The LDS Temple: Restoration of Ancient Practices

The Chicago Temple, July 9, 2004, by J. Lindsay

Yesterday I had the privilege of being at the Chicago Temple when my awesome daughter-in-law-to-be received her Endowment. She’s a very smart girl, was well prepared, and was excited about the experience. One thing is for sure: the temple truly is a different place, even foreign and “strange” by modern standards, entirely separate from the profane world. To enter the LDS temple and participate in the temple experience is to enter into a sacred environment and into an ancient tradition as well.

As I’ve mentioned before on my Web site, my understanding and appreciation of the meaning of the LDS Temple grew most dramatically not by reading LDS writings, but by reading two books by modern scholars dealing with ancient religious practices and symbols. Most helpful of all was the book Sinai and Zion: An Entry into the Jewish Bible (Minneapolis: Winston Press, 1985) by Jon D. Levenson , a Jewish scholar at the University of Chicago. (Sadly, it’s out of print.) Also of great value to me was Mircea Eliade’s The Sacred and the Profane, transl. W. R. Trask, (New York: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1959). Eliade helped me to see the Temple from the ancient perspective of sacred space, to recognize its meaning and symbolism as the cosmic mountain, an axis that connects the underworld, the living, and the heavens and that provides orientation and directions for our journey in mortality. The significance of altars, of ritual drama, of the emphasis on the Creation, and many other ancient aspects of the modern LDS Temple became much clearer and profound after reading Eliade. But Levenson’s book was most valuable. On page after page, I encountered evidence that ancient Temple practices – covenant making, symbols, meanings – had been restored in a pure and powerful way in the modern LDS Temple.

One of the most exciting discoveries to me was that the typical ancient form of covenant making had been restored (at least in my opinion). This ancient pattern for making a covenant between God and man or a king and his subjects is known as the “covenant formulary” and includes six major steps, though many ancient examples may only have a subset of the six:

  1. The preamble
  2. Historical prologue (description of what the king has done for the subjects)
  3. Stipulations (to secure fidelity of the subjects to the king)
  4. Deposition of the text of the treaty or covenant (special writings and other means to ensure that the covenants aren’t forgotten and are recorded and reviewed)
  5. List of witnesses
  6. Statement of curses and blessings (the results of disobedience or obedience)

This ancient pattern is becoming relatively well known now, and has even made its way into some mainstream Christian sermons such as a recent sermon by Reverend Neil Bramble-Chapman (amazingly, he even mentions the ancient Christian doctrine of theosis in his sermon).

While I do not desire to discuss details of the Temple, each of the six elements of the ancient covenant formulary is present in the LDS Temple, in my opinion. I do not believe that Joseph Smith could have fabricated the structure of ancient covenants based on information available to him, for modern recognition of the ancient covenant formulary only dates back to the 1950s, when George Mendenhall and Klaus Baltzer began comparing biblical literature with other ancient treaties (see discussion in Levenson, p. 26; see also George Mendenhall, “Covenant Forms in Israelite Tradition,” Biblical Archaeologist, Vol. 17, No. 3, 1954, pp. 50-76, as cited by Stephen Ricks in a related essay that I also highly recommend, “Kingship, Coronation, and Covenant in Mosiah 1-6,” in King Benjamin’s Speech, ed. John Welch and Stephen Ricks, Provo, Utah: FARMS, 1998, pp. 233-275, with references pertaining to Mendenhall and other related sources cited on p. 274). Though these elements can be found scattered in the Bible, their significance and their relationship to each other was not appreciated in Joseph Smith’s day.

There is much more in Levenson and other modern writings of ancient practices which puts the LDS Temple squarely into the realm of ancient practice. Some of the elements which deeply impressed me were the relationship between the Temple and the Sabbath day (sacred space and sacred time), the symbolism of the baptismal font (and subterranean waters in general) in the Temple, the relationship between mountains and Temples (also found strongly in the Bible and the Book of Mormon), the significance of covenant making, the link between Zion and the Temple, the things one does to show reverence for sacred ground, the significance of the Creation story, and so on. Levenson probably knows nothing of LDS Temples, yet his writings about the ancient Jewish experience did more for my understanding of LDS Temples than any modern LDS writer had.

That background helped me appreciate the insights into the ancient world that Hugh Nibley has offered in many of his writings.

Recommended reading:

  1. Barry Robert Bickmore’s excellent book, Restoring the Ancient Church (Ben Lomand, CA: Foundation for Apologetic Information and Research, 1999), now available online at
  2. Was Freemasonry Derived from Mormonism? – a well-documented article by Eugene Seaich. Ancient roots are shown for some of the Masonic elements that are similar to LDS temple concepts.
  3. The LDS Temple Endowment: An Introduction – by Barry Bickmore.
  4. What Is a Temple? A Preliminary Typology by John Lundquist – a review of what scholars know about the ancient temple concept in the Middle East. Those familiar with Mormon temples and the history of the Temple in Mormonism should see extensive evidence that it is a restoration of an ancient concept that could not have simply been plagiarized from Masonry. See also “Sinai as Sanctuary and Mountain of God” – an article at FARMS that builds on the work Lundquist.
  5. Mormonism and Early Christianity – an excellent site by Barry Bickmore.
  6. Early Christian and Jewish Rituals Related to Temple Practices by John A. Tvedtnes at This offers strong evidence for the ancient nature of the Temple.
  7. The House of the Lord – information about LDS Temples at
  8. Can Temple Ceremonies Change? – an article at
  9. Christian Envy of the Temple by Hugh Nibley.
  10. The Early Christian Prayer Circle by Hugh W. Nibley.
  11. The Meaning of the Temple by Hugh W. Nibley.
  12. Secrecy in Ancient Christianity – An excerpt of Michael T. Griffith’s book, One Lord, One Faith: Writings of the Early Christian Fathers As Evidences of the Restoration (Horizon Publishers, 1996).
  13. Masonry and the Mormon Temple – another great Web page and book excerpt from Michael T. Griffith.
  14. Them Sneaky Early Christians by Barry Bickmore.
  15. Was Joseph Smith Influenced by Kabbalah? – William J. Hamblin reviews a book alleging that the Kabbalah influenced Joseph Smith. Available in FARMS Review of Books, 1996, Vol. 2, pp. 251-325.
  16. Covenant, Treaty, and Prophecy by E. C. Lucas. This article discusses the ancient six-part treaty concept proposed by Mendenhall and reviews some recent criticisms of Mendenhall’s views.

Please let me know of other resources you recommend on this topic.


Author: Jeff Lindsay

1 thought on “The LDS Temple: Restoration of Ancient Practices

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.