An Introduction to Mormon Temples
by Mel Tungate

A common misunderstanding about members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons) concerns how and where they worship. The reason for this is the prominence of Mormon temples and the natural assumption, although incorrect, that this must be where church members attend weekly services. In fact, the temple is more of a pilgrimage destination, to draw a comparison to other religions, and is mostly visited on special occasions.

Worship Services

Church members otherwise attend a local ward (parish) forty-eight weeks out of the year. The services are held on Sundays and last about three hours. Once every six months, members attend a regional gathering called a stake (diocese) conference that lasts about two hours. The first Sunday of every April and October, members watch a worldwide TV broadcast of what is called General Conference out of Salt Lake City. At General Conference, church members are reminded by their leaders to follow the teachings of Christ, for instance, and to maintain strong family ties. General Conference consists of four sessions, two on Saturday and two on Sunday. In addition, the men have a separate worldwide meeting on Saturday night, and the women meet the week before General Conference to hear about issues concerning women.

The Uniqueness of the Temple

Not all Mormons attend the temple. This is a privilege reserved for members who receive special approval from an ecclesiastical leader, based on whether the member is living a moral life, not smoking or drinking alcohol, paying 10 percent (tithe) of their income to the church, and regularly attending local worship services. Some adult members never go to the temple, some go once in their life, and others may attend about once a year. But others attend once a week or even every day, depending on their personal inclination.

Origin of the Temple

There are many parts to temple worship, so it may be helpful to explain how these various parts emerged beginning with the first temple which was built in Kirtland, Ohio, in the mid-1830s. The edifice still stands today and is open to visitors. The temple is a large and somewhat plain looking structure that was used differently than the subsequent temples. It was a place for worship services, but it was also a kind of town meeting hall, one of the nation’s first adult education learning centers, and a place for community dances, political meetings, and civic functions. Most importantly, it was within these walls that certain Christian rituals were initiated such as the washing of feet and anointings with consecrated olive oil.

Early Plans Abandoned

At the same time the Kirtland Temple was being built, a group of several temples was being planned for Independence (Jackson County), Missouri. These plans were thwarted when Mormons and Missourians proved unable to get along with each other. The political, social, economic, and religious gulf between the two groups was too wide to breach, especially when Mormons published an editorial in their newspaper in 1833 inviting free men of color to join the church. Slave-state Missourians responded by forcibly pushing Mormons out of Jackson County. Several church members died in the process. As a result, the planned temples in Independence were not built. Later, temples were conceived for Far West (Caldwell County) and Adam-ondi-Ahman (Daviess County), Missouri, but these too were abandoned. In the fall of 1838, problems between Missourians and Mormons escalated into in a series of armed skirmishes that historians call the Missouri Mormon War of 1838. The result was that Mormons were expelled from the state and fled to Nauvoo, Illinois, and elsewhere.

A New Phase in Construction and Rituals

It was in Nauvoo that the second Mormon temple was erected. This one was located at a scenic location near the banks of the Mississippi River. On the one hand, the temple was never completely finished, but on the other hand, it was deemed sufficiently complete in 1846 to function temporarily as a temple. During this brief period, Mormons were able to perform baptisms on behalf of their ancestors. This ritual was performed both in the temple and in the Mississippi River. It was also inside this temple, as later under open skies along the Western trail, that a dramatic presentation was developed and performed. It was a kind of morality play loosely based on the story of our first parents, Adam and Eve. It included the bestowal of special spiritual authority to men and women and a promise of eternal life if worthy and later came to be known as the “endowment” ceremony. Still, the main ordinance of the Nauvoo Temple was what Mormons call marriage for eternity, whereby a man and a woman expect, if worthy, to be able to live together forever after they pass on to the next life. An added wrinkle in Nauvoo was that many among the Mormon elite entered into polygamous marriages by the same ceremony. Although entrance into the Nauvoo Temple was more strictly regulated than at the Kirtland Temple, it too was used as a kind of community center and was used for dances and church parties.

From the Midwest to Rocky Mountains

As groups of Mormons dispersed in 1844 after our founding prophet, Joseph Smith, was assassinated, the temple tradition went with them. Joseph Smith had previously sent Lyman Wight to Texas, and Lyman built the first post-Nauvoo temple there. Brigham Young took the majority of the Mormons to Utah. Some thirty years later, temples were erected in Manti, Utah, and then in Logan and Salt Lake City–the Salt Lake Temple being the best known of all Utah temples. However the Manti and Logan temples, which were built on prominent hills within these early settlements, are good examples of frontier architecture utilizing wood and stone for monumental structures. Essentially, the same ceremonies that had been introduced in Kirtland and Nauvoo were continued in these new temples. However, the civic and social uses of the buildings were discontinued.

Modern Mormon Temples

Today, the descendants of those who followed Brigham Young West, or mountain Mormons, operate over 100 temples worldwide. The prairie Mormons, as those who remained in the Midwest and formed the Community of Christ are sometimes designated, operate one temple. It is located on the same ground in Independence, Missouri, where Joseph Smith envisioned several temples being erected. This temple is a striking, conch-shaped building that is used for services devoted to world peace.

Genealogical Purpose

The temples of the mountain Mormons are considered to be places of beauty and rest. For instance, there are no clocks in the temples. No one hurries. The mood is tranquil. The ordinances performed there are thought to bind families together for eternity. In fact, the primary ritual is the “sealing ordinance,” which is performed either as part of the marriage ceremony or later when a whole family is present, and “seals” the family together as an eternal unit. Mormons also continue to perform temple rituals for their ancestors, just as they did in Nauvoo. As a result, they spent quite a lot of time outside the temple conducting genealogical research in order to trace their personal linages. Mormons are known to lead the world in providing people with the means to trace their personal ancestries. In ward and stake buildings around the world—the buildings where Mormons attend weekly Sunday services–a room is equipped with reference material, computers, CDROMS, and microfilm readers and is open to the public except on Sundays. This emphasis on genealogical research and ceremonies performed for families within temples constitutes the foundation of a tradition Mormons are known for, and which is really the centerpiece of the church, which is that of strong families ties.

Other books about Mormon temple worship:
Joseph Smith’s Quorum of the Anointed, 1842-1845, Anderon and Bergera, eds.
The Nauvoo Endowment Companies, 1845-1846, Anderson and Bergera, eds.
Development of LDS Temple Worship, 1846-2000, Devery S. Anderson, ed.
The House of the Lord: A Study of Holy Sanctuaries Ancient and Modern, James E. Talmage
The Mysteries of Godliness: A History of Mormon Temple Worship, David John Buerger