Revisiting Temple Preparation

Elder Bednar in General Conference talked about the spread of temples throughout the world, as well as doubling the number of available languages of the presentation of temple ordinances. This got me thinking again about something I think about from time to time: the state of our collective temple knowledge and how it affects our temple experience.

Since I have a lot of links below, let me summarize with these three bullet points.

  1. Better temple preparation leads to a better initial experience 

    Seems appropriate for the temple

    and increased faithfulness and spirituality.
  2. If Western, college-educated, multi-generational Latter-day Saints— who do have a cultural inheritance of the Bible— struggle to understand and appreciate the temple, how much more difficult for the increasing number of non-Judeo-Christian converts without that Biblical cultural background. 
  3. “Better preparation” in this context entails detailed-but -accessible Church-published materials that ground expectations and understanding of the temple ordinances in LDS history and scripture, particularly the Old Testament.

Along with greater accessibility comes a need for greater understanding and better preparation materials.

President McKay, who was endowed around 1897 without any formal preparation, expressed several times that his initial experience was not a good one. 

Do you remember when you first went through the House of the Lord? I do. And I went out disappointed and grieved… I have now found out why…. I did not see the spiritual. I did not see the symbolism of spirituality.
McKay, 277.

To leaders in the LA area, 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.”

-Ehat, “‘Who Shall Ascend into the Hill of the Lord?’ Sesquicentennial Reflections of a Sacred Day: 4 May 1842.” Temples of the Ancient World: Ritual and Symbolism (Deseret Book and FARMS, 1994) 

Perhaps President McKay’s own experience contributed to the introduction of formal LDS temple preparation materials, which were first produced during his tenure. 

LDS historian Jonathan Stapley (who is working on a temple book) writes:

In the mid-1950s the First Presidency got reports that some members were going to the temple for the first time and then leaving the church. They tried to figure out what they could do, but didn’t really come up with anything. In 1966 Bishops were instructed to prepare members going the first time and then in 1971 they were given specific information. The first general preparation curriculum was 1978.

Now, I know many college-educated, multi-generational Latter-day Saints who, like President McKay, received minimal or poor temple prep and then had negative experiences; for them, the temple sometimes functions more as stumbling block than spiritual building block. And this is the case, even though such Latter-day Saints grow up with the Bible, whence much of the symbolism and ritual is drawn.  With worldwide temple growth, temple workers and attendees more and more will have joined the Church without that background. (Note: this is not just about comfort with symbolism per se, but a particular set of symbols and ideas within the Bible.)

I think if we had temple prep that did a better job connecting the temple experience to the ancient world of the Bible, people would struggle with it less. Since we provide minimal historical context —whether ancient/biblical or 19th century— people naturally fill in the gap with various flavors of 21st-century context, which tends to distort. And that’s a problem.

Why do Western LDS (i.e. those raised in Judeo-Christian countries which take the Bible for granted) struggle to make significant connections between today’s temple ordinances and their scriptural roots, types, or precursors? There are two reasons for this, I think.

First, those connections are mostly found in the Old Testament… which we don’t really study or even read, except in a highly selective and decontextualized way.

I once taught a class and said this.

 “When it comes to learning about the temple, I’ve got good news and bad news. The good news is there’s a church-approved book with much of the temple symbolism in it, sometimes quite explicit.
The bad news is, you all own a copy already. It’s the Old Testament.”

That comes out of my own study and experience, but President Nelson agrees. He has suggested that if you want to understand the temple, study the Old Testament (and Pearl of Great Price). 

Moreover, when we do read the Old Testament, we’re probably reading in archaic KJV English, which often obscures good parallels. So even if we were reading it closely, we might not pick up on the useful bits because we’re reading through dirty glasses, as it were.

So if LDS who grew up reading the Bible, went to Seminary, mission, etc., can’t catch the Old Testament connections, what about a Muslim or Buddhist or Hindu who joins the Church at age 30? Rewriting Temple preparation in a way to ground the temple in scripture would be even more useful to people coming from a non-Christian background, since they may not be as familiar with the Bible. Again, this isn’t about generic symbolism per se. It’s about being familiar with a particular source, a particular set of symbols, rituals, and meanings found in the Bible.

