Anderson, Devery S. ed. The Development of LDS Temple Worship, 1846-2000: A Documentary History. Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 2011.
Continuing Signature Book’s strong tradition in documentary histories, this is a fascinating collection of documents relating to LDS temple policy from the end of Nauvoo to the modern day. Building from the earlier two volumes in this series, Devery Anderson presents a plethora of important sources for historians interested in the development of LDS ritual. With a serviceable introduction that outlines the main themes of the book’s contents, and helpful biographical overviews provided in the footnotes, The Development of LDS Temple Worship is a welcome addition to the Mormon history field.
With any volume that covers such a vast amount of time—over one and a half centuries!—there are bound to be transformative themes readily present. With this collection of documents related to the temple, the transformation that stands out more than the rest is Mormonism’s growth from a small, centralized community to a global religion. For most of the nineteenth century, the President of the Church was solely in charge of approving recommends for members who wished to access the temple—a practice that became especially difficult during the “underground” period of the 1880s. But as the Church membership grew, as the number of temples multiplied, and as the end of the “gathering” led to a more dispersed Church body, there became a need for less centralized power and more local control. The ideal of “Zion” transitioned from a static location in the headquarters of Utah to localized congregations spread throughout the Church. Temple policies—and even building ideas, like when the Church in 1968 flirted with the idea of a portable temple on a boat that could visit distant communities—were forced to adapt to a membership quickly spreading across geographies, cultures, and races. The forced balance of continuity and flexibility, which I will talk about below, becomes a central feature of the growing LDS Church as seen through its temple history.
With the progression of the twentieth century came more systematization and formalization. But it would be a mistake to characterize the development of LDS temple rituals during this period as a strict process of boundary reinforcement. While some entrance requirements did indeed grow more rigid (Word of Wisdom and tithing, most notably), others (like sexual purity and garment regulations) actually grew more relaxed. This continued balance of strict and loose boundaries represents the flexible parameters that have allowed Mormonism to flourish in an environment of perpetual tension. If Church guidelines were too rigid, the cost of discipleship might have been too steep for growth and progress; if too permeable, the collapsed distance between the gospel and the world may have become too transparent to prove its necessity. This lesson helps us better understand how average members have “experienced” Mormonism.
This last point hints to what I wish I had seen more of in the book’s document selection and interpretation: a methodological framework that could incorporate a more bottom-up approach. Reading through most of these documents, readers will gain great insight on how Church leaders managed temple ritual, but will only be able to surmise how common members experienced and understood them. To put it simply, there is a lot of policy, but little actual worship. While the scarcity of sources makes it different to approach the collection otherwise, it is the role of the editor to select and frame the documents in a way that provides more point of view than just the ecclesiastical leaders. This, along with some unfortunate reliance on problematic sources (like History of the Church for the early period, and decades-old transcripts of documents no longer available for other periods), the editor’s unwillingness to utilize tools from other documentary histories that deal with ritual studies (mostly outside of Mormon historiography), and the absence of historical contextualization of American religion in general were my main problems with the book.
But enough with this review’s awkward-but-mandatory-negative-paragraph. There is much to find fascinating in this volume. I was fascinating with the significant, if often overlooked, role of George F. Richards in formalizing the rituals and requirements. It was insightful to see how persona problems and experiences amongst individual leaders—especially the death of loved ones—led to a change in policy for the entire Church. And it is important to see the continuity of certain problems and issues that were in place from 1846 and continue to the present day. This balance of new and reinforced tensions makes this volume an important compilation to study.
And therein lies the importance of this document collection: the history of the development of Mormonism’s temple practices is the history of the development of Mormonism. The tensions and paradoxes that have both allowed and stultified the Church’s development are found in microcosm within their beliefs concerning the temple. If the “House of the Lord,” as the temple is commonly referred to, is really meant to be the center of the Mormon cosmos, as it is often described as, then a study of the temple reveals much of the center of Mormon culture. The temple’s role in particular—in being a “guidepost,” a measurement of faithfulness, and a theological center of Mormon doctrine—is part and parcel to what it means to be Mormon in general. Thus, this is an important volume not only for students of LDS ritual, ecclesiology, or lived religion, but for all students of LDS history in any field.
While I did not feel it necessary to address this issue in the body of the review, I will here acknowledge the elephant in the room: not all will be comfortable with a book that, to paraphrase common complaints, “opens up the doors to the LDS temple.” What goes on in Mormonism’s sacred rituals are considered secret from those not initiated, so many bristle at the idea of them being openly discussed in book form. And indeed, some will feel uncomfortable with this book, regardless of the approach Anderson chose to take. But the approach utilized in this volume, especially its focus on policy, makes the documents selected relatively harmless. This is particularly the case for the twentieth century, as a large number of texts were already in public domain, and this book’s main virtue is gathering them all into one place.