Today’s guest post is from Maybee.
It was 14 years ago. I sat in a cushioned chair in a room decorated with rosy pastels, white, and gold. A large screen hung in the front of the room. An elderly gentleman stood silently with his arms outstretched, his wife seated nearby, smiling. The deep voice on the speaker informed the women of the next covenant. The hearkening covenant. My heart dropped as I heard the words. I knew from what I had witnessed thus far that I had but a short pause to respond. I looked at the women around me, at my young future husband across the aisle. My heart racing, my stomach churning, I bowed my head and said “Yes.”
Agency and Covenants
We are taught early on that choosing and acting for ourselves is one of our most precious gifts from God. The story of Lucifer vs. Christ in the preexistence and the choice each of us made individually is a truly unique and wonderful teaching of Mormonism. But how does this agency translate to making covenants? Certainly when making a binding contract with God, it’s imperative that we fully understand what is being asked of us. The Church Handbook of Instructions 2 advises leaders to counsel children about the covenant of baptism before their 8th birthday. Potential new converts must hear all of the discussions prior to baptism to understand the implications of their decision. So why, in the holiest of places on earth, do we make eternal contracts with God without knowing beforehand the details and implications of those contracts?
The manual often used in temple prep courses “Preparing to Enter the Holy Temple” does give some insight into temple covenants:
“The ordinances of the endowment embody certain obligations on the part of the individual, such as covenant and promise to observe the law of strict virtue and chastity, to be charitable, benevolent, tolerant and pure; to devote both talent and material means to the spread of truth and the uplifting of the race; to maintain devotion to the cause of truth; and to seek in every way to contribute to the great preparation that the earth may be made ready to receive her King,—the Lord Jesus Christ. With the taking of each covenant and the assuming of each obligation a promised blessing is pronounced, contingent upon the faithful observance of the conditions. (The House of the Lord, page 100.)”
But where is the hearkening covenant? I see no hint of it here.
Some might argue that a certain degree of faith is required with covenants and the temple. Part of temple preparation is recognizing that you are committed to the faith, and ready to show that commitment to God, even if what is being asked is difficult. I suppose there is an argument for this, and I’ve had these thoughts regarding some of the other covenants made in the temple. But those covenants didn’t surprise me, nor feel so very much against my core belief of my relationship with God, as did the hearkening covenant. Even Abraham, when asked to do the unthinkable and sacrifice his son, had a long walk up a mountain to contemplate his decision. So is it just to ask me to make a very personally difficult eternal agreement without more than a few seconds to think it over?
I recognize that the term “coercion” may seem ugly and harsh when talking about temple covenants, however, I do think that it applies. Coercion is the act of using force or intimidation to obtain compliance. It is related to duress, where a party is essentially forced to act in a way contrary to their best interest or desires, and may involve psychological pressure. I consider my response to the hearkening covenant to have been made under psychological duress and therefore consider the situation coercive. I was caught by surprise with no time to think, my fiancé and future in-laws seated only feet away, and my temple marriage and future eternal progression hanging on my response. Add to that my aversion to confrontation and creating a ruckus, as well as my generally pleaser type personality and a “yes” was all but guaranteed.
So what if the conditions had been different? What if the temple matron had explained to me what I was about to agree to prior to the ceremony? I consider myself a woman of integrity, in part thanks to all of those YW lessons on the matter. So although I never expected a test of my integrity to occur in the House of the Lord, I can say with certainty that given more than a few rushed seconds to make the decision, as difficult as it would have been, I would have certainly said “No.” And what if the conditions were even more different, with more time and transparency? Perhaps RS lessons or General Conference talks regarding the definition of “hearkening.” An open discussion in temple prep class as to the wording of the covenant, maybe even official language as to what the implications of what hearkening meant? Would I have said yes? I can’t answer that with any certainty. But I do know I would have pondered, prayed, and wrestled over my decision. Maybe I would have received an impression from God that the covenant was a remnant of past culture and not really binding at all. Or perhaps I would have felt strongly that I was simply to have faith on the matter and that it would all be ok in the end. Whatever my reasoning, unlike how it originally went down, a “yes” decision in those scenarios would be a true yes, a decision that I could own. Which is really how agency should work, no?
In the years following that first time going through the temple, I have reflected often on the heartache and pain associated with the experience. For several years I thought it was simply the wording of the hearkening covenant that I found so troublesome. I think I had naively expected that in the temple I would witness a more egalitarian relationship between men, women, and God, similar to the positive emotions I felt as two kindly elderly women placed their hands on my head prior to the endowment ceremony. Discovering that the patriarchal order existed so explicitly in the temple was no doubt disappointing. However, time and age have given me better insight and words to understand and express my emotions. As frustrating as it is to experience patriarchy in the temple, it is really the disregard for my agency that is most traumatic. Free will is truly a precious gift from God, so to have mine overlooked so blatantly, by the organization that professes to hold agency in such high esteem, is degrading. For me this realization is a much harder pill to swallow than the patriarchy I’ve been exposed to since a child, as it truly goes against the core doctrines of the church, really, everything I’ve been taught about who I am fundamentally. My Spirit cries out in protest, and rightly so.
So why does it happen this way? Here are a few scenarios I’ve considered:
- It’s simply an unfortunate oversight by our leaders who have never really considered how, for many women, making such a decision might be difficult without advanced notice.
- the details are purposefully kept secret from women so they will answer in the affirmative without questioning, a sort of “bait-and-switch” scenario.
- the hearkening covenant is simply a cultural vestige of a bygone era, and not a truly binding covenant, so it’s null anyway.
- as a woman my agency doesn’t really matter (see Law of Sarah), that precious gift given to mankind in the preexistence is really only for men, since they are the real humans anyway.
In the celestial room I was met with hugs of congratulations and expressions of love from my future family members. I should have been able to celebrate that moment. Instead, I found myself calling into question the very relationship to God that I held so dear. And I felt sorrow and dismay for the active participation I had played in what felt like a demotion of my spirit, my worth, my standing in God’s eyes. For many of us yes, the temple experience is painful. For me it is a wound that refuses to heal, the depth and extension of which I am still discovering, the pain ever present.
I’d love to hear your *respectful* thoughts.
How do you view agency and temple covenants, specifically the hearkening covenant? Should we be informed of these covenants beforehand to allow study and preparation? Or should temple covenants be held to a different standard?
Did you have prior knowledge of the hearkening covenant? If not, were you taken aback? Do you feel it was unfair to ask such a question without adequate time to consider the implications before answering?
Did you say “No?” (I’ve heard of a few cases, but I don’t know of anyone personally who has done this).
Is coercion too harsh of a term? Is “psychological duress” an unfair characterization?
Do you think the details of the hearkening covenant are purposefully left out of temple prep classes? If so, why do you think this is?