By and large, I don’t think that we do a particularlly good job preparing members to go to the temple for the first time. As a result, I think that many members — especially converts without close family members who have been to the temple — get worried about what is going to happen, especially if they have heard any of the discussion in the bloggernacle or elsewhere about “issues” with the temple. Here is what I would write to such a person:
I understand that you are thinking about going to the temple for the first time and you have some concerns about what you have heard. If you’ll forgive my presumption, I thought that I would write you a brief letter with some of my thoughts on the temple in the hope that they will be of help to you. I think that there are really only four or five things that are “issues” surrounding the temple. Let me see if I can say anything useful about these for you.
First, let me say at the outset that I really love the temple. Shortly after Heather and I were married we served as late-night ordinance workers in the DC temple. At the time, the temple was open all night long on Friday nights to accommodate saints who came from long distances. Despite the fact that our shift began at 5 am, along with my mission I count it as the most fulfilling church service that I have ever had. It is also difficult to discuss the temple for two reasons. First, there are certain promises of secrecy that one takes in the temple. They do not extend to everything about the rituals. In fact, the oaths of secrecy are quite limited, but they do make members reticent about talking very explicitly about the temple. In addition, the temple is the most sacred aspect of Mormonism, and members are rightfully protective about how it is discussed. Still, during his brief time as President of the Church, Howard W. Hunter encouraged members to speak more freely about the temple consistent with the covenants and sacredness associated with it. I’ll try to write in that spirit.
The first “issue” that people have with the temple is simple disorientation. By and large, Mormonism has very simple rituals compared to something like Roman Catholicism or the liturgy of Episcopalianism. The temple is a radical departure from this simple approach to ritual, constituting as it does a complex set of rituals that taken together stretch over several hours. I think that a lot of discomfort can be dispelled by simply giving people a “big picture” sense of what the temple is about. Here goes:
Ultimately, the temple is a ritual ascent into the presence of God. It consists of basically three sets of ordinances. First, there are so-called “initiatories.” These consist of a series of blessings associated with our bodies and clothing in the garment, which symbolically represents the garment presented to Adam and Eve when they were cast out of the Garden of Eden into the world. We promise to wear the garment always (although this is subject to practical limitations and our own good judgment: I don’t wear my garments when bathing, during sex, playing sports, etc.). The initiatories are thus in a sense about the beginning of our life here: getting a body and entering the world.
Second, there is the “endowment.” This consists of basically two things: instruction and covenants. The instructions are basically a recapitulation of the plan of salvation, presented through the story of Adam and Eve. If you think about it, this makes very good sense. Adam and Eve provide the basic pattern for humanity. They came to earth, were given commandments, sinned, repented and thereby learned and progressed, until they ultimately returned to God’s presence to inherit the blessings that He has in store for his children. All of this is presented in a very stylized and ritual form as a kind of play (partially portrayed in film in most temples). Unlike a play, however, those receiving their endowment participate in the ritual. In a sense, the audience become characters in the play. During the course of this ritual, we make a series of covenants to obey various laws of the Gospel, all of which will be familiar to you.
Brigham Young taught:
“Your endowment is to receive all those ordinances in the house of the Lord, which are necessary for you, after you have departed this life, to enable you to walk back into the presence of the Father, passing the angels who stand as sentinels, being enabled to give them the key words, the signs and tokens, pertaining to the holy Priesthood, and gain your eternal exaltation in spite of earth and hell.” Discourses of Brigham Young 416 (John A. Widtsoe ed., Deseret Book 1976)
During the course of the endowment you will be taught these “key words” and “signs and tokens.” These are the aspects of the endowment that we specifically make covenants of secrecy about. Accordingly, I can’t say anything else about them other than to suggest that these are the only covenants made in the endowment that will ultimately be new and unfamiliar and that they are not something to be scared of or concerned about. Finally, the endowment involves the donning of ritual priestly clothing. These temple robes are ONLY worn in the temple, and ultimately they largely match the priestly robes described in the Book of Leviticus in the Old Testament.
The third set of ordinances are family sealings. We learn in Doctrine and Covenants section 131 that the sealing ordinances are the highest ordinances of the Gospel and that it is through eternal marriage that we inherit the greatest promises of exaltation and salvation. Those promises are made during the course of the sealings. In a sense, everything else that happens in the temple is to prepare us to be married for time and all eternity and obtain the associated blessings. In short, the temple ordinances are a map of the plan of salvation presented in the form of a ritual. We get bodies, enter the world, receive gifts and instruction from God, make promises to Him, and receive promises of exaltation from Him in return, ultimately in the form of eternal families. Hopefully, this “road map” will make the experience less disorienting and less frightening.
The second “issue” the some have with the temple has to do with covenants that women make to “hearken unto their husbands.” The rituals themselves actually say very little about the meaning of these covenants. Some people have given them a very dire and misogynistic reading, arguing that the temple teaches that women are forever subordinated to men. Nothing remotely like this is explicitly said in the rituals, and frankly I think that such an interpretation is not required by the words of the ordinance and is inconsistent with the whole tenor of the rest of the Gospel. Accordingly, I think that those who believe that the temple teaches that women are eternally subordinate to men are simply mistaken. Obviously, this is a very difficult issue for some and one that could be discussed in far greater detail. However, at the end of the day I am not sure that I really have all that much more to say on the subject than this simple response.
