The Temple and Genre, part 2: Presidents Lee and McKay on History and Temple Preparation

Remnants of the Jerusalem temple

BYU has published a short piece by Judge Thomas Griffiths, called Imagination and the Temple.”  (I happened to meet Griffiths once at a conference at Claremont. Very nice and thoughtful guy.)  It’s a short read, and I recommend it. Griffiths relates his initial confusing temple experience and a follow-up group meeting with President Lee.

I want to amplify two parts.

First, Griffiths reports his initial temple experience as

bewildering. Only two days from the start of my mission, the endowment ceremony, which I knew to be a deeply spiritual experience for many, was so foreign to my expectations that it triggered something of a crisis of faith. I could not fit the temple into my other experiences with the Restoration

He footnotes David O. McKay as having a similar initial response, but let me cite McKay from two places.

In our day, instances of lack of preparation have been cited by our prophets. When the Los Angeles Temple building program was commenced, President McKay called a meeting of the stake presidents of the Temple district. During this meeting, President McKay took occasion to express his feelings about the holy endowment. He indicated how some years before, a niece of his had received her ordinances in the house of the Lord. He had learned that she only recently before that had received an initiation into a sorority at the local university. She had had the crassness to say that she found the sorority initiation superior in effect and meaning to her than the endowment. President McKay was open and frank with them about the experience of one in his own family with the endowment. He wasn’t worried about their audible gasps. With characteristic aplomb, he paused, and then said, “Brothers and sisters, she was disappointed in the Temple. Brothers and sisters, I was disappointed in the Temple. And so were you.” Then he said something incredibly important that should be engraven on all our souls. “There are few, even Temple workers, who comprehend the full meaning and power of the Temple endowment. Seen for what it is, it is the step-by-step ascent into the Eternal Presence.” Then he added, “If our young people could but glimpse it, it would be the most powerful spiritual motivation of their lives!”

– Andrew Ehat, “‘Who Shall Ascend into the House of the Lord?’ Sesquicentennial Reflections of a Sacred Day: 4 May 1842” in Temples of the Ancient World


President McKay is reported similarly in the Prince biography, p. 277.

Do you remember when you first went through the House of the Lord? I do. And I went out disappointed. Just a young man, out of college, anticipating great things when I went to the Temple. I was disappointed and grieved, and I have met hundreds of young men and young women since who had that experience. I have now found out why. There are two things in every Temple: mechanics, to set forth certain ideals, and symbolism, what those mechanics symbolize. I saw only the mechanics when I first went through the Temple. I did not see the spiritual. I did not see the symbolism of spirituality… I was blind to the great lesson of purity behind the mechanics. I did not hear the message of the of the Lord… How many of us young men saw that? We thought we were big enough and with intelligence sufficient to criticize the mechanics of it and we were blind to the symbolism, the message of the spirit. And then that great ordinance, the endowment. The whole thing is simple in the mechanical part of it, but sublime and eternal in its significance.

So, McKay cites lack of preparation and personal pride/blindness to spirituality vs “mechanics” as contributing causes of negative first temple experiences.  Sometimes, well-meaning family or friends don’t know how to talk appropriately about the temple, and thus end up “over-selling” the spiritual aspects of the temple. While the temple is indeed a spiritual place, comments like these create unrealistic expectations. Someone who expects their first temple visit to be the spiritual peak of their life and also lacks good preparation for the ritual/symbolic aspects is going to get a double whammy of mismatched expectations. Can we do better as parents and teachers in preparing kids by setting proper expectations for first temple experiences?

Second, Griffiths reports,

 I thought that I was being asked to believe that the ceremony was a historically accurate portrayal of the Creation, the Fall, and the beginnings of humankind. Not so, said President Lee. Everything in the temple is symbolic. (My italics)

I’ve argued before that there are obvious signs in the temple that say “this is not a historical re-creation or a documentary.” There are also some good indicators that some elements are quite modern, and probably not ancient or historical.

If I’m uncomfortable with people thinking “everything in the temple is ancient,”  I’m equally uncomfortable with the assertion “everything in the temple is symbolic.”

Two reasons for this, on first reflections.

One, “symbolic” is not necessarily an antonym for, or the opposite of “historical.” Historical events can take on symbolic meaning (“Remember the Alamo!”) and non-historical narratives can be wooden and lack any symbolic depth beyond the surface narrative; there’s nothing really symbolic about The Bourne Identity or The Hangover or even Sense and Sensibility. Whether something is historical or not is a genre question; something must be historical in nature first before we can ask whether it is accurate or inaccurate history. (See here for all my posts on genre.) Ideally, if we’re being clear and careful genre and symbolism get treated and evaluated separately.

Two, saying “everything in the temple is symbolic” may well encourage people to see meaning where none is likely intended. Not everything bears symbolic weight. I can’t address this directly, so let me be indirect and perhaps overly obvious. If one version of the film verbally emphasizes THIS word, but another version doesn’t… then we probably shouldn’t read any symbolism into that emphasis. Costumes may vary, etc.

Overall, a great short piece, and I’m glad Griffiths submitted it and BYU published it.

As always, you can help me pay my tuition here, or you can support my work through making your regular Amazon purchases through the Amazon links I post. You can also get updates by email whenever a post goes up (subscription box on below). You can also follow Benjamin the Scribe on Facebook.

4 thoughts on “The Temple and Genre, part 2: Presidents Lee and McKay on History and Temple Preparation

  1. Thanks for this, Ben.

    Temple preparation (both misleading and total lack or insufficiency thereof) has been one of my frustrations from my first experience more than half a century ago through today. Your post and Griffiths’ piece may help some. Unfortunately the Church website reports: “Everything in the temple points us to Jesus Christ.” This is also repeated in visitor center displays, at least at temple square. Everything? Really? This is as misleading as “everything in the temple is symbolic.”
    A major part of the problem is the theory, supported by some statements from Church leaders, that there is a covenant that what happens in the temple cannot be discussed outside the temple. The covenants not to disclose are very significantly more limited than that. I suspect those leaders may be remembering something from the former “lecture at the veil” which purported there was such a covenant, although there has not been such a covenant for at least half a century. It is quite possible to be sensitive to the sacred while discussing most of the temple rituals and covenants to be made in the endowment. Failure to do so guaranties temple preparation that will be disastrously inadequate for some. Some will get over it. Some will lose interest, or simply fail or refuse to go again.

    Yes, we can do better in preparing others by teaching proper and more complete expectations for first temple experiences?.


  2. I heard Truman Madsen tell most of that first story–about Pres. McKay’s disappointed niece and his own initial disappointment–in a religion class during my freshman year at BYU–spring 1972. He obviously had not been a stake president in the LA area in 1956–but he may have been a temple worker. I wonder if Pres. McKay repeated the story at a meeting for temple workers, or if Bro. Madsen had heard it second hand. That he remembered people “gasping” at Pres. McKay’s makes me think that he was in a meeting where he heard the story directly from Pres. McKay. Or maybe Truman Madsen was Andrew Ehat’s source for the story.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s