Avoiding Temple Blindness: Tips for Latter-day Saints on Appreciating the Ancient Aspects of the LDS Temple

Nüwa holding a compass and Fuxi with a square

Ancient Chinese silk showing Nüwa holding a compass and Fuxi holding a square, symbols of order and creation far older than modern Masonry. From the Chinese Wikipedia entry for Nüwa. See the discussion of related figures in Yinyang by Robin Wang (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ Press, 2012), pp. 101-103.


I am pained to see Latter-day Saints get carried away in cynicism over the Temple because some elements are linked to modern sources such as Masonry. This is an important theme in some attacks that have gained publicity recently, where it is argued that the Temple is a fraud because it does not contain elements from Solomon’s temple but from modern Masonry. As I explain on my LDSFAQ page on the LDS Temple and Masonry, neither Masonry nor any other modern source explains the ancient majesty of the LDS temple concept, which is completely foreign to the modern world and to Joseph Smith’s world. Numerous aspects of the LDS temple concept such as washings and anointings, baptism for the dead, and the sealing of families have no relationship to Masonry or and/or predate Joseph’s exposure to Masonry, making Masonry a completely inadequate source to explain the content of the Temple. The LDS Temple is much more at home in a very ancient setting and offers strong evidence for an actual Restoration. As for Solomon’s temple, the relationship might be stronger than blind critics could ever see, as I’ll explore below.

The modern charge that the temple was just plagiarized from Masonry didn’t occur to Latter-day Saint Masons in Joseph’s day, including those who left the Church for various reasons. They knew they were dealing with something quite different, though it shared some superficial elements and felt more like a restoration of knowledge than a clumsy copy. Today the sense of restoration versus ripoff has a great of intellectual support. For example, as discussed in more detail on my LDSFAQ page, John Tvedtnes has pointed out that there is “a corpus of documents from the second century B.C. through the fifth century A.D. that deal with elements of the endowment as it is taught in LDS temples and which demonstrates the antiquity of the ordinance.” There I further discuss a few specifics and provide links for more detailed information. But for now, rather than getting caught up in minute details such as whether a particular symbol is used in modern Masonry or not, let’s consider some broader issues.

The real issue is not whether the Temple has any elements in common with Masonry or other modern sources. There can be many reasons for shared elements, and they may not be significant. A more meaningful question might be “Can significant aspects of the LDS Temple be viewed as a restoration of ancient concepts?” While the LDS Temple is part of a modern dispensation, adapted for modern participants, there is a strong case that it is part of a Restoration of ancient truths and concepts. Let’s begin with a review of the big picture of what the temple is, beginning with its very existence, and then looking at its role and purpose.

The modern Christian world has given up on temples. The ancient temple is gone and is no longer necessary, it is said. In a religious world that denied the need for and importance of temples, Joseph Smith provided revelations teaching that the temple was to play a central role. Modern scholars in looking at the Bible and other ancient writings now increasingly recognize that the temple and temple concepts were at the heart of not only Judaism but also Christianity. Simply reading the New Testament with an awareness of temple concepts, one can see that Christ was constantly at or near the temple. He defended its sanctity. Though early Christians would be cast out from the temple, at least initially they gathered there often as read in Acts 2:47: “And they [the followers of Christ], continuing daily with one accord in the temple, and breaking bread from house to house, did eat their meat with gladness and singleness of heart.” The temple is where Christ was frequently during his mortal mission. It is where He will return at the Second Coming, according to Malachi 3:1-2. And after His return, the Lord’s temple is where Christians will labor night and day during the grand Millennium (Rev. 7:15). And yet we are supposed to be believe that the temple just doesn’t matter any more? I can understand why the argument of convenience and necessity, for the ancient temple was lost, along with the knowledge and authority required to operate it. But the answer is not to give up on the temple, but to look for and welcome its Restoration.

Scholars like Margaret Barker are now showing us that temple worship and related concepts was central to early Christianity. Her works such as Temple Mysticism argue that one reason why the message of Christ spread so well among the early Jews was that many were aware of the ancient traditions going back to the first temple, before the reforms that would stamp out much of the original temple concept. These traditions made the temple a place of ascent into the presence of God, and taught the ancient Jews that the Divine Council included Jehovah, a son of the Most High God. It was a place of covenants and revelation where angels were involved and where human priests represented divine beings.

