I’ve often received questions about the issue of “secrecy” in Mormon temples. To us, the key factor is what is sacred, not secret, but this still leaves many people confused, especially when they hear the spin of critics. For example, some people point out that Christ said that “in secret have I said nothing” (John 18:20), so they wonder if the idea of “secret” temple ceremonies is contrary to the Gospel. Even if they accept the concept of holding some things as sacred, they still contend that the idea of “sacred” teachings or ceremonies not for public observation is contrary to original Christianity.
My response: No, LDS Temple practices are remarkably Biblical and provide evidence that important practices of early Christianity have been restored today. The evidence for a restoration from early Christianity is provided in part by Barry Robert Bickmore’s excellent book, Restoring the Ancient Church (Ben Lomand, CA: Foundation for Apologetic Information and Research, 1999), now available online, which is used for much of the following comments for this answer.
While Christ’s teachings may have been essentially public before the Crucifixion, shortly before then he told his Apostles that He had “many things” more to teach them that they were not yet able to receive (John 16:12). These teachings undoubtedly include what He taught them during His 40-day ministry after the Resurrection. Of that ministry, all we have recorded is thee statement in Acts 1:1-3 that He showed Himself alive to the apostles after the Crucifixion “by many infallible proofs, being seen of them forty days, and speaking of he things pertaining to the kingdom of God.” This ministry was not public and His teachings from then have not been recorded. An extensive Christian tradition exists holding that sacred and secret doctrines were taught during those 40 days.
But even during His mortal ministry, there were teachings that appear to have been given exclusively to the Apostles and not the public at large. Professor Joachim Jeremias in The Eucharistic Words of Jesus (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1966, pp. 125-130, as cited by Bickmore, p. 292) explains that Christ gave a variety of esoteric teachings to a very limited audience. For example, predictions of his own death were not given publicly but only to his close disciples (Mark 8:31, 9:31, and 10: 32-34). The same holds for predictions of the end of the world (Mark 13:3). And many teachings were done in enigmatic terms or through parables where the deeper meaning would be available only to those had “ears to hear” (Matt. 9:15) or were “able to receive” (Matt. 19:12). In fact, Jeremias goes on to say that Jesus hinted at secret teachings that would be disclosed later (Matt. 10:27, Mark 4:22), doctrines which Paul may have referred to when he spoke of the “mysteries of God” (1 Cor. 4:1), the “hidden wisdom of God in a mystery” (1 Cor. 2:6-7), or doctrines that some Christians, though they had been Christians for years, were not yet able to bear (1 Cor. 3:2) (see Jeremias, pp. 130-132). Paul’s analogy of feeding milk before meat in 1 Cor. 3:2 applies very well to the modern LDS view of the temple as well.
Barry Bickmore provides extensive evidence from early Christianity that hidden truths and mysteries were an important part of Christianity. These esoteric teachings were given to the disciples privately and were kept secret from the world. (See, for example, the comments of Peter in the Clementine Homilies, 19:20 in ANF 8:336, and the Clementine Recognitions 2:4 and 3:1 in ANF 8:98 and 8:117, respectively.) Some knowledge of these secret teachings continued at least into the second century, for Ignatius of Antioch spoke of heavenly things that he feared to disclose to the Roman Christians lest they would not be able to receive it (Romans 9 in ANF 1:104).
The existence of secret teachings and ceremonies in early Christianity was a focal point for attacks by early anti-Christians, as it is today for their modern anti-Mormon counterparts. Celsus, a leading anti-Christian demagogue and agitator (and expert in the tactics so typical of modern anti-Mormons), made strong accusations along these lines. But Origen defended the faith, explaining that Christians weren’t the only ones having esoteric doctrines:
In these circumstances, to speak of the Christian doctrine as a secret system, is altogether absurd.But that there should be certain doctrines, not made known to the multitude, which are (revealed) after the exoteric ones have been taught, is not a peculiarity of Christianity alone, but also of philosophic systems, in which certain truths are exoteric and others esoteric.
(Against Celsus, 1:7, in ANF 4:399, as cited by Bickmore, p. 296. )
But Origen distinguished initiation in the esoteric pagan systems with the esoteric aspects of Christianity in the higher demands of worthiness for the Christian:
[W]hoever is pure not only from all defilement, but from what are regarded as the less transgressions, let him be boldly initiated in the mysteries of Jesus, which properly are made known only to the holy and pure. The initiated of Celsus accordingly says, “Let him whose soul is conscious of no evil come.” But he who acts as initiator, according to the precepts of Jesus, will say to those who have been purified in heart, “He whose soul has, for a long time, been conscious of no evil, and especially since he yielded himself to the healing of the word, let such an one hear the doctrines which were spoken in private by Jesus to His genuine disciples.” Therefore in the comparison which he institutes between the procedure of the initiators into the Grecian mysteries, and the teachers of the doctrine of Jesus, he does not know the difference between inviting the wicked to be healed, and initiating those already purified into the sacred mysteries.
(Against Celsus, 3:60, in ANF 4:488, as cited by Bickmore, p. 296.)
