Inside a Mormon Temple

Author: Isaiah Bennett


Isaiah Bennett

The hallmark of a "card-carrying Mormon" is just that: carrying a card (the Mormons call it a "recommend") indicating that the bearer has lived up to all the agreements he has made with the Mormon Church and has demonstrated this to the satisfaction of both his ward bishop and stake president. Perhaps no more than twenty percent of the Church membership are "temple Mormons," holders of the coveted recommend that permits entrance into any of the nearly fifty Mormon temples throughout the world.

With documentation in hand, the patron enters through the doors of the temple and presents his recommend at the front desk, where a male temple worker checks its authenticity. This worker, along with most of the temple workers, is a volunteer, usually a retired person serving eight or more hours weekly in the temple.

Everyone in the temple dresses in white, both workers and patrons. The men wear white shirts, ties, pants, socks, and shoes or slippers. The women’s white dresses cover them from neck to ankle. The patron passes from the front desk through an interior lobby or waiting room and goes to the appropriate locker room. Here, he changes from street clothes (members are asked to enter and leave the temple in Sunday best) into the required white clothing, securing his possessions in an assigned locker.

Suitably attired, the patron is now able to choose what rituals he will undergo during that visit. Most Mormons who attend temples do so on behalf of someone who is dead. Only at his first visit does a Mormon undertake the various ceremonies in his own name, for his own sake. All subsequent trips to the temple are taken for the purpose of performing the same rituals, but on behalf of the deceased, by proxy.

All members are admonished to be attentive and reverent in "the Lord’s house" while doing "the Lord’s work." Heavy emphasis is placed on the symbolism of the place, the clothing, the actions, and the words. Mormons are encouraged to attend the temple often, both for their own spiritual growth and to help further the salvation of the dead. It is by constant participation in the temple rituals that the Mormon is expected to come to understand and appreciate them better. (This is not unlike the challenge presented to Catholics who participate in frequent, regular Mass attendance.)

There is no worship as such in a Mormon temple. No public prayer is offered. In place of the large sanctuary common to Christian churches and chapels, there are small auditoriums with theater seats, several smaller, mirrored sealing rooms, a baptismal room, offices, kitchen, cafeteria, laundry rooms, clothes rental areas, and a chapel.

Baptisms for the dead are always administered in a baptismal font large enough for at least two people to stand in. The font is supported on the backs of twelve sculpted oxen. The patron (youngsters from the age of twelve may qualify), dressed in a white jumpsuit, steps into the water where he is met by a man holding the proper authority and is immersed completely. Baptisms performed in the temple are done only for the dead (the living members have already received their baptism in a stake meeting house).

The words of administration are therefore: "Brother Smith [the patron], having authority of Jesus Christ, I baptize you for and on behalf of John Jones, who is dead, in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen." Males are baptized for males, females for females. A patron may bring an approved list of his own ancestors, present it at the font, and be baptized on their behalf; he may also simply make himself available to be baptized for whatever names are awaiting this service. Thus, a person may be baptized many times within the space of a few minutes, each time for a different deceased person.

When the baptism portion is completed, the patron returns to the locker room and dresses. He then submits to "confirmation" or the laying on of hands, again only for the deceased. Two males having authority place their hands on the patron’s head while a third recites the confirmation prayer on behalf of the dead. The patron may sit for several minutes and be confirmed for many dead persons. Those for whom he has been confirmed may not be the same as those for whom he had just been baptized, since there are hundreds of names to be done, and it is not important that the same person stand in for both the baptism and the laying on of hands.

As in Catholic theology, baptism for the Mormon is the first "ordinance." Only after being baptized may the living member or the deceased prospective member be entitled to receive his "endowments." After a member has received his own endowment, he may attend any temple at any time, going through the endowment presentation on behalf of a deceased family member or other dead person. Except for a brief and private introduction given by a temple official on the occasion of one’s own endowment, every subsequent endowment presentation is exactly the same. Aside from one "spontaneous" prayer, not one word or action varies from session to session.

The intent of the endowment presentation is to give the patron, in word and action, the history of God’s dealings with man, beginning with the pre-existence of man and continuing through his return to God in heaven. Except in the Salt Lake Temple and one other, where temple workers act out the parts, the ceremony is shown on a video in small auditoriums in the temple.

