Why We Build Temples
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“Why We Build Temples,” Tambuli, Oct. 1980, 34

Tokyo Temple

Why We Build Temples

As you have visited temples erected by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints or as you have seen photographs of them, have you ever wondered why such edifices are built?

These temples are different from all other buildings in the world. Beautiful structures have been erected by other peoples, of course, and some of them have been called temples, but none has either the purpose or the functions of the Mormon temples.

Why do the Latter-day Saints build these temples? How are they used? Are they for worshiping assemblies or for ritualistic purposes? Just what takes place in them? Why have the Latter-day Saints made such investments in time, effort, and money in such projects as these?

For more than a century they have carried on the work of temple building. It began with the Prophet Joseph Smith, who erected two of these buildings and projected two more, all in the middle-western part of the United States.

On coming west the Latter-day Saints continued this work and within a few years of their arrival completed four temples in Utah. Since that time they have built others throughout the world.

It has been a multi-million dollar investment. The members of the Church have built in good times and bad, in the depths of poverty and affliction, always doing so in a spirit of worship and gratitude, for they were obeying the will of God. Latter-day Saints declare that through the Prophet Joseph Smith the fulness of the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ was restored to the earth. That “fulness” meant completeness. All things pertaining to the gospel anciently were given to men in modern times by means of this restoration.

In biblical times sacred ordinances were administered in holy edifices for the spiritual salvation of ancient Israel. The buildings thus used were not synagogues nor any other ordinary places of worship. They were specially constructed for this particular purpose. While the people traveled in the wilderness, they used a portable tabernacle. This tabernacle is called “the temple of the Lord,” and it was there, for instance, that Samuel’s mother went to pray. (1 Sam. 1:9.) When they ceased their wanderings and obtained a stable government, they built a glorious temple in Jerusalem to take its place.

Following the pattern of biblical days, the Lord again in our day has provided these ordinances for the salvation of all who will believe and directs that temples be built in which to perform those sacred rites.

Anciently, to obtain the saving blessings of the Lord, it was necessary for an individual to do two things:

(1) Live the righteous life described in the commandments of the Lord, and

(2) Participate in the saving ordinances administered by the Lord’s truly authorized servants.

Although some of these ordinances could be performed wherever the people found themselves, others were so sacred that the Lord required that they be performed in a specially built edifice, such as the tabernacle or temple, as at first, or the great temple which replaced it.

There the priesthood ministered in solemn rites. Not everyone could enter, only those of proven worthiness. Unauthorized officiators suffered the wrath of God. The holy ordinances were never fully made known to the world at large; they were too sacred, but the chosen and faithful participated in all solemnity.

As the gospel was restored in these last days, temple building and temple ordinances also were restored through the Prophet Joseph Smith. The Latter-day Saints were taught by their Prophet that celestial glory could be theirs in the eternal world, but only through “obeying the celestial law, and the whole law, too.”

Speaking to his people on April 8, 1844, the Prophet Joseph said that the temple ordinances as he was giving them were so important that “without (them) we cannot obtain celestial thrones. But there must be a holy place prepared for that purpose.” (History of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 6:318–20.)

Without temples, therefore, the blessings could not be given. The answer consequently was that the Saints should build temples, and this the Lord commanded them to do.

Unitedly they began the work. Their first one was built at Kirtland, Ohio, and was dedicated in 1836. It still stands today, but no longer belongs to the Church.

The temple at Kirtland was only a preparatory one, in which many of the sacred rites were revealed. Since it was only preparatory and since the major portion of temple work was reserved to be given in other temples, that temple was not constructed after the pattern used in the later edifices. It has no baptismal font, for instance, and no rooms for marriages and other important ordinances. It was built largely on the order of a worshiping assembly.

Persecution drove the Saints from Kirtland, and their temple had to be abandoned. They made a settlement at Jackson County, Missouri, and dedicated a temple site there, but persecution prevented construction. They made homes at Far West, Missouri, not far from Independence, and laid cornerstones at that location for a third temple, but persecution again interfered.

