Sunday, March 15, 2009

"Big Love" and the Mormon Endowment Ceremony

Today (Sunday 15 March 2009) HBO is broadcasting a depiction of a Mormon temple ceremony, the endowment, during an episode of its television series about Utah polygamists, “Big Love.” The endowment is sacred to the LDS, or Latter-day Saints (as Mormons like myself call ourselves), who vow not to disclose details of these ceremonies outside LDS temples. One wonders what the general viewing audience will make of the ceremony, and of the controversy concerning the producers’ decision to depict the endowment. Below, I consider the meaning and importance of the LDS temple ceremonies, their antiquity, secrecy issues, and why the LDS are so concerned about the depiction of the temple endowment ceremony in “Big Love.”

The Meaning and Importance of the Temple Ceremonies

The temple endowment embodies the most sacred tenets of the LDS faith. The heart of the endowment involves the temple patron making sacred covenants to pursue a life distinct from the lifestyles of the world, to follow a challenging ethical code, and to live in accordance with all the commandments of God. In turn, taking the LDS temple ceremonies as a whole, God covenants with the patron that those who fulfill all the temple covenants shall be ‘endowed’ with the same kind of life, capacities, and existence that God has, including divinity itself. In the LDS scriptures, this is written of those who receive marriage, under proper authority, in the temple (known as ‘temple marriage’ or ‘celestial marriage’), and fulfill their covenant obligations to live a worthy life:

… they shall pass by the angels, and the gods, which are set there, to their
exaltation and glory in all things, as hath been sealed upon their heads, which
glory shall be a fullness and a continuation of the seeds forever and ever.
[Note: That is, those blessed in this way may continue their family
relationships, and continue to have offspring, in the

Then shall they be gods, because they have no end; therefore shall they be from
everlasting to everlasting, because they continue; then shall they be above all,
because all things are subject unto them. Then shall they be gods, because they
have all power, and the angels are subject unto them. (The Doctrine and
Covenants [D&C] 132:19-20)

Everything in the temple endowment is symbolic of making and keeping the covenants required to obtain these great blessings.

The Antiquity of the Temple Ceremonies

The LDS believe that the temple ceremonies ultimately have a divine source and a long, long history. Many Saints believe that these practices and teachings were conveyed by Jesus to his apostles after his resurrection, during the so-called forty-day ministry of which, mysteriously, so little is said in the New Testament—although what is said is quite intriguing (see, in the New Testament: John 20:30 and 21:25). Several LDS scholars have traced evidence of these doctrines in the writings of ancient Christian authorities, such as the second century Irenaeus, bishop of Lyons, and Clement of Alexandria, who wrote, “the Word of God [i.e., Jesus] became a man so that you might learn from a man how to become a god.” (See Note 1, below.) My reading of the Christian Gnostic writings of the first through third centuries (see Marvin Meyer, The Nag Hammadi Scriptures) suggests to me that one can find, in these writings of now-extinct but once-vibrant Christian churches, evidence for sacred Christian ceremonies in the ancient world that reflected doctrines like those shown in the current LDS endowment.

One popular misconception is that the LDS temple ceremonies were somehow swiped from the ceremonies of Freemasonry. As it happens, I am both a Latter-day Saint and a Freemason, and I have experienced the LDS temple ceremonies and the Masonic initiatory ceremonies many times. The relationship between the LDS and Masonic ritual is a complicated matter that I plan to explore in writing at least one book over the next year or so. However, to put it simply, it is just not true that the LDS temple ceremonies were taken from Freemasonry. There are extremely superficial similarities between the two sets of ritual, but they differ in their structure, meaning, intent, execution, major concepts, and almost all of their essential symbolism. People who say that the one derives from the other, I would surmise, have not experienced both.

Why the Secrecy?

Having read the comments of some media commentators who wrote about the “Big Love” episode (titled ‘Outer Darkness’) in advance of its broadcast, the sense I get is that a lot of these people—and a lot of the viewing audience—have or will come away from this episode wondering what all the fuss is about. The temple ceremonies as shown in the episode clearly do not involve human sacrifice, sexual experiences, or illegal or immoral behavior of any sort; nor do temple patrons learn the date of the Second Coming, or the location of the Holy Grail. Given this, viewers might ask, ‘why are the LDS so concerned about keeping all this secret?’

