The Temple: Symbols and Covenants


As we enter through the doors of the temple, we leave behind us the distractions and confusion of the world. Inside this sacred sanctuary, we find beauty…. There is rest for our souls and a respite from the cares of our lives.

There can come to us a dimension of spirituality and a feeling of peace which will transcend any other feeling which could come into the human heart.

Peace I leave with you, my peace I give unto you: not as the world giveth, give I unto you. Let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid. John 14:27

The temple is built to please our mortal senses. The grounds are crafted with beautiful gardens.  The architecture and lighting is always picturesque.  The furnishings are exquisite.  The murals and paintings are stunning.

The detailed craftsmanship and quality of the materials are the best mankind can find.  In ancient Israel, it took years to gather the materials suitable to build a temple. In modernity, it took forty years to complete the Salt Lake Temple.

The temple is a symbol.  Everything about that building is symbolic of deity.  Sometimes we criticize the early Christian Creeds for being difficult to understand.  Yet, I believe it was their attempt to describe the infinite God.  We believe in a personal, caring, perfected human God.  Yet, God is infinite.  Christ’s atonement is infinite.  “The Holy Ghost knoweth all things” D&C 35.19.  Infinity is so large, mathematicians treat it as a concept, rather than a number.  Our finite minds cannot understand God.  Symbols can communicate to our souls, in ways finite words cannot. One author’s attempt at describing the infinite atonement employed superlative after superlative, but could not, for me, match the understanding conveyed through the sanctified space of the temple.  The symbol of physical beauty teaches the awe and majesty of the divine.

Another symbol is reverence.  As part of a funeral, friends and family gather around a casket and rarely exchange words.  Being together in presence, rather than in conversation, heals the wound of mortality in the hearts of those who remain in it.

In the temple, being surrounded by other humans, but choosing to quietly and collectively meditate on the eternities encourages revelatory communion.

The symbols are what makes the temple work.  As Mormons, we tend to be very literal in our religious devotion.  We like to measure our religiosity through tangible countings of attendance, visits, chapters read, FHE’s given, ordinance check lists, and tithings paid.  We read the scriptures and more often then not, consider them to be sufficiently accurate historical literal accounts.  However, the temple is not literal.

David O. McKay on his first experiences in the temple,

“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 Lord”

Gregory Prince and Wm. Robert Wright. David O. McKay and the Rise of Modern Mormonism (Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 2005): 277.

The baptistery font rests on the back of statues of twelve oxen.  Baptism is the first ordinance representing entrance into the fold of God.  The oxen represent the twelve tribes of Israel, and, hence, coupled with baptism, represent the gathering in of God’s children. Today, we understand that all of our fellow man is being gathered.  We must treat all with the kindness and understanding we would treat any other member of our tribe, our church, or our family.  This is not possible, unless we go a mile or twain with those who are different than us. The symbol of gathering in all of God’s children represented by these oxen facing the four corners of the Earth, help to overcome our nature man tendency to other-ize, create the us-vs.-them, and alienate those not like us.

Are the oxen literally necessary for proxy baptisms?  No.  In D&C 124:29-31

29 For a baptismal font there is not upon the earth, that they, my saints, may be baptized for those who are dead—

30 For this ordinance belongeth to my house, and cannot be acceptable to me, only in the days of your poverty, wherein ye are not able to build a house unto me.

31 … I grant unto you a sufficient time to build a house unto me; and during this time your baptisms shall be acceptable unto me.

the Lord states that it is acceptable to perform baptisms for the dead in the Mississippi, until the temple is finished.  Were those baptisms any less valid?  No.  This teaches us, that the ordinances and temple ceremonies are primarily symbolic.  I find the most spiritual meaning when I view them as such.  “in the ordinances thereof, the power of godliness is manifest.” (D&C 84:20.)

For symbols to have an affect, they have to relate to our cultural perception.  An example of a divine covenant unique to the cultural needs of a particular people was made by the people of King Lamoni.