Fortunately, the amount of relevant knowledge generated by faithful LDS scholarship available now is vast. There is so much that can be appropriately said about the ancient world to ground temple-goers in its scriptural and historical background. Anything scriptural is fair game, and there’s a lot there. There is also significant new background about the modern temple in LDS history, its timeline of restoration and changes. This knowledge too, can help people understand and appreciate, and shape proper expectations of their children or students in Church and seminary.

Although all that information allows us to teach more about the temple obliquely through scriptural/historical background, there seems to be an institutional move towards more openness about the temple, as evidenced by things like the official youtube video talking about garments (my friend Ashley!) and ritual temple clothing

So today we have a lot more good information, and more openness in talking about it. 

If I were writing a temple prep manual, I would do two things. Before I explain those two, I should say that I have actually tried my hand at this. I’ve written some essays and some blog posts. When I taught temple prep for several years, after cycling through the manual several times with the same people, I got permission to present some other information, and came up with a series of lessons doing what I proposed above: introducing concepts and details from LDS history and the Bible which would prepare people to understand what they encounter in the temple. (You can download those, but as they are my handouts and notes to myself, they may not be entirely clear.) My lessons weren’t complex, but pointed to complexity.

So, if I got invited to rewrite the manual, here are the two things I would change.

First, I would rebrand Temple Preparation as Temple Education and broaden appropriately; not just something you do once before you go, but a pursuit of sacred knowledge throughout one’s life. Temple attendance alone doesn’t bestow this kind of knowledge of scriptural background. Having a Temple Education class/manual would be beneficial to far more people than those preparing for their own endowment.  

Second, I would build my manual and lessons around a few themes.

  1. The nature of scriptural creation accounts and their relation to each other, and the temple. Read and understood literally, these were never intended as history or science as we understand those categories today.
    1. To drive this point home, see my posts about
      1. Genesis as a temple
      2. the genre of the temple part 1
      3. Presidents Lee and McKay on temple genre
      4. the principle of adaptation and the temple
      5. the nature and relationship of Genesis, Moses, Abraham, and temple. (This is the topic of my book, my 2017 and 2019 FAIR Conference talks, and a recent fireside, which I’ll be making public once I finish editing it together.)
      6. What is a “literal” reading of scripture? It’s not what you think, and I argue we need to read scripture more literally, not less. 
  2. The nature and patterns of covenants with ritual gestures, blessings AND simile cursings! E.g. Alma 46:20-23
  3. Temple typology including ideas of
    1. the holy mountain, the meeting place between heaven and earth e.g. Moses on Sinai, Jesus on the Mount of Transfiguration, Nephi on the exceedingly high mountain, the Brother of Jared on Mt. Shelem, etc.
    2. ascension to heaven,
    3. gradations of holiness,
    4. kings/priests/queens/priestesses,
    5. Eden as prototype sanctuary, etc.
  4. Nature of temple priests, sacrifices, and offerings and their connection to
    1. atonement (e.g. Leviticus 1, Leviticus 16),
    2. covenant (e.g. Psalm 51:17)
    3. prayer (e.g. Psa 141:1-2, Rev 8:3-4, Ezra 9:5, etc.)
  5. The way the structure of the temple— and a few explicit elements— are highly atonement-centric. 
    1. This is not always obvious to current temple-goers, likely because LDS are trained to expect explicit connections or labels— a “thus we see”— to look at one particular tree, and end up missing the forest entirely.
  6. History of the temple restoration and structures/what to expect (as appropriate),
    1. e.g. May 4, 1842 and
    2. some of the changes since then. It’s important to create the expectation of change, or we set people up for faith crises when they think there can be NO changes at all. (Alas, we’ve sometimes misused Isa 24:5 that way.)

These themes require no explicit connections, no explicit interpretation of “THIS ancient thing corresponds to THAT modern thing and means X.” Rather, I think it’s enough to point out “this is how temples and such worked in the Old Testament, in the Book of Mormon”, and let people draw their own conclusions. At minimum, people who otherwise find the temple “coming out of nowhere,” will now be able to see that it comes from somewhere. Talking about these themes also doesn’t need to be complicated or technical.

Heck, I think there’s even a simple way to present and frame this information that would forearm people against struggles they have when they discover connections between the temple and environment, whether Joseph Smith and Masonry, or the Israelite temple and Egypt. See my post here.

Temple Education could be amazing. Good knowledgeable teachers can also make up for shortcomings, but a manual that provided more of this information, pointed in these directions, could go a long way in helping people not only feel comfortable with the temple, but having it as one of their testimony’s cornerstones, as it is for me. And I attribute that almost entirely to my familiarity with the Old Testament and the ancient Near East.