Moving to Nauvoo, Illinois, still under the direction of the Prophet Joseph Smith, they laid cornerstones for their fourth temple, and this time completed it despite attacks by their enemies who martyred the Prophet and his brother Hyrum the Patriarch.

Traversing the plains to Utah, the Latter-day Saints resumed their temple building with undiminished fervor. They desired salvation in the presence of God. They understood that temple ordinances were essential to that salvation, and therefore they spared no effort in building edifices in which to obtain them.

But how could a temple be so essential to one’s salvation? Was it so in ancient times? What part did the temple in Jerusalem play in the religious life of ancient Israel?

That the temple in Jerusalem was more than a synagogue is well established. That it was a sacred place in which only the priesthood could minister is also recognized. That its “Holy of Holies” was reserved for the most faithful is well known. That sacred ordinances not in any way related to the usual synagogue worship were administered there is likewise a fact. And that they were not open to the view of the curious and the uninitiated is also admitted.

The temple in Jerusalem was desecrated by the unworthy who came there and made it a marketplace in the days of Jesus, as will be remembered. It was that which so angered the Savior that he drove them out of the temple with the words, “It is written, My house shall be called the house of prayer; but ye have made it a den of thieves.” (Matt. 21:13.)

Temples built in latter days are equally sacred, and, therefore, they too are reserved only for the most faithful members of the Church.

But what goes on in a temple? Naturally there is curiosity about that which is kept from the public view.

As the temples have been built, they have been opened to public inspectors and thousands have visited them and admired their beauty. After the buildings are dedicated and the usual activities of temple work are begun, no interruption is permitted to accommodate tourist groups.

When visitors have gone from room to room prior to the dedication of these temples, explanations have been given concerning the work done there.

Always a center of interest is the baptismal font. In each of the temples this font rests upon the backs of twelve stone or bronze oxen, following in this, as in other particulars, the pattern given by the Prophet Joseph Smith as he instituted temple building in his day under the direction of the Lord.

Why is there a baptismal font in the temple? Cannot people be baptized anywhere?

The living, yes. But the font in the temple is for vicarious baptisms performed in behalf of the dead.

Baptism for the dead? Is that a Christian doctrine?

In the Epistle to the Hebrews we read about the forefathers of the faithful and then the author declares “that they without us should not be made perfect” (Heb. 11:40), showing that there is a definite relationship between the salvation of the living and the dead.

Many people believe in some form of vicarious work for the dead and burn candles or say prayers in their behalf.

The atonement of the Christ himself was a vicarious work. He died for us, that we might live. His suffering atoned for our sins. His was a vicarious sacrifice. “God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.” (John 3:16.)

“He was wounded for our transgression … with his stripes we are healed.” (See Isa. 53:3–12.) He gave his life as a ransom for us (Matt. 20:28), a vicarious offering. His blood cleanses us of all sin. (1 Jn. 1:5–7.) By his being slain he redeemed us (Rev. 5:9–10.)

Vicarious work for the dead is a biblical and a Christian doctrine. If men are to participate in it, they should determine what kind of service is acceptable to God. Obviously every form devised by man could not be approved. To arrive at an answer to this question, we should ask ourselves what is required to save a living person and then inquire if the Lord sets up something different to save the dead.

What does the Bible say may be done by the living to help save the dead? Is it the burning of candles? Is it the saying of prayers? Is it bringing food to the tomb as in the Orient, or equipment for travel, or implements of war?

People who die without having been taught the gospel may yet be saved in the presence of God. This is made clear in the scriptures. But how? That is the question.

Jesus preached to the dead. The Apostle Peter taught this in his day, saying that after the death of the Savior, and while his body lay in the tomb, the Lord, as a spirit, went to the realm of the dead and there preached to the spirits of the people who previously had lived on the earth. (1 Pet. 3:18–20.)

Then he gives us the reason for this preaching: “For this cause was the gospel preached also to them that are dead, that they might be judged according to men in the flesh, but live according to God in the spirit.” (1 Pet. 4:6.)

