Part 57: CES Letter Temples & Freemasonry Questions [Section C]

by Sarah Allen


While Eastern societies and cultures are often well-versed in allegory and symbolism, Western societies and cultures are typically much more literal-minded, especially in the modern day. This can make studying the Gospel, particularly the temple, more challenging than it needs to be. So much of what happens inside the temple is symbolic. It can be difficult for us to fully understand what is being taught to us, and Jeremy Runnells takes that to extremes here in this portion of his CES Letter.

President Nelson once taught:

Each temple is a house of learning (D&C 88:119; D&C 109:8). There we are taught in the Master’s way. His way differs from the modes of others. His way is ancient and rich with symbolism. We can learn much by pondering the reality for which each symbol stands. Teachings of the temple are beautifully simple and simply beautiful. They are understood by the humble, yet they can excite the intellect of the brightest minds.

In his book 75 Questions & Answers About Preparing for the Temple, Alonzo L. Gaskill expounds on this:

There is no question that symbolism in its various forms is intentionally present in scripture. Indeed, symbolism is the language of scripture. To not be versed in symbolism is to be scripturally illiterate. The same could be said of the temple and its ordinances. “Symbols are the language in which all gospel covenants and all ordinances of salvation have been revealed. From the time we are immersed in the waters of baptism to the time we kneel at the altar of the temple with the companion of our choice in the ordinance of eternal marriage, every covenant we make will be written in the language of symbolism” (Joseph Fielding McConkie and Donald W. Parry, A Guide to Scriptural Symbols, pg. 1, emphasis added).

… Indeed, the ordinances of the temple are heavily laden with symbolism. Almost everything that is done, and certainly everything that is worn in the temple, has symbolic meaning. The way we make covenants in the temple is symbolic. The way we tell the story of the Creation and the Fall in the temple is symbolic. Even the architecture of the building is symbolic. … We must see beyond the symbols in order to find the intended meaning.

Gaskill then goes through and explains some reasons why symbolism is used as a teaching device in the temple: it requires effort, contemplation, and searching on our parts, which leads to a deeper understanding and experience; it protects the sacred by revealing truth to those who are prepared, but concealing it to those who are unworthy or unprepared; many symbols are timeless and translate well across different cultures, languages, and ages; they’re impactful and create lasting impressions, much more than simple words can; they’re multilayered, with different levels of understanding based on our spiritual maturity at the time, so they can mean different things to us at one point in our lives and something else at a later time; symbols can pique our interest, leading to greater study of the covenants and ordinances; and they’re a good way to teach abstract concepts in a way that we can understand.

This is really important to understand for the conversation that’s going to follow: most of what happens inside the temple is symbolic of something else. The tokens, signs, and symbols are also representative of other things. They’re physical signs and tokens of the covenants we’ve made.

For some very common examples of what I’m talking about, think first of wedding rings—they’re a physical token to represent the vows that you and your spouse have made to one another. Then think of an elder raising his arm to the square when he baptizes someone—that’s a sign of the ordinance he’s administering. And lastly, think of a rainbow—a symbol of God’s covenant with Noah and all men to never flood the Earth again. These are representations that we’re used to. They’re familiar to us, so we don’t think of them as strange. The symbols and tokens we encounter in the temple are new to us in the beginning, so it can take time for us to learn how to recognize them for what they are and what they truly mean.

Some people struggle with this in the beginning, particularly the ritualistic aspects we participate in such as the prayer circle. It’s foreign to us because our culture doesn’t normally engage in things like that. In Letters to a Young Mormon, Adam Miller explains it like this:

Where our churches are simple and spare, our temples are layered with murals, carvings, and symbols. Where our churches are down-to-earth and plainspoken, our temples are filled with allusions, allegories, and sacred gestures. Growing up in the warm, shallow pools of our Sunday services may do little to prepare you for the temple’s deep and bracing waters. Compared to the worn predictability of our Sunday School lessons, many members first find the temple strange. I suppose this is as it should be. The temple is strange. It does not belong to this world. The temple is a door, and if you pass through it, you will arrive someplace you’ve never been. The aim of the temple is to initiate you into the mysteries of the kingdom, and before you can solve these mysteries you must encounter them as just that: unsolved mysteries.

