Terryl Givens is a professor of literature and religion at the University of Richmond and author of By the Hand of Mormon: The American Scripture that Launched a New World Religion.
Part of what happens [in the temple] is secret, but in general, what is happening there that gives a sense of the essence of Mormonism?
There's much that transpires within a Mormon temple that is too sacred to talk about in public forms, but there's much that isn't.
We haven't addressed enough what I think is one of the central beauties of the temple. I'm reminded of a revelation the prophet Joseph received in which he said the same sociality which exists among us here will exist among us there in the celestial kingdom; only it will be coupled with the eternal glory, which we do not now enjoy. Now, that's a wonderful vision of heaven, because what he's saying is that heaven is constituted really out of a set of exalted relationships that we're a part of. Those relationships are familial, but they also extend to friends.
In the temple, at two levels that truth is reflected, because on the one hand, most of what transpires there involves performing sacred ordinances on behalf of people that have already died in order to weld together families in chains, husbands to wives, parents to children, children to ancestors. In a very real sense, the temple exists primarily to forge those eternal relationships that will service into the eternities.
But on the other hand, the temple exists as a kind of a microcosm of that heavenly world that we hope to inhabit, and that's what makes the temple a joyful experience to me. It's just absolutely delightful to know that there is one place that you can go, and when you walk through the doors -- for example, we go to the Washington temple. There's an actual bridge that takes you from the annex into the temple proper. It's glass-lined so that as you walk into the temple precinct, you can actually see yourself leaving the world behind. Then you enter into a realm where every single person in that huge edifice is smiling; every person is friendly; everybody is happy to see you. There is nothing but quiet conversation and loving expressions of kindness and people serving and helping each other. If there wasn't anything else that happened in the temple, knowing that you were going to a place that only those who had coveted it and committed to try to live Christ-like lives are permitted to enter -- it's not a question of people being perfect enough to enter the temple; it's a question of people being required to be committed enough to enter the temple, to show that their hearts are pure and that they're aspiring to live as true disciples of Christ. And to be surrounded for several hours a day in that environment is one of the great, great experiences of Mormon life.
[What is the process to enter the temple?]
Before any Latter-day Saint can enter into the temple, he or she must have what's called the temple recommend, which is a little certificate which is signed by both a bishop or a bishop's counselor, or a stake president or a stake president's counselor. The way to obtain one of the temple recommends is you need to pass through a series of interviews that are sometimes called worthiness interviews. I think the name is somewhat misleading, because in order to qualify to enter the temple, you don't have to prove yourself a pure and virtuous person. What you have to really pass is what I would call a minimum standard of worthiness that shows that you are making a good-faith effort to abide by the principles of the Gospel. You need to show that you're committed enough to be paying your tithing, that you're living the word of wisdom, that you're faithful to your spouse and those kinds of things.
What that recommend represents is not an endorsement that you're a good person; what it represents is access to a temple that represents the fullness of the blessings that God has in store for his children. For that reason, that temple has powerful symbolic significance, and most people consider it really imperative to have one, even if they don't live in a place where they can attend a temple, because of what it signifies. ...
President Gordon B. Hinckley is the 15th president of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. He has led the church since March 1995.
The temple, in your words, is a bridge between here and the hereafter, almost as if it is a concrete symbol of the afterlife. What happens in the temple that is distinctive to the LDS Church?
Well, every temple that we build is a testimony of our belief in the immortality of the human soul. Everything connected with the temples is in terms of eternal life, eternal purposes, eternal existence. And the temple in effect becomes a bridge from mortality to immortality. If there were no immortality there would be no need for temples. There would be no need for eternal marriage if there were no eternity.
And so those sealings that take place in the temple, that's the heart of it?
Sure, that's the heart of it. Exactly.
Kathleen Flake is a religious historian and author of The Politics of American Religious Identity: The Seating of Senator Reed Smoot, Mormon Apostle.
… What happens inside the temple that tells people something very important about Mormonism?
Temples matter because they tell Mormons who they are. They answer those questions: where did I come from?; why am I here?; where am I going? And they do that by telling this ancient biblical drama. It's a liturgy of putting oneself inside that story and understanding the nature of one's life in the course of telling that story. It brings an ordering into one's life that is very meaningful on a personal and cosmic level because it operates on both the level of the individual and on the level of the meaning of life itself, that drama that people participate in.
Also, temples matter to Mormons as places of revelation. Revelation can happen in the world anywhere, but there was a sense when you enter into the temple [that] that is God's house, ... as opposed to the chapel. The chapel is kind of where we go to work things out and to receive these very important sacraments of the church like baptism and the sacrament of the Lord's supper. But in the temple, that's God's house; that's where you go to meet God.