Yes, like the ancient temple, the restored LDS temple is a place of covenant making. It restores the ancient primacy of covenants in the relationship between man and God. In fact, it employs a full covenant pattern (the “covenant formulary”) from the ancient Middle East that was not recognized by scholars until the 19th century. This pattern is also found in the Book of Mormon, particularly in King Benjamin’s covenant-making speech given at the Nephite temple (Mosiah 2-4).

The temple teaches an anthropomorphic God and Son of God who created man with the intent of bringing them into their presence where they will participate in their glory and joy. Theosis, becoming like God in some way, is an essential aspect of the LDS temple and one that is strongly attested in ancient sources—evidence of a Restoration.

The temple is based on the concept of sacred teachings that are not publicized but kept unwritten or secret. This flies in the face of religion in Joseph’s day but recently has been strongly confirmed in early Christian worship. Again, this is evidence that the broad concepts of the LDS temple are consistent with a restoration of ancient elements.

The temple also prepares us for the journey back to God’s presence in a series of steps. The Endowment involves three rooms, Telestial, Terrestrial, and Celestial. This is related to a variety of ancient concepts, including the three major sections of Solomon’s Temple.

Kevin Christensen reminds us of this basic concept in “The Temple, the Monarchy, and Wisdom: Lehi’s World and the Scholarship of Margaret Barker” in Glimpses of Lehi’s Jerusalem (Provo, UT: Maxwell Institute, 2004):

The most obvious aspect of the temple in Jerusalem involved the levels of sacredness, increasing from the inner court to the holy place and to the holy of holies. According to Mircea Eliade, the three parts of the temple at Jerusalem correspond to the three cosmic regions. The lower court represents the lower regions (“Sheol,” the abode of the dead), the holy place represents the earth, and the holy of holies represents heaven. The temple is always the meeting point of heaven, earth, and the world of the dead. Lehi’s cosmology saw the world in these three realms (heaven, 1 Nephi 1:8; the earth, 1 Nephi 1:14; and the realm of the dead, 2 Nephi 1:14). King Benjamin, speaking from his temple, also sees the cosmos in terms of heaven, the earth, and the realm of the dead (Mosiah 2:25, 26, 41), with entrance into God’s presence as the ultimate joyous state (Mosiah 2:41). Considering 3 Nephi as a whole, we can also find these three distinct levels of sacredness: (1) darkness/separation (3 Nephi 8–10), (2) preparation/initiation (3 Nephi 11:1–17:23; 18:1–37; 19:13; 20:1–28:12), (3) apotheosis/at-one-ment (3 Nephi 17:24; 18:36–39; 19:14, 25–31; 28:10–18).

Margaret Barker has this to say in “Beyond the Veil of the Temple: The High Priestly Origin of the Apocalypses,” Presidential address to the Society for Old Testament Study, Cambridge, January 1998, published in the Scottish Journal of Theology 51.1 (1998):

Josephus, who was himself a priest (Life 1), says that the tabernacle was a microcosm of the creation, divided into three parts: the outer parts represented the sea and the land but ‘…the third part thereof… to which the priests were not admitted, is, as it were, a heaven peculiar to God’ (Ant. 3.181). Thus the veil which screened the holy of holies was also the boundary between earth and heaven. Josephus was writing at the very end of the second temple period, but texts such as Psalm 11 ‘The LORD is in his holy temple, the LORD’s throne is in heaven’, suggest that the holy of holies was thought to be heaven at a much earlier period, and the LXX of Isaiah 6, which differs from the Hebrew, implies that the hekhal was the earth3. The Glory of the LORD filled the house in v. 1, and the seraphim sang that the Glory filled the earth , v. 3.

The LDS temple likewise progresses from creation to the fallen world, and then ultimately to the Celestial Room after passing through the veil, consistent with the ancient Jewish temple.

The Ancient Temple: Not Derived from Masonry

Temple themes and subtleties in LDS religion cannot be explained from Joseph’s brief encounter with Masonry because a) Masonry does not contain most of these elements, and b) many temple themes are found in LDS scriptures predating Joseph’s brief exposure to Masonry in 1842.

