Dialogue Topic Pages #4: Temples

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Dialogue is proud to launch a new monthly podcast series on the dialoguejournal.com/topicpages, exploring key issues in the history of LDS scholarship. Join host Taylor Petrey, editor of Dialogue and associate professor of religion at Kalamazoo College as he studies Temples as viewed through the scholarship found within Dialogue’s pages.

Editor’s Note: This transcript has been lightly edited from the podcast format. The I used in the text signifies Taylor Petrey and most of the historical narrative was written by him. Some extra context has been given where he worked from notes and may differ slightly from the podcast. This article should not be considered a scholarly or academic attempt at writing this history, but rather a public offering to encourage learning more about the topics discussed in Dialogue.


Dialogue Topics: Temples

This month, we are looking at the history of scholarship on temples as it has appeared in Dialogue. Temples are sacred spaces where sacred rites or ordinances are performed. They are ironically some of the most public symbols of the faith while also being relatively opaque to outsiders about what goes on in there. And there has often been a taboo about some of the rites in part because there is a covenant not to reveal them. However, recently there has been a lot more transparency with even various aspects of the endowment revealed to the public, while still withholding the keywords and symbols. Still, I am going to err on the side of caution in many respects here, though some of the articles go into greater depth.

I wasn’t sure what to expect when I first started looking into this topic, but there were some real surprises. There was a lot on the history of the buildings and the rites, but it turns out that temples, especially those outside the U.S., are a really great lens for thinking about broader changes in LDS history.

I am giving this podcast in the context of a huge controversy about the temple right now, at least in Utah. Up until 2021, there were two temples that still held “live sessions” and that had original pioneer-era artwork. Just recently, it was announced that this will be coming to an end, and much of the artwork will be either moved or destroyed. These are still new developments and have been hotly debated, but I hope that this episode can shed a little light on the issues.

I’m grouping a variety of perspectives and scholarship under the rubric of Temple Studies here, and I have to admit that I really learned about some new avenues of study. In the first and second sections, I am going to talk about perhaps the more familiar approaches to studying temples. The first is about the temple as a physical sacred space, a material object looked at through the lens of architecture, for instance. The second is about ritual studies that trace the practices and meanings of the temple rites, especially the endowment. These two approaches really teach us a lot about how Latter-day Saints draw on contemporary surrounding culture, in both the architecture and the rituals, to create these sacred elements. The next two nodes in temple studies focus on entirely different topics. We are going to look at a lot of comparative scholarship between the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, now the Community of Christ. Finally, I found a surprising number of articles on international temples that talk about their effects on the local and global church. On this last point, I gained a new perspective, and I hope that we see more scholarship like this in future temple studies. In general, I think that this field could use a boost, and I hope that the historical scholarship of this podcast inspires future work.

Act 1: Temple Buildings and Their Meaning

I want to start with a 1968 article, a brief piece really, on “Temple as Symbol” by architect Donald Bergsma. It’s part of a roundtable discussion on the state of Latter-day Saint architecture at the time. I should also note that the 1964 World’s Fair in New York City included a replica of the facade of the Salt Lake temple, as well as the first display of the Christus statue. So Latter-day Saints are thinking a lot about branding, iconography, and symbols of the faith in this period. And Mormon architecture is also going in a new direction.

After reflecting on the importance of the temple as a symbol of Latter-day Saint belief, Bergsma wrote, “what, then, can be said of the proposed design for the new temples soon to be built in Ogden and Provo? A photograph of one of them taken from the local newspaper, when circulated to young architects with the caption removed, was identified as almost every type of building other than a religious structure. Only one individual properly identified the building, and he sarcastically suggested it could be a Mormon structure of some kind. This is a sad commentary on contemporary Mormon architecture. As a symbol, the new temples will tell a story quite different from that of the edifice on Temple Square.”

