The Temple and the Atonement
Truman G. Madsen
Abridged from a lecture delivered in Saratoga, California, October 16, 1994.
We have been in Israel on and off, for nearly six-and-a-half years. It was evocative in ways I cannot put in words. We came daily, my wife and I, for two years to that magnificent building on Mount Scopus, the Jerusalem Center, your center. We walked into an office which is all glass on the west side and looked out early in the morning upon descending gold, because as the sun rises it strikes the taller buildings first and then moves down. Golden Jerusalem, the place of the most ancient temple and the place of the great future temple.
Having been associated with BYU for three decades, I have had the privilege of knowing and for a period even being next door in an office building to a young man named Hugh Nibley. You may have heard that name. As you look at the materials in the foyer, you will see his name prominently. Part of the great mission of FARMS is to see that all this man has written is pulled together in collected works—fifteen volumes so far.
If there is a major preoccupation in his life, certainly over the last twenty to twenty-five years, it has been the temple. His task has been to study world ritual, to look at ceremony as it relates to temples all over the world, going as far back as possible in antiquity.
Experience has taught me that this man loves what he is writing about. We occasionally have the opportunity to go to the temple with him and even to have a word or two with him afterward over a meal or sometimes within the temple itself. He is always focused and full of concentration during that experience. Someone said to me, "It's probably written in memory, so he could practically go to sleep and still get through it." He doesn't do that. He listens and he comes out as ebullient, joyous, and radiant as a child would be after the morning of Christmas. He is proof that there are depths beyond depths, insights beyond insights, glories beyond glories in the temple, which many of us have not yet plumbed.
Now go with me to a place called Kirtland, Ohio, and recall that on one occasion when the people are asking "Why, O why when we hardly have enough for hominy and milk do we have to build a temple? What is a temple? And why at such great cost?" At one point the prophet replied, "The Angel Gabriel couldn't explain it to you now. But have faith and continue and the Lord will make it plain."1 Well, according to the late Elder John A. Widtsoe, the cost of that building, using the measuring rod of the widow's mite—what they had proportional to what they gave—the Kirtland Temple cost more per capita than any building in American religious history. An unprecedented sacrifice! That sacrifice was met, as you all know, with an unprecedented outpouring of the Lord's Spirit.
They actually met in the temple, and as they put it, "waited on the Lord" at candlelight all night. I have found no record of anyone falling asleep. There was such a jubilee of feeling close to the Lord and being filled with joy that the people went from house to house to visit each other. They would share their experiences. Then they would give blessings to each other. One of them wrote in his journal that he thought the Millennium had come. He thought all temptation and all trial was past, even the desire for sin.2 The prophet had to stand up on one occasion and say, in effect, "Brothers and sisters, this is all of God, but the opposite will come. There will be new onslaughts of trial." To the twelve he said specifically, "God will feel after you, and He will take hold of you and wrench your very heart strings, and, if you cannot stand it you will not be fit for an inheritance in the Celestial Kingdom of God."3
That was all too prophetic. You know the sequel. Within months there were new seeds of apostasy and bitterness: the failure of the Kirtland bank and the assigning of blame. One-half of those who were at the time faithful fell away. One-half of the Council of the Twelve—six men—apostatized. Of the remaining six, four had times of trouble and disaffection. The wrench came. After great tribulations, our scriptures tell us, come the blessings. On the other side of that, after great blessings come further trials. That's the nature of life. You can all testify from your own experience.
So after that sacrifice they were driven out. They tried three different times in Missouri to dedicate places for temples, but they were never able to get a shovel into the ground to start building. The prophet Joseph made a special trip to the very center, Independence, and dedicated land there. They dedicated Adam-ondi-Ahman for a temple. They dedicated a site in Far West. Not until Nauvoo, after having been through the crucible again, were they able to undertake the actual construction of the temple. That one took all the people's time and energies for nearly three years. How long was it actually used? Less than six weeks after its formal dedication. And it cost about a million dollars. Genuine sacrifice!
