The next step was going to the temple. Every day for a year and a half I had seen the gleaming white Provo temple on the hill above our student dorms, and I had wondered what went on in there. I went home for a funeral a couple of weeks after I got my mission call, so I took advantage of the time to get my temple recommend.
The bishop didn’t say much about what I could expect, just that I would receive my “endowment,” wherein I would be endowed with power from on high to exercise my priesthood in righteousness and teach the gospel. The stake president, one level higher than the bishop in the church hierarchy, was a lot more forthcoming.
“Don’t worry if the experience seems odd or troubling the first time,” he said. I honestly hadn’t contemplated the possibility that it might be anything but a spiritual high. But then I had no idea what went on in the temple.
“First you’ll be taken to a dressing room where you’ll change into a ‘shield,’ which is a thin covering like a poncho. But don’t worry; you won’t be completely naked.”
OK, now I was starting to worry. Shield? Naked? What did it mean?
“Then a temple worker will anoint your body with oil and water and pronounce certain blessings on you.”
My head was spinning at this point.
“Then you’ll be clothed in your priesthood garments.” Garments I knew about. These were the special underwear that “endowed” Mormons wore: basically a scoop-necked t-shirt and knee-length shorts with special markings in them.
“Then you’ll watch a film that describes the creation of the world and the Fall of Adam. You’ll be given signs and tokens by which you’ll be able to return to the presence of the Savior.”
He must have sensed that I was a little panicked.
“Like I said, it’s not that big of a deal. You get used to it.”
I went home and asked my parents if we could go to the temple together over the Thanksgiving holiday, and my father said he would try and get a recommend by then.
Thanksgiving came and went, and Dad still didn’t have a recommend. Disappointed, I went instead to our medical clinic to get the vaccinations I would need: 5 in all. Then I went to the Federal Building in Los Angeles to apply for a passport.
The week after Thanksgiving, I arranged to meet my grandfather at the Provo Temple so he could be my escort through the endowment. When I awoke that morning it was snowing, and I trudged up the hill to the temple carrying a paper bag containing a brand-new pair of garments, still in their plastic bags.
First I was taken to the dressing room to put on the shield. My stake president hadn’t quite done it justice. It was nearly transparent and covered only the front and back. I clutched the sides together, trying to cover myself even a little bit as I walked through the dressing room toward the “initiatory” booth, a small curtained area where an elderly man dressed in white dipped water from a small ladle and with his finger touched various parts of my body, pronouncing blessings as he went. He got a little too close for comfort when he anointed my “loins.” He then repeated the process using olive oil.
Finally, it was time to be “clothed in the garment of the holy priesthood.” The man explained a little about the sacred nature of these garments, and then held out the bottom for me to step into and then pulled them up to my waist. He then pulled the top over my head and tucked them in. There is nothing quite like having an elderly stranger put your underwear on you.
Thoroughly bewildered at this point, I was taken back to the dressing room, where I put on white slacks, a white dress shirt, white tie, and white slippers. I was handed a folded cloth “packet” about 1 foot square and then taken to another booth, a blue scrap of paper pinned to my shirt indicating that I was here for my own endowment. In the booth, I was given a new name, Jeremiah, which I was told was sacred and was never to be repeated at any time except at a certain point in the temple. I was then reunited with my grandfather, and we were taken to the endowment room.
The room looked like a movie theater (because that’s what it was) with theater seats done in pale colors with gold carpet. At the front stood a small, padded altar with a lace cover. We sat in the front row, which apparently was reserved for newcomers like me.
A man stood behind the altar and pushed a button on the back of it. The lights dimmed, and we were reminded that we had been washed, anointed, and clothed, and that we were about to make sacred covenants, or promises to God. If we wanted to back out, we could leave now. Not knowing what was coming, I wasn’t about to back out now.
Then the movie started.
Unseen voices narrated the creation of the world, which was shown with very bad special effects and stock footage of scenery, plants, and animals. God the Father (called Elohim in the film) sent his son Jesus (called Jehovah) and Adam (who was Michael) to manage the “six creative periods” and create what we now know as the earth. After each day they would return and report to the Father in meticulous detail what they had done. I’ve always wondered why an omniscient God would need anyone to report back to Him, but I digress.
Michael was then created in the image of God (but for some reason we were told that “this is simply figurative”) and placed in the Garden of Eden and to be joined later by Eve. After a few idyllic moments, a jovial man with curly brown hair, a beard, and a twinkle in his eye appeared. This was Satan, who was there to tempt Adam and Eve. Adam of course refused to eat the fruit, but Eve, realizing that eating the fruit was necessary for human progress, reluctantly ate.
The jolly Satan suddenly seemed a little more menacing as God returned and Adam and Eve hurriedly made fig-leaf aprons to hide their shame. We put on our own green aprons, too.
