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The Fanatic in the Street
No one is allowed to talk about what happens in a Latter-day Saint temple. This means there’s no good way to prepare yourself for your first trip down that rabbit hole.
This essay is an abridged excerpt from an early draft of my memoir, The Accidental Terrorist: Confessions of a Reluctant Missionary.
Temple Square occupies a full city block in the heart of Salt Lake City. Most of its buildings, including the famous Tabernacle, stand open to the general public. But the grand and towering Temple welcomes only the card-carrying faithful.
Built from gray Utah granite, the gothic-style temple was begun in 1853 and took forty years to complete. Its clean lines, narrow windows, and six elegant spires draw the eye toward the heavens, inspiring thoughts of eternity. Each spire rises more than a hundred feet, the tallest topped by a gilded statue of Moroni, the angel who gave Joseph Smith the Golden Plates.
Adorning the outer walls you’ll find relief carvings of such symbols as clasped hands, the All-Seeing Eye, and the seven stars of the Big Dipper. These are some of the few remaining relics of the folk-magic traditions from which Mormonism arose, and their presence on the Temple can be startling even to believers.
But if you find the outside strange, just follow me inside.
I first entered the Salt Lake Temple on August 15, 1986, in the company of my parents. I had turned nineteen the day before and was scant weeks from departing for a two-year missionary assignment. I was dizzy with hunger, having fasted since breakfast the day before, but that was nothing compared with my excitement and dread at finally being initiated into the deepest mysteries of my faith. That day I was to experience the most sacred and secret of all LDS rituals—the endowment.
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Temples are houses of advanced worship, not for ordinary Sunday services. Admission is by “recommend”—a card bearing the signatures of two of one’s local church leaders. To acquire it, I’d been interviewed to ascertain my readiness and worthiness, with particular emphasis on the question of whether I had sympathy for any apostate or heretical individuals or groups. My answer to this was a resounding no. I didn’t even know any apostates, let alone have sympathy for anyone foolish and sinful enough to rebel against the Restored Gospel.
Once or twice a year, a wild-eyed, bearded fanatic—the only apostate I’d seen up close—would stand in the street outside my high school distributing pamphlets that purported to expose what really went on in the Mormon temple. I always junked these without a second glance. I’d been taught that the pamphlets were filled with lies, so why expose myself to them? I would experience the endowment for myself soon enough, and then I’d know the truth.
The Temple’s foyer and hallways were decorated in varying shades of white. Senior citizens dressed in the same color milled about on every side. A reverent hush held sway, as if the very air deadened sound.
My first hour was a whirlwind of activity. In a series of quick rituals in paneled stalls downstairs, I was washed clean from the blood and sins of my generation, anointed a king and priest to the Most High God, blessed with a new name (“Noah”—same as every other first-time male that day, I later learned), and clothed in “the garment of the holy priesthood.” This item was actually a two-piece set of cotton underwear with arcane marks stitched at the nipples. I was instructed to wear it next to my skin for the rest of my life.
Clad again in my white shirt, trousers, and tie, I joined my father and mother in an upstairs chapel. Except for receiving new names, my parents had not undergone the initiatory rituals that I had. They’d both received their own endowments many years earlier, and that day would stand as proxies for dead people whose names had been unearthed by Mormon genealogists. Other Saints had already stood proxy for these people in washing and anointing rites. Now my parents would give these fortunate dead a chance to ascend to the highest level of Heaven.
Other patrons drifted in. When the chapel was full enough, an elderly gentleman summoned us all to the Creation Room.
I did some of my growing up in Kaysville, Utah, where the suburbs encroached on farmland at the knees of the Wasatch Mountains. On family excursions, we’d often drive past a mysterious white building in the nearby city of Ogden that looked like a classical Roman temple had lost a fight with a wrought iron foundry. A capital G enclosed in a complicated diamond shape surmounted the building’s portico. What does that stand for? the seven-year-old me wondered. “God”? “Ghosts”? “Go away”?
One Saturday morning my curiosity could take no more. “Hey, Dad,” I asked as we passed by, “what’s that building?”
My father glowered at the spooky structure, and a stormcloud seemed to gather inside the old station wagon. My sisters and I tensed in the back seat. My father sometimes had that effect on us. “That’s the Church of the Devil,” he said grimly.
