An occasional subject for blog discussion is the apparent* difficulties some have with their first attendance at the temple. The highly symbolic/allegorical/representational method of presentation is unfamiliar to those unused to considering symbols, and the limited ritual of our usual weekly worship is so familiar and so often repeated that many don’t even notice its formalism anymore. These discussions sometimes include complaints that the church does little or nothing to prepare first-time temple-goers to understand the presentation.

With that complaint fresh in mind after another such blog discussion, I was interested to discover this lesson taught in 1935 as one of the Book of Mormon Sunday School lessons for high school-age classes. This lesson introduces the ideas of symbols as carriers of thought, emphasizes the need to become familiar with a symbolic system in order to understand its message, and dissects several familiar LDS ordinances to illustrate the functioning of signs and symbols.

I don’t quite understand this lesson’s presence in that particular course of study. It appears to be an isolated lesson (preceded by one on unity within the church; followed by one on faith, “the most powerful thing in the world”). I’m a little surprised at seeing it taught to that age group rather than the next older group, where boys were preparing for missions and girls were preparing for marriage and both were likely candidates for prompt temple attendance. Nevertheless, it is there, scheduled to be taught on Sunday, June 9, 1935. (The opening discussion is barely comprehensible without the preceding lesson, but it really is applicable to the main lesson; don’t skip it.)

* [I say “apparent” because I had no such difficulties, but I have to take at their word that others do]

Lesson 18. Signs, Tokens, and Symbols.


In the reading circle, of which we spoke in the last lesson, you were compelled to do some very interesting things, as you can see when you consider the matter closely.

For one thing, you had to talk to your friend about the proposed reading club. This you might have done in writing, if you had chosen to do so. Perhaps, too, when you talked, you made some gestures with your hands, to emphasize what you were saying; and certainly you expressed your enthusiasm for the project by the look in your eyes, by the pleased look on your face, and by the fluctuations in the tone of your voice. Your other friends, when they asked to join you, had to do so in about the same way. The result was that ten or twelve young people got together, mostly at your solicitation, in a reading circle. Then, too, after you had got together, your election of officers had to be done either orally or in writing, and your constitution and by laws had to be set down on paper, after they had been discussed among the members of the club.

Now, suppose, after you had conceived the idea of having such a circle, you were not allowed to speak, or write, or even make gestures. For these are, as you know, a means of communication. That is, they enable you to get over to another person’s mind an idea that is in your own. As a matter of fact, this “getting across” of ideas from one mind to another is very difficult without words, either spoken or written, and only the simplest can be got over this way. You can see, however, that, without any means whatever of communication with your friends, it would be utterly impossible for you ever to organize a club, or even to get together in your thought.


The simple truth is, as any one can see at a glance when he puts his mind on it, signs, tokens, and symbols inhere in life as we know it. That is, no signs, no life; certainly no social life.

The simple amoebean life would doubtless come to an end if it couldn’t move its finger-like extensions to move its single cell. Dogs have a social life, but they would not have were it not for the fact that they can make signals with their tail, their ears, their eyes, and other parts of their body. Watch two dogs playing on the lawn, and you will see the various ways in which they communicate their simple ideas and feelings. In man there is a higher language – words, written and spoken; and this in addition to the gestures used by the lower animals.

Consider the ways we have of expressing ourselves without the use of words. a man meets a woman on the street; he raises his hat and smiles; that means he is acquainted with her. or he stops and shakes hands with her – by which token we gather that he knows her very well. But if, in addition to these signs, he also kisses her (the street, of course, is not a good place to do that), we take it for granted that there is something stronger than mere friendship between them. Deaf and dumb people can communicate with one another only by means of signs and symbols.

But language itself is a system of signs, tokens, and symbols. The little marks on the paper before you – what are they but representatives of ideas? In order to understand them, however, you must have become acquainted with what they stand for. If the marks before you were, let us say, Greek or Sanskrit, you would get no thought from them – unless of course you had studied these languages. The various positions of the hands and fingers of the deaf and dumb mean nothing to those who have not used this means of communication.

Without signs, tokens, symbols, therefore, what we know as social life would be impossible. No two persons, to say nothing of a hundred, a thousand, a million, could get together in their thought. Indeed, the race would die, not socially alone, but intellectually and physically! This is because, as we said at the beginning of this section, they inhere in life.

That incident in the Book of Ether, about the appearance of Jesus in spirit form to the Brother of Jared, makes this fact clear, if we dig into it a little. Jesus was in the spirit, you remember. But he was to take upon himself a body of flesh and blood. This means that even Jesus would be limited in his expression by what he could teach his body to do, as well as by the language in which he expressed himself. For languages differ, we are told, in their power to say what we who use them have in mind. “Great are the words of Isaiah!” exclaimed the Master to the Nephites; from which we gather that even prophets are not equal in their power of utterance. A more flexible language, perhaps, would enable us to express ourselves better – provided we had something to express.