(1) That Jesus was a Personage of both spirit and flesh, like all of us.

(2) That when Jesus went to the realm of the dead he was still himself, an individual, the humble “Carpenter from Nazareth,” although a spirit divested of his body of flesh and bones which had been crucified.

(3) That the dead—even those who died in the flood—also were intelligent persons, still individuals, although spirits like Jesus himself.

(4) That these dead were so much in possession of their reason and their faculties that they could hear the gospel like men in the flesh although they lived in a world of spirits, and that they were alive and alert and could use discretion in accepting or rejecting the teachings of Christ.

(5) That Jesus taught them the gospel, which was their opportunity for salvation.

(6) That having heard the gospel, they might accept it or reject it and thus be “judged according to men in the flesh.” As they did accept it they could then “live according to God in the spirit” just as the scripture indicated.

Now, what are the requirements made by the gospel for the salvation of living persons?

They must “live according to God” while they are in the flesh, conforming to both the laws and the ordinances of salvation including, for example such ordinances as baptism in water.

Is baptism that necessary?

Jesus considered it so and was baptized himself in order “to fulfill all righteousness.” (Matt. 3:15.) Can mankind do less than he?

Jesus’ disciples baptized even more than did John the Baptist. (John 4:1–2.) And it was Jesus who taught, “He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved” (Mark 16:6), making baptism as essential to salvation as faith itself. Then can we ignore baptism?

If baptism is so essential for the salvation of the living, is it less essential for the salvation of the dead? Can we reasonably suppose that some other rite would replace baptism, such, for instance, as burning candles or saying prayers?

But how can the dead receive baptism? History teaches that the early Christians baptized living persons in behalf of their dead. It was a customary practice. It was so in Paul’s day. In fact he used this early Christian practice as evidence of the resurrection of the dead. To those who had doubted the resurrection he said, “Else what shall they do which are baptized for the dead, if the dead rise not at all? why are they then baptized for the dead?” (1 Cor. 15:29.)

This then is the real Christian doctrine of salvation for the dead. The same ordinance which was used for the living was used also for the dead. Nothing new was introduced. God did not require one thing for the dead and a different thing for the living. He treated them all alike and could therefore in all consistency judge the dead according to men in the flesh as Peter said, even while they lived in the spirit world.

Inasmuch as the gospel was preached to the dead, its ordinances were made available in their behalf.

Since baptism was an ordinance requiring immersion in water for all, whether living or dead, and since there was no way in which to baptize the dead personally, living people were properly baptized for and in behalf of the dead.

As part of the restoration of the gospel in these last days, the Lord revealed this doctrine and practice to the Prophet Joseph Smith and commanded him to build temples in which these rites could be carried on.

The Saints at this time were living in Nauvoo, Illinois. Giving heed to the Lord’s command, they prepared to build their temple in that city. They gave preference to the completion of the lower areas of the building wherein they erected their first font. It was the intention to have a beautiful permanent vessel there for these vicarious baptisms, and such a one was later built. But while the permanent structure was in course of preparation, a temporary one was made of wood, and in it these sacred ordinances for the dead were performed under the personal direction of the Prophet Joseph Smith.

Thus was instituted one of the most important of all Christian practices, one which had been ignored and forgotten since the days of Peter and Paul, yet which was essential and fundamental in God’s plan to save his children.

Without it how could he save them? All were alike to him and all must be treated alike with equal fairness, all must comply with the same conditions to be saved in his presence.

The Savior himself declared that he was God of both the living and the dead, “for all live unto him” (Luke 20:38), showing that he regards them all in the same light.

So baptism of the living on behalf of the dead became a regular practice in modern times, just as was the case anciently.

But there are other things of great interest in these temples in addition to the baptismal work for the dead. One of the busiest places is what is known as the sealing room. There are usually five or six of these rooms in each temple to accommodate the many people who use them. They represent in a way what some regard as the most basic principle in the gospel of Christ.

