In a comment on Gordon’s recent post, Jed Woodworth raises an interesting point. He, entirely accurately, points out that the notion that the temple is a place that most members should regularly attend is a late 20th century phenomena in Mormonism. Prior to that time, the temple, for most members, was generally a place visited once or twice in a life time, and work for the dead was largely delegated to specially called temple workers. Indeed, during the 1930s, Heber J. Grant actually hired people to do temple work on behalf of his ancestors as a kind of make-work project. Yet I think that Jed misses something in his account of the shift away from this rather modest role for individual temple worship to our contemporary emphasis.
According to Jed this shift follows the rise in divorce and temple building. He thus associates temple attendance with the Church’s emphasis on the family and suggests that the creation of modern temple worship was a kind of instrumental move to help forestall marital disintegration. There is no doubt much truth to this, but it is, I think, an incomplete account of the rise of temple worship. I would suggest that the increase in temple worship comes about because of the need to maintain esoteric doctrines in the face of contracting esoteric space. Let me explain.
I love to read the Journal of Discourses. There is a lot of wonderful speculation in those volumes borne largely of Mormonism’s radically anthropomorphic idea of God and our theomorphic idea of mankind. You do not see the same kind of sermons today. There are lots of reasons for this. Many of the 19th century doctrines have been rejected as mistaken. The Church has suffered through a number of nasty doctrinal fights, which has given the Brethren a greater sense of the potential dangers of public speculation. However, the contraction of Mormon space, I think, has much to do with the change in discourse.
Many of the doctrines regarding man and God that lie behind the 19th-century speculations are in some sense esoteric. They are doctrines that we teach to the initiated, those who have already joined the Saints. They are not necessarily those doctrines that we preach to the nations. They are pearls, and we try to avoid casting them before swine. Even in the more free-wheeling 19th century this was the case, and Joseph and later Brigham emphasized from time to time that there are doctrines that we teach in Zion that are best not taught in Babylon. Hence, Zion became a kind of esoteric space in which the quasi-secret doctrines at the heart of the Mormon revelation could be taught.
The problem came, of course, with the destruction of Zion as a spatial entity. Federal persecution and the complexity of the modern economy (and Mormonism’s ultimate refusal to go down fighting both) created a problem of esoteric space. In a sense, everything became Babylon. Everything became the World. The one exception to this was the Temple. Here, the sacred, esoteric space of Zion exists in pristine purity. So it is into this space, that our esoteric doctrines have retreated.
If I am right, then the development of modern temple worship is a way of maintaining the esoteric core of the Mormon revelation. We go to the Temple because it is a place where we can renew our commitment to and connection with the esoteric doctrines that fill the pages of the Journal of Discourses. It is our way of maintaining a real and spatial Zion in the face of an all pervasive Babylon. This, I think, is also what the public disclosure of temple secrets is so offensive. It is not that these are embarrassments that we wish to keep hidden from the world. Nor is it that the secrets of the temple are magical talismans whose power is lost if they fall into the wrong hands. Rather, the outrage comes because of the violation of sacred and esoteric space. It comes because it represents an effort by Babylon to break down the last redoubt of much shrunken spatial Zion. Finally, the temple makes the global exportation of Mormonism possible. There is a tragic aspect to our retreat to the Temple, but there is a triumphant aspect as well. Temple’s make Zion — with its spatial, esoteric core — portable. They become our tabernacles in a global wilderness, tiny islands of the world of Joseph and Brigham flung across the sea.