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.