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RS/MP Lesson 36: “Receiving the Ordinances and Blessings of the Temple” (Joseph Smith Manual)

Posted by joespencer on June 12, 2009

This lesson is packed with wonderful material. I will take each section in turn.

From the Life of Joseph Smith.

The introduction, of course, catches up the story of Joseph’s life: the Saints, having settled themselves in Nauvoo, were commanded to build a temple again. It also notes that Joseph began handing out endowments and other temple ordinances even before the temple itself was complete. (It should be noted that baptisms for the dead were only performed outside the temple for a short while, and after that they were disallowed until the temple was complete. Adoptions and sealings-to-parents were, moreover, never performed outside the temple in Nauvoo. Hence the ordinances that were performed outside the temple were washings and anointings, endowments, sealings, and the bestowal of the fullness of the priesthood.)

The richest part of this “introduction” to the lesson, of course, is the snippet from Joseph’s history (the first two full paragraphs on page 414). Let me begin with a bit from the second of these two paragraphs.

Joseph says, concerning the bestowal of the endowment to a selected few brethren: “there was nothing made known to these men but what will be made known to all the Saints of the last days, so soon as they are prepared to receive, and a proper place is prepared to communicate them, even to the weakest of the Saints.” I find this quite fascinating. For one, it seems that Joseph is here giving a reason for his not handing out the endowment, etc., to all Saints in 1842: all such ordinances should be given in the temple; it is only the exigency of the situation that requires Joseph to begin handing them out in the red brick store. Second, then, it must be noticed that for Joseph the temple ordinances are universal: no one is to be barred from them at all.

This second point is, I think, vital. Too often we regard the secretive or ascensional nature of the temple to suggest that it is somehow exclusivist or limited in scope. But Joseph would disagree with this point of view. The temple is for everyone, though there are preparations each person is to make—preparations that manifest one’s unshaken willingness to live by the commandments, etc.

But to get to the first of the two paragraphs: “I spent the day . . . attending to washings, anointings, endowments and the communication of keys pertaining to the Aaronic Priesthood, and so on to the highest order of the Melchizedek Priesthood, setting forth the order pertaining to the Ancient of Days, and all those plans and principles by which anyone is enabled to secure the fullness of those blessings which have been prepared for the Church of the First Born, and come up and abide in the presence of the Eloheim in the eternal worlds. In this council was instituted the ancient order of things for the first time in these last days” (emphases in abundance are mine).

Joseph here provides us a simply marvelous explanation of the endowment, one that is filled with complex interpretations. Bit by bit, then.

First, the endowment consists in “the communication of keys pertaining to the Aaronic Priesthood, and so on to the highest order of Melchizedek Priesthood.” Joseph nicely points out the fact here that the temple is—as it has been in every age—a question of the priesthood, and that the endowment is a question of being endowed with priesthood keys. Moreover, Joseph’s way of summarizing things here makes it clear that the temple is a kind of progression or ascension: one receives a string or series of keys, moving from the Aaronic Priesthood to the highest order of the Melchizedek Priesthood. But to what purpose?

This answer to this question is the second thing Joseph says about the endowment: the communication of these keys amounts to a setting forth “the order pertaining to the Ancient of Days.” This is absolutely vital. Of course, the Ancient of Days is Adam, as every Latter-day Saint knows, but why does Joseph bother to mention Adam, and especially by that name? For one, it must be recognized that Joseph sees Adam as having received the fullness of all these ordinances himself, such that the fullness was there from the very beginning. But much more importantly, Joseph refers to Adam as the Ancient of Days for very obvious reasons: Adam is referred to as the Ancient of Days specifically when the subject of the event of Adam-ondi-Ahman is under discussion. When Joseph tells us that the endowment is a question of the order of the Ancient of Days, he means that the endowment cannot be disentangled from the event(s) of Adam-ondi-Ahman. And, of course, Adam-ondi-Ahman is a gathering of those holding the keys—apparently the very keys bestowed through the ordinances of the temple. There is perhaps a sense, then, in which Adam-ondi-Ahman is being constructed in the temple, through the endowment. I don’t doubt that there will still be an actual event in Missouri that will be called Adam-ondi-Ahman, but I can’t help wondering whether Joseph didn’t see the temple as constructing that event piece by piece through its ordinances. At any rate, it is clear that those involved in the endowment ceremony are being inducted into the order of the priesthood that will secure them—if they are, of course, true and faithful—a place at Adam-ondi-Ahman.