So, the controversy over the Provo and Ogden temples went on for many decades, until they were both updated in the past ten years. But Bergsma continued, decrying the “mass production” of temples that he foresaw in the Provo and Ogdon design. He felt that it was a betrayal of the rich heritage of the early temples: “the early pioneers would not have been so callous in their approach to housing the activities of their faith. Fifty or one hundred years from now future generations may sit and ponder one of these new temples and ask the same questions we ask today of the temples of the past: ‘why did they do this? what drove them to produce this astounding structure?’ The church that produced the structure will have to be the church that answers the questions the new design suggest that the church may not be around to provide the answer.”

Now, we are more than 50 years after this is written, and on one hand, his prediction was vindicated. These designs were unpopular and have been changed. On the other hand, the tradition has provided far more resilience than his dire predictions that such temples foretold disaster for the faith. But I had to laugh as I got into this, realizing that Latter-day Saints have been decrying the changes to the temple architecture out of nostalgia for the pioneer temples for decades now. This latest controversy over pioneer temple design is just one more chapter in an old book.

The next important piece is Paul Anderson, “The Early Twentieth Century Temples,” in spring 1981. Paul passed away about a year ago, but he was one of the foremost authorities on temples and worked directly on temple architecture and preservation for years. In this early article, he walks through the significance and symbolism of the new direction that temple building took in the 1900s. He starts off by laying out a bit of the history of the Salt Lake Temple. It was a mixture of styles because its building took so long, with the interiors in 1880s and 1890s Victorian fashions. Did you know the original designs had wooden spires with weather vanes like New England churches? Later, they were changed to the stone spires. The gold leaf angel Moroni was on the model of Greco-Roman statues on top of public buildings. It was an amalgamation of styles and design from the culture. The article walks through lots of the distinctive nineteenth-century architecture, which was really quite experimental, adopting classical, Russian, Tudor, Tuscan, and Spanish styles.

Then, he discuses the new confidence that Latter-day Saint leaders had in the early twentieth-century as they were finally able to operate with some stability after the era of polygamy. They decided to take on a new temple project in Alberta and asked for anonyzed submissions from Latter-day Saint architects. The change in architecture for the new temple reflected the changes in the church itself. It was more modern and more connected to the world. They also wanted something that was more economical and easier to build than Salt Lake, Manti, Logan, and so on. The winning design was similar to that of Frank Lloyd Wright and pre-Columbian ruins, and it was a daringly modern one. No spire. Boxy. In direct contrast to the temples that had come before. Hyrum Pope and Harold Burton were the winning designers, and they were very, very young. Pope and Burton then designed the Laie Hawaii temple as well, which leaned even harder into the Mayan pre-Columbian style. They continued to have creative successes as architects for long afterward.

Their connection to Frank Lloyd Wright’s style perhaps signaled their overall popularity. More than twenty chapels and tabernacles were then modeled on that modern design from Portland to Brooklyn. Anderson wrote, “Although the style was not wholly original, these Mormon structures surely constituted one of the most remarkable collections of early modern buildings anywhere.” These temples, Anderson wrote, “remain today some of the most precious pieces of our cultural heritage. They should also serve as an inspiration and a challenge for Mormon artists and architects of our generation as they strive to give expression to their faith.”

Sticking on this theme, I want to fast forward to 1996 with Kent Walgren, “Inside the Salt Lake Temple: Gisbert Bossard’s 1911 Photographs.” This tells the remarkable story of a twenty-one-year-old disgruntled German convert who photographed the interior of the temple in an elaborate act of revenge and tried selling them. The church responded in part by developing their own photographs of the interior to distribute in Talmage’s pamphlet, “The House of the Lord.” But Bossard’s photographs stand as the earliest known images of the interior of any Latter-day Saint temple. They’d been lost but were discovered in December 1993. They are very cool to examine, showing the murals in the garden room and telestial room. They also show pictures from the administrative or council rooms on the third floor. Now, it isn’t mentioned here, but the secrecy of the temple was a huge topic in the early 1900s during Senator Reed Smoot’s attempt to be inducted into the Senate. The whole endowment was leaked and scrutinized by the national press in the style of an exposé, so this episode was really part of a larger story that is relevant for us to know, and I’ll talk about it more in a moment.

