Book Review: The Ancient Order of Things: Essays on the Mormon Temple

Title: The Ancient Order of Things: Essays on the Mormon Temple
Editor: Christian Larsen Published by: Signature Books in 2019
Number of Pages: 280
Binding: Paperback
ISBN: 978-1-56085-279-7
Price: 18.95

I have never known enough about professional football to collect a winning Fantasy Football Team, however, I read a *lot* of Mormon Studies essays, and if I were going to collect a winning “fantasy Temple Essays team”, it would look like “The Ancient Order of Things: Essays on the Mormon Temple”, edited by Christian Larsen and published by Signature Books. 

“Ancient Order” collects ten essays by eleven authors from ten issues of academic journals that were printed over the last quarter of century.  These articles represent the best academic work that has been written on the history of the Mormon Temple over the last twenty-five years. The included authors are: Devery S. Anderson, Kathleen Flake, Ryan G. Tobler, Richard E. Bennett, Tonya Reiter, Brian H. Stuy, R. Jean Addams, Christin Craft Mackay and Lachlan Mackay, Melvin C. Johnson, and John Charles Duffy. Physically, “Ancient Order” a great little book, it is solidly made for a paperback, and it is very reasonably priced.

In his introduction Larsen writes:

The Temple as a locus of power has had implications not only for church leadership, but for the rank-and-file member as well.  While it has acted as a rigorous sieve, regulating orthodoxy according to the pronouncements of church leadership, the temple has also served as one of the most dynamic sites of personal agency for the individual believer (p. vii).

This is an excellent observation by Larsen and each of the essays that he has selected for “Ancient Order” explains in some way how the temple acts as a “locus of power” or as a “dynamic site of personal agency.” I’ll touch on a few of the things that I loved from the essays in this book and give some brief descriptions of what a reader will find in this volume.

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Joseph Smith’s Red Brick Store. Site where the first endowments were given and frequent meeting place of the Anointed Quorum

If you are curious about the origins of the Mormon endowment, if you have heard of the “Anointed Quorum” and wondered what it was, what it did, and who was in it, the most important thing that you can read on the subject is the work of Devery Anderson. His essay “The Anointed Quorum in Nauvoo, 1842–45,” is absolutely amazing and a “must read” on the subject. 

Kathleen Flake is a fantastic author, if you have not read her books or essays you are missing out.  Her essay “‘Not to be Riten’ The Mormon Temple Rite as Oral Canon” has so much depth I could write an entire review on all of the cool things that I have learned in multiple readings of this essay.  To whet your appetite, in her essay Flake explains how in the temple “Latter-day Saints ‘go up’ to the primordial hill to be taught the law which orders them within  the cosmos,” and “the LDS temple ceremony can be said to constitute the most complete expression of the Church’s canon…it is offered as a unique law by which time and space are to be transcended, and, thus, it is believed to be timeless, even unchanged from the beginning of time” (p. 28). The rest of her essay provides great detail on what this means. 

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Before the Endowment House was completed in Salt Lake City in 1855, the upstairs of the Council House, which also housed governmental offices, is where most of the Salt Lake City Endowments were performed

Ryan Tobler’s essay, “‘Saviors on Mount Zion’”: Mormon Sacramentalism, Mortality, and Baptism for the Dead,” is the longest essay in the book and will give you a whole new understanding of the rite of Baptism for the dead.  Richard Bennett’s essay “‘The Upper Room’: The Nature and Development of Latter-day Saint Temple Work, 1846–55,” is a very engaging piece on a period of history that is often overlooked in the development of Mormon temple worship: the years in-between the time that the temple in Nauvoo was lost and before the endowment house in Salt lake was completed. 

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Jane Manning James and early Black Latter-day Saint who plead multiple times for the right to do temple work

In his introductory essay Larsen explains that, “Unfortunately, the temple has also sometimes fallen short of (the) vision (set out for it)” and has “alienated (and) disempowered” or excluded certain members (p. ix). In “Black Saviors on Mount Zion: Proxy Baptisms and the Latter-day Saints of African Descent,” Tonya Retier poignantly tells the story of how Black Latter-day Saints were systemically excluded from the Mormon priesthood and temple rites but still persisted in seeking these blessings and joyously partook of the few scraps that they were given. Her essay describes how over the years Black Latter-day Saints were given the opportunity to be baptized for their dead, then had the right to do that taken and instead white proxies did the work for them, then they had the right given back, then called into question, then given back again.  It was painful to read about how these Black Latter-day Saints were treated but inspiring to read about how they persisted.  It was also very troubling to learn that the record of their temple work was recorded by Brigham Young in a separate book ledger book because, “The pages that recorded Black baptisms were set apart as if they, as well as the participants, were tainted with the curse of Cain” (p. 140).   

