Temples and Secrecy

I’m somewhat wary of secrets. Yes, I absolutely think there is a time and a place for keeping confidences, and I’m very much a supporter of private information staying generally private (like not having your entire web history auctioned off by your internet service provider to the highest bidder. But I digress). I’m not entirely on board with the trend in our contemporary culture to leak anything that can be leaked; given my history of willingness to criticize the church, you might be surprised to learn that I actually have some serious reservations about the recent MormonLeaks phenomenon.

Still, secrets are tricky beasts. Sometimes they’re necessary, no doubt about it. But I don’t like how they can place excessive burdens on people who get stuck with more knowledge than they can handle on their own, but who can’t ask for support because the knowledge is secret. I don’t like how they can create dividing lines between people, separating out those “in the know” as a privileged group. I don’t like how they can create a toxic atmosphere in communities (think, polygamy under Joseph Smith), or in families (such as when a parent selects one child and share their secrets with them but not with anyone else, and the dynamics get weird fast).

So you can imagine my reaction when, as I’ve blogged about before, I found out in ninth grade that God had his very own secret club, that people who’d been through the temple knew secrets about getting into heaven that weren’t available to the population at large. I was utterly devastated.

I know, I know—when it comes to the temple, it’s not secret, but sacred. But can we begin by simply admitting that it’s both? And whichever word you use, I’ve wondered a lot about the purpose for it. The standard explanation, of course, is that it’s to protect sacred things from the mocking eyes of the world, which would likely see them as just bizarre and not understand or honor their value. But I can’t help noticing that the church also has sacred practices which might sound very strange indeed if they weren’t so familiar (e.g., eating a representation of someone’s flesh and blood) which are openly displayed to the world.

Also, in the age of the internet, the secrets of the temple aren’t actually being protected from those who might wish to make fun of them. A quick google search will tell you that that particular ship has already sailed; the secrets are out there. In fact, in an interesting twist, these days one could argue that the secrets of temple liturgy are being protected not primarily from non-members, who might randomly chance upon them while surfing the web or even look them up out of curiosity, but from members, from the faithful but as of yet unendowed, who are presumably more likely to respect the church’s wishes and not go seeking the information on their own. Given this, I don’t think it’s a stretch to propose that at least in the present historical moment, the existence of secret temple rites is aimed less at hiding privileged information from prying eyes, and more at other things. One important motivation is arguably that of creating sacred space that is ritually set off from the mundane, a process nicely articulated by Richard Bushman in a 2007 Pew Research Center interview:

How do you create a sacred space?  . . . Just like time is set aside on the Sabbath devoted to God, can you have space set aside that’s devoted to God? Mormons have become very good at that. Before you can go to the temple, you can’t simply be a member of the church. You have to see your bishop. Every two years you have to talk with your bishop who will ask you a set of questions . . . It’s a worthiness interview, and you have to have a recommend to get past the front door of the temple. Once you get past that door, you immediately go to a changing room where you shed your outer clothes and put on special white clothing. In the temple you speak in whispers. You don’t speak aloud. And then outside the temple you don’t talk about it at all. Some people think of this as secretive in the sense of hiding things. But for Mormons, it’s all part of the process of creating a sacred space. When you walk in there, life is different. You just feel things are on a different plane.

Additionally, temple secrecy creates a particular dynamic in the community in which social capital in the form of “in-the-know” status is conferred upon those who conform to the behavioral requirements of the church. In other words, it’s a way for the church to actually enforce its expectations—if you fail to pay your tithing, or break the Word of Wisdom, or affiliate with groups deemed apostate, there will be real consequences. (For a fascinating and thorough consideration of the ways in which temple secrecy and social capital interact in Mormonism, see this long ago post from Kiskilili.)

