What’s up with Mormon Temples?

This year has been what I am affectionately calling “The Year of the Temple” for me.  There are so many people close to me either going to the temple for their first time, or returning after many years of being away.  Because of this I have been discussing the Mormon temple rites with quite a few people who are preparing for their temple experience.  In addition, many of my extended family members and friends have been asking questions about what actually goes on in Mormon Temples.  In those conversations it has become clear that there are a lot of misconceptions about the temple rites, and most people who are planning to attend the temple are not fully prepared for the experience. I felt like it could be useful to provide a synopsis of Mormon Temples, taken from conversations, research, and other readings that I have found helpful.

Why do Mormons Have Temples?

Ancient Temples were the center of religious life, meant to remind everyone of their covenants with God.

Many modern Christians believe that the concept of God’s grace was authored after Jesus lived, and that Jews and their Israelite predecessors believed that “the Law” would save them.  This primarily comes from Paul’s letter to the Ephesians where he basically argues that “the Law” cannot save us, only the grace of God through Jesus.  While I do not disagree with Paul’s argument, what we have come to learn through Bible scholarship is that the Israelites actually believed that “the Law” or the Torah was the covenant way in which they did access the grace of God for salvation.  They did not believe living “the law” perfectly (Legalism) would save them, but that devotion (living the law the best they could) to their covenant with God would bring his grace upon them. (See Exodus 34:6,9-10, and this link.)

The temple (also tabernacle when the people moved frequently) was the centerpiece of this covenant for Israelites and Jews.  It was a symbolic representation that they needed his presence and grace to bring them salvation.  All of the ordinances performed at the temple, from the sacrificing the best of their flocks, to lighting the candles of incense for God to hear their prayers, to the High Priest offering up the most spotless lamb as an offering were appeals to receive the grace of atonement and acceptance by God.  Temples were built on mounts in the center of the community so that all could see the temple and remember their covenant, and that God was there for them and that his grace was their salvation.

Even after Jesus Christ brought the “New Covenant” that replaced the Torah, He still placed a high significance on the Temple and its representation as the House of God, demonstrated by cleaning out the temple and calling it the House of His Father, and the covenants that people would make to him through his New Covenant. Temple worship, ordinances that symbolized and confirmed their commitment and covenants to God through Jesus Christ continued for centuries after the death of Jesus Christ and the Apostles (search Margaret Barker Temple Books, she is world renowned ancient temple scholar and not a Mormon).  We as Mormons believe that Temples have not lost their significance and that the symbolism and purpose they represented in ancient times is just as important today, as we covenant to be disciples of Jesus Christ. Some people feel we are diminishing Christ’s grace when we emphasize the covenants of the Gospel, but we simply believe that God’s people have always united with His grace through covenants, and that the covenants of our temples are the “New and Everlasting Covenants” of our God.  (See Hebrews 8:8-13, 9:15, 12:24, Luke 22:17-20)

“And he took the bread, gave thanks and broke it, and gave it to them, saying, “This is my body given for you; do this in remembrance of me”…he took the cup, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood, which is poured out for you.” Luke 22:19-20 NIV

Temples symbolize our desire to journey back to the presence of God from our current state, as fallen people, to our exalted state as Children of God.

Ancient Temples, and the Tabernacle before that, were designed to have at least three separate places where people would worship God. (See Exodus 25-40)

  • Outer Court – Represented the Profane (unclean) world we live in or as we call the Telestial World.  All people in Israel could come here to make sacrifices and worship and seek connection with God.  Levite priesthood holders would assist in these ordinances so they were done in the way prescribed by “the Law”.
  • The Holy Place – Represented a place approaching the presence of God, more holy than the Profane outer court, but not fully in the presence of God.  Paul referred to this symbolic glory as the Terrestrial, or glory of the moon. Only priests, who were washed, anointed, ordained, and clothed in sacred vestments could enter and perform the ordinances and sacrifices on behalf of Israel.  These ordinances represented further covenants Israel had made with God on their journey to return to his presence.
  • The Holy of Holies – Represented as the Holy presence of God, the home at the end of our journey.  Paul referred to this as Celestial glory or the glory of the sun.  Only the High Priest, who had made more serious covenants, and who was ordained to represent all of Israel, could enter on a single day each year. The Day of Atonement, or the day in which God’s grace was revealed and symbolically each member of Israel was brought back into the Presence of God.  (1 Cor. 15:40-41)

Mormons believe that our spirits (souls) existed long before we were born on this earth, and that we are truly Children of God.  Our purpose on this earth was to fall from grace, and to learn and grow as we journey back to his presence.  We also believe that when we do return to his presence, that we will become, through Jesus Christ’s atonement and grace, as Paul described, “Joint Heirs with Jesus Christ”. The gift of eternal life with our Father, and the glory he has to bestow on us are things we take seriously.  Our temples are designed to reinforce symbolically the same ideas as the three sanctuaries of the ancient temples, only we believe that all people who are willing to covenant with God can be washed, anointed, ordained, and participate in the ordinances that symbolically take us from Profane, Telestial men and women, back to the presence of God.