How could the Prophet have led them to make this tremendous sacrifice for just six weeks? That temple was ripped as it were from its roots, destroyed by fire and then a cyclone. When they came across the plains to the alkali soil of the West (you know the story), Brigham with his cane said, "Here we will build a temple of our God." Yes, it's there. It took forty years of building. Three other temples were finished before it was.
Why all this?
Some glimpses: Do you realize that the Prophet in one temple sermon in Nauvoo was addressing a woman, a mother, who had been bereft of her son through death? He said to her, "You shall have glad tidings today." This sister believed the scripture that talks about rebirth, that there is no access to the kingdom of God except through baptism. Her child had not been baptized. And the Prophet introduced the principle of baptism for the (we always say) dead. But there are no dead. Those who are in the spirit world are very much alive, in fact perhaps more alive than we are. "This is your privilege: You can go into the waters of baptism for your loved ones." He added another phrase, "and for those whom we have much friendship for."4
The instant reaction to that sermon was that people rushed down to the Mississippi (the temple wasn't finished, and the font wasn't finished), and began baptisms for about a hundred people. No witnesses, no records, women were baptized for men, men for women, and the Prophet literally had to run down to the river and say, "Wait, wait, we have to do this in order."5
It is the desire I want to describe. Do you care about those you truly love? Do you want to bring to them the same blessings you have received? Of course.
There is much more. The prophet taught in a sermon in Nauvoo that "we need the temple more than we need anything else."6 Why?
The following verses in section 84 of our Doctrine and Covenants help provide the answer. They tell of Moses and about how he tried and tried in vain for forty years to prepare the children of Israel to go with him up onto the mountain, so to speak, and to have face-to-face communion with God. He failed. Tradition says Moses became unworthy of the Jewish people, the Israelites. Our scriptures say just the opposite. They became unworthy of him. The Lord swore in his wrath, so it says, that they should not enter into his rest while in the wilderness. Entering into his rest doesn't mean cessation of all activities. It means the rest that comes to your soul when you get out of the spiritual wilderness and are able to know and commune with the living God. Moses was taken out of their midst, says the passage, and the holy priesthood also.
Verses 20—21 say, "In [that higher priesthood and in] the ordinances thereof, the power of godliness is manifest [unto man (including women) in the flesh]. And without the ordinances thereof, and the authority of the priesthood, the power of godliness is not manifest unto man in the flesh." A categorical statement.
Whatever the powers of godliness are, they come to us in the flesh through ordinances and in no other way. The highest ordinances are the ordinances of the house of God. All else is preparatory to them. So, the Prophet taught, it was not Moses with the higher priesthood, but Joshua with the lesser priesthood who crossed the Jordan and went into the promised land. Moses remained on Mount Nebo.
History repeats itself. The prophet Joseph Smith yearned with his whole soul to be the modern Joshua and lead at least the first company of Saints to sanctuary, to "the mountain of the Lord's house" which he had prophesied would one day be. He was denied that privilege in part because his own people could not believe he was a prophet when he said "all they want is me and my brother Hyrum, they won't touch you, they won't a hair of your heads." They were not fully worthy of the Prophet, as the ancients were not. But the Prophet did live to confer upon the Twelve all of these higher ordinances in late March 1844. The temple wasn't finished, so it was done in the upper room of his store. 7 In a meeting which was certainly the most important summary meeting of his life, he conferred everything—keys, authorities, powers—and then commissioned Brigham Young and Wilford Woodruff to see that these truths were systematized and eventually presented as they are in the temple. He then told those twelve men that upon them now rested the charge to lead the Saints to what they needed the most and eventually to prepare the whole world for temples, the privilege of communion with the living God, every man and every woman. Wilford Woodruff said fifty years later, "That charge is still ringing in my ears." They did it. You and I are the blessed recipients.
