Mormons don’t tend to do symbolism well. This is largely because they grow up in a symbolically arid religious environment where literalism is the order of the day. Scriptures and teachers mean what they say and say what they mean. No interpretation required.
Then Mormons go to the temple, where they are (un)ceremoniously thrown into the deep end of the symbol pool. Many come up gasping for air, wondering what just happened. Some don’t come up at all.
My good friend, Bruce, baptized me shortly after we both graduated from high school in Sumner, Washington. The following year, he “took out his endowment” at the Idaho Falls Temple. When he returned, he told me how shaken up he was by the experience. He did not know what to make of it. It was unlike anything he had ever experienced in the LDS Church.
This caused me some alarm. I had not yet gone to the temple and was not planning on doing so until after I entered the MTC, which was less than a month away. If my good friend, who was the model of an active and faithful Mormon, could be so distressed by his temple experience, how would I react? Of course, my friend could not tell me what had happened inside the temple that he found so troubling, so I was left to imagine worst-case scenarios.
By the time I went to the temple for the first time in Provo, I was ready for anything, up to and including hooded figures in black robes wielding sacrificial daggers. When none appeared, the main emotion I felt was relief. Though a bit confused by the experience, I didn’t come away troubled as had my friend.
I think one reason for the difference in reactions to our first temple experience was that, whereas I was a convert, my friend had grown up in the LDS Church which acclimatized him to a literalistic way of understanding things. Trying to understand symbolism literally can indeed by troubling.
I remember as a boy of about twelve years old trying to understand the Book of Revelation literally and getting scared out of my wits. I distinctly recall a dream I had at this time where I was looking out of my bedroom window at the night sky and seeing the moon literally turn crimson and begin dripping great globules of blood.
Viewing the LDS temple endowment literally can lead to similar difficulties, including the idea that all you need to do to get into heaven is know the secret handshakes and passwords. But if that literalistic interpretation is correct, what are we to make of all the people who know those things but have subsequently left the Church, or who know them from other sources without ever having joined the LDS Church in the first place, much less been to the temple?
Examples such as this indicate that a literalistic understanding of the temple will not do. Temple rites are steeped in symbolism and only symbolism can unlock the meanings.
As those who have attended the temple know, the endowment consists of a religious drama portraying the Creation, including the creation of Adam and Eve, their experiences in the Garden of Eden, and their eventual expulsion into the lone and dreary world.
Embedded in the drama are numerous symbolic elements, many of which were drawn from Masonry, though imbued with new meaning in the temple endowment. The signs, tokens and names are considered sacred by those who receive them, and who in turn vow to never reveal them.
I will not reveal them here.
What I will do is briefly consider some potential symbolism of the signs, tokens and names, without describing them. What follows will therefore likely make sense only to those who have themselves participated in the endowment ritual.
It is hoped this discussion will enhance appreciation for the symbolic detail and richness of the endowment, and serve as a launching pad for further exploration.
The Holy Grail of the Temple
The overall structure of the endowment can best be appreciated from a distance. The drama reenacts a spiritual journey beginning in the premortal existence and concluding with the wayfarer entering the presence of God.
The endowment suggests three levels of sacredness: (1) The endowment ceremony in its entirety is considered sacred by faithful Mormons; (2) Embedded in the endowment are four signs, tokens and names considered even more sacred, such that the attendant swears to never reveal them; (3) But of all of these, one is the most sacred of all. This is the fourth name.
All other signs, tokens and names are given the patron by temple workers. The fourth name, however, can be received only from God himself.
This presents the fundamental problem of the endowment.
In order to enter God’s presence, the patron must obtain the fourth name directly from God. There is no other way. But how can the patron obtain the fourth name directly from God if the patron has to know the fourth name before entering God’s presence?
All the rest of the endowment is designed to lead the patron to this moment.
During the course of the endowment, the patrons are given all the signs and tokens. These will be used for a specific purpose.
That purpose is to subsequently use the signs and tokens in a group invocation, called “the true order of prayer.”
But he appears behind a veil.
The patrons are then individually introduced to God at the veil, where they are tested on their knowledge of the tokens and names they have previously received, and thereafter receive the fourth and most sacred name directly from God–through the veil.
In this way, patrons obtain the fourth name directly from God without yet entering into his presence. Upon receiving the fourth name from God and repeating it back to him, the patron is admitted into the presence of God.
This in sum is the religious pilgrimage and spiritual quest of the temple patron.
In the Name of God
But what is this fourth name? What does it symbolize? Here it is helpful to consider the symbolism of the first three names. The first name represents one’s premortal identity. (It should not be confused with the actual name one bore in the premortal existence. Some who feel this way are disillusioned to discover that temples use the same name for all men on a given day, and the same name for all women. The first name is not the actual name of one in premortality, but it symbolizes that name.)
