|The Mysteries of Godliness–A History of Mormon Temple Worship, Second Edition
|David John Buerger
|1, on a scale of
-5 to +5
An Imperfect History:
A Review of “The Mysteries of Godliness”
Review by T. B. Spackman
The ordinances and personal experiences of the temple play a large role in the life of an active member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Many members have a desire to learn about the meaning, history, and symbolism of temples and their associated ordinances and doctrines. Moreover, no official source exists to answer such questions. In this official vacuum, Buerger, critical of anonymous “overenthusiastic apologists,” has attempted to create a useful history of modern temple worship.1
The casual reader whose eye is caught by the cover (a field of stars with a compass and all-seeing eye) will assume that Mysteries of Godliness was written as a book. In reality, several Dialogue articles written by Buerger in the 1980s were cobbled together into book form. The only hint of this appears on the back cover, which mentions that “Buerger received the Mormon History Association’s ‘Best Article Award’ for the essay that led to the publication of this book.”
The Mysteries of Godliness is organized chronologically, with two appendices and an index. Chapter 1, “Prelude to the Endowment” discusses revelations and ordinances previous to Kirtland. Chapter 2, “The Kirtland Ceremony” covers the time period in Kirtland. Chapter 3, “Joseph Smith’s Ritual” discusses in explicit detail the Nauvoo endowment and its alleged derivation from Freemasonry. Chapter 4, “Brigham Young’s Revisions,” details the standardization or evolution of the endowment from the death of Joseph Smith until the exodus to Utah. Chapter 5, “Developments in Nineteenth-Century Utah,” chronicles events in the Endowment House, the St. George temple, and the Salt Lake temple. Chapter 6, “The Twentieth Century Temple,” offers a glimpse into the modern endowment. Finally, Buerger’s “Conclusion” makes several criticisms and suggestions that many readers will find offensive or, at the very least, puzzling.
Who is David John Buerger, and what is his relation with the Church? The back cover indicates that he works as “a freelance business and financial writer for computer technology magazines and companies.” Hints to his personal stance on things LDS are scattered throughout the book. Buerger views the Book of Mormon as an expression of Joseph Smith’s anti-Papist, anti-Masonic theology.2 He had to ask D. Michael Quinn and Anthony Hutchinson to explain the LDS doctrine of salvation to him.3 In 1992, he had his name removed from Church records. Since Buerger has neither professional training, church position, nor spiritual witness in his favor, his book must stand on the strength of its author’s research and interpretations.
The first edition of The Mysteries of Godliness was reviewed twice in LDS periodicals.5 I avoided rereading these reviews until I had read the new edition for myself, to avoid being colored by previous criticisms. Upon finishing, I reread the other reviews and realized that the flaws I had discovered on my own were the same flaws evident in the first edition. The second edition (as listed on the copyright page) apparently differs from the first only in the fact that it is a paperback. No obvious attempt has been made to update statistics or footnotes,6 correct misattributions,7 or otherwise react to the severe criticism brought against it.8
A Grain of Wheat Among the Chaff
Before highlighting some of its myriad flaws, I should note that Mysteries of Godliness has at least one strength: A large part of Buerger’s sources consists of original diaries, notes, letters, and minutes from the Church Archives that are not found elsewhere, which he quotes directly and extensively.9 No other temple book makes such extensive use of these early sources, which provide a fascinating window into the thoughts and understanding of the early members of the Church in regards to the temple. (I suspect that we owe this less to Buerger’s access to the material and more to a reluctance on the part of other LDS authors to publicly display private things, such as First Presidency minutes, etc.) Buerger does not limit himself solely to reliable LDS sources. Indeed, he makes liberal use of apostate exposes, anti-Mormon literature, and others less trustworthy. To his credit, he does filter out the most inflammatory and sensational passages of such anti-LDS propaganda. While the historical value of such records is debatable, their theological value is not. Members of the church do not need apostates to teach us our own doctrine or liturgy.10
Sensitivity to the Sacred
Buerger apparently believed he was being adequately sensitive enough to what LDS hold to be sacred in treating his subject.11 Based on my experience and the comments of three other reviewers,12 I think most active LDS would strongly disagree. Buerger, in contrast to others who have written on the temple, casts LDS “pearls before swine,” instead of speaking to those “with ears to hear.” He tries to speak through his quotations, and feels that such a method frees him of any covenants of non-disclosure he had made as an endowed member.13Regarding the quotations of his sources, I have mixed feelings. Although I strongly disagree with his commentary and interpretations and question the appropriateness of such extensive quotations, I also value the sources he makes available. I think that most members would appreciate knowing what these sources say while simultaneously not wanting them in the public arena.