To understand this doctrine better let us first point out that family life is of the greatest importance to the Latter-day Saints. Families are regarded as having everlasting significance. Husbands and wives marry for eternity, not merely until death brings an end to their union.

When children are born to such couples, they form a part of a family circle which is to be projected on through death and the resurrection into life eternal. As happy, loving individuals they may take with them into immortality all the virtues and blessings of a good home since family life becomes a part of our heavenly existence.

It is the doctrine of the Latter-day Saints that marriage never was intended by the Lord to be some temporary assignment for mortal life alone. Marriage was instituted before mortality. It will continue beyond mortality for worthy persons, if solemnized for that purpose by the power of God. The first marriage was that of Adam and Eve. It took place while they lived in the Garden of Eden when as yet there was neither mortality nor death. It was performed also by the eternal power of God upon which death can place no limitations.

As Adam and Eve afterward disobeyed the Lord, their transgression brought a change in their physical condition which permitted death. In other words, they became mortal. But since their marriage preceded death and was solemnized by the power of God, it also survived death. It was an eternal union.

May other people have an eternal marriage even as did Adam and Eve? They may if their ceremony is performed by the everlasting power of God. Naturally marriages which are “until death do you part” are but temporary arrangements and end with death. It will be recognized, of course, that persons who perform marriages until death parts the couple have authority extending only that far. They do not have the power to marry for eternity. But there is in existence among men a power which can bind couples together for eternity. Do you recall that before the ascension of Jesus he gave to the Apostles power that whatsoever they should bind or seal on earth should be bound and sealed in heaven? (See Matt. 16:19; Matt. 18:18; John 6:27; Rom. 15:28; 2 Cor. 1:22; Eph. 1:13; Eph. 4:30).

Did the Apostles ever exercise those powers? Everything they did by the authority of their priesthood had eternal significance. Even when a man was baptized, for instance, he received an eternal blessing. Will anyone say that baptism refers to mortality alone? Was not baptism essential to our salvation in the presence of God? Is not that salvation a matter which pertains to eternity?

Then those divinely authorized and ordained Apostles performed acts on earth which were binding in heaven. This meant that the acts which they performed on earth will have effect upon individuals, not only in this life, but also in God’s heavenly kingdom after they are dead.

It was part of the Lord’s plan, otherwise why did he give Apostles power to bind in heaven as well as upon earth?

The significance of this point is emphasized still further as we reflect again upon the principle of vicarious baptism for the dead. It will be remembered that Peter said the gospel was given to the dead that they might live according to God in the spirit world and yet be judged according to men in the flesh.

Baptism for the dead was provided to help close the gap between “living according to God” in the spirit world and being subject to the standards set up for men in the flesh. Living and dead were placed on an equal basis as far as salvation was concerned, but to do so required a type of priesthood authority which was recognized both in this life and in the life to come. Hence the need of Apostles’ being clothed with this power to bind or seal both for here and hereafter.

As this principle pertains to baptism so it applies to marriages. Marriage is ordained of God. (See Gen. 1:28; Gen. 2:24–25; Gen. 9:1, 7; Gen. 35:11; Heb. 13:4.) The Almighty himself performed the first marriage, as we have said, before there was such a condition as mortality. It was he who gave the woman Eve to the man Adam and then commanded them to multiply and replenish the earth.

In performing this first marriage, of course, the Lord exercised his own eternal powers, but he afterward gave to his ordained Apostles a part of that same power, so that they could perform acts which would have eternal continuity also.

It is admitted that this eternal power made the benefits of baptism everlasting. Is there any reason why the same power could not give eternal permanence to marriage which was instituted by the same being who also instituted baptism?

It should and it does. Husbands and wives may be bound together for time and all eternity by the power of this priesthood, and in the same manner children are bound eternally to their parents. Families thus may be held together forever. Loving husbands and wives need not end their happy relationship at death. Neither need children be forever orphaned.

Just as baptism may bring them into the presence of God, so may this sealing or binding ordinance of marriage preserve them there as a family unit.

