Mormonism and temples/Endowment/Oath of vengeance
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Important note: Members of FAIR take their temple covenants seriously. We consider the temple teachings to be sacred, and will not discuss their specifics in a public forum.
Critics claim that a former version of the temple endowment contained an oath taken by participants that they would exact vengeance upon the government or citizens of the United States.
Until 1927 the temple endowment very likely contained such an oath. The exact wording is not entirely clear, but it appears that it did not call on the Saints themselves to take vengeance on the United States, but that they would continue to pray that God himself might avenge the blood the prophets.
Although the Oath of Vengeance contains no curses like those in the imprecatory psalms, like the psalmists, the Saints apparently had the wisdom to take directly to God their strong feelings in response to the injustices they had been dealt. By doing so, they turned over to Him the responsibility for both justice and healing.
In nearly every anti-Mormon discussion of the temple, critics raise the issue of the "oath of vengeance" that existed during the 19th century and very early 20th century. These critics often misstate the nature of the oath and try to use its presence in the early temple endowment as evidence that the LDS temple ceremonies are ungodly, violent, and immoral.
The leaders of the Church have modified the endowment from time to time. Prior to changes made in 1927, there was an oath to pray for the Lord's vengeance on those who murdered the prophets. In their sworn testimonies and temple exposes, apostates gave conflicting accounts on who was to do the actual avenging: the Lord or the Saints themselves. Surveying Mormon history for teachings about of vengeance can add perspective and help evaluate which possibility is more likely.
The Missouri Conflict
In 1833, the Mormons were driven out of Jackson County, Missouri, in part due to anti-slavery sentiments that differed from the more established settlers. Through revelation, the Saints were instructed to petition for governmental redress for the outrages they suffered. The Saints were expected to be pacifists, but only up to a point in D&C 98:23-31:
- Now, I speak unto you concerning your families—if men will smite you, or your families, once, and ye bear it patiently and revile not against them, neither seek revenge, ye shall be rewarded; But if ye bear it not patiently, it shall be accounted unto you as being meted out as a just measure unto you. And again, if your enemy shall smite you the second time, and you revile not against your enemy, and bear it patiently, your reward shall be an hundredfold. And again, if he shall smite you the third time, and ye bear it patiently, your reward shall be doubled unto you four-fold; And these three testimonies shall stand against your enemy if he repent not, and shall not be blotted out. And now, verily I say unto you, if that enemy shall escape my vengeance, that he be not brought into judgment before me, then ye shall see to it that ye warn him in my name, that he come no more upon you, neither upon your family, even your children’s children unto the third and fourth generation. And then, if he shall come upon you or your children, or your children’s children unto the third and fourth generation, I have delivered thine enemy into thine hands; And then if thou wilt spare him, thou shalt be rewarded for thy righteousness; and also thy children and thy children’s children unto the third and fourth generation. Nevertheless, thine enemy is in thine hands; and if thou rewardest him according to his works thou art justified; if he has sought thy life, and thy life is endangered by him, thine enemy is in thine hands and thou art justified.
The use of violence was condoned only in cases of self-defense or after the Lord had delivered up a previously warned enemy in the Saints hands. Even then mercy towards enemies was encouraged and indications are that the Lord can fight his own battles (see v. 37) to extract his vengeance on the wicked. Note the repeated references to third and fourth generations of children that is added for rhetorical effect despite the impracticality of a single enemy being a menace for the encompassing time span.
The earliest known oath of vengeance in a Mormon temple appears to have been introduced by Joseph Smith spontaneously at the Kirtland dedication on March 30, 1836 :
- The seventies are at liberty to go to Zion if they please or go wheresoever they will and preach the gospel and let the redemption of Zion be our object, and strive to affect it by sending up all the strength of the Lords house whereever we find them, and I want to enter into the following covenant, that if any more of our brethren are slain or driven from their lands in Missouri by the mob that we will give ourselves no rest until we are avenged of our enimies to the uttermost, this covenant was sealed unanimously by a hosanna and Amen.
The Mormons used military force to defend themselves in Missouri, but eventually they were driven out after an exterminating order was issued against them by governor Boggs. Further petitions for redress in Missouri were met with rejection. Martin van Buren remarked "Your cause is just, but I can do nothing for you." Enemies in Missouri, including the next governor, conspired to kidnap Joseph in Illinois and bring him to Missouri to face trumped up charges.
