The Mysteries of Godliness

My book club just read this book, The Mysteries of Godliness: A History of Mormon Temple Worship, by David John Buerger.  I have to say that while the book is interesting, I had some real discomfort while reading the book.  As an active Mormon, we have promised not to talk about the sacred ceremonies outside of the temple.  So, I will honor that promise.  On the other hand, it was fascinating to learn some of the changes over the years, and I felt a greater understanding of temple ceremonies.

As I talk about this book, I will review some of the commonly known practices about temple worship, and I’ll highlight some of the interesting changes over the years.  There are 3 main religious ceremonies performed in Mormon temples:

  1. Baptism for the Dead
  2. Endowments
  3. Marriage Sealings

The book primarily discusses the evolution of the Endowment ceremony.  Apostle Boyd K Packer (next in line to become prophet) wrote a booklet titled, The Holy Temple, and the text can be found on the church website.  Quoting from Elder Packer’s booklet,

the teaching of the temples is done in symbolic fashion. The Lord, the Master Teacher, gave much of His instruction in this way.

The temple is a great school. It is a house of learning. In the temples the atmosphere is maintained so that it is ideal for instruction on matters that are deeply spiritual. The late Dr. John A. Widtsoe of the Quorum of the Twelve was a distinguished university president and a world-renowned scholar. He had great reverence for temple work and said on one occasion:

  • The temple ordinances encompass the whole plan of salvation, as taught from time to time by the leaders of the Church, and elucidate matters difficult of understanding. There is no warping or twisting in fitting the temple teachings into the great scheme of salvation. The philosophical completeness of the endowment is one of the great arguments for the veracity of the temple ordinances. Moreover, this completeness of survey and expounding of the Gospel plan, makes temple worship one of the most effective methods of refreshing the memory concerning the whole structure of the gospel.

The modern Endowment ceremony evolved during the life of Joseph Smith.  One of the things that struck me about the book was that many of the visions were seen not just by Joseph, but by others.  D&C 137 describes a vision in which Joseph saw his brother Alvin in the heavens.  I had not realized that this vision was part of this early version of the endowment ceremony; today, Mormons would refer to these early ceremonies performed in the Kirtland Temple as “Initiatory Work”, where the people were ceremonially washed.  In my studies of the Dead Sea Scrolls, I know the people at Qumran were constantly going through ceremonial washings, and I have always felt there was some sort of similarity between this community, and the Initiatory washings in the Kirtland Temple.

One of the strangest things to note that these early washings were done with whiskey and cinnamon.  The footnote on page 11 says,

According to Book of Mormon witness Oliver Cowdery, five days prior to the 21st some preliminary washings took place: “met in the evening with bro. Joseph Smith, Jr., at his house, in company with bro. John Corrill, and after pure water was prepared, called upon the Lord and proceeded to wash each other’s bodies, and bathe the same with whiskey, perfumed with cinnamon.  This we did that we might be clean before the Lord for the Sabbath, confessing our sins and covenanting to be faithful to God.  While performing this washing unto the Lord with solemnity, our mings were filled with many reflections upon the propriety of the same, and how the priests anciently used to wash always before ministering befoer the Lord.  As we had nearly finished this purification, bro. Martin Harris came in and was also washed” (Oliver Cowdery Sketch Book, 16 Jan. 1836, pp. 4-5, archives, historical department, Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Salt Lake City, Utah.)

Buergar says on page 11 that these ordinances were first introduced on 21 Jan 1836 (which matches the dating in the D&C 137),

These ordinances clearly were patterned after washings and anointings described in the Old and especially New Testaments (see Lev. 8; Mark 6:13; Luke 4:18, 7:38, 44; John 13:1-16; 1 Tim 5:10; James 5:14.)

Buergar then details that these washings were followed by anointings with oil, and some impressive visions were accompanied on the following pages.  I guess I found it interesting that whiskey and cinnamon were used.  I know at some point it said the reasoning for this was to send a sweet savor to God.  With the current prohibition of alcohol in the Word of Wisdom, this really strikes modern Mormons as unusual.  I also remember reading that the Word of Wisdom wasn’t a temple requirement until 1921.  How things have changed….

I had planned a longer post, but I’ll stop for now, and pick up on a few other interesting tidbits on the Endowment later than I found interesting.  I will say that the bulk of the current Endowment wasn’t revealed to Joseph until the Nauvoo period, and I’ll cover some general details on that in a future post.  While some may have heard that there are some Masonic influences in the current Mormon Temple ceremonies, during the Kirtland period, Joseph was not a Mason, and these influences are absent during this early time period.  Questions?


