced separate prayer circle meetings, sealing for time and eternity of a husband and wife, and a capstone two-part ritual sometimes referred to as the second endowment or second anointing. By the time of his death in 1844, Joseph had endowed about thirty-seven men and thirty-two women.

Unfortunately, Joseph never had the completed Nauvoo temple to work with and he left Brigham Young a charge to complete the work. Brigham Young recalled: “Bro. Joseph turned to me and said: ‘Brother Brigham this is not arranged right but we have done the best we could under the circumstances in which we are placed, and I wish you to take this matter in hand and organize and systematize all these ceremonies with the signs, tokens, penalties and key words.’ I did so, and each time I got something more, so that when we went through the temple at Nauvoo I understood and knew how to place them there. We had our ceremonies pretty correct.” [1]

About a year and a half after Joseph’s martyrdom, Brigham began to introduce the endowment to the general Church membership. This was done in the attic of the still-unfinished Nauvoo Temple using canvas partitions. As these endowments proceeded, Brigham continued to make additions, changes and alterations to the ceremony Joseph had introduced. By time of the exodus from Nauvoo over 5,000 members had been endowed. Endowment ordinances resumed in Utah in 1852 in the Council House and then in the Endowment House that was completed in 1855.

However, it was not until 1877 with the completion of the St. George Temple, that the endowment ceremony was finally committed to writing. For nearly 35 years (from May 1842 to April 1877), it had existed and been transmitted only orally. Variations then occurring between the endowment sessions concerned President Young who wanted to standardize the ceremony. On January 14, 1877, Brigham tasked a committee, comprised of Wilford Woodruff, Brigham Young Jr., John D. T. McAllister and L. John Nuttall, with this charge: “write out the Ceremony of the Endowments from Beginning to End.” [2]

The process took several months to complete with changes, revisions, and much discussion ensuing over the specific wording. As part of this written endowment, Brigham introduced a 30-minute lecture which was delivered at the veil at the conclusion of the endowment. The lecture outlined some of Brigham Young’s Adam-God theory that has since been renounced and removed by the Church. Brigham Young also added an oath of vengeance to the ceremony in response to the martyrdom of Joseph and Hyrum. This was also subsequently removed.

By the time Brigham finished working on the endowment, it is possible he left fingerprints in places Joseph never intended. Some of those may remain to this day. Even at the end, Brigham Young never seemed completely satisfied with the ceremony and remained uncertain as to how to proceed.  He concluded that things would be fixed in the Millennium. [3]  President John Taylor similarly concluded: “Had Joseph Smith lived he would have had much more to say on many of those points which he was prevented from doing by his death.”  [4]  This view of the ceremonies as unfinished left the door open to continued changes and modifications both to the ceremonies themselves and to Church policies surrounding them. [5] Church leaders, following Brigham Young, continued to make changes and refinements.

For some Church members today, the temple is not a good experience.  Their feelings are real. The reasons members sometimes struggle with the temple are varied. Some concerns might be alleviated by better understanding the endowment’s history. Tracing that full history is beyond the scope of this article, but it is interesting that Wilford Woodruff, who helped write the first 1877 version, seems to have felt that the underlying principles in the endowment were more important than the specific wording of the ceremony. I agree with that sentiment. That view would caution against placing too much weight upon specific phrases or wording.

If we view the endowment as “perfect” in its present form, then parts of it remain troubling for some members. If, instead, we recognize these revisions and changes as an ongoing effort by Church leadership to improve and perfect the temple ceremonies then perhaps, in their present form, they can be viewed as being more fluid and open, and less rigid and dogmatic. For example, it may be completely appropriate for women and men who are troubled by the wording of a particular covenant to view the underlying meaning and intent rather than interpreting the words literally, especially if that helps them see the overall endowment in a more positive light.

