From Theophany to Ritual

February 24, 2008 | 11 comments
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I thought that one of Richard Bushman’s most provocative arguments in Rough Stone Rolling was his interpretation of the temple endowment, and I’ve been surprised that it hasn’t generated more interest. According to Bushman, one of Joseph’s central ambitions was to bring the saints as a people literally into the presence of God. The archetype here seems to have been Moses and the children of Israel before the mountain in the desert. They heard voice and thunder; they saw the flame; and, ultimately they turned away. Joseph wanted to succeed where Moses had failed. As Bushman reads his life, Joseph came closest to success at the dedication of the Kirtland Temple. The saints saw angels on the rooftops and only the thin curtain before the altar separated them from theophany. Thereafter, however, Joseph pursued his ambition by other means. Ultimately, he decided to accomplish ritually what he failed to accomplish literally. The ceremonial ascent into the presence of God within the endowment replaced the hoped for communal theophany.

I find Bushman’s reading of Joseph’s life on this point compelling and insightful, but it leaves us with a question: Was the turn to ritual a sign of failure or of triumph? I can articulate arguments on both sides. On one hand, it seems the turn to ritual seems like a massive contraction in the spiritual aspirations of the community. The move from literal to symbolic seems like a surrender to frailties of the saints or the recalcitrance of the heavens. On the other hand, by moving the theophany into the realm of ritual, Joseph allowed Latter-day Saints to recast their notion of time and live on into the modern world. The early saints lived in a world of imminent apocalypse. It is easy to see how the communal theophany would fit into such a vision. It was to be one of the great signs and wonders of a final act in world history that was rapidly coming to a close. One needn’t worry about the possibility of repetition for future generations because one didn’t expect there to be many future generations, if there were any at all.

The brute continuation of history, however, required that the uncompromising linearity of apocalyptic time be, at the very least, held in check for a while. The closing up of history was replaced by the life-cycle of faithful Latter-day Saint life: baby blessing, baptism, priesthood (for men), endowment, sealing, enduring to the end. This cycle, of course, could be repeated endlessly, and modified into one of conversion, baptism, endowment, enduring to the end, etc. Ritual has allowed us to keep the ambition of the City of Enoch, a community brought into God’s presence. After all, we always experience the endowment as part of a company. Yet the ritual can be nested within the cyclical view of time that has come to dominate Mormon life, even if the linear ambitions of apocalyptic time remain in the background.

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11 Responses to From Theophany to Ritual

  1. SC Taysom on February 24, 2008 at 5:31 pm

    I think one reason that it hasn’t generated much interest among some quarters is that Bushman records a pretty typical story of Weberian routinization of charisma.

  2. lxxluthor on February 24, 2008 at 6:59 pm

    I don’t know if it ought to be categorized a failure or triumph. As you have already argued, it seems more like a progression, from one system that fits in that world to a new system that fits in our world. The only problem with this at all are the arguments you listed for it being a failure; they are persuasive enough to me that I can’t shake them off easily. It is hard for me to see them as a failure (or at least a total one) since I believe that God is in charge of the direction this Church takes. Maybe it ought to be thought of as a preparatory experience to helped make real for the Saints that which the Endowment symbolizes.

  3. Jared on February 24, 2008 at 7:05 pm

    The ultimate purpose of the church is to bring members into the presence of the Lord–the second Comforter. The first Comforter, the Holy Ghost needs to be acquired first, at least that is how I understand it.

    After a person has faith in Christ, repents of his sins, and is baptized for the remission of his sins and receives the Holy Ghost, (by the laying on of hands), which is the first Comforter, then let him continue to humble himself before God, hungering and thirsting after righteousness, and living by every word of God, and the Lord will soon say unto him, Son, thou shalt be exalted. When the Lord has thoroughly proved him, and finds that the man is determined to serve him at all hazards, then the man will find his calling and his election made sure, then it will be his privilege to receive the other Comforter, which the Lord hath promised the saints, as is recorded in the testimony of St. John, in the 14th chapter, from the 12th to the 27th verses.” (Teachings, p. 149-150.)