Could heaven really be complete to any of us if we were deprived of our loved ones, if the most sacred and endearing ties in life were severed?

God is love. He preserves love. Our family relationships are built upon love. He who established such ties will preserve them in his kingdom.

So our temples have in them sealing rooms, so called because of the sealing or binding ordinances performed in them. Within their sacred walls bride and groom kneel at the altar and are sealed or bound in the holy order of matrimony for all eternity. Parents not previously sealed may bring their children to these rooms, that the family may be bound together for eternity by the power of the Holy Priesthood.

But what of the families who are dead? May husbands and wives who have departed this life be brought together again even though death has broken their marriage bonds? May marriages which were performed “until death should them part” be renewed on some eternal and everlasting basis? May dead children in some way be given back to their parents who are also dead so that families may be united again in the hereafter?

The power which binds on earth and in heaven is effective both in this life and in the life to come. It provides the necessary ordinances for the living and the dead. As it extends the redeeming power of baptism to those who live “according to God in the spirit,” so it provides the sealing ordinances of marriage for the dead also, the living officiating in behalf of their departed loved ones.

Who may perform these vicarious works? May anyone participate?

Again, the Lord’s house is a house of order. There is no confusion with God. That it might be done in order, it is ordained that every man and woman may perform this labor of love for their own departed relatives.

But how can this be done? Let us ask in reply, who knows the dead better than the blood relatives of the dead? Who has a greater interest in them? Who is more anxious to assist them?

But how can this assistance be given? By every family preparing its own genealogies to provide the identification needed to perform the ordinances of the dead. Properly performed ordinances for properly identified persons are acceptable to the Lord. He provides that all such work be done in a house especially built for the purpose. Such houses are called temples.

Why do Latter-day Saints build temples? That in them they may receive those sealing blessings for themselves and perform for their kindred the vicarious baptisms and sealings which will permit them in the words of Peter to “live according to God in the spirit” and yet be judged according to the opportunities and standards of men in the flesh.

In discussing this subject at one time the Prophet Joseph Smith taught his people: “There must, however, be a place built expressly for that purpose, and for men to be baptized for the dead; … for every man who wishes to save his father, mother, brothers, sisters and friends, must go through all the ordinances for each one of them separately, the same as for himself.” (History of the Church, 6:318–20.)

But how was such a work as this started in modern times? What is its further background?

One of the great biblical prophecies tells of a modern mission of the ancient Prophet Elijah who, it is declared, should come to the earth in the last days before the “great and dreadful day of the Lord.” His coming was so important, says the scripture, that if it failed the whole earth would be smitten with a curse.

Malachi records the prophecy in the last few words of his book. It reads as follows:

“Behold I will send you Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the Lord:

“And he shall turn the heart of the fathers to the children, and the heart of the children to their fathers, lest I come and smite the earth with a curse.” (Mal. 4:5–6.)

Malachi plainly outlines the mission of Elijah—to establish a bond of interest between present and past generations, to “turn the hearts of the children to their fathers.” In other words, the precise purpose of Elijah’s coming was to create in the hearts of living men and women an interest in their ancestors.

With the purpose of his mission so definitely established by scripture, it remains but to determine whether he has yet come. To do so we must merely answer this question:

Is there a recently developed and widespread interest among living persons regarding their forefathers?

If by investigation we find no such interest, we may take it for granted that Elijah has not yet come. On the other hand, if we discover the presence of widespread genealogical activity, we may accept it as direct evidence that he has come.

It is obvious from the scripture that there should be no general interest in ancestry prior to the Prophet’s coming, for he was to originate it.

From this we may know that if the results of his mission are here, he has come, his work has been launched, and the prophecy has been fulfilled.

What are the facts in the case?

The genealogical interest is here. It is of modern origin and is so widespread that it has turned the hearts of living persons toward their forefathers in nearly every nation in the western world.

Several hundred societies, formed for the express purpose of preparing human pedigrees, have been organized in recent years.