17 comments on “The Mysteries of Godliness

  1. The whiskey OUTSIDE the body isn’t a problem with the WoW. 😀

    I’d love to learn more about this, but understand that some things are classified.

    CofChrist attitudes toward priesthood and all ordinances and sacraments are so much more about being present helps for Christian behavior today than about the pre-existence, or the afterlife, that the LDS viewpoint is fascinating.

  2. FireTag,

    There’s so many jokes about whiskey and temples I can think of. If whiskey were still used today, I can imagine a police officer pulling over a couple…”Sir, have you been drinking?”

    “No officer.”

    “Sure. It smells like you’ve been bathing in whiskey….”

    Since the WoW wasn’t a requirement for temple admittance until 1921, I can imagine some temple workers ending up like the drunk Friar Tuck in Kevin Costner’s Robin Hood.

    While I understand your point about “ordinances and sacraments are so much more about being present helps for Christian behavior today than about the pre-existence, or the afterlife”, sometimes I think LDS get too hung up on these ordinances. What I mean is that just because someone is sealed or endowed or baptized does not give them a free ride into heaven. In fact, if a person doesn’t live up to his covenants, the opposite could be true–greater condemnation for not living up to these “present helps for Christian behavior”.

    I figured you would have some questions on this topic. Is there anything specific you’d like to ask? I’ll do my best to answer as candidly as I can.

  3. I’m sort of at the point where I may not understand enough to ask specific questions, but my general areas of interest would be WHEN (especially during the Kirtland period) did various practices concerning the endowment begin to evolve. This actually related closely to my second area of interest, the difference between the LDS and CofChrist attitudes toward ordinances as a whole.

    If I could compare the two concepts, we seem to look at sacraments as symbolizing a “natural” spiritual law, where you tend to view the acts as symbolizing a “contractual” view of spiritual law. Its certainly true that covenental views are very much in line with the Abramic tradition carried through the OT (and hence through the Nephite tradition), so I’m not putting that down for any reason. But I’m personally more comfortable with a more cosmic, natural law approach.

    I’ve had an experience in Kirtland Temple as a young priest that I would certainly consider “endowing” for my entire life, but there was no special ordinance with it. So how and when did we begin to diverge?

  4. Good questions FireTag. I learned that these initial ceremonial washings occurred prior to the dedication of the temple. The visions of D&C 137 were recorded January 21, 1836. The dedication of the temple occurred 2 months later, March 27, 1836. Of course, the Kirtland Banking crisis in 1838 caused Joseph and many to leave in early 1838, so many of the temple revelations quit for a time, as Joseph in Missouri and Illinois received more revelations dealing with Zion’s Camp and consecration. Once they were in Nauvoo, then the temple seemed to regain some prominence (around 1842 or so.)

    I think your point that the LDS view spiritual law as a contractual basis is spot on. D&C 82:10 (received April 26, 1832) says literally, “I, the Lord, am bound when ye do what I say; but when ye do not what I say, ye have no promise.” The LDS Church Institute manual for this section says:

    This verse shows a part of God’s basic nature: the way He deals with His children and the reason they can trust Him. Elder James E. Talmage said: “‘Mormonism’ has taught me that God holds himself accountable to law even as he expects us to do. He has set us the example in obedience to law. I know that to say this would have been heresy a few decades ago. But we have the divine word for it: ‘I, the Lord, am bound when ye do what I say; but when ye do not what I say, ye have no promise.’ ( Doc. and Cov. 82:10 .) He operates by law and not by arbitrariness or caprice.” (In Conference Report, Apr. 1930, p. 96.)

    I am starting to embrace this “natural” spiritual law as you mention. I think Mormons can get very Puritanical and legalistic, much like the Pharisees did in the days of Christ, and I think the pendulum needs to swing back to a more grace-centered approach, and that these ordinances should be seen as “present helps for Christian behavior”. I think too many LDS view these ordinances as the admission ticket into heaven, and don’t focus enough on acts of charity and kindness as much as they should.

    “So how and when did we begin to diverge?”

