The Form of Mormon Temple Ceremonies

January 17, 2008 | 31 comments
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For a concrete idea of what Mormon temple services are like, comparing them with a Catholic Mass actually goes pretty far. While a conceptual understanding in terms of instruction, covenants, and the symbolic meaning of the temple itself is most important for temple-going Mormons, non-Mormons may just want to get an idea of what the ceremonies are like, in a way they can picture. Otherwise conceptual explanations do little to diminish the sense of strangeness. The temple ceremonies did not seem strange to me at all when I went, because I had been reading the scriptures. The symbol of the temple as the house of God, the veil separating off the Holy of Holies, and symbolic clothing for example are well developed in the Bible, and further developed in distinctively Mormon scripture including the Book of Mormon. Yet considering how little most people read the Bible, these references aren’t too helpful for them. In this post I offer something less conceptual, more formal and concrete.

I was surprised when I first went to a Catholic Mass at how many similarities there were with the temple ceremony. Both are primarily grounded in biblical symbols and ideas, including some Jewish worship practices, though they are grounded in different ones, and their history is very different. The content–the words and ideas involved–is quite different. Yet the general format of the experience is not far off. A key difference is in the demarcation of sacred space, which is present, but differently placed and less conspicuous in the Catholic case.

I am talking mainly about the endowment ceremony here–this is the longest and most complex temple service, and the one Mormons most routinely participate in when they go to the temple. I am comparing it with the Catholic Mass for the sake of simplicity, but many Protestant services, particularly Anglican and Lutheran services, share some of these formal elements.

In a Catholic Mass, a congregation sits facing a priest, in a symbolic space, with an altar at the front, and participates in a standardized ceremony in which their spiritual relationships with one another and with God are symbolically represented and (re)affirmed. The priest leads the ceremony, with others assisting at various points. There are things the priest says, and responses by the congregation. The congregation stands and sits at various points, as part of this response, corresponding to whether they are praying or listening or reciting a creed or what have you. The Gospel is taught, and actively received. At the climax of the ceremony, each member of the congregation goes forward for a symbolic reunion with God, in this case represented by the priest and the Eucharist, in which God is said to be present.

The same basic format applies to the Mormon endowment. A congregation sits facing an officiator, in a symbolic space, with an altar at the front, and participates in a standardized ceremony in which their spiritual relationships with one another and with God are symbolically represented and (re)affirmed. The officiator leads the ceremony, with others assisting at various points. There are things the officiator says, and responses by the congregation. The congregation stands and sits at various points, as part of these responses. God’s plan of salvation is taught, and the teaching is actively received. At the climax of the ceremony, each member of the congregation goes forward for a symbolic reunion with God, in this case represented by entry into the Celestial Room, representing the presence of God.

I will highlight a few striking formal differences, to do with the demarcation of sacred space. First, Catholics allow anyone to come into the nave, where the congregation sits during the Mass. The sanctuary, however, around the altar, where the crucial offering of the Eucharist takes place, is mainly reserved for ordained clergy. In some Catholic churches (and some non-Catholic), the sanctuary is demarcated by obvious rails; in others it is simply marked by a step up to the area around the altar. Congregants coming to receive the Eucharist approach the edge of the sanctuary but do not enter, and then return to their seats in the nave. In Eastern Orthodox churches the separation of the sanctuary as a special, sacred space is much more obvious, because it is often separated from the nave by a large wall, decorated with icons–an iconostasis, and sometimes by a curtain.

Now recall that Mormons have a lay clergy. Then imagine that the sanctuary is large enough for all the congregation to worship inside it. Mormon temples are rather like the sanctuary around the Catholic altar in that only people of a certain ceremonial and spiritual status are allowed inside–normally men are eligible for temple attendance soon after they are ordained to the Melchizedek Priesthood, and women become eligible at a similar point in life, though without the ordination. The separation of this sanctuary is more obvious because it is surrounded by walls, rather than merely rails or steps. The participants in a Mormon endowment wear symbolic clothing, as does a Catholic priest. More is expected of the participants in the case of Mormons–as part of the ceremony they make vows somewhat comparable to the vows of a Catholic priest.

Second, whereas in the Catholic Mass, God is brought to the people as much as vice versa, in the Mormon endowment, the people move into the presence of God. The Mormon endowment thus represents a more advanced stage in humanity’s spiritual journey, although faithful Catholics look forward to entering the presence of God no less than Mormons do.

