One of the topics that has always been of interest to me is that of ordinances and sacraments. Religions have always endeavored to give man a means by which they can interact with God, and be given divine strength and assistance. I remember visiting a Hindu temple in high school with a friend, and was amazed by the devotion exhibited by the devotees there. They not only viewed their temple as a sacred space, but as a place where the gods actually dwell, and where the people can interact with them, be seen by them (darshan), and be given various blessings through the worship offered therein. Similar beliefs can be found in practically all religions, including Christianity.
LDS temples are regarded similarly. Temples are dedicated as Houses of the Lord, where the Spirit dwells in a special way, and where visitors can participate in sacred ordinances where they can enter into covenants, receive blessings from God, receive revelations, etc. Many Latter-day Saint scholars, such as Hugh Nibley, have characterized the LDS temple as a true restoration of ancient concepts that simply weren’t found in Joseph Smith’s surrounding culture. Chief among these is viewing the temple as a place of celestial ascent, where man progresses in a journey towards entering into the eternal presence of God, a motif clearly found in the ordinance of the Endowment. While the Endowment may confuse many first-time temple worshippers, it is important to realize that the Endowment, while including various covenants, is also clearly symbolic of the journey of all mankind, where we began in the presence of God, came to this earth, sin, are saved through the atonement of Christ, and pass through the veil separating this world and the eternal world into God’s eternal presence.
Focusing specifically on the Endowment, this ordinance is clearly unique in the modern Judeo-Christian landscape. While other churches perform baptism, confirmation, priesthood ordination, blessings, anointing of the sick, weddings (ignoring the eternal marriage concept), communion, and forgiveness of sins (while LDS do not practice regular confession to a priest, LDS do confess major sins to their bishop if necessary), the Endowment is uniquely LDS. While LDS don’t talk about the specifics of the Endowment ordinance, making covenants not to reveal certain aspects of it (which places it firmly in the esoteric traditions of early Christianity), we can talk about various aspects of it.
Many critics talk about the relationship of Freemasonry with the Endowment ordinance. It is clear, both to critics and to believers, that certain specific aspects of the Endowment ordinance find clear parallels or instances in Freemasonry. It is also clear that Joseph Smith and many of the early Latter-day Saints were Freemasons, and Joseph was a Master Mason prior to his introduction of the Endowment. Various Latter-day Saints have expressed the view that Masonry represents a “corruption” of ancient rites that were practiced by Jews and Christians, and that Joseph Smith restored the pristine rites. Others say that Joseph used various cultural elements, including Freemasonry, to express revealed ideas and concepts. Critics of course claim that Joseph just stole it from Freemasonry. Whatever the case may be, it is clear that Freemasonry influenced the development of the Endowment ordinance, especially in its earliest iterations.
However one part of the Endowment, or what may be viewed as a prelude to the Endowment proper, that has seemingly escaped critic comment, is the Initiatory, or the Washing and Anointing. In this ordinance, LDS are symbolically washed with water and anointed with oil (“symbolically” here means that, while water and oil are certainly used, they are not applied all over the body), and various blessings for now and the afterlife are pronounced, after which the patron receives a New Name and is authorized to wear the white garments. This is a very beautiful ordinance, and one that seems to be ignored by most temple patrons when they revisit the temple to perform ordinances for the deceased (one of the counselors in the Manhattan New York Temple Presidency said as much recently, and others have said this as well). Interestingly, this ordinance finds some striking parallels in the ancient Christian world, parallels that many LDS apologists believe point to a divine origin for the Initiatory. I do wonder if there have been any critic arguments as to the origin of this ordinance, since I don’t believe it finds parallels in Freemasonry or any religious rituals found during Joseph Smith’s time or surrounding environment (I don’t believe he was familiar with Catholic and/or Eastern Orthodox sacraments involving anointing).
Of interest to Latter-day Saints that have participated in this ordinance are the writings of the early Christian theologian Cyril of Jerusalem. Bryce Haymond at the Temple Study has a very interesting post on the topic of Cyril of Jerusalem and Washing and Anointing. He quotes Cyril’s writings as follows:
“You were true imitators of Adam, the first man to be created, who was naked in the Garden and was not ashamed.
He was anointed with … what is called the olive oil of exaltation (agalliaseos elaio—a coronation figure) … while you were anointed with myrrh (scented oil), making you companions and copartners (koinonoi kai metochoi) with Christ.
You were anointed on your brow and your other sense-organs, and so while the body is anointed in outward appearance with myrrh, the soul (psyche) is sanctified by the life-bestowing Holy Spirit.
First of all you were anointed on the brow (metopon, forehead and eyes, lit. “space between the eyes”) to free you from the shame which completely involved the First Man when he fell, and that you might clearly perceive (or reflect, katoptrizisthe), the glory of the Lord with wide-open mind (lit. with uncovered face). Then your ears that you might receive the hearing ears of the mysteries of God…. Next come the nostrils, that upon receiving the holy ordinance you may say: “We are the sweet odor of Christ to God among the saved.” After that (you were anointed) on the breast (tastethe, “the seat of feeling, passion and thought,” Liddell and Scott), that, clothed with the breastplate of righteousness, you may stand against the wiles of the Devil—(countering his evil thoughts with good ones).”
The blog Washings and Anointings also has more information connecting the LDS Initiatory to ancient rites. It is clear that the theme of being washed, anointed with oil, and receiving a white garment, is a theme found throughout Judeo-Christian history and scriptures. So, the question then becomes, did Joseph Smith and his associates make this all up, or were they divinely inspired to restore pristine rituals, rituals that we find echoes of anciently and even today in the practices of Catholicism and Orthodoxy?
For those interested in this topic, the best book I have found on the issue of temples throughout time, including the Jewish temples (Solomon’s Temple and the Second Temple), as well as discussion of how the LDS temple fits into the ancient Judeo-Christian world, and finds parallels between LDS temple ordinances and various ancient Christian practices, may be interested in Matthew Brown’s The Gate of Heaven: Insights on the Doctrines and Symbols of the Temple (Kindle edition available). Another great book is Hugh Nibley’s Temple and Cosmos, available to read online. Other great resources include:
Jeff Lindsay’s page on the Temple and Freemasonry
Nibley’s Mormonism and Early Christianity
Michael Griffth’s page on Secrecy in Ancient Christianity
Matthew Brown’s presentation on The Israelite Temple and Early Christians
Nibley’s The Early Christian Prayer Circle
Gaye Strathearn’s The Valentinian Bridal Chamber in the Gospel of Philip
Todd Compton’s The Handclasp and Embrace as Tokens of Recognition
Barry Bickmore’s chapter The Temple in his book Restoring the Ancient Church (discusses MANY parallels between the LDS Initiatory and Endowment in early Christianity)
Nibley’s The Message of the Joseph Smith Papyri-An Egyptian Endowment (just got this book today, looks amazing, and comes highly recommended. LDS believe that the Gospel was revealed to Adam, and has been present on the earth throughout various dispensations. Various cultures have had “types” of the Gospel, hence why we find many similarities between Judeo-Christian mythos and those of other cultures, including the ancient Egyptians, which makes sense due to their ties to Israelite history as seen in the Old Testament. Nibley finds striking parallels between the LDS temple ordinances and rites performed by the ancient Egyptians. He also has an extensive appendix that cites various ancient Christian writings and theologians, including the aforementioned Cyril of Jerusalem, in support of LDS rituals having ancient origins, and that Joseph Smith and his associates couldn’t have just made it all up or stolen it from things in their surrounding cultures.