Third, Joseph describes the endowment as “those plans and principles” that allow one to “secure the fullness of those blessings which have been prepared for the Church of the First Born.” This, it seems to me, is an extension of the question of Adam-ondi-Ahman. I know that “the Church of the Firstborn” is usually understood to be “the Church of Christ,” since we speak of Christ as having been the firstborn of Heavenly Father’s spirit children. However, I think it is possible (and perhaps much more historically accurate) to see “the Church of the Firstborn” as being “the Church (or gathering) of Adam.” That is, the Church of the Firstborn may well be precisely what one finds at Adam-ondi-Ahman (note that this phrase also appears, generally, in the context of discussion of Adam-ondi-Ahman). Of course, it should be mentioned that the Church of the Firstborn is associated directly with the celestial kingdom in D&C 76, so whatever it is, it is clear that the endowment is in part an instruction in what one does to obtain the celestial glory. But it seems to me that again this cannot be disentangled from the question of Adam’s centrality in the gospel plan as laid out in the endowment.

Fourth, Joseph describes the keys communicated in the endowment as allowing one to “come up and abide in the presence of the Eloheim in the eternal worlds.” It should be noted that Joseph speaks here of the Elohim, and not simply of Elohim. The implication is that Joseph is drawing on his knowledge of Hebrew: the Elohim are “the Gods” (elohim is the plural Hebrew word, Gods). That Joseph inserts the word “the” suggests that he does not have reference to the particular deity that bears the name Elohim, but the Gods collectively, as spoken of in, say, the Book of Abraham. The idea here, it would seem, is that the endowment allows one to ascend into the council of the Gods, to pass through the veil and join the angelic throng, etc. This seems rather straightforward.

Finally, Joseph says that all this “ancient order of things” was set forth “for the first time in these last days.” This, importantly, begins to suggest that more needs to be said about the relationship between the Kirtland and Nauvoo temples. Both had “endowments” (and there was also an “endowment” that preceded the Kirtland temple endowment), but they seem to have been drastically different. What can be said about that relationship?

The Saints are commanded by God to build temples.

This section is constructed as a kind of trajectory of Joseph’s teachings about the necessity of building temples, beginning with an 1833 teaching and moving chronologically to March of 1844, only a couple of months before Joseph’s death. This temporal trajectory, it seems to me, lays a foundation for further thinking about the relationship between the Kirtland and Nauvoo temples.

Unfortunately, however, the one paragraph on the Kirtland temple (the first on page 415) is quite short and hardly exploratory. Its only real revealing statement is its expressed anticipation of “a visit from the heavens to honor us with His [God’s] own presence.” This tells us something of what the Kirtland temple was for the Saints. Let me add a point or two more, and then it will be possible to compare the Kirtland and Nauvoo experiences. As anyone who has seen in person or in picture the inside of the Kirtland temple will know, that temple was primarily an assembly hall with a whole series of pulpits on either extreme of the room. (It was actually two assembly halls, each of the first two floors having the same setup.) This made the temple a physical embodiment of the order of the priesthood: one end was the seat of the Aaronic Priesthood, the other of the Melchizedek Priesthood, and the pulpits housed the various presidencies of each of the appropriate offices. The Kirtland temple was thus very closely associated with the systematization of the councils of the priesthood that was revealed (in section 107) in 1835 (only a year before the temple’s dedication). Moreover, the temple was given so that the Saints could be endowed from on high, something that was understood to be a prerequisite for those who would travel to do missionary work to the nations (specifically, to England).

What, then, of the Nauvoo temple?

Interestingly, the first word in this section concerning the Nauvoo temple (now in 1840) finds Joseph quoting D&C 88’s commandment to build the Kirtland temple, calling it “a house of prayer, a house of order, a house for the worship of our God,” etc. (p. 415). The end of the same paragraph uses language that perhaps seems more amenable to the Nauvoo temple, but that on closer examination turns out actually to be more strictly an echo of Kirtland teachings: by building the temple, the Saints “will emulate the glorious deeds of the fathers, and secure the blessings of heaven upon themselves and their posterity to the latest generation.” If that sounds like the theme of sealing up the generations (fathers and posterity) that saturated the Nauvoo temple experience with its baptisms for the dead, it must be recognized that it actually sounds more like Joseph’s Kirtland teachings. Here Joseph doesn’t speak of binding generations, but of emulating the ancients. Joseph spoke this way of the Saints during all the Missouri persecutions, during the building of the Kirtland temple, etc. The idea here of securing the blessings of heaven for one’s posterity is not expressed as a question of sealing, but as a question of, having emulated the ancients, receiving the same blessings-for-posterity that they received.