The second name represents one’s identity in mortality.
The third name represents the Savior, Jesus Christ.
So what can the fourth name represent?
The answer is not readily apparent, because the fourth name does not seem to be a name at all, but rather a paragraph constituting a requested blessing.
But it is a name nonetheless.
Truman G. Madsen authored a paper titled “Putting on Names,” published in Volume 1 of “By Study and Also by Faith.” I wrote a letter to Truman Madsen dated February 24, 1993 in which I synopsized his findings and asked a question for clarification:
Taking into account the above facts as you outlined them in your essay; the sacredness surrounding the name of God, the fact it was only mentioned once a year in ancient Israel by the high priest in the holy of Holies; that receiving the name was a privilege of obedience; that the name of God may be complex; that the name of God the Father is not uttered in the world, but is known by those who have it; taking into account all these clues, is it possible that the actual name of God the Father is revealed to the initiate in the temple, that it is guarded with utmost sacredness, and that it must be taken upon the initiate in order to become like God the Father, even as we take upon ourselves the name of the Savior in the waters of baptism?
On March 31, 1993, I received a letter signed by Truman G. Madsen in response to my question. The body of the letter consists of just one word—“Yes!”
Where is Jesus in the Temple?
It is a good question.
Jesus never appears in the temple drama.
A character named Jehovah appears, but he does nothing particularly “Jesusy.” Rather, Jehovah is the quintessential middle-man, doing little more than conveying information from upper-management to lower-management and back again.
It is also a fact that the name “Jehovah” did not become specifically identified with the premortal Jesus Christ until many decades after the Nauvoo period when the endowment was introduced. (See, for example, the dedicatory prayer of the Kirtland Temple contained in D&C 109 where Jehovah is used as a name for the Father.)
But Jesus does appear in the endowment. In fact, he is present all along. But he is not on the screen.
He is in the audience.
Each temple patron ritually portrays the birth, death and resurrection of Jesus during the course of the endowment. This is easy to overlook because the endowment is a “stage, and one man in his time plays many parts.” More than that, one man (and one woman) plays many parts at the same time.
At first, the patrons represent themselves during their first endowment session, and thereafter represent persons who have died. At the same time, the male patrons also represent Adam and the female patrons also represent Eve.
But while these multiple levels of representation are occurring simultaneously, there is another level of representation.
All men and women individually represent Jesus Christ.
They do so through the tokens they receive. The third and fourth token are the most obvious in this regard, and taken together represent the crucifixion of Jesus. All patrons are symbolically crucified through the third and fourth tokens, and may say with Paul, “I bear in my body the marks of the Lord Jesus.” (Gal. 6:17)
This gives us a clue as to the meaning of the first and second tokens, which should similarly be taken together in order to discern their meaning.
The first and second tokens are almost identical. There is only one difference. It is the difference that is important. The difference between the first and second tokens represents the movement from a higher place to a lower place. They represent movement from heaven to earth. Taken in context with the third and fourth tokens, they represent the advent of the Savior from heaven into mortality. They represent the Savior’s birth. They represent “the condescension of God.” (1 Nephi 11:16)
After the crucifixion and still representing Jesus, the patron ascends to heaven to be with the Father, leaving behind the empty room/tomb.
The Atonement of Jesus is represented at the veil, both as Jesus himself wrought it, as well as the at-one-ment it provides his followers.
The Symbolism of the Signs
The signs viewed together have their own meaning. Whereas the tokens are Messianic, the signs are Sacerdotal in nature, or in other words, they relate to priestly functions.
It is important to begin by noting that the first three signs are structured in such a way as to be sequential and cumulative. By this I mean they connect with, and build upon, each other.
Signs are made with arms and hands held in certain formations. The first sign is made only with the right arm. In the second sign, the first sign is now made with the left arm and a new sign is introduced for the right arm. In the third sign, the second sign shifts from the right arm to the left arm and a new sign is introduced for the right arm.
The fourth sign departs from this pattern and, in addition to its obvious representation of prayer, also represents the blessings of God descending from heaven.
When taken together, the four signs represent the priestly function of consecrating oil, using the oil to anoint the head of another, and laying hands upon the other’s head to seal the anointing and call down blessings from heaven. This meaning is occluded somewhat by the fact that priesthood holders today typically carry their oil in a plastic or metal container. In earlier days it was sometimes necessary to hold the oil in one’s cupped hand prior to administration.
