The Doctrine of Temple Work


David E. Sorensen
The temple is a place of revelation, of inspiration, meditation, and peace—a place to restore ourselves, to clear our minds, to find answers to our prayers, and to enjoy the satisfaction of worship and service.

After I finished my military service as a young man, I returned to my parents’ home in central Utah, about 40 miles (65 kilometers) from the town of Manti. Not long before, plans had been announced for a small addition to the temple in Manti, and Church leaders were asking for volunteers to come help with that project. I signed up for a two-week shift, and soon I found myself swinging a pickaxe, breaking up boulders, and clearing rocks outside of the temple. The hot summer sun shone down on us all day long, and the work was physically harsh and mentally boring. A few times as I struggled to remove another rock, I wondered if perhaps I had been a little too hasty in responding to the call for volunteers.

As the days went by, though, I had a remarkable spiritual experience. Several times in the midst of that backbreaking labor, I heard and felt the Holy Ghost tell me that sometime in the future I would be involved in building other temples also. It was a very quiet but very clear feeling. At the time I was preparing to return to work on a cattle ranch, so it was not at all obvious to me how I might be involved in building temples, but I accepted that feeling as inspiration. Over the years I occasionally wondered about it, still uncertain about how it might come to pass, but very certain that the still, small voice had spoken those words to me.

For the past several years I have had the privilege of seeing that promise fulfilled in ways I never imagined as I have had the opportunity to work in the Temple Department during this exciting period of growth. I have seen firsthand President Gordon B. Hinckley’s commitment to bringing temples closer to more of the people of the world, and I share in his enthusiasm for the blessings that can come from the temple ordinances. President Hinckley said, “I urge our people everywhere, with all of the persuasiveness of which I am capable, to live worthy to hold a temple recommend, to secure one and regard it as a precious asset, and to make a greater effort to go to the house of the Lord and partake of the spirit and the blessings to be had therein.” 1 In this, President Hinckley is echoing prophets before him. For example, the Prophet Joseph Smith warned of the consequences when we fail to use the temples available to us: “Those Saints who neglect [temple work] in behalf of their deceased relatives, do it at the peril of their own salvation.” 2

Clearly the ordinances of the temple are of eternal significance, but they can also be challenging. I hope to offer some insights that may help members of the Church better understand the nature of temples and also to offer some reminders and practical advice on ways to prepare for temple worship.

The “Work” in “Temple Work”

Temple work is an act of service. The temple is a place where we have an opportunity to do something for others. In recent temple dedications President Hinckley has suggested we not focus so much on the personal benefits of attending the temple but rather focus on temple work as “work.” While the personal blessings resulting from temple attendance are numerous, we must not lose sight of the fact that it is work and requires commitment and duty.

Temple work is not unlike other types of service given in the Church, such as going on missions or home and visiting teachers providing emergency help for someone. Such acts of service typically cost us something and often require some sacrifice. Our prophet is inviting us to consider that same mode or attitude when we attend the temple. Our attendance should be for the giving of service rather than a selfish or self-centered act. The Savior said, “For whosoever will save his life shall lose it: but whosoever will lose his life for my sake, the same shall save it” (Luke 9:24).

If we go to the temple solely for ourselves, we may actually be short-circuiting access to maximum spiritual benefits. Think about the things we do when we attend the temple. Are they similar to or different from activities we typically call “work”? Often, work is difficult, challenging, and sometimes tedious; otherwise we might think of it as play. Work requires us to be engaged in the process. Perhaps, along these lines, if we are finding our temple attendance mainly a passive activity, we may not be gaining all we could.

An obvious example might be the difference between attending the temple as an ordinance worker versus as a patron. When working in the temple, an ordinance worker finds it really is work; from memorization to procedure, there is much to do. The result of this effort is that ordinance workers gain familiarity with the ordinances and have an opportunity to learn and grow even more. And as I discovered during my physical labors on the Manti temple as a young man, a willingness to work and serve can prepare our hearts to receive spiritual insights.

While the temple is certainly a place of refuge, a retreat to learn and understand ourselves, there may be even more benefit in going to the temple to actually do exacting, weighty, rigorous, demanding work. One of the benefits of having numerous temples is not only that more members can attend but that more members can serve as ordinance workers.

