06 January 2008

Ritual studies

My experience at the annual AAR/SBL meeting last November got me thinking about an interesting new area in Mormon Studies. Looking over the agenda of sessions and speakers, there were a couple devoted to ritual studies. None of the participants or sponsors was Mormon. On its face, this is not entirely surprising. Most of our public rituals (baptism, the sacrament, etc.) are fairly unremarkable from an academic perspective, at least in my opinion, and they have only a brief history (from an outsider's perspective). The most interesting rites, and the ones most ripe for study, are secret (or sacred to follow the typical Mormon response)- the temple rituals.

My question, then, is: does this need to be so? I think that we can do a better job of delineating what parts of the ritual are necessarily kept from the world and which can be revealed in a way that contributes to an outsider's familiarity with those rituals and can help members of the Church educate our own in preparation for their own participation in the temple ceremonies. As a matter of public relations, revelation of some of the temple ceremony could go a long way toward helping to evaporate notions of cultish behavior in our temple rites. Having grown up in the South and being the only member in my family, I have heard all of the weird temple rumors- orgies with bishops, sisters doing naked clogging, members being paid by the families of the deceased for the vicarious work done on their behalf. Shedding a little light on what is actually done in the temple might lend some credibility to our frequent and emphatic disavowals of "anything weird."

My own sense is that we are obligated by sacred covenant to keep certain matters secret, particularly in the endowment. However, as a matter of practice, we keep far more of the ceremonies secret, even if we have not promised to do so, simply because we are wary of crossing lines.
Because I myself and unsure where these lines ought to be drawn and for the protection of the sensibilities of my readers, I will not speak in particulars. I will go far enough to say that clearly some of the gestures and passwords of the endowment are to be kept under strict confidentiality, based on explicit instruction. How much does this extend to the filmed drama of the ceremony. I find its allegorical or metaphorical nature fascinating, but if that part of the ceremony is to be kept secret, I am not sure what is the origin of such an injunction. Likewise with the liturgy of the sealing ceremony, I am unaware of any commandment that the words of the ritual have been sealed as secret by the Lord, and are thus to remain unanalyzed.

I am genuinely interested in seeing some of these things opened up for study, at least where it is possible to avoid offending divine mandates. But I am too wary to say confidently that I know where all the lines ought to be drawn. Any ideas? Or ideas for where ritual studies within Mormonism ought to go?

Note: In responding to this post, please be sensitive and careful with any comments. Refrain from discussing details.


  1. i think the endowment is pretty clear as to what should not be discussed outside of the temple. all else should be open game for discussion.

  2. We discussed some of this a while back at FPR. http://faithpromotingrumor.wordpress.com/2007/01/08/is-temple-prep-really-preparation/

    It was in the end difficult, however to get past one quote from Boyd K. Packer in Preparing to Enter the Holy Temple (linked in comment #21):

    We do not discuss the temple ordinances outside the temples. It was never intended that knowledge of these temple ceremonies would be limited to a select few who would be obliged to ensure that others never learn of them. It is quite the opposite, in fact. With great effort we urge every soul to qualify and prepare for the temple experience. Those who have been to the temple have been taught an ideal: Someday every living soul and every soul who has ever lived shall have the opportunity to hear the gospel and to accept or reject what the temple offers. If this opportunity is rejected, the rejection must be on the part of the individual.

    The ordinances and ceremonies of the temple are simple. They are beautiful. They are sacred. They are kept confidential lest they be given to those who are unprepared. Curiosity is not a preparation. Deep interest itself is not a preparation. Preparation for the ordinances includes preliminary steps: faith, repentance, baptism, confirmation, worthiness, a maturity and dignity worthy of one who comes invited as a guest into the house of the Lord.

    We must be prepared before we go to the temple. We must be worthy before we go to the temple. There are restrictions and conditions set. They were established by the Lord and not by man. And, the Lord has every right and authority to direct that matters relating to the temple be kept sacred and confidential.

