Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Endowed With Power From On High

Last month I had the opportunity to meet with Sideon while I was out in California on business. I had a great time and although I typically talked way, way too much, I think he did too. At some point in the conversation it came out that he had never been blessed with the opportunity of going through the temple. So I regaled him with an account of my own endowment session. It was strange then and it seems even stranger now. I can only imagine how it must seem to someone who has never been and never wanted to.

The term endowment comes from the scriptural promise of being endowed with power from on high. Joseph Smith gradually developed a set of rituals meant to fulfill this prophecy. It started with washings and annointings in the Kirtland temple. After the church got run out of Kirtland in the aftermath of the church's bank scandal they no longer had a temple until after they got run out of Missouri and settled in Nauvoo. While there Joseph became a master Mason and soon after had the rest of the endowment ordinances revealed to him. Coincidentally, these ceremonies included many of the secret handshakes and symbols of Masonry.

When I went through the temple the only thing I knew about it was that I'd have to wear garments for the rest of my life. That's it. No temple preparation classes or anything else prepared me for what I was about to go through. I was interviewed for worthiness by my bishop and stake president and promised that although I must have lots of questions about what goes on in the temple I'd have to wait and all of my questions would be answered inside.

Early on Saturday morning the week before I was to enter the missionary training center I headed to the Washington D.C. temple to take out my endowments.

First, I had to buy garments. Yes, you have to pay for the privilege of wearing those uncomfortable underwear that reach to your knees and have funny marks sewn over each nipple, your belly button, and your right knee. In the temple they explain what the symbols represent, but they don't tell you that the symbols come from Masonry.

Next I had to rent my "packet." This was a flimsy nylon envelope about twelve inches on a side that had some more cloth inside. Then I was given a shield and a one piece garment and ushered into the locker room. I was instructed to take off all of my clothes and put on the shield and carry the garments. They meant ALL of my clothes and the shield was nothing more than a very low thread count cotton-poly sheet with a hole cut in the middle for my head. This was the first unsettling thing. You think that a hospital examination gown is revealing? With my first step the "shield" billowed out revealing me in all of my naked glory. Are you kidding me? After 19 years of endoctrination in modesty I'm supposed to go traipsing through the temple buck naked to who knows where?

It turned out that the "where" was at one end of the locker room where they had stalls for the washings and annointings. The original ceremony involved an actual bath tub and being actually bathed by another person, but then it only involved an extremely rushed blessing while I was dabbed with consecrated water (the washing). Then it was on to the next stall where the same procedure was done with consecrated oil (the annointing). Then I was clothed in the garment of the holy priesthood. The man actually held the garments open while I stepped into them and then he raised them up on me. Then it was back to my locker.

Wierd doesn't even begin to describe what I had just been through. Now I got to put on my own new two piece garments and get dressed in all white clothes right down to socks and slippers. They pinned a special name tag on me to flag me as a "live" endowment as opposed to most everyone else who was serving as a proxy for a dead person.

Now I was lead through a very thick curtain into a booth where I was given a new name that I was never to reveal. Only later did I discover that everyone who went through that day gets the same name. The booth exited into the hallway and then we were escorted to the endowment room.

The endowment room is nothing more than a small theater complete with fold down seats. An altar and a movie screen are at the front of the room along with a couple of old people who are the officiators. The altar is covered with cloth; it's not for offering animals or anything like that. This temple had a white rope down the middle that separated the room into a side for women on the left and men on the right.

The session starts with a disembodied voice talking over speakers. The part that spooked me was the following:
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; <queue very ominous, threatening voice> 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.
At this point I wanted more than anything else to raise my hand and leave. How was I supposed to take upon myself sacred obligations of my own free will and choice when I had absolutely no idea what they where? But, I'd deferred my BYU scholarship for 2 years to serve a mission. I'd received my mission call. I'd said goodbye to my girlfriend. I was scheduled to give my missionary farewell the following day. If I didn't go through with it then I would lose my scholarship and be a pariah in my family and church. It took a huge leap of faith to stay seated when it felt like I was ready to levitate off my seat and out the door.

I now think that the church does this intentionally. Members generally are not allowed to take out their endowments until very shortly before their mission or their marriage. They have no idea what is involved other than that it is required for the imminent milestone. Once you're totally committed you really can't back out without major consequences. Then, once you're in you're bound under the most solemn obligations to "God, angels, and these witnesses." Doesn't that seem a little manipulative and cult-like?

It gets better. The lights dim and a film shows a depiction of the creation and God giving further light and knowledge to Adam and Eve via Peter, James, and John. The packet contains green satin apron embroidered with fig leaves, a flimsy toga that you put on during the ceremony, a white cloth sash, and a really terrible looking masonic cap with a string that ties to the shoulder of the toga. At points you are given secret handshakes and passwords along with a sign and execution of a penalty. The penalties are ritually acted out by each participant while promising not to reveal the handshake and password. "Rather than do so I will suffer my life to be taken." The penalties involve slicing your throat, tearing open your chest, and disembowling yourself. My understanding is that these are copied from the Masonic ceremonies. If you want the details you can read the entire ceremony here. I'll vouch for its accuracy.