While I’ve had a lot of reservations about this set-up over the years, I do want to give it a fair shake. Some contemporary thinkers have critiqued any religious community which does this sort of thing as being contrary to the fundamental ethos of Christianity, which they see as inherently inclusive and opposed to any sort of esoteric information available only to a privileged few. But to be fair, this has not always been the case in the history of Christianity; in the early centuries of Christian worship, to give one example, the unbaptized were required to leave before the secret part of the liturgy in which the Eucharist was distributed. Even in the text of the New Testament, Jesus seems to indicate that there are insiders with special knowledge, and outsiders for whom this information is obscured: “Unto you it is given to know the mystery of the kingdom of God: but unto them that are without, all these things are done in parables.” (Mark 4:11) In addition, I will say that I really can appreciate the value of the idea of sacred space as described by Bushman in the quote above, of a place set apart from the mundane where you can in a sense step out of the temporal or mortal world and contemplate the the things of eternity.

Furthermore, LDS leaders quite reasonably make the case that they are ultimately not trying to limit anything from anyone—that they are in fact eager for everyone to partake of temple blessings. Given the strong missionary impulse so deeply embedded in Mormonism, I have little reason to question the sincerity of church leaders who state that they truly want everyone to participate in the secret liturgy at some point, that it is in some sense being offered to everyone.

On the other hand, as I said above, the situation undeniably creates an exclusive club in which members of the community are divided into insiders and outsiders. And human nature being what it is, it seems inevitable that at least some of those in the former category will see themselves as more enlightened, as intellectually and spiritually superior to the uninitiated. Those who go through the temple at a young age may be less aware of just how deep this divide runs, but I can say from many years of experience as an unendowed member of the church that those in that situation are confronted with regular reminders that they are not fully insiders, and do not have the privileged status reserved for temple-attending members of the church. And have to admit that I’m fundamentally uneasy with this divide.

The lack of accountability is another byproduct of the secrecy of temple rites that concerns me. For one thing, while the church can and does get interrogated by outsiders about its refusal to (for example) ordain women, it is rare for there to be much pushback from the broader culture with regard to its temple practices regarding gender, as whenever those issues come up, church leaders play the “it’s too scared to discuss” card, and simply refuse to engage the issue. There are even times when I would go so far as to say that LDS leaders are enabled by the secrecy of temple rites to able to flat-out lie about the status of women in the church, and claim that there is no subordination based on gender anywhere in the tradition. Obviously this bothers me a lot. I do realize that some would object, however, to the entire way I’ve framed this, and assert that the church has zero responsibility to be in any way accountable to the expectations of the broader culture in the first place. I can appreciate such a perspective. But I come down more on the side of thinking that it’s actually not a bad thing for there to be some broader pressures on religious institutions—not to force them to one hundred percent conform to current cultural norms, but to keep them honest.

Even more troubling to me, however, than issues involving the relationship of the church to the broader culture, is the the way in which the secrecy of the temple rites enables the church to not have to really acknowledge or confront the harm done by the liturgy to at least some members of the institution—because once again, the subject is simply entirely placed off-limits. I don’t know if this has changed in the past decade, and I truly hope that the proliferation of temple stories on places like feminist blogs has at least somewhat countered this (see for example the amazing series of posts on FMH titled “When the Temple Hurts”), but when we first started discussing issues related to the temple on our blog many years ago, I was struck by just how many people reported having utterly devastating experiences but literally no place to talk about them, and profound feelings of isolation and disconnection from the church and their fellow saints as a result.

And to be blunt, there are ways in which the whole thing is disturbingly reminiscent of the dynamics of abusive families. I find myself hesitant to make this comparison, as I realize that it’s provocative and may well raise the hackles of many and make them more likely to simply dismiss everything I am saying here. But I nonetheless think it’s worth noting the parallels, just because they so clearly illustrate the ways in which secrecy can be destructive. A basic characteristic of families in which parents are abusing their children is that the children are forbidden, with threats of severe consequences, to share the details of what is going on with anyone outside the family. The damage done to them is thereby compounded, as not only is no one able to intervene and put an end to the abuse, the children also don’t get access to alternate narrative frameworks which they could draw on in interpreting the situation, ones which would lay the sole responsibility for the abuse at the feet of the abuser. Instead, tragically, they almost always blame themselves for what is being done to them. To clarify, I’m not arguing that this is a perfect parallel to the situation of people harmed by the temple. But I cannot tell you how many times I’ve encountered echoes of this dynamic in the stories of people who have had their faith and confidence and belief in their own worth utterly shattered by their temple experiences, but who don’t dare tell that to anyone in their lives for fear that others will quickly shut them down (citing the requirements of secrecy), and also quite possibly blame and judge them for having a bad experience and especially for sharing it.

In any situation in which there is an expectation of secrecy and you are wondering about its legitimacy, whether in a family or a church or other social institution or the workings of a government agency, I propose that the crucial question to ask is this: exactly who or what is this secrecy protecting? If we’re talking about a therapy relationship, for example, it’s clear that the built-in confidentiality requirement, in which the therapist is tasked with keeping the secrets of the client, is aimed at protecting the client, and that seems quite legitimate and defensible. On the other hand, if the secrecy in an institution appears to be primarily protecting the people running the institution, while causing harm to some of its more vulnerable members, I think we need to ask some hard questions.

Given all of this, I am not persuaded that the benefits which arise from keeping the temple ordinances secret outweigh the costs. Perhaps the situation would be different if the liturgy were universally experienced as benign, but that is far from the reality in which we currently find ourselves. And so I find myself asking: are there ways of creating sacred space, space that’s set apart from the rest of the world as a kind of refuge—which I agree is a powerful thing and something worth pursuing—that don’t involve secrecy, and its accompanying dynamics of privilege, exclusivity, and lack of accountability?


  1. This is excellent, Lynnette. I really like your diagnostic question at the end: Just who is this secrecy (any secrecy) designed to protect? I also completely agree with you that it would be healthy for the Church’s temple practices to be exposed to some outside pressure. Certainly we can see the effects of outside pressure on Church rhetoric in general. Even for all the wrapping themselves in the FamProc they do, GAs today are much more circumspect in their sexism than GAs were when I was a child (the 70s and 80s). They might still say that the father is the head of the home, but they’re more likely to hastily add that he’s in partnership with his wife. Whether this represents much progress is open to question, I think, but at least it represents a change. In the temple, though, as you point out so well, the secrecy keeps the pressure from happening, so we happily go along with a sealing ceremony that is clearly a setup for polygamy, and a completely non-reciprocated “hearken” covenant that emphatically puts women in their place below men.

    Also, I think your comparison of temple secrecy to the secrecy in abusive families is a powerful one! I’m so glad you linked to SKSH’s series at fMh. I thought that was such a wonderful series because it opened up a space for people to talk about the pain they had suffered, when they had never had a space to talk about it before, but had just had to live with it eating them up inside. I know like you said that it’s not a perfect comparison, but this aspect in particular seems to be spot on!

    Just to make an attempt to answer your last question, if I remember right, a few people I’ve known have gone on silent retreats with monastic orders (and now I’m forgetting whether you’re among them). I know next to nothing about these retreats, but they seem like potentially a way to have a sacred space (and time) that’s set apart from ordinary life, but without all the secrecy.

  2. I’ll give your analogy more credit than you will:

    1. The temple is overtly about families. If you ask Mormons “why temple?”, they will say “for families!”.

    2. Changes in the temple ceremony over the last 100 years have moved it in the direction of “less like abuse”. This is worth celebrating, but it also means the temple ceremonies of the past were more like abuse than what we see today.

    3. As Ziff notes above, the introduction of the temple ceremony is deeply entwangled with early Mormon polygamy. Historical examination of Mormon polygamy paints a deeply problematic picture with plenty of difficult questions about potentially- and actually-abusive power dynamics.

    My exmormon perspective is that the temple was created as a cultural machine for the industrialization of spousal abuse. I recognize that there is room for faithful perspectives that tell a different story, and I hope Mormons (and others interested in promoting the family as the fundamental unit of society) can find ways to draw power and righteousness into their families without the danger, damage, and exploitation that their past and present systems have engendered.

  3. If you can experience the temple ceremony seeing Adam and men as Christ/bridegroom and Eve/women as the church/bride, it reframes most of those gender concerns. Try it next time, it’s made a world of difference for me.

  4. There was an interesting story on NPR last week about the psychological effects of rituals.

    Social Science Research Explores Psychological Effects Of Rituals

    VEDANTAM: Well, Hobson and the other researchers find that complex rituals change how people interact with one another, especially when it comes to the amount of trust they repose in others. The researchers had volunteers play a game, for example, where they could share money with a partner, but they didn’t know whether the partner in turn would share money back with them.

    HOBSON: Those participants who did do the ritual over the course of the week gave more money or they entrusted more of their own money to fellow ingroup members with whom they shared this arbitrary, minimal ritual. And they actually ended up entrusting less money to their outgroup members with whom they didn’t share this ritual.

    INSKEEP: Wait a minute, even this made-up ritual became a bonding activity that pulled me together with some people and separated me from others?

    VEDANTAM: That’s exactly right. If you can get people to do a complicated ritual and have them do it over a repeated period of days, it turns out that this can increase trust and cooperation. And this might be one reason that rituals are so ubiquitous all around the world. Of course, this research is also pointing to the downside of rituals, which is that even when they’re completely meaningless and made up they can cause us to distrust people from groups that do not share the same ritual. And, of course, there are 10,000 examples of that all around the world.

  5. Lynette, you hit this one clear out of the ballpark. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.

    I am one of those for whom the temple was an incredibly damaging experience. Like you, I really appreciate the idea of sacred space, and before I was endowed, I was really on board with the secrecy. In grad school, I found it easy to pick a side in debates about whether there are cultural properties that should remain out of academic hands. But then I experienced exactly what we were protecting and realized that we weren’t sheltering a beautiful treasure, but hiding an open wound. It needs fresh air to heal.

    As has been mentioned, the temple is inseparably (and irreparably, I increasingly believe) connected with polygamy. The secrecy about polygamy and the temple spring from the same source. The temple rites had to be secret because polygamy was a secret (and things like the vengeance oaths had to be kept secret for obvious reasons as well). And though polygamy has left our overt practice, it is still very present in the temple. The temple’s view of the eternities is built squarely on the foundation of Joseph and Brigham’s ideas about polygamy, and the men who shaped the ordinances had unambiguous ideas about women’s capabilities and destinies that are clearly reflected in the liturgy. You can try on all the different metaphorical glasses in the world and you’ll not be able to erase the historic facts.

  6. The secrecy also allows half-truths like this one to persist. In temple prep, they often share this quote by James E. Talmadge as a summary of the temple covenants:

    “The ordinances of the endowment embody certain obligations on the part of the individual, such as covenant and promise to observe the law of strict virtue and chastity, to be charitable, benevolent, tolerant and pure; to devote both talent and material means to the spread of truth and the uplifting of the race; to maintain devotion to the cause of truth; and to seek in every way to contribute to the great preparation that the earth may be made ready to receive her King,—the Lord Jesus Christ. With the taking of each covenant and the assuming of each obligation a promised blessing is pronounced, contingent upon the faithful observance of the conditions” (The House of the Lord, rev. ed. [1976], 84).

    It’s a broad, ennobling message. But it isn’t what we covenant in the temple. I was so confused by the covenants I actually made in comparison to what I was told. It is a strange thing indeed to learn that your baptismal covenant is more Christlike and transformative than your temple covenants.

    I’m sorry I’ve gone on so much. But the secret is a hard one to bear when you didn’t experience it as sacred. I sometimes feel like I’m Lady MacBeth-ing it over here, even though the secret isn’t anything I did!