Furthermore, an attitude of service may help us see old things in a new light. Consider the parallels between the teaching patterns in the temple ordinances and the scripture parables. Both have multiple levels of meaning. Many of the parables the Savior taught were difficult to understand for most listeners. To some, they sounded trite and simple. For example, in the parables of the ten virgins, of the talents, of the lost sheep, of the widow and the unjust judge, or of the prodigal son, there is a story, a message that even a casual observer would perceive. But in plain sight, right there in the same stories, are tremendous truths that explain some of the central, fundamental principles of the kingdom. Similarly, the temple ordinances can have parts that seem simple, but for those with advanced spiritual eyes, deep insights are there for the taking.

Basic Doctrine for the Dead

A key function of temples is to perform ordinance work for our deceased ancestors. When we think of temple ordinances and the necessity to do them perfectly, without error, we think of this powerful scripture:

“You may think this order of things to be very particular; but let me tell you that it is only to answer the will of God, by conforming to the ordinance and preparation that the Lord ordained and prepared before the foundation of the world, for the salvation of the dead who should die without a knowledge of the gospel. …

“… For their salvation is necessary and essential to our salvation, as Paul says concerning the fathers—that they without us cannot be made perfect—neither can we without our dead be made perfect” (D&C 128:5, 15; see also Heb. 11:40).

Consider the powerful and revealing vision of President Joseph F. Smith (1838–1918):

“Thus was the gospel preached to those who had died in their sins, without a knowledge of the truth, or in transgression, having rejected the prophets.

“These were taught faith in God, repentance from sin, vicarious baptism for the remission of sins, the gift of the Holy Ghost by the laying on of hands,

“And all other principles of the gospel that were necessary for them to know in order to qualify themselves that they might be judged according to men in the flesh, but live according to God in the spirit” (D&C 138:32–34; see also 1 Pet. 4:6).

Basic Doctrine for the Living

The temple is a place of revelation, of inspiration, meditation, and peace—a place to restore ourselves, to clear our minds, to find answers to our prayers, and to enjoy the satisfaction of worship and service.

The Lord revealed through the Prophet Joseph: “All covenants, contracts, bonds, obligations, oaths, vows, performances, connections, associations, or expectations, that are not made and entered into and sealed by the Holy Spirit of promise, of him who is anointed, both as well for time and for all eternity, … through the medium of mine anointed, whom I have appointed on the earth to hold this power … are of no efficacy, virtue, or force in and after the resurrection from the dead; for all contracts that are not made unto this end have an end when men are dead” (D&C 132:7).

Let us teach one another the supreme value of “the new and everlasting covenant of marriage” (D&C 131:2) in our talks and lessons and by example. When a couple is sealed in the temple by the priesthood, a new family is organized. We rejoice when a new branch, ward, or stake is organized. How much more should we rejoice when we organize the basic unit of the Church: a new eternal family! There is only one way for the priesthood to properly set up this new unit, and that is in the house of the Lord. We shall all eventually be released from our callings in the Church but not from our eternal roles in the organization of the family.

As explained in the Doctrine and Covenants: “It may seem to some to be a very bold doctrine that we talk of—a power which records or binds on earth and binds in heaven. Nevertheless, in all ages of the world, whenever the Lord has given a dispensation of the priesthood to any man by actual revelation, or any set of men, this power has always been given. Hence, whatsoever those men did in authority, in the name of the Lord, and did it truly and faithfully, and kept a proper and faithful record of the same, it became a law on earth and in heaven, and could not be annulled, according to the decrees of the great Jehovah” (D&C 128:9).

The Endowment

What is the meaning and nature of the endowment? President Brigham Young (1801–77) gave us these words: “Your endowment is, to receive all those ordinances in the house of the Lord, which are necessary for you, after you have departed this life, to enable you to walk back to the presence of the Father, passing the angels who stand as sentinels, … and gain your eternal exaltation.” 3

The word endowment suggests receiving a gift, something of value for our eternal journey, as President Young described. The Lord is giving a blessing of spiritual power and protection to us so that we may enjoy life more fully, more abundantly.