On the other hand, certain aspects of the temple are clearly off limits for discussion. I believe that this taboo has extended beyond its intended purpose in LDS culture, to the extent that those being endowed sometimes receive insufficient preparation before and inadequate instruction after, due to reluctance on members’ part to speak about the temple in anything more than vague generalities. For example, I have a friend, a convert of a little more than a year, who came from a mixed Christian/Islamic background who received her endowment and was sealed to her husband, also a convert. Shortly afterwards, I received an embarrassed phone call. My friend had many questions, and didn’t know whom to ask, where to look, or if asking questions was even permitted! “Am I even allowed to say ‘anointing’ outside the temple?” she wanted to know.
While I feel it is better in public to say too little than too much, in such a personal situation it is better to risk saying too much than to say nothing at all. After all, the feelings of a recently endowed member about the temple have great influence on how often they will return to the temple and even their general level of activity in the Church. Those who have received little preparation or support will likely prefer worldly things they can understand over heavenly things they can’t. The following story is instructive.
In our day, instances of lack of preparation [for receiving one’s endowment] have been cited by our prophets. When the Los Angeles temple building program was commenced, President McKay called a meeting of the stake presidents of the temple district. During this meeting, President McKay took occasion to express his feelings about the holy endowment. He indicated how some years before, a niece of his had received her ordinances in the house of the Lord. He had learned that she only recently before that had received an initiation into a sorority at the local university. She had had the crassness to say that she found the sorority initiation superior in effect and meaning to her than the endowment. President McKay was open and frank with them about the experience of one in his own family with the endowment. He wasn’t worried about their audible gasps. With characteristic aplomb, he paused, and then said, “Brothers and sisters, she was disappointed in the temple. Brothers and sisters, I was disappointed in the temple. And so were you.” Then he said something incredibly important that should be engraven on all our souls. “There are few, even temple workers, who comprehend the full meaning and power of the temple endowment. Seen for what it is, it is the step-by-step ascent into the Eternal Presence.”14
I am saddened that President McKay felt he had been poorly prepared for his experience but encouraged by his frankness in talking about it.15 We need to do a better job, both institutionally and personally, in preparing our children, our friends, and new members to receive their endowment. On the institutional level, I understand the reluctance, for example, to publicly and officially endorse a particular book for temple preparation. I am encouraged by articles in the Ensign like that on the temple garment, as well as President Hinckley’s focus on temples and temple building.16 On a personal level, I believe we can prepare others through appropriately sharing our own positive experiences and referring to good books that treat the subject. Because of its flaws, The Mysteries of Godliness does not qualify for that list. We must not allow the things that we value most to be explained by those who believe (and understand) them least.
In spite of the doctrinal richness and centrality of temple ordinances, Mysteries of Godliness is not a doctrinal dissertation. This turns out to be an asset, since the few doctrines Buerger discusses suffer from incorrect theological understandings and vague definitions. For example, Buerger repeatedly declares that the LDS doctrines of sealing and having one’s calling and election made sure are “Calvinistic.”17 Buerger never defines his term but we can assume he is referring to “Calvinism,” the religious philosophy, and not the cartoon boy with a stuffed tiger. The five main points of Calvinism, often referred to by the acronym TULIP, are Total depravity, Unconditional election (or predestination), Limited atonement, Irresistibility of grace, and Perseverance of the saints. Given that several of these are flatly contradicted by LDS scripture, the only possible connection is between unconditional predestination and the aforementioned ordinances.18 However, where in LDS doctrine is it taught that those people sealed in marriage or having their calling and election made sure were unconditionally ordained to such before their birth, as Calvinism declares?19 Indeed, the wording itself refutes such an idea. If one’s election were sure (e.g. not conditioned on any mortal action or belief) before birth, then there would be no process of “making it sure.” Buerger has simply misunderstood.
