‘Mormon’ Temples: A Little Enlightenment
By Annie L. Henderson Cechini
In the short film Between Heaven and Earth, Krister Stendahl, former Dean of the Harvard Divinity School, states that in any interfaith discussion, individuals should never compare bests with worsts. Stendahl reasons that, “Most people think of their own tradition as it is at its best, and they use caricatures of the others.” I am a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. It’s a mouthful, I know, and most people therefore refer to my church as the Mormon Church.
Fig. 1: Washington D.C. Temple
Immediately, some of you readers are pulling out the sketchbooks and charcoal to begin work on the caricatures just from reading that name. In composing this article, I am driven by my experience of being viewed through cracker-jack lenses because of said caricatures. These inaccurate and sometimes painful sketches abound in even highly respectable minds and institutions regarding the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints.
A little over a year ago, I served an 18 month mission in Washington D.C. In addition to having the pleasure of working with families in the surrounding areas, I was also asked to serve part time in the Visitor’s Center located on temple property. I was asked many questions, and spent many hours studying in order to answer competently. I will respond to some of the questions I received then in an effort to dispel some modern ‘Mormon’ mythology now. I will show that a) the concept of temples is not new; rather it is worldwide and cross-cultural, b) historical background on temples will shed further light on the subject, c) there is a biblical connection between ancient and modern temples, and d) there are surprisingly simple answers to the questions about the temple.
Judaism, Hinduism, Egyptology, ancient American history, Buddhism, and Christianity could not be more different, yet all unite under the banner of the temple. Judaism’s temple history includes the Tabernacle, a portable temple that the Israelites carried with them in their wanderings. Buddhist temples are spacious and built for congregational worship. Hindu temples are ornate yet smaller, intended for individual worship. Egyptian temples as well as those of the ancient Americas are often associated with the grim practice of human sacrifice, though there is evidence to suggest that loftier ceremonies took place there.
Despite these differences, there are some striking similarities between these temples. All of them are a place set apart, or in other words, holy. Holy, sacred-both of these words are indicative or something or somewhere that is set apart from the every-day. Each of these edifices was originally built for the purpose of tugging at the spiritual heart strings of the practitioner, drawing their thoughts towards higher purposes. These temples often share common symbols: spires that draw the eye upwards, beautiful landscapes that remind us of the wonder of creation, ordinances-or ceremonies-that focus the mind on a larger picture. Indeed, the temple concept is a global one.
Fig. 2: Each of the red dots denotes just a few of the areas where one can either find the culture or the creed spoken of in the above paragraph.
Christians like myself (remember, the name of my church is the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints) follow the teachings of Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ was Jewish. He grew up in a temple culture. The Tabernacle was a very hallowed place, as were the later constructed temples of Solomon, Zerrubabel and Herod. Christ was born after the reconstruction of the latter. On the occasion of his circumcision, Joseph and Mary brought their son to the temple to offer sacrifice. At the age of twelve, Jesus and his parents returned to Jerusalem for the feast of the Passover, an annual tradition in his family (Luke 2:41-42 KJV). Was the temple important even to a child of twelve? The fact that Christ knew as a boy where to go to speak of holy things is indicative of that. His later cleansing of the temple shows understanding of its sacred (or set apart from the world) nature.
Temples, therefore, must play a role in Christian worship. This brings forth other important questions, such as who has the authority to build something like that, how should it be built, and what happens inside once it’s built? David and Solomon were given specific charges by God to build the temple or perform temple building related tasks. Clearly, I can’t just build a temple and stamp Gods’ seal of approval on it without being given the authority to do so. Yet the scriptures are plain on the necessity of modern temples. Often in the scriptures, and especially in the Old Testament, the temple is referenced to by a metaphor or symbol of a mountain. Moses received the law near the top of Mt. Sinai. Other prophets have had similarly holy experiences high in the mountains-away from the world. In Isaiah 2:2-3, it states:
And it shall come to pass in the last days, that the mountain of the Lord’s house shall be established in the top of the mountains, and shall be exalted above all the hills; and all nations shall flow unto it.
3. And many people shall go and say, Come ye, and let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob; and he will teach us of his ways, and we will walk in his paths, for out of Zion shall go forth the law, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.
This scripture is referring to the time just prior to the return of the resurrected Jesus Christ. It is clear that if the symbol of a mountain is referring to a temple, then there must be a restoration of temple worship in modern Christianity before Christ comes again.
To draw connections between ancient temples and modern, in order to go forward one must first go back. Let us therefore step back into the time predating Herod or Solomon’s temple-back to the days of the portable Tabernacle. To more fully understand temples, and why a restoration of temples might be necessary, it is important to know what the Tabernacle was like and what happened inside of it.
