Mormonism and popular media/"Big Love" and the temple

Big Love's episode "Outer Darkness"

Summary: It is not our intention to discuss details of the portrayal of the temple ceremony here. We will, however, address some of the portrayals of other LDS beliefs and practices that were depicted in this episode. We found these portrayals to be highly inaccurate. In fact, there is ample evidence of anti-Mormon "advice" present in the episode. We treat some of these in the following sections.

Even though everyone may discover what goes on in the temple, and many have already revealed it, the important thing is that I do not reveal these things; they must remain sacred to me. I must preserve a zone of sanctity which cannot be violated whether or not anyone else in the room has the remotest idea what the situation really is.... No matter what happens, it will, then, always remain secret; only I know exactly the weight and force of the covenants I have made—I and the Lord with whom I have made them—unless I choose to reveal them. If I do not, then they are secret and sacred no matter what others may say or do. Anyone who would reveal these things has not understood them, and therefore that person has not given them away. You cannot reveal what you do not know!

—Hugh Nibley, The Temple and the Cosmos, p. 64.

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In March 2009 HBO aired an episode of the series "Big Love" which dramatized a portion of a Latter-day Saint temple ceremony. The producers of the series insisted that the inclusion of the sequence was an integral part of the plot and that they had used an ex-Mormon advisor who was "familiar with temple practices and rituals," and "was actually on the set throughout the filming of the scenes to make sure every detail was correct."[1] The Church, anticipating yet another attempt stir up a controversy in order to generate attention to a particular movie or television show, issued a commentary which said, in part,

As Catholics, Jews and Muslims have known for centuries, such attention is inevitable once an institution or faith group reaches a size or prominence sufficient to attract notice. Yet Latter-day Saints – sometimes known as Mormons - still wonder whether and how they should respond when news or entertainment media insensitively trivialize or misrepresent sacred beliefs or practices.[2]

The Church went on to advise members,

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints as an institution does not call for boycotts. Such a step would simply generate the kind of controversy that the media loves and in the end would increase audiences for the series. As Elder M. Russell Ballard and Elder Robert D. Hales of the Council of the Twelve Apostles have both said recently, when expressing themselves in the public arena, Latter-day Saints should conduct themselves with dignity and thoughtfulness.[2]

Latter-day Saints who have been through the temple make covenants with the Lord—we take those covenants seriously, and they are not to be casually discarded simply because someone wishes to depict sacred things for commercial gain. As noted by Hugh Nibley in the quote at the top of this page, details regarding what goes on in Latter-day Saint temples have been available for many years. This does not release Latter-day Saints from their obligation to hold these things sacred and refrain from discussing them outside the temple—understandably, the producers had to approach an ex-Mormon who had broken those covenants in order to get "every detail correct." Ironically, the manner in which the temple depiction was actually portrayed prompted some non-LDS commentators to praise it. If critics hoped that non-LDS would be shocked and distanced by this portrayal of a sacred ordinance, it would appear they were disappointed.

It is not our intention to discuss details of the portrayal of the temple ceremony here for the reasons stated above. We will, however, address some of the portrayals of other LDS beliefs and practices that were depicted in this episode. We found these portrayals to be highly inaccurate. In fact, there is ample evidence of anti-Mormon "advice" present in the episode. We treat some of these in the following sections.

Outer darkness

The episode implies that a person who is excommunicated from the Church is cast off into "outer darkness" (hence the episode title). This is not at all consistent with Latter-day Saint beliefs. The use of the phrase in this manner indicates that the producers are simply not familiar with what "outer darkness" actually means to Latter-day Saints. For more information, see:

The Interview

A Bishop and Stake President show up unexpectedly at a woman's door and conduct an interview in her home "on-the-spot," in which they question her about tithing and polygamy (in that order). The woman is wearing her bathrobe during this interview.