Buerger claims that because Eve has few lines of dialogue in the endowment presentation, it depicts women as subservient to men.20 This is irrational. If Joseph Smith restored the temple ordinances from ancient times (which Buerger seems to argue against), we should not expect to find in them some kind of modern feminist ideal. Indeed, a comparison between the role of women in ancient and modern temples would show that women play a much larger and equal role now. (Also of note is that women play no role whatsoever in Masonry, so the temple ordinances are significantly more inclusive then Masonic rituals.)
Setting that particular argument aside, we need only use Buerger’s own logic to discover how non-sequitur it is to equate lack of dialogue with disrespect. Following his argument, we discover (gasp) that the endowment is anti-apostle! Really! James and John have even less dialogue than Eve. (Following the historical-critical method, we could conclude that this represents nothing less than a redaction by pro-Peter elements, cementing his power and status while downplaying others.) Buerger’s reading is simply a hostile (mis-)understanding of the temple endowment. He admits that his interpretation is “at odds with” other LDS teachings.21
The Temple Ordinances and Freemasonry
This topic of temple ordinances and Freemansony has been dealt with several times, from several perspectives, and I refer the interested reader to those treatments.22 LDS often flatly reject any notion of Joseph Smith “borrowing” from Masonry for several reasons. One, lacking historical context, many LDS may naively assume that Joseph Smith received revelations in a vacuum. Two, many reject the idea of “borrowing” because it easily plays into the hands of anti-Mormons who then argue that Masonry was the source of the endowment, removing God completely. Buerger does not explicitly express his thoughts on the matter, but he toes the line by downplaying all ancient sources in favor of Masonry.
It does not appear that Smith had any working knowledge of mystery cultures and apocalyptic/mystery cults from which to have drawn temple ideas. In short, ancient sources cannot be considered a direct influence on Smith except as they were revealed to him from a time predating corruption, or except as they appear in the ancient scriptures that he brought forth.23
It has not proved fruitful to try to reconstruct an ancient Christian temple ceremony from pagan parallels.24
It is more reasonable (and I believe productive) to explore the source suggested by contemporary accounts… [namely, Masonry].25
The pattern of resemblances indicates that Smith drew on Masonic rites in shaping the temple endowment and specifically borrowed signs, tokens, and penalties, as well as possibly the Creation narrative and ritual anointings.26
Each of these quotations contains problems that could themselves become topics of research. First, no one (to my knowledge) has argued that Gnostics, mystery cults, etc. were really crypto-Mormons practicing a revealed form of the endowment. More frequently, such sources are quoted to establish that a temple type exists. LDS scholars do not need to reconstruct a Jewish or Christian endowment ceremony, but only show that similar ends were attained.27 Ancient documents of this type often also support the ideas that such traditions were suppressed from the mainstream of tradition,28 or borrowed from a pure source.29 Joseph did not need a revelation of these ancient sources, but of the ordinances themselves. Again, no one has suggested that Joseph’s revelation(s) on the temple consisted in a visionary copy of the Book of Jeu, or other such things.
Second, the early saints (Buerger’s “contemporary sources”) clearly did not believe or suggest that the source of the temple was Masonry.30 I believe here that Buerger misinterprets his sources. Masonry was perhaps a trigger, or a conduit, but not the primary source. “…thare is a similarity of preast Hood in masonry. Bro Joseph Ses Masonry was taken from Preasthood, but has become degenrated, but menny things are perfect [sic].”31 Note here that to Joseph, the “perfect things” in Masonry were a subset of what he already knew the temple ordinances to be, not some kind of point of departure.