At first, then, the Nauvoo temple experience (which was, of course, still two years off in 1840) seems to have been quite in continuity with the Kirtland experience.

Note that in 1841, Joseph is still speaking in a Kirtland temple vein: the temple is a place “to worship the God of their fathers, according to the order of His house and the powers of the Holy Priesthood,” and it “will be so constructed as to enable all the functions of the Priesthood to be duly exercised,” a place “where instructions from the Most High will be received” as in the Kirtland school of the prophets, and a place from which the endowed will “go forth to distant lands” (p. 415). Again for Joseph this is a question of trying to “emulate the action of the ancient covenant fathers and patriarchs,” etc. (pp. 415-416). Every one of these details is in continuity with Kirtland: the temple is a question of the priesthood, of organizing it fully, and of instruction and missiological endowment, and of emulation of the ancients.

Again, then, the Nauvoo temple does not seem to be so far removed from the Kirtland temple. And it should be noticed that the so-called “Nauvoo theology” was already being taught by this time.

From about the same time we have Joseph adding at least one detail: “Joseph said the Lord said that we should build our house to his name, that we might be baptized for the dead” (p. 416). Here we do indeed have something distinct from the Kirtland experience: baptism for the dead. This difference makes, of course, complete sense, since Elijah only came to Joseph and Oliver once the Kirtland temple had been dedicated, etc. But if this marks a difference, it marks a difference only of addition, because Joseph still seems to have been speaking of the endowment and its associated themes as being in complete continuity with the Kirtland experience.

This continuity is clear again in the April 1842 statement: “The Church is not fully organized, in its proper order, and cannot be, until the Temple is completed, where places will be provided for the administration of the ordinances of the Priesthood” (p. 416). This was only weeks before Joseph gave the endowment to the Twelve and a few others. (The remaining three paragraphs all deal with the necessity and urgency of building the temple.)

What should be made of this apparent continuity between Kirtland and Nauvoo, especially when we usually tell the story as one of complete discontinuity, as if the Kirtland endowment were only a kind of preparatory ordinance? If all that was added to the Nauvoo experience was baptism for the dead (which seems, in Joseph’s revelations, to be inseparable from the idea of sealing), why do we speak as if Kirtland was somehow “incomplete”? Well, quite straightforwardly, because our endowment experience is (basically) like what the Saints received in the Nauvoo temple, but not at all, we say, like what the Saints received in the Kirtland temple. And on the surface, I think that’s right: the creation-fall-atonement-veil drama does not seem to have been part of the Kirtland experience, nor was the bestowal of keys pertaining to the priesthood, and Joseph Smith himself said that the ancient order was only restored with the Nauvoo endowment.

And yet, Joseph seems generally to have spoken as if there were a direct continuity, and we certainly never have it from him that the Kirtland experience was somehow lesser, preparatory, or a mistake.

A few thoughts, then, as a kind of aside from the lesson material itself, simply because I’m intrigued by this point. We should note that the Nauvoo and Kirtland temples were constructed quite similarly. The main two floors of both were assembly rooms with the sets of Aaronic and Melchizedek Priesthood pulpits at opposite ends of the rooms; and the upper floors of both were divided into a series of instruction rooms. The only difference, again, between the two buildings in basic construction was the erection in the Nauvoo temple of a subterranean baptismal font. In both buildings, the endowment was issued on the upper levels, and in both it was closely associated with the organization of the priesthood.

The difference, of course, is the level of ritual: the Nauvoo endowment seems to have been much more ritualistic, and it was shrouded by covenants of secrecy, unlike the Kirtland version. But is this so sharp a difference? In the end, I find myself wondering whether the Nauvoo endowment wasn’t actually essentially the same as the Kirtland endowment, the only difference being that the Nauvoo endowment was made processional or ascensional so that not just anyone would receive the ordinances, so that there would be a process through which one would be prepared to be fully endowed or to have one’s endowment sealed upon oneself. Or, to put the same another way, I wonder whether the Kirtland experience wasn’t an attempt to bestow the fullness of the priesthood on those who had not really been prepared for it, and so it resulted in the disasters of 1837-1838 (somehow in continuity with the disastrous “first version” of the endowment in 1831).

There is more to say about all of this, but I have to tread a bit too lightly to say any of it clearly. I’ll leave the subject matter here.