Examples of ancient elements in the LDS temple not derivable from Masonry or other sources accessible to Joseph Smith include:

  • The covenant formulary: a detailed pattern used in ancient Middle Eastern covenants that is fully present in the LDS temple. The steps of this pattern were not recognized by scholars until the 20th century.
  • The prayer circle, which has ancient roots. According to non-LDS scholar E. Louis Backman, “If you are inducted into the Christian mysteries, then you must perform a ring-dance round the altar . . . not only with the other novitiates but also with the angels! For they are present and participate in the mystery.”, Religious Dances in the Christian Church and in Popular Medicine, trans. E. Classen (1952; reprint, Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1977), 19; see also Hugh W. Nibley, “The Early Christian Prayer Circle,” in Mormonism and Early Christianity, 45-99, originally published in BYU Studies, vol. 19 (1978).
  • Baptism for the dead, a practice that does have roots in early Christianity—certainly not Masonry. Numerous documents since Joseph’s day strengthen the case for baptism for the dead as an authentic practice of at least some early Christians. This practice clearly has no relationship to Masonry and is clearly at odds with the religious environment Joseph grew up in. It cannot be explained as a product of his environment.

Some of the symbols commonly ascribed to Masonry such as the square and the compass are ancient and may have common origins with Masonry. For example, both of these symbols are found together in a ritual context on Facsimile 2 (figure 7) of the Book of Abraham, on an Egyptian drawing involving the passage of man into the afterlife dating back roughly 2,000 years. Many other ancient sources provide support for these symbols as ancient, meaningful symbols that have been imbued with at least some of the meanings and applications found in the LDS temple. Since I am in China as I write this, I wish to also mention that ancient China offers further evidence for the antiquity of the square and compass symbols in the LDS temple, where the very common and ancient word for order and rules (especially those of a community or organization) is guiju (规矩), which literally means compass and square (the carpenter’s square is depicted in right side of the ju character: 矩, which also an important element in many other characters). In the Third International Handbook of Mathematics Education by M. A. Clements et al., p. 527, we read:

In ancient Chinese mythology, there were demigods Nuwai and Fuxi who were the progenitors of mankind and shapers of human society. Legends say that Nuwa and Fuxi invented gui (compasses) and ju (set-square) to shape the world. On an ancient stone carving found inside a tomb from the East Han dynasty (25 to 220 CE) there is an intertwined image of Nuwa and Fuxi with Nuwa holding a gui and Fuxi holding a ju. For the ancient Chinese, the basic concept of the world was “heaven is round, earth is square” and there was an ancient motto that “without guiju [rules], there are no square and circle.” This geometrical intuition about the physical world became metaphoric in the human world. The connotative usage of the word guiju refers to orderliness according to underlying rules, and even applies to human affairs. Hence for the Chinese, circle and square were elemental shapes and rules of the universe and they were embodied and symbolized by the tools that produced them.

See also “Nüwa and Fuxi in Chinese Mythology: Compass & Square” at TempleStudy.com. Note that the compass and square have meaning in the context of Creation as well as in establishing order for humans, reminding them of rules and boundaries for behavior. This is a good fit for the LDS concept and points to ancient roots for these symbols and their usage in the LDS temple.

Much of the evidence for the LDS temple as a restoration of at least some ancient elements comes from documents from antiquity that Joseph typically would not have read (often because the documents weren’t discovered or available until years later). On the other hand, some of the most important evidence is in plain sight in the Bible, yet long overlooked or denied by modern Christians. The single verse mentioning baptism for the dead is of that variety. That verse is certainly not enough material to guide Joseph in creating that majestic doctrine and the vibrant concept of family history work that blesses so many lives today, yet that verse stands as one of several important strands of evidence that some early Christians did have this practice in some form. Likewise, the book of Revelation in the Bible is infused with temple themes that many overlook.

Ancient and Restored Temple Themes in the Book of Mormon

The Book of Mormon is rich with references to concepts related to temple worship. For example, it makes reference to esoteric teachings or mysteries that are not made public as we read in Alma 12:9-11. Nephi refers to the Savior as the keeper of the gate in 2 Nephi 9:41, the gate that is at the end of the path that leads to the Savior, and where there is no other way but by the gate to reach the Lord. As keeper of the gate, “he employeth no servant there” (a possible reference, though, to the use of servants along the path prior to the gate). A test of some kind at the gate is also implied with the statement that the Lord as keeper of the gate “cannot be deceived.” Then in verse 42, “whose knocketh, to him will he open.” King Benjamin’s discourse at the temple is infused with covenant making themes and imagery. The Lord’s Sermon at the Temple in 3 Nephi is also rich in temple themes, as John Welch has demonstrated in his book, The Sermon at the Temple and the Sermon on the Mount: A Latter-Day Saint Approach (2010).