Fig.3 Very rough sketch of the tabernacle courtyard from my notes J
The tabernacle itself was surrounded by a large fence. In the courtyard of the tabernacle there was a larger altar on which the sacrifices were placed. There was also a large brass basin in which the priests were required to cleanse themselves before entering the tabernacle.
Fig. 4: In addition to being practical, the ritual washing of hands and feet was symbolic of an inner cleanliness that was required of the priest before entering the Lord’s House.
The Tabernacle was covered with a fabric of skins, and upon entering the first room, or Holy Place, the viewer would find three objects. On one side would be the menorah. The menorah is a candelabra with seven wicks on each side of an eighth center wick. The menorah is a very important symbol in the temple. One of the principle characteristics of a deity is higher intelligence; another way of saying someone is smart is to say that they are bright. Often, individuals go to a higher source of knowledge when they’ve run out of ideas or ways to deal with a situation-this is the heart of why temples are so important.
On the opposite side, the viewer would see a table of showbread (or showbread). “The Israelites knew God didn’t eat anything,” said Laurence H. Schiffman, director of Judaic Studies at New York University. “By giving [him] these beautiful breads, eventually shared with the priests, it was a kind of showing that we want to give the best of what we have to the god”(Schiffman, Between Heaven and Earth)
Fig 5: Last of the notes, I promise!
Finally, there was the Altar of Incense. According to one Bible Dictionary, the altar of incense was similar to the altar in the courtyard, “…but smaller and overlaid with gold. On it incense was burned morning and evening…and on its horns was put once a year, on the day of atonement, the blood of the sin offering (Ex. 30:10)” (Bible Dictionary, LDS quad, KJV). The symbol here is that the priests, the people of Israel had lit something that would ascend up to the presence of God.
Across the room extended a large piece of fabric referred to as the veil of the temple. It separated the Holy Place from a room called the Holy of Holies. In that room was the Ark of the Covenant. Seated on top of the ark were two cherubim, or winged angels, their wings facing each other. This area of the Ark was known as the Mercy Seat. Here it was that God would appear to speak to his people, and therefore it was the most hallowed and sacred place in the temple. It was in essence a throne room. In addition to the blood of the sin offering being put on the altar of incense, it was also placed on the mercy seat on the day of atonement.
Solomon’s temple was built with the same basic concepts in mind, simply on a much grander and more elegant scale. It was unfortunately destroyed during the Babylonian captivity in 600 B.C. It was rebuilt almost 100 years later by Zerrubabel, but was burned in the Roman captivity. Later on in 17 B.C., Herod rebuilt the temple yet again in an effort to gain favor with the Jewish community. From this history we see that rebuilding the temple was of the utmost importance to the Jews, as was its sacred nature. Into this community and culture Christ was born. As mentioned previously, he spent time there teaching, reading the law and cleansing the temple. After his death, and the death of the apostles, many of the truths that he taught were either changed or lost. The years following are known in the history books as the Dark Ages.
The Christian sects of today are at variance as far as authority goes, or whether it (or a lot of Christian doctrine) is even necessary. However, if a Christian believes the Bible to be the word of God as spoken through the mouths of his prophets, things become a little less vague.
In the New Testament, Christ restored and taught the gospel. He called apostles and gave them priesthood authority to preach the gospel and, most importantly for our discussion here, perform saving ordinances like baptism. However, as we know Christ was crucified. His apostles were rejected and killed, and without revelation through a prophet, the doctrine of Christ, and the ordinances he taught, were changed. This falling away, or apostasy from the original gospel Christ taught was prophesied by the very apostles he chose. In 2nd Thessalonians 2:1-3 it states:
Now we beseech you, brethren, by the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, and by our gathering together unto him,
- That ye be not soon shaken in mind, or be troubled, neither by spirit, nor by word, nor by letter as from us, as that the day of Christ is at hand,
- Let no man deceive you by any means: for that day shall not come [the second coming of Christ] except there be a falling away first…
As the history books reveal, there was a period of religious reformation in the 1600-1700’s, followed in the United States by a time known as the Great Awakening. It was during this time that a young boy named Joseph Smith was searching for Christ’s church. There was so much confusion between the different churches regarding the doctrine that Joseph, like many of us, was unsure if the truth was even discoverable. However, he prayed in faith to know what to do, and in answer he saw Heavenly Father and Jesus Christ. He was called to be a prophet, and it is through revelation, and a restoration of the gospel again through one having authority that we have temples on the earth today.
In canvassing the topic of the Tabernacle, I mentioned it would be beneficial to a discussion on modern temples. As a missionary I sometimes heard the question , “Hey, why is your building so fancy? Aren’t there still starving children who need the money more?” There are, and if the reader only knew how much the church does for them. It goes right back to the Tabernacle and the showbread. As Laurence H. Schiffman mentioned, we all know God doesn’t have to eat “people food”. Therefore, we give the best that we can in building his house. There is still a sense of modesty and economy even in the temples-they are not done without regard for resource. Still, how the temples look is a reflection of how those who worship inside them feel about its importance. In addition to the showbread, we can also refer back to the menorah when discussing the decorations and designs of the inside of the temples. The temples are brimming with light. As you will see in the images following, light plays a distinctive role in the temples, again acting as a symbol of deity and of the divine.
There are three major ordinances that are performed in these temples. The first is probably the one over which there is the most confusion. This is baptisms for the dead. This doesn’t mean that we baptize corpses, or that those for whom the ordinance is being performed automatically get ‘Mormon’ stamped on their heads in the afterlife. It does, however, reflect the love of God for all of his children regardless of their location or whether or not they hear his gospel in this life.
Fig. 6 Baptismal font, Nauvoo Ill.
In John 3:5, Christ states that a man must be born of water, and of the spirit, or he can in nowise inherit the kingdom of God. That’s pretty unequivocal, you either have it or you don’t. Well, what about Joe the farmer, who is out on some remote island in the pacific, and hasn’t ever heard about any of that? In death, the spirit and the body separate, so after this life is over, there is no opportunity for Joe to receive that ordinance on his own. Is it fair to require someone to live by a law they’ve never even heard of? That doesn’t seem like justice to me. God is described as perfect, so how could a perfect being be so unfair? God isn’t unfair, and he is perfect as this ordinance evidences. Heavenly Father provides a mediator, a go-between if you will, for those who live and die without being able to keep that commandment.
The ordinances are performed in the temples by proxy for those who have already died. If those working in the temples have the authority to perform these ordinances, then they will be efficacious not only now but in eternity. It is my feeling that the authority does exist today in the restored priesthood of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. Through baptisms for the dead, Heavenly Father allows his children to have another chance to choose to follow his commandments. As I mentioned earlier, this does not force anyone to accept that baptism. However, it does preserve that individual’s agency, or the right to choose for themselves who they will elect to follow. This ordinance is not new-in a discourse to the people of Corinth Paul himself speaks of this doctrine. Paul is responding to a group of individuals who do not believe in a resurrection, but are following the practice of being baptized for the dead anyway. After his discourse on the necessity and doctrinal certainty of the resurrection, Paul essentially says, if there is no resurrection, what’s the point? 1st Corinthians 15:29 states:
- Else what shall they do which are baptized for the dead, if the dead rise not at all? Why then are they baptized for the dead?
This ordinance is not a new invention, but a restoration of an original gospel practice.
The second ordinance is called the endowment. An endowment is a gift, generally given to help a group or individual financially. This endowment is a gift from Heavenly Father to help his children navigate through life. In the endowment the worshipper is taught the truths as outlined in the Bible and other scriptures.
Fig. 7: Ordinance room-Samoa
These truths teach us the fundamentals about who we are, what we can do in this life, and where we are going. We make promises to our Heavenly Father that, if kept, will help us to really live the gospel of Jesus Christ, not just profess a belief in it. How does this relate to ancient temples? As you can see, the ordinance room is filled with light. At the front of the room there is an altar. As the altar of incense was a symbol of sending an offering to heaven, prayers are offered on the altars of modern temples. The sacrifice today is one of time, and instead of offering animal sacrifice, we offer our own lives. The altar is not pictured in the ordinance room because it is sacred. I have seen them, and they are not weird or scary-they aren’t even ornate. They are simple and beautiful, and sacred. At the end of the endowment, each individual passes through the veil of the temple-another similarity between the ancient and modern temples. There is no ark of the covenant on the other side of the veil, but the place on the other side-called the celestial room-is remarkable. It is designed to be like the Holy of Holies in the sense that it is symbolic of a throne room. It is also symbolic of what heaven might feel like. It is a place of peace, beauty and quiet. Worshippers may sit and ponder, or read the scriptures, pray, or simply feel the serenity of being away from the world.
Elder Jeffrey R.Holland, a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, states, “We all need first aid. We all need an infusion every now and again. We all need hope, and help, and holiness. And the temple does all of that for me”(Holland, Between Heaven and Earth).
Fig. 8: The celestial room-Samoa
The third and final ordinance performed in the temples is temple marriage, also called a sealing. I was able to participate myself in this ordinance earlier this year when I married my very best friend, Matt. Sealings are incredibly simple and sweet. At ours, a very kind older gentleman stood at the head of an altar (again not pictured here for the reasons explained earlier), and my fiancé and I knelt across it.