Aside from work for those we love and aside from our own privileges, brothers and sisters, the temple is a place of learning and the only place for some kinds of learning that go directly to our spirits, to our core, to our very depths. "A house of learning" says section 88. One who has written brilliantly about this is the late Elder John A. Widtsoe. Born in Norway in the last century (and born incidentally with his hand attached to his head, requiring a delicate surgical operation), he was told in a patriarchal blessing as a mere boy, "Thou shalt have great faith in the ordinances of the Lord's house." He became the author of what was then the Temple Index Bureau, updated now with computers. He became one of the leading directors of the Genealogical Society of Utah. He became a member of the Council of the Twelve. In an article titled "Temple Worship," he says, "The endowment is so richly symbolic that only a fool would attempt to describe it; it is so packed full of revelations to those who exercise their strength to seek and see, that no human words can explain or make clear the possibilities. . . . the endowment which was given by revelation can best be understood by revelation."8
Thus we may come to know the mysteries of godliness. Mystery is a word that we use negatively, usually for things that don't matter and are presently beyond our ken. Such mysteries we are counseled to avoid. In contrast, "the mysteries of godliness" are, we know from modern scholarship, the ordinances of godliness. "O, I beseech you," says Joseph Smith, "go forward and search deeper and deeper into the mysteries of godliness."9 It is a commandment. Where are we to search? In the house of God. Why there? Because the temple is dedicated to that purpose, because there we make covenants to be true to what we understand, not just learning out of curiosity but absorbing into our souls what we most need to understand. And there we covenant to keep these sacred things sacred.
Joseph Smith wrote from Liberty Jail, "The things of God are of deep import and time and experience and careful and ponderous and solemn thoughts can only find them out. Thy mind O man if thou wilt lead a soul into salvation must search into and contemplate the darkest abyss and the broad expanse of eternity, thou must commune with God."10 He had time and experience and careful and ponderous and solemn thoughts in that jail, for he yearned for the same privilege within the sanctuary. He was denied it. He did not live to see the Nauvoo Temple finished. "O Lord," he said in one of his prayers, "If I can only live to see the temple finished, then I will say, it is enough. "11 But it didn't happen.
Parley P. Pratt dedicated a cornerstone of the Salt Lake Temple. He talked about communion with those who are beyond. "There are," he said, "peepings and mutterings and superstitions and Halloween kinds of activities in the world. But then there is authentic, intimate, revelatory experience with those who are tied to us by family ties and by the sacrifices they have made in their lives for us." Now, perhaps according to covenant, we are here to respond by doing in the temple what we can do for them.
Asked about the spirit world, the prophet Joseph replied, "Enveloped in flaming fire [he's talking about disembodied spirits], they are not far from us. They know our thoughts, motions, and feelings and are often pained therewith."12 Elsewhere he says they are likewise often rejoiced therewith: "The heavens weep for joy."13 They are not idle spectators. Somehow there are laws that enable them to have some influence upon us and we upon them. In the temple these laws are fulfilled. Parley P. Pratt taught that for the pure in heart, "soul meets soul, thought meets thought, love meets love."14
We do not comprehend what a blessing to them these ordinances are. In the resurrection, Joseph taught Horace Cummings, they will fall at the feet of those who have done their work, kiss their feet, embrace their knees, and manifest the most exquisite gratitude.
Wilford Woodruff who dedicated the Salt Lake Temple taught that "there will be few if any who will not receive the ordinances of the temple when they are performed for them."15 Elder John W. Taylor, while attending the Manti Temple dedication, concluded that only one in ten would refuse the ordinances. He added, "how many who are kept in prison are not ready to come out?"16
What an assurance, when I go with my wife through a magnificent, two-hour experience in the temple, that we may have brought two converts into the kingdom of God. In two hours!
With Wilford Woodruff I testify that this work can only be understood by the spirit of revelation. "There is nothing made known," said Joseph Smith, speaking of the day he taught the Twelve the ordinances of the temple, "but will be made known to all saints of the last days as soon as they are prepared to receive."17 But, know this, he said, they are only to be received by the spiritually-minded.
The temple is also the most practical of places. Melvin J. Ballard taught that each one of us should be willing to take to the temple our worst problems, and he was talking about hard, down-to-earth, even physical problems. You pray, you fast. But if you don't get your answer, he said, I'll tell what to do: go to the house of the Lord, and in the silence of those precincts, as you are serving others, the Lord will bless you.18 Similarly, as a soil chemist, John A. Widtsoe reports a laborious struggle trying to draw a mountain of data together and make it applicable. It did not work. He finally called his wife. "Let's go to the temple and forget the failure." In the temple it came. That resulted in two books and in a revolution in agrarian practice. I know people who have had the most wrenching soul trials, like in my own life when my brother went down in a plane crash. I know for myself and for them that the place of the most tangible comfort is the house of the Lord.
When Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery were at the pulpit at the east end of the Kirtland Temple, they heard from the Lord himself the words, "Behold, I have accepted this house, and my name shall be here; and I will manifest myself to my people in mercy in this house. . . . and this is the beginning of the blessing which shall be poured out upon the heads of my people" (D&C 110:7,10).
Notice "my name shall be here." Solomon plead for that when he dedicated the ancient temple. What does it mean? There are depths beyond depths. You are required as disciples of Christ to come once in seven days and covenant anew to take upon you the name of Jesus Christ. In the house of the Lord you come to take upon you his name in the fullest sense. Why all the emphasis on fullness? Well there is a promise that we will one day have a fullness of truth. That is temple-related. We are promised the fullness of the Holy Ghost. Joseph Smith prayed for that at the Kirtland Temple dedication. And we are promised within the temple the fullness of the priesthood.
Likewise, we are promised that in the temple the Lord's name will be put upon us. It means at root that we become his. The answer to "Who am I?" can never be complete unless it answers "Whose am I?" You are the son or daughter of a king. The Father himself. Through the ordinances you are begotten spiritually through his Son. You become heir to his throne. That is a worldly way of saying it. But it is true. An old Jewish proverb says that the worst thing the evil inclination can ever do to you is to make you forget that you are the son or daughter of a king. I don't know how you can forget that in the temple. You take his name.
To receive him fully is to receive the fullness of his atonement. Think about it—the at-one-ment that Jesus Christ wrought by the shedding of his own blood. The atonement was, and is, to enable us to overcome through his grace and healing power three things: Ignorance, sin, and death. Hence I often say the temple is a matter of life and death.
"A man cannot be saved in ignorance." This passage refers to a specific kind of ignorance. The preceding verse is talking about sealing, about coming to know by revelation through the power of the Holy Priesthood not only that Jesus is the Christ, but also that a relationship has been forged between you and Jesus Christ. It is a testimony that there is light at the end of the tunnel, that he is making you his. How do you come to know that? I can only tell you that the promise does pertain to the temple. And we may come to a like testimony about temple sealings to our progenitors and our children.
The Savior said that he came that men might have life, and have it more abundantly. Life, abundant life, is pluralized in the teachings of Joseph Smith as "eternal lives."
You are all alive in several ways and to certain degrees. You are alive intellectually; you think, you study, you teach. There is, no matter what else we do each day, the life of the mind. Then there is the life of the heart. The word in Hebrew is leb, "heart," the inmost throbbing center. A hard heart is different than a malleable, tender heart. Christ's heart is tender. Those who come to him feeling mercy and gratitude for his mercy are tenderized in the very center of their being.
We seek life in another way. It is the creative life. It is lodged in the cry of ancient Israelite fathers and mothers: "Give me children, or I die." This is the life of creation and procreation.
I testify that in the house of the Lord all three of these modes of life are enhanced and magnified and increased. Therein we are promised that whatever our age or the decline and disabilities that we experience here, we will one day enter in at the gate to eternal lives. On that day of renewal, we will emerge into a celestial condition, into the "fulness of the glory of the Father." There the glorious privilege of priesthood, parenthood, and godhood come together as one. There will be the reunion of the separated forever. As this is the crowning ordinance of the house of God, it is also the crowning truth of the gospel.
Brother Brigham Young was once approached by two sisters, each of whom wanted a divorce. I paraphrase his response: "If you could only see your husband as he will be in the glorious resurrection, this very husband you now say you despise, your first impulse would be to kneel and worship him." He said the same thing to husbands who had "fallen out of love" with their wives. Those are mighty words.
That leads me to the main and final point. I haven't yet used the expression "fullness of love." Consider this passage in section 88.
For intelligence cleaveth unto intelligence; wisdom receiveth wisdom; truth embraceth truth; virtue loveth virtue; light cleaveth unto light; mercy hath compassion on mercy and claimeth her own; justice continueth its course and claimeth its own; judgment goeth before the face of him who sitteth upon the throne and governeth and executeth all things.