We potentially risk overlooking the good that could be gleaned from the endowment ceremony if we get hung up on a perceived negative element.  Please understand that I am not suggesting that we willy-nilly adjust the endowment to suit our personal preferences and whims. Not at all. But I do think we can and should approach the endowment prayerfully and seek additional help and insight from the Lord, particularly with anything that troubles us, with the understanding that there may be something we can glean even from things we initially disagree with.


[1] John Nuttall Journal, February 7, 1877, Special Collections, Harold B. Lee Library, Brigham Young University, Provo, Utah, as quoted in David Buerger, The Mysteries of Godliness, 73.

[2]  Scott Kenney, ed., Wilford Woodruff’s Journal, 9 vols. (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1984), 7:322, as quoted in David John Buerger, The Mysteries of Godliness (San Francisco: Smith Research Associates, 1994), 110.

[3]  Richard S. Van Wagoner, ed., The Complete Discourses of Brigham Young: Volume 2, 1853 to 1856, (Salt Lake City, Signature Books), 1034.

[4] Salt Lake School of the Prophets Minute Book, October 12, 1883, as quoted in Buerger, Mysteries, 116.

[5]  An entire book has been compiled to trace this topic since Joseph’s death. See Devery S. Anderson, ed., The Development of LDS Temple Worship: 1846 – 2000 A Documentary History (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 2011).

Comments

  1. Pretty much how we can look at any part of the Church, the people, or even the Church as a whole; an unfinished work.

    Unfortunately, that view is more often used to excuse visible problems or minimize the pain of others. I can hope the comments don’t flow that way.

  2. J. Stapley says:

    I would add that Beurger’s volume isn’t a very good history of the liturgy. For those interested, Signature has put their edition of the Nuttall diaries up at archive.org, and the CHL has put up digital copies of the SLC School of the Prophets minutes. The Woodruff diaries are also fairly accessible.

    People that have been through the temple in the last 10 years (and particularly the last 30) have witnessed significant revisions to the liturgy. We should expect to see similar things as long as we have the temple.

  3. Cory, I appreciate the history and its demonstration that the “endowment” language is neither perfect nor final. But I’m wondering how, as a practical matter, to encourage friends “…who are troubled by the wording of a particular covenant to view the underlying meaning and intent rather than interpreting the words literally…” when we have no indication of the underlying meaning or intent of some of those covenants other than the words. Some words of the disparate gender-specific obedience covenants were changed recently enough, that it is not unreasonable for them to assume the current intent is adequately expressed in the literal words. Some find it difficult to reconcile those disparate covenants with 2 Nephi 26:33. Suggesting they pray about it is not helpful. They already have — long, faithfully, and seriously. Maybe what the OP and the history are suggesting is that they simply don’t take the temple covenants seriously. That doesn’t sit well with some of those who do take honesty and integrity seriously. Got any practical suggestions for discovering an “underlying meaning and intent” that differs from the words?

  4. JR: Let me preface this by saying that I don’t expect anyone to take my opinion on this as the final word or as a pat answer that neatly resolves the issues you mention. But here are a couple thoughts: In my view, the underlying meaning and intent of the endowment liturgy is, in a nutshell, to take the endowment of power that the church experienced at the Kirtland temple dedication and provide a way to make that endowment of power accessible to all saints across space and time by providing a way to symbolically receive God’s law and symbolically enter his presence the way the saints in Kirtland did. In that sense, it’s doing something similar to what the sacrament does: it witnesses our willingness to keep God’s commandments, and it provides us with his presence, and endows us with his spirit. I did an old series of posts on this a while back. https://bycommonconsent.com/2016/03/11/endowment-and-eucharist-iv/