With that in mind, here is a quotation from the History of the Church 2:379-82, in which is described the 21 January 1836 introduction of the Kirtland temple ritual prior to its dedication. The Kirtland temple ritual was a simple ceremony consisting of washing and anointing the body, blessing and sealing the individual, and washing the feet. After washing and perfuming each other in the attic of the printing office, Joseph Smith and his associates congregated in the unfinished temple where the First Presidency consecrated oil and progressively laid hands on each other’s heads, blessing and anointing each other to their offices. Now the quote from Joseph Smith:
At early candle-light I met with the Presidency at the west school room, in the Temple, to attend to the ordinance of anointing our heads with holy oil. . . . . I took the oil in my left hand, Father Smith being seated before me, and the remainder of the Presidency encircled him round about. We then stretched our right hands towards heaven, and blessed the oil, and consecrated it in the name of Jesus Christ.
We then laid our hands upon our aged Father Smith, and invoked the blessings of heaven. I then anointed his head with the consecrated oil, and sealed many blessings upon him.
The passage does not say if the oil was in a bottle or some other container, but if it were not, Joseph could have held it only by forming his hand into a cupping shape.
During the course of this meeting that lasted until 1:00 or 2:00 in the morning, visions were seen (a part of which may be found in D&C 137), angels ministered to many, and “the spirit of prophecy and revelation was poured out in mighty power.” The meeting was “closed by singing and invoking the benediction of heaven, with uplifted hands.”
Of Robes, Priesthood and Gender Roles
Temple patrons don certain clothing necessary to officiate in ordinances of the Aaronic Priesthood. This clothing is put on not only by male patrons, but also by female patrons.
The clothing is subsequently rearranged in order for the patrons to officiate in the ordinances of the Melchizedek Priesthood. This also applies not only to male patrons, but equally to female patrons.
But where in the temple do the male and female patrons officiate in the ordinances of the Aaronic and Melchizedek Priesthoods? The answer may be found in the subsequent use of the signs and tokens as part of engaging in the true order of prayer, and in the use of the tokens and names at the veil. In order to use all the tokens, names and signs, one must officiate in both the Aaronic and Melchizedek Priesthoods.
This applies to the women as well as to the men.
And men, as well as women, receive the fourth and most sacred name from God himself, and thereafter enter into the presence of God. We understand that in order to do this, one must possess the Melchizedek Priesthood. (D&C 84:21, 22)
Elder Oaks recently (though somewhat obliquely) observed that temple matrons “officiate in a priesthood ordinance” when they wash and anoint female patrons prior to receiving the endowment. But this observation applies not only to temple matrons. It applies to every woman who receives her temple endowment.
This may account for why many early Church leaders, including Brigham Young, believed that women who had received their endowment held the priesthood.2
The temple endowment instituted through Joseph Smith is a complex rite of symbolic intricacy. Considerations of its structure, as well as the names, signs and tokens embedded throughout the dramatic presentation, attest to its manifold and multi-layered richness of meaning.
We have likely only begun to scratch the surface.
1 This may be meant to contrast with the fact that, earlier in the endowment when Adam prays in something less than the “true order of prayer,” it is not God but Satan who appears.
2 Brigham Young’s 1843 diary associated the endowment of women with receiving priesthood. On 29 October 1843, for example, he noted that Thirza Cahoon, Lois Cutler, and Phebe Woodworth were “taken into the order of the priesthood.” That was the day those three women individually received their endowment. They did not join with their husbands to receive the second anointing until 12 and 15 November 1843, respectively. When his own wife received the endowment on 1 November 1843, Brigham Young wrote: “Mary A. Young admitted in to the hiest [highest] orderer [order of] Preasthood.” She did not receive the second anointing with him until three weeks later. (Brigham Young diary, 29 Oct., 1 Nov. 1843, copies in Donald R. Moorman papers, Archives, Weber State University, Ogden, Utah, and in H. Michael Marquardt papers, Western Americana, Marriott Library, University of Utah; “Meetings of anointed Quorum [—] Journalizings,” 29 Oct., 1 Nov. 1843; Faulring, An American Prophet’s Record, 426-27; Ehat, “Joseph Smith’s Introduction of Temple Ordinances,” 102; Buerger, “The Fullness of the Priesthood,” 23.) In January 1846, Brigham Young wrote of “the anxiety manifested by the Saints [not just men?] to receive the ordinances of the Endowment & no less on our part to have them get the Keys of the Priesthood …” In 1867 he preached that God was “bestowing upon His sons and daughters, who are worthy, this priesthood, and kingly power to increase subjects and obtain territory, to extend the greatness of their kingdom forever …” In an 1874 sermon delivered three years before his death, Brigham Young said: “Now brethren, the man that honors his Priesthood, the woman that honors her Priesthood, will receive an everlasting inheritance in the kingdom of God.” (Brigham Young diary, 12 Jan. 1846; transcript of Brigham Young unpublished sermon, 27 Aug. 1867, LDS archives; Journal of Discourses 17:120.) (This research is not original to myself, but I copied it so long ago I cannot remember the original source. My apologies to the original researcher, whom I suspect may be D. Michael Quinn.)