    Well, I think we’ve talked about this before. I don’t remember if it was you or John Hamer, (or someone else) who said that RLDS really don’t like the Nauvoo period very much. That is the period in which Joseph gave the King Follet sermon, introduced the sealing ordinance, more openly practiced polygamy, and introduced the more detailed endowment ceremony. As I recall, someone said that RLDS really weren’t comfortable with these ordinances. I know that baptism for the dead was performed in the Mississippi River, and it seems to me that this particular ordinance originated somewhere between Kirtland and Nauvoo. I know we’ve discussed it before, and as I recall, RLDS aren’t totally opposed to baptism for the dead, though the new temple in Independence was built without a font for that purpose, and it seems like that revelation was de-canonized, if I recall correctly.

    If memory serves me, it seems that many of the founders of the RLDS movement wanted to restore a mostly 1830’s era doctrinal base, and exclude Nauvoo period temple ordinances, sealings, and polygamy, even though the church was officially founded in 1860. It was interesting for me to realize that this initial endowment (initiatory) was introduced so early as 1836. I suspect that leaders of the RLDS movement were uncomfortable with these ritualistic ceremonies, and decided to exclude them even though they came from the seemingly “safe” period of 1836. The Kirtland Temple served much more as a meetinghouse than current LDS temples. In a future post, I was going to mention that dancing after marriages occurred in the temple following a sealing ceremony. Dancing is definitely off-limits in current temples. Most LDS would be shocked to see how “liberal” Brigham and Joseph were in the use of these early temples. (Of course, the near gun-battle in the Kirtland Temple is not talked about in Sunday School. I was shocked to learn such a violent act occurred in Kirtland following the banking crisis.)

  5. Thanks for giving the D&C dates for reference; our sequence is different and dates are the only way I can easily cross reference to read the original. I’ll read this in more detail and get back to you shortly.

  6. OK. A little search through our D&D’s index and a trip to Wikipedia shows that the divergence happens before 1836. Your Sec. 137 first comes in to your canon with the Pearl of Great Price and first gets moved to the D&C, it seems, with your 1981 edition. Our D&C works basically from the 1844 edition, with several revelations between 1835 and 1844 not approved by a conference (in keeping with our requirements) later moved to an historical appendix and eventually (usually) decanonized in my adult lifetime.

    Now I guess I’ll go read your section 137 on line.

  7. Now that I’ve read it, I see its something we have no problem with, but just have never canonized. However, it doesn’t say anything about an endowment ceremony. When did that start?

  8. Yeah that washing each others bodies stuff is weird. I read briefly about it in Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling. The use of whiskey in a temple ordinance strikes me as bizarre.

    The evolution of the temple endowment ceremony is interesting also. I am most familiar with recent changes to the ceremony. I find the endowment as it is today uncomfortable and I doubt I could have sat through a full session 20 years ago.

    Did you guys ever feel like that? I love the temple’s beauty but the endowment itself just made me feel weird and uncomfortable. I remember sitting there thinking how glad I was that we were behind granite walls because this is something I wouldn’t want to be seen doing.

  9. FireTag,

    Sorry I haven’t responded sooner. It’s been a very busy week for me. The question of “when did we diverge” is an interesting question, and I don’t think it has a straightforward answer.

    One point of view says that RLDS diverged in 1844 after Joseph was killed. It seems that William Law and others were very uncomfortable with polygamy, and associated temple ceremonies, and therefore rejected almost all temple ceremonies, regardless of the fact that some were received in 1836, prior to Joseph’s “fall”. (I’m not clear if the CoC believes Joseph fell, but from what I have learned, it seems that this is accurate. If not, let me know how you would phrase the Nauvoo period–especially Joseph’s polygamy.)

    Another point of view might be to consider the versions of the D&C between our 2 churches. I didn’t realize section 137 was added in 1981, and was merely in the PoGP prior to that. I understand that the church leaders have always kept a lid on temple ceremonies and language. Perhaps if this section had been added in 1838 or so (heck–even the 1844 edition), the RLDS would have been more likely to embrace it. Who knows?

    [Sec 137] “doesn’t say anything about an endowment ceremony. When did that start?”

    On pages 11-14, Buerger quotes Joseph Smith’s diary. It’s a really long quote, so I’ll try to quote the relevant parts here that agree with D&C 137.

    According to Joseph Smith’s diary, the first part of the ritual was introduced to members of the First Presidency and other church leaders on 21 January 1836.

    After washing and perfuming each other in the attic of the printing office, Smith and associates congregated in the unfinished temple where the First Presidency consecrated oil and progressively laid hands on each other’s heads, blessing and anointing each other to their offices. There followed visions and the expected endowment or outpouring of God’s spirit:

    “At about 3 P.M., I dismissed the school and the [First] Presidency, retired to the loft of the printing office…..