The third “issue” that some struggle with is the relationship between Masonry and the temple. It is a well-established historical fact that Joseph Smith was deeply involved in Masonry at the time that he was first introducing the higher temple ordinances in the early 1840s. Some of the symbols used in the temple seem Masonic. For some this is evidence that Joseph Smith simply copied the ordinances from Masonry and that they are not divinely inspired. There are a number of different responses to this argument.
First, many of the symbols that the temple seems to borrow from Masonry are not ultimately Masonic but biblical coming from the Old Testament accounts of the tabernacle in the wilderness and the temple of Solomon. In these cases both Masonry and the temple are simply tapping into the Bible.
Second, ultimately the structure of the temple ordinances and of Masonic rituals are quite different. Both involve imparting secret or esoteric knowledge, but the basic “plots” of the rituals are different. Masonic rites ultimately center around the story of the construction of the Temple of Solomon, giving to the initiates the secret wisdom supposedly held by the workers who built that temple. In contrast, the endowment is ultimately about the story of Adam and Eve, their fall and their ultimate redemption and return to God.
Third, revelation — including the revelation of the temple ordinances to Joseph Smith — always involves a mixture of the divine and the human. Take the example of the scriptures. At the most basic level the scriptures of the Restoration were given in the English language, using a vocabulary of words and phrases the were available to Joseph Smith from his environment. He did not write down the Doctrine and Covenants in ancient Aramaic for the obvious reason that neither he nor the audience of the revelations spoke Aramaic. Furthermore, God says that he uses “language” — meaning not just words but also imagery and idioms — that are suited to His audience. Some Mormons claim that ultimately there are no Masonic elements of any kind in the endowment. I frankly don’t think that this is really a sustainable position. Rather, I believe that in rendering the revelations contained in the endowment, Joseph Smith used the vocabulary he had available, a vocabulary not only of words but also of symbols. Some of these symbols were Masonic. This does not mean that he just “made up” the endowment any more than the fact that the Book of Mormon is written in English means that he just “made it up.” Rather, they provided a symbolic language that Joseph Smith arranged to the best of his ability to convey the meaning given to him through revelation. (Compare D&C 9, where the Lord explains to Oliver Cowdery the process used to translate the Book of Mormon.)
The final “issue” that some have with the temple is the fact that the ordinances have changed over time, including very recently. Some of these changes have been fairly minor, eliminating repetition and shortening the endowment, which use to take most of a day. Some of the changes have been more substantial, eliminating whole passages. In particular, some of the covenants use to be accompanied by rather bloody-minded punishment oaths, i.e. “If I break this covenant, let me be…..” Some people reason that eternal ordinances must be unchanging and the fact that temple ordinances have changed means that they are not divine. Again, there are a couple of responses to this argument.
First, we can assume that the endowment, like all scripture, is a mixture of the human and the divine. The cover page of the Book of Mormon declares that if there are errors in that book they are the errors of men rather than of God. In so doing it acknowledges the possibility of errors even in the book that Joseph Smith once called “the most correct book” in the world. Likewise, it is possible that the original endowment contained errors. Not errors that were sufficient to make it invalid, but errors nevertheless that have been winnowed out by subsequent revelation to the prophets. (Incidentally, the possibility of errors in the endowment is a strategy that one might resort to if one believes — mistakenly in my opinion — that one must offer a misogynistic interpretation of the endowment. I think that such an interpretation is — as a matter of interpretation — wrong, but if one feels that such an interpretation is compelled by the ceremony itself, those aspects of the ceremony might nevertheless be mistaken.)
Second, it might be the case that the Lord realized that saints in different historical eras needed different aspects of the plan of salvation emphasized through the endowment and has modified it accordingly over time.
Third, it might be the certain aspects of the temple ritual are simply aspects of their administration rather than part of the ordinance itself. An analogy would be baptism. We wear white when we are baptized, but wearing white is not actually part of the ordinance, and a baptism performed by and for people wearing some other color is nevertheless a valid ordinance. Analogously, one might argue that those parts of the endowment that were changed were merely administrative — like wearing white clothing to a baptism — rather than sacramental.
Fourth, it might be the case that the endowment consists not of literal words of the ceremony, but of the underlying structures and covenants, which can be presented in different formats as circumstances demand.
In short, changes to the temple ceremonies need not present a spiritual crisis as long as one is not committed to the idea that the rituals are unalterable copies of absolutely perfect models existing in the mind of God. However, we don’t believe this is true of our scriptures, which we nevertheless call “the word of God,” so there is no reason we should think that it is true of our rituals.
This is a little long and it may be totally unhelpful for the concerns that you have. If there is anything that you think I might be able to do to help you feel more comfortable with the temple, please let use know. I love the temple. It is one of the most powerful and meaningful parts of the Restoration for me and for many others. I hope that you won’t let the negativity that captures some of the discussion of the temple from time to time poison what should be a wonderful and sacred experience.