“done in cleanliness”

Image by Jill Wellington from Pixabay

Over the last couple weeks, a number of family and friends have renewed their temple recommends over Zoom.

You may remember that about a year ago (in the pre-pandemic days!), the church updated the temple recommend questions. For these friends and family, then, this was the first time they were asked the new questions. Out of curiosity (both over their experience and my upcoming renewal), I took a quick look at the new questions, and something struck my eye: Question 5. According to the church’s website, question 5 now reads:

The Lord has said that all things are to be “done in cleanliness” before Him (Doctrine and Covenants 42:41).

Do you strive for moral cleanliness in your thoughts and behavior?

Do you obey the law of chastity?

Now on the one hand, this is nothing new. The temple recommend interview has always asked about living the law of chastity. On the other, though, I don’t remember it having had a scripture attached to it before. So I took a look at D&C 42:41.

The verse is short and simple. It says, “And let all things be done in cleanliness before me.”

But does cleanliness here have a law-of-chastity implication? In the first instance, it is clearly possible that it does. Using “clean” to mean “morally pure” would not have been anachronistic—Webster’s 1828 dictionary included, as its 4th definition for the word clean, “Free from moral impurity; innocent.”

Still, that didn’t strike me as the connotation being used in D&C 42. (A quick interjection that shouldn’t be necessary, but I’ve been blogging long enough to know that it is: none of what follows is to even suggest that the church can’t or shouldn’t condition temple entrance on obeying the law of chastity. This is purely an exploration of D&C 42:41 and the church’s use of that verse in the temple recommend interview.)

The first reason is structural. See, D&C 42 does talk about the law of chastity. In verses 18-29 (or so), the section reaffirms the Ten Commandments. Verses 22-26 explicitly discuss adultery and lust. And then? We get another ten verses or so of consecration. And then we get to cleanliness.

And, in fact, cleanliness is the second of three injunctions that come between consecration and healing: simple dress, cleanliness, and lack of idleness. Given the textual distance between morality[fn1] and cleanliness and the fact that cleanliness is listed right next to other physical attributes, its use makes more sense literally. That is, given its place in the text, cleanliness probably means being physically clean.

To back that up: Grant Underwood writes that these were common ideals in communitarian societies. And, while I’m no expert in communitarian societies (and he doesn’t provide a citation for that assertion), it makes sense. The early 19th century was right around the beginnings of a hygienic movement. Richard and Claudia Bushman write that between 1750 and 1900, “washing went from being an occasional and haphazard routine of a small segment of the population to a regular practice of the large bulk of the people.” They point to some religious motivation toward personal cleanliness—sanitary reformers, for instance, wanted to teach the poor to stay clean and taught that there was a religion to cleanliness. And Quakers were apparently well-known for their physical cleanliness. But for most Protestants, cleanliness was only one of many parts of the respectability they hoped to achieve. Rather, the primary impetus underlying the move to cleanliness was class-aspirational.

Still, it’s worth pointing out that the Shakers, another communitarian religious group, venerated cleanliness. They wanted to create Heaven on Earth, and believed that clean, sanitary living conditions contributed to good health. (Later, Baptist Sunday School missionaries went to Native Americans to teach “cleanliness, industry, temperance, and purity.”)

And Mormonism cared about physical cleanliness, too. An 1830s article from the Messenger and Advocate titled “Cleanliness Necessary for Salvation” asks rhetorically “if the immortal part of man must be washed and be made clean, why not the mortal also! we have samples enough to prove this fact.”

The 1840s manuscript history of the church includes correspondence from the Boston Bee that had been quoted in the Times and Seasons.[fn2] The author writes:

for it never occurred to me that clean hands, in administering before the Lord, as mentioned in the Scripture, meant any thing more than a good conscience, and I had never supposed but that a man could worship God just as acceptably, all covered with dirt, and filth and slime, as though he had bathed in Siloam every hour, until I heard the Mormon prophet lecturing his people on the subject of neatness and cleanliness, teaching them that all was clean in Heaven, and that Jesus was going to make the place of his feet glorious, and if the Mormons did not keep their feet out of the ashes they could not stand with him on Mount Zion.

I had no thought before but that dirty people could get to Heaven, as well as clean ones; and that if the priests offered sacrifice with polluted hands, the fire would cleanse both the offering and the hands that offered it.

So apparently, Joseph Smith taught that physical cleanliness was critical to getting into heaven.

This idea of the necessity of physical cleanliness carried through the early Utah period. In 1856, Jedediah M. Grant preached a sermon emphasizing physical cleanliness. He explained that “I actually suppose that in the instructions which an angel of God would give, the very first lesson would be to teach cleanliness to the filthy, and then instruct them to keep themselves cleanly all the time.” He mentioned that the Provo River had plenty of water to keep people clean, and decried filth, with its “nauseous and unhealthy odors.”

A year later, President D.H. Wells told the Saints

be cleanly in our persons and in our habitations; for the Holy Ghost will not dwell in unholy temples. It is an insult to the Holy Spirit for us to be filthy, and it may be grieved away if we do not observe cleanliness.

(I’m going to be honest: looking at this history of cleanliness in the church has helped me immeasurably in understanding Joseph F. Smith’s dream in which he’s told he’s late, and responds, “Yes, but I am clean—I am clean!”)

So why did the church use D&C 42:41 in the temple recommend question about the law of chastity? No idea.[fn3] While we’re clearly under divine injunction to be moral, the verse is talking about physical cleanliness.

