“Temple Endowment,” Church History Topics
In 1841, the Lord commanded the Saints in Nauvoo to build a temple “that I may reveal mine ordinances therein unto my people.”1 Among these ordinances was a ceremony called the endowment, which expanded upon the washing and anointing ceremony Joseph had introduced in the Kirtland Temple in 1836.2 Fearing his life would be taken before the temple was completed, Joseph Smith called a handful of men on May 3, 1842, to arrange the upper room of his Red Brick Store to represent “the interior of a temple as much as the circumstances would permit.”3 The next day, Joseph administered the endowment for the first time to a group of nine men. During the following two years, he gave the endowment to a small group of men and women and instructed and prepared them to officiate in the ordinance so that other worthy Saints could receive it when the temple was finished.
From the beginning, Latter-day Saints understood the endowment to be something that needed to be experienced rather than simply described. “We have received some precious things through the Prophet on the priesthood that would cause your soul to rejoice,” Heber C. Kimball wrote to his fellow Apostle Parley P. Pratt, who was not in Nauvoo when the endowment was first given. “I cannot give them to you on paper for they are not to be written.”4 In contrast to written scripture, the endowment taught participants by inviting them to symbolically reenact key aspects of the plan of salvation, including “the most prominent events of the creative period, the condition of our first parents in the Garden of Eden, their disobedience and consequent expulsion from that blissful abode, their condition in the lone and dreary world when doomed to live by labor and sweat, the plan of redemption by which the great transgression may be atoned.”5 During the course of this reenactment, they covenant to obey God’s commandments, commit to devote themselves fully to His work, and acquire knowledge needed to “walk back to the presence of the Father.”6
Joseph Smith never described how the endowment came to be, and there is no recorded revelation outlining its content. However, Willard Richards, who was among the few to receive the endowment from Joseph Smith, testified that the ordinance was “governed by the principles of Revelation.”7 After Joseph Smith introduced the endowment, he directed Brigham Young to “organize and systematize all these ceremonies” so they could be administered within the temple.8 At first, the endowment ceremony was preserved only in the memory of the participants. In 1877, when the St. George Utah Temple was completed, Brigham Young directed a small group, including the temple’s president, Wilford Woodruff of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, to write down the ceremony to ensure consistency over time and between temples. The St. George Utah Temple was also where the first endowments were performed in behalf of the dead.9
Though the endowment’s format of symbolic instruction and covenant making has remained the same, the way the ordinance is administered has changed over time. Originally, the ceremony lasted the better part of a day. Later generations of Church leaders sought divine guidance to streamline the ceremony, making it easier for members to perform vicarious endowments for the dead.
Two mid-20th-century milestones in the history of the endowment made the ceremony more accessible to Latter-day Saints around the world. During the 19th century, when Saints still gathered to Utah to attend temples, the endowment ceremony was administered only in English. In the 1940s, however, the First Presidency assigned Eduardo Balderas and Elder Antoine R. Ivins to translate the endowment ceremony into another language, Spanish, for the first time. Saints from Mexico and from Spanish-speaking branches in the United States gathered to the Mesa Arizona Temple for the first Spanish-language endowments in 1945.10 In 1953, the First Presidency assigned Gordon B. Hinckley to develop a new way to present the endowment in multiple languages once the Bern Switzerland Temple was completed. Under Hinckley’s direction, filmed rather than live actors were used to present portions of the endowment’s symbolic reenactment for the first time. Years later, as President of the Church, President Hinckley initiated an unprecedented era of temple building, making the endowment even more accessible to Latter-day Saints around the world.