I think that’s a fantastic way to look at it: church attendance is the shallow end of the pool, meant to introduce you to the basics of religious thought and devotion before you jump into the deep end of temple worship, the same way that baptismal covenants prepare us for the higher temple covenants later down the road.

Or, as Alonso Gaskill puts it, “We go to the temple seeing the ‘mysteries of godliness’—but then, when we encounter them, some are put off by the fact that they were ‘mysterious.’ Yet isn’t that how mysteries should be? If what we encounter in the temple is supposed to be God’s higher knowledge and higher ordinances, then should this not be different from the mundane everyday things we know so well, different from those things that feel so familiar to us? The temple is different from what we know because it is introducing us to something new, deeper, and ultimately profound.”

It reminds me of the quote I mentioned in last week’s post from Joseph Fielding, where he speculated that Masonry was a stepping stone for many to prepare to receive the endowment because it familiarized them with the ritualism, the signs and tokens, the phrasing, the special clothing, the need for keeping those things private, etc.

Soon, I’m going to quote a portion of the CES Letter in which Jeremy describes the temple rituals as “uncomfortable and strange.” Before I do, I wanted to quote a few items from David O. McKay where he discusses this mindset. The first comes from his address on the temple, given on September 25, 1941:

I have met so many young people who have been disappointed after they have gone through the House of the Lord. They have been honest in that disappointment. Some of them have shed tears as they have opened their hearts and expressed heartfelt sorrow that they did not see and hear and feel what they had hoped to see and hear and feel.

I have analyzed those confessions as I have listened to them, and I have come to the conclusion that in nearly every case it was the person’s fault. He or she has failed to comprehend the significance of the message that is given in the Temple. … These young people to whom I refer have become absorbed in what I am going to call the “mechanics” of the Temple, and while criticizing these they have failed to get the spiritual significance.

He elaborates on this exact comparison, between the mechanics and the symbolism in this story taken from David O. McKay and the Rise of Modern Mormonism in which he admits he was one of those same young people he was talking about:

Do you remember when you first went through the House of the Lord? I do. And I went out disappointed. Just a young man, out of college, anticipating great things when I went to the Temple. I was disappointed and grieved, and I have met hundreds of young men and young women since who had that experience. I have now found out why. There are two things in every Temple: mechanics, to set forth certain ideals, and symbolism, what those mechanics symbolize. I saw only the mechanics when I first went through the Temple. I did not see the spiritual. I did not see the symbolism of spirituality. … [For example, there] is a mechanic of washing. … I was blind to the great lesson of purity behind the mechanics. I did not hear the message of the Lord, “Be ye clean who bear the vessels of the Lord.” I did not hear that eternal truth, “Cleanliness is next to godliness.” The symbolism was lost entirely. … How many of us young men saw that? We thought we were big enough and with intelligence sufficient to criticize the mechanics of it and we were blind to the symbolism, the message of the Spirit.”

The reason it may seem strange or uncomfortable to us in the beginning is because we aren’t used to seeing things symbolically. We’re taught to look for symbolism in the Old Testament, but a lot of it still goes over our heads because it wasn’t written for our day, our culture, or our way of thinking. So, we do our best, but we often fall short of the kind of understanding an ancient Israelite would have understood from those same passages. It’s the same in the temple: those ordinances are from before the foundation of the world. They’re older than the universe itself. It’s difficult to fathom, but these are ancient, ancient ordinances that are steeped in symbolism. They take time to familiarize ourselves with, to learn about, and to fully understand.

There’s a lot about the temple that Jeremy misunderstands in these next few paragraphs; whether intentionally or not, I don’t know. You can tell by the way he phrases his arguments that he thinks he’s being clever and that he’s making strong points. He’s not. As with a lot of things in this Letter, a few moments’ thought easily answers many of his criticisms.