However, some of the most temple-centric aspects of the Book of Mormon have been attacked as being evidence of fraud. Since 1831 when Alexander Campbell published “Delusions” attacking the Book of Mormon, critics have charged that it is pathetically anachronistic in depicting early Hebrews who worshipped Christ. Campbell was particularly outraged that the Nephites would engage in temple worship outside of Jerusalem (“contrary to every precept of the law”), and rely on a priesthood other than the Levitical priesthood. Such arguments lost some of their sting with the revelations from the Dead Sea Scrolls, where we find pre-Christian Hebrews in what has been called a church of anticipation, engaging in practices that were once thought to be uniquely Christian. Other documents confirmed that Jews outside of Israel such as those in Elephantine, Egypt had no trouble in building their own temples patterned after Solomon’s temple, as did the Nephites. More recently, Barker’s work helps us appreciate the ancient significance of the Melchizedek Priesthood and the primacy of early temple concepts in preexilic Jewish religion, remarkable consistent with the flavor of religion Lehi brought to the New World. What looked like silly anachronisms in 1830 now appear as impressive evidences that the Book of Mormon is an authentic ancient text, and that temple-related concepts in it and in the LDS temple are fruits of a Restoration, not just ignorant blunders.

Further scholarship continues to shed temple-related insights into the Book of Mormon in ways that further confirm not only its authenticity as an ancient Semitic record. For example, subtle Hebraic wordplay on the structure of Solomon’s temple even appears to play an important role in Lehi’s vision in a way that Joseph Smith surely could not have fabricated, as I discuss at Mormanity and the Nauvoo Times. D. John Butler in his ebook, Plain and Precious Things: The Temple Religion of the Book of Mormon’s Visionary Men provides a new way of looking at Lehi’s vision. Lehi describes a journey that begins in a “dark and dreary wilderness” that joins a “large and spacious field, as if it had been a world” (1 Nephi 8:20). The Hebrew word ulam for the first part of the temple is very close, almost identical in sound, to olam, a word that means “world.” In Butler’s view, there is a Hebrew play on words linking the great and spacious field, “a world,” to the Temple’s ulam. It’s one of many clues that we are on a Temple trip—but not the happy place of light and joy we normally associate with the Temple. In Lehi’s dream, it’s a temple gone dark. Dark and dreary, filled with wicked priests representing the corrupt religions establishment of his day.

After the ulam comes the hekal, the “great building.” Recall Lehi’s words of what he saw after the field/world/ulam:

a great and spacious building; and it stood as it were in the air, high above the earth. And it was filled with people, both old and young, both male and female; and their manner of dress was exceedingly fine; and they were in the attitude of mocking and pointing their fingers towards those who had come at and were partaking of the fruit. (1Nephi 8:26-27)

The word “fine” is used repeatedly in the Old Testament to describe the clothing of the priests in the temple, not secular clothing. The people with the fine clothing in the great and spacious building include the priests of the temple in a sinister hekal, part of Lehi’s dark temple experience. Butler also compares the fumes of incense that are part of the hekal with the mists of darkness that lead people astray. The waters of life that are part of many temple scenarios in ancient literature are replaced with filthy waters that lead people astray.

Only those who resist the corrupt religious establishment of his day and the temptations and pressures of the adversary, clinging to the word of God (the iron rod) can make it past the dark ulam and sinister hekal and arrive safely to debir and the tree of life, rich in temple imagery also. Thus, Lehi’s dream also appears to use Semitic wordplay to refer to the 3 parts of Solomon’s temple, with a twist highlighting the forces of apostasy that he was opposing. Its references to a tree of life, waters of life, the Son of God, and so forth are consistent with Barker’s reconstruction of early temple theology prior to the Exile–again, evidence of a Restoration.

