Defending the Faith: Latter-day Saints and the study of the temple

Published: Thursday, Oct. 24 2013 5:00 a.m. MDT

The Salt Lake Temple on Oct. 6, 2013.

Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

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“What,” asked the Prophet Joseph Smith, “was the object of gathering … the people of God in any age of the world?” He then answered his own question: “The main object was to build unto the Lord a house whereby He could reveal unto His people the ordinances of His house and the glories of His kingdom, and teach the people the way of salvation ….

“It is for the same purpose that God gathers together His people in the last days, to build unto the Lord a house to prepare them for the ordinances and endowments, washings and anointings, etc. …

“God ordained that He would save the dead, and would do it by gathering His people together ….

“Why gather the people together in this place? … To receive the ordinances, the blessings, and glories that God has in store for His Saints.”

The same emphasis continues in this, the greatest era of temple building that the world has ever known. President Howard W. Hunter expressed it well when he exhorted the Latter-day Saints to “establish the temple of the Lord as the great symbol of their membership.”

It isn’t surprising, given this focus, that Latter-day Saint academics have also assumed prominent roles in contemporary scholarship on temples and temple worship in antiquity. Hugh Nibley was the obvious pioneer, but he has been followed by other Mormon scholars — as illustrated, for example, by John M. Lundquist’s “The Temple: Meeting Place of Heaven and Earth” (London, 1993), “The Temple of Jerusalem: Past, Present, and Future” (New York, 2007) and “The Temple: Holy Precinct for Sanctuary, Ritual, and Sacrifice” (London, 2012), and by William J. Hamblin and David Seely’s “Solomon’s Temple: Myth and History” (London, 2007). Moreover, it’s unsurprising that the two 2007 books are dedicated to Hugh Nibley (died 2005).

Another reflection of strong Latter-day Saint interest is the establishment of the Utah-based Academy for Temple Studies, which seeks to interact with the work of the British Methodist biblical scholar Margaret Barker and the Temple Studies Group that has flourished for some years now in the United Kingdom. The academy has sponsored several successful conferences already, including one earlier this week on the campus of Utah State University that was devoted to “The Lady of the Temple: Examining the Divine Feminine in the Judeo-Christian Tradition.”

And more is coming. This Saturday, Oct. 26, BYU’s 42nd annual Sidney B. Sperry Symposium will focus on the theme “Ascending the Mountain of the Lord: Temple, Praise, and Worship in the Old Testament.” Commencing at 9 a.m. in the Joseph Smith Building on the BYU campus, an array of 30 professors, graduate students and independent scholars — more than a few of them, I’m happy to say, affiliated with The Interpreter Foundation — will address a multitude of themes connected with temples ancient and modern in four sets of concurrent sessions and in a keynote address just before lunch.

There will be presentations on the Psalms, Mount Sinai, gestures of praise and worship, theophanies or divine appearances, sacrificial worship, ritual clothing, ancient Egyptian liturgical practices, the nature of sacred space and prophesied future sanctuaries, all viewed as shedding light on the temple as a living reality, not merely an antiquarian curiosity. (See the schedule of this year’s Sperry Symposium.)

An excellent three-minute “Mormon Messages” video presentation on “Why Mormons Build Temples” eloquently presents what Latter-day Saints see as the intimate connection between ancient and modern temple worship. Comments from, among others, the late professors Krister Stendahl and Frank Moore Cross of Harvard University will help to explain why contemporary Mormon scholars are so fascinated with this subject.

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