Private individuals by the hundreds of thousands are engaged in a search for the records of their ancestors. Patriotic and hereditary societies have been formed by the score in which eligibility for membership is based upon proof of descent from some honored statesman, soldier, or pioneer.

There are many genealogical magazines in publication in various nations, and some newspapers of wide circulation have run genealogical columns.

Large libraries have been established in various nations devoted exclusively to genealogical material and family history.

In England, France, Germany, Sweden, Denmark, Norway, Scotland, and other European countries, governments have required the preservation of genealogical data and in many cases set up archives for this purpose.

Now Elijah, whose coming created this interest was destined by prophecy to appear in the latter days, “before the great and dreadful day of the Lord.” In a temple constructed by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints at Kirtland, Ohio, Elijah made a glorious appearance to mortal men on April 3, 1836. He there committed to Joseph Smith the Mormon Prophet and Oliver Cowdery powers from on high. In this visitation he declared that he had come in fulfillment of the words of Malachi, to turn the hearts of the children to their fathers—in other words to create in the hearts of mortal men this genealogical interest in their hearts.

Is there any evidence that Elijah appeared?

Every genealogical society, library, and magazine; every genealogical record; every name on each page of every pedigree and every individual in the United States and other nations who is engaged in seeking after his dead is a physical witness that Elijah came, because each indicates the fulfillment of that prophet’s mission “to turn the hearts of the children to their fathers” as foretold by Malachi.

The results of his mission are all about us. The evidence is conclusive. There is no room for doubt. Elijah has come. One of the greatest of the prophecies has been fulfilled. It is one of the most convincing of the signs of all times, testifying that the great and dreadful day of the Lord is near.

But not only does this vast genealogical interest testify to the truth of Elijah’s coming, it also gives equal testimony to the divine calling of men to whom he made his modern appearance. It declares in indisputable truth that the men who received Elijah in that temple in Kirtland were chosen of the Almighty and that the work they instituted with the assistance of Elijah was heaven-inspired.

Through the revelations of God, and empowered by angelic ministry, they organized The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and gave to the world in its purity the gospel of Christ. They received ordination to the priesthood from John the Baptist and Peter, James, and John, and with that power they preached anew the gospel in its restored simplicity.

They preached the purpose of Elijah’s coming and the reason behind his turning the hearts of the children to their fathers.

They taught that this genealogical interest has a definite place in the plan of salvation, a direct relationship to the fundamentals of the Christian religion.

So we have great twofold activity in the earth as a result of Elijah’s modern mission. On the one hand there is worldwide activity in the preparation of family histories and pedigrees, providing the necessary identification for those who have lived on the earth and are now dead.

On the other hand is the intense activity of the members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in building temples and performing in them the sacred ordinances of the gospel that all who come unto Christ may be saved in his kingdom.

This temple work could not be done without the identification provided through this worldwide genealogical research. The two activities go hand in hand to accomplish the work of the Lord as it was instituted by the Prophet Joseph Smith and is now carried on by his people.

This is why the Mormons build Temples.

Pictures copyright by the Corporation of the President, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Oakland Temple, California. (© LDS.)

Ogden Temple, Utah. (© LDS.)

Provo Temple, Utah. (© LDS.)

Washington Temple, Washington D.C. (© LDS.)

Tokyo Temple, Japan. (© LDS.)

Sao Paulo Temple, Brazil. (© LDS.)

Seattle Temple, Washington. (© LDS.)

Samoa Temple, Western Samoa. (© LDS.)

Jordan River Temple, Utah. (© LDS.)

Chandelier and mirrors in marriage and sealing room in the Sao Paulo Temple. (© LDS.)

Los Angeles Temple world room, California. (© LDS.)

Los Angeles Temple creation room, California. (© LDS.)

Altar in the terrestrial room in the Manti Temple, Utah. (© LDS.)

Patron’s dressing room in Tokyo Temple. (© LDS.)

Cafeteria in Tokyo Temple. (© LDS.)