We’re picking up today with his 5th question, which I’ll cut into three parts:

Why did the Church remove the blood oath penalties and the 5 Points of Fellowship at the veil from the endowment ceremony in 1990? Both of these were 100% Masonic rituals.

I’m not going to delve too deeply into what those penalties and the 5 Points of Fellowship are out of respect, but suffice it to say, those were elements of Masonic ritual that were repurposed by Joseph and incorporated into the endowment ceremony.

Some of the things we promise inside the temple include keeping those things sacred by not sharing them outside of the temple and sacrificing everything for the Gospel, up to and including our lives, if it’s required of us. As I mentioned last week, there are potentially eternal penalties, or consequences, for not honoring our covenants after we’ve made them.

These ritualistic elements involving the penalties, or “blood oaths” as Jeremy incorrectly refers to them, were signs of the covenant we make. Similar to raising the hand to the square prior to baptism, the ritual—or, to quote President McKay, “mechanics”—of that particular sign involved gestures indicating that your life would be forfeit if you broke your covenants. This was purely symbolic: nobody breaking their covenants is going to be killed or struck down by God, and nobody was threatened with that in the past. However, we do cut ourselves off spiritually from His Kingdom when we break our covenants, and that is a form of spiritual death. These gestures were symbolizing that.

Remember back when we were talking about Blood Atonement and we went into some of the crazy stories that were flying around that bore little resemblance to reality? This is one of those things that fed into that. In the early Utah days, some people believed these gestures meant that members of the Church covenanted to murder each other if they were caught breaking their temple vows. That is not what was happening.

Additionally, in a Reddit comment Brandon Cole explained that in Masonry, there are symbolic penalties:

In Masonry, [symbolic penalties] illustrate how important it is for us to be men of our word and how much we value our integrity; after all, Truth—being one of the three principal tenets of Masonry—is the first lesson we are taught as Masons.

I believe…that Joseph adopted the concept of symbolic penalties in order to illustrate how important it should be to us not to sully sacred things in mundane settings/environments (i.e., describing in detail a certain token, revealing a certain name, etc.); after all, this is a principle that Christ Himself taught in Matthew 7:6 (KJV), albeit somewhat harshly—though perhaps harshness was required of Him at that moment.

Regardless, some people misunderstood the gestures and others found them to be a little gruesome. Society had changed a lot over the past 150 years, so in 1990 the Brethren took them out along with several other Masonic elements. Some of those elements still remain, but a lot were done away with over the years.

One of those other elements that was removed is what Freemasons refer to as the 5 Points of Fellowship. This is a physical gesture between two people, sort of like an embrace, where they touch one another with five different points on their bodies like their feet or knees. Jeremy gives a helpful breakdown of this, which you can find here.

For the Masons, this embrace is meant to symbolize fraternity and brotherhood, and it served a similar function in the endowment ceremony. Other elements with the same meaning still remain, like the handclasp and the prayer circle, so in the endowment, this particular gesture was sort of extraneous. I’m sure you’ve all noticed by now that President Nelson is big on streamlining things and cutting out everything that’s not necessary to get the job done. This is what the Brethren did in the early ‘90s with the temple endowment ceremony—they cut out a lot of superfluous things that didn’t need to be there.

So, none of this is a big deal, but Jeremy’s trying to turn it into one. In the next part of this same paragraph, he says:

What does this say about the Temple and the endowment ceremony if 100% pagan Masonic rituals were in it from its inception?

We’ve answered this question repeatedly by now, but it says that Joseph adapted certain elements of Masonic ceremonies he was newly familiar with into the endowment as a teaching aid.

First, Freemasonry is not “pagan,” 100% or otherwise. The Masons are a secular organization. There are plenty of Masons who are also Christian. As Brandon Cole pointed out in that Reddit comment linked above, they aren’t any more pagan than the American Red Cross or the Boy Scouts are.

And, as I’ve tried to explain several times now, there are two parts to the endowment: the covenants and ordinances, and then the ritual, the vehicle for teaching the lessons behind the covenants. They are not the same thing. The ordinances and covenants do not change, but the ritual aspects? Those change fairly often. President Nelson just changed them again a few years ago, right before the pandemic hit.

So, the fact that Joseph included them in a ceremony he was tasked with creating essentially from scratch because he found them to be useful teaching tools is not a big deal to me. The endowment itself is not taken from Freemasonry. Just some of the packaging was. Brigham Young backed this up in a story he recounted, which is repeated here by Truman G. Madsen:

We have from Brigham Young this testimony, that after they had received these glorious blessings the Prophet said: “Brother Brigham, this is not arranged right. But we have done the best we could under the circumstances in which we are placed, and I wish you to take this matter in hand and organize and systematize all these ceremonies.” Then, Brigham Young later said, “I did so. And each time I got something more [meaning that each time he worked on systematizing he had not only his memory and the records kept by Wilford Woodruff and others but also the light of revelation], so that when we went through the temple at Nauvoo [and without Joseph] I understood and knew how to place them there. We had our ceremonies pretty correct.”

Though the ordinances were restored to them, they had to cobble the ceremony together themselves, and they got it wrong a few times until they got it right. They had to proceed by trial and error, the same way so many of us do. Because of that, it should be pretty to clear to all of us that they didn’t have an instruction manual and they had to do the best they could with what they had at their disposal.

What does it say about the Church if it removed something that Joseph Smith said he restored and which would never again be taken away from the earth?

Oh, boy. This is stretched so thin that I’m surprised it didn’t snap in half. How Jeremy was able to argue this with a straight face, I do not know.

The ordinances of the endowment are what Joseph restored and which will never again be taken from the Earth. The covenants we make are the same covenants that Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob made:

The temple lies at the center of strengthening our faith and spiritual fortitude because the Savior and His doctrine are the very heart of the temple. Everything taught in the temple, through instruction and through the Spirit, increases our understanding of Jesus Christ. His essential ordinances bind us to Him through sacred priesthood covenants. Then, as we keep our covenants, He endows us with His healing, strengthening power. And oh, how we will need His power in the days ahead.

We have been promised that “if [we] are prepared [we] shall not fear.” This assurance has profound implications today. The Lord has declared that despite today’s unprecedented challenges, those who build their foundations upon Jesus Christ, and have learned how to draw upon His power, need not succumb to the unique anxieties of this era.

Temple ordinances and covenants are ancient. The Lord instructed Adam and Eve to pray, make covenants, and offer sacrifices. Indeed, “whenever the Lord has had a people on the earth who will obey His word, they have been commanded to build temples.” The standard works are replete with references to temple teachings, clothing, language, and more. Everything we believe and every promise God has made to His covenant people come together in the temple. In every age, the temple has underscored the precious truth that those who make covenants with God and keep them are children of the covenant.

Thus, in the house of the Lord, we can make the same covenants with God that Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob made. And we can receive the same blessings!

Certain signs, symbols, phrasing, and covenants will never change. Other parts of the ceremony will change, and they have already. Throughout this entire section, Jeremy has pretended that they’re all the same things when they’re not. The ritual is a completely separate thing from the ordinances and covenants. The ritual is man-made. The ordinances and covenants are not. They came to us from God from before the foundation of the world. These are the same ordinances and covenants that have been handed down since the beginning of time.

When you give somebody a gift, often you wrap it in wrapping paper and put a bow on it, or stick it inside a gift bag or decorative box filled with tissue paper before you give it to them. The outer packaging looks nice, and you put effort into making the delivery of the gift special, but the real gift is not the packaging. It’s what’s inside the packaging. It’s the same with the temple: the real gift is the ordinances and covenants—the endowment of power—but we package it inside the wrapping paper of the ritual. That ritual is not the gift itself. It was created by Joseph Smith to help deliver to us the true gift of the endowment.

Jeremy continues with his 6th point:

Is God really going to require individuals to know secret tokens, handshakes, and signs to get into heaven? What is the purpose of them? Doesn’t Heavenly Father know our names and know us personally? Indeed, aren’t the very hairs on our heads numbered? And couldn’t those who have left the Church and still know of the secret tokens, handshakes, and signs (or those who have watched the endowment ceremony on YouTube) benefit from that knowledge?

There’s a quote you often see from Brigham Young in which he defined the endowment:

Your endowment is to receive all those ordinances in the House of the Lord, which are necessary for you, after you have departed this life, to enable you to walk back to the presence of the Father, passing the angels who stand as sentinels, being enabled to give them the key words, the signs, and the tokens pertaining to the Holy Priesthood, and gain your eternal exaltation in spite of earth and hell. 

That sounds pretty cut and dried, right? Well, not exactly. This is where an understanding of covenants and symbolism come into play. In a letter regarding temple symbolism he has offered for download before, Reddit user Senno_Ecto_Gammat said about this quote, “He didn’t mean there would be angels looking for actual tokens. He meant there would be angels reviewing the covenants we had made and we would be able to pass them as covenant-keepers.” I believe he’s probably right about that.

The tokens, handclasp, and signs might be physically necessary, but a more likely explanation is that they are symbolic of the knowledge and understanding we’ll need to have before we can be welcomed into the Celestial Kingdom. Of course Heavenly Father knows us intimately, and of course He loves us with everything He has. And of course people can discover temple knowledge through other means and try to circumvent the law of the covenant. But they won’t be successful, because simply having that knowledge is not enough.

Does Jeremy really think that Heavenly Father can be tricked like that? That He doesn’t know which of His children is keeping their covenants and which ones are not? That He is somehow blind to the manipulation attempts of mere mortal beings? He knows exactly which of us has made covenants and which has not, and where we each stand in relation to those covenants. He will not be fooled by pretenders to the crowns of glory He has waiting for us.

President Nelson once taught:

When we realize that we are children of the covenant, we know who we are and what God expects of us. His law is written in our hearts. He is our God and we are His people. Committed children of the covenant remain steadfast, even in the midst of adversity. When that doctrine is deeply implanted in our hearts, even the sting of death is soothed and our spiritual stamina is strengthened.

The greatest compliment that can be earned here in this life is to be known as a covenant keeper. The rewards for a covenant keeper will be realized both here and hereafter. Scripture declares that “ye should consider on the blessed and happy state of those that keep the commandments of God. For behold, they are blessed in all things, … and if they hold out faithful to the end they are received into heaven … [and] dwell with God in a state of never-ending happiness.”

God lives. Jesus is the Christ. His Church has been restored to bless all people. … And we, as faithful children of the covenant, will be blessed now and forever.

If we aren’t steadfast in keeping our covenants, and we’re not covenant-keepers, whatever knowledge we may possess will not be enough. We have to be diligent and knowledgeable. But if we are, we will be blessed now and forever. It’s a beautiful promise.

Jeremy’s last point in this section is him at his snarkiest:

Does the eternal salvation, eternal happiness, and eternal families really depend on Masonic rituals in multi-million dollar castles?

Ignoring the loaded and inflammatory rhetoric, no, our eternal salvation does not depend on Masonic rituals in multi-million-dollar castles. It depends on utilizing the Atonement, repenting for our sins, receiving ordinances and making covenants inside of the House of the Lord, and then keeping those covenants no matter what life throws at us. If we’re valiant in keeping those covenants and we’re loyal to God above all else, He will be loyal to us in return. He will keep His promises to us as well, and one of those promises is exaltation.

Is God really going to separate good couples and their children who love one another and who want to be together in the next life because they object to uncomfortable and strange Masonic Temple rituals and a polygamous heaven?

Despite what the Beatles proclaimed, love is not all you need. Loving one another and wanting to be together in the next life is a wonderful thing, and it’s certainly a large part of the recipe. But we also need to meet God’s other requirements. We don’t get to set the rules for exaltation. He does, and He has. If we aren’t willing to keep our side of the promise we’ve made Him, why should He keep His side of the promise to us?