In the same way that you talk about the Holy of Holies in the biblical sense, the temple has that power. In addition, it is where Mormons construct their families. They weld these ties that they believe transcend time, and they understand that sense of relationship that's to govern their behaviors, their duties, their rights and their responsibilities to their families broadly construed, both those who have gone before them and those that will come after them.
Greg Prince is the author of David O. McKay and the Rise of Modern Mormonism and a book on the Mormon priesthood.
The temple represents the epitome of the Latter-day Saints' experience. At the time David O. McKay became president of the church, there were very few temples; they were all in the Western part of the United States. And it was a major reason that the principle of gathering was still in force, because people could, in the temple, receive blessings that they couldn't get elsewhere. That would draw them not only to visit, but also to move to where the temples were.
... Perhaps President [David O.] McKay put it best when he escorted Cecil B. DeMille to the newly constructed Los Angeles temple. ... At one point he said to DeMille, "This is where man physical seeks to be man spiritual." The importance of that was paramount in his mind, and it drove him to put temples where they hadn't been before, ... and by the end of his presidency the number of temples either completed or under construction had doubled.
Margaret Toscano is a classics professor at the University of Utah who was excommunicated in 2000 for writing about the role of women in Mormonism.
Now, I know that for a lot of other people, when they first go to the temple -- because it is often talked about in Mormon discourse as this high point of spirituality, and it's the ultimate ritual in Mormonism -- and when they go there, they are so disturbed at the funny clothing, at everything that takes place. For women, they're often disturbed because of what can really be seen as female subordination. But I didn't feel any of those. ... When I first went to the LDS temple and received my endowments, all I can do is describe it as I really had a mystical experience, where the temple ritual, which is set out as a journey of Adam and Eve, that there was a way in which I connected to it on a very deep spiritual level. ...
... I felt empowered by this experience. ... I [felt] not just endowed in the physical sense of this ritual, ... but I experienced this on a spiritual level. It was sort of like my mind was suddenly open, that I realize[d] that what this temple ceremony meant was not just about these physical things, but I understood what it meant symbolically, because I felt it on a very deep, mystical level. But what I was being endowed with was priesthood power, that I was being endowed with the power of God, because, in fact, that's what priesthood is supposed to be about. ... Somehow I understood on this very deep level that what I was experiencing in the temple was this feeling that this endowment was real, and that this was not just for men, but that this was for women, too. I felt in a sense that God was approving of these feelings that I had had, that I was not out of line. ...
Marlin K. Jensen is the executive director of the LDS Family and Church History Department and a member of the First Quorum of the Seventy.
The temple represents to me the place where I can receive what I call the crowning blessings of this church that I belong to. In fact, I remember someone talking to some of the elders of the Jews in Jerusalem at some point when we were establishing our Jerusalem center there, and they asked him a question about the temple. Here is Jerusalem, and the old Jewish rabbi said, "The temple," he said. "If you want to know about the temple, you'll have to go talk to the Mormons."
So it's interesting that what really is almost a universal symbol throughout the history of mankind of worship, of God -- the temple -- is something now that is almost lost, the knowledge of it, except to this church. Really one of the priceless things that Joseph Smith restored or brought back to earth was a knowledge of what a temple was and what should occur at a temple. Much of the latter part of his life was spent in refashioning the temple ceremonies and leaving that as a legacy to Brigham Young so that that was perpetuated after his death.
It's instructive maybe to think about just the synonyms that we use in the church for the word "temple." You hear the word "happiness"; you hear the word "family"; you hear the word "cosmic," because I think for many of us it's a place where we go to get our bearings on this universe. You hear the word "covenant," because in the temple we do make covenants. We make promises to God that we're going to live our lives in a certain way. Part of the strength of our religion, part of the commitment that people feel, comes from those covenants that we make there.
If I were to describe sort of the overarching narrative that occurs there, I would say it's God's way, he being the master teacher, of teaching us his plan of salvation, his plan of life. So in the temple, we actually experience something that's dramatized for us. It's a dramatic narrative with participation on our part. And it's a rehearsal, really, of where we were before we came to this life, how the world was created and prepared for us to come here, what we're to do while we're here, including these promises that we make that would indicate that we should live our lives in a certain way. We should be chaste, for instance. We should be committed to Christ. We should be willing to concentrate and sacrifice what we have for his interests, the interests of his church. Nothing that occurs there could ever be interpreted as anything but wholesome and uplifting and ennobling.
And though it's in a sense secret because we don't talk about it outside the temple, we do that only because it's a sacred thing to us. When millions of people have participated in it and kept it confidential to a large extent, it shows you, I think, the seriousness with which that whole experience is taken. Ultimately we learn in the temple ceremony that our destiny is to return to God and to return there as families, so the sealing that takes place, the marriage that takes place in the temple where a man and a woman are joined together -- or, as we term it, "sealed together" -- not just for time or until death does us part, but for time and all eternity, is to me the high point, really, in religious experience and in religious ceremony.