Clothed Upon: The Ancient Nature of Temple Clothing

Critics enjoying making fun of LDS temple clothing and LDS garments, the special clothing given to those who get their Endowment in the temple. However, these unusual items have profound ancient roots and ancient parallels that add depth to the claim of a Restoration of ancient religion. For a fascinating introduction to this topic, see Blake Ostler’s scholarly survey of this theme in “Clothed Upon: A Unique Aspect of Christian Antiquity,” BYU Studies, vol. 22, no. 1, 1981. Most LDS people reading this are going to be highly surprised. Meanwhile, the Church has released a helpful video on the nature of the LDS garment, which I share and discuss in a post at Mormanity.

For more on the ancient Jewish and Christian roots of some particular issues related to LDS temple clothing, also see John W. Welch and Claire Foley, “Gammadia on Early Jewish and Christian Garments,” BYU Studies, Volume 36:3 (1996–97).

Temple Themes in Other LDS Scriptures Prior to 1842

The Book of Moses, published in 1831, contains many elements relevant to the LDS Temple. It begins with a classic heavenly ascent scene, which is related to the core concept of bringing man into the presence of God. Instead of taking place in a temple, this “Endowment” takes place in the natural substitute for a formal temple, a high mountain. There Moses sees God “face to face” and is able to “endure his presence” (v. 2). He is shown the world that God has created and learns more of God’s works, and is told he has been created in the image of the Son. After God departs, Satan comes telling Moses to worship him, and Moses casts him out in the name of the Son, and Moses departs, ranting and shaking the earth (v. 12-22). God then visits Moses again after this scene, and is shown more details of the Creation, including the first man, “Adam, which is many” (v. 34). Moses is commanded to write what he has learned and also writes the detailed Creation story.

The Book of Moses contains other elements that are integral to the LDS Endowment ceremony, including information about Satan’s rebellion and the premortal existence, and Adam’s faithfulness in offering sacrifices that were a similitude of the sacrifice of the Son of God.

Much more can be said about temple themes in the Book of Moses. There is an entire book on the subject, Jeffrey Bradshaw’s Temples Themes in the Book of Moses. Highly recommended reading (see George L. Mitton’s review at Mormon Interpreter).

The Book of Abraham, published 1835, contains related temple themes. Abraham desires priesthood blessings. He is rescued from a human sacrifice and encounters God, and later has God appear to him (2: 6). In this second encounter God offers the Abrahamic covenant (2:8-11). He appears another time (2:19) and makes further promises. God reveals to Abraham details of the creation via preserved records from the fathers (1: 31) and also via vision aided by the Urm and Thummim (3:1-2), and he also shares the story of the Creation and also of the premortal existence.

The Doctrine and Covenants, the compilation of canonized revelations primarily received by Joseph Smith, also contains language that anticipates some of the important elements of the Endowment and the Nauvoo Temple. Section 84:19-25 given in 1832 says the Melchizedek priesthood holds “the key of the mysteries of the kingdom, even the key of the knowledge of God” (v. 19) and then explains that in the ordinances of the priesthood “the power of godliness is manifest … [f]or without this, no man can see the face of God, even the Father, and live” (vv. 20-22). Verses 23-24 then explain that Moses was seeking to bring Israel into the presence of God and into his rest. This is the fundamental theme of the temple, to prepare people to enter into God’s presence. It is also a key purpose of the original Jewish temple, according to the recent scholarship of Margaret Barker.

Section 124 of the Doctrine and Covenants also makes allusions to temple themes. In verse 39, for example, there are references to washings, anointings, baptism for the dead, and an “endowment” of  those in Zion to be had in the temple they are to build. In the commands given regarding the construction of the temple in this section, we learn that this is where the fulness of the priesthood will be restored (v. 28), including the keys of the priesthood (v. 34), with further ordinances to be revealed (v. 40). This was written in January 1841.

There is so much more to say on this topic, including much more from early Christianity. The LDS temple and related topics are worth a lifetime of study. The temple and its teachings go deep into antiquity and bring together many of the most interesting aspects of the Gospel and of ancient religion. Read Eliade, read Levenson, read Barker, and read the many LDS scholars who have furthered our understanding of the ancient world, of early Christianity and Judaism, of the scriptures, of the modern Restoration, and of the ancient and restored Temple. Anachronisms and blunders are becoming subtleties and evidences for plausibility. Our ability to learn from the Temple and intellectually appreciate its majesty is greater than ever. There is no need to be ashamed of the Gospel of Jesus Christ in this era, though the Temple is further than ever from the dark comfort zone of the world and its fine-clothed intellectuals.

Further resources: