My post three weeks ago on religious ritual and LDS ritual prompted a lot of comments on LDS temples, so I’m going to follow up with a post discussing a recent book of essays, The Ancient Order of Things: Essays on the Mormon Temple (Signature Books, 2019), edited by Christian Larsen. The book republishes a variety of essays that have been previously published, but they remain relevant and informative reading. I’ll focus on the three articles I found most interesting.
The Mormon Temple Rite as Oral Canon
The first essay is “‘Not to Be Riten'”: The Mormon Temple as Oral Canon,” by Kathleen Flake. This was first published in an academic journal in 1995. The article focuses on what you might call the institutional protocols that surround the LDS temple endowment: the only access temple-going members have to the text of the ritual is by hearing and seeing it inside the temple; there is no authorized written text that average members (as opposed to temple workers) can review or study; and members are sternly directed not to discuss the details of the temple rites outside the temple.
Two comments. First, this is quite intentional and serves to set the temple presentation distinctly apart from other authoritative sources of divine guidance in the Church, such as scriptural texts or General Conference talks, which members are encouraged to read and study. Here is Flake’s commentary, along with a quotation from a scholarly commentator (ellipsis in original quotation):
By scrupulously maintaining the ritual as an oral tradition — not making its text available or otherwise discussing it publicly for others to record authoritatively its specific contents — the church enables the temple ceremony to “function … as a series of interlocking face-to-face conversations in which the very conditions of transmission operate to favour consistency between past and present, and to make criticism — the articulation of inconsistency — less likely to occur; and if it does, the inconsistency makes a less permanent impact, and is more easily adjusted or forgotten.”Ancient Order, p. 33
Second, the approach has actually been very successful in these aims. Mainstream members only rarely ask questions about the history or origins of the temple presentation, or any changes that have occurred, because they only rarely talk about the temple presentation. They go, they participate, then they go out to dinner and go home, hopefully uplifted and strengthened by the experience. But it’s not typically something they mull over or reflect on. Flake lays out the challenge faced by such a ritual (that, as noted, the protocols do a good job meeting) as follows:
On the one hand, [the LDS temple presentation] must be accepted by the faithful as fixed, a timeless standard by which they order their lives. On the other hand, it must shift to accommodate life as experienced by successive generations, if it is to have any relevancy and, hence, power to order their lives.Ancient Order, p. 28
This essay was written in 1995. Some things have changed since then. For one thing, the Internet has opened up some public discussion of LDS temples that previously did not occur, although most members are, I think, fairly reticent to explore and read about that topic online. In addition, Flake notes in the essay that when leadership makes changes to the LDS temple presentation, there is no public announcement of the substance of the changes, or even that any changes were made. Members are just supposed to pick it up by attending. That has changed since 1995. Leadership has publicly announced recent changes to the LDS temple presentation. That might be because of the Internet. Or it might be because too many members no longer attend the temple and wouldn’t know about the changes otherwise. It might be a “please come back” announcement. That’s hard to evaluate given the absence of temple attendance statistics.
The Salt Lake Temple Dedication, 1893
Another interesting essay is “‘Come, Let Us Go Up to the Mountain of the Lord’: The Salt Lake Temple Dedication, 1893,” by Brian H. Stuy. This essay first appeared in Dialogue in 1998. What’s interesting about the essay is how much folklore surrounded the whole temple project and its completion. Apparently the belief among the early Utah Saints was that no temple would be built and dedicated until the temple in Jackson County, Missouri was first built and dedicated. Here is what Stuy writes about Brigham Young’s view, as recorded by Wilford Woodruff recorded in his journal:
While inspecting the [Salt Lake] temple foundation, Young said, “I expect this Temple will stand through the Millennium ….” Young them declared, “I do not want to quite finish this Temple for there will not be any Temple finished until the one is finished in Jackson County, Missouri pointed out by Joseph Smith. Keep this a secret to yourselves lest some may be discouraged.”Ancient Order, p. 150
Obviously, that view shifted over time. The St. George Temple was dedicated in 1877, with some then believing that it was just the Salt Lake Temple that wouldn’t be dedicated and used until the one in Missouri was done. When the Salt Lake Temple was in fact completed and dedicated, the strong belief at the time was that this was a sign heralding big events to come shortly. Remember, the 1890s were a tumultuous decade, with the (apparent) abandonment of plural marriage in 1890, the completion and dedication of the Salt Lake Temple in 1893, then the achievement of Utah statehood in 1896.
According to Stuy, “many believed [the Salt Lake Temple’s] dedication signaled the imminent commencement of the millennial era, when the church would go back to Jackson County, Missouri, and the Savior would return” (p. 149). That didn’t happen. Now, in 2020, there are hundreds of LDS temples. Our view of the Salt Lake Temple carries none of the super significance it was accorded at the time. The possibility of buying up land, possibly the original proposed site, for the Jackson County Temple remains, but that seems more like just another project for the property and temple arm of the LDS management structure to implement, not so much a sign of the Second Coming. I’m sure they would incorporate an upscale subdivision along with the temple project, with a stake center and a really big parking lot adjacent to the temple.
The last essay I’ll touch on is “‘To Cover Your Nakedness’: The Body, Sacred Secrecy, and Institutional Power in the Initiatory,” by John-Charles Duffy. This essay was first published in an academic journal in 2007.
One thing that is interesting in this essay is the eight-page discussion at the front of the essay considering the ethics of discussing an otherwise “secret” religious ritual. It’s a balanced and insightful discussion. Historians rather freely discuss and speculate about secret rituals in the Greek and Roman world. There are lots of books about Masonic rituals, and the Masons themselves are, in the 21st century, rather more open about discussing their rituals than in prior centuries. It turns out that the LDS position is fairly vague about what can or can’t be talked about, so members (and leaders) respond by avoiding the whole subject. The whole discussion, a prologue to the substance of the article, was as interesting as the rest of the discussion.
As for the substance, I’ll just recite the section headings in the article and let you go read it for yourselves: the decline of nudity in the initiatory; reactions to nudity in the initiatory; sacred secrecy and the body; and privacy and power. Let’s just say the temple was quite an experience in the 19th century. A big conflict seemed to emerge in the late 20th century, as young Mormons raised with increased LDS emphasis on modesty in dress and thought encountered LDS temple rituals. Starting in 1990, a lot of changes have been introduced to reduce that conflict and keep the next generation interested in attending the temple more than once in their life.
LDS temples are such a unique feature of Mormon Christianity, as opposed to Catholic, Protestant, and Orthodox versions thereof. This book of essays will almost certainly add to your understanding of the history, meaning, and importance of temples in the LDS tradition. I invite your comments and discussion, but I do ask that you save detailed discussion or criticism of LDS temple rites for another forum. Thanks!