As for Buerger’s alleged parallels between the temple ordinances and Masonry, at the least, I find it highly coincidental that “signs, tokens, and penalties, as well as possibly the Creation narrative and ritual anointings” also appear (sometimes on the surface, sometimes hidden32) in the Bible,33 the ancient Near East,34 and the Book of Mormon,35 published 12 years before Joseph Smith’s Masonic initiation.36 In other words, “If Joseph really borrowed his ideas from Masonry, why are the similarities limited to only a few items, many of which have known parallels to more ancient mysteries?”37
In light of all this (and rest assured, not every flaw has been covered in this or other reviews), should Buerger’s book be classified as anti-Mormon? Perhaps. He shares with many others a naturalistic approach, insufficient respect for the sacred, an anti-LDS establishment mentality and a misunderstanding of basic LDS beliefs. On the other hand, his book uses little hyperbole, no UNDERLINED CAPS, adequate (though misused) documentation, and no preaching for fundamentalist, inerrantist Christianity. More importantly, Buerger does not deliberately misquote, selectively edit, or wrench scriptures and history out of context, a hallmark of anti-Mormon literature. I feel that this book occupies a middle ground. Though Buerger is slightly antagonistic towards the Church, he provides good historical information, which could nevertheless harm some members of the Church who are not used to reading such things. For those who can winnow, however, Buerger’s book provides a few good grains of wheat among the chaff.
1 David John Buerger, The Mysteries of Godliness-A History of Mormon Temple Worship, Second Edition (San Francisco: Smith Research Associates, 2002), viii.
2 The Mysteries of Godliness, 4, 5, 47. Buerger does not explicitly say he agrees with the anti-Masonry theory. However, he also provides no evidence or footnotes to the contrary.
3 Ibid., 2.
5 See Matthew Brown’s review in FARMS Review of Books 10:1 (1998), 97-131 and the review by Danel W. Bachman and Kenneth W. Godfrey, in BYU Studies 36:2 (1996-1997), 245-249.
6 See The Mysteries of Godliness, 59, ft. 68, where Buerger refers to “D Michael Quinn’s The Mormon Hierarchy: Origins of Power (forthcoming).” I believe he means The Mormon Hierarchy: Extensions of Power, which was published in 1994.
7 See The Mysteries of Godliness, 67, “Mary’s anointing of Jesus in Matthew 12.” Buerger apparently means John 12, since Mary is not even mentioned in Matthew 12.
8 I suspect that Buerger or his editor felt that the criticisms leveled against it were invalid.
9 I wondered suspiciously how Buerger came by such things. He did most of his research in the 1970s and 1980s before he was restricted from the archives. See The Mysteries of Godliness, 2, ft 6 and FARMS Review of Books 10:1 (1998), 101.
10 Buerger, although LDS and a returned missionary, apparently did need such instruction. He had to ask Anthony Hutchinson and D. Michael Quinn to explain the LDS concept of salvation to him. See The Mysteries of Godliness, 2.
11 See The Mysteries of Godliness, vii-viii.
12 Brown, Bachman, and Godfrey, in the reviews previously cited.
13 At the time he wrote the articles the book is made from, he was still an active member of the LDS Church.
14 Andrew Ehat, ” ‘Who Shall Ascend into the Hill of the Lord?’ Sesquicentennial Reflections of a Sacred Day: 4 May 1842,” Temples of the Ancient World, edited by Donald W. Parry (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Company, 1994), 58-59.
15 Note that it was a solemn assembly, limited to Church members whose callings include the stewardship of teaching, preparing, and recommending members for the temple.
16 See Carlos Asay, “The Temple Garment: ‘An Outward Expression of an Inward Commitment’,”Ensign (August 1997), 19-23.
17 The Mysteries of Godliness, 123.
18 For example, the Book of Mormon teaches of an infinite atonement (2 Nephi 9:7, 25:16, “infinite for all mankind,” and Alma 34:12).
19 Van Harvey, A Handbook of Theological Terms (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1997), 188.
20 The Mysteries of Godliness, 178. He lists several other reasons, equally invalid.
21 Ibid., 178.
22 See reviews by Brown, Bachman and Godfrey cited earlier. Cf. Matthew Brown, The Gate of Heaven (American Fork, Utah: Covenant Communications, 1999) 299-318; William J. Hamblin, Daniel C.Peterson, and George L. Mitton, “Mormon in the Fiery Furnace Or, Loftes Tryk Goes to Cambridge” Review of John L. Brooke, The Refiner’s Fire: The Making of Mormon Cosmology, 1644-1844 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994) in FARMS Review of Books 6:2 (1994), 3-58; Kenneth Godfrey, “Freemasonry in Nauvoo” and “Freemasonry and the Temple,” Encyclopedia of Mormonism, edited by Daniel H. Ludlow (New York: Macmillan Publishing, 1992). Nick Literski, an active Mormon and Freemason, has a forthcoming book on the subject.
