Mormon Worship: Promises Made in Secret

John Sweeney has just released a BBC-based exposé of Mormonism framed around Mitt Romney's campaign for the US Republican presidential nomination. As part of his rather facile construction of Mormonism as a "cult" (a silly and mostly semantically null word the journalist has borrowed from Evangelical extremists), Sweeney emphasized certain rather striking oaths of secrecy that were once elements of Mormon temple worship.

Mormon temple worship has proved difficult for the LDS Church in its interactions with outsiders since the origins of temple liturgy in the early nineteenth century. The temple and its special pledges figured prominently in the controversy over the seating of Senator Reed Smoot in 1903-1907. The Mormon temple and its associated secrecy are controversial and often misunderstood. Mormon temple liturgy is fundamentally based on the idea that certain special acts should be shared only within a particular community and only in a specially consecrated space (notions that Mormon founder Joseph Smith modeled in part on ancient Jewish temple liturgy). Protecting that space and community -- in large part by specifically honoring commitment to God and church community -- was important to the development of the Mormon people over time.

To protect the separateness of Mormon temple worship, participants pledge not to reveal certain symbolic elements of the liturgy. In earlier versions of the liturgy, which drew directly from Masonic rituals of the era, Mormon temple worship incorporated special oaths of secrecy in which participants symbolically anticipated in vivid gestures the possibility that they would rather give up their lives than divulge the specific contents of temple worship. For both Masons and Mormons these special oaths imparted a heightened sense of drama to their initiation ritual while also speaking to the ways in which these systems provided for participants a compelling solution to the problem of death. Both Masonic and Mormon ritual were preoccupied with finding solutions to the omnipresent specter of death: they puzzled through what it meant to die, what solutions they might have available within their community to deal with that frightening event. For both Mormons and Masons these oaths of secrecy were generally understood to have exclusively symbolic significance.

Even at a symbolic level, though, such oaths are difficult for outsiders to accept. Why would anyone want to keep an element of their religion secret? Both Mormons and Masons have had to deal with anger and suspicion on the part of outsiders as a result of the secrecy surrounding their liturgies. In the age of YouTube, Twitter, citizen reportage and Drudge Report, it staggers the imagination that a group could place a premium on secrecy without nefarious intent. In general terms, secrecy can suggest bad motives or suppressed scandal, but we must simultaneously recognize that there are times and places where respectful silence is still appropriate. There are things better left unsaid, and some human exchanges require actual physical presence. Temple secrecy creates for Mormons a space separate from the ceaseless emotional exhibitionism of modern life, creates a model of sacred privacy, and emphasizes that there are certain experiences that only exist "in real life," that cannot be experienced or communicated in 140 characters from a smart phone. Such moments of sacred silence should be treasured when they occur. In terms of their actual relevance to outsiders, these pledges differ little from general pledges to one's religion and one's God, to the commitments made when Christians partake of the Eucharist or Jews honor their ancestry in a Seder meal. However much conspiracy theorists and yellow-press journalists hope against hope that Mormon temple secrecy is a front for a worldwide coup d'etat, when Mormons worship in their temples they are committing themselves to God and their church community in a context that honors the possibility that there are parts of our lives that do not belong on Twitter, that are best honored in special places, at special times in the physical presence of people to whom we are deeply committed.

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