The Spirit itself beareth witness with our spirit, that we are the children of God: And if children, then heirs; heirs of God, and joint-heirs with Christ; if so be that we suffer with him, that we maybe also glorified together. Romans 8:16-17 KJV

Temples Symbolize that God still speaks to us now and that there is a place where we can come to learn from Him and hear His words.

Ancient temple patrons felt, and were taught, that the temple symbolized the point on earth where they were connected to God and heaven.  That in some spiritual way, the temple acted as a conduit for communication between God and his appointed leaders, the prophets. From the time Joseph Smith organized the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, he felt inspired by God to build a temple in the midst of Zion.  Some of the most important revelations regarding, what we believe to be the restoration of lost gospel truths, were experienced by multiple men at the Church’s first temple in Kirtland, Ohio.

Early Mormons believed that God would visit them with spiritual power from heaven if they sacrificed to bring the temple into their midst. When those heavenly manifestations occurred, from that time forward Mormons were committed to bringing temples into their communities as both a symbol of God’s on going communication to modern prophets, but also His willingness to speak to each of us individually through revelations.

“The ceremonies of that [Kirtland Temple] dedication may be [recounted], but no mortal language can describe the heavenly manifestations of that memorable day. Angels appeared to some, while a sense of divine presence was realized by all present, and each heart was filled with “joy inexpressible and full of glory.”  Eliza Snow

We believe that all mankind will have a chance to hear and learn about Jesus Christ and receive Salvation.

Mormons do not believe men and women who, because of circumstance, the eras in which they lived, environment in which they were raised, or through physical, mental, or emotional impediments do not receive Jesus Christ and His Gospel while they were alive are condemned to hell.  Our belief that all people can access the grace of Jesus Christ through his “New Covenant” is essential of the purpose of our temples.  Temples act as the place, where like the Priests, and High Priests of Israel, those of us who have made those covenants can act on behalf of our ancestors, and all of human kind to accept those covenants for themselves beyond this mortal realm.

We believe that when Peter taught of Christ ministering to those that were in “prison” between his death and resurrection, that he was giving us insight into the fact that there are billions of people who have died who will be taught the Gospel of Jesus Christ after they die and there have the ability to accept the covenants and thereby have the grace of Jesus return them to the presence of God’s glory. (See Peter 3:18-20, 4:6, Hebrews 11:32-40)

Joseph Smith recounted that Elijah, an Old Testament prophet, visited him and gave him the authority of doing the vicarious work of making those covenants for our ancestors on earth in temples. This is in fulfillment of what Malachi prophesied so many years ago:

Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the LordAnd he shall turn the heart of the fathers to the children,and the heart of the children to their fathers, lest I come and smite the earth with a curse. Malachi 4:5-6

Many people wonder if this is just a Mormon thing, however, vicarious ordinances on behalf of others were common anciently.  Even after Christ’s death, baptisms for ancestors were performed and were not uncommon as evidenced by Paul, as he commented when defending the doctrine of Christ’s literal resurrection:

Else what shall they do which are baptized for the dead, if the dead rise not at all? Why are they then baptized for the dead? 1 Cor. 15:29

Searching and saving our dead is one reason why Mormon’s are the world leaders in genealogical research and family history.  We are encouraged to attend the temple on a regular basis at one of the 148 temples in operation around the world.  There are 12 temples under construction around the world and 13 more announced for construction, and as the church membership continues to grow so will the amount of temples.

What Happens in Mormon Temples?

Like the Ancients, we are washed, anointed, and blessed as disciples of Jesus Christ.

I can’t tell you how many times I have heard or read comments/questions about all the deviant activities that happen in Mormon temples.  The things I have heard have blown my mind.  Much of these rumors come from the fact that Mormon’s consider the ordinances and rituals of the temples sacred, and therefore do not talk about them often or in detail.  Even this blog post may make some Mormons uncomfortable.  This has led to all kinds of rumors and speculation especially when someone wishes to demean what we believe.

What I hope to do is talk more frankly about the ordinances and rituals than is usual.  Part of the reason why Mormon’s are closed-lipped about the temple is we make covenants not to divulge certain things we consider sacred.  I will not be divulging those things, but the vast majority of the temple ordinances and rituals are not only open to discuss, they are found in many different ancient culture’s temples rituals. Aside from Baptism, which is only done in the temple for our ancestors (the living are baptized outside of temples where anyone can attend) the remaining rituals only happen in the temple.  The first part of our temple worship is called Initiatories for short, but it is patterned after the ancient practice of Washing and Anointing.