Only the virtuous know true love.
In religious tradition much is said and even canonized about how God is "absolutely other." Not one sentence you can utter about human being applies in any way whatever to God; God must be absolutely different, say they, or we could not love and worship him. Joseph Smith died to get back in the world the truth that we are in fact in the image of God. In fact. That means that as a statue exactly resembles the person it represents, so man exactly resembles the nature of the Father and the Son. That's the great and glorious secret. Man and woman are theomorphic; they are in the form of God. That is the foundation of divine-human love.
In some patterns of worship, it is thought that the way to convey proper relationships to God is to cultivate darkness, magnify distance, use only the kinds of music, or words, or ceremonial procedure which invoke awe and even irrational fear. The testimony of the restored temple is that God the Father and his Son Jesus Christ yearn not to widen that gap, but to close it. In the house of the Lord we may come to him in light, in intimacy, and in holy embrace. And he will, I quote again from the prophet, "manifest himself in mercy in his house." That is love.
I testify, speaking as one who had to be converted to this, the temple is many things: a house of faith, a house of study, a house of learning, a house of order, a house of prayer, a house of fasting, a house of glory. But surrounding all of those, it is a house of love. None of us receives enough love in this world, none of us. We're all in a measure love-starved and love-anxious. The Father and the Son call us to come in the spirit of sacrifice and be surrounded by that holy environment which embraces us in love.
Remember that Jesus looked out, "O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, how oft I would have gathered you, as a hen gathereth her chicks and ye would not." He repeated those words to the Nephites, using three tenses: I have gathered you, I would have gathered you (speaking of those who were wiped away in a terrible earthquake), and I will gather you.
I suggest to you that here is another symbolic allusion to the temple. The wings of a mother hen are intimate, and protective, and warm. In 3 Nephi the Savior adds another phrase about the hen and her wandering chicks: "I would have nourished you." The Jews speak of the temple as the navel, the emphallos, of the earth, the very place that heaven brings nutriment to earth. Jesus wept because he had been unable to gather his people. Modern revelation tells us he wanted to gather them in order to bring them into his sanctuary and reveal to them and pour out upon them the glories of his temple. But they would not. They hated their own blood. Our generation is slipping more and more into the same mud.
I have stood on the Mount of Olives. There came down on me a prophetic and anticipatory sense. A day will come when he will descend in like manner as he once ascended from that very mount. Angels heralded his birth into the world. So I speculate that a choir welcomed him home. We have been promised that some of us may be present to welcome him as he descends. We will sing a new song. He has already given us the words. Inspired knowledge and maybe even memory will enable us to sing to his glory on that occasion The very touch of his foot, his glorified and celestial foot, will change the world and eventually the whole human family. A temple will be in place by then, perhaps more than one. There and elsewhere, worthy people will recognize him and glory in his presence. This time there will be no tears except tears of joy.
I testify that this is true. I testify that temples have been built by the sacrifice of our friends and loved ones to enable us to reach them as well as the deepest part of ourselves. Beyond that I testify that in the house of the Lord, he, the Lord himself will manifest himself in mercy and in love and give us the fullness of those blessings we all earnestly yearn for. In the name of Jesus Christ, amen.
1. TPJS, 91.
2. Daniel Tyler, Scraps of Biography, 32-33.
3. John Taylor, JD, 24:264.
4. TPJS, 367.
5. Discourse of Brigham Young, 6 April 1845, Church Historical Department.
6. Journal History, 4 March 1844.
7. TPJS, 237; HC, 5:2.
8. Utah Genealogical and Historical Magazine (April 1921).
9. TPJS, 364.
10. HC, 3 295; TPJS, 137.
11. Words of Joseph Smith, ed. Cook and Ehat, 418.
12. TPJS, 324.
13. Ibid., 232.
14. Key to Theology, 120.
15. Discourses of Wilford Woodruff, ed. G. Homer Durham, 158.
16. St. George Historical Record, 1864-1902.
17. TPJS, 149.
18. Utah Genealogical and Historical Magazine (October 1932)