While we are on the Salt Lake Temple, I’ll conclude this part with a mention of Brian Stuy’s fall 1998 article, “‘Come, Let Us Go Up to the Mountain of the Lord’: The Salt Lake Temple Dedication.” Here is how it starts: “Many believed its dedication signaled the imminent commencement of the Millennial Era, an era which would witness the church’s return to Jackson County, Missouri, and the advent of the Savior. Thus, for the members present, the dedication of the Salt Lake temple constituted one of the most important events in the history of the world.” Through the use of the diaries of Wilford Woodruff, this article walks through various visions, revelations, exchanges, and interpretations that led up to the dedication and its immediate aftermath. This was all taking place around the time of the Manifesto which had publicly ended plural marriage. But I learned how much the apocalyptic expectations were a part of this event, with the hoped for t imminent return to Jackson County raised a number of times. The temple dedication came at a time when the church needed to unify and look forward to a brighter future. It seemed to do the trick. One person wrote, “Pen cannot describe, the feeling that I had in that most glorious place. I cannot express myself in words how we were all in heaven the time we were in the temple.”

Act 2: Latter-day Saint Temple Rituals

Just as the photographs in 1911 prompted the church to make things a little more public, something similar happened in the 1980s. Though not discussed in these articles, I need to mention the anti-Mormon film “The Godmakers,” which came out in 1982. This film, targeted toward evangelical and fundamentalist Christians, portrayed itself as an exposé on Mormonism, including its temple rites. But it came at a time of renewed scrutiny of Latter-day Saints as they were entering into the mainstream of the religious right through their family-focused message. Like in the early 1900s with Reed Smoot, the temple’s supposed secrecy, weirdness, and possible danger helped to otherize Mormons to a broader America. But Latter-day Saints are also bringing a more sophisticated analysis to these rites.

This historical focus to temples took on a new direction in 1987 with David John Buerger’s classic article, “The Development of the Mormon Temple Endowment Ceremony.” This is one that tackles one of the most sacred rites in the church and does what no one had really been able to do up until that point—talk about the history of its development. Starting with Joseph Smith, and going through Brigham Young and then the early twentieth century, up to the introduction of audio-visual technology for the ritual, this article gives amazing historical perspective on how and why this has changed. The article guards the names, tokens, and covenants but lays out the development of the rites themselves.

Now, here it is worth alerting readers to a split among Latter-day Saint thinkers between those who seek to locate the temple rites in modern context and those who seek to represent it as a restoration of an ancient set of practices. In a way, these debates follow similar patterns as those about the Book of Mormon’s origins, but the stakes are a little different. Smith never actually talked explicitly about the true sources for the rituals. In any case, Buerger is on the modernist side of this debate.

Beurger begins in Kirtland when Joseph Smith first began to talk about an “endowment,” but what he was talking about was quite different from what would later develop. There in the Kirtland temple, they practiced washings and anointings, and then sealed them to salvation. He later introduced the washing of feet that also had a bread and wine component. These were for men only.

In Nauvoo, there are some of the most important developments as Smith comes into closer contact with Free Masonry. Smith introduces new endowment practices in the upper room of his store in Nauvoo, which now included instructional material, drawn especially from the Books of Moses and Abraham. It’s interesting going back to the 1980s when the claim that Free Masonry influenced the temple rites was a controversial claim. Now it is commonly accepted, but there was some scandal about it back then since it was associated with anti-Mormon exposés. Today, it is one of those specialized subfields of Joseph Smith and early Mormonism, with lots of esoteric sources to master. In any case, this is one of the early analyses of the connection. The introduction of tokens, signs, penalties, and the prayer circle seem clear influences.