I never doubted my father until I was much older—not until after I’d received my endowment, and after I’d learned that the building was actually a Masonic temple. That’s when I also learned that men like Mozart and Haydn, Voltaire and Goethe, George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, and Thomas Jefferson, had all been Freemasons—as had Joseph Smith, our faith’s beloved founding prophet.
By 1842, Joseph’s young church was well established. His followers numbered around 20,000, half of whom lived in the prosperous city of Nauvoo, Illinois, where he was mayor. On March 15th of that year, the 36-year-old prophet received his initiation as an Entered Apprentice Mason. The next day, he advanced to the Fellow Craft and Master Mason degrees.
On May 4th, only seven weeks later, Joseph introduced a new Mormon ordinance, the “endowment,” to his trusted inner circle. It bore a remarkable resemblance to Masonic rites, as his trusted associates could not have failed to notice. And that’s what I was about to experience.
In double file, we shuffled into the Creation Room, a large chamber painted with murals of chaotic proto-landscapes. We men filled the theater seats to the right of the center aisle, while the women sat to the left.
A sour-looking man with steel-wool hair addressed us. “Brothers and sisters,” he said, “if you proceed and receive your full endowment, you will be required to take upon yourselves sacred obligations, the violation of which will bring upon you the judgment of God, for God will not be mocked. If any of you desire to withdraw rather than accept these obligations of your own free will and choice, you may now make it known by raising your hand.”
I felt the cold touch of a ghost on the back of my neck. What was I getting myself into?
The sour man scanned the room. I glanced covertly around the audience. No one else appeared concerned. In fact, most folks there looked downright bored. My father patted me on the knee, and with reluctance I swallowed my misgivings.
The lights dimmed, and the voices of actors representing God and Jehovah woodenly recounted the first five days of creation. Many of the older patrons took advantage of the opportunity to rest their eyes. When the lights went up and the actors emerged from behind their curtain to enact the creation of man, quite a few naps were interrupted.
Once Adam and Eve were with us, we stood and filed into the Garden Room, which was decorated with lush pastoral murals. Here, we watched Lucifer tempt our first parents into partaking of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. Realizing that they were naked (though the actors, of course, were not), Adam and Eve rushed to hide from the gaze of God.
The officiator of the endowment stepped forward, interrupting the action. “Brethren and sisters, put on your aprons.”
We each carried with us a fabric pouch containing robes and other items folded as densely as parachutes. I rummaged inside mine and extracted a simple green satin apron embroidered with a pattern of leaves. My father helped me tie it around my waist.
When we all had our aprons on, the actor playing God led us in an oath called the Law of Obedience, in which we swore to follow the commandments. Then he led us in the Law of Sacrifice, in which we swore to consecrate all we had to sustaining and defending the Kingdom of God, including our lives if necessary.
“That will do,” said God. “We will now give unto you the first token of the Aaronic Priesthood, with its accompanying name, sign, and penalty.”
Penalty? I thought. This isn’t a hockey match.
“Before doing so, however, we desire to impress upon your minds the sacred character of the first token of the Aaronic Priesthood, as well as that of all the other tokens of the Holy Priesthood which you will receive in the temple this day. They are most sacred, and are guarded by solemn covenants and obligations of secrecy to the effect that under no condition, even at the peril of your life, will you ever divulge them, except at a certain place that will be shown you hereafter. The representation of the execution of the penalties indicates different ways in which life may be taken.”
My mouth went dry. Okay, I thought, now this is the part where they really should give you the option of bowing out. This is the part where there really should be a potion labeled Drink me that shrinks you to the size of a cockroach so you can scuttle under the door and escape.
But my father sat calmly beside me, steady. What could I do but trust him and our faith?
“The first token of the Aaronic Priesthood is given by clasping the right hands and placing the joint of the thumb directly over the first knuckle of the hand, in this manner.” God grasped the hand of a man in the first row, raising the grip high so we all could see. “We give unto you the first token of the Aaronic Priesthood. We desire all to receive it. All arise.”
The actors circulated through the audience reaching across seats to be sure every one of us had received the sacred clasp. As I grasped God’s dry, solid hand, I thought to myself: It’s a secret handshake. I’ve just learned a secret handshake.
I wondered when my decoder ring was coming.