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A Ticket for the Salt Lake Temple Dedication

Brian Stuy’s “‘Come, Let Us Go Up to the Mountain of the Lord’: The Salt Lake Temple Dedication,” covers in fine detail the dedication ceremonies and associated events of the dedication of the Salt Lake temple.  R Jean Addams, “A Contest for ‘Sacred Space,’” explores the legal wrangling’s and battles between Granville Hedrick and his “Hedrickites” and Joseph Smith III and the Reorganized Church as they argued over who had the rights and succession to the original Jackson County Temple site dedicated and made sacred by Joseph Smith in the early 1830’s and who would be allowed to build a temple there. 

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An Early photo of the Kirtland Temple

The Kirtland Temple has been the source of many myths and rumors over the years, with a number of them being about the time period between when most of the early Latter Day Saints[i] left Kirtland in 1838 and when the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter day Saints took legal possession of the temple in 1880. One particularly infamous rumor was articulated in a well-known talk given by Truman Madsen at BYU Education Week in 1978 and was later widely circulated on tape and compact disc. According to Madsen:

 The end of what happened with the Kirtland Temple is that it was turned by its enemies, some of them under the direction of John Boynton who had become a bitter apostate, it was turned into a barn. A kind of platform was built so that cattle and swine could be herded into it the very pulpits, including that special pulpit which Truman O Angell built with such care, were filled with hay and straw.[ii]

Christin and Lachlan Mackay address these myths of what was happening in Kirtland in one of my favorite essays in the collection, “A Time of Transition: The Kirtland Temple, 1838–80.”  They don’t waste time setting things straight.  At the end of their first paragraph they write, “Contrary to popular belief, the temple was not forgotten by the various Latter Day Saint churches during this period” (p. 201). What follows is an all too brief but very fascinating fourteen pages on the history of the Kirtland temple during that time period. 

Artist rendering of Lyman Wight settlement of Zodiac Texas c 1850 by Kim Wells Greening

I have to be honest; Mel Johnson is one of my favorite authors and a friend.  But even without that personal connection I would have loved his essay, “‘So We Built a Good Little Temple to Worship In’: Mormonism on the Pedernales–Texas, 1847–51.” If you have not read Mel’s book or this article than everything that you think that you know about the first Mormon temple built west of the Mississippi is wrong because you don’t even know where it was built! Lyman Wight was one of Joseph Smith’s most trusted disciples and was given a mission to go to Texas and settle some Mormons there. When Smith was killed Wight rejected Brigham Young and continued his mission to Texas.  This mission became a settlement that included building a temple and performing ordinances there.  In this engrossing article Johnson tells the story of the Wightite colony and their temple.[iii]

The final essay is John-Charles Duffy’s, “‘To Cover Your Nakedness’ the Body, Sacred Secrecy, and Institutional Power in the Initiatory.” Duffy’s essay concludes “Ancient Order” with an in depth exploration into the uses and meanings of ritual nudity in the Mormon temple and of people’s reactions to it.  It is a fascinating, well documented, and important article that much like Reiter’s essay seriously discusses an aspect of the temple that while sacred for some, was seriously alienating for many others.  It is an essay that needs to be read, reread, and contemplated deeply. 

I only have one minor criticism for “Ancient Order”.  While some of the essays were written recently[iv] and others explicitly state that they have been updated for this volume[v], there are four essays from the mid 90’s to early 2000’s that do not read as if they have been updated. While this is not a major concern for the content of these essays, there are three instances in particular where I think that some minor updates to the essays or their footnotes could have strengthened this volume.  Anderson’s “Anointed Quorum” is one of my favorite essays in this volume, I have read it several times over the years.  It is THE essay to read on the Anointed Quorum, its activities, and the beginning of Mormon Temple worship; written by THE expert on the Quorum who literally wrote not just the book, but the *series* on the subject[vi]. But since the essay was written, the Joseph Smith Papers Project has made available the “Council of Fifty, Minutes, March 1844–January 1846”[vii]. These minutes were not available to Anderson (or anyone) when his essay was written and I would love to know if or how these records would change the content or conclusions of Anderson’s essay.  Were some of the meetings previously assumed to be of the “Anointed Quorum” really meetings of “The Fifty”? Does this make a difference? What have we learned about these bodies and their relationship to the beginning of Mormon Temple worship that was not known in 2003? I would have loved to see this addressed in Anderson’s article with the new information that was available.