Short Bibliography

  • Between Heaven and Earth” originally shown between Conference sessions, featuring a number of non-LDS scholars, and sold from Church distribution on DVD. 
  • Temple-related articles from the Encyclopedia of Mormonism, all online at eom.byu.edu E.g. “Prayer Circle”, “Temple Ordinances” “Temple Recommend”
  • Temples of the Ancient World (PDF, link to Amazon)
  • Temple in Time and Eternity ( Link to Amazon)
  • Gate of Heaven (Link to Amazon)
  • Power of Godliness: Mormon Liturgy and Cosmology (Amazon)

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19 thoughts on “Revisiting Temple Preparation

  1. To enter a temple today with the thought that we are following in the footsteps of those who entered temples in Old Testament times is roughly equivalent to showing up at a modern football stadium and expecting to see a chariot race. I recognize this isn’t the issue being discussed here, but when it comes to temples, I think the ancients and moderns had very different intentions and that both have had to look through a glass darkly.

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    1. Yes, I hope no one is reading me between the lines as making that claim. Some LDS go overboard in assuming too much continuity, and others (Evangelicals, Ex-LDS) go overboard the other direction.

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  2. Thanks for this post, Ben. I love the idea of a Temple Education class. I’d sign up in a heart-beat.

    Thanks for the recommendations, too. My own temple education started when I read Buerger’s “Mysteries of Godliness” book several years ago. That was the first time I realized the temple had changed and how. That, “Freemasons for Dummies,” and Stapley’s “Powers of Godliness,” have been great helps for me too. (Not to mention this blog!)

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  3. I think you’ve just written the outline for your next book. Would love to have this all in one place both for personal and teaching purposes.

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  4. Good points. I love the Old Testament as temple education. Other restoration scriptures also have a lot to add.

    After years of collecting scriptures in alignment with the temple, I finally compiled them into a book at http://www.templescriptures.org.

    Your thoughts about symbolism and genre in ancient scripture are also helpful in understanding these scriptures.

    I’d love your thoughts about something like this book as temple education support.

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  5. This would be a fantastic resource. Especially in terms of unproductive ‘this = this and that = that’ thinking, which I tend to get bogged down in. Just keep it out of the hands of Correlation, else it gets watered down to cute, useless stories.

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  6. I think understanding of the endowment would be enhanced if more people understood that:

    1. It’s a ritual, not a documentary of historical events.

    2. You’re ritually enacting your own fall and redemption in parallel with the fall and redemption of Adam and Eve.

    3. You’re not an observer or an audience member, you’re a ritual actor on the same stage with Adam and Eve et al., even if they are depicted in film. What happens in the film and what happens in the endowment room should be considered a seamless experience as if happening in a single location.

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  7. As an ordinance worker, I was utterly moved by the centrality of the anointing ceremony in the Netflix series “The Crown” episode 5, and made a point of relistening to Handel’s Zadok the Priest until I understood the wonderful words. I have a twenty-something daughter, and these two things will factor into her preparation. (Fits your 3(d).)

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      1. I have to admit that when I teach (when I could teach, that is) my senior high school Sunday school class, I often highlight certain things saying “this… this right here is important. This is about the Temple….”

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    1. One last thought to share: as I watch today the Book of Mormon video of King Benjamin’s message, I am struck again (as I became convinced of this years ago) that his great sermon was the teaching of the principles taught in the endowment; this was a temple experience for his people.

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  8. Great resource, Ben. I am a temple ordinance worker, and I still have so much to learn. Please come teach Temple Education in my ward (when the plague has settled down)!!!

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  9. Purely by coincidence I took an Old Testament class at Institute right before I went to the temple for the first time. I also did the standard temple prep classes too. However, that Old Testament class was the best temple prep class I could have had. I did not think the endowment session was surprising or odd. It built up my testimony of how the gospel now is linked to the gospel of the past. I love the Old Testament and wish we spent more time with it.

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    1. thetroopleader that’s fascinating. Thanks for sharing.

      Yes–I really wish my high school senior sunday school class were more familiar with Old Testament.

      Fascinating how the Book of Mormon continually reminds people to read and keep scriptures–but those scriptures were the Old Testament.

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  10. I have LONG wished for a BYUsemester long class covering this!!! Would have loved this as an Independent Study option…. Thank you.

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