Later in the Nauvoo period, celestial marriage or plural marriage is introduced as well as another practice called “the second anointing.” This remains a controversial practice to discuss and got Buerger in a bit of trouble here, but you can read all about it.

The endowment itself was also growing and developing, including the dramatic elements with scripted characters which were first introduced in the Nauvoo temple when it was completed after Smith’s death. There were all sorts of interesting things about these, which often took place over more than one day, including things like all participants eating raisons as the forbidden, a lengthy lecture at the veil, wearing crowns after passing through the veil, and some interesting practices for the actors.

In nineteenth-century Utah, the rites went through further development. Most significant were endowments for the dead and a revised lecture at the veil that included the Adam-God doctrine.

From 1900 to 1930, there were further changes. The rites became the subject of US government concern during the seating of Senator Smoot. It turned out that some of the oaths in the ceremony were not that great, something about avenging the blood of the prophets. These became the subject of national news reports. It was downplayed and then eliminated. But these changes were controversial with some senior leaders rebelling to keep them going. The ceremony was also standardized during this period since there were variations in the different temples. Garment styles were also altered from the one piece that went to wrists and ankles that had snipped markings to something that looks closer to what it looks like today. But the changes in garments were also controversial, with some objecting to the changes. The Word of Wisdom also became a requirement for temple attendance at this time, and kissing over the altar for vicarious sealings was eliminated.

From 1931 to 1987, when the Buerger article was published, there was yet another phase where technology was introduced. Most importantly this happens with the Swiss temple, the first in Europe, that used video and audio instead of actors to accommodate the multiple languages. It was very simple at first but has been updated regularly since then with new actors, scenes, and so on. The ceremony was also edited to be a regular time. Temple work also began to take on increasing importance in the church in the 1970s and 1980s with new temples and more emphasis on the importance of the practice.

Since 1987, the temple endowment has gone through at least two more major revisions, most recently in 2018. I’m not going to go over them all here, but there are lots of other articles on Mormonism and Freemasonry in the pages of Dialogue that dig into this a bit more.

On this same theme is Armand Mauss’s 1987 article, in the same issue as Buerger’s, this one titled “Culture, Charisma, and Change: Reflections on Mormon Temple Worship.” Mauss’s article is less research than analysis, pointing out the problems and paradoxes of secrecy, responding to and building on Buerger in some ways. He notes, “there is no real reason that even devout church members could not talk more about the temple ceremonies and they do, with appropriate discretion about time and place, since the olds of secrecy attach only to the new names, signs, tokens, and penalties. Indeed, more open talk about the temple would not only facilitate understanding among both Mormons and non-Mormons in certain historical and scholarly respects, but would also infinitely improve the preparedness of initiates, almost all of home now enter the temple with only the vaguest idea of what to expect or of the obligations they will be asked to assume.” This has turned out to be anticipatory of the direction that recent church leaders have gone.

But the real payoff of this article is Mauss’s sociological analysis of temples. He looks at its social functions: as a right of passage, a feature of group bonding, a status differentiation within the group, and an occupation for the elderly, including preparation for death, and so on. He also reflects on the problem of the relationship between the endowment and Masonry, talking about the theological meanings and cautions about such assumptions of interrelationships: “To discover that our current medium contains masonic elements should be no more disturbing than the Disney elements of its films; or the non-Mormon artistic traditions and motifs which appear in the murals of older temples; or that the meeting rooms in the temples like those in chapels, strongly resemble those found in many protestant churches, with a pulpit or a altar, seats are cues and to discover that our current medium contains Masonic elements should be no more disturbing than the Disney elements of its films; or the non-Mormon artistic traditions and motifs which appear in the murals of older temples; or that the meeting rooms in the temples like those in chapels, strongly resemble those found in many protestant churches, with a pulpit or altar, seats or pews in rows etc.; or that the hymns sung in LDS sacrament meetings are borrowed in form, if not always in content, from the Protestant tradition . . . the list could continue, for Mormonism has always been, and always will be, given expression primarily in forms and idioms familiar to its converts and adherents.” So, then, he seeks to explain the changes to the rituals that Buerger noted to the changing circumstances of the tradition itself. He does so by noting that the charismatic elements of an early religious tradition are tamed over time, through standardization and routinization. And he speculates on the future changes, including reforming the ethnocentrism of the ritual as it was performed back then.