There is much of value in the above quote from Origen. We learn that the Christians did have initiation ceremonies involving sacred mysteries taught privately by Christ to the disciples, and that those receiving these mysteries had to live high standards of personal worthiness and do so for a long time. This is remarkably similar to LDS practices. The temple is viewed as a sacred place with knowledge reserved for the pure. Temple recommends require interviews with two priesthood leaders, such as a bishop and a stake president, who determine if the candidate has been living high standards and keeping basic commandments of the Gospel. New converts must wait at least one year prior to being able to receive their Endowment in the temple, and extensive preparation is expected on the part of candidates.
Say, how do anti-Mormons explain the remarkable parallels between early Christian esoteric practices and the modern LDS approach? It’s a question worth asking.
By the way, some knowledge of these mysteries persisted into the third and fourth centuries. Even Athanasius spoke of the need to maintain a tradition of secrecy for some aspects of Christianity:
We ought not then to parade the holy mysteries before the uninitiated, lest the heathen in their ignorance deride them, and the Catechumens being over-curious be offended.
(Defense Against the Arians 1:11, in NPNF Series 2, 4:106, as cited by Bickmore, p. 300.)
This sounds like the LDS approach today as well.
The word “mysteries” in early Christian writings can refer to ordinances, not just teachings. As used in Greek, it normally referred to the practices of the Greek “mystery religions” that included ceremonies and teachings. As used it the New Testament, it can carry this nuance of rites as well as knowledge (see G.G. Stroumsa, Hidden Wisdom: Esoteric Traditions and the Roots of Christian Mysticism, New York: E.J. Brill, 1996, p. 133, as cited by Bickmore, p. 300).
The LDS Temple is a marvelous, Christ-focused place where great blessings are offered to faithful members of His church. The ceremonies and teachings there are sacred and treated with the respect that the sacred pearls of the Gospel demand. Like the earliest Christians, Latter-day Saints have sacred, private ceremonies offering the most lofty and beautiful aspects of the fullness of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
Related questions about the LDS Temple are answered on my page, Is the LDS Temple Derived From Masonry?.
3 thoughts on “Mormon Temples and “Secrecy””
Jeff, interesting ideas, which would seem to echo the discussion we had at BCC awhile back as well — see here. It would seem that the friction about temple secrecy is something easily avoided with proper instruction and study.
Bickmore’s book was excellent, and I’m glad to have read it.
I’ve been digging up material on this subject for a while. Here’s what I have so far:
Mystery: derived from Latin mysterium, from Greek musterion (plural musteria), meaning “secret rite” or “secret teaching.” From myein “to close, shut,” a reference to secrecy or that only initiates were allowed to observe and participate in rituals. (Harper, Douglas, ed. (2001), “Mystery,” Online Etymology Dictionary, Lancaster, Pa.: etymonline.com)
Gnosis: “knowledge” usually received by secret teaching.
Teleoi: from Greek telosmeaning “the finished [ones],” “completed [ones],” “initiated [ones],” “the mature [ones],” “perfect [ones],” (“perfect” fr. Latin per “through” and facio “to make.” To do completely, to finish).
Unto you it is given to know the mysteries [Greek: musteria] of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it is not given (Revised Version. Matt. 13:11)
And I, brethren, when I came unto you, came not with excellency of speech or of wisdom, proclaiming to you the mystery [musterion] of God. For I determined not to know anything among you, save Jesus Christ, and him crucified. Howbeit we speak wisdom among the perfect [teleoi]: yet a wisdom not of this world, nor of the rulers of this world, which are coming to naught: but we speak God’s wisdom in a mystery [musterion], even the wisdom that hath been hidden, which God foreordained before the worlds unto our glory… And I, brethren, could not speak unto you as unto spiritual, but as unto carnal, as unto babes in Christ. I fed you with milk, not with meat; for ye were not yet able to bear it: nay, not even now are ye able; for ye are yet carnal (Revised Version. 1 Cor. 1:1-2, 6-7; 3:1-3).
For when by reason of the time ye ought to be teachers, ye have need again that some one teach you the rudiments of the first principles of the oracles of God; and are become such as have need of milk, and not of solid food. For every one that partaketh of milk is without experience of the word of righteousness; for he is a babe. But solid food is for fullgrown men [teleoi], even those who by reason of use have their senses exercised to discern good and evil (Revised Version. Hebrews 5:12-14).