Alma 24

17 they took their swords, and all the weapons which were used for the shedding of man’s blood, and they did bury them up deep in the earth.

18 And this they did, it being in their view a testimony …and covenant with God.

As generations roll along, the needs of God’s people change.  The latter-day saint movement is unique in boldly proclaiming an open canon of scripture, and continuing revelation from God.  Ceremonial details that spoke to generations previous, sometimes do not have the same affect today.

The diary of my third great grandfather, L. John Nuttall, records Joseph instructing Brigham concerning the endowment, “this is not arranged right, but we have done the best we could under the circumstances in which we are placed, and I want you to take this matter in hand and organize and systematize all these ceremonies.” (L. John Nuttall diary, Feb. 7, 1877, typescript, Church Archives.)

The saints received their endowments in the Nauvoo temple, and later in SLC at the endowment house built in 1855.  On Janurary 1st, 1877, Brigham Young dedicated the St. George temple, the first in the Great Basin. Wilford Woodruff records in his diary that March, “President Young has been laboring all winter to get up a perfect form of Endowments as far as possible.” March 21, 1877.  It was during this time that my grandfather, as secretary, and Elder Woodruff spent many days writing down, adjusting, and attempting to perfect the ceremony.  From time to time, since then, adjustments are made to better help us grasp our celestial nature.

The temple is a restoration of ancient covenant making

Gen 28

12 behold a ladder set up on the earth, and the top of it reached to heaven: and behold the angels of God ascending and descending on it

13 And, behold, the Lord stood above it,

President David O. Mckay’s description of the endowment when he said, “to me it is a step by step ascent into the eternal presence.”

From Andrew Ehat, “‘Who Shall Ascend into the House of the Lord?’ Sesquicentennial Reflections of a Sacred Day: 4 May 1842”- TAW: 48-62. The story is also told by Truman Madsen in The Radiant Life (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1994): chapter 10.

Blessings through keeping our covenants today

DyC 38.

24 And let every man esteem his brother as himself, and practise virtue and holiness before me.

25 And again I say unto you, let every man esteem his brother as himself.

26 For what man among you having twelve sons, and is no respecter of them, and they serve him obediently, and he saith unto the one: Be thou clothed in robes and sit thou here; and to the other: Be thou clothed in rags and sit thou there—and looketh upon his sons and saith I am just?

27 Behold, this I have given unto you as a parable… I say unto you, be one; and if ye are not one ye are not mine.

32 Wherefore, for this cause I gave unto you the commandment that ye should go to the Ohio; and there I will give unto you my law; and there you shall be endowed with power from on high;

Generosity and economic equality were preparatory for the early  saints to receive their endowment. The same obligation holds, today.

The Lord gives a warning to us.

3 Nephi 6

12 And the people began to be distinguished by ranks, according to their riches and their chances for learning; yea, some were ignorant because of their poverty, and others did receive great learning because of their riches.

13 Some were lifted up in pride, and others were exceedingly humble;…

14 And thus there became a great inequality in all the land, insomuch that the church began to be broken up;

Even poor in paycheck, as students, we are rich in quality of life and opportunity. Our access to affordable credit, as well as generous government aid in food, housing, and health, in addition to the our higher future earnings should make us think twice about our ability to assist and be generous today. Perhaps we are more rich than we think.


April 2015

“Those who believe in what has been called the theology of prosperity are suffering from the deceitfulness of riches. The possession of wealth or significant income is not a mark of heavenly favor, and their absence is not evidence of heavenly disfavor.”

DyC 56

16 Wo unto you rich men, that will not give your substance to the poor, for your riches will canker your souls; and this shall be your lamentation in the day of visitation…: The harvest is past, the summer is ended, and my soul is not saved!

The Lord blesses us as we keep our covenants.

As Pres. Monson has promised, temple worship brings peace.

And the peace of God, which passeth all understanding.

Philo 4:7



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