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.