Anciently, when a priest was being prepared to work as a temple priest, they would be washed; symbolic of being made clean from our unholy past and prepared to be anointed for our priestly duties.  Then would come the anointing with oil that has been consecrated; representing being set-apart through the grace of God (it is not a coincidence we believe the oil represents Jesus Christ’s atonement) to be a priest that could then work as a representative of Israel in the temple rites that brought them closer to God. (See Exodus 28:41, 30:22-29, 29:4-7, 30:17-21)

And Aaron and his sons thou shalt bring unto the door of the tabernacle of the congregation, and shalt wash them with water…Then shalt thou take the anointing oil, and pour it upon his head, and anoint him. Exodus 29:4,7

Mormons also go through a symbolic washing (water wiped on our foreheads), and anointing (drop of oil placed on our heads) and we are then blessed and set apart to be priests and priestess in our efforts to work for the salvation of ourselves, our ancestors, and our posterity.  Also, similar to the ancients, after we have been washed and anointed we are then given garments that have been set apart for those who are anointed.  Anciently these garments symbolized the priest’s commitment to God.  Mormons likewise agree to wear the garments in place of traditional underwear to remind ourselves of our commitment to God and all mankind.  Garments are sacred to us and we do not parade them around for others.  They have symbolic marks sewn into them that remind us that we are on a journey back to God, that is only possible through our faith in Jesus Christ, who is our Savior.

We are taught our eternal nature, and make covenants with God that we believe will bring the grace of Jesus Christ more fully into our lives.

The primary focus, and the longest ordinance, of Mormon temples is called the Endowment.  It is called the endowment because, when Joseph Smith was told to build a temple as part of the restoration, the Lord promised to “endow” the saints with power from heaven. This endowment, or from my perspective, increased access to Christ’s grace, is bestowed as we further commit ourselves to Jesus Christ.  The ritual of the endowment is presented as a dramatic depiction of mankind’s journey from our pre-mortal experience (as depicted in the Creation story), to our fall from God’s grace (depicted in the story of the Fall of Adam and Eve), our journey through life as believers in God, and culminating in our re-entry to the presence of our loving Heavenly Father.

Many Ancient temple rites were built around an account of the creation the world and the first children of God. Our temple story revolves around the Adam and Eve drama as encountered in Genesis, which makes sense as many biblical scholars believe the first few chapters of Genesis to be a temple text to begin with.  Because we fall from God’s presence and become unholy, we then need to have the grace of God to return.  We learn of this grace and how to access it through covenants which we make during the course of the endowment presentation.  In some instances messengers from God are depicted who provide guidance on our journey. God has always taught his children through His messengers, whether they be angels, or prophets and apostles.  The men depicted were made holy through their covenants with God and then were tasked with teaching the rest of us about God and how to return to Him.  The endowment depicts that journey and also the need for messengers and how to determine truth from the lies of Satan, who is seeking to stop our progress back to God.

The endowment is so richly symbolic that only a fool would attempt to describe it; it is so packed full of revelations to those who exercise their strength to seek and see, that no human words can explain or make clear the possibilities…the endowment which was given by revelation can best be understood by revelation.  John A. Widstoe

During the story, there are moments, when those who are watching are asked to make covenants that coincide with those Adam and Eve (who represent all man/womankind) make as the endowment presentation progresses. We make the covenants to be obedient to God, to sacrifice our will for the will of God, to live the Gospel by loving each other, to have fidelity in our sexual relationships, and to consecrate all we have been blessed with to God and his work of bringing the gospel to all mankind (deceased, alive, and yet to be born). Each of these covenants is tied to a symbolic name that represents our pre-mortal identity, our mortal identity, our Savior, and finally our Heavenly Father.  We covenant not to disclose the specific names as they are very sacred. (For a more detailed look at names, symbols, and Mormon temples click here.)

After the story ends, each member of the audience then will be lead to the veil of the temple.  At the veil we repeat the symbolic names tied to the covenants we made, and in return we are admitted to the symbolic presence of God, which in the temple is called the Celestial Room.  This is the end of the endowment ritual.  It is filled with symbolism, just as temple rituals anciently were, and this is meant to allow for personal learning and growth every time we participate in an endowment as was common anciently and in the scriptures.

We symbolically learn that in order to return to the presence of God we must receive the Grace of Jesus Christ.

