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Temple Tragedies

Updated: Jul 18, 2020

In 1839, Joseph Smith received a revelation stating that he was to build a temple in the new city of [1]Nauvoo. This temple was meant to usher in the “fullness of the priesthood” which had been lost at some time unknown and would replace the abandoned Kirtland temple in Ohio. The Kirtland Temple had been a boon for the Saints for a very short time. After it was completed, it warranted Pentecostal stories of [2]angels, visions, people speaking in tongues, prophecies, and portals to heaven, all the things that one would expect from a temple of the Lord. Even Jesus, Moses, and Abraham were recorded as visiting [3]Joseph and Oliver in the temple, as recorded by Warren Cowdery and recorded in D&C 110. Yet within a year, it was a battleground for disgruntled Saints, angry after they trusted Joseph Smith with their money in the [4]Kirtland Anti-Banking Safety Society system, erstwhile the entire country had been swept up in the [5]Panic of 1837 caused to the National Bank to counter the fiscal policies of Andrew Jackson. The downturn was hardly Joseph’s fault, but they Saints had been riding high, believing that their money would be safe in Joseph’s system. They believed Joseph had been funneling money to church leadership. Joseph had screwed around with the banking reserve requirement, thus the “anti-bank” moniker. It was likely illegal, but ignorantly so. It caused a major rift. Kirtland and the temple were eventually abandoned.

Yet what went on in the Kirtland temple wasn’t secret. They performed [6]washing and anointings in the upstairs chambers, conducted [7]Schools of the Prophets which included feet washing, held solemn assemblies, and had other types of meetings and trainings. It was primarily meant as an educational edifice. Curiously enough, the temples planned in Independence, [8]Far West, and Adam Ondi-Ahman followed the same pattern and design. These were to be meeting and instruction temples.

When Joseph got the revelation to build the Nauvoo temple, it would have a different design. It was [9]sixty percent larger and had a font for baptisms in the basement. The other two floors would be assembly rooms, similar to the one in Kirtland. The baptismal font would serve the purpose of performing the newly adopted baptisms for the dead, patterned about the idea mentioned by Paul in [10]1 Corinthians 15:29. Joseph’s first mention of it is during the funeral of [11]Seymor Brunson in 1840. The Saints had begun performing these baptisms soon after, but the revelation from the Lord in D&C 124 indicated that at a certain point, He would only accept them in His House.

The Saints were given a time to finish the temple, or more appropriately a “house” to the Lord, the promise being that they would “not be moved out of their place” and that Elijah would come to restore the “fullness of the Priesthood,” which promised something greater than the 1836 appearing at Kirtland, and finally, they would be saved with their dead. The revelation also mentions “washings and anointings” which at this time, were also being performed. Curiously enough, they were also commended to build a hotel to accompany the temple, perhaps as a place for weary travelers who were coming to attend the temple. That is really all we have related to the purpose of the Nauvoo “house of the Lord” directly from Joseph Smith and from the Lord.

Soon after, Joseph began revealing secret sealing ceremonies inside the [12]Anointed Quorum and it was reported by his followers that he was enrolled as a [13]Mason and begin learning the Masonic rituals. These rituals were likely used to help formulate the LDS Endowment ceremony, including the wearing of a “holy garment.” Unfortunately, like other teachings such as polygamy, we must rely upon both the memory and intent of Brigham Young to give the proper history of things. This is one reason why other break-offs, such as then RLDS church, did not take up with the temple doctrines. They believed them to be inventions of Brigham Young. Like polygamy, the domination of secrecy has kept the origins of Mormon temple rituals under a cloud of suspicion. Some believe the Brigham either invented or modified the [14]Endowment as taught by Joseph Smith to encroach it with more ideas from Freemasonry, including such things as secret oaths of retribution, which were perilously close to “secret combinations,” such ideas completely forbidden by the Book of Mormon.

The challenge of constructing the temple were plagued by all sorts of [15]distractions in Nauvoo. After merely one year of peace, Joseph began contending with the spurious charges of John C. Bennett, fighting extradition to Missouri for the attempted assassination of Lilburn W. Boggs, the former Missouri governor, hiding for his life, dealing with infighting over property and real estate on the Nauvoo bluffs from the likes of William Law and Robert Foster, running his own general store, and finally, the challenges coming from those accusing him of usurping power and authority and fomenting spiritual wifery and polygamy, and if true, chasing down 33 wives to marry. In over 3 and half years, the temple had barely reached the second floor. Joseph Smith and his brother were then assassinated.

So what became of the Nauvoo Temple?

Brigham Young, understanding the implications of the prophecy, took extra steps to complete its construction, but only right before the Saints had already decided to move west in 1846. It had been “completed” as far as the outside structure was concerned but was challenged with completion inside. Nevertheless, Young had the temple used for baptisms for the dead, endowments, sealings (both live and proxy), as well as adoptions, meaning the [16]Law of Adoption. In 1846, only the first floor had been completed. It was enough for Brigham to dedicate the temple and start holding what would be termed as [17]Endowment ceremonies in the attic spaces above the grand halls below. That was in April and May. By September, the Saints had largely been driven from the city and were camped on the Iowa side of the Mississippi.

Some say the temple was finished and accepted by the Lord. Others say that it was not finished and therefore the [18]Lord rejected both the Saints, the ordinances, and priesthood. Others say that they got a pass due to the prophecy providing an “out” if the enemies of the church were “hindering the work,” If the prophecy results are any indication, the Nauvoo temple was a bad omen of any sort of “acceptance” by heaven. It certainly had no evidence of heavenly visitations and miracles. Structurally it was a [19]disaster as the second floor had partially collapsed during its heavy use right before it was abandoned. The Saints tried to [20]sell it to other parties even during its final construction, and eventually it ended up briefly in the hands of some [21]French communalists. However, in 1848, it was destroyed by [22]fire, likely by arson, and James Strang thought it was an [23]attempt to collect property insurance by Young, who was now living in Salt Lake City. Ultimately an anti-Mormon drunkard in Nauvoo confessed. Yet [24]Young also confessed he was happy to see it destroyed than fall into the hands of the wicked. Finally, in 1850, it was mercifully mostly destroyed by a tornado. Only standing rubble remained.

Let’s summarize the fate of the original Nauvoo temple.

  • No miracles

  • Structural Damage

  • Destroyed by Fire

  • Razed by a Tornado, almost as if by divine decree

  • Finally, demolished by 1865 so not one stone was left

So, when all of this is examined, it would seem that the promises made by God in D&C 124 were not met. Not only that, it seems like a “hell no” from the heavens, an abomination of desolation of sorts. A more faithful version has the Saints completing and escaping by the skin of their teeth with the Lord destroying the temple as to keep it from being desecrated. However, it was “desecrated” by Icarians, and used to keep cattle for a time. Kirtland, on the other hand, an arguably more charismatic structure, remained standing and passed several owners to find its way into the hands of the [25]Community of Christ. Navuoo, it seems, was a greater temple tragedy even though it was arguably a lesser temple. Why was Kirtland not destroyed by the Lord?

The loss of the Nauvoo temple did not stop Young and the Mormons who were now located in Utah. Brigham made plans almost immediately for a temple in [26]Salt Lake City. He also later began building structures in St. George, Manti, and Logan. [27]St. George was dedicated in 1877, a full 30 year after arriving in Utah, [28]Manti soon after. Logan was dedicated almost a decade later. One of the key differences with these temples was the new design. While they looked similar to the Nauvoo temple on the outside, St. George being almost a copy, the inside was a different story. St. George had the two floor assembly rooms like Nauvoo, even inheriting its instability flaw on the second floor, but its third floor had a series of ordinance rooms that were entirely new. The Nauvoo temple’s third floor was a series of makeshift attic rooms that were meant for instruction and ordinances. However, the new temple structures shifted the intent of the temple functions away from solemn assemblies, meetings, and education, and toward a progressive ritualized structure that was inherent in the Endowment. Now instead, there were large ordinance rooms and the addition of a “celestial” room, which represented the celestial kingdom of God. Were these improvements commanded by the Lord, or inventions by LDS leaders?

Shifting Ordinances and Instructions

One of the challenges with the [29]Endowment is that its nature being a secret/sacred ritual make its origin unclear. Brigham Young’s version of the ordinance was sold as what Joseph Smith partially taught the Apostles in Nauvoo in the upper rooms of the Red Brick Store. Again, the reader is left to decipher how much of this was carried over from Joseph Smith, and how much of it was Brigham Young. We rely upon the testimonies of the Nauvoo apostles for the ritual. This is one reason why at the split of the Church upon the death of Joseph Smith, those that remained behind, although still partly temple-oriented, were conditioned to the Kirtland style of temple worship, which was open to the public, and largely included instruction and ceremony, not ritual, which were largely carried forth by those who were in the Anointed Quorum but could be verified as the original system. Brigham Young admitted that Joseph told him that the endowment ritual was incomplete, and that [30]Brigham would be the one to finish it. But is that Brigham giving himself cover, or coming from a true command?

One of the main critiques of the endowment, is its heavy borrowing from Freemasonry, particularly the [31]Royal Arch degree. We have no idea how much of that was the “finish” that Brigham installed and how much of it was foundational. Nevertheless, the signs, tokens, and penalties which are in both ceremonies are also critiqued because of the nature of how they [32]punish those who reveal the secret signs and tokens. To repeat, this draws perilously close to the warnings in the Book of Mormon against secret combinations. Furthermore, during the twenty years of Mormon fiefdom in Deseret, particularly during the Mormon reformation of the late 1850’s, the ideas of [33]Blood Atonement borrowed heavily from these penalties, with parties found dead in the manner in which these penalties had been given, with a slit across the throat from ear to ear. This is another part of the temple tragedy, taking something holy and making it profane. These penalties lasted until [34]1990 when they were finally taken out of the ceremony. Further changes have recently been made and it’s apparent that the Endowment is an ever-shifting parable that adapts to the times, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing if it’s a play of instruction, but shelf breaking if it’s seen as an unchangeable ordinance. It's clear the rituals were lifted from Freemasonry, to support the play of creation and salvation, which can be seen either as a golden thread to the past or plagiarism. If salvatory, it's suspect. If instructive, it doesn't matter if it's plagiarized. If it's a golden thread, perhaps the Freemason rituals were also borrowed from more ancient rituals that had elements of truth. The [35]Pistis Sophia, an apocryphal wisdom text, indicates gnostic elements that could correlate to similar ritual signs and tokens. Murky indeed.

The nature of the Endowment itself has become the focus of the modern temple. It’s a pantomime of walking through levels of creation and entering into greater light and love of God calls to people. The initiation rites were seen as ordinances early on in Mormonism, as were baptisms for the dead, and later, sealing ordinances. But the Endowment itself is different. It was an instruction that taught people how to enter the presence of the Lord. One isn’t really entering the presence of the Lord during the Endowment. It’s a large progressive play; beautiful and instructive, but is it salvific? One wonders if Joseph Smith, seeing the writing on the wall that his church was being subsumed by enemies, adapted the Endowment, borrowing from Freemasonry, as a way to ensure that his esoteric gnostic ideas would perpetuate regardless of any shifts in doctrine? It’s quite possible to see that this was the reason behind it, rather than any forward-thinking and advance ordinances given to a righteous people who had responded well to the gospel in over 13 years. The reasoning for going through the Endowment both for yourself and for scores of dead people, thus, has probably little to do with proxying a dead relative, and more to the effect of learning the play repeatedly for the individual participating in the play, a theme Joseph Smith played upon in the [38]King Follet Discourse and other speeches during the Nauvoo time period.

The esoteric theory is that the Endowment only models the necessity of following a series of steps, through repentance and covenant, to a place where one enters into the presence of the Lord . . . literally. We see the Endowment as an accomplishment that must be performed for ourselves and then our dead. Frankly, the esoteric Endowment can be learned and adapted in any environment, perhaps even in the spirit realms. The need to proxy a dead relative is superfluous in this manner. The true ordinance is literally walking back through the angels and sentinels into the presence of the Lord. Simply going through the parable means nothing if you don’t learn what you need to do in the temples of your prayers. Doing it for others may have the sense of inviting a departed being to learn something through proxy, but they still must make efforts to undergo their own approach to the Lord, if it’s even possible to do in the spirit world. Likely it's simply meant primarily as a training for the living.

One cannot examine Mormon temples without examining the [36]garments that were given in concert with the Endowment. During Nauvoo, these garments were worn on top of street clothing primarily during the ceremony. These clothes contained markings, also borrowing from Masonic ritual, that were supposed to remind the wearer of holy things related to the kingdom of God and the gospel. Regardless of the purpose of the garment, its nature and purpose seemed to shift over time. The idea of the symbols on the clothing morphed into the nature of the garment itself becoming an immutable symbol that held a sort of spiritual protective quality. That symbol turned into an orthodoxy that has shifted curiously to the entire garment structure that made its original make and model as the ideal for the orthodox and fundamentalist. Originally, these garments were like robes, but by the time of John Taylor, they were underwear, always worn under your clothes, and as typical of the time; it was one piece with arms and legs that ran the length.

While this was the nature of all underwear at the time, the 1870’s garment became the standard that the fundamentalists looked to, not the Joseph era, where it was only ceremonial. The LDS meanwhile, began to shift the garment in line with how underwear changed in the 20th century, into two piece systems with shorter arms and legs. Yet they continued to amplify the mystical nature of the garment, and the entire outfit became “holy,” and as a system for enforcing modesty. As the [37]20th century rolled on, garments could be made from home, with symbols sewn on by the wearer. Many times, the garment construction itself was farmed out to wholesale clothiers. Then in the 1980’s all garments had to be made by the LDS Church, purchased in anterooms of distribution centers as extensions of the temple, where the garment itself was seen as a holy distribution from heaven to the wearer. Even there, a temple recommend was brandished for entry. This made the garment into a thing almost of worship. In many ways, the symbols that it contained, and the meaning behind the symbols, were almost secondary to the sacred fabric given from on high to protect the initiate. Lately, the garment has gotten even shorter, and the symbols have become screen-printed instead of sewn on. That has frustrated some members who see the Church changing God’s holy clothing. But are they missing the intent of the symbolic teaching of the ritual? Like the Catholic cross worn around the necks of Christians, and there are many varieties, the point is to remind the wearer about the covenants and promises God has made with his children if we will remember him, pray to him, seek to obey His commandments, and abstain from lusts of the flesh. The garment is but a symbol. The true markings should be written on the heart.

Sealings – The Changing Capstone

While it’s likely and understood that Joseph Smith was performing sealing ordinances among his closest allies and friends in the Anointed Quorum, the nature of those ordinances was also likely changed or corrupted into something else[39]. [40]Sealings were probably more likely related to the Biblical understanding of the “sealing power” which meant to bind on earth as in heaven. Elijah, Moses, and [41]Nephi were said to have had this power. It was largely correlated to different miracles and judgments that were affected upon the inhabitants in ancient times. Joseph Smith adapted this idea to one of salvation, being that a prophet could “seal” the salvation of another to himself, that the prophet would be bound to that individual in a salvatory effect. It was also seen as way to [42]weld the hearts of the children to the fathers and hearts of the fathers to the children in a covenant fashion. Early on, sealings were done primarily to Joseph Smith, both male and female, and then spouses would be sealed to the individual being sealed to Joseph Smith. Perhaps because Joseph Smith had obtained a covenant from the Father, he wished to weld himself to his friends in time and all eternity. Sometimes it was a daughter or a son and then they would be sealed up to their families or parents. This later became conflated with marriage, but its initial ties to a more biblical idea of salvation and sealing can’t be missed.

There is no indication that Joseph Smith sealed anyone to a dead person. That seems to be another invention of Brigham Young or at least a carryover not mentioned by history. Indeed, many of the women who were sealed to Joseph Smith before 1844 were re-sealed to the dead him in the [43]Nauvoo temple, with an element of that sealing relating more definitively to a marriage. Later, women and men would be sealed to Joseph Smith and Brigham Young all the way up through the 1890’s under the auspices of the Law of Adoption. This Nauvoo re-marriage process gave cover to dozens of women who said they were married to Joseph Smith.

Enter Wilford Woodruff. Either he thought it more pragmatic, or had a more expansive view of the idea, he ended [44]Adoption sealings and had people start sealing themselves to dead relatives as a way to fulfill Elijah’s prophecy in a more systematic fashion. Endowments and initiatory for the dead had begun a couple decades earlier. The practice of temple proxy work, other than baptisms for the dead, was a very late doctrine to be sure. It’s purpose was twofold: to systematize the practice and create a ritual that would link the chain of humanity back to Adam, and to remove the cult of worship that often surrounded Joseph and Brigham, not altogether bad motives, but perhaps missing the entire doctrinal point behind sealings in the first place.

Today sealings suffer from the challenges that beset life and death and divorce. The concept of who is sealed to whom can often become a sidebar discussion into never ending rabbit holes. Some express the idea that having the ordinance performed is what is necessary and that God will sort it out in the heavens. Others question the disparity between allowing for multiple women to be sealed to on man, but women who marry more than one husband must choose. It dredges up the idea of the [45]persistence of polygamy, a ghost that haunts many a woman who fear dying before her husband . . . or worse, divorcing and remaining tied to him through all the eternities, with perhaps another wife in tow. A careful reading of the ceremony itself, quite like the Endowment, is that it’s an invitation to be sealed together. In order for sealings to work they have to be sustained later in life by the [46]Holy Spirit of Promise, a visitation by the Lord that makes the ceremony a reality. This makes the puzzling narratives of sealing musical chairs an unnecessary endeavor. The ceremony is merely an invitation.

Dead Works for Dead People

In the 20th century, the ritualization of the temple ordinances, the Endowment primary among them, soon started to overshadow the living fruits that the Saints had been used to. Instead of speaking in tongues, receiving prophecy, and witnessing miracles, the rituals that took place inside these sacred/secret building became the glue that held the lore that kept the Latter-day Saints wedded to their religion through a sort of projected mysticism. Stories were told of ancestors who appeared to people. Jesus himself was said to have visited [47]Lorenzo Snow on the steps of the spiral staircase in the Salt Lake Temple. Certainly, not being able to talk about what goes on the temple helped to mystify it even more. The act of putting on white robes and engaging in hushed ritual behind closed doors in a beautiful yet stark edifice that culminated in a representation of heaven has been a brilliant way to tie Mormonism into tight cultural bonds. Then the LDS mystify their leaders meeting with Jesus Christ in the special rooms only the Salt Lake Temple contains. Like the candles in Catholicism and the dance of the call to prayer in Islam, it is indeed beautiful, and defines Mormonism in the 21st century like no other. Yet, in many cases, the ritual is worshiped, and the lesson of the intent is missed. The true temple experience happens between you and God in your own room or closet, on mountaintops, and maybe even in the ugliest of places when you decide to turn your eyes heavenward.

This is one topic where it’s difficult to parse the Mormon binary. Critics would conclude that temple worship in Mormonism is cultish, that it steals from Freemasonry, and has an element of control. That’s all true. But it’s also beautiful, rich, and can elevate the mind to the thoughts of God. Often the temple can help one find a place of solace where one can dedicate their faith to the Eye of the Lord. In fact, some great experiences can happen there. But it’s more likely to be due to the faith of the individual, as much as any divine holiness wedded to the structure. Other places and other beautiful buildings could serve similar purposes, even outside of Mormonism. Even the temple of the Mountain of the Lord could be as literal as it sounds, a place of solace with no buildings between you and the heavens above, with altars built on mountaintops, similar to what Adam did. Until temples have pillars of fire over them by day and clouds by night, they always risk becoming as the burning husks of Solomon, Herod, or Nauvoo. There is no guarantee.

But to LDS Mormons, that idea of the temple catering to dead works is hard to swallow. To see it as wasted effort is probably the greatest tragedy. The blood, sweat, and tears, the money, the ceremonies performed, all that work for all those ancestors, make it difficult to believe that so much time, talent, and resources could be squandered. There is something meaningful to remembering ancestors and some proxy work seem authorized by God in scripture. But one wonders if it has drifted into ancestor worship at the expense of personal instruction and salvation, as the temple seems to have been for thousands of year.

Temples are hardy to the Lord. Even in [48]Herod’s time, the Lord’s House was cleansed by the Lord as His House, even as it contained abominations. There’s something to the dedication and effort it takes to build something called The House of the Lord. However, watching these buildings pop up all over the world as a sort of calling card announcing Mormonism as a religious volley is both thrilling and corporate at the same time. How can one not be proud of temples now being announced in mainland [49]China and the [50]Middle East? Yet they almost contain the marketing molds that one sees in restaurant chains. The challenge is to make what temples are meant to be in the first place, contained in your heart and a place that points the true temple, your own body, to the House of the Lord in your own faith. And if a temple structure is to be built, maybe the point is to carefully do it, to ensure that the Lord wants it, can use it, and will sanctify it due to the righteousness of His people. If heaven isn’t visiting as He did in the days of Moses, that may be clue that it’s not totally His.

[1] [2] [3] [4] [5] [6] [7] [8] [9] [10] [11] [12] [13] [14] [15] [16] [17] [18] [19] Manuscript History of Brigham Young, p.4 [20] Warsaw Signal, 3 Dec. 1846 [21] [22] [23] Richard Bennett Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society (1998-) Vol. 95, No. 3 (Autumn, 2002), pp. 235-263 [24] Deseret News October 14 1863 [25] [26] [27] [28] [29] [30] [31],Master%2C%20and%20Royal%20Arch%20Mason. [32],a%20person%20may%20be%20executed. [33] [34] [35] [36] [37] [38] [39] For a variation on this theme, visit the topic on polygamy [40] [41] [42] [43] [44] [45] [46] [47] [48] [49] [50]

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