  5. JKC: Yes, that approach is helpful to some who are willing to see the endowment as a whole in a historical context. Your old series of posts deserves more study than I have yet given it. It has also occurred to me to suggest to some who are troubled by the words that they consider an approach similar to one I saw demonstrated by a contemporary Presbyterian minister on Trinity Sunday a year or so ago (I was the substitute organist that week). He introduced the congregational recitation of the Nicene Creed by stating that included matters he neither understood nor believed, but that if that were a problem for some, they could nevertheless join in the recitation, thinking of it as poetry, in honoring a significant, historical Christian tradition intended to express faith in God, however inadequately the particular words might express their faith. That approach, however, comes very close to saying “don’t take the covenant too seriously.” Another has suggested recognizing that the inclusion of women at all was “progressive” in the mid-19th century and that we should be willing to “share the Church” with others including those from the 19th century, that in the meantime nothing at all prevents a woman from privately making precisely the same covenant expected of men, and nothing prevents a husband from making privately precisely the same covenant with his wife that she is expected to make with him in the endowment ceremony. Maybe there are other suggestions to be made that my troubled friends would find more helpful. I haven’t yet found them.

  6. Jack Hughes says:

    JR,

    I like the approach of the Presbyterian minister you mentioned above. Indeed, the only way I’m able to enjoy the endowment ceremony anymore is by not taking it too seriously, instead appreciating the historical significance, the allegorical narratives, the shared cultural touchstone, and recognizing that some parts of it are historical relics or leftovers from Freemasonry that don’t really apply today. It’s changed many times over the years, and it will change again. When I received my own endowment, I was overwhelmed by the weirdness of it, and also a bit frightened by the severity of the covenants and such, so I purposely avoided going back to the temple for over a year. It would have been a much more positive experience if, at the beginning of the ceremony, my father or a temple worker would have whispered in my ear, “don’t take this too seriously!”

  7. Why not tell the whole story? That the temple ceremony resembled many of the practices of masons, at the time. That Joseph Smith and Brigham Young were both active in freemasonry. It does no good to ignore it.

    As far as the second anointing is concerned, it was one of the practices revealed by the Nauvoo Expositor. Why not discuss what it means since you brought it up? It allows the recipient to have their calling and election “made sure”, meaning they could commit whatever sin, with the exception of a few, and still receive their place in the Celestial Kingdom.

    The lack of transparency in these discussions is what drove people like me away from the church in the first place.

  8. Thank you, Cory, for your insight. Likewise, terrific comments. The more I struggle with church (meaning the Salt Lake church and–to a lesser degree–local church, and in either case, the POLITICS of church), the more desperately I rely on personal prayer, scripture study, and the temple. When I’m not doing enough of those latter three things, or not doing those things WELL enough, the Salt Lake and local church loom too large. But the temple liturgy has its thorny places, too. An acquaintance with various histories of the endowment (most of which would mortify our orthodox brothers and sisters) helps put the thorniness in its imperfect, human context, and makes it at least a little easier to tolerate. Easy for me to say, I know, being a straight white male. My wife has reached a point where she absolutely cannot bear to hear a particular endowment phrase, and therefore will not take in an endowment session. (It would make a colossal difference if the otherwise noncanonical “to their husbands” could go the way of the oath of vengeance, penalties, Adamic language, the preacher role, and “because thou hast hearkened unto the voice of thy wife.” I mean, if we can let go of a line from Genesis and the Pearl of Great Price, I see no reason why we can’t drop a phrase that isn’t rooted in either scripture or in canonized modern revelation.) She only goes to the temple nowadays for sealings and initiatory.

  9. Terry H. says:

    For those who might be interested in the context of the endowment and other types of biblical covenants, I highly recommend Scott W. Hahn’s contribution to the Anchor Yale Bible Reference Library (2009) called Kinship and Covenant. It is the most detailed review of covenants, covenantal language, symbols, gestures, etc. that I’ve run across. The notes and bibliography alone are worth the price of the book. It changed my life and my scripture study.

  10. J. Stapley says:

    John, while the sensativities of the community an d institution loom over any discussion of the temple liturgy, there is also widespread miscomprehension of what the the various aspects of the liturgy were doing. A lot of that is because a lot of people stopped paying attention to the scholarship after the early 1990s, of which your comment is a reasonable example.

