I was recently reading a fascinating article by Edward Kimball that covers the history of various questions in the Temple Recommend interview. One of the sources is a book I’ve read before, The Mysteries of Godliness: A History of Mormon Temple Worship by David Buerger.
Kimball’s article “Temple Admission Standards” groups the changes into broader thematic categories to see how the questions regarding a particular issue have evolved over time. His article is well worth a read for that alone. I took that information and re-ordered it to put all the changes into their time frame to see what types of things were being changed at once and how often the question are getting a major shake-up.
The “changes” typically arrive through one of the following means:
- Modifications to the instructions in the Handbook. This is a very passive way to clarify an area of focus as it is not made public through the questions themselves, and only bishops have access to see the revised instructions. Bishops who aren’t looking for changes may not even notice them.
- First Presidency letter to bishops. This is similar to a handbook change, but is drawing the bishop’s attention to a point of clarification.
- First Presidency letter to the church membership at large. This gets even more attention and is done when members appear to have a wide-spread misunderstanding, not just bishops.
- Direct changes to questions themselves (or to the interview). This alters how both members and bishops perceive temple worthiness.
The earliest “worthiness” assessments were based on a personal relationship with Joseph Smith (and later, a personal endorsement based on a relationship with one’s local leaders). Due to mission assignments and other church business, not even all the apostles were endowed (Sidney Ridgon was out of state, drumming up support for a presidential run when the Nauvoo temple was completed). Initially, no single people were endowed. It was only done for those who were married (whether in a polygamous or monogamous marriage).
In 1844, it was clarified that those who had contributed tithing money to the temple fund would have first claim to their endowment.
Notably, gambling was discouraged among church members, but it was never formally added to the list of questions.
In 1856, a letter from the First Presidency clarified that any candidates for temple worthiness must believe in plural marriage (even though most did not practice it–of note, ALL leaders did, so this requirement really implied support of the leaders’ practice of it). Worthiness questions prohibited speaking against or “speaking evil of” Church leaders as well as “paying due respect” to leaders.
There was a specific prohibition on profanity, a requirement that members pray regularly, and an agricultural-sounding prohibition of those who “steal, lie, or interfere with their neighbor’s things.” The prohibition on profanity was further clarified by Wilford Woodruff in 1886 who said that a man who “curses and swears” should not be recommended for the temple. 
The instruction about prayer was expanded in 1886 via a general epistle to church membership about family life that those worthy of a recommend should “live in harmony and peace at home” and “should pray with their families morning and evening, and not neglect secret prayer.”
Early to Mid-20th Century Major Shifts
In 1921, a big shift occurred when the Word of Wisdom made its first appearance in the temple recommend questions, specifically calling out abstinence from coffee and tea. In 1928, there was a note that observing the principle of tithing should be “encouraged.” It was not spelled out as an absolute requirement at this time, although even from the beginning, tithe contributors were given preferment.
During the 1930s, the rise in popularity of groups like trade unions and men’s lodges created a stir due to the time and money commitments of these groups that the church saw as in conflict and competition with church membership. There was some leeriness as well about lodges whose rites appeared religiously binding in any way. In 1934, bishops were instructed in the handbook that applicants for recommends “should not join nor be a member of any secret-oath-bound organization.”
That same year, the language around leaders was modified to state that candidates should “sustain without reservation the general and local authorities of the church.” This language was kept until 1976. The standard around tithing was upgraded to state that recommend holders should “observe” the law of tithing. The question about profanity was dropped, although it was still mentioned as something bishops should consider.
1940 brought massive changes to the worthiness interview with a new focus on key issues that had become a concern to the church:
- Bishops were instructed that those “adopting or advocating” plural marriage were barred and that this was considered apostasy.
- Tithing language was solidified to being “an honest tithepayer” or to “undertake to become one.”
- Chastity was introduced under the oblique injunction against “interfering” with one’s neighbor’s wives or husbands.
- Word of Wisdom language was left vague with a “willingness to undertake” it without calling out specifics.