  4. Bryce Haymond on February 24, 2008 at 8:37 pm

    I think it has been the purpose of every prophet since the world began to bring his people into the presence of God. Indeed, I believe that prophets are called for that very purpose, to get man out of the world, out of the fallen condition, to overcome the natural man and the spiritual death, and to bring them back to the God from whence they came. Enoch brought his people to a state of such rectitude and righteousness that they were taken back to God. Joseph tried to do the same with his people, and in many instances was successful. They were, in many cases, actually in the presence of God the Father and Jesus Christ.

    But, as Nibley has pointed out, because of covetousness among the brethren, Zion had to be withheld from immediate establishment for a time, until the brethren could learn to live the law of the celestial kingdom. The establishment of the endowment ritual was not a failure, but was a progression further towards the goal of making a people of one heart and one mind, with an eye single to the glory of God. It was to help the brethren overcome their covetousness and to sacrifice their will and everything they had to the Lord and His righteousness, or to become worthy to endure God’s presence.

    The endowment has been an established ordinance since the beginning of time to bring man into God’s presence. Nibley taught that it was established for Adam after he left the garden, and was even taught by Christ during His 40-day ministry among His apostles after His resurrection. They were already in His presence, and still needed the endowment. These ordinances are required for salvation and exaltation, even for those of the city of Enoch. Joseph Smith taught that even Christ Himself participated of the fulness of the ordinances of the House of the Lord so as to set a precedence and example for what we must do to follow in His footsteps and become what He is.

    Furthermore, I don’t think that the endowment was established as a symbolic return to God, but still is a very literal return to His presence. The Lord can, in very literal fact, make His abode in the temple with the members of the Church. We can feel His presence there, along with angels which have been seen there. Actual theophanies take place on a less frequent basis, usually to those who receive the gift and blessing of the Second Comforter, but it is a promised blessing to whomever is righteous enough to receive it.

  5. Stephen M (Ethesis) on February 25, 2008 at 12:13 am

    I think it has been the purpose of every prophet since the world began to bring his people into the presence of God

    Nicely said.

  6. Kathryn Lynard Soper on February 25, 2008 at 9:57 am

    My understanding is that the establishment of the endowment was not a turn to ritual, but a return, a restoration of the ceremonies which enabled saints of old to experience the transformation of sanctification. The establishment of the endowment shouldn’t be likened to Moses coming down the mountain with the lesser gospel–in fact, D&C 84 suggests just the opposite. Moses was not permitted to give his people the Melchizedek priesthood. Joseph was. “And this greater priesthood administereth the gospel and holdeth the key of the mysteries of the kingdom, even the key of the knowledge of God.” (v. 19). The “life cycle” of faithful latter-day saints includes the ultimate temple ordinances referred to in the endowment.

    Enoch led the people in the City of Zion for 365 years before the community was ready for translation. I can’t regard Joseph’s leadership in this regard as a failure.

  7. Clark on February 25, 2008 at 5:07 pm

    I’ve long thought that one can understand a lot about the endowment if one thinks of it less as ritual proper than in terms of the old arts of memory. Still, one has to acknowledge its connection to the mystery religions and the functions therein.

  8. Jacob J on February 25, 2008 at 7:27 pm

    Clark, What do you mean by “old arts of memory.”

  9. Raymond Takashi Swenson on February 25, 2008 at 7:27 pm

    The book “Opening the Heavens” is remarkable in gathering the “cloud of witnesses” that received revelations in the pre-Utah period of Church history. But one of the facts of the Kirtland experience was that, despite that first-hand experience, there were still many of the saints who apostatized, organizing meetings of rebellion right there in the same Kirtland Temple. Oliver Cowdery, who experienced the theophany with Joseph in the temple, fell away, despite seeing the savior and receiving ordinations and keys from John the Baptist, Peter, Moses, and Elijah. Sidney Rigdon, who experienced the Vision in Section 76, also lost his way. David Whitmer never denied his remarkable and spiritual vision of the Book of Mormon, but still was disaffected from Joseph and the Church, while Martin Harris returned only after some years apart.

