Temples, Communication, and Covenants

Temple rituals form an important part of Latter-day Saints’ covenant relationship with God. A recently-released book by Jennifer C. Lane entitled Let’s Talk About Temples and Ritual delves into the importance of temple rituals. Lane has shared some of the insights she gained that are captured in that book in an interview with the Latter-day Saint history blog From the Desk. What follows here is a co-post to that interview (with some related information from a second interview included as well).

Jennifer C. Lane started out by discussing why the Church spends so much money on building and maintaining temples.

Here are a couple ways to look at this. One is about what matters the most because it lasts the longest. We are all here in mortality for a limited amount of time and preparing for eternity, becoming more godly, is the most important thing we can do for ourselves and for others.

The temple is the place where we come to receive (and to share through vicarious ordinances) eternal spiritual gifts that are so precious and crucial that they are worth far more than anything we spend on the building of the temples as sacred spaces, places that literally are the House of the Lord, where He can come to dwell and where he invites us to meet him.

A second way to look at this focuses on mortality. The mission that we have as disciples of Jesus Christ—to care for the world and to care for our brothers and sisters in need—can only be accomplished as we are fully yoked to him through covenant.

The rebuilding and healing of the world is His work and He needs us to more fully be endowed with His name and His power in order to do that work.

The temple is where we go to become His “kingdom of priests” with a mission to accomplish his work, to relieve suffering and to help others flourish (see Exodus 19:5-6).

Temples play an important role in developing our relationship with God.

Now, the exact way in which temples accomplish this work of connecting us to God has changed over time. Lane wrote:

The Lord speaks through His servants and to His people. He adjusts how He communicates to his audience.

I think that it also shows how the Restoration is continuing and we are receiving more and more as we become increasingly prepared to receive. The gospel does not change, but how it is communicated in the temple has been refined over time.

In another example of how God communicates in temple rituals, Lane discussed the influence of Freemasonry on the rituals Joseph Smith taught:

It’s clear that Freemasonry was part of the cultural world of Joseph Smith and many early members of the Church. We know that “the Lord God giveth light unto the understanding; for he speaketh unto men according to their language, unto their understanding” (2 Nephi 31:3).

There are different opinions about how ancient these practices are, but I don’t think that is really the issue. The Lord wanted to teach the early Saints how to come back to the presence of God and some of the symbols and ritual of the Masons were part of the symbolic and ritual language He used to communicate that gospel message.

Masonic rituals were used in shaping Latter-day Saint temple rituals. There is a core to what the temple rituals accomplish and communicate, but the exact vehicle through which they do that has been influenced by other rituals and also the needs of each generation.

San Diego, CA Temple. Image courtesy of Wikimedia.

Another recent interview at From the Desk with Jennifer Mackley about Wilford Woodruff and temple work also had some relevant discussions about how temple rituals change over time. Mackley explained some of the changes and development that took place during his time:

Wilford’s experiences in Kirtland and Nauvoo prepared him to receive additional revelation regarding temple worship. He continued the pattern of seeking revelation, clarifying the rites, and effecting changes based on personal experience and new revelations. . . .

The period of time Wilford spent presiding over the St. George Temple from 1877 to 1884 provided an especially focused opportunity. As he and Brigham Young administered all ordinances for the living and dead for the first time in this dispensation, he said their minds were opened and many things were revealed. Under the leadership of John Taylor and Wilford Woodruff, the practices implemented and codified in the St. George Temple were replicated in the temples subsequently completed in Logan, Manti, and Salt Lake City.

Finally, as prophet, Wilford received a revelation in 1894 regarding generational family sealings, which made the fulfillment of Elijah’s mission possible.

Mackley then went on to explain how President Woodruff explained changes to temple rituals:

Throughout the history of the Church, whenever changes occurred in the temple ordinances or the Church organization, some questioned why these things were not perfected in the beginning.

Wilford followed the Lord response:

“I will give unto the children of men line upon line, precept upon precept, here a little and there a little; and blessed are those who hearken unto my precepts, and lend an ear unto my counsel, for they shall learn wisdom; for unto him that receiveth I will give more; and from them that shall say, We have enough, from them shall be taken away even that which they have.”