The second essay that is particularly affected is “A Time of Transition: The Kirtland Temple, 1838–80,” by Mackay and Mackay. They quote extensively from Joseph Smith and “The History of the Church” and they cite Dean Jesse’s aborted “Papers of Joseph Smith” series form the early 1990’s.  If these references were updated to reference the more available or more accurate Joseph Smith Papers volumes, OR to reference Signatures own eight volume “History of Joseph Smith” I think that would have been beneficial for readers if “Ancient Order.”  I have one final little quibble that I found amusing. In “The Upper Room” Richard Bennett cites Melvin Johnson about his evidence that Lyman Wight built the first Mormon temple west of the Mississippi (see p. 102). The accompanying footnote mentions Johnson’s book “Polygamy on the Pedernales” (which Bennett all ready mentioned in his text) BUT missed the opportunity to cite Johnson’s essay on that subject in this very book.

I’m not usually a fan of “Essay Collection” books because I prefer a deep dive into a subject and most books of this style only get your ankles wet before they move on, but “Ancient Order” really won me over. Larsen chose the essays in this collection wisely; they complement and build on each other well and give an excellent overview of the history and doctrine of Mormon temple worship.  In his introduction Larsen states that, “This volume seeks to capture the power of the Mormon temple from a historical perspective, both in the context of its time and in the lives of those who worshipped there” (pp. ix-x). Larsen was successful in his goal, “Ancient Order” does capture that power and give that perspective.  Anyone who reads this book will come away educated and informed and have enough information on each subject area represented by the collection to be able to continue their studies if they so desire. 

“The Ancient Order of Things” is Larsen’s first book and as far as I am concerned, he knocked it out of the park (yeah, I know, I’m mixing my metaphors).  Larsen has given Mormon Studies an amazing little book and I look forward to more quality publications from him in the years to come.

[i] Christin Craft and Lachlan Mackay belong to the Community of Christ.  Therefore, they use that denominations usage of no hyphen and a capital “D” when writing “Latter Day Saints”.

[ii] Madsen, Truman. “Joseph Smith Lecture 5: Joseph Smith and The Kirtland Temple.” Lecture originally given at BYU Education Week, 24 August 1978, released on tape in 1980 by Bookcraft and later on CD.  Recording available at (link should take you to timecode 41:40). Madsen did temper his wording a bit when he turned his lectures into a book. “Apostates took over the temple, and for thirty years or so it was used for both religious and community purposes. Having been abandoned at some stage, it was subjected not only to negliance and the dilapidation produced by time but also to vandalism and destructive pilfering. There is a suggestion too (though written evidence is scanty) of further pollution of that holy house by its sometime use as a shelter for livestock, stores of hay and straw being piled in the pulpit area where the Lord himself had appeared.” Joseph Smith the Prophet, p. 80.

[iii] Once you finish this article you will want to get the rest of the story in Mel Johnsons two full length books: “Polygamy on the Pedernales: Lyman Wight’s Mormon Village in Antebellum Texas,” USU Press, 2006 & “Life and Times of John Pierce Hawley: A Mormon Ulysses of the American West”, Kofford Books, 2019

[iv] Bennett, “The Upper Room” is from 2015; Reiter, “Black Saviors on Mount Zion” is from 2017

[v] Johnson, “Good Little Temple to Worship In”; Duffy, “To Cover Your Nakedness”

[vi] Devery Anderson edited “Joseph Smith’s Quorum of the Anointed, 1842-1845” (2005), “The Nauvoo Endowment Companies, 1845-1846” (2005), and “The Development of LDS Temple Worship, 1846-2000” (2011) all by Signature Books

[vii] Released in 2016


Book Review: The Ancient Order of Things: Essays on the Mormon Temple — 2 Comments

  1. Thanks for the review, Andrew. How does it compare overall to David John Buerger’s The Mysteries of Godliness: A History of Mormon Temple Worship (Smith Research Associates, 1994)? That, too, was a collection of essays rather than a unified book, although they were all by Buerger rather than various authors.

  2. Dave – SORRY! For some reason I managed to miss that there was a comment here! Both books are excellent. The difference is that where Buerger is focused on aspects of the endowment, including the second anointing, Larsen’s book focuses more on history and the subjects are a lot more varied. In Larsen’s book you get one essay on the history of Nauvoo, one on the history of the Kirtland temple, one on the Wight colony temple in Texas, one on Black experiences and the temple, etc.