The video action revolves around the council in heaven at which the gods decided to create man. The creation of Adam and Eve is depicted, along with their temptation by Satan and their eventual fall. The subsequent plan devised by Elohim (God the Father) and Jehovah (Jesus Christ) to help mankind return to the divine presence is offered. Subsequently, Peter, James, and John are shown coming to Adam and Eve with further instructions from the gods. With that, the video ends. From that point, the audio portion represents Peter giving to the patrons the various "names, signs, and tokens" of the Mormon priesthoods. Throughout the presentation of the endowment, the patrons don special "temple robes," the significance of which is never discussed.

The endowment requires the making of certain covenants and promises. The climax occurs when the patron is taken through the veil by "the Lord," a male temple worker. Once the patron passes through the veil, he is ushered into the central "celestial room." This is the most ornate room of the temple, though newer temples lean toward an understated, simpler beauty. The celestial rooms are unadorned with objects that might evoke spiritual emotions or sensations. Rather, they are decorated and furnished like many finer hotel lobbies. Common to all celestial rooms are soft chairs and sofas where patrons, singly or in quiet groups, are encouraged to spend some time in quiet reflection on the rituals they have just experienced.

Located just off the celestial room or clustered along hallways on its perimeter are the sealing rooms. Here a man and woman are sealed for all eternity as husband and wife. For the living, the goal of every worthy Mormon is a temple marriage.

The bride and groom, after having received their own endowments, proceed to a sealing room where other temple-worthy Mormons (usually family members and friends who hold a recommend), witness the couple’s exchange of vows while kneeling at a small, upholstered "altar." A male temple worker officiates.

Temple or celestial marriage is necessary for a Mormon man and woman to reach the highest level of salvation, or godhood, in the heavenly kingdom. Thus, performing proxy marriages or sealings for the dead is an obligation continually stressed by Mormon leadership. In doing this, a man and a woman, not necessarily related or even known to each other, serve as stand-ins for the deceased man and woman, who usually were married to each other during life. The temple official then conducts the sealing ceremony in a the sealing room, with the customary two witnesses present. A couple may serve as proxy for a number of deceased couples during any given sealing session.

A second form of sealing involves the sealing of children to parents. Children born to a Mormon couple who were married in the temple are already considered "born under the covenant," and need no further sealing. Children born to those not married in the temple, including those of converts, adoptive parents, and "mixed marriages," must be sealed to their parents in the temple, provided that both living parents have joined the Church and have themselves been sealed to each other.

Additionally, it is the goal of the Mormon Church to have all members of the human race be sealed to their lineal ancestors in a direct course leading back to Adam and Eve. So, it is incumbent upon members to search out the names of their dead, to have proxy baptisms, endowments, and marriage sealings performed for them, and then to have each generation sealed to the previous one.

The Mormon is required to amass as much genealogical material as possible concerning his ancestors and to assure that the various proxy rituals are done for them. Only in this way can he have any hope of attaining the fullness of salvation as a god himself.

A word is in order concerning one of the temple rituals that has been most open to comment and confusion. Prior to receiving his own endowment, the patron undergoes the "washing and anointing." After having removed his street clothes, the initiate is given a white cloth shield, similar to a poncho or a flowing chasuble. Wearing only this garment, he enters one of many small, curtained cubicles, perhaps six-feet square, in which are performed the so-called initiatories. Men and women are of course completely separated. Male workers conduct the ritual for the men, female workers for the women.

The procedure consists of the worker touching various parts of the patron’s body, first with a few drops of water, and then with oil. A blessing is given for each of the parts affected. The entire performance is conducted modestly and respectfully. At the conclusion. the patron is given his temple garments to put on. These are simply two-

piece, stylized undergarments with embroidered markings. Men and women promise to wear these garments at all times throughout the remainder of their lives. As with all the other ordinances of the temple, the initiatory work must also be done for the dead, and many patrons find meaning in attending the temple specifically to receive washings and anointings for the deceased.

Members are encouraged to live lives worthy of receiving a temple recommend. Those are entitled to attend the temple who acknowledge to their Church authorities that they consider themselves virtuous and deserving. To be temple worthy, a Mormon is expected to pay a full tithe, be chaste, and observe the proscriptions against alcohol, tobacco, coffee, and tea. He must support and obey the Church leadership, attend his church meetings, and live uprightly before God and all men.