The highest blessings in the kingdom of God come to us through the grace of Jesus Christ, by obedience to His word. Latter-day revelation clarifies that the fulness of Christ’s grace is bestowed on those who keep the commandments, including making and keeping covenants: “For if you keep my commandments you shall receive of his fulness, and be glorified in me as I am in the Father; therefore, I say unto you, you shall receive grace for grace” (D&C 93:20). The Doctrine and Covenants further explains, “Blessed are they who have kept the covenant and observed the commandment, for they shall obtain mercy” (D&C 54:6; see also Moro. 10:33).

One reason for the power of covenants may be due to the capability they have for effecting changes in our lives, especially sacred covenants. This capacity comes in part because when we make a covenant with God, we are making a promise to our Heavenly Father who knows us best, who knows exactly what we feel and think and intend in our heart of hearts—and this provides unique motivation to keep our promises. Additionally, sacred covenants are even more powerful than regular covenants or promises because by entering a covenant that is sealed by the Holy Spirit of Promise (the Holy Ghost), we gain special access to the grace of God to help us keep the promises we have made.

The purpose of temple work is to make more effective the Atonement of Jesus Christ, and since covenants can be such an effective tool for change, covenants feature prominently in the temple and particularly are a key component of the endowment. Consider how the covenants of baptism, the sacrament, and the laying on of hands are all centered upon the Savior and His atoning sacrifice and how they lead us to change our lives. In a similar way, the covenants we make when we receive the endowment can propel us to even greater changes and greater Christlike behavior. Put another way, we might ask, How do we gain access to the fulness of the Atonement, this additional dispensation of grace? Only by covenants, which are entered into only through ordinances, which can be performed only through priesthood keys (see A of F 1:3–5). The Prophet Joseph Smith taught, “Being born again, comes by the Spirit of God through ordinances.” 4

These truths help us understand the spiritual power of temple work and how that power can come into a person’s life by covenant. Then, keeping the covenant brings the promised blessing in time and in eternity.

Let us review some practical matters that can enhance the temple experience.

Standards

Reverence is an indispensable key to revelation. To receive the promised revelation we must maintain the sacred nature of the house of the Lord. We can have the temple as a significant part of our lives as we prepare in reverence to enter and as we stay true to the beauty, dignity, and solemnity of the temple when we leave. Part of that reverence is maintaining an attitude of great respect for Deity in our hearts. Our words and some of our practical actions can affect the reverence we feel and thus the spiritual manifestations we experience.

When it comes to sacred things, there is “a time to keep silence, and a time to speak” (Eccl. 3:7). We have the responsibility to maintain the sacredness of the temple endowment. We ought not use temple language when outside the temple. We should also be cautious about using common or worldly language within the sacred confines of the temple. Vulgarity should not be a part of our communication outside of the temple, and it certainly has no place in the Lord’s house. But even excessive joking and laughing may prevent us from feeling the reverence and respect that we should.

Worthiness

Some members who are anxious to receive the blessings of the temple may push to receive a recommend before they are fully ready. However, becoming temple worthy is in fact preparing us to understand the “spiritual things” of the temple (see 1 Cor. 2:11–16). Our prophet has counseled: “I know it is difficult for a bishop to deny a recommend to someone who is in his ward and who may be on the borderline with reference to personal behavior. Such denial may be offensive to the applicant. But he or she should know that unless there is true worthiness, there will be no blessing gained, and condemnation will fall upon the head of him or her who unworthily crosses the threshold of the House of God.” 5

The Garment

Those endowed should wear the garment appropriately. One of the great privileges we have is the wearing of the garment. It is appropriate to think of the garment as part of the temple, as a reminder of the covenants made in the house of the Lord. In this sense, as we wear the garment properly we take the temple with us in our daily walk in life.

We should adhere to the instruction of the First Presidency regarding the wearing of the garment:

“Wearing the garment is the sacred privilege of those who have taken upon themselves the covenants of the temple. The garment, … when properly worn, will serve as a protection against temptation and evil.

“It is expected that members will wear the garment both night and day, according to instructions given in the temple. Members should not adjust the garment or wear it contrary to instructions in order to accommodate different styles of clothing, even when such clothing may be generally accepted. The garment should not be removed for activities which might reasonably be done with the garment worn beneath the clothing.