- For the first time, the handbook expressed concern that previously endowed members should wear the temple garment.
- Church meeting attendance was introduced to the interview, specifying sacrament meeting, priesthood (for men) and “other meetings.”
- The handbook clarified that lodge affiliation that was functionally equivalent to church membership was incompatible with Church activity, but it was not unilaterally prohibited or in the questions. It was just discouraged in the bishop’s instructions.
- While prayer was dropped from the questions, an instruction to bishops that members with a recommend should be generally “believing in and living the gospel” was added to the handbook.
- The profanity injunction remained in the bishop’s instructions, but was not in the interview questions. This was the last time profanity was mentioned at all.
- A statement was added that honesty was expected of those who enter the temple. No question was asked.
Mid 20th Century Changes
In the 1950s, candidates were asked if they had ever previously been denied a recommend, presumably to raise a discussion if there were unresolved issues in the past requiring confession. In 1957, candidates were asked if they were divorced, although no consequences were delineated based on the answer. Garment guidelines were updated to state that the garments worn should be “regulation.” (This verbiage later became “approved” or “authorized” design.)
In 1960, the chastity statement was increased to include “all kinds of immoral practices,” without naming what those were. A candidate who was previously divorced (as discovered in the newly added 1957 question list) now required First Presidency clearance to receive a recommend. The questions around Word of Wisdom were clarified to refer to no “tea, coffee, tobacco, and liquor.”
The higher level clearance for divorced persons only lasted three years. In 1963, it was only required if the divorced person had been divorced more than once or if the marriage that was dissolved had been a temple sealing. The handbook added that bishops should inquire about “all kinds of immoral or unchristianlike practices.”  A question was added to ensure that those seeking renewal were abiding by their temple obligations. In 1964, the tithing language settled on “full tithepayers” with no elaboration given or sought.
The divorce question was proving to be difficult to administer. In 1968, only a sealing cancellation required First Presidency approval, provided there was no infidelity on the part of the candidate. That same year, the Word of Wisdom question underwent a change from “liquor” to “alcoholic beverages,” presumably to include wine and beer (and not just hard liquor). The recently added question about living up to temple obligations was omitted.
In 1969, concern about one’s profession conflicting with church teachings came to the fore. A First Presidency letter announced that it was inappropriate for those involved firsthand with liquor to receive temple recommends (e.g. bartenders or cocktail waitresses). The same warned that those involved firsthand in gambling as dealers should also not normally receive a recommend.
Late 20th Century Changes
Each of the last 3 decades of the 20th century saw massive changes to the temple recommend interview. In 1976, the following changes occurred:
- Children of “apostates” (meaning polygamous families) were barred due to parental influence, even if they were not involved in practices.
- For the first time, candidates were required to affirm that they believe that the Church president is “a Prophet, Seer, and Revelator” and the only person on earth authorized to exercise all priesthood keys (this was to weed out fundamentalists who might agree he was a prophet, but not that he had sole access to all priesthood keys).
- Switched from asking about being previously denied a recommend to asking the broader question about unresolved major sins. Chastity question was revised to ask if the candidate is “morally clean.”
- If a sealing cancellation was due to a spouse’s infidelity, First Presidency approval was no longer required. Questions were asked to get to “the real reason for the divorce.”
- A statement was added that the garment must be worn both night and day.
- The vague question about “all kinds of immoral and unchristlike practices” was dropped after 13 years of fishing expeditions that I can only imagine were often ill-conceived.
- The question “Are you honest in your dealings with your fellowmen?” was added. 
Despite the overhaul in 1976, one additional change was introduced two years later, the year the priesthood ban was lifted, to add a warning to the chastity section: “But if there shall come into it any unclean thing, my glory shall not be there; and my presence shall not come into it.” The section further clarified that a person who had not repented from “impure, unholy, or unnatural sex acts” could not receive a recommend (without specifying what those practices were). A subsequent First President letter to bishops instructed that they “should never inquire into personal, intimate matters involving marital relations between a man and his wife.” 