Accordingly, the temple is seen not only as "the house of the Lord," but also as the house of the Lord’s elect. The vast majority of Mormons themselves are not qualified to enter. One must merit the opportunity of attending, of serving the Lord in his house. There is no room for sinners, no room to which the guilty and the broken may be welcomed.

Unlike even the plainest of Catholic chapels, the Mormon temple affords no opportunity for corporate worship. Though the Mormon religion places a heavy emphasis on the family, patrons in the temple wind through its various rituals wrapped in their own private worlds.

A Mormon boy or girl must wait until the age of about nineteen before being considered worthy to attend the temple for the endowment. An adult convert must be a member of the Church for at least one year before receiving the endowment. During the wait, the future patron is promised that the temple experience will be the greatest joy one could ever attain in this life. It is there that one will receive all instruction needed to live a life that will lead to godhood.

The beauty of the temple and the richness of its rituals are extolled as the high point of the worthy Mormon’s mortal life. Indeed, Catholic converts to Mormonism are occasionally told that the temple surroundings and rituals will remind them of Catholic high Mass. It is thought that in the temple one will be closest to God and that, within the walls of the temple, Jesus Christ himself often appears. Mormons are taught that this "gate of heaven" opens to the patron the wonders of creation and its Creator. In this so-called "university of the Lord" alone are Mormons presented the lessons needed for achieving deity. Those unworthy of receiving the rituals of the temple will be damned, or perhaps "dammed" prevented from returning to the presence of their Heavenly Father. In comparing Mormon temple work with Catholic worship, this former temple patron observes differences. Chief among these is the purpose of the work. For the Mormon, temple work is undertaken as a means to advancement, for oneself or for a dead person. The central figure is the patron or the one for whom he is doing proxy work.

For about an hour and a half during a typical endowment session, the patron listens to the instructions, makes the dictated rote responses and promises, receives and gives the required hand signals and code words, and dons the ritual clothing. In return for his proper performance, he is promised exaltation as a god while being symbolically introduced into this eternal delight by being taken by the hand and brought through a cloth veil into the celestial room, there to contemplate his eventual deification.

How different the liturgy or work of the people at Mass, the central act for all Catholics! Christ and his Father are the focus. The Lord is the center, the source and goal of worship. Imperfect, striving members come to the Eucharist, first confessing their sinfulness to God and one another. In this house of prayer for all people, voices are raised together in adoration of the one Lord. It is to his service alone that the congregation dedicates itself.

The only perfect participant is the Sacrifice himself, whom all adore and to whom all submit. In place of the Mormon’s self-aggrandizement is the Lord’s self-abasemen. As the worshipers again admit their unworthiness, he entrusts himself to them as food, as medicine for their weakness. The Catholic is sent forth from the Mass, not to contemplate his virtue but to remember his need, not to enjoy his own excellence but to love and serve the Lord and one another.

The Mormon temples are places of quiet and order. They are attractive, even majestic, inside and out. Their patrons believe in the importance and efficacy of the work they do there. If, for them, the temple represents the closest encounter with heaven they can hope to experience in this life, it is perhaps because they have not savored the beauty and power of ultimate worship found in the cathedrals, churches, and chapels of the Catholic Church. It is perhaps because they have never enjoyed the privilege of gathering with humble, repentant believers under Christ the High Priest to offer the perfect prayer of the Mass.

Neither the inaccessibility and relative sparsity of Mormon temples nor the secrecy of the rituals performed therein should be confused with sacred importance or spiritual power. On the contrary! The Lord, who desires that all people come to him, and who has ordained that a perfect sacrifice be offered at every moment to his name, will be kept neither remote nor hidden. The Lord never intended to be approached only by the elite nor to be found only by the perfect.

He chose to be seen and touched, to be confessed and adored, by Peter and by Thomas, by the weak in will and the weak in faith. As it was at the beginning of our Christian faith, it is now and will always be. The Lord of heaven and earth contents himself to come to us in the same way we approach him, humbly and vulnerably. His children freely approach his throne of grace. In the liturgy of the Word, the faithful hear of the Lord’s fidelity and closeness to his people. In the liturgy of the Eucharist, they experience first-hand the Lord who draws near, giving himself to dwell within them. This is a gift no man-made majesty can replace.

Isaiah Bennett was a Catholic priest who converted to Mormonism and then reconverted to the Catholic faith. He has produced a four-tape set explaining Mormonism; the tapes are available through Catholic Answers.

This article is reprinted from the June 1995 issue of <This Rock> magazine.