D&C 132:7 says:

And verily I say unto you, that the conditions of this law are these: All covenants, contracts, bonds, obligations, oaths, vows, performances, connections, associations, or expectations, that are not made and entered into and sealed by the Holy Spirit of promise, of him who is anointed, both as well for time and for all eternity … are of no efficacy, virtue, or force in and after the resurrection from the dead; for all contracts that are not made unto this end have an end when men are dead.

Or, to put it more bluntly and succinctly, remember D&C 82:10:

I, the Lord, am bound when ye do what I say; but when ye do not what I say, ye have no promise.

It does not get more clear than that. Loving each other is not enough. We also have to be valiant and obedient.

And if you’re uncomfortable with the temple rituals, I would point you back toward the words of David O. McKay and suggest that perhaps it’s because you’re focusing too heavily on the mechanics and consequently, you don’t yet understand the symbolism behind them. The answer, as incongruous as it might seem, is more trips to the temple, not less. The more you learn and understand, the less uncomfortable it becomes.

As for there being a polygamous heaven, what is a loving God supposed to do when you’ve had more than one spouse and family in your lifetime? Force you to choose which spouse and family you love the most? Cast out the rejected ones without another thought? Forbid them their rewards in heaven even though they didn’t do anything wrong and they kept their covenants? Or maybe the solution should be to eliminate all familial relationships in the eternities despite the bonds forged here on Earth? How are those options fair to anyone? How are they loving? Explain that to me, please, because being cut off from your family for eternity sounds a lot worse than having too much family for your liking.

Anyway, this wraps up the Freemasonry questions. There were some things I didn’t get to talk about that I wanted to, and some sources I wasn’t able to use, so I’m going to close out with some of them.

The first is the idea that Masonic signs and tokens, and sometimes even the signs and tokens of the temple, are hallmarks of a secret combination, which I have seen thrown around. The Freemasons are not a secret combination. The temple ordinances do not point toward their belonging to a secret combination, either. Satan loves to inspire counterfeits to the things of God. For example, Hiram Page’s black seer stone as a counterfeit of Joseph’s stone, or an unmarried couple living together as a counterfeit to marriage. Secret combinations are Satan’s counterfeit of God’s ordinances, and the signs and tokens of a secret combination are a gross distortion of the signs and tokens associated with a temple covenant.

You can also find a decent history of Freemasonry in Nauvoo and afterward in this article by Brandon Cole, and watch a video interview with him here by Saints Unscripted. He is both a Latter-day Saint and a Freemason, and he is happy to share his knowledge with us. I found his information helpful while trying to learn the basics over the past few weeks.

I linked to an article above but did not quote from it, and I wanted to highlight it a bit here: “The Development of the Mormon Temple Endowment Ceremony” by David John Buerger. This article is so detailed, and it’s a really solid timeline of not only the creation of the endowment ceremony in the Nauvoo days, but also the changes made afterward through about 1988 or so, shortly before the big changes made in 1990. It’s long, but well-worth a read if the subject interests you.

In closing, I just wanted to remind you that it’s okay if you don’t fully understand the temple ceremony yet. I doubt any of us know it so well that we don’t have anything left to learn. If you’re struggling with it, just remember that it’s all symbolic, and it’s all designed to point you toward eternal truths. If you aren’t sure what it’s meant to point to, take the time to ponder it while you’re there. Our heavenly parents want us to understand these things, and They want us to return home to Them. We can’t do that if we turn our backs on the temple. It’s at the heart of everything we do.


Sources in this entry:


Sarah Allen is brand new in her affiliation with FAIR. By profession, she works in mortgage compliance and is a freelance copyeditor. A voracious reader, she loves studying the Gospel and the history of the restored Church. After watching some of her lose their testimonies, she became interested in helping others through their faith crises and began sharing what she learned through her studies. She’s grateful to those at FAIR who have given her the opportunity to share her testimony with a wider audience.

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