The Big Love "Mormon" The Latter-day Saint
  • The wife is coming down the stairs of her home in her bathrobe when a young boy announces two unexpected visitors. These visitors turn out to be the woman's bishop and stake president. The bishop introduces the stake president and then, despite seeing that the woman is dressed in her bathrobe, says "We’d like to talk to you for a few minutes. Is this a bad time?"
  • It is absurd for a Bishop and a Stake President to show up unannounced at the home of a long-time inactive member, enter the home and then ask to interview her without her husband present while she is wearing her bathrobe.
  • The first thing that we hear the Stake President ask is "So you haven’t tithed in seven years?," to which the wife answers " we’re not tithing. We’re inactive."
  • It is obvious that the family is inactive. Why in the world would a Stake President begin a conversation by asking about tithing? If a family is inactive, then they rarely would be paying tithing.
  • In the real world, the bishop and stake president wouldn't even know how long the wife had not paid tithing. Financial records at the ward level are only kept for three years and then destroyed. Bishops typically serve for about five years, so it is therefore unlikely that this would even be the same bishop that she had seven years earlier.
  • Latter-day Saints don't use the verb "to tithe." Rather than asking if you "have tithed," a real bishop would ask if you have "paid your tithing." This is a small thing to be sure, but it is an indication that a real Latter-day Saint was not consulted on the dialogue.
  • The Stake President pursues the tithing question by saying "May we ask why?" The wife responds that years ago she went through a difficult time and was very ill. The bishop responds "I remember. We tried to support you in every way we knew how with love and prayer and home teachers."
  • Every member of the ward has home teachers.
  • This bishop and stake president both talk like caricatures of a somebody's idea of a Latter-day Saint.
  • The bishop tells the woman "we’ve known each other a long time. You were once a shining member of our church, so I’m just gonna ask you outright: Are you living in a polygamous relationship?" When she answers "Yes," the bishop continues, "I am so sorry to hear that. How did this come to pass?"
  • The phrase "once a shining member of our church" is something that a real bishop would never say. A real bishop would refer to her as a member of the ward, and he would not refer to that in the past tense. As any home teacher can tell you, it does not matter how long someone is inactive, they are always considered a member of the ward, even if they never attend church.
  • It is completely inappropriate for these men to be conducting such an interview in someone's home. Recall that her children are at home.
  • One might wonder, has anyone ever used the phrase "come to pass" in normal conversation outside of reading the Book of Mormon? This sounds like someone is attempting to give the Bishop dialogue that sounds "Mormon."
  • In response to the question about polygamy, the wife responds: "My husband had a testimony." The bishop does not seem to be bothered by this use of the term "testimony" at all, and he simply responds: "I see. Did you?"
  • The series constantly misuses the term "testimony." A real Latter-day Saint wouldn't understand what this testimony refers to at all. A real LDS bishop would not associate the word "testimony" with polygamy.
  • The Stake President says, "I must tell you that we’ve come here to determine whether to call a Stake disciplinary council."
  • A stake disciplinary council is very rarely called for a sister. It is usually reserved for an endowed Melchizedek Priesthood holder—one who has been through the temple. Disciplinary action against a sister is almost always held at the ward level in a Bishop's council rather than at the stake level.

The Recommend

A woman who is a practicing polygamist but is still a member of the Church desires to go to the temple. It is unclear whether or not the woman has been previously endowed (she has been inactive for at least seven years, and has married a man who was kicked out of a polygamous compound). The dialogue seems to indicate that she had never been to the temple before, but it later appears that perhaps she has. The woman, knowing that she needs a temple recommend to enter the temple, attempts to persuade her active LDS mother and sister to loan her one.

The Big Love "Mormon" The Latter-day Saint
  • The woman's mother, not understanding why her inactive daughter suddenly wants to attend the temple, says "but you're not worthy! You haven't tithed. You haven't been interviewed..."
  • It is interesting that the subject of tithing is brought up once again, even before the mention of worthiness. The statement by the Stake President and now by the woman's mother about tithing, before mentioning any other factors related to attending the temple, are indicative of an "advisor" who is critical of the Church.
  • Critics typically tie tithing to temple attendance with the implication that one must pay in order to receive the highest blessings within the Church. This is a theme that has been put forth by critics in anti-Mormon films such as The God Makers.
  • An example of this theme that the Church is primarily focused on collecting tithing is reflected in Mormon America: The Power and the Promise (a book about the Church written by Evangelical Christians) on page 115 when the authors state that

"Outsider's money estimates always raise disclaimers from officialdom, presumably because of the danger that fat-looking figures might weaken members' tithing compliance."