  7. This was very good Lynette, thank you. I appreciate good blog posts like this one that tease out the problems with the temple, as they put words to the feelings not all of us are able to express. I had never really thought about how secrecy could be enabling to maintain the status quo, I now see it. You’re not likely to see a Salt Lake Tribune article about sexism in the temple with quotes from members 🙂 Not to self promote, especially because bloggers like you all are way more articulate than I, but I wrote a piece over at Wheat & Tares about coercion and temple covenants. I wrote this after grappling for years with why exactly the temple bothered me so much, and I finally realized it had to do with the lack of agency I was afforded while making a sacred covenant that I didn’t agree with. I continue to be confused by temple worship. It is to be the “house of the Lord” the holiest place on earth. Yet there is so much culture and history wrapped up in it all, for me if taints the purported purpose. If we can’t have pure doctrine in our holy rituals, what’s the point of even performing those rituals?


  8. Great post. I agree with Maybee that it really articulated feelings I sometimes have trouble articulating myself.

    And I think your comparison to abuse in families is quite apt. After having a very devastating experience in the temple, most people’s advice to me was: “Keep going back. You’ll get used to it.” It just struck me as rather disturbing: in what other instance where a friend came to you saying “I had this experience that broke my heart and gutted my worth and makes me feel really dark and terrible,” would your response be “Keep going back until you get used to it.”? It really did feel like advising someone in an abusive relationship to stay together until the abuse felt normal. Which yeah…is really disturbing.

  9. Excellent, excellent, excellent article. The secrecy protects the institution while damaging real people. That’s not ok.

  10. Thanks so much for all the thoughtful comments! I was a bit nervous, I have to admit, about tackling a really controversial topic again; it’s been a while since I did that (I mean, it’s been a while since I blogged much at all), and I forgot how stressful it can be to then wait for people to go after you. So it was actually nice (and validating) to read all your ideas and experiences.

    Ziff, yeah, I do think the church has dialed down the hard-core gender rhetoric at least in part as a response to broader cultural pressures; in today’s world, the ideal (if not the practice, alas) of gender equality tends to be assumed. I mean, it’s striking that the church doesn’t defend gender hierarchy, but instead claims that its gender hierarchy is actually a version of equality. In other words, they’ve already acquiesced to broader cultural norms in the very way they frame their defense.

    While I wrote that part of the post, I have to admit that I was wondering, but has anything really changed—I mean, it’s not as if women are now ordained, and in fact I think there’s a problem now in which the church digs in its heels and makes sure to never act in any way that might make it look like it’s changing in response to cultural pressure. And yet for all that, I have often wondered whether the deeply sexist aspects of the temple ceremony could really survive for long if they were out in the open.

    Also, I think the silent retreat model is a helpful one. It’s clear that Mormons aren’t the only ones to have carved out sacred space, and other traditions seem to pull it off without all the secrecy, so that perhaps suggests that it can be done?

    Ransom, you make a compelling case for my tentative analogy. I don’t know that I’d go so far as to say that the temple was created for the industrialization of spousal abuse, as you put it (but then I’m still Mormon, at least nominally so 😉 ), but I do think it unquestionably serves to legitimize abuse in at least some cases—both in terms of the situations I mentioned here, in which people are spiritually damaged and don’t have space to come to terms with that, and in the way it which it provides a framework for men to be abusive and cite the patriarchal order of heaven as justification for their behavior. (Some people will say in response to that, “oh that never actually happens—I mean, no one takes that covenant seriously”—but I will say without going into too much detail that I have seen the destructive effects of the obey/hearken covenant firsthand.)

    acw, I’ve heard that proposal many times, but it doesn’t quite work for me. My problem is that in my view, turning offensive practices into symbols as a way to mitigate their offensiveness isn’t ultimately tenable; the symbolic read may be authentic and powerful, but it doesn’t negate the damage done by the on-the-surface message conveyed by the liturgy. That said, if it’s helped you make peace with the temple, more power to you.

