(RNS) — On Tuesday of this week, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints instituted a number of revisions to the temple endowment ceremony. Over the last few days, I’ve been interviewing people off the record about their impressions of the changes.
What follows is a provisional overview. Latter-day Saints don’t go into the temple with a notebook or a recorder — or at least, they shouldn’t. Though the people I spoke to tried, to the best of their recollection, to tell me what was new and different, this is not an exhaustive list, and in at least one instance, their memories conflicted with each other (see “More diverse racial representation,” below).
Out of respect, this preliminary assessment doesn’t reveal what the signs and tokens are, as those are the elements of the temple ceremony that participants covenant not to reveal. But there are quite a few changes to other aspects of the temple endowment that merit discussion.
Informed consent. The ceremony now opens with a list of the five covenants that individuals will be making in the temple during the ceremony. In the past, there was a point in the ceremony when anyone not willing to make those covenants was invited to leave (though I have never seen anyone in the temple actually depart at that point). But until this week, the covenants themselves were not described beforehand, prompting many to note that it’s unfair to expect people to decide whether to stay or leave when they’re not told in advance what the promises will be.
The church has been moving toward greater transparency on this for several years now, beginning with Elder David Bednar’s refreshingly open General Conference talk in 2019 that listed the five covenants. And in 2021, the covenants were added to the church’s handbook of instructions.
A more focused emphasis on Jesus. All of my interviewees noted that the images on screen now include multiple depictions of Jesus, some of which they had never seen before. “When they flashed Jesus on the screen, it was at times when the covenants mentioned Jesus,” one woman told me. The revised endowment seeks to explicitly link Christ as the reason why individuals make and keep covenants; one man said he came away with the impression that the covenants have been recast as a way to have a relationship with Christ and to become more like him.
In addition to the images of Christ, there are more spoken references to him, including at the very beginning, when an announcement makes it clear that the recent changes in the temple liturgy are in alignment with the church’s doctrine of Jesus Christ.
The War in Heaven. The revised endowment includes, for what I believe is the first time, a ritual performance of what Mormons call the War in Heaven. While attendees see images of the galaxies on screen, they hear the voices of Elohim, Satan and Jesus discussing how to save humanity. Jesus says he will do what he can and give the glory to God; Satan says he will do what he can but he will receive the glory for himself. God decides to send his son.
No touching until the very end. Interviewees all said the endowment is less participatory than it used to be. Measures that were introduced during COVID-19 to reduce touching seem to have been made permanent. There is no hand-to-hand touching until the very end, when individuals pass through the veil.
But that’s not the only simplification. There is less movement as a whole. Whereas in the past, patrons were asked to stand up and sit down at various points in the ceremony, and to adjust pieces of their ceremonial clothing, now the endowment is more streamlined, and participants are seated for most of it.
No witness couple. In the past, a part of the temple ceremony was modeled by a “witness couple,” usually but not always a husband and wife, who were asked shortly beforehand to step into that role. This couple’s job was to demonstrate the signs and tokens for other people. Those live roles have been eliminated, with the demonstration instead being performed on screen by Adam and Eve.
The main officiant’s role has also been reduced in favor of video and prerecorded audio. “Their (the officiant’s) only role was starting the session and then saying the prayer at the end of the session,” one person told me. Another said there were still four live ordinance workers in the session, but that most of them didn’t have much to do until the veil portion at the end.
Adam and Eve in temple clothes. The conclusion of the creation story is no longer the end for Adam and Eve as major actors in the ceremony. They now appear on screen after the creation story has finished. They appear in an indoor setting that one person described to me as a temple altar but another said was “nondescript.” They are wearing temple clothing and receiving the tokens from the biblical Peter, who is also a character on the screen rather than being represented by a live officiant as in the past.
One woman said she was encouraged to see that Peter is shown giving the token to Adam, and then to Eve in turn, which is more direct than she remembered. “I think they are trying to be more inclusive, showing that we each make our own covenants, rather than women having to go through someone else.”
Multiple reminders that this is symbolic. My interviewees said there were several points when the script reminded people that the temple endowment is symbolic — and mentioned how those symbols pointed to Jesus Christ. For example, “it talked about how the veil symbolizes Christ, and how we have to go through Christ in order to get to God,” one person reported. She said that segment drew upon a passage in the Book of Hebrews.
“Loud laughter” is gone! In what may be my favorite change, there’s no longer a warning for temple attendees to guard themselves against loud laughter and light-mindedness. My interviewees did not report exactly the same new wording but said the warning now cautions us to avoid something akin to “unworthy thoughts and actions.”
More diverse racial representation. In my very first interview, a woman told me how excited she was to see two women demonstrating on screen how to go through the veil and that the ordinance worker being depicted was “a Black woman with gorgeous, long braids.” The very next interview was with a woman who told me how excited she was that of the two men shown demonstrating how to go through the veil, one appeared to be Asian.
Other interviews seemed to confirm one presentation or the other, leading me to suspect that there are at least two different versions of this part of the ceremony and that the church is working to depict greater racial diversity.
Continuing movement toward gender equality. The temple ceremony changed in 1990 to remove the promise that women were to “obey” their husbands, and again in early 2019 to jettison the language that they were to “hearken” to their husbands while their husbands hearkened to God. What my interviewees noticed this time was that when God discusses Adam, he also includes Eve (“Adam and Eve and their posterity” was one remembered phrase).
And it’s not just that Eve is a helpmeet for Adam. That’s still there, but “it says they are to be companions and helpmeets for each other,” one person said, telling me it felt more equal and reciprocal.
More exhortations to obey. Temple attendees said the endowment’s wording now includes several reminders to obey. Eve, for example, has a new line in which she talks about the blessings Latter-day Saints will receive if they are obedient.
Some small changes to the creation narrative. Some people told me that “the firmament” seemed more emphasized in the creation story than in the past — that there is material about the days of creation that they didn’t remember being there before.
Encouragements to come back to the temple. The script now seems to include reminders to attend the temple often. My interviewees said this happened near the end of the ceremony, and also during the prayer circle. The prayer included a blessing that the attendees would want to return and serve in the temple often.
Still the same length. My interviewees said that despite some time-consuming elements being cut, such as the passing of tokens by hand to everyone in the room, the additions mean the endowment is running about the same length it was shortened to in 2019, roughly 90 to 105 minutes. (Be comforted, though: it once lasted between three and nine hours.)
As I said, I’m sure there were other changes as well. I hope you’ll let me know what those are in the days to come, if you can.
What is certain is that the temple ceremony has evolved significantly in the past (see this important “Dialogue” article for a history of those shifts, like dropping blood oaths and the “law of retribution” in 1927 to incorporating the lava scene from the Disney movie “Fantasia” in the 1950s as part of the creation story).
What has surprised me this week is not that changes are occurring, but that it has only been four years since the last revisions were rolled out. It’s an interesting acceleration that matches the explosion of LDS temple building during President Russell M. Nelson’s administration.