Fig.9: A sealing room, Samoa
There were high mirrors that we looked into, and saw ourselves reflected in them together, going on as far as we could see. It is a symbol of a union that can last throughout eternity, not just for this life only. I could not imagine my life without Matt. We have been friends since high school. We met when we were only 14, and he has become so much a part of who I am. He is my true love, my hero and my inspiration. I don’t want to spend my existence, wherever or whatever it is, without him in it (and how lucky am I, he feels the same way!). Again, to quote Elder Holland, “I don’t know how to speak of heaven in the traditional, lovely, paradisiacal beauty that we speak of heaven…I wouldn’t know how to speak of heaven without my wife, or my children. It would not be heaven for me. Now, you can say that’s wishful thinking, you can say, ‘ Well that’s just because you love each other and you’ve gotten cozy here on earth and you like each other’s company.’ It’s a lot more than that. There is something eternal in the statement that neither is the man without the woman, nor the woman without the man in the Lord. That isn’t just good sociology it’s good theology, it’s eternal” (Holland, Between Heaven and Earth).
Being sealed in the temple gives a perspective that ‘till death do us part’ can’t quite live up to. My parents lost a son to an extremely rare childhood cancer. I was almost four, he was almost two. My mother was 25, my father was 28. Neither of them had graduated from college, though they are both exceptionally bright individuals. However, there is no way their marriage would have survived losing my brother Scottie, were in not for the eternal perspective being married forever gave them. They fought to stay married, even when divorce seemed easier and at times inevitable. Over 90 % of parents who lose a child to cancer end up divorced. My parents are a statistical anomaly in so many ways, and it is due to the fact that they know they will be able to be with our family forever if they live as they believe. Four kids later, their marriage is not perfect, but it is better than it has ever been. The family is the very heart of everything about the gospel of Jesus Christ, and the temple fortifies and strengthens families in the particularly turbulent times in which we live.
Now that what happens inside the temples has been covered, there are some other questions I frequently heard on my mission. Most often I heard, “Why can’t I go in there?! Why the restrictions on who can enter?” Again, we can go back to the tabernacle for some answers. It was a holy place, it was sacred. The priests had to perform the ritual washing before even they were allowed to enter. Imagine you’ve just received an invitation to the Presidents’ Inaugural Ball while working in your garden. Do you jump up, race to the White House and show them the invitation while you’re still in your blue jeans? Of course not! You would feel awkward. Similarly, when going to the temple, we need to be clean inside and out. Who determines this? Well, frankly, you do. There are two interviews with ecclesiastical leaders. They ask questions regarding how you conduct your life and what you believe. However, the final question impresses me each time: Do you consider yourself worthy to enter the temple?
I am the judge there. I decide whether or not I am worthy to go, because who knows better than myself?
Another question I heard frequently was, ‘Can’t I go anywhere to be close to God?’ The answer is, of course. Some of my most profound spiritual experiences have taken place out in nature. I love hiking and observing the world around me, and I find special comfort close to the rivers and the oceans. However, there is something set apart and special about the temples that is different from just personal closeness to God, although that is a benefit often received by serving there. In the temples, we do for others what they cannot do for themselves, and we work out our own salvation too. That is something that needs to happen in a holy place set apart from the world for just such a purpose.
My favorite question was, ‘How can I go inside?’ Talk to the missionaries, the young elders and sisters who work so hard for two years or eighteen months at their own expense. They only want to explain their beliefs to you, and give you the chance to decide for yourself whether or not it’s true. Read the scriptures, pray to know if God is there, and whether or not these things are true. If you find that they are, you will begin walking down a path that leads to the doors of the temple, and to some of the greatest blessings you can know in this life.
I hope that in writing this article I have clarified some points. I know that I am not a perfect writer, but I do know that the doctrines and principles and ordinances of the church are given to us by a perfect Heavenly Father. He loves us so much. We are his children. He would not create a temple experience that is strange or perverse, or he wouldn’t be God. I have been in every major room in the Washington D.C. temple. There isn’t anything wrong or weird or even strange about it. It is beautiful and holy and sacred. And everyone is invited to come.
If talking to the missionaries is a little much, go to a temple with a visitors’ center. There are sister missionaries serving there who are constantly studying and ready to answer your questions. If there is a temple being built in your community, go to the open house, where the members of the church will take you on tours of the temple. They aren’t perfect either, so if you ask a question that momentarily bewilders them, don’t let that bother you. They’re simply trying to speak of something sacred without being flippant. Ask all the questions you want. Even better, if you have friends who are members, ask them. Be curious. That is how we learn to understand each other. That is when caricatures are laid aside for stunning and beautiful portraiture.
Fig. 10: Annie and Matt at the Oakland Temple, July 1st 2006