The climax of the Catholic Mass is based on the symbolism of Christ presenting himself as the Word made flesh, and sacrificing his blood for us. For Mormons, the reception of Christ’s flesh and blood is represented in our Sunday meetings (which anyone may join, but which in other formal respects are very different from the Catholic Mass). By contrast, the climax of the Mormon endowment is based on the symbolism of Christ as leading the way into heaven.

Perhaps this comparison of the form of the two ceremonies will be helpful for those who want to understand Mormon temple worship better. Of course, the particular understanding of human nature, of God, and of the way humans are reunited with God, are significantly different in the two cases. The theology is different, and so the content of the ceremonies is different, and these differences matter a lot. Having an idea of what it might look like, and understanding what it actually means, are very different things. If you want to understand the differences in content, I suggest reading Mormon scripture and studying Mormon theology! Either that, or become a temple-going Mormon. We’d love to have you.

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31 Responses to The Form of Mormon Temple Ceremonies

  1. Christopher on January 17, 2008 at 3:00 pm

    Thanks for the interesting post. The dedication of a Catholic cathedral is also similar in many respects to the form of the Mormon endowment ceremony.

  2. The_Monk on January 17, 2008 at 3:12 pm

    Ben, have you seen this article? It has pictures :)

    Marcus von Wellnitz, “The Catholic Liturgy and the Mormon Temple.” BYUS 21:1 (1981): 3-35.

    http://byustudies.byu.edu/Products/MoreInfoPage/MoreInfo.aspx?Type=7&ProdID=684

    I think this link below is the direct pdf download.
    http://byustudies.byu.edu/Products/MoreInfoPage/articleDownload.aspx?ProdID=684

  3. Last Lemming on January 17, 2008 at 3:33 pm

    For some time, I have had an answer waiting for somebody to ask me the question, “Just how weird is the temple ceremony?”

    I would say its weirdness is a cross between a Catholic mass and a college graduation. Now, you have provided me with some substance that goes beyond just weirdness. Thank you.

  4. Adam Greenwood on January 17, 2008 at 4:14 pm

    With a soupcon of Manti Pageant.

  5. Ben H on January 17, 2008 at 4:19 pm

    Haha! Last Lemming, that is not a bad analogy, either.

    Monk, thank you for the link to that very informative paper! It’s nice to see deeper research backing me up : )

  6. Michael on January 17, 2008 at 4:24 pm

    I joined the Church as age 19 after a strong Irish Catholic upbringing. The hardest transition I had was the unstructured, irreverant, and chaotic sacrament meeting we have. Three years later when I received my endowment, I was joyous. The temple ceremony was just what I needed to reaffirm my love of the structure of mass. The symbolism, the reverence, and the worship were delightful. It made it even better when they allowed us to read the scriptures there. Now if we can just have some hymns in the temple service, I would be content.

  7. Rex on January 17, 2008 at 5:59 pm

    Von Wellnitz rocks. Anyone else have him as teacher at the LTM?

  8. Patrick on January 17, 2008 at 8:09 pm

    Rex,

    I didn’t read the thread that closely until I saw your post with the name “Von Wellnitz” – someone I hadn’t thought about in years! He was one of my instructors in the LTM Dec 77- Feb 78 (I was headed to the Germany Hamburg Mission).

  9. Keller on January 17, 2008 at 8:38 pm

    I haven’t done much with it for awhile, but I covered some similarities between the pre-Easter Mass and the Mormon temple on my mormonandcatholic blog.

  10. Ray on January 17, 2008 at 10:24 pm

    Thanks, Ben. That is a great way to describe the endowment – although it won’t help evangelicals who also see Catholics as non-Christian heretics, not that I care about that point, at all.

  11. Ben H on January 17, 2008 at 11:25 pm

    (chuckle) Hey, Ray, if evangelicals treated us like Catholics, at this point that would be real progress.