In 1994, Edward Ashment adds another chapter to this discussion of the Endowment in “The LDS Temple Ceremony: Historical Origins and Religious Value.” This article appears not long after yet another major revision to the endowment ceremony that occurred in April 1990, changes which are alluded to in the article. But the main point here is that Ashment examines the claim that the LDS temple ceremony is a restoration of an ancient religious practice, an idea popularized in some circles, and the growing historical connections with modern Masonic ritual. Does its value depend on its claims to antiquity, in the same way as some who say this about the Book of Mormon, or the church’s structure or teachings? This article provides a good overview of the debate between the ancient and modern temple perspectives, much of the terms of which have not significantly changed since then. Ashment, to be sure, is on the side of the modern temple and makes a case based on the history of Joseph Smith’s encounter with Freemasonry in Nauvoo. But the second half of this article on the “religious value” of the temple ordinances begins with a discussion of the recent changes, and shows that, for Ashment, the changes to the ceremony are further evidence of the modern temple thesis. But the issue of the proper contextualization of the endowment, its variety of interpretations, and the trajectory of its historical development, right up until the past few years, is a great case study for LDS ritual meaning and social adaptation.

Act 3: The Temple in Multiple Mormonisms

While we are on rituals, the summer 1990 issue has a couple of great articles on Baptisms for the Dead, another ordinance performed in the temple. This too traces its origins to the Nauvoo period, prior to the completion of the Nauvoo temple, and the articles here go back to the origins and also trace it out as it developed in the LDS and the RLDS (later Church of Christ) traditions.

Roger Launius writes “An Ambivalent Rejection: Baptism for the Dead and the Reorganized Church Experience.” While the RLDS tradition did practice it at times, it came to reject baptism for the dead in the modern period. This is a great historical overview, and it is written in the context of the construction of the RLDS temple in Independence, Missouri, which did not include a font for such baptisms and marked the final end of the practice that had already been in disfavor within the church.

In contrast, M. Guy Bishop’s article, “‘What Has Become of Our Fathers?’: Baptism for the Dead at Nauvoo,” discusses the development of the baptism for the dead doctrine in Joseph Smith’s theology and ritual practice. It also provides tables and summaries of how the early practice worked. For anyone who wants to review the history of this doctrine, this is an essential article.

Added to this, Grant Underwood wrote in the same issue, “Baptism for the Dead: Comparing RLDS and LDS Perspectives” compares the two previous articles. How did we go from the same beginnings to one tradition rejecting the doctrine and the other establishing it as part of its threefold mission? Underwood’s article takes this question into account.

Another article I want to highlight in this vein is Richard A. Brown, “The Temple in Zion: A Reorganized Perspective on a Latter-day Saint Institution,” in Spring 1991. Remember that the RLDS temple in Independence is being constructed during this period, so there is a lot of intentional comparative analysis. And Latter-day Saints were surprised that the RLDS temple didn’t have baptisms or endowments or other special rites. This article lays out the RLDS theology of the temple. I learned a lot from this article about the approach to sacred space in the RLDS tradition. Brown writes, “The world today does need Christ. And that, in brief, is why I believe God has challenged us to do a new thing by building the temple. It is the response of the reorganized church of God’s grace as well as a symbol of God’s divine love.”