For a mystery ought to be most faithfully concealed and covered, especially by us, who bear the name of faith. (Lactantius Ante-Nicene Fathers 7:221)
And Peter said: “We remember that our Lord and Teacher, commanding us, said, ‘Keep the mysteries for me and the sons of my house.’ Wherefore also He explained to His disciples privately the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven. But to you who do battle with us, and examine into nothing else but out statements, whether they be true or false, it would be impious to state the hidden truths.” (Peter, Clementine Homilies, Ante-Nicene Fathers 8:336)
For the most sublime truths are best honoured by means of silence. (Peter, Clementine Recognitions, Ante-Nicene Fathers. 8:83)
But if [Simon Magus] remains wrapped up and polluted in those sins which are manifestly such, it does not become me to speak to him at all of the more secret and sacred things of divine knowledge (gnosis), but rather to protest and confront him, that he cease from sin, and cleanse his actions from vice. But if he insinuate himself, and lead us on to speak what he, while he acts improperly, ought not to hear, it will be our part to parry him cautiously. For not to answer him at all does not seem proper, for the sake of the hearers, lest haply they may think that we decline the contest through want of ability to answer him, and so their faith may be injured through their misunderstanding of our purpose. (Peter, Clementine Recognitions, Ante-Nicene Fathers. 8:98)
But the same writer [Clement of Alexandria] in the seventh book of the same work, relates also the following things concerning him: “The Lord after his resurrection imparted knowledge (gnosis) to James the Just and to John and Peter, and they imparted it to the rest of the apostles, and the rest of the apostles to the seventy, of whom Barnabas was one…” (Eusebius. The Church History of Eusebius 2.1.4. Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Series Two. 1:104)
The science of nature, then, or rather observation, as contained in the gnostic tradition according to the rule of truth, depends on the discussion concerning cosmogony, ascending thence to the department of theology. (Clement of Alexandria. Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Series 2. 8:42)
Wherefore also all men are His; some through knowledge (gnosis), and others not yet so; and some as friends, some as faithful servants, some as servants merely. This is the Teacher, who trains the Gnostic by mysteries, and the believer by good hopes, and the hard of heart by corrective discipline through sensible operation. (Clement of Alexandria, Ante-Nicene Fathers. 2:524)
[T]he mysteries are not exhibited incontinently to all and sundry, but only after certain purifications and previous instructions. (Clement of Alexandria, Ante-Nicene Fathers. 2:449)
Now, in answer to such statements, we say that it is not the same thing to invite those who are sick in soul to be cured, and those who are in health to the knowledge and study of divine things. We, however, keeping both these things in view, at first invite all men to be healed, and exhort those who are sinners to come to the consideration of the doctrines which teach men not to sin…And when those who have been turned towards virtue have made progress, and have shown that they have been purified by the word, and have led as far as they can a better life, then and not before do we invite them to participation in our mysteries. “For we speak wisdom among them that are perfect.”…[W]hoever is pure not only from all defilement, but from what are regarded as lesser transgressions, let him be boldly initiated in the mysteries of Jesus, which properly are made known only to the holy and the pure…He who acts as initiator, according to the precepts of Jesus, will say to those who have been purified in heart, “He whose soul has, for a long time, been conscious of no evil, and especially since he yielded himself to the healing of the word, let such an one hear the doctrines which were spoken in private by Jesus to His genuine disciples.”… [Celsus] does not know the difference between inviting the wicked to be healed, and initiating those already purified into the sacred mysteries! Not to participation in mysteries, then, and to fellowship in the wisdom hidden in a mystery, which God ordained before the world to the glory of His saints, do we invite the wicked man, and the thief, and the housebreaker, and the poisoner, and the committer of sacrilege, and the plunderer of the dead, and all those others whom Celsus may enumerate in his exaggerated style, but such as these we invite to be healed…God the Word was sent, indeed, as a physician to sinners, but as a teacher of divine mysteries to those who are already pure and who sin no more. (Origen, Ante-Nicene Fathers. 4:487-489)
In these circumstances, to speak of the Christian doctrine as a secret system, is altogether absurd. But that there should be certain doctrines, not made known to the multitude, which are (revealed) after the exoteric ones have been taught, is not a peculiarity of Christianity alone, but also of philosophic systems, in which certain truths are exoteric and others esoteric. (Origen. Ante-Nicene Fathers 4:399)
Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers
Of the beliefs and practices whether generally accepted or publicly enjoined which are preserved in the Church we possess derived from written teaching; others we have received delivered to us “in a mystery” by the tradition of the Apostles… (Basil of Caesarea, Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Series 2. 8:40-41)
In the same manner the Apostles and Fathers who laid down laws for the Church from the beginning thus guarded the awful dignity of the mysteries in secrecy and silence, for what is bruited abroad random among the common folk is no mystery at all. This is the reason for our tradition of unwritten precepts and practices, that the knowledge of our dogmas may not become neglected and contemned by the multitude through familiarity. “Dogma” and “Kerugma” are two distinct things; the former is observed in silence; the latter is proclaimed to all the world. (Basil of Caesarea, Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Series 2. 8:42)
We ought not then to parade the holy mysteries before the uninitiated, lest the heathen in their ignorance deride them, and the Catechumens being over-curious be offended. (Athanasius, Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Series 2. 4:106)
But first I wish to remind you who are initiated of the response, which on that evening they who introduce you to the mysteries bid you make; and then I will also explain the saying of Paul: so this likewise will be clearer to you; we after all the other things adding this which Paul now saith [in 1 Corinthians 15:29]. And I desire indeed expressly to utter it, but I dare not on account of the uninitiated; for these add a difficulty to our exposition, compelling us either not to speak clearly or to declare unto them the ineffable mysteries. Nevertheless, as I may be able, I will speak as through a veil. (John Chrysostom. Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Series One. 12:244)