“Members should be guided by the Holy Spirit to answer for themselves personal questions about wearing the garment. This sacred covenant is between the member and the Lord and is an outward expression of an inner commitment to follow the Savior Jesus Christ.” 6

Appropriate Dress

Dressing appropriately to enter the temple will help us to leave behind our worldly concerns and prepare to participate in the ordinances of the house of the Lord. Consider this counsel from President Boyd K. Packer, Acting President of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, on preparing to enter the temple: “It is pleasing to the Lord when we bathe our bodies and put on clean clothing, however inexpensive the clothing may be. We should dress in such a way that we might comfortably attend a sacrament meeting or a gathering that is proper and dignified.” 7

When we enter the temple, we all change into modest white clothing. For men, this is long-sleeved white shirts and white slacks. For women, this is a long-sleeved, floor-length white dress or a white blouse and long white skirt. The white clothing in the temple symbolizes purity and being clean from our sins—the state in which we hope to return to our Father in Heaven. The change into white clothing also serves as a reminder that we are all the same before God, that He is looking upon our hearts and souls and not on our status in this world.

Brides-to-be should note that wedding dresses should be as modest as standard temple dresses. “All dresses worn in the temple should be white, have long sleeves, be modest in design and fabric, and be free of elaborate ornamentation. Sheer fabric should be lined. Women’s pants are not permitted in the temple. The dress should not have a train unless it is removable so that it will not be encumbering during the temple ceremonies.” 8

Sealing Ordinances

Finally, consider again the power of the temple, particularly as it pertains to our deceased relatives. Who among us has not wept in the night for a brother or sister or some other departed relative who did not fully accept the gospel in this life for one reason or another? The sealings performed in the temple offer us great hope for the possibility of reunification with all our loved ones. The sealing ordinance confers a powerful blessing upon Latter-day Saints who remain true and faithful to their covenants. I have always received great strength, encouragement, and comfort from President Lorenzo Snow (1814–1901) when he described this profound promise:

“God has fulfilled His promises to us, and our prospects are grand and glorious. Yes, in the next life we will have … our sons and daughters. If we do not get them all at once, we will have them some time. … You that are mourning about your children straying away will have your sons and your daughters. If you succeed in passing through these trials and afflictions and receive a resurrection, you will, by the power of the Priesthood, work and labor, as the Son of God has, until you get all your sons and daughters in the path of exaltation and glory. This is just as sure as that the sun rose this morning over yonder mountains. Therefore, mourn not because all your sons and daughters do not follow in the path that you have marked out to them, or give heed to your counsels. Inasmuch as we succeed in securing eternal glory, and stand as saviors, and as kings and priests to our God, we will save our posterity.” 9

There is great power in the sealing ties of the covenant. I bear my witness and testimony that these eternal truths and covenants were given before the foundation of the world and will bless our lives if we will prepare our hearts and minds to receive them.

[photos] Temple photographs © Intellectual Reserve, Inc.; no reproduction authorized or permitted

[photo] Photograph of man by Steve Bunderson, posed by model

[photo] Photograph of Vernal Utah Temple sealing room by John Luke

[illustration] Five of Them Were Wise, by Walter Rane

[photos] Far right: Photograph of woman by Steve Bunderson, posed by model; inset: Photograph of St. Louis Missouri Temple baptistry by Welden C. Andersen

[photo] Photograph of Winter Quarters Nebraska Temple ordinance room by Matthew Reier

[illustration] Christ in Gethsemane, by Harry Anderson

[illustration] Brigham, America’s Moses, by Ken Corbett

Show References

    Notes

  1.   1.

    “Of Missions, Temples, and Stewardship,” Ensign, Nov. 1995, 53.

  2.   2.

    History of the Church, 4:426.

  3.   3.

    Discourses of Brigham Young, sel. John A. Widtsoe (1954), 416.

  4.   4.

    Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, sel. Joseph Fielding Smith (1976), 162.

  5.   5.

    Gordon B. Hinckley, “Keeping the Temple Holy,” Ensign, May 1990, 52.

  6.   6.

    First Presidency letter, 5 Nov. 1996.

  7.   7.

    The Holy Temple (1980), 73.

  8.   8.

    Bulletin, 1992, no. 1, p. 2.

  9.   9.

    In Millennial Star, 22 Jan. 1894, 51–52; see also Boyd K. Packer, “Our Moral Environment,” Ensign, May 1992, 68.