    The current Endowment ceremony is actually a 2-part ceremony. Smith records many details I’ve already mentioned (washing and anointing with oil.) The part of the ceremony received in the Kirtland Templs is what modern Mormons call the initiatory (or ceremonial washing and anointing with oil.) The 2nd part the ceremony is what Modern Mormons call the endowment–a symbolic teaching of the Plan of Salvation as I quoted from Elder Packer above. In 1836, only the Initiatory part of the Endowment was received. I don’t know how long it took Joseph and others to do, but current Initiatory ordinances can be completed in a few minutes. It’s not a long ceremony at all. This 1836 temple ritual is all that was received at that time.

    The modern Endowment ceremony generally takes 90 minutes or so, and is the 2nd half of the endowment. This part of the endowment was received in the Nauvoo period. As I said before, it is a very symbolic, ritualistic ceremony–there is no washing done in this part of the ceremony.

    In the early temple days, temple workers did a sort of scriptural dramatization. As technology improved, the church has decided to put part of this dramatization on film in order to create better uniformity and make sure it is the same for everyone. (It also helps with non-English speakers who can listen to the ceremony in other languages.)

    Buerger’s quotes Joseph’s diary for 2 pages. About half way down on page 12 of Buerger’s quotation, Joseph’s diary is nearly identical to Section 137. Buerger includes Joseph’s crossed-out and misspelled words that I’ll try to preserve; I’ll underline the parts similar to D&C 137.) As I was quoting above, Joseph describes the washing and anointing of each other (starting around 3 PM), and then a vision is opened:

    all the presidency laid their hands upon me and pronounced upon my head many prophesies, and blessings, many of which I shall not notice at this time, but as Paul said, so say I, let us come to vissions and revelations, –The heavens were opened upon us and I beheld the celestial kingdom of God, and the glory thereof, of the gate that enters, through which teh heirs of that Kingdom will enter, which was like unto circling flames of fire, also the blasing [blazing] throne of God, whereon was seated the Father and the Son, –I say the beautiful streets of that Kingdom, which had the appearance of being paved with gold–I saw Father Adam and Abraham and Michael and my father and mother, my brother Alvin that has long since slept, and marvled how it was that he had obtained this an inheritance in that Kingdom, seeing that he had departed this life, before the Lord had set his hand to gather Israel the second time and had not been baptized for the remission of sins–Thus said came the voice of the Lord unto me, saying: All who have died with[out] a knowledge of this gospel, who would have received it if they had been permitted to tarry, shall be heirs of the celestial kingdom of God–also all that shall die henseforth, without a knowledge of it, who would have received it, with all their hearts, shall be heirs of that kingdom, for I the Lord, will judge all men according to their works, according to the desire of their hearts and again I beheld the Terrestrial Kingdom I also beheld that all children who die before they arrive at the years of accountability are saved in the celestial kingdom of heaven–I saw the 12 apostles of the Lamb, who are not upon the earth who hold the keys of this last ministry, in foreign lands, standing together in a circle much fatiegued, with their clothes tattered and feet swolen, with their eyes cast downward, and Jesus standing in their midst, and they did not behold him, the Saviour looked upon them and wept–I also beheld Elder [William E.] McLellin in the south standing on a hill…

    Anyway, the quote goes on for quite a bit more, but it gives you a flavor of not only the washings and anointing that took place, but the vision of Alvin, and other visions of William McLellin and even Brigham Young doing missionary work. As you can see, the D&C 137 is almost verbatim of Joseph’s diary.

  10. MH:

    As I think I’ve said before, I personally view Joseph as a “gradually falling” prophet, noting that his speculations following the Book of Mormon and early revelations led him astray. If he was secretly proposing polygamy long before it came out in the open, as you’ve described in some of your posts, then I’m glad he got the BofM published quickly and had witnesses. 😀

    But our break certainly starts before 1844, even if its roots aren’t apparent. Our D&C starts with the 1844 edition and cuts back in time before going forward again with Joseph Smith III. I only have a childhood copy of the D&C handy right now and it precedes the decanonization of several sections never approved by an LDS conference prior to Joseph’s assassination. However, with one possible exception, I think our last section from JS himself stops in March 1835 after the first Quorum of 12 is sent out.