It is notable that as a journal of Mormon thought, Dialogue has often been a place for conversation and mutual learning from the RLDS, now the Community of Christ, our siblings in the Restoration movement, and these articles are a key part of that history as well.

In this vein, I want to call special attention to an article by Hugo Olaiz from spring 2014, “The Kirtland Temple as a Shared Space: A Conversation with David J. Howlett.” Howlett published an important book on the unique shared historical and religious building of the Kirtland temple that is shared by LDS and the Community of Christ, showing an ongoing entanglement of these two major Restoration churches. It is a great book and a great interview.

Act 4: International Temples

In this final section, I want to talk about one of the other major themes in the scholarship on temples. This is about the role of international LDS temples. To be honest, I was a bit surprised not only that there were a number of articles on this topic, but just how interesting this scholarship has been.

One of the most important in this category is Mark Grover’s 1990 article, “The Mormon Priesthood Revelation and the Sao Paulo, Brazil Temple.” I discussed this article in the episode on race, but I want to raise it again in this context from a temple studies lens. We see the role that temples play in changing local and global conditions. In this case, Grover lays out the evidence for the Brazil hypothesis: that the 1978 revelation on race and the priesthood and temple was prompted by the racial conditions in Brazil more than the domestic US civil rights controversies. This international perspective decenters the US as the impetus for LDS development.

Along these lines, the 1994 article “The Freiberg Temple: An Unexpected Legacy of a Communist State and a Faithful People” by Raymond M. Kuehne provides another look at international LDS history and social change. This was the only temple built behind the Iron Curtain, the literal and figurative wall that separated communist and democratic countries in the world during the Cold War. Its open house in East Germany was a major attraction—an American church building was quite the novelty. The article is based on interviews with key players in bringing the whole thing about. There had been many endowed members in East Germany who’d been able to travel to the Swiss temple up until 1957, but for 25 years they’d been cut off. It was actually the East German government that proposed the idea of building the temple so that Latter-day Saints wouldn’t have to travel to Switzerland. It is a fascinating account of patient, personal relationships that helped make the whole thing possible. This was quite a feat given the strong anti-communist teachings of several senior Latter-day Saint leaders, especially Elder Ezra Taft Benson, who became President Benson just a short while afterward. It was commonly believed that Benson opposed the temple there. They also expected that it would be desecrated at some point, so it was built cheaply.

In 2003, we get Kim B. Ostman “‘The Other’ in the Limelight: One Perspective on the Publicity Surrounding the New LDS Temple in Finland.” This article is a comment on the “templization” of Mormonism that took off in the 1990s under President Hinckley. So this article looks at the issue of publicity of temple open houses in this context in Helsinki. Ostman looked at media reports about the temple over a five-year period from the announcement to completion of the temple. The foreign otherness of Mormonism was a major theme, and the research noted that the temple reduced or alleviated that perception somewhat.

Walter Van Beek, in “The Temple and the Sacred: Dutch Temple Experiences” from 2012, looks at another northern European experience. This is a fascinating article. Did you know that Dutch temple attendance actually dropped after the temple was built there? It was also considered a burden by the local members to staff it. There is some really fascinating analysis here about how changing the place of temple attendance also changes how one experiences it.


Temples, it turns out, provide a pretty fascinating lens on Mormon studies. They bring together space and ritual, but the meaning, symbolism, and historical context for those things, have been important and contested areas of study. Further, the comparative ritual and spatial histories with other Restoration traditions is a hugely interesting study. Finally, the local contextualization of regional temples is a goldmine for fascinating historical narratives, but also insight into how they change local politics, practices, perceptions, and more, as well as the effect these changes have on the global church. I end this rich survey really wanting so much more on this topic, and hope you do as well.

Liner Notes

Act 1: Temple Buildings and Their Meaning

Act 2: Latter-day Saint Temple Rituals

Act 3: The Temple in Multiple Mormonisms

Act 4: International Temples

Other Resources