1979 saw another change to the hard-to-pin-down chastity section, reducing it to the question about unresolved sin which was modified to state “anything amiss.” Additionally, the temple obligations question was re-added, along with a general question about whether applicants considered themselves “worthy in every way” to enter the temple.
In the 80s, additional significant changes occurred. There was a prohibition on post-operative transsexual people from receiving a recommend added in 1983. This was omitted in the 1989 questions. In 1983, the First Presidency clearance for divorce was finally discontinued. Those who refused to pay income tax could be ineligible for a recommend.
In 1985, there was a push to ensure that our reputation as “Christians” which was threatened in the media would be upheld. Questions to affirm Christian belief were added, including belief in God the Father, Jesus, and the Holy Ghost as well as a “firm testimony” of the restored gospel. Chastity questions were modified to a simple question: “Do you live the Law of Chastity?” and at the same time, a letter from the First Presidency to bishops instructed that rape victims and victims of childhood incest were blameless. The question on “anything amiss” was clarified to any “sin or misdeed.” The honesty question disappeared (briefly, coming back 4 years later), but a question was added about fulfilling obligations for support and maintenance of your family to divorced persons. The question about apostates (that referred to polygamists) changed from “affiliation with or sympathy for” apostates to “affiliation with them or sympathy with their precepts.”
1989 saw more clarifications to the apostasy question, including a prohibition on those who “continue to follow the teaching of apostate cults (such as those that advocate plural marriage) after being corrected by their bishops or higher authority.” The section on sexuality underwent several additions (despite dropping the post-operative transsexual ban), including a section that read: “to be morally clean, a person must refrain from adultery and fornication, from homosexual or lesbian relations, and from every other unholy, unnatural or impure practice.” Bishops were instructed that if an applicant has enough anxiety about a practice to ask about it, the best course is to discontinue that sexual practice. From Kimball’s article, the reasonable inference is that mutual consent, free from force, demand, or psychological pressure into unwelcome sexual activity is required for sex acts in marriage. Additionally, abuse of family members was introduced as grounds for denying a temple recommend. A General Conference address in 1990 clarified that abuse included temper, impatience, demeaning others, and demands for offensive intimate relations.
The 49 year discouragement from lodge affiliation was dropped (probably due to steep decline in popularity of these groups). The antagonism between the church and the Utah Freemasons had been so marked that the Utah chapter barred Mormons from joining until 1984. From this point forward, local leaders were left to determine whether a person’s occupation was “in harmony with gospel teachings.” The handbook further instructed that applicants should “have a substantial degree of maturity” to be able to understand and meaningfully make solemn commitments.
In 1990, there was an added statement that endowed persons were under an “absolute obligation to not discuss outside the temple that which occurs within,” possibly as a response to the Godmakers film. In 1991, a question was added for those who were divorced about unresolved transgressions that were a result of the divorce or separation.
1996 also saw significant changes, including fleshing out the section on belief from “having faith in” the godhead to “Do you have faith in and a testimony of” the godhead. The word “firm” was dropped as a qualifier of what type of testimony was required. The section on apostate groups was revised to those who “support, affiliate with or agree with” apostate teachings or practices. An express acknowledgement that all members of the quorum of the twelve are “prophets, seers, and revelators” was added, to match the language used in General Conference sustaining. Legal language qualifying the type of family financial support required for divorced persons was dropped in favor of more general language. “Other meetings” were omitted from those required for church attendance. The phrase “in every way” was dropped from the question about one’s personal worthiness. Regarding the wearing of the temple garment night and day, the phrase “in accordance with the covenant you made in the temple” was added. 
In general, these changes reflect either a tightening or a loosening of specific types of restrictions.
Things that became more stringent over time:
- Word of Wisdom. It went from being absent (but encouraged) to being required, first just as a willingness to follow it, then later as a commitment and a statement that one was already following it. It was clarified to include a wider range of alcoholic beverages, not just hard liquor, perhaps due to a misunderstanding of the term “liquor” or perhaps because the new requirement became more stringent. Eventually, even professions that involving the sale or serving of alcohol (but not coffee, tea, or tobacco) were considered incompatible with a temple recommend. This was later dropped.
