Ask a Mormon Apostate: Why So Much Secrecy?

Today’s question comes from Gabe, who writes:

“I’m watching Angels & Demons on USA and thinking about you and the LDS — wondering whether the secrecy and whatnot are similar between Catholics and Mormons.”

Mormons are definitely big on secrecy. Joseph Smith, the church’s founder, for example, married at least 33 women and girls (11 of whom were already married to someone else) and kept this fact secret from the church at large (and, for the most part, from his wife). The church is also known for keeping its finances secret. Up until 1958 they used to provide a basic financial report annually, but now they just release a brief statement that says, in essence, Don’t worry. We’re being responsible with the money.

Similarly, the church has long restricted access to its history so as to control the message. In the 1970s and 1980s, for example, whenever a historical document was found that might cast doubt on the sanitized version of church history they give their members, the church would quietly purchase said document and put it in the First Presidency vault. The First Presidency is the highest level of church leadership: the president and his two “counselors,” all of whom are considered “prophets, seers, and revelators” (I could explain the difference between these three descriptors, but it’s not relevant right now). Anyway, suffice it to say that the vault is off-limits to anyone but those three men (though rumor has it that a small number of trusted church historians have been allowed to see the contents under careful observation). I have heard that Joseph Smith’s “seer stones” are in the vault, but who knows?

The attempt to control access to church history bit the church in the butt, figuratively speaking. An enterprising young closet-unbeliever Mormon, Mark Hofmann, developed a talent for forging early Mormon documents. He made sure they were embarrassing to the church but plausible, and the church obliged him by buying up a lot of these forgeries and stashing them away from public view. Hofmann, however, wanted to embarrass the church, so sometimes he would sell a document and then leak its contents to the press. Probably the most famous document he forged was known as the “Salamander Letter,” in which Martin Harris, one of the Book of Mormon witnesses, was supposed to have said that Joseph Smith saw a large, white salamander, not an angel. Hofmann leaked the letter, and the church was forced to go public with it (here’s a picture of Hofmann standing with late church president Spencer Kimball, who is examining the letter). In the end, a Utah businessman, Steve Christensen, figured out what Hofmann was doing and was going to expose him. Hofmann killed Steve Christensen with a homemade bomb (and he also killed Christensen’s business partner’s wife). Hofmann is serving a life sentence in the Utah State Penitentiary. You can read about him here. Probably the best book about the Hofmann affair is Sillitoe and Roberts’s “Salamander: The Story of the Mormon Forgery Murders.”

Probably the most visible “secrecy” issue for most Mormons is the promise not to discuss the contents of the temple ceremony (known as the “endowment”) with anyone outside of the temple. In the temple, each covenant made is accompanied by a “token,” which derives from Masonic ritual. For almost 150 years, each token had an associated “penalty,” the execution of which was a sort of pantomime: “The representation of the execution of the penalties indicates different ways in which life may be taken” (1984 temple endowment transcript). In early days, the meaning of the penalty was pretty clear: if you reveal the tokens and signs, you agree to be killed. One penalty, for example, derived from the Masonic “Sign of an Entered Apprentice,” which involved drawing the thumb across the throat, representing the penalty of having one’s “throat cut across, … tongue torn out by its roots” if he or she revealed the token. Other tokens had similar penalties, such as having the heart torn out or being disemboweled. In 1927, the graphic representation was retained, but the wording of the penalty was softened to, “Rather than do so [reveal the token], I would suffer my life to be taken.” That’s what it was like when I went through the temple the first time. The penalties were removed entirely in April, 1990, but I could probably still do them all from memory.

The reason I mention this is that, because Mormons aren’t allowed to talk about the temple ceremonies outside the temple, very few people who went to the temple after 1990 even know about the penalties. I’ve had people accuse me of making them up because these people have been to the temple many times, and no one has ever mentioned penalties. It’s like an institutional amnesia.

Interestingly enough, the endowment says only that Mormons aren’t to discuss the tokens, signs, names, and penalties, but the culture has gradually come to include all temple content as a forbidden topic of discussion.

Of course, the church insists that there is nothing “secret” about the temple ceremony. Rather, they say that the temple is “sacred, not secret.” Yet the temple endowment itself speaks of the “covenant and obligation of secrecy which are associated with [each] token, its name, sign and penalty and which you will be required to take upon yourselves.”

Here’s how Apostle Boyd Packer describes the temple:

“A careful reading of the scriptures reveals that the Lord did not tell all things to all people. There were some qualifications set that were prerequisite to receiving sacred information. Temple ceremonies fall within this category.

“We do not discuss the temple ordinances outside the temples. It was never intended that knowledge of these temple ceremonies would be limited to a select few who would be obliged to ensure that others never learn of them. It is quite the opposite, in fact. With great effort we urge every soul to qualify and prepare for the temple experience. Those who have been to the temple have been taught an ideal: Someday every living soul and every soul who has ever lived shall have the opportunity to hear the gospel and to accept or reject what the temple offers. If this opportunity is rejected, the rejection must be on the part of the individual himself.

“The ordinances and ceremonies of the temple are simple. They are beautiful. They are sacred. They are kept confidential lest they be given to those who are unprepared. Curiosity is not a preparation. Deep interest itself is not a preparation. Preparation for the ordinances includes preliminary steps: faith, repentance, baptism, confirmation, worthiness, a maturity and dignity worthy of one who comes invited as a guest into the house of the Lord.
All who are worthy and qualify in every way may enter the temple, there to be introduced to the sacred rites and ordinances.”

This is probably more than you wanted to know, but yes, secrecy is an important aspect of Mormon practice and culture.

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3 Responses to Ask a Mormon Apostate: Why So Much Secrecy?

  1. Diane Sower says:

    You aren’t making anything up. I went through the temple to get married in 1975, and made the sign of slitting my throat as well as disemboweling myself.

  2. My dad told me that earlier generations of temple goers learned of the black skin being a mark of a descendent of Cain.

    I’ve heard that in the late 1800s and early 1900s, temple goers made an oath to seek vengence on Joseph Smith’s murderers.

    • runtu says:

      I haven’t heard about the curse of Cain being discussed, but I believe you’re correct about the oath of vengeance. It seems it was a covenant that the endowed member would never cease to pray for vengeance on the Carthage murderers.

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