    Pete, that is so interesting; thanks for sharing! I’m fascinated. I was actually just talking to my sister about this, and she pointed out that this is one way of understanding sports culture in the United States: you bond over shared rituals related to your team that connect you to other fans, and make you antagonistic to other groups of fans. I really want to think more about these dynamics of ritual and how they play out in a variety of religious traditions.

    Marigold, thanks so much for the kind words, and for sharing your experience. I really like the way you put it, that “we weren’t sheltering a beautiful treasure, but hiding an open wound. It needs fresh air to heal.” And yes, I think that polygamy is so entwined with the temple that I do wonder if it’s possible to really ever separate the two. Also, quotes like that Talmage one make me bonkers. Why all the cloak-and-dagger stuff? Why can’t we even say openly what the covenants are? That leads to a situation I find absolutely unconscionable, in which people have eternal covenants sprung on them and have to decide in a split-second what to do.

    Which leads me right to the post Maybee linked (great post, btw!) Though I have my views on secrecy, I can at least see different perspectives, as I tried to share in my post. But for the life of me, I cannot see any case for coercing people into making covenants without any advance preparation and thought. Anyway, thanks for the comment and the link, Maybee! I’m so glad the post spoke to you.

    Kate, thank you; I’m really glad to hear you resonated with what I was saying. I agree that the advice to “just go back” makes no sense; as you say, in what other context would people say, oh that really damaged you, I guess you should keep participating until—you get numb to it, I guess?

    Amanda, thank you. I agree: not okay.

  11. It’s problematic that you don’t get a chance to know what you’re promising before you promise it. I think it’s not just a cultural problem– that is, we have a whole temple prep class that sends you in poorly prepared, but it’s not an accident that just happened because everybody thought it might be inappropriate to mention the oaths before you get there. The liturgy is deliberately structured to withhold the oaths from you until you are making them.

    Look: they have a bit where they say “if anybody’s not ready to make the promise, get up and leave now” and then nobody does, and they tell you the promise, and you “make it” in the most perfunctory possible way. The primary function of this liturgical element cannot be to excuse people who are actually unready– if anything, the weeks of classes and interviews should have done that. The reason that’s in there is to make it “too late” to leave by the time you hear what you’re “promising”.

    If you’ve got your testimony-lamp shining full-blast, maybe you feel like it’s a wonderful way to take a leap of faith, trusting yourself to God and humbling yourself before him. If you’re a mere mortal with some personal insecurities and/or a nose for when something’s fishy, you might instead feel like the Man in charge has been keeping you in the dark until He can close off all your options and make you powerless.

    The ceremony is psychically forceful in breaking down your personal boundaries. You may perceive that having your boundaries broken down leads you into communion with the saints, or you might experience pain and disorientation. Or both?

  12. Fascinating observation, Ransom. I’ve been thinking about this, and it seems it like it’s part of a broader trend in Mormonism which people are pressured to make eternal covenants as quickly as possible. Another example that come to mind is the way potential converts often get pressured into baptism. (I realize everyone is different, but speaking as someone who the first time in my life is contemplating conversion to another faith, I cannot imagine being expected to make that decision in a mere matter of weeks. And quite frankly, if I got even a whiff of the commitment pattern from the Episcopalians, I would be out the door right then.) I’m also thinking about the way in which Mormons rush into marriage, sometimes after just a few weeks of dating. I realize in both of those situations there are a lot of social forces at work—a numbers-obsessed missionary culture that pressures missionaries into trying to baptize as many people as possible in the former case, and the proscription on premarital sex which makes lengthy courtship periods much more difficult in the latter. But in all three cases (baptism, marriage, temple rites) the idea that there’s nothing wrong with pressuring people to rush into commitments with eternal implications is something I just don’t get. If the covenants are worth it, it seems to me, they’ll survive people being given as much time as they need to make a decision about them.


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