  • The woman tells her mother: "I want to take my endowments." Her mother asks how she is going to get in to the temple, to which the daughter replies that she wants either her mother or her sister to lend her a temple recommend.
  • To any active Latter-day Saint, the phrase "take [out] my endowments" indicates that the person is going to attend the temple for the very first time. This is known as a "live endowment."
  • Subsequent visits to the temple are made in order to perform proxy endowments for a deceased individual, usually a relative. A live endowment is a more complex process than a proxy one, and there is really no way that someone could perform a live endowment without the temple workers being fully aware of this. Therefore this detail is contradictory.
  • Upon hearing her daughter's request to borrow a temple recommend in order to sneak into the temple, the mother responds: "Oh, no, no, no. I can't do that. We can't do that. And it was just a few years ago that we stopped promising to disembowel and slit throats of people who were monkeying around with temple rules and procedures." The daughter claims that this is superstition, and the mother responds "You'll get caught."
  • This is highly inaccurate for a number of reasons. The reference made by the mother is to the removal of penalties from the endowment ceremony in 1990. Critics often misrepresent this part of the temple ceremony, which is relatively easy to do since members endowed since April 1990 will have had no direct experience with the penalties mentioned.
  • Contrary to the critics' representation (as represented by the mother's comment), nobody was required to promise to inflict penalties upon anyone else, and it had nothing to do with "people who were monkeying around with temple rules and procedures" as the producers would have us believe. This phrase represents typical anti-Mormon spin.
  • It should also be noted than any active endowed Latter-day Saint would never make the statement made by the mother. Nor would they even consider loaning their temple recommend to anyone. The very act of loaning their recommend to someone would cause them to violate their own temple covenants. Thus the producers set up a paradox: The mother is worried about her daughter getting caught, but not about the fact that she would be violating her own temple covenants.

The Celestial Room

The Big Love "Mormon" The Latter-day Saint
  • While sitting in the Celestial Room with her mother and sister, the woman tells them: "The stake president has called me to love court. The other shoe is finally dropping. I'm facing disciplinary hearing tomorrow."
  • Yes, believe it or not, she actually called the disciplinary council "Love Court!"
  • This is a Hollywood garbling of the phrase "court of love," which is a term that was used to describe a disciplinary council by Elder Robert L. Simpson during a General Conference talk in 1972.
  • Critics of the Church (mostly ex-Mormons) have taken the phrase "court of love" and use it in a mocking manner whenever they are describing a disciplinary council.
  • No active Latter-day Saint ever refers to a disciplinary council as a "court of love" in normal usage, and they most certainly don't refer to it as "love court!" The use of this phrase indicates the lack of involvement of a knowledgeable advisor.
  • See: Is a Church disciplinary council really called a "court of love?"
  • At the end of the drama taking place in the Celestial Room, a temple matron announces: "I'm sorry, your fifteen minutes are up."
  • There are no time limits imposed on the amount of time you may remain in the Celestial room. Nobody kicks you out.

The Disciplinary Council

The disciplinary council is the most inaccurate part of the episode. It is essentially a "kangaroo court." The initial shot shows a woman facing the Bishop and Stake President at the head of the table. Behind the men is some sort of strange painting that looks like a god standing in space. Apparently, this is someone's odd idea of the type of painting that might hang in a LDS High Council room.

The Big Love"Mormon" The Latter-day Saint
  • A woman and one of her "sister wives" are sitting in a room. The Bishop and Stake President are sitting alone at the head of the table. There are six other men in the room (eight men total), and the two women.
  • During a stake disciplinary council, there are 16 men. The stake presidency and a clerk are present, in addition to 12 high councilors. Six of the high councilors are assigned to defense and the other six are assigned to present evidence.
  • The Bishop is not part of the council. The only reason that the Bishop would be allowed to be there would be as a witness. He would not be speaking or participating in the running of the proceedings.
  • The "sister wife" would only be allowed to be there if she were a witness. Typically, the witnesses would wait outside until they are called. They would not be allowed to take notes.
  • The following odd exchange occurs between the woman and the Stake President:

Stake President: Well, let's begin. Are you taping this hearing?
Woman: No.
SP: Let me ask you again, are you taping this hearing.
Woman: No, I am not.
SP: Nothing in your purse? On your phone? Would you mind if we removed your bag from the room?