One of the most important things about the temple for me is something that many Mormon’s neglect to remember, and that is the covenants we make in the temple are impossible to live perfectly, just as the Torah was impossible to live perfectly.  Therefore, we are instantly breaking them after we’ve made them.  Are we hypocrites? No. However, this perpetual failure is why the covenants are embedded in such a symbolically rich environment. Temple patrons utilize clothing that is symbolic, the painting and lighting of the rooms is symbolic, the veil of the temple is symbolic, and basically everything within temples, seen or spoken, is symbolic.  Every single symbol is tied to our Savior Jesus Christ.  These types of symbols were found in ancient Christian and Israelite cultures and they point to the bottom line, and that is without a covenant with God (The Torah of Old, and Jesus Christ of New) we would be lost, and in our temples through Christ we can receive grace that brings us home to God. (See Exodus 28:41, 30:22-29, 29:4-7, 30:17-21)

Our modern secularist society makes symbolic clothing, names, decorations, and other anciently sacred things to be strange, and honestly out of context they are awkward.  However, in the context of our commitment to search for Jesus Christ and God in our lives, they can be very meaningful to Mormons in the difficult life we all face.

We learn the keys to real power in our prayers and communication with God

One very powerful component of the Endowment happens just before we are brought to the veil of the temple.  We participate in an ancient practice called a “Prayer Circle”.  A few audience members, unite with others in prayer that is offered by a temple officiator.  As part of this prayer, there is a list of names that any person who comes to the temple can write down, we pray for those people who others believe need special blessings from the Lord.  Anciently it was believed, and I fully support this idea today, that when people unite in prayer together that their faith is magnified and the Lord will bless them and those they are praying for.  This part of the endowment is a powerful reminder of how much we need each other, to love each other, to unite with each other in this journey that causes so much heartache and affliction.  It is beautiful to be taught that together we can accomplish more than if we were alone.

When they heard this, they raised their voices together in prayer to God…After they prayed, the place where they were meeting was shaken. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke the word of God boldly. Acts 4:24,31 KJV 

We seek to link our families of today, with families of the past and the future, so we can experience the greatest joy of being with those we love in the presence of our Father.

The crowning covenant and ordinance of the Mormon temple is what is called the Sealing.  Mormon’s believe that God wants us to return to heaven as a family, and that joy is found in the eternal, joyful, relationships we have and will have in the eternities.  This sealing is performed as a marriage in the United States and Canada, and in other parts of the world is a sealing of their previously performed civil marriage.  It is the most basic part of the temple, but also the part that we hold the most dear.  We promise before God, angels, and witnesses that we will live the covenants of the gospel, that we will live the vows of marriage, and that, as a couple, we will love and work together to bring each other, our ancestors, and our posterity to the Lord Jesus Christ.  God, in return, promises to bring us back to his presence and promises us, if we are faithful, that he will bless us with everything he has, and not only us, but those we are trying to bring with us, namely our families.

Therefore, mourn not because all your sons and daughters do not follow in the path that you have marked out to them, or give heed to your counsels. Inasmuch as we succeed in securing eternal glory, and stand as saviors, and as kings and priests to our God, we will save our posterity. Lorenzo Snow

The idea behind the sealing ordinance is unfathomable in its scope; linking all of mankind together to come back to God as a family, but it is also so important to the identity of Mormons.  We want everyone to have the joy, hope, and faith that comes from these promises.  This idea motivates us in new ways to bring the message of the Gospel to the world, not because we believe others will be damned (which we don’t), but because we believe they can be more hopeful and connected to God through these covenants.

Conclusion and Personal Feelings

Mormon temples and the ordinances performed in them, are the most outwardly exclusive practice of our religion, but ironically they are among the most inclusive of our beliefs.  My mother often attended the temple alone growing up since my father wasn’t Mormon, and one of the most important experiences of my life was right before I went on my mission.  I attended the temple with just my mom and we were allowed to participate in the endowment together, and pray together, and come to the Celestial room together.  I was so emotional and so happy to be there with her.  That symbolic experience of being reunited with her in the presence of God is something I will always hold dear.

Finally, as a final testimony of how I feel about the temple for myself, I would like to share a personal experience that is sacred to me.  When I was 26 I was convinced my only chance of finding someone to marry was to move back to Salt Lake City.  I was living in Las Vegas at the time, and so my business partners and I decided to move our company to Utah.  We all agreed that it would be good to attend the temple and pray about that decision.  So one evening I participated in an endowment and afterward stayed in the Celestial room for some time praying about this huge decision.  I felt very good about the decision to move, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that there was something else God wanted to say to me.  I stayed there meditating and then in one of the few times in my life where I felt as though God was speaking words to me, I heard the words in my mind, “do not quit looking for someone to date before you leave.” I let it sink in and realized I had already checked out mentally from dating and was ready to resume the search in Utah. To keep a long story short, I met my wife a few days later and we have been married for 8 years and have 4 awesome kids.  We believe that the more often we go to the temple to serve our ancestors, and learn from God, that we become closer to God, and we truly receive an endowment of Jesus Christ’s grace is bestowed upon us.

I hope this has been helpful, and for further information click the links and scriptures in the post, or the links below that come from the online Encyclopedia of Mormonism, published online by BYU.

Reference Links from BYU’s Encyclopedia of Mormonism: