How to Understand the Temple

The vast majority of LDS historical and theological thinking about the temple has attempted to find ancient parallels to Mormon temple rituals. In this view the Mormon temple is a restored completion of fragments and traces of an original, authentic temple ritual. However, this approach doesn’t explain how modern American Mormons understood such rituals. Other approaches have attempted to account for the temple in a strictly derivative relationship to Masonry. The Mormon temple ritual is thus a “borrowed” version of what the Masons were doing. But this doesn’t explain why such borrowings were successful and appealed to Mormons. I want to suggest that both frameworks are impoverished ways of making sense of the temple. Instead, I think that situating the temple rituals in larger American cultural frameworks makes better sense than these two approaches, while also explaining the appeal of the temple to 19th- and early-20th-century Mormons. This cultural framework is the flourishing of voluntary associations and fraternal organizations that dominated American society from the early 1800’s through the 1950’s, which were especially strong from 1850 to 1920. Some estimates have noted that over one third of American men were involved in one or more fraternal organization during this time.

The Masons were one of these fraternal organizations, and remain the most famous. However, there were literally hundreds of these societies including the Odd Fellows, Elks, and Knights of Pythias. Most of these came over from England and Scotland where they began in the 18th century, but took on new significance in the American context. They differed in some aspects, such as whether or not they allowed both men and women (most only allowed one or the other), race and nationality restrictions, how much they were publicly involved, etc. Yet, they all had initiation rituals, they met together weekly or monthly, provided fraternal relationships for socializing and networking, and they performed morality plays in which people dressed up as biblical figures and recreated sacred scenes. These morality plays often emphasized the middle-class values of eschewing money and financial success and emphasizing fraternity over class boundaries. Further, though not religious organizations, these voluntary associations often paralleled churches and were often understood as revealing secret knowledge not publicly available to the rest of the church-going community.

For obvious reasons, the Mormon temple ritual as it was performed from 1844 up until the filmographic turn shared many common features with these fraternal orders. It has its own “morality play,” initiation rituals, it parallels the church organization, encouraged its members to attend regularly, and it provided fraternal relationships. All are socially equal inside the temple, as emphasized by both the play as well as the clothing. In some ways it was more progressive than other voluntary associations by allowing both men and women and not having restrictions on race (with one obvious exception).

In this view, the Mormon temple connection to Masonry is epiphenomenal. The larger context situates both Masons and Mormons in an American culture that literally spun rituals and fraternal societies as its primary hobby for nearly a century. Yes, there are some differences, but these differences can still be understood within the world where voluntary associations would have been the dominant framework for making sense of the temple. Some evidence for this claim might even be the restrictions on Mormons becoming Masons that lasted for a number of decades. The best explanation for such a policy is that these rituals were seen as part of the same genre.

If such a theory is correct, it raises some interesting questions for how temples are understood in modern American culture by Mormons and non-Mormons. As fraternal societies have waned, has that made the cultural framework for making sense of temples more foreign? Has temple attendance decreased as the context in which it might have formally been a part of has changed? Does the generational stratigraphy of temple attendance correlate to this changed context in the mid-20th century?

22 Replies to “How to Understand the Temple”

  1. TT, this is a very important point. I did a brief history of oath-bound organizations at BCC a while back and am convinced that by not viewing our ritual in this greater context we loose some ability to understand how our ancestors approached it.

  2. Judging by the building of Temples along the Wasatch front, I’d say that Temple Attendance has increased, at least in that area.

  3. Matt, certainly there are many more LDSs along the Wasatch front, and thus more temple attendees. However, this doesn’t mean that temple attendance per capita has actually increased. I have no data either way on this claim, so if someone else does, it can possibly shed light on how temple attendance is understood in contemporary American Mormon culture.

  4. Matt W., it’s hazardous to judge participation rates by building construction and unit proliferation. At least some recently-constructed temples and recently-organized stakes are substantially empty of participation. But I’d also be tempted to speculate that Wasatch Front temple attendance is on the rise. Our Chicago temple, by contrast, has seen serious drops in usage — at least in part due to the construction of other temples, but who knows the whole story.

    TT, I think this issue of temple attendance during the period of waning American associationalism is helpfully thought about in terms of Armand Mauss’s analysis of the church’s tension between assimilation into the American context and differentiation from that context. Maintaining an oath-bound temple with a participatory mythic rite in an era when such things are well out of fashion and perhaps a little bit creepy to the population as a whole is a very functional element of boundary maintenance for the church; it ensures that our assimilation in so many respects does not go so far as to totally destroy our differentiation from, say, evangelical Christianity. At the same time, the many changes within the practice of our temple rites show the clear signs (ravages?) of assimilation.

  5. RT,
    This is a very interesting suggestion that the increase in emphasis on the temple is part of a process of maintaining Mormon distinctiveness. There may be something to this, but at the same time Mormons are largely on the “assimilation” end of Mauss’ spectrum in the last 20 years. How do you make sense of the rise in the temple’s profile at the same time as the rise in Mormon assimilation?

  6. That is an interesting point, RT. If you have Mouritsen’s dissy on George F. Richards, it talks about how the First presidency was struggling to get the general authorities to attend the temple (fairly unsuccessfully). I think times have changed a bit there.

  7. RT,

    We share the same temple (Chicago). Our stake recently showed some numbers about temple attendance. The numbers we were shown shows that while overal attendance is down that attendence per stake is significantly up over the last 10 years or so. This was specifically shown for the Kalamazoo stake.

    It would be cool to see you at the temple someday. Any distinguishing features? An extra arm or something?

    I do like the idea of the temple as maintaining a distinction between us and ‘the world’. I think associationalism is probably alive and well within the Mormon church.

