The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints announced Monday that 12 of its temples — including four in the U.S. — will resume performing temple “endowments,” or ritual teachings about the origin and purpose of mortality.
Because of the coronavirus, the faith’s temples shut down in late March and began to reopen in May for marriages (known as “sealings”) of couples under a Phase 1 plan, with stringent space limitations and mask requirements.
Shifting into Phase 2, due to start July 27 by allowing “all temple ordinances for living individuals,” apparently has required some changes to the endowment ceremony itself, according to a letter Monday from the faith’s governing First Presidency.
“The sacred teachings, promises, and ceremonies of the temple are of ancient origin, and point God’s children to him as they make further covenants and learn more about his plan, including the role of the Savior Jesus Christ,” wrote church President Russell M. Nelson and his two counselors. “Through inspiration, the methods of instruction in the temple experience have changed many times, even in recent history, to help members better understand and live what they learn in the temple.”
“With a concern for all” amid the COVID-19 pandemic “and a desire to enhance the temple learning experience,” the leaders wrote, “recent changes have been authorized to the temple endowment ceremony.”
The endowment ceremonies include the “making of sacred covenants, or promises, to God,” they said, and resemble other such covenants like “prayer, immersion of an individual at baptism, or holding hands during a marriage ceremony.”
Similar “simple, symbolic actions accompany the making of temple covenants,” the top officials wrote.
In other words, there are some physical elements to the rituals.
The First Presidency urged members and friends not to speculate or “engage in public discussion” about what these changes might entail.
“We invite church members to continue to look forward to the day when they may return,” the letter said, “and fully participate in sacred temple work prayerfully and gratefully.”
The temple endowment is considered one of holiest rites of the Utah-based faith, so it has been especially hard to be sending out full-time missionaries into their service without being “endowed.”
From the church’s earliest days in the 19th century, an “endowment of power” has been linked to missionary work, historian Matthew Bowman, head of Mormon studies at Claremont Graduate University, said Monday. “It was expected that those who went on missions” would receive religious instructions and rituals in Ohio’s Kirtland Temple.
In 1845, Brigham Young, the church’s second president, “called the missionaries back to Nauvoo [Illinois, from abroad],” said Bowman, author of “The Mormon People: The Making of an American Faith,” “because he believed it was important for them to receive their endowment before returning to the mission field.”
Bowman was uncertain when the requirement of a temple endowment for full-time proselytizing service became “standardized and formalized,” the historian said, “but, given these early associations, it was emphasized very early on — even pre-Salt Lake Temple,” which was dedicated in 1893.
Religion News Service columnist Jana Riess said sending out hundreds of missionaries who haven’t been endowed has produced a “sense of democratization” of proselytizing. Before this pandemic, only those missionaries who didn’t have “ready access” to a Latter-day Saint temple, which included many in Africa and other far-flung regions, left without a temple experience.
The virus has now made that circumstance more widespread, Riess said.
It also has caused many Latter-day Saint couples to marry in a civil ceremony, the Latter-day Saint writer added, and delay their plans to be sealed until the temple ceremonies again become widely available.
That has helped remove any stigma about a nontemple wedding, Riess said, because the “House of the Lord” was closed and unavailable.
Last year’s new policy allowing Latter-day Saint couples anywhere in the world to be sealed immediately after marrying civilly, she said, now “seems prophetic.” Before that adjustment, newlyweds in the U.S. and Canada routinely had to wait a year before being sealed in a temple if they married civilly.
Revisions to Latter-day Saint temple ceremonies are hardly unprecedented.
Last year, the church altered wording of the scripted rituals to add more inclusive language, more gender equity, even more lines for Mother Eve.
Many women had complained about the “endowment,” which includes a reenactment of Genesis, noting that Eve has no words during her sojourn with Adam after the couple’s expulsion from the Garden of Eden.
Now that seminal female figure has a whole monologue, one templegoer said soon after the change. “She has more lines than Satan.”
The temples moving into Phase 2 on July 27 include two in Germany, one each in Finland, Denmark, Sweden, the Netherlands, Taiwan and South Korea as well as ones in Montana, Nebraska, North Dakota and Ohio.
As of this week, 122 of the faith’s temples around the world — including all 15 operating temples in Utah — have reopened under the Phase 1 plan, according to a news release, with three more poised to come on line next week.
None of the Beehive State’s Latter-day Saint temples has gone to Phase 2. The state is currently enduring an alarming spike in coronavirus cases.
The historic pioneer-era temples in Salt Lake City and St. George are closed while they undergo extensive renovations. The church also plans to build seven more temples in Utah, bringing the state’s total to 24.