23 The Mysteries of Godliness, 43.
24 Ibid., 43.
25 Ibid., 44. Emphasis mine.
26 Ibid., 56. Buerger adds, “Still the temple ceremony cannot be explained as wholesale borrowing, neither can it be dismissed as completely unrelated.”
27 For example, a process, ceremony or initiation resulting in royal and priestly status. We can find such things in scripture (e.g., Revelation 1:6, Exodus 29, Leviticus 8) or non-biblical but contemporary documents (e.g. the early Christian baptism ceremony in Cyril of Jerusalem’s Catechetical Lectures, or Levi in the Testament of the Twelve Patriarchs, etc.)
28 Kevin Christensen, “Paradigms Regained: A Survey of Margaret Barker’s Scholarship and Its Significance for Mormon Studies,” FARMS Occasional Papers 2 (2001), which discusses, among other things, heavenly ascents and the nature of deity.
29 William Hamblin, “Aspects of an Early Christian Initiation Ritual,” By Study and Also by Faith: Essays in Honor of Hugh W. Nibley on the Occasion of His Eightieth Birthday, edited by John M. Lundquist and Stephen D. Ricks, (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Company and FARMS, 1990) 1:202-221.
30 Cf. FARMS Review of Books 10:1 (1998), 115 (ft. 30), 108-109 (ft. 19 and 20).
31 Heber C. Kimball, as quoted in The Mysteries of Godliness, 40.
32 Joseph could have borrowed the surface things such as anointings (Exodus 29, Leviticus 8, etc.), but given that most endowed members aren’t aware of such things, I find it unlikely that Joseph by chance could have stumbled over such a cohesive set of ordinances with hidden ties to the ancient world. As an example of “hidden” temple parallels, I would cite Exodus 28:41, in which Aaron’s hand is filled (KJV, “consecrate”) as part of his priestly initiation. This Hebrew phrase also appears in Exodus 29:9, 29, 33, 32:29, Leviticus 8:33, 16:32, 21:10, Numbers 3:3, Judges 17:5, 12, 1 Kings 13:33, 1 Chronicles 29:5, 2 Chronicles 29:31, Jeremiah 44:25, and Ezekiel 43:26. See the appendix of Lynn M. and Hope A. Hilton, Discovering Lehi: New Evidence of Lehi and Nephi in Arabia (Springville, Utah: Cedar Fort, 1996), also available on-line at http://home.uchicago.edu/~spackman; Hugh Nibley, The Temple and the Cosmos (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Company, 1992), 106; Cf. any translation of Levi from the Testament of the Twelve Patriarchs.
33 Articles are too numerous for me to be all-inclusive here. For a good collection, see Temples of the Ancient World: Ritual and Symbolism, edited by Donald W. Parry (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Company and FARMS, 1994).
34 For example, the non-LDS professor of my Akkadian class has already discussed covenental penalties, prayer with upraised hands (in an Akkadian setting), and she’um (which appears in the Book of Mormon in a list of grains, Mosiah 9:9). He has no knowledge of Masonry, temple ordinances, or the Book of Mormon.
35 For example, the covenantal penalties in Alma 46:21-22; Cf. John Welch, Illuminating the Sermon at the Temple and Sermon on the Mount (Provo, Utah: FARMS, 1999); Matthew Brown, “Girded about with a Lambskin,” Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 6:2 (Fall 1997), 124-151; M. Catherine Thomas, “The Brother of Jared at the Veil,” Temples of the Ancient World, edited by Don Parry (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Company and FARMS, 1994), 388-398.
36 Joseph became a Mason on March 15, 1842. The Book of Mormon was published in 1830.
37 William J. Hamblin, Daniel C.Peterson, and George L. Mitton, “Mormon in the Fiery Furnace Or, Loftes Tryk Goes to Cambridge” Review of John L. Brooke, The Refiner’s Fire: The Making of Mormon Cosmology, 1644-1844 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994) in FARMS Review of Books 6:2 (1994), 55.