Temple ceremony, the stabilizer for mystical enthusiasm

Brian Johnstonhistory, joseph, temple 9 Comments

I’ve been thinking lately about the differences between the LDS Church we participate in today compared to what attracted and retained early members in the days of Joseph Smith.  Joseph Smith was a religious mystic, recognized as a founding “prophet” of our modern church.  The core of the story of Joseph and the restoration is a number of intense, other-worldly, divine encounters.  He seemed to be ever concerned with bringing the Church into the presence of God.  This took a worldly form in the cause of gathering to Zion, a utopian society perhaps like the City of Enoch.  It also took the form of promoting the expression of visions, dreams, speaking in tongues, and prophecies.

His early prototypes of the temple practice we know today started in Kirtland, where they were much different.  Participants would fast for a day or two, attend to ritual washings and annointings to symbolically cleanse and purify themselves, and then participate in intense prayers, blessings, and expressions of spiritual gifts.  The goal was to have a transcendent vision of the divine.  It seemed that Joseph wanted many people to tap into what he was experiencing.  People who participated described him trying to get it all just write, to set groups participating in proper order, kind of feeling his way through to getting people into that mystical state.

I recently ran across this paragraph that made such a good summary:

Endowment, Joseph’s name for the temple ceremony, connected it to promises made long before his encounter with Freemasonry. In early revelations, the word “endowment” referred to seeing God, a bequest of Pentecostal spiritual light. The use of the word “endowment” in Nauvoo implied that the goal of coming into God’s presence would be realized now through ritual rather than a transcendent vision. This transition gave Mormonism’s search for direct access to God an enduring form. David Hume, the eighteenth-century empiricist and critic of “enthusiastic” religion, had observed that outbursts of visions and revelations soon sputtered out. They lacked form to keep them alive. They could not endure because they had “no rites, no ceremonies, no holy observances, which may enter into the common train of life, and preserve the sacred principles from oblivion.” To remain in force, “enthusiasm” had to be embodied in holy practice. Ann Taves, a modern scholar of religion, has added that “direct inspiration survives only when it is supported by a sacred mythos embedded in sacred practices.” The Mormon temple’s sacred story stabilized and perpetuated the original enthusiastic endowment.

-Richard Bushman, “Rough Stone Rolling“ pg 450-451

The temple became a focal point, a place to seek a connection to the divine.  Sure, it is plain that God does not need a temple to communicate with humankind.  Some of the greatest interactions with God recorded in scripture happened in wilderness settings — no temple or building was required.  But how would one stabilize this experience for a large, growing religion; one that could endure past the life of the mystic founder?  Members of the LDS Church today often go to the temple when they have a pressing personal need to connect with the divine, when they seek answers or feel they need spiritual help and guidance.

Would we be the same church if our method was to fast and hermitage in a cave, or travel out in the wilderness?  Perhaps it is possible, but the temple provides a place of focus for a growing and diverse community within the Church.  It is still a place we see as a source for the transcendent mystical experience.  Participants can experience the ritual and ceremony on many levels, with different views about the purpose depending on their own place of faith.  It can be literal to one person.  It can be symbolic to another.  It can be both and none.  Indeed it has endured past Joseph, the original mystic of our foundation, even if our experience today is not exactly the same as back in the time of Nauvoo or Kirtland.  It serves the same purpose over time.

Comments 9

  1. valoel, I just want to say that I really like this post and agree with what you have presented. Perhaps what I love most about Joseph’s prophetic vision is encapsulated in the grand journey presented in the temple – and the idea that the Garden of Eden and the Celestial Kingdom both are only two hours from my home.

  2. “Members of the LDS Church today often go to the temple when they have a pressing personal need to connect with the divine, when they seek answers or feel they need spiritual help and guidance.”

    I think the above gives many members a lot of comfort.

    My wife daughter and me were driving home the other night a long day making Shoe Box’s for a Christian Aid group that goes out to children in third world countries. We were discussing temple work on the way home and how that helps our ancestors and how that is service and how they are waiting for that work to done so they can move on. Being the Heretic that I am I said wouldn’t God be happier if we spent those hours doing Service that makes some times a huge difference in the life of the living now. God can surely make them comfortable until the millennium!

    Just curious what your views are?

  3. James, everyone needs to catch a glimpse of eternity occasionally. I would agree that service in the community is more important than 24 hour/day service in the temple, but balancing both is the better option in my mind. I think a couple of hours per month (or quarter or year, depending on proximity) to contemplate one’s place with God isn’t too much to tip the balance.

  4. I’m with Ray on this one. I do think that service is important, and can sometimes make a difference, although often it seems that that difference is only temporary. Really though, many of us have time and money for both. We can find a balance.

  5. Post

    I agree that it would be very unbalanced for someone to only do temple work for the dead (if that is the reason they go), and to ignore suffering completely in the real world around them. While those types of questions are interesting, the real world is rarely so all-or-nothing.

    I sometimes consider temple work (beyond your own) possibly being symbolic in nature. I also think the idea that spirits of the deceased can’t “move on,” or are trapped until their temple work is done is not accurate. Right off the top of my head, I can think of the vision Joseph Smith had of his brother Alvin in the Celestial Kingdom. His brother died before the development of the Church and the ordinances. So how did Alvin get there without being baptized and receiving his other ordinances? I ask the question implying the time factor is not relevant, not that ordinances are irrelevant.

    It might be an interesting study to research the origin of that idea, and to see what leaders ever taught it. I would guess Joseph F. Smith as the originator (D&C 138, not added until 1918).

    Anyone out there know the history of that idea?

  6. I think ordinances for the dead are more for us to turn our hearts to our fathers (and mothers) than for the dead (to be saved because of our work for them), and I think those ordinances are absolutely critical for us in this day and age to accomplish the type of vision Joseph had of the sealed community of Christ / Kingdom of God, but that is for a different post.

  7. Jesus said to the samaritan woman, that the time was going to come, when “true worshipers would not worship in special place, but in Spirit and the truth, meaning it would be not self established way to conned to God, but instead it would be God’s established protocol on how to aproach Him. After the Holy Spirit came over first christian community in Jesrusalem and filled them,, they started to profecy and speak, pray in foreign and angelic languages, according the Holy spirit gave them the utterance.

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