How to Understand the Temple

How to Understand the Temple February 26, 2007

The vast majority of LDS historical and theological thinking about the temple has attempted to find ancient parallels to Mormon temple rituals. In this view the Mormon temple is a restored completion of fragments and traces of an original, authentic temple ritual. However, this approach doesn’t explain how modern American Mormons understood such rituals. Other approaches have attempted to account for the temple in a strictly derivative relationship to Masonry. The Mormon temple ritual is thus a “borrowed” version of what the Masons were doing. But this doesn’t explain why such borrowings were successful and appealed to Mormons. I want to suggest that both frameworks are impoverished ways of making sense of the temple. Instead, I think that situating the temple rituals in larger American cultural frameworks makes better sense than these two approaches, while also explaining the appeal of the temple to 19th- and early-20th-century Mormons. This cultural framework is the flourishing of voluntary associations and fraternal organizations that dominated American society from the early 1800’s through the 1950’s, which were especially strong from 1850 to 1920. Some estimates have noted that over one third of American men were involved in one or more fraternal organization during this time.

The Masons were one of these fraternal organizations, and remain the most famous. However, there were literally hundreds of these societies including the Odd Fellows, Elks, and Knights of Pythias. Most of these came over from England and Scotland where they began in the 18th century, but took on new significance in the American context. They differed in some aspects, such as whether or not they allowed both men and women (most only allowed one or the other), race and nationality restrictions, how much they were publicly involved, etc. Yet, they all had initiation rituals, they met together weekly or monthly, provided fraternal relationships for socializing and networking, and they performed morality plays in which people dressed up as biblical figures and recreated sacred scenes. These morality plays often emphasized the middle-class values of eschewing money and financial success and emphasizing fraternity over class boundaries. Further, though not religious organizations, these voluntary associations often paralleled churches and were often understood as revealing secret knowledge not publicly available to the rest of the church-going community.

For obvious reasons, the Mormon temple ritual as it was performed from 1844 up until the filmographic turn shared many common features with these fraternal orders. It has its own “morality play,” initiation rituals, it parallels the church organization, encouraged its members to attend regularly, and it provided fraternal relationships. All are socially equal inside the temple, as emphasized by both the play as well as the clothing. In some ways it was more progressive than other voluntary associations by allowing both men and women and not having restrictions on race (with one obvious exception).

In this view, the Mormon temple connection to Masonry is epiphenomenal. The larger context situates both Masons and Mormons in an American culture that literally spun rituals and fraternal societies as its primary hobby for nearly a century. Yes, there are some differences, but these differences can still be understood within the world where voluntary associations would have been the dominant framework for making sense of the temple. Some evidence for this claim might even be the restrictions on Mormons becoming Masons that lasted for a number of decades. The best explanation for such a policy is that these rituals were seen as part of the same genre.

If such a theory is correct, it raises some interesting questions for how temples are understood in modern American culture by Mormons and non-Mormons. As fraternal societies have waned, has that made the cultural framework for making sense of temples more foreign? Has temple attendance decreased as the context in which it might have formally been a part of has changed? Does the generational stratigraphy of temple attendance correlate to this changed context in the mid-20th century?

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