An endowment is, like baptism, a gospel requirement for salvation and exaltation—a sacred ordinance. Endowments take place in a dedicated House of the Lord, or temple. Temples were centers of religious worship anciently—places of covenant-making, sacrifice, and worship. Mormons build temples today, as the ancient ordinances of salvation have been restored to the earth under the direction of God the Father and His Son, Jesus Christ.
The dictionary defines an endowment as a gift given by a higher power. So it is with an endowment in the temple of God. An endowment is a gift of knowledge—a series of instructions and covenants—that enable participants to leave the House of the Lord and walk from day to day with God's Spirit and an increase in spiritual strength and direction.
- As the early members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints were looking for a safe place to gather, the Lord directed them to Ohio, where they were to erect a temple in which to receive this increased spiritual strength: "Wherefore, for this cause I gave unto you the commandment that ye should go to the Ohio; and there I will give unto you my law; and there you shall be endowed with power from on high;" (Doctrine and Covenants 38:32)
- Later, the Saints hurried to complete the Nauvoo Temple for the same reason. They knew they would soon be driven out of Nauvoo. They knew the grand building they were sacrificing so much to complete would be desecrated or destroyed. They worked fervently on the temple, so they could be endowed with the spiritual power necessary to make the hard journey west.
More specifically, the endowment helps Mormons understand who they are, where they came from, and where they are going. (See Plan of Salvation) It helps members understand what they should do to prepare to meet God, and how Jesus Christ offers salvation to each of us. Information in the endowment is presented in a highly symbolic manner.
The Mormon temple ceremony was introduced by the Prophet Joseph Smith in the 1840s. The Kirtland Temple, which was actually never referred to as a temple, but rather as a House of Prayer, was a preparatory temple. The Nauvoo Temple was the first Mormon Temple to have the full temple ceremonies (see History of Mormon Temples).
The temple endowment conveys information in a highly symbolic manner. Just as the word table has shades of meaning, so do the symbols used in the temple endowment. One reason that faithful Mormons are encouraged to return to the temple many times during their lives is so they can seek those different shades of meaning inherent in symbolic instruction. The meaning that someone derives from a symbol today may be different than the meaning previously derived, and it will definitely be different than what is derived in the future. The information given in the endowment is always the same; it is the set of the heart and the preparation of the temple visitor that bestows new meaning.
One prominent Mormon scholar commented on the power of symbolic instruction in this manner:
- We live in a world of symbols. We know nothing, except by symbols. We make a few marks on a sheet of paper, and we say that they form a word, which stands for love, or hate, or charity, or God or eternity. The marks may not be very beautiful to the eye. No one finds fault with the symbols on the pages of a book because they are not as mighty in their own beauty as the things which they represent. We do not quarrel with the symbol G-O-D because it is not very beautiful, yet represents the majesty of God. We are glad to have symbols, if only the meaning of the symbols is brought home to us. I speak to you tonight; you have not quarreled very much with my manner of delivery, or my choice of words; in following the meaning of the thoughts I have tried to bring home to you, you have forgotten words and manner. There are men who object to Santa Claus, because he does not exist! Such men need spectacles to see that Santa Claus is a symbol; a symbol of the love and joy of Christmas and the Christmas spirit. In the land of my birth there was no Santa Claus, but a little goat was shoved into the room, carrying with it a basket of Christmas toys and gifts. The goat of itself counted for nothing; but the Christmas spirit, which it symbolized, counted for a tremendous lot.
- We live in a world of symbols. No man or woman can come out of the temple endowed as he should be, unless he has seen, beyond the symbol, the mighty realities for which the symbols stand. (John A. Widtsoe, "Temple Worship," Utah Genealogical and Historical Magazine, April 1921, p. 62)
Symbols used in the temple endowment and the meanings of those symbols are sacred to Mormons. They view the meaning of the symbols as knowledge (an endowment) from God. For this reason, the only acceptable place for Mormons to discuss the symbols or their meaning is within the walls of a temple. This is why Mormons don't discuss details of what goes on in the temple—it is too sacred to be discussed, except in the most holy of places.
Covenants with God
When presenting the endowment, Church members are required to make very specific covenants with God. A covenant is a two-way promise. In religious terms, a covenant is a sacred promise made between an individual and the Lord. For instance, when a person is baptized, he makes a covenant with the Lord that he will strive to follow Jesus' example and repent of any sins he may commit. When the person keeps his part of the covenant, the Lord promises to forgive those sins based on true, sincere repentance.
The covenants presented in the endowment are, again, very sacred to Mormons. These covenants can only be described outside of the temple in general terms, as is done here by James E. Talmage:
- The ordinances of the endowment embody certain obligations on the part of the individual, such as covenant and promise to observe the law of strict virtue and chastity, to be charitable, benevolent, tolerant and pure; to devote both talent and material means to the spread of truth and the uplifting of the race; to maintain devotion to the cause of truth; and to seek in every way to contribute to the great preparation that the earth may be made ready to receive her King,-the Lord Jesus Christ. With the taking of each covenant and the assuming of each obligation a promised blessing is pronounced, contingent upon the faithful observance of the conditions.
- No jot, iota, or tittle of the temple rites is otherwise than uplifting and sanctifying. In every detail the endowment ceremony contributes to covenants of morality of life, consecration of person to high ideals, devotion to truth, patriotism to nation, and allegiance to God. (James E. Talmage, The House of the Lord, p. 84)
A Gift from God
The temple endowment is viewed by Mormons as a gift from God. The endowment provides knowledge and the promise of blessings to come. Each of the blessings available through the endowment are available only through the salvation offered by our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. While faithful Mormons view the temple endowment as necessary and very beneficial, they recognize that it is only Jesus Christ who brings salvation. Only through faith in Him alone can we be saved, by following the example He set for us.