The ancient Israelites called their temple, the House, the Sanctuary, or the Edifice (Bayith, Miqdash, and Heykal, respectively). When and how the word temple was chosen to refer to the sacred structures built and dedicated to God, or to gods, is likely lost in prehistory, though we can speculate. Temple comes from the Latin templum, the same root from which we derive template. The signification of both words being that something is measured and patterned. Ancient Roman temple precincts were often used for “measuring” the flights of birds or looking for other omens. Though of pagan origins, this word can appropriately be applied to Mormon temples and the sacred, Christ-centered temple ceremonies that are performed within them. Mormon temple ceremonies and the temples themselves lay out a pattern for life, including pre-mortal, mortal, and post-mortal, as well serve as a school for integrating one’s life and for understanding the purpose and direction of one’s life within the eternal world. It is also a place set apart from the world where worshippers can go to seek in quiet meditation, cut off from all distractions, answers to their prayers thirukadaiyur.
Perhaps nothing else about Mormonism evokes so much horror ignotium as do Mormon temple ceremonies. Professional anti-Mormons scour their thesauri for every dreadful and sensationalist adjective they can find in order to provoke those who know little or nothing about Mormon ceremonies into developing a primal fear toward Mormon temples. In a day and age such as ours I cannot understand this, though certainly fear-mongering has always been present in this country’s public discourse, used and exploited by those who want power, but have no ideas or platforms to support them. Instead, like school-yard bullies they intimidate and provoke because, as any teacher will tell you, they are themselves afraid and must divert attention elsewhere to assuage their weakened self-confidence. Mormons need not stoop to attacks, though sadly some have, but I will not dwell any longer on such puerile and vicious attacks. My message is a positive one.
For Mormons, the temple is the utmost goal of spiritual life and the symbol of their belief in life beyond death and of this life’s relevance to our eternal existence. Worshippers of God have always had temples, or at least have striven to erect them. Jacob, the father of all Israel, resting in a place called Luz, saw in vision a ladder that reached to heaven at the top of which stood God who there renewed the covenant with Jacob which He, Almighty God, had made with Jacob’s fathers. Upon awakening, Jacob called the place Bethel, meaning “the House of God”. Covenants and temples, then, have a long history. When buildings were not available, the Lord’s people used mountains and thus the temple was called the “Mountain of the Lord’s House” (Isaiah 2:2). Jesus taught frequently in the temple and after His death, the Apostles continued “daily with one accord in the temple” (Acts 2:46). Malachi prophesied that the Lord would come suddenly to His temple (Mal. 3:1).
Mormon Temples today are built for the purposes of providing ordinances and covenants. According to Mormon beliefs, covenants are central to man’s relationship to God. Through covenants, man enters a relationship with God through which he (or she) will be saved. There is no doctrine taught in Mormon temples which is not taught publicly, but the ordinances and covenants made within the sanctuary are guarded and kept sacred. Some are offended by this supposed secrecy about Mormon temples, but it is well to remember that Jesus himself commanded such reticence in divulging certain things. Time and again, when Jesus healed people, he commanded them not to tell anyone and to his disciples he enjoined, “neither cast ye your pearls before swine” (Matt 7:6), meaning that sacred things should be given or shown to those who stand outside the law, compared here to “swine,” the archetypal animal forbidden by Mosaic law. Then as now, no doctrine is taught secretly, but certain ordinances and rites should be held sacred and not performed publicly lest they be mocked or trivialized.
Mormon temple ceremonies are rooted in Mormon understanding of Deity and man’s relationship to Him. These fundamental doctrines regarding God and man’s identity and destiny are what most distinguish Mormon beliefs and practices for they are the starting point from which the Mormon concept of life and man’s destiny must be understood. Without understanding these fundamental beliefs, no one can understand the Mormon doctrines which are dependent upon them. Too many people studying Mormonism, whether honestly seeking to understand its beliefs, or else trying to discredit them outright, neglect to begin with these fundamentals. As they build their picture of Mormonism beginning with the branches and neglecting the roots, they merely construct an anemic straw man which reflects their own preconceived notions and prejudices more than Mormon doctrine.