  3. On this larger issue of ritual studies however, I find some interesting implications for LDSs. We tend to interpret our rituals symbolically, but parts of the field of ritual studies (lead by Bell and others), put forth "performative" theories of ritual, where participation in ritual is a training or embodied learning which inculcates the participant with certain skills of performance.

  4. Kathleen Flake's paper in Ritual Studies on the Temple is excellent. I disagree with you, however, on the other rituals of the Church. There is a tremendous amount of work to do beyond the modern endowment. Kris and I just finished a history of Baptism for Health and we are starting more of a Ritual Studies piece on the development of Mormon healing ritual to 1846. The Mormon Liturgy is complex and deep.

  5. smallaxe,
    your comment #2 seems to lead to the question that I should have put explicitly into the main post. If the endowment ordinance is secret, what exactly constitutes the ordinance? For example, I do not think that the narrative portion of the endowment ceremony can properly be considered part of the ordinance. For one, the rest of the ordinance could be conducted without it, or without a large portion of it, and we are not invited to respond to it, at least not in any external way.

  6. #4, it was my own neglect and ignorance that lead me to ignore the historical rituals you speak of. I was thinking only of contemporary rituals of baptism and the sacrament, which I don't think are fertile ground for analysis. However, if we look at how those rituals originated and have changed over time (both in their form and significance for the community), then there would certainly be some work to do.

    I'll look up that Flake paper.

  7. The place of ritual studies on Mormonism is one I've been thinking of lately (I've written about it here). I do think in generally there is less of a focus on ritual in Mormonism relative to other kinds of studies within a religious studies framework. I agree with Bradford who noted that "the study of the ritual or ceremonial dimension of Mormonism, in everyday life and worship, is of vital importance in gaining a better appreciation of the tradition as a whole. This aspect also needs to be studied in comparison with patterned celebrations and formalities manifested in other traditions." I think comparative studies on baptismal and sacramental rituals in Mormonism vis-à-vis other faith traditions have much to offer in deeping our understanding.

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  9. I think there can be quality discussion about the temple between good intentioned people. Come visit me at Mormon Mysticism and see!


  10. I'm going to toot my own horn here: At the November 2005 AAR meeting, I read a paper for a session jointly sponsored by the Ritual Studies group and the Ethics group. The paper focused on the ethics of discussing LDS temple rites in scholarly settings, as a contribution to discussions elsewhere in religious studies about the ethics of discussing religious secrets. That paper was part of a larger article which was just recently published by the Journal of Ritual Studies as "Concealing the Body, Concealing the Sacred: The Decline of Ritual Nudity in Mormon Temples."

    So in response to the original question of whether temple rites can be brought into academic ritual studies, the answer is: Absolutely. But it does require a willingness to be more transparent in discussing the rites than church leadership prefers (as exemplified by the Boyd K. Packer quotation someone else in this thread quoted, or by the more recent injunction to silence about the latest adaptation to the endowment). The position I adopted in my article was (a) to not discuss any information specifically covered by covenants of non-disclosure and (b) to use only information which has already entered the public sphere through some kind of written source, print or electronic. As it turns out, criterion (a) is more restrictive than criterion (b), given the voluminous number of temple exposes produced over the years.

    As I note in the article (and in the shorter paper I read at the AAR), the restrictions I imposed on my discussion would almost certainly not satisfy church leadership. But as I also point out in the article, the ethical question of how scholars should position themselves in response to Mormon claims about the sacred secrecy of temple rites is complicated. Competing ethical demands are made on scholars in this area. There are, on one hand, Mormons who protest that discussion of temple ritual desecrates a private religious experience. On another hand, there are disaffected former Mormons who claim that aspects of the rites constituted an invasion of the privacy of their bodies, an invasion abetted by the secrecy which surrounds the rites. Which of those claims should receive the allegiance of scholars? Sacred secrecy has political consequences which are not necessarily benign.

  11. Anyone who chooses to discuss the endowment outside the temple doesn't understand it and doesn't have anything to say.

  12. Anonymous,

    Your reasoned response to this long-dead thread was a helpful contribution. Come back when you find a name.