The saying has been current for many years among the LDS that the temple ceremonies are ‘sacred, not secret.’ It is not that it is so important to keep the information itself secret; for well over a century, it has been possible for anyone to look up information about the temple ceremonies (some more accurate, some less so), and such accounts are available today in every conceivable medium. The LDS concern is not to keep this information secret, but to honor it as sacred. Thus, the LDS do not present the temple ceremonies to those who have not proven their spiritual readiness to receive them (through obedience to divine commandments); the LDS do not bandy about information regarding these rituals casually. It is not because there is super-secret information to be kept from the world in these ceremonies. It is because the LDS reserve that which is sacred for special times and places.

Why the LDS are Concerned About the “Big Love” Depiction of the Endowment

The producers of “Big Love” state that they have taken special pains to be accurate in their depiction of the endowment. However, one can be meticulously ‘accurate’ in this or that detail, and yet grossly inaccurate in conveying the whole—easy to do with something so complex as the endowment. These rituals take about two hours to perform. Within the 50 minutes or so of their television episode—much of which will be occupied with other dramatic events—the producers will have to cut a great deal of material from the endowment, which is really only comprehensible in its full context. The concern of many LDS is that focusing on select details—such as temple clothing, or isolated aspects of the ritual—will just create more opportunity for misunderstanding and ridicule. People who do not know the background of the distinctive ceremonial clothing of the Catholic priest or nun, the Orthodox Jew, the Sikh, or the Wiccan, might find much to ridicule there, should they be sufficiently small-minded to do so. The LDS have reason to be concerned, as well.

On the whole, modern American society does not understand well the idea of treating some things with special respect: we live in a world where nothing is considered sacred in the society at large. However, this speaks to the spiritual emptiness and the lack of spiritual literacy in modern American society. Consider this: to a Roman Catholic, the communion wafer and wine are sacred. [See Note 2, below.] These materials are not casually passed about, to be used for everyday nutrition, or as materials to be played with. Believing Roman Catholics would not wish to see, say, an artist use consecrated communion wafers or sacramental wine as materials in an artistic project. To the believer, sacred objects are not to be dealt with as objects for media events. This is how the LDS feel about their temple ceremonies.

Are the producers of “Big Love” being disrespectful to the LDS faith by depicting the temple endowment? Each faith defines for itself what ‘disrespectful’ means. Within some Islamic groups, it is strictly forbidden to make pictorial representations of the Muslim prophet Mohammed. It would certainly be disrespectful to these groups to broadcast images of Mohammed. Similarly, it is disrespectful to the LDS to broadcast ceremonies that are so sacred to them that they vow not to discuss various details outside of the temple itself. Of course, the entertainment industry has not shown itself to be much concerned about slaps against the LDS or their faith, which have been ridiculed or depicted insultingly in shows ranging from the lowbrow “South Park” to the highbrow Angels in America. Overall, popular entertainment simply does not ‘get’ the LDS faith, and that which it misunderstands it ridicules. This is what the LDS are concerned about.


My hope is that those who view the depiction of the endowment on “Big Love” will do so with the understanding that the reality behind the depiction is sacred to the LDS, that the true endowment reflects the greatest aspirations of the human spirit, and that this reality deserves respect from people of every religious position and belief.

Please Note: In comments on this post, I will not be able to respond regarding the accuracy of this or that aspect of the depiction of the endowment on “Big Love,” nor will I answer questions about the specific content of the temple ceremonies. (I shall delete comments that purport to ‘expose’ the content of the temple ceremonies.) I would encourage discussion of the ideas I have presented above, which touch more on issues like the treatment of sacred topics in the modern world.

Note #1: This translation is given on p. 26 of Robert L. Millet and Noel B. Reynolds (eds.), Latter-day Christianity: 10 Basic Issues (Provo, UT: Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies and Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 1998), who source the quote in note 13 (p. 54) as “Clement of Alexandria, Exhortation to the Greeks, I.” A source more readily available to readers of this blog would probably be Clement of Alexandria, “Exhortation to the Heathen,” Chapter 1, available in The Ante-Nicene Fathers (eds. Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson, Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1956), vol. 2 (“Fathers of the Second Century”), p. 174, left column, continued paragraph, which translates this passage as: “the Word of God became man, that thou mayest learn from man how man may become God.”

Note #2: I am grateful to Kathleen Schmid Koltko-Rivera for mentioning this comparison to me.

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