In May 1894, following the revelation on the law of adoption, he made it clear that God would continue to guide the work of the Church, particularly in relation to the temples:

“I want to say, as the president of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, that we should now go on and progress. We have not gotten through with revelation. We have not gotten through with the work of God. But at this period we want to go on and fulfill this commandment of God given through Malachi—that the Lord should send Elijah the prophet.”

Wilford explained that although Brigham Young accomplished all that God required at his hands, he did not receive all the revelations that belong to this work; neither did John Taylor nor had Wilford as prophet. Wilford then concluded, “There will be no end to this work until it is perfected.”

He reminded the Saints that prophets and revelation were still a vital part of the progress of God’s work, that although Joseph Smith had been inspired to lay a firm foundation before his death in 1844, God would work through His subsequent prophets to continue perfecting the Church structure built on that foundation.

There are ongoing revelations that shaped how temple rituals were understood and practiced.

“Language of Inspiration” by Julie Rogers.
Image used with permission from the Wilford Woodruff Papers Foundation

Returning to the interview with Jennifer C. Lane, she shared an interesting insight into what could be considered the biggest change in temple work–the difference between ancient Hebrew temple worship and modern Latter-day Saint temples.

It is important to see how the ordinances—the sacrifices of the Old Testament temple—pointed ahead to Christ. And those sacrifices did end with Christ’s death and resurrection. As we know from 3 Nephi 9 in the Book of Mormon, with His death we no longer offer up burnt offerings, but rather the sacrifice of a broken heart and a contrite spirit.

So, the ordinances of the temple today are connected with Christ and his atoning sacrifice just as much as the ancient sacrifices, but we are offering up ourselves and our broken hearts and contrite spirits as part of how we receive the fullness of what he has to give us with his atoning sacrifice.

The rituals and temples of the ancient Hebrews were very different than what we do today, but they can be understood to accomplish some similar goals in developing our relationship with the Lord.

For more on temple rituals, head on over to the Latter-day Saint history blog From the Desk to read the full interview with Jennifer C. Lane.


3 comments for “Temples, Communication, and Covenants

  1. This interview reads like a Church PR piece. Nothing is really new.

    I will comment on 3 assertions. First, that it is somehow important to continually renew our covenant to help the poor/needy. Instead of continuously doing this, why not actually do it? Actions are important.

    Second, that it is important to protect the earth that God has created. Yet, Church members and legislators are hardly at the forefront of making the earth a better place. In fact, I could argue the opposite. So this covenant is hardly taken seriously.

    The segue between old and new temples doesn’t work for me. I’m not into animal (or human) sacrifice, new or old. And I suspect that there is an enormous difference between the rites in the old Jewish temple and the new Church temples. Enough to invalidate segue.

  2. The conception of the Restored Temple was changed by Brigham after the martyrdom of our beloved prophet and patriarch. Brigham did the best he could, but, as Lane points out, he ended up handing the task of formalizing the presentation of the endowment and ordinances to Woodruff and others. Mackey’s book on Woodruff and the temple is excellent scholarship. Regarding covenant, Latter-Day Saints have a very narrow, almost ignorant view about what covenant actually is. Lane’s book “Finding Christ in the Covenant Path” does a good job emphasizing that covenantal context in the scriptures is more aligned with “kinship” than with “contract.” Marriage, adoption, etc., is the proper metaphor. It’s something the LDS Establishment and LDS apologists tend to get wrong, and, as a trickle-down consequence, the entire Church is stuck in a kind of intellectual doldrums. Both Lane and Mackey should be credited for their scholarship. In the presentation of the endowment, the true five covenants are: Sabbath, Tithe, Fast, Chastity and Consecration. Brigham’s imposition of obedience, sacrifice and gospel as covenants, is error, and likely because his objective was to employ loyalty, instead of to expound the ancient temple tradition.

  3. Travis,

    I agree that ultimately what we bind ourselves to is others. But in order to do it in a way that those bonds cannot be broken we have to become the kinds of people whose words will never fail. And that means that the vast majority of us — all but one really — must experience some degree of transformation. But the problem is that we cannot become transformed without entering into a contractual agreement with God that allows him to work on us in a way that transforms us. And so the series of covenants that we make within the Kingdom not only identify us with a particular group–they also prepare us to have a permanent place in that group. Covenant making both invites us into the Kingdom and prepares us to become a permanent member of it–all the while protecting our agency during the process.

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