In the temple, we learn the things of eternity and receive ordinances of salvation for ourselves and our ancestors.

The way this next section is cast might provide another way of making sense of the relationship between the Kirtland and Nauvoo temples. It itself sets up the difficulty by asserting that “the object of gathering . . . the people of God in any age of the world” was “to build unto the Lord a house whereby He could reveal unto His people the ordinances of His house and the glories of His kingdom,” ordinances that were “instituted in the heavens before the foundation of the world” and so “are not to be altered or changed” (pp. 416-417). As I say, this sets up the problem: the ordinances are to be the same in every temple, regardless of when it is built—what age, etc. How, then, are the Kirtland and Nauvoo experiences to be reconciled?

The second and third paragraphs on page 417 might provide an answer. Joseph states: “It is for the same purpose that God gathers together His people in the last days, to build unto the Lord a house to prepare them for the ordinances and endowments, washings and anointings, etc. One of the ordinances of the house of the Lord is baptism for the dead. God decreed before the foundation of the world that that ordinance should be administered in a font prepared for that purpose in the house of the Lord.” Again, the purpose of gathering is to “attend to the ordinances of baptism for the dead as well as other ordinances of the priesthood,” etc.

How does this help? The clearest and confessed distinction between the two temples is the addition to the Nauvoo temple of the ordinance of baptism for the dead, something that could not be performed until after Elijah had come and bestowed the vital keys pertaining to the ordinance. The baptismal font, of course, was constructed (per the instructions in D&C 128) in the basement of the Nauvoo temple, being in the place where the dead dwell (in the earth). On the one hand, it would thus seem that the baptismal font was “out of the way.” But I think it is possible to see the Nauvoo temple as having been built, as it were, on an entirely different foundation. The baptismal font recodes the entire temple experience from the bottom up, such that all of the ordinances of the house of God are recast or reworked in light of that new ordinance. It might not be that the other ordinances are distinct or different from what they had been before so much as that they are, in Nauvoo, recoded by the addition of something genuinely novel. The additional ordinance of baptism for the dead calls for an expansion, a dramatization, a privatization, and a revitalization of the endowment, etc.

Perhaps this idea can be read into the last paragraph beginning on page 417: “As soon as the [Nauvoo] Temple and baptismal font are prepared, we calculate to give the Elders of Israel their washings and anointings, and attend to those last and more impressive ordinances, without which we cannot obtain celestial thrones . . . and be made kings and priests unto the Most High God.” Somehow, the very creation of the baptismal font calls for a rebestowal of washings and anointings, and for a recoding of the endowment such that it becomes preparatory to other “more impressive ordinances” (beyond even the sealing ordinance). It is as the temple becomes a question of generations being bound together and the creation of Adam-ondi-Ahman, one person at a time, that the Kirtland ordinances need to be recoded.

Now, then, things become a question of obtaining what Joseph calls the “fulness of the priesthood of God,” something to be received only through “the fulness of the ordinances of his kingdom” (p. 419). Again: “Knowledge of these things can only be obtained by experience through the ordinances of God set forth for that purpose” (p. 419). There are ordinances beyond the endowment and the sealing ordinances we know, ordinances that bestow “the fulness of the priesthood.” These are themselves perhaps recoded and opened up through the addition of the baptismal font to the temple.

At any rate, it seems that the introduction of baptism for the dead was of great importance for Joseph.

The temple is a place of holiness where we receive the greatest blessings God has for His children.

The entirety of this last section is drawn from the dedicatory prayer of the Kirtland temple, as recorded in D&C 109. I will let it speak for itself.

3 Responses to “RS/MP Lesson 36: “Receiving the Ordinances and Blessings of the Temple” (Joseph Smith Manual)”

  1. You make some intriguing points here. I like what you said about the addition of the font calling for a recoding and revitalization of what was previously given. The idea of constructing Adam-ondi-Ahman through the temple is an interesting twist. Something to chew on, certainly.

  2. Ethan said

    Nice Joe,

    I am going to use this a lot tomorrow in my lesson. I thought it would be interesting to also look at Revelations 2 where John is trying to contain apostasy by promising the churches blessings for being faithful that exactly mirror the blessing in the temple endowment.

    Keep up the good work!

  3. […] of “Receiving the Ordinances and Blessings of the Temple” (you can see my notes for that lesson here), Joseph Smith had enough to say on the subject of baptism for the dead specifically that lesson 41 […]

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