A few observations on LDS temples

I received a very thoughtful and civil e-mail from a reader of this blog, who told of his own brief experiences investigating the LDS Church and in particular of some issues he had with the concepts of temples, temple recommends, and temple ceremonies — and how restrictive and exclusionary LDS practices and doctrine regarding the temple appeared to be. He was somewhat encouraged by my posting on “Who gets saved?” but still had additional questions. I wrote him an e-mail reply late last night; I’m going to use a slightly edited and extended version of my response for this post.

The temples detailed in the Bible (Moses’s Tabernacle, Solomon’s Temple, and what is generally called Herod’s Temple [New Testament era]) all had restrictions on who could enter where and when — and restrictions far more strict than the LDS Church has for its temples. Let me focus on Herod’s Temple for now.

Herod’s Temple had a series of increasingly sacred spaces[1]: the Court of Gentiles (with the Royal Porch and Solomon’s Porch), the Court of Women, the Court of Israel, the Priests’ Court (with altar and laver), the Holy Place, and the Holy of Holies. Anyone (in theory) could enter into the Court of Gentiles, so one might think this doesn’t qualify as “sacred space” — but this is the very area from which Christ cleared the moneychangers and livestock vendors, stating that they had made the temple “a cave of robbers” (σπήλαιον λῃστῶν).

From the Court of Gentiles, you had to be an Israelite to enter to the Women’s Court; you had to be an Israelite male to pass from there to the Court of Israel; you had to be a Levitical priest (ritually clean and w/out physical deformities) to enter into the Priests’ Court; you had to be a priest designated for specific duties to enter into the Holy Place, which itself was hidden from view; and you had to be the High Priest to enter the Holy of Holies, and even then you could only do it once a year, on the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur). Paul had other Jews seek to kill him for allegedly having brought Greeks into the temple, presumably into (at least) the Women’s Court (cf. Acts 21:26-31).

temple — The place of the sharing of gifts. The Saints offer to the Lord their time and service in helping those who cannot help themselves. In exchange, the Lord gives the Saints a retreat from the world, a place where time slows down and familiar rituals teach the body what the mind may not yet be able to learn.  — Orson Scott Card, Saintspeak: A Mormon Dictionary (Orion Books, 1984).

In LDS practice and doctrine, modern temples are considered just as sacred, though not having as many layers of restriction. Anyone, Mormon or not, is welcome to wander around the temple grounds, and in fact the Church often builds ‘visitors centers’ on temple grounds for just that purpose. Also, anyone (Mormon or not) can walk in the front door of the temple and even remain there; there is usually a small waiting room off to one side. At that point, however, is what is called the ‘recommend desk’ — if you want to go further in, you must show a current temple recommend. Once past the recommend desk, you are generally free to go wherever you want, though of course you are expected not to barge into ceremonies in progress, wander through administrative offices, and so on.

All those officiating in the temple (with two possible exceptions) are local lay LDS members, male and female, working on a volunteer basis and called and set apart for that work. The two possible exceptions are the temple president and his wife (the ‘temple matron’), who serve for a limited (3-5 years) period of time. Usually they are also local lay volunteer members, but occasionally they are from another region (or even another country) and, if necessary, receive financial assistance in relocating and living near the temple for the duration of their service.

LDS temples serve two major functions: ordinances for the living, and ordinances for the dead. The ordinances for the living are the temple endowment and family sealings (temple marriages, as well as sealings of children to parents where the children were born before the parents received a temple marriage). The endowment is a ritualistic setting for making additional covenants with God (beyond those made at baptism). It is a prerequisite for a temple marriage, a marriage that is intended to last not just for time but for all eternity. However, getting a temple marriage does not guarantee anything; like all covenants (baptism, the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper, and the endowment), it is conditional on our keeping our part of the covenant. Grace is certainly involved, but it is not irresistible grace.

As noted, the other function of temples is to perform ordinances for the dead — that is, vicarious ordinances for those who died at age 8 or later and never received them. These ordinances include baptism, confirmation, ordaining of deceased males to the Melchizedek Priesthood, the endowment, husband-wife sealing (if marriage existed in mortal life) and child-parent sealing. Contrary to some anti-Mormon literature, these ordinances do not “compel” or “force” the deceased spirits to somehow become LDS; they instead unlock the door for those who may accept the Gospel in the next life.

We as Latter-day Saints believe in a literal second coming of Christ, to be followed by a millennial period; we also believe that the great work of that millennial period will be to finish up the vicarious ordinance work for all those who lacked the chance to have it done (by appropriate authority) in this life. Given the ~100 billion people who have ever lived upon the earth, it’s clear that we’ll need all the time we can get.

Millennium – A thousand years of genealogy, temple work, proselytizing, and filling out reports, a prospect that can make wickedness and destruction look downright enticing. — Orson Scott Card, Saintspeak.

Note that the whole concept of a ‘temple recommend’ does not apply to vicarious work; that is, there is no effort made to somehow ascertain ‘worthiness’ of the deceased prior to carrying out these ordinances. And, as noted, we do not perform these ordinances at all (except for sealing of child to parents) for those who died before 8 years of age.

Instead, the temple recommend applies only to living Mormons and is done to preserve the “sacred space” of the temple. Here is one site that has the current temple recommend interview questions. To receive a temple recommend, you go through these interviews twice: first, with your bishop (congregational leader) or one of his two counselors; and then with your stake president (who presides over a set of congregations) or one of his two counselors. The temple recommend is then good for two years.

If the bishop has any direct knowledge or well-founded suspicion that your answers are not honest, he may withhold issuing you a temple recommend or seek a more comprehensive interview. Generally, however, the person being interviewed is taken at his or her word, the basic idea being that God knows whether you’re being honest or not, and He’ll take that up with you Himself at a later date. As the saying goes, God will not be mocked.

The LDS Church emphasizes to its members that we should seek to obtain and keep current a temple recommend, regardless of how often we actually go to the temple. Because the LDS Church sees the family as the basic unit of the Church, the bi-annual temple recommend interview becomes in effect a stewardship reporting to the bishop and stake president. The goal is not to control or exclude; it is to set the bar for us and challenge us to rise up to that level.


[1] Cf. Parry, Donald W. “Demarcation between Sacred Space and Profane Space: The Temple of Herod Model.” Found in Temples of the Ancient World: Ritual and Symbolism (Deseret Book/FARMS, 1994), pp. 413-439.

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