  12. Dave on January 18, 2008 at 12:20 am

    in response to Michael\’s comment- \”Now if we can just have some hymns in the temple service, I would be content.\”

    Symbolically the congregational hymn happens in the prayer circle as the participants unite in voice. Hugh Nibley\’s essay about ancient prayer circles provides a number of insights. Imagine if it were not merely symbolic but raised to the level of the beautiful art of the call to prayer in the Islamic tradition, I would love it. But I am proud of the strong choral tradition of the church as a whole, I think there is something particularly beautiful about act of praising God in unified sound via the human voice. I\’ll also say that one benefit of the video-aided ceremony, although I prefer the live dramatic presentation by leaps and bounds, is that there is a musical score. There are a couple spots in the video presentation where I always find myself paying more attention to the musical phrase than the words being spoken at the moment.

  13. Clark on January 18, 2008 at 1:18 am

    They used to sing, “Oh Say What is Truth.” I’m not sure what can be talked about but if you go through the SLC Temple in the Terrestrial Room I believe there are still hymnals there. (Maybe they finally took them out – I’ve not been through a session there in years)

  14. Jones on January 18, 2008 at 3:09 am

    #2 Thanks for the link to the article on Catholic Liturgy. It was fascinating. Reading it reminded me of when I was in England in the 80s as a tourist, while standing in the queue to see the crown jewels at the Tower of London, there were panels of information to entertain us while waiting. One set of panels outlined the rituals associated with the coronation of kings/queens. The parallels to temple ritural were obvious and also fascinating to me. I was struck with the thought that these coronation rites were from antiquity and reserved for those who would be annointed kings/queens and for those who would know the mysteries of God.
    #3 Your comment on college graduations reminded me of the movie “Mona Lisa Smiles” (I think that was the title — it had Julia Roberts as a college professor of art at one of the sister colleges in the 1950s). At graduation time the graduates all approach a main door before entering and someone knocked at the door three times before the door could be opened. And of course I remembered Hugh Nibley’s comment at a BYU graduation about the robes representing the robes of the evil priesthood — or Satan’s priesthood — dang, I can’t remember the exact phrase he used.

  15. Duke of Earl Grey on January 18, 2008 at 3:40 am

    “We have met here today clothed in the black robes of a false priesthood…”

  16. Jim Cobabe on January 18, 2008 at 10:22 am

    Although it seems of some interest to draw out the parallels, I personally enjoy the unique quality of the Temple experience. It has ever been the habit of the “great and spacious building” crowd to mock that which is sacred. Perceptions of the world concern me far less than my personal striving to prepare myself for a spiritual experience.

  17. john f. on January 18, 2008 at 10:41 am

    Now recall that Mormons have a lay clergy. Then imagine that the sanctuary is large enough for all the congregation to worship inside it. Mormon temples are rather like the sanctuary around the Catholic altar in that only people of a certain ceremonial and spiritual status are allowed inside–normally men are eligible for temple attendance soon after they are ordained to the Melchizedek Priesthood, and women become eligible at a similar point in life, though without the ordination. The separation of this sanctuary is more obvious because it is surrounded by walls, rather than merely rails or steps. The participants in a Mormon endowment wear symbolic clothing, as does a Catholic priest. More is expected of the participants in the case of Mormons–as part of the ceremony they make vows somewhat comparable to the vows of a Catholic priest.

    This was the most insightful portion of your essay for me. The comparison of the whole temple itself with the sanctuary that is common in the Catholic churches and following that comparison through to the people who gather there to participate in the endowment achieves a lot, I think.

    At the very least, it throws Exodus 19:6 into stark relief from an LDS perspective (albeit proof-texted):

    And ye shall be unto me a kingdom of priests, and an holy nation.

    This is one of the exciting things about Mormonism. Whereas in the Catholic mass only the priest enters the sanctuary and makes certain vows, in Mormonism, all members do so, thus becoming a nation of priests in a certain sense.

    As for graduation ceremonies, my background as a Latter-day Saints who had attended the temple enriched my Oxford graduation ceremony for me. I contemplated certain aspects of the graduation ceremony — such as being led by the hand by a guide or escort to presentation before the Chancellor for questioning, and changing robes from one set before presentation to another after presentation — from this LDS perspective and really enjoyed that.

  18. Jordan F. on January 18, 2008 at 11:20 am

    Great essay, Ben! I enjoyed it.

  19. Russell Arben Fox on January 18, 2008 at 11:21 am

    Jones, Duke of Earl–Nibley used that phrase in a prayer he gave at a BYU graduation in 1960. Twenty-three years later, he was given a chance to explain himself in a commencement address, which can be found here.