    Our thoughts about the vision of JS’ brother being in celestial glory because he would have accepted the gospel had he lived would be. “well, duh!” and we would no more feel the need to baptize someone already dead than to give a baby blessing to an adult. So there is really a conceptual difference there about what ordinances do.

  11. AYdUbYA, your comments strike me as irreverent. I admit that the ritualism is a stark contrast to typical church meetings, and I admit that my first few trips to the temple were uncomfortable. I’m not quite sure how to take your comments.

    I think Joseph did his best to incorporate all of the Bible, including the ritualistic elements of the Old Testament. It seems to me these rituals were done in the temple (or tabernacle–as in the case of Moses) and I think Joseph felt they were best performed there. This is a big contrast with protestant religions. I think most protestants would be happy to remove the entire Old Testament with the exception of Genesis and Exodus. From what I can tell, many protestants only want to discuss the New Testament, and ignore some of the ritualism of the Old Testament.

    FireTag, your comments make me want to review the history of baptism for the dead. Surely this is a part of Joseph Smith’s legacy, and I know there was some consideration as to whether to include a baptismal font in the Independence Temple. It seems to me the decanonization of baptism for the dead has been within the last few decades, so the “well, duh” comment seems to be a departure from Joseph’s teachings. I guess the gradually falling prophet idea let’s the CoC pick and choose doctrines more freely than LDS.

    I think it is very interesting that the CoC has only 1 revelation of Joseph after 1835. With the Kirtland Temple being in your hands, it is a bit surprising that the CoC doesn’t have some sort of revelation dealing with the dedication of it. I guess this “gradually falling” idea must have started around 1835. 😉

    There is definitely a conceptual difference about ordinances. A Mormon will first pull up John 3 and quote Jesus, “A man must be born of the water and of the spirit to enter into the kingdom of God.” Baptism seems to be implied here. If not, what do you think Jesus was referring to?

  12. MH:

    We regard the dedication of the temple in Kirtland as a profound spiritual experience which is fully recorded in church history and acknowledged. (I was surprised when I found out about the gunfire inside, however.) We just don’t canonize things without acceptance by a conference. There was never a font in the Temple at Kirtland, if I remember, although it’s been more than 45 years since I’ve been on the upper floors. So clearly the importance of baptism for the dead grew AFTER the dedication of the Temple.

    I was privileged to attend the 150th anniversary celebration of the dedication at the Temple, and my wife played the piano for the services that day. However, that only ranks as my third favorite experience at Kirtland. Detroit Stake went there for a weekend priesthood retreat that was really personally endowing for me, and I think our entire stake. Certainly, we reached our high point in membership growth and community service in Detroit in the years immediately following.

    My favorite, however, was going on a personal tour as a boy, and having the guide allow me up into the bell tower so that I could imagine myself back in the founding generation, standing guard on the walls at night and looking out over the houses where some of the early church leaders lived. Since we stopped there on the way home from Palmyra, it was especially meaningful in establishing my early faith.

    But no specific rituals.

    If you read the D&C chronologically, you will see increasing warnings to the church about the necessity of obedience or there were going to be real problems in the sections leading up to 1835. We certainly agree that happened by 1844; CofChrist just think it started a little sooner.

    We think that those who died without understanding don’t have their eternal status influenced by whether some later generation takes some action or not. I have my own wierd ideas about the interrelationship of the physical and spiritual, as you know, but I think the above is accurate in regard to mainstream CofChrist beliefs.
    However, after talking with me, John Hamer, and Margie Miller, you’ll see there isn’t a lot of conformity among us.

  13. […] Godliness: A History of Mormon Temple Worship, by David John Buerger.  (I talked about this in my previous post as well.)  The temple is a place where we are constantly reminded that if we must communicate, we […]

  14. FireTag,

    Your comments inspire me to want to research and write a post on the history of baptism for the dead. I believe you’re right that there is not font in the Kirtland Temple, but the vision of Alvin probably inspired the practice.

  15. FireTag,

    I’ve been spending entirely too much time on YouTube lately, but I found this interesting ABC News video which filmed the inside of the Draper, Utah Temple. As you may or may not know, before a temple is dedicated, anyone can visit during the Open House period. Apparently, the LDS Church invited ABC News. I thought you might enjoy seeing the inside.

  16. Thanks, MH. I will see it soon. Merry Christmas!

  17. […] Mormons to talk about the temple except in very general terms.  For example, when I reviewed The Mysteries of Godliness, it made me very uncomfortable, because I felt that David John Buerger went too far in discussing […]

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