- Tithing. It was initially a way to get to the front of the line, then became encouraged to observe or willing to commit to begin paying, to being an absolute prerequisite to get a recommend. However, it is still up to the individual to affirm status.
- Wearing garments. This wasn’t even included for the first hundred years, and was then only clarified to be wearing the approved design. After that, the additions were about how often they were worn and then to add weight to that instruction, the claim that it was a covenant. Subsequently, a statement was added that is read during the interview explaining that the reasons to remove it are very limited.
- Support of top church leaders. This has always been a focus, but it has shifted in tone from one of treating with respect to affirming the religious significance of the role, and therefore bolstering the authority of those in these positions.
Things that were dropped or became less stringent over time:
- Divorce. This particular requirement seemed to be a struggle related to sheer volume of cases to consider. Routinizing the more common situations was desirable after handling them all as exceptions initially.
- Affiliation with lodges or trade unions. This disdain for such affiliations had a long run considering how insignificant it is to us today.
- Prayer. This was very short-lived as a requirement, not because it’s not important, but probably because asking about it was redundant for those seeking a recommend.
- “Other meetings.” This seemed added only as an equivalent to “priesthood” for men, but was probably too vague given how many meetings we seem to have in this church.
The area with the most changes, seemingly because it’s so difficult to get it right:
- Law of chastity. There have been many changes over time in this area, including many that were phrased in such oblique ways as to be easily misunderstood or likely to lead to an unwanted fishing expedition.
And although apostasy has been an area that has gone from an absolute requirement that one believes in plural marriage to a requirement that one does not believe in or agree with the precepts of polygamists, it’s hard to say whether it is now still intended to bar non-Brighamites from temple attendance or to provide bishops cover for anything that might currently be deemed “apostate” which is casting a wide net indeed. When I got my first recommend in 1988, I was confused by the apostasy question because it referred to groups of people. Since I was from the east, I was unaware that there were still modern day polygamists. I thought it was a backwards relic of another era. The bishop who interviewed me explained what the groups were that it referred to. At least at that time, the apostasy question was still considered to refer to polygamist off-shoots.
Perhaps the biggest change of all is the most significant. From the way questions have been phrased over time and from the handbook instructions, it is clear that we’ve gone from a time in which the questions were designed to open discussion to a time in which yes or no answers are desired with no elaboration. That’s a great change toward self-assessing worthiness and away from the risks associated with bishop roulette in an increasingly large membership.
A few interesting notes from the Kimball article that deserve special mention. Although many of these items (e.g. tithing, chastity, word of wisdom) were included in some embryonic fashion in early iterations, some of the questions we take for granted had a fairly late “solid” inclusion date (meaning a fairly late date at which they were required rather than encouraged or implicitly understood). Specifically:
- Questions were only formalized (rather than local relationship-based) during the 1920-40 period.
- Rejecting ongoing plural marriage was only an official impediment 50 years after OD2, in 1940.
- Divorce was only introduced as a potential barrier in 1960.
- Word of Wisdom compliance was only required starting in 1960.
- Tithing came even later as a requirement (rather than encouragement to commit to it), in 1968.
- Accepting the Church president as the only one with all Priesthood keys began in 1976.
- Faith in God and the restoration only needed to be affirmed starting in 1985. Faith in the atonement of Jesus Christ wasn’t until 1996.
- Barring self-reported abusers of family members was only introduced in 1989.
- Acknowledging the quorum of the twelve as prophets was added in 1996.
Let’s see what you think of these ongoing changes.
- Were any of these dates or items surprising to you? Which ones?
- What changes have you noticed in your adult life (if you have noticed changes)?
- What further changes do you expect to see in coming decades?
- What further changes would you like to see?
 Phew! It only applies to men. I’m good.
 Holy train wreck! I can’t look away!
 Apparently not required to be honest with women, though.
 “a man” vs. “his wife.” Let that wording sink in.
 Although there is no such covenant that takes place.