  11. JR, thanks for your thoughtful questions. I don’t have short, easy answer. In fact, this article was extremely challenging. Originally it was 9000 words in length. When I submitted it to By Common Consent, they liked it but told me to reduce it to 900 words or less. So I can perhaps give a lot more food for thought, but I would refer you to my book, Completing Your Endowment. You can download a free PDF copy from my website templeendowment.com

  12. Thanks, Terry H. I will study Hahn’s “Kinship and Covenant.”
    J., re your comment to John — Are there accessible scholarly studies you would choose to point to in addition to your recent book? I doubt I’ll get to the diaries myself. I found Buerger’s “Mysteries of Godliness” not particularly helpful and you’ve mentioned it not being a very good history of the liturgy. The temple-devotional literature has so far been particularly unhelpful. (I haven’t read Cory’s, but I’ve been kind of put off by books similarly marketed.)

  13. I wish that “We would have more, but he died” wasn’t an excuse. If the president of the church really is receiving revelation, if one dies the next one should be able to pick up where the other one left off.

  14. Cory, thanks again. I have downloaded “Complete Your Endowment” and will read.

  15. Rachel E O says:

    JR says: “in the meantime nothing at all prevents a woman from privately making precisely the same covenant expected of men, and nothing prevents a husband from making privately precisely the same covenant with his wife that she is expected to make with him in the endowment ceremony” (I assume you meant sealing ceremony at the end there… also, I would extend this to the current lack of symmetry in the initiatory)

    FWIW, that’s what I have long felt inspired to do and have done. It doesn’t erase all of the discomfort I feel with the endowment ceremony, but it at least helps me feel more connected to and honest with God.

  16. J. Stapley says:

    JR, I’d check out Bill’s recent volume on 132, and Sam Brown’s *In Heaven.*

  17. J. Stapley says:

    I should also note that I just scrolled through Cory’s volume and find it highly problematic.

  18. Wilhelm says:

    @Michael H:

    >An acquaintance with various histories of the endowment (most of which would mortify our orthodox brothers and sisters) helps put the thorniness in its imperfect, human context, and makes it at least a little easier to tolerate.

    Being an “orthodox brother” myself, I can’t help but chuckle at these sorts of arrogant, gnostic assertions; that the enlightened Mormon Progressive (MoProg?) has a higher more nuanced acquaintance with doctrine and history that would “mortify” us quaint TBMs.

  19. So, now I’ve been back through JKC’s posts yet again.

    “…the temple liturgy is the ceremonial form that the endowment takes now, but the endowment itself is the outpouring of the Holy Ghost that ceremony is supposed to trigger…” Part II.

    This concept may be at the heart of the modern push to return to the temple often as a matter of personal “worship.” It implicitly clarifies the problem of those who are significantly “troubled by the wording of a particular covenant” or by some other aspect of the liturgy. That is, for them the liturgy itself ensures its own failure to achieve its purpose. The question remains what to do about it. The common encouragement to go more often seems, without more, as likely to compound their sense of offense as to resolve it. Perhaps the needed “more” will turn out to be non-literal understanding in a historical context.

  20. A very good thing to keep in mind. I went in with the expectation that the temple rituals were perfect, ancient, infallible, and straight from the mouth of God. It’s been very helpful to me to learn that the ordinances have gone through lots of iterations and changes—otherwise I would have a LOT of questions about what God thinks about His daughters.

  21. Steve LHJ says:

    Just wanted to second what J. Stapley mentioned. Spent a few hours working through Cory’s book, and started out okay with in my opinion a lot of errors in doctrine, but I don’t think bad doctrine is particularly harmful if it comes from a place of honest seeking, I would say there were many things that came across as commendable. But slowly and then more overtly it veered into directions more problematic, aside from the pseudo-history, that I have seen turn people against truth and love, into fighting against the church, and ultimately to excommunication. Cory, I love you as a fellow-saint, I think much about your work and effort is commendable, there is a lot of good in the OP here, I just hope the other stuff doesn’t break you, I hope it is simply error in doctrine and not in spirit, fair warning to others.

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