  • Following this exchange, both of the women's purses are then taken out of the room.
  • This appears to be simply a plot device to tie in with the mysterious letter that has been driving the plot.
  • The Bishop says "Have you had some time to pray and reflect upon your situation since we spoke?"
  • As mentioned before, the Bishop should not be a participant. He should not be asking questions.
  • This exchange occurs between the woman and the Stake President:

SP: Are you still upholding your temple covenants?
Woman: Yes, but my interpretation might conflict with yours.
SP: Well, for example, are you wearing your garments?
Woman: President Davis, are you asking me to tell you what kind of underwear I have on?

  • The question about wearing garments is standard in any temple recommend interview. If the woman were actually LDS, she wouldn't even be surprised by the question.
  • Perhaps the answer that the woman gives to this question is how Latter-day Saints ought to respond when they are accused by critics of wearing "magic underwear." It is ironic that this response was given.
  • The Bishop speaks up yet again, saying "there's still an opportunity for you to find your way back to the Church. Will you repent?"
  • Once again, the Bishop is not allowed to speak. He does not have authority in this proceeding.
  • The Stake President says: "You know that polygamy is a misguided abomination. It's a shameful practice that has no place in the modern Church."
  • It is highly unlikely that any real LDS Stake President would consider a past practice of the Church that we consider to have been sanctioned by the Lord Himself as a "misguided abomination." Nor would it be regarded as a "shameful practice." The only somewhat accurate part of this statement is that is has no place in the modern Church.
  • The following exchange is present simply to advance the plot regarding a mysterious letter which the Church wants.
  • The woman asks the Stake President if "this hearing [was] requested directly from Church headquarters" and if he "receive[d] instruction." The Stake President acts guilty and responds that he doesn't see "how that's relevant" to the proceeding. The woman then claims that she is being punished because of a "certain letter" that her husband helped to purchase for the Church which is claimed to expose that the Church never intended to cease the practice of polygamy.
  • The existence of the letter has been a plot device throughout the entire third season.
  • This exchange is actually an allusion to what happened with the so-called "September Six." Church critics charge that the excommunication of what the media referred to as "LDS scholars" was in reality ordered by President Boyd K. Packer.
  • The Stake President then actually mentions President Packer by name: " our Elder Packer has said before, we all know that there's the temptation to tell everything, whether its worthy, or faith promoting or not. Some things that are true are not very useful."
  • This is another allusion to the critics' assertion that the Church disciplines scholars and attempts to hide the truth.
  • The phrase from Elder Packer was taken from a talk called "The Mantle is Far, Far Greater than the Intellect." The phrase "some thing that are true are not very useful" is a favorite of critics of the Church. It is used by them to support the idea that the Church excommunicates intellectuals and historians.
  • See: Boyd K. Packer on the truth
  • The Bishop provides yet another appeal to repentance: "...we sincerely want to help you escape this life. Don't turn against us. Will you repent?" The Bishop also implies that if the disciplinary council follows through, that her "eternal salvation" will be lost.
  • This is the third time that the Bishop, who is not allowed on the council, has talked of repentance. It seems implied that repentance is simply a matter of admitting that you are wrong. In reality, it is much more complex than that.
  • The Stake President portentously declares: "...henceforth your name shall be removed from the records of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. You will not be allowed to partake of the sacrament. The sacred ordinances that bind you to your family, your ancestors, and your progenitors for all eternity are severed."
  • This formal statement appears to have been added as a bit of Hollywood drama.
  • "Ancestors" and "progenitors" (literally 'those who were born before you') are the same thing—the expression is redundant.


  1. Vince Horiuchi, "HBO apologizes for offense, but will still air 'Big Love' temple scene, The Salt Lake Tribune, 03/11/2009.
  2. 2.0 2.1 "The Publicity Dilemma," LDS Newsroom, March 9, 2009.