We took our seats, and God said, “The name of this token is the new name that you received in the temple today. The sign is made by bringing the right arm to the square, the palm of the hand to the front, the fingers close together, and the thumb extended.” As God spoke, the officiator demonstrated. “This is the sign. The execution of the penalty is represented by placing the thumb under the left ear, the palm of the hand down, and by drawing the thumb quickly across the throat to the right ear and dropping the hand to the side.”
And in the manner explained, the officiator at the altar pantomimed slitting his own throat.
“All arise,” said Elohim.
We arose. Vengeful butterflies fought a pitched battle in my stomach.
“Each of you make the sign of the first token of the Aaronic Priesthood. This is the sign. Now, repeat in your mind after me the words of the covenant, at the same time representing the execution of the penalty: ‘I’—think of the new name—‘covenant that I will never reveal the first token of the Aaronic Priesthood, with its accompanying name, sign, and penalty. Rather than do so, I would suffer my life to be taken.’”
I thought the words in my mind, at the same time drawing a shaky thumb across my throat. I could picture the flesh parting like paper, imagine the sting and slow shock as blood cascaded from that lipless grin to stain my white clothes crimson.
“That will do,” said Elohim.
We sat, a motley collection of bloodless specters. My pulse pounded in my ears.
If the debut of The Matrix weren’t still thirteen years in the future, I might have reflected on the words Neo hears from Cypher after being wrenched into bitter reality from his world of virtual comfort and illusion: “I know what you’re thinking ... why, oh, why didn’t I take the blue pill?”
The drama continued to unfold as we proceeded from room to room. In the process, we donned white robes, sashes, and caps, swore more oaths, learned more secret handshakes, and pantomimed more gruesome deaths. My sick horror began to recede, replaced by a calm that partook more of numbness than acceptance. I told myself that God must be greatly pleased by my obedience.
At last we found ourselves before a shimmering curtain, the Veil. Here we were each in turn tested in our knowledge of the handshakes, even as we will be tested in the next life at the gates of Heaven. When we passed, we were admitted through the Veil into the Celestial Room.
My mother had entered first and was waiting for me on the other side, in a cold, ornate chamber that looked more like Conrad Hilton’s idea of heaven than mine. She gave me a brief hug and whispered, “It’s wonderful, isn’t it?”
I could only nod, trying to convince myself that my goosebumps were a manifestation of the Holy Spirit.
My father joined us a few moments later. “I tell you,” he said softly, patting me on the shoulder, “you learn something new every time. Do you have any questions? You can ask them now.”
I shook my head.
He smiled. “It’s a lot to take in.”
It sure was.
We sat down on an overstuffed white settee for a few minutes’ contemplation, but I couldn’t sort out my complicated feelings.
I’d have to pay closer attention on my next visit.
Latter-day Saints would like to believe that Joseph Smith received the endowment ceremony directly from God, but the many correspondences with Masonic practice suggest he did not. Was denial of this connection why my father called Masonry the Church of the Devil? I believe so, though more educated Mormons will flip things around and tell you that Masonry is actually a debased form of Adam’s original worship, corrupted over the millennia and restored to purity through Brother Joseph.
My two younger brothers embarked on LDS missions in 1994 and 1996 respectively. They received the endowment before leaving, as well, but I’m relieved that, thanks to revisions enacted in 1990, they were never compelled to pantomime violent mutilation the way I was. The penalties have been removed from the ceremony—not simply because they seem to have made so many younger Saints so uncomfortable, but as part of a calculated campaign to obscure and erase all trace of the Church’s origins in folk magic and its borrowing from Masonry.
As understandable as this is, it strikes me as unfair. My brothers and I were raised under the same roof, but it’s like they belong to a different church than the one I grew up in. If they break their oaths, they can expect little more than a slap on the wrist. I’ll deserve evisceration.
Remember that fanatic in the street outside my high school? It took me nine long years from the time of that first endowment to work my way out of the church, but now I am that fanatic, hoping against hope that my words will find their way to one heartsick nineteen-year-old boy trapped in the upper rooms of the Salt Lake Temple, a boy wishing he’d known what he was getting into before he started, wishing he’d been brave enough to take the blue pill.
He won’t hear these words, of course, but as a proxy maybe you’ll do. ∅
My memoir, The Accidental Terrorist: Confessions of a Reluctant Missionary, is available from all the usual sources online, though I would encourage you to order it either from your local independent bookstore or from Bookshop.org.