by Sharon Lindbloom
25 June 2022
Hulu, the online streaming service, released a miniseries in April (2022) based on the real-life 1984 Utah murders of a mother and her toddler daughter. The miniseries, “Under the Banner of Heaven,” follows Jon Krakauer’s 2003 bestselling book of the same name as it explores Mormon fundamentalism and Mormonism’s sometimes violent history. I’ve been seeing a lot about Latter-day Saint reactions to the show in the news. For example, earlier this month Meredith Blake of the Los Angeles Times wrote an article titled, “Church members decry TV portrait of Mormon life: ‘It’s designed to make us look alien.’”
According to the article, Latter-day Saints are frustrated and unhappy with “Under the Banner of Heaven” due to the way The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is portrayed. Some specific examples given include the promotion of the idea that Mormonism “breeds dangerous men,” as well as the portrayal of women blindly supporting their priesthood-holder husbands.
A third LDS complaint included in the LA Times article involves the depiction of Mormon temple rites. Ms. Blake writes,
“The show’s depiction of the temple endowment ceremony was similarly frustrating to some viewers. Not only did it portray a sacred ritual that is typically closed to outsiders — a fact that many Latter-day Saints found inherently disrespectful — it also emphasized aspects of the sacred rite that have since been eliminated: a menacing throat-slicing gesture symbolizing the penalties faced by anyone who broke their covenant with God, and the anointing of the naked body, including intimate areas, with oil.
“’Treating the sacred rites and ordinances of any religion that way is inappropriate, but also they left out all context,’ said David Snell, host of the YouTube channel Saints Unscripted, where he explains the church and its teachings in an accessible manner. As he noted, the penalties were eliminated from the endowment ceremony in 1990, and people are now anointed on their head only, while clothed.
“’They honed in on the specific things that made people the most uncomfortable in the past — and justifiably so — and those are the exact same things that have since been changed,’ Snell said. ‘It’s like saying, “Hey, look at these things that are so weird, that no longer apply, but we’re not going to tell you that they no longer apply.”’”
I can understand Mormons being uncomfortable with the show’s detailed depiction of the temple ordinances they hold dear. And I can understand Latter-day Saints being frustrated that the world is now witness to some strange and outdated elements of the 1984 temple endowment ceremony. And I suppose that these things do, on some level, make Mormons “look alien.” Yet the most important question for a Latter-day Saint is not, “Why did the show depict the most uncomfortable parts of the 1984 endowment ceremony without explaining that these things have since been changed?” The more important question is, “Why were these ‘weird’ and ‘uncomfortable’ elements ever part of the temple endowment ceremony?” Truly, they were no less strange and awkward in 1984 and the preceding decades than they are perceived to be today.
Mormonism and its temple endowment ceremony have been “restored,” says the LDS church, to match the true, ancient Christianity that Jesus Christ instituted some two-thousand years ago. The specifics of the temple ceremony are understood to have been revealed directly by God to Joseph Smith and carried forward by Brigham Young. Yet in some significant ways, today’s ceremony is very different than the one performed in the early church. In the words of Latter-day Saint David Snell (quoted above), many elements of the originally restored ceremony “no longer apply.” The penalties are but one example.
In an earlier rendition of the LDS temple endowment ceremony, the penalty portions of the rite included not only the gestures to which Mr. Snell objects (as they are portrayed in “Under the Banner of Heaven”); those gestures were accompanied by rather graphic oaths:
“We, and each of us, covenant and promise that we will not reveal any of the secrets of this, the first token of the Aaronic priesthood, with its accompanying name, sign or penalty. Should we do so; we agree that our throats be cut from ear to ear and our tongues torn out by their roots.” (William M. Paden, Temple Mormonism, 1931, 18)
“We and each of us do covenant and promise that we will not reveal the secrets of this, the Second Token of the Aaronic Priesthood, with its accompanying name, sign, grip or penalty. Should we do so, we agree to have our breasts cut open and our hearts and vitals torn from our bodies and given to the birds of the air and the beasts of the field.” (Temple Mormonism, 20)
“We and each of us do covenant and promise that we will not reveal any of the secrets of this, the First Token of the Melchizedek Priesthood, with its accompanying name, sign or penalty. Should we do so, we agree that our bodies be cut asunder in the midst and all our bowels gush out.” (Temple Mormonism, 20)
As noted by LDS scholar David John Buerger, sometime between 1900 and 1930 several objectionable elements of the endowment ceremony were removed or altered, including certain aspects of the penalties:
“A number of the endowment’s graphic penalties, all of which closely followed Masonic penalties’ wording, were moderated. For example, the penalties for revealing endowments included details of how they would be carried out (the tongue to be ‘torn out by its roots,’ etc.). Today’s endowment [in 1987] only alludes to those earlier descriptions as various methods of taking life.” (“The Development of the Mormon Temple Endowment Ceremony,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought, Vol. 20, No. 4 (Winter 1987), 120.)