    In my readings of LDS history, it is not clear that the Kirtland “Pentecost” was a point of testimony during the trials the saints later faced, or that it was part of the testimony to investigators to confirm the reality of the Church’s claim to be the true church of Christ. Those who experienced it did not seem to propagate it as a confirming testimony to those who were not there.

    So we have historical evidence that experiencing remarkable visions of God and angels does not by itself ensure that the recipient will remain faithful in his life, even if he never denies the things he witnessed. The endowment and other temple ordinances seem to be oriented toward putting visitations and entry into God’s presence into the context of our eternal lives, and calling forth commitments that we will live consistently with such visions, if we have them. In the narrative of the endowment, the major characters are persons with whom Joseph had actual conversations, including the Father, the Son, Peter, James and John, and presumably Adam/Michael as well. At least one aspect of the endowment is teaching us literally how to recognize these heavenly messengers when we meet them. It does us no good to have encounters with angels if we have not learned the discipline of staying true to that encounter.

    One of the real achievements of the last few years in making the Book of Mormon more real to members has been the production of the “Journey of Faith” DVD, that summarizes the last couple of decades of work on the correlations between the Book of Mormon and the geographic facts in the Arabian Peninsula. It is very faith affirming to see the places in First Nephi made real. Yet Laman and Lemuel experienced all of these things first hand, and it still did not cause them to have an unshaken testimony of their father’s mission. Seeing an angel, seeing Nephi walk up with the brass plates in Laban’s armor, watching the Liahona work day by day, finding Bountiful, seeing the ship take shape under Nephi’s hands, arriving in the promised land–their attitude of skepticism prevented them from developing a conviction of their father’s prophetic calling. Nephi made a point of comparing their journey to that of Moses and Israel, and just as Israel was not faithful to the miraculous visions they saw and heard, Laman and Lemuel were impervious to allowing the visions to guide their lives.

    Jack Welch suggests in his book on “The Sermon at the Temple” that 3rd Nephi reveals the Sermon on the Mount as a temple text related to the Endowment, with the experience of each person touching the Savior’s wounds being the equivalent in reality to stepping up to the veil in the temple today. Yet that thophany, which could not be surpassed for personal experience of Christ and his Atonement, was just the beginning of several days of instruction, including the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper that symbolically replicated the touching of Christ’s resurrected body. I can’t help but feel that the instruction, the training, was just as important as the experience of touching God in causing several generations to be energized in righteousness by those three days.

    Having the endowment and other ordinances also helps us recognize the fragments and hints of it in the Bible and other documents, not only in Matthew 5-7 and the 40-day literature, but also in Revelation 1-3, where I think it served as a mark of authentication for the saints in Ephesus and the surrounding region that it had in fact come from the exiled John. It restores the “plain and precious” ordinances that Nephi saw being removed from the Bible and the primitive church.

    So I think the saints at Kirtland were blessed for their sacrifice, but the visions could not substitute for the training and committing that is part of the endowment and the other Nauvoo Temple ordinances that prepare us for permanent residence beyond the veil.

  10. Ron on February 25, 2008 at 7:55 pm

    If a document like the Book of Mormon, which was published at the beginning, actually references the temple endowment, as mentioned in #9 (and by various students of that book, whether Welch, Nibley or others), doesn’t that have a major impact on any historical/developmental interpretation of the establishment of the endowment?

  11. Clark on February 26, 2008 at 12:38 am

    Jacob J, check out Francis Yate’s, The Art of Memory, Paolo Rossi’s Logic and the Art of Memory, Yates’ The Rosicrucian Enlightenment, and Eco’s The Search for the Perfect Language. There are other great books on the topic but that’ll get you started.

    The art of memory, especially it’s form in the Renaissance is a pretty important influence on the endowment (indirectly) and also an important context.

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