God appeared and cursed Satan for what he had done and cast him out of the garden, putting “enmity” between Satan and Eve’s descendants. Satan didn’t take it too well. Said he:
Then with that enmity I will take the treasures of the earth, and with gold and silver I will buy up armies and navies, Popes and priests, and reign with blood and horror on the earth!
Needless to say, I was a little spooked by the whole thing. We then made covenants with God, the first being that we men would obey God and the women would obey us in righteousness. We raised our arms to the square and said “yes” we would obey.
Next we agreed in the same way to obey the law of sacrifice, which meant that we would promise to “sacrifice all that we possess, even our own lives if necessary, in sustaining and defending the Kingdom of God.” I was certainly ready to do that, and I again raised my arm to the square and said “yes.”
This time the covenant was accompanied by a token, a name, and a penalty. The token was a special handshake, the name was the new name (Jeremiah, in my case), and the penalty was a pantomime of having my throat slit; we were told, “The representation of the execution of the penalties indicates different ways in which life may be taken.” The narrative implied that the penalty meant that we would rather die a violent death than reveal these things:
We desire to impress upon your minds the sacred character of the … tokens of the Holy Priesthood, with their names, signs, and penalties, which you will receive in the temple this day. They are most sacred, and are guarded by solemn covenants and obligations of secrecy to the effect that under no condition, even at the peril of your life, will you ever divulge them.
Other covenants followed with their accompanying tokens, names, signs, and penalties, each as graphic as the last.
Adam (and we by proxy) was cast out of the garden and into the lone and dreary world. Satan again appeared, this time accompanied by a sectarian minister, a buffoonish character apparently representing the rest of Christianity with its apostate notions about God. Clearly, we were meant to understand that ministers outside the church were unwittingly in Satan’s employ.
With each covenant, we put on more temple robes until we were wearing a sort of baker’s hat, a robe over one shoulder, a sash around the waist, and the green apron. The women wore long veils.
In the film the apostles Peter, James, and John, soon arrived to cast out Satan and attempt to steer us and Adam onto the correct path toward heaven. But Satan had a parting word:
I have a word to say concerning these people. If they do not walk up to every covenant they make at these altars in this temple this day, they will be in my power!
At this point I was terrified. I could hardly remember all the covenants I had made, and I was sure that, being such a weak person, I would probably break them all.
The endowment finished up with our standing in a circle in the “true order of prayer,” during which we did all the signs and handshakes. And then we approached the veil of the temple, a white curtain through which we would give the tokens and their names. A man would stand on the other side of the veil and put his hand through an opening; we would clasp the hand in the appropriate token and whisper the names through the veil.
For the last token, we had to repeat a long “name” (really a recitation of a very long sentence fragment) on the “five points of fellowship. As the narrator explained, “The Five Points of Fellowship are ‘inside of right foot by the side of right foot, knee to knee, breast to breast, hand to back, and mouth to ear.” Thus, we embraced the man on the other side of the curtain while he whispered the name to us and we whispered it back.
Finally, we were brought through the veil into an ornate room meant to represent heaven. Here, we had been told, we could sit and ponder, or we could ask questions of our escorts (my grandfather in my case) if we wanted to. Throughout the endowment ceremony, I had been turning to my grandpa with questions, but he kept saying, “Be quiet, or you’ll miss something.” Once we were through the veil, I had so much I wanted to ask, but he looked at his watch and said he needed to get home. I went home that day troubled and emotionally exhausted. How could something so beautiful have been so traumatic for me?
I went back to my dorm room gloomy and depressed.
“Was it amazing?” Greg asked, clearly wanting to know more about what went on in that mysterious building.”
“I really don’t want to talk about it,” I said.
“Oh, right, you’re not supposed to talk about it. Got it,” he said.
But that wasn’t really it. I couldn’t sleep that night, for the first time in my life worried that going on a mission might be a mistake.
All that week I worried, but I remembered that the bishop said I would get used to it. I finally told my friend Terry, who had just returned from his mission in Arizona, about my struggles. We decided to go to Salt Lake City and attend the temple there. This was the famous granite structure that most people think of when they imagine a Mormon temple.
We managed to get a ride to Salt Lake with a guy who was trying to impress my sister. All through the ceremony the same troubling thoughts kept coming back, and I found myself fidgeting and wishing it would just end. Why couldn’t I feel right about this? Why did I feel so creepy and uncomfortable?
I prayed hard for God to give me a sign that this was really His temple. I knew I couldn’t go on a mission if this wasn’t really true, so I pleaded for Him to show me. That moment I felt a surge of emotion throughout my body so powerful that I began weeping. I had my sign, and I knew I was doing the right thing.