These penalties were “alluded to” in the 1984 endowment ceremony by merely pantomiming having one’s throat slit, etc., while verbally agreeing to the loss of one’s life. For example, from the ceremony:
“The sign is made by bringing the right arm to the square, the palm of the hand to the front, the fingers close together, and the thumb extended…. This is the sign. The Execution of the Penalty is represented by placing the thumb under the left ear, the palm of the hand down, and by drawing the thumb quickly across the throat, to the right ear, and dropping the hand to the side….
“Now, repeat in your mind after me the words of the covenant, at the same time representing the execution of the penalty.
“I, ______, think of the New Name, covenant that I will never reveal the First Token of the Aaronic Priesthood, with its accompanying name, sign and penalty. Rather than do so, I would suffer my life to be taken.” (Tanners, Salt Lake City Messenger, #76, November 1990)
While this was considerably toned down from the earlier versions of the endowment ceremony, in 1990 the penalties, previously referred to within the ceremony as “most sacred,” were removed altogether, in both word and deed.
Mr. Snell notes that the endowment ceremony penalties (among other things) were the “specific things that made people the most uncomfortable in the past — and justifiably so…” Apparently with thanksgiving, he points out that “those are the exact same things that have since been changed” and “no longer apply.” Which brings us back to the question, “Why were these ‘weird’ and ‘uncomfortable’ elements ever part of the temple endowment ceremony?” Because, according to Brigham Young upon receiving his endowment from Joseph Smith in Nauvoo,
“Joseph divided up the room [over the store in Nauvoo] the best that he could hung up the veil, marked it gave us our instructions as we passed along from one department to another giving us signs, tokens, penalties with the Key words pertaining to those signs and after we had got through. Bro Joseph turned to me (Press B. Young) and said Bro Brigham this is not arranged right but we have done the best we could under the circumstances in which we are placed, and I. . .wish you to take this matter in hand and organize and systematize all these ceremonies with the signs, tokens penalties and Key words I did so and each time I got something more so that when we went through the Temple at Nauvoo I understood and Knew how to place them there, we had our ceremonies pretty correct. (From L. John Nuttall Diary, 7 Feb. 1877, typescript, Harold B. Lee Library, Brigham Young University, Provo, Utah)
Years later, in 1877, then-apostle Wilford Woodruff remarked on the “perfect form” of the endowment ceremony:
“President Young has been laboring all winter to get up a perfect form of Endowments as far as possible. They having been perfected I read them to the Company today.” (Wilford Woodruff’s Journal, 21 March, 1877. Mr. Woodruff became president of the LDS church in 1889.)
The sacred penalties were originally part of the LDS endowment ceremony because that’s what it took to have a “correct” and “perfect form” of this ordinance that – according to Mormonism – is essential for a person to be able to gain eternal life. It is no leap of logic to say that these penalties were sacred elements of Mormonism’s restored gospel. “In its fulness,” the LDS church explains on its website, “the gospel includes all the doctrines, principles, laws, ordinances, and covenants necessary for us to be exalted in the celestial kingdom.”
This is Mormonism’s restored gospel — and now that gospel has been changed. From a Mormon perspective one might say, “they have taken away from the gospel of the Lamb many parts which are plain and most precious; and also many covenants of the Lord have they taken away” (1 Nephi 13:26).
Mormonism is not what it claims to be, and this is one more evidence to add to the stack. The depiction of the 1984 temple endowment ceremony included in “Under the Banner of Heaven” may or may not make Mormons “look alien,” but that isn’t the most crucial concern. Much more important is the fact that the temple endowment ceremony, from the 1840s to today (including all the intervening changes and adjustments), is not biblical. It has not originated in the mind of the consistent and omniscient God, but rather in the minds of inconsistent and fickle men; men whose minds change with the winds of popular culture. When these same men say, “You must follow me if you want eternal life,” remember this.
“God is not man, that he should lie,
or a son of man, that he should change his mind.
Has he said, and will he not do it?
Or has he spoken, and will he not fulfill it?”
To see Sharon’s other news articles, click here.