  8. TT, good point, per capita would definitely be hard to figure out, since we’d have to be privy to statistics for all temples in the General area.

    HP, that’s why I limited to the Wasatch front, where I was thinking we could control for situations where Temples where being built pro-actively as opposed to re-actively. But TT makes my point moot.

    Not to be a skeptic, but I always figured the renewed emphasis on Mormonism was related to the fact that a correlation was seen between temple attendance and retention….

  9. Excellent intro post. I know that you’ve been producing this sort of work for ages over at UM but this was a very appropriate post for your first time here.

    I think that this one modern way of understanding the temple and its rituals (namely fraternal societies) has waned, almost to the point that it joins the ancient understanding of mystery religions. I would be surprised if that didn’t have a negative effect on attendance. (although how one would measure this I don’t know)

    If the temple ceremonies were abandoned in favor of a Mass type meeting or Evangelical gathering I wonder how that would increase attendance among some of our converts? And decrease it among generational members?

    Also, I see a move away from some of the symbolism of the temple, modern and ancient. Some of this I would attribute to a desire to speed up the ceremony and increase efficiency. Some I think is social.

  10. While I think that the temple has become increasingly foreign in our everything in the open/caught on tape/sarcastic/relativistic culture, in some ways that gives it a special appeal. It seems that our culture is becoming more and more interested in mysticism and conspiracy and cover-up (witness the popularity of the Davinci Code and now “The Secret”). In some ways the church is in a prime position to tap into this mindset. We’ve got the ancient truths, once covered-up, now brought to light storyline covered like butter on bread.

  11. TT #6, the question of whether Mormons are on the assimilation or the conflict end of the Mauss spectrum — and where we are moving — is a difficult one. Mauss actually argues, in “The Angel and the Beehive,” that the church has been moving in the conflict direction for quite some time, and hence that we are in the middle of a period of retrenchment. On the other hand, the period that he identifies as one primarily of retrenchment has seen substantial accommodation on issues of women in the workplace, birth control, family size, biblical criticism, and so forth. So I’d suggest that we abandon ideas of the church moving coherently one way or the other and instead think of this dynamic as one in which the church is always moving in both directions on the spectrum, depending on the issue in question. In that view, the implicit retrenchment involved in retaining the temple may help to balance the assimilation involved in some of the other issues I’ve mentioned above, maintaining a distinctive Mormon identity without seeming too off-puttingly other to get converts.

  12. Interesting post and discussion. My sense is that there is on the horizon a bit of a reinterpretation of the significance of the temple coming. That is, I think there will be in the not-too-distant future more and more work done regarding the symoblic significance of the temple, work that will open possibilities about the meaning of the temple ceremony—work that is related to what I anticipate to be better and better interpretive work on the Pearl of Great Price. I think there was a bit of a devaluation of the temple as issues like creation vs. evolution became more prominent, issues that have detracted generally from the significance of symbolism, typology, etc. My sense (and hope) is that we will see an increase in work that explores interpretations of the temple ceremony, work that roughly parallels the rise in literary approaches to scripture which are less concerned with historico-critical issues of the Bible, and more focused on interpreting the text as we have received it (I know these approaches are largely complementary, I’m just trying to clarify a contrast to make my point…).

    (Also, I think this sentence from the last paragraph was a bit clumsy: “If such a theory is correct, it raises some interesting questions. . . .” That is, if you are really thinking of this as a catch-all theory that is “correct” or not, I have some serious problems with your view. But I take it you meant something more to like “if this theory has any merit,” which I definitely agree with.)

  13. RT,
    This is really an interesting insight about how the temple’s significance has changed to increase Mormon distinctiveness. While I agree with your overall modification of Mauss to speak of a more nuanced view of these trends, I just want to note that I think that the date of his publication (1994) in some ways officially marks the end to the period of retrenchment that he saw in the 1970’s to the early 1990’s. I think that the September Six the year before were the last real public move toward retrenchment that spurred the shift toward assimilation that we’ve seen under Hinkley.

    I am not sure if there has been a decline in emphasis on temple symbolism. I think that the streamlining of the ritual is not necessarily evidence of that, but maybe.

    Robert C.,
    I agree completely that this is the direction that we are moving with the temple. However, I have to wonder if the taste for esotericism of this sort has been lost except for among a very few. I think that symbolic actions and symbols in general are interesting, but they also have to have a social context for real meaning. My argument in this post was to posit that the temple ceremony actually has lost value as the larger cultural context of American saints has shifted away from the culture of voluntary associations. I wonder if symbolism just falls flat for modern Mormons, and that the return of lectures in the temple, meetings in the temple, etc, which would highlight the social element of temple worship, might not strengthen its meaning concurrently with a more rich symbolic understanding of temple worship.

  14. TT,

    Excellent and refreshing post.

    What do you know of how the content itself stacks up against the common rituals/stories etc. of the era of associationalism? Did they make the same claims to access to divine presence and such that the Temple does? What about architecture?

  15. Jupiterschild,
    Great questions. These are definitely some areas worth contrasting. I am really not an expert in this stuff, so hopefully someone someday can shed more light on these issues. But for now, I think that the overall soteriological claim of the temple ritual is obviously much more of a robust claim than these other groups. Also, rituals like baptism and sealing are also quite different.
    Architecturally, I think that the basic layout of progression between rooms, a veil, and an inner sanctum are pretty common features, but these varied widely. Often these groups rented out a church or saloon to hold their rituals, so the room layout was more fluid than in a stand alone building. The Masons, at least, did try to model the inner architecture and instruments on Solomon’s temple, from what I understand.

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