It must first be understood that Mormons believe that all mankind are literally the spirit children of Heavenly Parents. Paul referenced this in his address on Mars’ hill where he states that we are God’s offspring (Acts 17:29). For Mormonism, belief in a pre-existent life as spirits living in the presence of God is vital to understanding our life here. Personal identity is as eternal as are our spirits, but it would be more correct to state that we are spirits, inhabiting tabernacles of clay which are mere coverings to our true self. In a revelation given to the Prophet Joseph Smith, the Lord declared:
Man was also in the beginning with God. Intelligence, or the light of truth, was not created or made, neither indeed can be…For man is spirit. The elements are eternal, and spirit and element inseparably connected, receive a fullness of joy (Doctrine and Covenants 93:29,33)
In that primeval childhood we had the power to learn, grow, and ultimately to decide. Every man and woman who has or every will live upon this earth made the choice to come here to be tested. In another revelation it states:
[A]nd he [Jesus] said unto those who were with him: We will go down, for there is space there, and we will take of these materials, and we will make an earth whereon these may dwell; and we will prove them herewith, to see if they will do all things whatsoever the Lord their God shall command them; And they who keep their first estate [i.e. the pre-existence] shall be added upon; and they who keep not their first estate shall not have glory in the same kingdom with those who keep their first estate; and they who keep their second estate [i.e. this life] shall have glory added upon their heads for ever and ever (Abraham 3:24-26).
It is important moreover to note that Mormonism does preach the inherent sinfulness of man; there is in Mormonism no original sin. The same revelation quoted above further teaches that, “Every spirit of man was innocent in the beginning; and God having redeemed man from the fall, men became again, in their infant state, innocent before God. And that wicked one cometh and taketh away light and truth, through disobedience, from the children of men, and because of the traditions of the fathers” (D&C 93:38-40). Man’s nature can, in Mormonism, be described as weak and susceptible to sin, but not inherently evil. Sin in this sense corresponds to the original Greek word used in the New Testament and often anglicized as hamartia, which literally means missing the mark, or erring. Fallen man is estranged from God by our weakness, but we choose to become either good or evil since both impulses exist within every person.
Furthermore God, our Heavenly Father, is an embodied, glorified, and perfected spirit and seeks to help His children become perfect just as He is perfect (see Matthew 5:48). This perfection is not simply to be void of sin, but to be perfected by having a perfect, resurrected and glorified body, just as He has. Jesus set the example in this and made this perfection possible by this atoning sacrifice which began in the Garden of Gethsemane, continued through the cross and the tomb and reached its culmination with His resurrection which opened the doors for all mankind to be resurrected with a perfect, immortal body. He is thus the central figure of human life, pre-mortal, mortal, and eternal. God and man are in one sense very close and yet still so distant. God, man, and the angels, in one sense, are of the same species, but of varying degrees of perfection, mankind being the lowest. This doctrine does not denigrate or lower God, but rather exalts man. The Psalmist says in wonderment:
What is man, that thou art mindful of him? and the son of man, that thou visitest him? For thou hast made him a little lower than the angels[literally: the gods, the Hebrew word here is Elohim], and hast crowned him with glory and honour. Thou madest him to have dominion over the works of thy hands; thou hast put all things under his feet (Psalms 8:4-6).
We are God’s offspring with the potential to be like Him. John said, “Beloved, now are we the sons of God, and it doth not yet appear what we shall be: but we know that, when he shall appear, we shall be like him; for we shall see him as he is” (1 John 3:2). God and Christ are two separate, glorified beings united in all things. Jesus taught that we must become one just as the Father and the Son are one (see John 17:20-21). This unity is no metaphysical confusion of substance and essence, but a union of minds and hearts, glory and power, toward which all mankind should strive.
Man’s relationship to God is governed by covenants, two-way promises which bind hearts and souls together in sacred communion.