temple_center_towerTwo Types

The covenants in the Temple endowment are of two types. In the first, the initiate covenants to abide by certain principles, codes of conduct, laws, and commandments. In the second type the initiate promises to keep secret what D&C 124 calls “the keys of the holy priesthood,” and the “keys whereby [you] may ask and receive” (verses 34 & 95), which are ritual elements symbolizing mysteries received from heaven (Alma 12:9).

The first type of covenants involves a ritual reacceptance of certain commandments, presented in the context of Adam and Eve’s life; the obligation to abide by those laws existed before the initiate ever enters the Temple. Every penitent witnesses by their baptism that they are willing to obey God’s commandments (2 Nephi 31:14). Lecture on Faith 6, still binding on the Church as doctrine, clearly establishes that the sacrifice of all earthly things is essential to obtaining saving faith. Membership in the Church imposes an obligation to accept the laws of the gospel contained in the holy scriptures, the Book of Mormon itself being called “the new covenant,” and the Doctrine and Covenants themselves appropriately signified by their name (D&C 84:57). Chastity in both body and mind is a perpetual commandment by God to his children, often repeated in scripture (3 Nephi 12:27-29; D&C 42:22-26). Also plainly stated in the Covenants of the Church is the commandment to consecrate our goods to the Lord’s storehouse to ensure there are no poor among us, an essential step in the establishment of Zion (D&C 78:3-7; D&C 70:14; D&C 119:1-2). Thus the temple covenants don’t represent the issuance of any new commandment.

Agreeing to the first type of covenant during the ritual does not alter the obligations already imposed on us. It should refocus us on vital principles, renew our personal commitment to obedience, and put that obedience in the context of our revelatory contact with God. While they are not, strictly speaking, new laws for any initiate, they are a valuable and instructive part of the ordinance, and should be honored and kept with strict integrity. Certainly, if a person had not internalized their obligation to keep those laws previously, they should understand it with clarity after the ritual.

“All must be saved upon the same principle”

Despite their value, the specific agreements administered in the current version of the LDS endowment ritual do not save us. Joseph Smith taught that salvation comes by obedience to certain fixed principles, and all mankind from Adam and Eve to the last of us must be saved on the same principles or not at all:

Ordinances were instituted in heaven before the foundation of the world in the priesthood, for the salvation of man. not [to] be altered. not to be changed. all must be saved upon the same principle. (June 11, 1843. Smith Diary)

Those ordinances are so vital that there is a specific system in place for their revelation from God to man:

Now the purpose in himself in the winding up scene of the last dispensation is, that all things pertaining to that dispensation should be conducted precisely in accordance with the preceding dispensations. And again, God purposed in himself… that all things whatsoever that should be gathered together in one in those dispensations unto the same fulness and eternal glory should be in Christ Jesus, therefore he set the ordinances to be the same for Ever and ever and set Adam to watch over them to reveal them from heaven to man or to send Angels to reveal them. (Joseph Smith, written sermon, October 05, 1840)

Since everything which would be gathered from this world and preserved into eternity must be gathered in Christ Jesus, all must be gathered by the same ordinances. Everything not so gathered must be shaken and destroyed (D&C 132:14). The ordinances must be the same for every saved person, and are carefully revealed under Adam’s direction, either by him or by angels acting under his command. Of obtaining an understanding of these ordinances, Joseph wrote.

 Now the great and grand secret of the whole matter, and the summum bonum of the whole subject that is lying before us, consists in obtaining the powers of the Holy Priesthood. For him to whom these keys are given there is no difficulty in obtaining a knowledge of facts in relation to the salvation of the children of men, both as well for the dead as for the living. (D&C 128:11)

He described the case of Noah as an example of a man to whom these things were revealed

And God said unto Noah the end of all flesh is before me, for the earth is filled with violence through them, and behold I will destroy them with the earth,” thus we behold the Keys of this priesthood consisted in obtaining the voice of Jehovah that he talked with him in a familiar and friendly manner, that he continued to him the Keys, the Covenants, the power and the glory with which he blessed Adam at the beginning. (Joseph Smith, written sermon, October 05, 1840)

Thus, when the ordinances have been lost, they can be revealed to a person who has obtained the keys of the holy priesthood, a relationship with God whereby he can ask and receive (D&C 124:95). In fact, this statement and sermon as a whole can be read to imply that each person who wants all of the covenants which Adam received must establish contact with God via these “keys,” which is what the endowment ritual itself seems to show. When contact with God has been lost men often set about modifying the ordinances as they see fit, which violates the covenant established through the high priest at the head of the dispensation (Isaiah 24:5).

Citing the case of Cain as one who modified the ordinance of sacrifice, Joseph wrote:

The ordinances must be kept in the very way God has appointed, otherwise their priesthood will prove a cursing instead of a blessing. (ibid)

When modifications have been made and the covenant broken, God will intervene when he sees fit re-revealing the ordinances from the first to the last to lay a new foundation (Ezekiel  43:7-11; D&C 22):

It is in the order of heavenly things that God should always send a new dispensation into the world when men have apostatized from the truth and lost the priesthood, but when men come out and build upon other men’s foundations, they do it on their own responsibility, without authority from God; and when the floods come and the winds blow, their foundations will be found to be sand, and their whole fabric will crumble to dust. (TPJS, p. 375)

It was for that reason that he spoke to Joseph Smith and gave him commandments (D&C 1:15-17).

15 For they have strayed from mine ordinances, and have broken mine everlasting covenant;

16 …every man walketh in his own way, and after the image of his own god, whose image is in the likeness of the world, and whose substance is that of an idol…

17 Wherefore, I the Lord, knowing the calamity which should come upon the inhabitants of the earth, called upon my servant Joseph Smith, Jun., and spake unto him from heaven, and gave him commandments;

Ordinances that are essential to salvation were decreed before the foundation of the world, are revealed by God through angels under Adam’s direction, must be kept in the very way that God has appointed to retain priesthood, and cannot be changed without breaking the covenant.

“They have changed the ordinance”

The LDS endowment ceremony, and the covenants particularly, have changed substantially.

Early recollections of the endowment mention the covenant to obey God, and to accept the message of Joseph Smith, but omit the covenants of chastity and consecration. An 1879 account published in the Salt Lake Tribune quotes one covenant “To obey the laws of the Mormon Church and all they enjoin, in preference to those of the United States.” (Mrs. G.S.R., “Lifting the Vail: The Endowment House Mysteries Fully Exposed,” Salt Lake Daily Tribune, 28 September 1879.)

The covenant to obey the “Law of the Gospel” was originally explained to mean accepting the gospel message taught by Joseph Smith, embracing Mormonism, and explicitly rejecting all other earthly religions (McGee V. D., Positively True: A Dialogue between Adam and Eve, the Lord and the Devil, Called the Endowment (Albany, NY: C. Killmer, 1847)). This made more sense before the removal of the character of the apostate preacher, because “The Law of the Gospel” was presented by true messengers as a counterpoint to his apostate preaching. The initiates would already be Mormons, so it would be clear that this was simply a ritual reenactment of something they had already done in reality, with the ritual placing it in its context of their journey to God. Since knowledge of the narrative function of the temple covenants has waned as the narrative has been obscured, initiates are left to puzzle over the meaning of “the Law of the Gospel”and how it relates to the charges that accompany it. The covenant can hardly be said to remain intact if its meaning has been utterly obscured and replaced.

The records we have paint a picture of a changing and evolving set of covenants. The import of that fact is most strikingly seen by examining the first significant change to the ceremony. It happened shortly after Joseph and Hyrum’s deaths, when a covenant was added to the ritual:

You and each of you do covenant and promise that you will pray and never cease to pray to Almighty God to avenge the blood of the prophets upon this nation, and that you will teach the same to your children and to your children’s children unto the third and fourth generation. (Buerger, David John (1987), “The Development of the Mormon Temple Endowment Ceremony”, Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought, 20 (4): 52.)

This covenant was in fact administered until the third or fourth generation, when it was removed from the ceremony (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Oath_of_vengeance).

Ordinances which save, which bring mortals to behold the face of God the Father, must be performed exactly as established in eternity and revealed by God (D&C 84:19-22). This raises hard questions for those inclined to view the LDS endowment as a product of pure revelation:

Was anyone saved by making and keeping the covenant to pray for God to avenge Joseph’s and Hyrum’s blood?

If so, were Adam and Eve required to make the same covenant?

If it was a saving covenant, did Joseph Smith reveal an incomplete form of the ordinance with no power to save?

If the ordinance revealed by God to Joseph Smith was correct, then did the inclusion of the Oath of Vengeance by Brigham Young affect the ability of the endowment to teach people how to come unto Christ and be saved?

If that covenant was not a commandment of God, then what was it?

Can the commandments of men benefit us, or do they invariably hinder us until we discard them (Mark 7:7; Matthew 15:9; 2 Nephi 28:14)?

Does the Oath of Vengeance reflect the temple law administered by Christ, wherein we are to love our enemies, bless them that curse us, do good to them that hate us, and pray for them who despitefully use and persecute us, and even those who kill us (3 Nephi 12:43-44; Enos 1:11-13)?

Did the inclusion, alteration, and removal of various covenants through the 19th and 20th centuries bring the endowment back into perfect conformity with the one revealed by God to Joseph Smith?

If not, and there is a conflict between Joseph Smith’s “keys of the priesthood” which allowed him to receive revelation, and the “keys of the priesthood” which his successors claim give them a right to change what he revealed, then which side do we choose in that conflict?

Latter-day Saints today are taught many things about the miraculous power of “making and keeping sacred covenants.” Does that include the Oath of Vengeance? If the ordinances cannot be altered, then how could the present form of the ordinance possibly be salvific, unless, by some unlikely chance, it does represent exactly what was revealed to Joseph Smith?

The virtue in making and keeping covenants

The set of covenants that is currently administered by the LDS Church is simply a static moment in a process of evolution that has been going on since Joseph Smith’s death. It was not the same 100 years ago, or even 30 years ago, and it will likely change more before another 30 years have elapsed. Some of the changes, for example the addition of the Oath of Vengeance, were in direct contradiction to the scriptures, meaning that “making and keeping” those covenants drew people away from Christ rather than toward him.

“Making and keeping sacred covenants,” specifically making and keeping the particular set of covenants that happens to be administered right now in the Temple of the LDS Church, is not a part of the eternal path back to God. The covenants are good to the degree that they embody true principles revealed throughout history to prophets, but there remain principles in the current wording of the covenants that run counter to the scriptures.

When we agree to something, we should honor that agreement. That is integrity and honesty, which are godly qualities. We should keep all of our agreements, including our temple covenants. But the fact that we’ve made an agreement doesn’t make that agreement one of the eternal ordinances that bring us into God’s presence. Nor does it mean that God commanded that specific agreement to be made. Nor does it endow the keeping of that agreement with miraculous power, only so far as the agreement is based on eternal law (D&C 130:20-21).

When we discover that there is a conflict between an agreement we have made and the commandments in the scriptures, which do we obey?

If such a discrepancy indicates that the ordinance has been altered, thus preventing us from walking Adam’s path back to God’s presence, how might we proceed? Can we use the ritual, even in it’s current diminished form, as a window into the truth? If we want to make covenants that do save us, might we also seek to connect with God as Noah did, or pray for instruction from one who has?

we behold the Keys of this priesthood consisted in obtaining the voice of Jehovah that he [Noah] talked with him in a familiar and friendly manner, that he continued to him the Keys, the Covenants, the power and the glory with which he blessed Adam at the beginning. (Joseph Smith, written sermon, October 05, 1840)

If the specific type commandment-oriented covenants in the endowment ceremony were only ever symbolic, ritual elements used as “set dressing” to dramatize the path back to God, then perhaps the nature of the specific covenants doesn’t matter. We are, after all, bound by the laws in the scriptures already. If that is the case, then Brigham’s insertion of his own formulations was troublesome but perhaps not disastrous, but the current emphasis on “making and keeping sacred covenants” is profoundly misguided and unhelpful. If someone is not teaching a correct soteriology, they cannot lead you in the way of life and salvation and are thus not true messengers.

If, however, we are saved by “making and keeping sacred covenants,” then the specific covenants by which we are saved could only be the same which saved Adam and Eve. If that is the case, then the many alterations by Brigham Young and his successors are strong evidence that all is not well in Zion, and every effort should be made to align the ordinance with what was revealed by God to Joseph Smith.

Either way, we see the wisdom in the advice of the endowment ceremony itself. Look to God for further light and knowledge, accept only the teachings of those who are sent with God’s words, do not rely on mortal men to save you, and seek His face always.