  20. Jonovitch on January 18, 2008 at 12:57 pm

    At my graduation ceremony from BYU, I remember sitting there on the stage of the deJong Concert Hall with my fellow classmates, and I couldn’t help comparing the present ceremony with the temple. Having received a higher “degree” of knowledge, we were clothed in certain robes and hats, and others with higher “degrees” of knowledge (masters and doctors) had other robes with special markings that signified their distinction.

    I believe we also stood to be presented to the audience who, being comprised of parents, siblings, and teachers who were glad to be rid of us, all found us worthy to receive our degree. (As an aside, in the deJong Concert Hall, it’s especially dramatic: the curtains are closed as the audience finds their seats in the house. The organ processional is played to mask the sound of students assembling in their seats on the stage — behind the curtain. And then, with one grand, swift movement, the curtains are drawn back. The audience suddenly realizes the stage is packed with their friends, and thunderous applause breaks out. It’s awesome.)

    Having been found worthy to advance (you crammed well for the finals at the Testing Center and delivered your theses with minutes to spare!), one by one our names were called, and we were presented to the head of the school and the authorized knowledge-giver (the dean, I think?) who shook our hands and presented us with our token of advancement (diploma, or at least the folder — the actual certificate is mailed after you finally return all those overdue books to the library), and as we crossed from one side of the stage to the next, we symbolically moved the tassel on our headpiece from one side to the other, also signifying our advancement in knowledge.

    As I said, the similarities were so striking (and I might have missed a few) I couldn’t help but compare the graduation ceremony with the temple (and of course, was only too eager to recite the Nibley quote in my mind, and then again to my parents, who chuckled at it as well). I had forgotten about this, so thank you Last Lemming (3) and Jones (14). (I was also shocked when I watched the Mona Lisa Smile graduation ceremony with the knocking three times.)

    It really is interesting to see in how many ways and how widespread the ancient rites have been dispersed and perhaps also diluted.

    Jon

  21. Skeptic on January 18, 2008 at 1:38 pm

    I am skeptical that these rites, though widespread, go back much further than the 18th century, if that. I don\’t think that means that the temple rites are not what the Church claims them to be, sacred rituals in which we learn who we are and make covenants with God. I just doubt that there is an genuinely ancient origin for most of the particulars of the rites. Under inspiration Joseph Smith created a ritual (which has been much abbreviated and edited) that did what the Lord wanted it to do, and he borrowed what he could from Masons and elsewhere as the material from which to construct that ritual.

    I\’m only guessing, but my guess is that the commonality we see between graduation ceremonies from Oxford, Great Britain, to Oxford, Mississippi, and beyond, owes mostly the Masons, who almost certainly date no early than the mid-17th century.

  22. Kathryn Lynard Soper on January 18, 2008 at 1:46 pm

    Really good, Ben. As a kid I went to the Greek Orthodox church, and I’d never thought about the similarities.

  23. David Douglas Brown on January 18, 2008 at 3:52 pm

    Thanks Ben, for a very enlightening post. I really got me thinking about how to better explain the Temple, as well as how to better understand the meaning/draw of the Catholic Mass for many of my Catholic friends here in very Catholic suburban NY.

    And thanks to The_Monk for pointing out that very excellent article.

    For the Sceptic (#21) I’m sure that the commonality of graduation ceremonies extends well beyond the mid-17th century. Please take a look into the origins of Universities and the links to both the Priesthood and the guardianship of knowledge. Medieval guilds and their initiation rites would also be a fruitful point of comparison.

  24. Orin Ryssman on January 18, 2008 at 4:50 pm

    I think a better parallel would be between the Masons and the LDS temple ceremony as instituted by Joseph Smith.

    How can I say such a thing? Because before I went out to serve a full time mission for the LDS Church I went thru the temple. Now that I am Roman Catholic I can say that I have never, and I do mean never, encountered anything as strange as the LDS Temple Endowment ceremony.

    Please, don’t compare something done in secret with something done in public…there is so little a parallel that to attempt to draw one is stretching credibility to the breaking point…and beyond.