[fn1] I’m going to use morality in this post to mean not having sex with anyone who is not your spouse. That’s not the only, or even the best, connotation, but it’s a common enough one in Mormonism, and it’s a lot more efficient than any other circumlocution I can quickly come up with.

[fn2] In fact, I’d cite to Times and Seasons, but BYU’s scanning only includes the odd-numbered pages, and I need page 200.

[fn3] Okay, one idea: I suspect someone was doing a text search for “clean” and didn’t bother looking at the context.


  1. Thank you, Sam Brunson, for your common-sense expansion of “clean” to mean exactly that. Our lunatic obsession w/ sex also prevents us from including under descriptor “unclean” legal but exploitive financial enterprises which are common among the Saints, and I’m not just referring to multi-level marketing.

  2. I like this, Sam, thanks! I suppose (but am not searching for confirmation) that the motto “Cleanliness is next to Godliness” comes from the same era the Bushmans wrote about.

    And I’d bet the farm that your footnote 3 is exactly right. We so consistently use the scriptures as a melange of aphorisms rather than as a text to study — hence the once-unexamined use of Mormon 9:9 whenever chastity was mentioned, or the frequent use of a cherry-picked part of D&C 132:63 when motherhood is the subject. Why would we do any differently here?? [insert wry, only half-joking emoticon]

  3. J. Stapley says:

    Textually, I’m inclined to agree that D&C 41:42 is talking about physical cleanliness, and is evocative of the Israelite temple priests. There is a long history of using that literal imagery to represent moral cleanliness, though. But, yeah.

  4. We are so used to proof-texting or redefining terms in talks or lessons that it is no surprise the original meaning is obscured or even contradicted. We aren’t adding to our understanding with additional interpretations, we are losing the original message.

    I think the question is asking if you wash your hands for at least 20 seconds after sex.

  5. Thanks, p and Ardis! Ardis, you’re right on—the Bushmans ascribe “cleanliness is next to godliness” to John Wesley, though the say it was less important in the 18th century than the 19th.

    And J., I definitely agree that the imagery of cleanliness to mean moral purity has a long history, and it would have been current even in 1831. Still, there are plenty of scriptures the church could have used to underscore the importance of the law of chastity, and I’m mildly amused that they chose a scripture that isn’t about it.

    Mark, my wife joked that this was a prophetic change, underscoring months before the pandemic how important washing our hands well is before we go to the temple!

  6. Kevin Barney says:

    I’m persuaded. As we lawyers say, eiusdem generis.

  7. J. Stapley says:

    RE: being clean at the temple. There is a bunch of rhetoric from the 19th century into the progressive era about bathing before going to the temple.

  8. nobody, really says:

    “When I use a scripture,” Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.” And, like Utah drivers, if you didn’t know what I meant to do, you just don’t have the Spirit and you need to repent.

    Back in the days of the Endowment House, there were about 10 full claw-foot bathtubs used for a really good scrub-down. It wasn’t symbolic at all – there was hot water and a scrub-brush involved, and people who went fasting sometimes passed out from the heat.

  9. I might add that Heber C. Kimball required that people bathe before coming to the temple, and Brigham Young elaborated cleanliness by advising women not to come for endowment for a week after beginning to menstruate, and by counseling couples to avoid inter- course for “several days.” (Properly footnoted in Edward Kimball’s “History of LDS Temple Admission Standards”.)

    I have long argued that the temple admission standards and the justification for standards better scans as a “clean to enter” than “worthy to enter”, including all the several meanings of clean. Notwithstanding the proof texting involved, I thought the new reference a move in the right direction.

  10. I wonder if, and if so to what extent, the impetus behind the YMCA movement rubbed off on Mormonism.

  11. Wondering says:

    Yes. On the other hand, I wonder what should have been done by my bishop friend who ran a tire and automotive shop and unexpectedly could not get away in time to actually get all the grease off his hands and nails and still get to the temple in time to be supportive of a ward member who wanted his presence at a wedding. As I understand his story, he explained and apologized for his appearance at the recommend desk and was able to attend the wedding.
    Maybe that was clean grease.

  12. J Golden Kimball appeared to me in a dream last night.

    He told me that NOT taking a bath but once a fortnight is recommended as a reminder of social distancing, (So crucial now, since we are moving back to “normal” with less than 10% herd immunity and little improvement on mitigation measures and a false dichotomy between promoting health and economy, all foisted on us by nitwits). If you can smell me, you can get my covid infection. But remember to wash yer d****d hands.

  13. Kristine says:

    It’s a major preoccupation for a long time–the Primary songbooks have songs about washing dishes and brushing teeth all the way through the mid-twentieth century.

  14. @Kristine, I may be in the minority, but when I was a kid, I loved singing “Saturday Is a Special Day!” I know its tune is obnoxiously repetitive, its lyrics are among the more didactic (and outdated–who brushes their clothes??) in the Primary songbook, and I get why it’s hardly ever sung anymore, but sometimes I still find myself humming it when I do chores on a Saturday.

  15. Kristine says:

    It runs through my head most Saturdays. I like the older Primary songs that are about things kids can actually do, instead of about abstract ideas that have no frame of reference in a child’s lived experience.

  16. The statement about cleanliness is a lead-in to the question, “Do you strive for moral cleanliness in your thoughts and behavior?” Which is probably meant to refer to things like lust, pornography, and masturbation.

  17. EnglishTeacher says:

    @becca ….so we don’t have to work until MONDAY! (Sigh. This song set me up with too many unrealistic expectations of how my weekends would go.)

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