In the Book of Mormon the Gadianton robbers are the incarnation of evil who take blood oaths to keep each others secrets. These secret passwords, handshakes, and blood oaths were revealed by Satan to Cain and are revealed throughout the ages to his servants. So, having read the Book of Mormon I wondered how the same types of things would be revealed in the House of the Lord. Now I was really feeling sick to my stomach.

Even more, as naive as I was I knew that you could get copies of the endowment ceremony outside of the temple from non-Mormon sources. Why would we have to promise to give up our lives for something that was openly available? Why would anyone kill for such a thing?

At the end we were presented at the veil (a thin nylon curtain with three holes cut in it) where we received the last password while embracing a man through a curtain who was acting in place of God. After getting the last password we were drawn through the veil into the presence of God and entered into the Celestial room of the temple.

I felt ripped off. I had been promised that when I went through the temple all of my questions would be answered. It had been presented to me like an educational session where I'd be taught. But at no point was anyone ever available to answer questions and we were discouraged from talking at all and when we did it had to be in hushed whispers. The Celestial room was especially holy and was the first chance to say anything, but no one talked in there. So it was back to my locker and into street clothes for a long quiet ride home where no one discussed then or at any point in the future what had just transpired.

Every doctrinal point in the endowment is openly taught outside the temple. The only things unique are the handshakes, passwords, and penalties. The covenants are also pretty straightforward such as the law of chastity and law of consecration. I guess I can best summarize it as a very unsettling let down. In typical Mormon fashion I secretly suspected that it didn't go well because of my own personal unworthiness. Personal sin and guilt are a safety net to explain everything in the church and they are very effective since no one is perfect.

Over the years I returned hoping that I'd catch the spirit of temple worship and gain an understanding and appreciation of it. But I never did. At best I became numb to it and tried to stay awake.

In 1990 our bishop encouraged all the endowed members of the ward to attend the temple. He couldn't say why but promised that it was great. So we went and I was shocked to discover that they'd removed the elements of the ceremony that I'd found most troubling such as the penalties. This shattered me for two reasons. First, I'd been taught that the endowment, like all ordinances in the church, had been given by revelation and was unchangeable. I couldn't see any doctrinal reason for the changes. If it had been correct in 1989 then it should have still been correct in 1990. Nothing in the external world had changed so why would God suddenly alter his most sacred ordinances? This is very similar to the kind of changes in ordinances (such as baptism by sprinkling instead of immersion) that the church uses as evidence of a general apostasy by Christianity.

Second, the things that they'd removed had always seem wrong to me. This seemed like a confirmation and tacit admission by the church that they were wrong. Maybe my gut feelings on that day in 1983 had been right and the church had been wrong. If it could be wrong on something like this, what else might be wrong? If I could expect them to be right about ONE thing, wouldn't it be their most sacred ordinances?

I never went through an endowment again. It took a long time to come to a full realization of the many other lies I'd been taught in the church but I eventually decided to ask the hard questions and research the church's claims. I find that they fail from start to finish.

So, I apologize to Sideon and you if I've bored you with my account. But at least you can compliment Sideon, if you should ever have the pleasure to meet him, on how well endowed he is.


Sister Mary Lisa said...


First, thanks for the best description I've seen yet on what happens in the endowment session. I never got to go do this because during the interview with the bishop for my temple recommend, he invited my never-mo husband and informed us both that I had to get my husband's permission in writing to take out my endowment.

He refused.

So I've always wondered what it was LIKE, not what the words were, which I read before. Your words make me so glad I never did it.

And your closing line about Sideon is hilariously funny! I love it.

I am lucky enough to be able to drive to Wyoming to meet him in May. I can't wait!

Sideon said...

OMFG!!! **still laughing from the last line**

In the first paragraph, did you mean that I talked too much, or that I enjoyed myself? LOL :) You do some great talkin'. It's so funny, having met a few bloggers the last several months - I may talk fast, but you can link sentences and ideas together in a string of coherent (and always) interesting ways that make the time just blow right by.

I'll say it publicly: it was an absolute pleasure meeting you.

Next time you're in town, we need more than 2 margaritas!

Pele Ale said...

Great description. Well done.

Marha said...

Wow. I can't imagine how awful that day must have been for you! It makes my heart ache just reading it. I have good friends who are deep in the LDS sad that they have such fear they can not talk about their experiences! No wonder so many LDS women are on anti-depressants and my LDS friend has a problem with anger. I could not imagine having to live like that. Thanks so much for sharing and being so candid.

Bull said...

I was shell shocked, but felt like the problem must have been mine since everyone else seemed to be okay with it.