  25. Costanza on January 18, 2008 at 5:29 pm

    Orin,
    Your last run-on sentence is deeply illogical. What is the structural impediment to comparing public and private things? There is only one necessary difference, which is obvious. They may be identical or they may be opposites, or they may be something in between, but the readiness with which these things may be viewed has no bearing on the possibilities of comparison.

  26. Ben H on January 18, 2008 at 6:18 pm

    Thanks for another round of good comments.

    Michael (#6), I have seen some really great services held in the temple chapel–maybe you just need to go outside the U.S.! People who have come in on a two-day bus ride tend to make more of their temple visit. I believe I’ve seen such meetings (hymns, talks by stake or temple presidency, etc.) in Japan, Mexico, and Switzerland (a bunch of Italians up that weekend). It was also a lot of fun to see people roll out their sleeping bags in the halls below the chapel in Tokyo that sits right next to the temple.

    Actually the resemblance between the endowment and typical graduation ceremonies is part of why I chose not to participate in my BYU graduation! tho I sat in the audience. It made me kind of queasy to think about participating. I also had Hugh Nibley as a teacher . . . but by the time I got my PhD, there was no way I was going to skip that graduation! I had definitely been initiated into something, and I didn’t know if I liked it, but I was going to claim what I’d earned! I’d never made any vows, but I’d taken on poverty, chastity, and obedience nonetheless.

    Jim (#16), of course I agree that ultimately it is the uniqueness, or more to the point, the singleness (wholeness, synthetic unity, integrity) of the temple ceremonies, individually and as a group, that is most important. But I care how non-Mormons understand and think of the temple because they are my brothers and sisters, and I want us to understand each other.

    Orin, you need to get out more. There are a lot of strange things in the world, or at least things that seem strange to those who don’t understand them. It’s a good thing you became Catholic after Vatican II!

  27. Jonovitch on January 18, 2008 at 6:46 pm

    Ben H (26) “I’d taken on poverty, chastity, and obedience nonetheless.”

    Hilarious. If any place teaches poverty, chastity, and obedience (by all means, and for the love of the Honor Code, obedience!), BYU is certainly that place. I was thrilled to be a part of my ceremonial rite of graduation. It was impressive to sit in the Marriott Center among thousands of fellow graduates and be a part of the tremendous celebration of our having received higher knowledge. I was not always a fan of BYU (and still am not totally sold on it) but I loved being a part of those ceremonies. Of course, part of my exhilaration might have been realizing that I was finally finished with the place.

    At any rate, I remember it was sitting in the Marriott Center seeing all the thousands of robes and hats and different degrees of knowledge identified by them that made me start thinking about the temple similarities (and Nibley’s great quote). If graduating in heaven from one degree of knowledge to the next is anything like that (a grand celebration of knowledge), I’m ready to go back to school at the Lord’s university (not BYU). :)

    Jon

  28. smb on January 18, 2008 at 7:03 pm

    Orin, a religious quest to avoid the strange seems doomed to me on spiritual grounds. And Catholicism (which I respect and admire) seems like an odd choice. I love the strange in both Mormonism and Catholicism, and I respect this attempt to situate Mormon temple worship.

  29. Susane on January 19, 2008 at 10:05 am

    The temple ceremony is MUCH more like the Job\’s Daughters ritual than it is like a Catholic Mass. A Catholic Mass is Sacrament meeting on steroids and the Communion portion is like the LDS sacrament, again on steroids. But the similarities between the temple ceremony and that of Job\’s Daughters is profound. The ritual, the basic lesson, the secret tokens, the question and response format, the symbolism and explanation of everything in the ceremony including but not limited to knocks at the door, the ascension to subsequently higher states of being and consciousness, all of that definitely were similar to the temple ceremony. Unfortunately Job\’s Daughters is a membership only, secret ceremony, so there is no way to easily compare, unless you are, were, or know someone who was part of it. I would assume that correspondingly, the Masonic ceremony, which only Masons participate in, would be likewise similar to that of Job\’s daughters. And since the temple ceremony is similar to the Masonic ceremony … it all makes a lot of sense!

  30. Dave on January 19, 2008 at 6:12 pm

    The parallels can also be seen in the rituals of the Hajj, which pre-dates Muhammad actually. I wrote a post about the parallels over on my blog during this past Hajj celebration.

  31. Ben Huff on January 20, 2008 at 12:46 am

    Thanks for the comments, everyone!