In religion, too, we have signs, tokens, and symbols; but we call them ordinances. For this is all that an ordinance is. Ordinances correspond with the representations which we find elsewhere in social life.

Signs, symbols, tokens, representations, rites, ceremonies, ordinances, what not – these all express something that we do, not merely something we think. This is a vital distinction, and it holds in every phase of our life here below. When you join a sorority, a fraternity, a lodge, or a church, you are required to do something, as well as to say something. If you refuse, you cannot become a member. How else could you have a sorority, a fraternity, a lodge, or a church? To say, as some persons do, that rites and ceremonies, signs and symbols, are necessary in secular organizations and not in a church, or a spiritual organization, is to fly in the face of facts and conditions that actually exist all around us.

One of the ordinances of the Church of Christ is what we call baptism. The word is Greek, and means “to dip, to plunge, or to immerse.” In Book of Mormons times, as indeed in every age of the world when the true Church has been in existence, it was performed by burying the entire body in the water. Its purpose is two-fold: To initiate one into the Church and to forgive sin. Perhaps it would be more exact to say “to admit one into the Church by forgiving one’s sins.” Nothing could be more beautifully symbolical than baptism by immersion for the remission of sin. First, in it the element of water is used; secondly, the whole body is immersed in the water, signifying the completeness of remission; thirdly, the burial in water typifies the burial of Christ; and, fourthly, the raising of the body out of the water represents the rising of Christ from the dead. Suppose you try to think of a more beautifully symbolical rite than baptism. You know, every new order, especially a secret order, is required to get up a new and, if possible, original initiatory ceremony for its members. And this is not so easy as it would seem.

A second ordinance in the Church is the laying on of hands for the reception of the Holy Ghost. Said Jesus to the Nephites: “Whoso cometh unto me with a broken heart and a contrite spirit, him will I baptize with fire and with the Holy ghost, even as the Lamanites, because of their faith in me at the time of their conversion, were baptized with fire and the Holy Ghost, and they knew it not.” There is a meaning, too, in the fact that a man who has already been given the Holy Ghost by the laying on of hands is the means by which this baptism of fire comes – the means, mind you, not the source.

Another ordinance in the Church is the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper. After bread and wine had been distributed among the multitude and they had partaken of it, Jesus said: “This shall ye do in remembrance of my body, which I have shown unto you. It shall be a testimony unto the Father that ye do always remember me. And if ye do always remember me, ye shall have my spirit to be with you.” In the Church today we use water instead of wine, because it is not to be “purchased from enemies” – that is, those not of the faith. The purpose of this ordinance is to bring together those who believe in Christ and who are willing to take upon them the name of Christ and promise to keep his commandments. There is an appropriateness, when you stop to think of it, in the act of eating together; it brings a greater social spirit into this ordinance, as well as to preserve the idea of the sacrifice of Jesus for mankind.

Other ceremonies, or ordinances, are the ordination of men to the priesthood, the marriage ceremony, and the setting apart of men and women for special missions. In the Church of Christ there is not now, and there never has been, what some one has called “mummeries”; that is, ceremonies which have for their obvious purpose the making of an impression on the mind. In this organization there are no unnecessary rites; the fewest, consistently with the requirement of the human needs of church members – that is the ideal of the true Church. Moreover, they are simple. Thus the mind is not confused with a multiplicity of forms, so that it mistakes forms for substance. For always it is the meaning back of the form, not the form itself, that counts.

Forms, then, are necessary, up to a certain point, in the Church, as they are necessary in life generally – in the government of a nation, in courts of law, in social organizations, and in all our associations with one another. They inhere in life, and therefore in religion.

Something to Think About

1. What purpose does lifting the hand, in the United States, and kissing the Bible, in England, serve in the courts of law? What difference does it make whether one who “swears” performs an act or not, such as these? Consider the point in the light of what is said in the lesson.

2. Why do you suppose there is a marriage ceremony? Would it not be as well for a couple to live together without a ceremony? Consider this question, too, in the light of the lesson.

3. Does the partaking of the Sacrament mean anything to you, as you take the bread and the water? What?

4. Has any ordinance any efficacy in itself? What is it that gives it efficacy? Suppose one takes part in an ordinance thoughtlessly?


Note that I tend toward the conservative in what is appropriate for a public discussion of temple service. Please be circumspect in your allusions or illustrations as you discuss your reactions to this lesson. Would it help young people prepare for the temple experience? Does it go far enough? What might you like to see added or changed? Have you had a church class even remotely like this one?

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