Perhaps anticipating his death, Joseph met often with apostles and other close associates to restore the temple endowment prior to the completion of the Nauvoo temple. Wilford Woodruff, later situated the temple instruction in praying for the Lord's biblical vengeance of blood of the prophets as follows:
- I have already said that there is nothing [antagonistic to the government in the Mormon endowments] of that kind in any part or phase of Mormonism. I ought to know about that as I am one of the oldest members of the church. A good deal is being made of a form of prayer based upon two verses in the sixth chapter of the revelations of St. John as contained in the New Testament. It relates to praying that God might avenge the blood of the prophets. An attempt has, I see, been made to connect this with avenging the death of Joseph and Hyrum Smith and to have reference to this nation. It can have no such application as the endowments were given long before the death of Joseph and Hyrum and have not been changed. This nation and government has never been charged by the Mormon people with the assassination of Joseph and Hyrum Smith. As it is well known the murder was the act of the local mob disguised.
Recent generations of Latter-day Saints, who haven't experienced mob violence, kidnapping attempts, and death threats, may be surprised at or uncomfortable with the feelings of many earlier saints who were praying for justice instead of praying for their enemies. But we live in kinder, gentler times; and nineteenth-century Mormons—especially those who came out of Nauvoo—saw the hand of God whenever their persecutors suffered misfortune, a feeling common to most powerless, persecuted minority groups.
After Joseph Smith's death, his closest friends continued to meet after his death. This group met to test revelation ("try all things"), pray for the healing of sick members, pray for the success of church projects, and pray for deliverance from their enemies. Heber C. Kimball recalled that after Joseph's death the prayer circle met and prayed for God's vengeance.
Summarizing Willard Richards' activities immediately after the martyrdom, historian Claire Noall wrote:
- True, in this  speech Richards finally denounced the actual murderers; but when notifying the Church of Joseph Smith's death at Carthage jail, he wrote to Nauvoo that the people of Carthage expected the Mormons to rise, but he had "promised them no." The next day from the steps of the Prophet's home, he reminded his people that he had pledged his word and his honor for their peaceful conduct. And when writing the news of Smith's death to Brigham Young then near Boston, Willard Richards said the blood of martyrs does not cry from the ground for vengeance; vengeance is the Lord's.
Temple work in general and, more specifically, prayers that God, rather than Mormon members, would avenge Joseph Smith is what was the salvation of the church in Nauvoo. Instead of giving vent to passionate desires for revenge using the impressively-sized Nauvoo Legion, the brethren were able to get members to channel their frustration and anger into petitions to the Almighty for justice. Their actual energy was concentrated on the things of heaven through temple building and service. Temple prayer became a way of ritually memorializing Joseph Smith's martyrdom.
Conflict in Utah
After the exodus to Utah, ordinances usually reserved for the temple were performed in the Endowment House, while temple construction was in progress. In a late recollection, David H. Cannon described the instruction at the Endowment House in regards to vengeance:
- To pray the Father to avenge the blood of the prophets and righteous men that has been shed, etc. In the endowment house this was given but as persons went there only once, it was not so strongly impressed upon their minds, but in the setting in order [of] the endowments for the dead it was given as it is written in 9 Chapter of Revelations [sic] and in that language we importune our Father, not that we may, but that He, our Father, will avenge the blood of martyrs shed for the testimony of Jesus.
Although the religious stress was on letting God perform the actual vengeance, individuals sometimes imagined they might be called upon to take a more active role. This phenomenon reached a low point after the rhetorical hyperbole of Mormon Reformation and the war time hysteria created by President James Buchanan sending troops against Utah. From the pulpit, many Church leaders held the United States as a nation responsible for letting mobocracy get out of control. As tensions mounted, vengeance motifs surfaced in the apocalyptic language of some patriarchal blessings. The Saints were prepared to fight in a just war.
While the Utah War was nearly a bloodless conflict, tragedy struck some caught in the crossfire. A recent work has examined the way conspiring, local Mormon leaders manipulated others to become complicit in the Mountain Meadows Massacre in part by exploiting their desires for vengeance.  However, in their approach to explain how basically good people could commit such an atrocity, the authors found elements in common with vigilantism and mass killings perpetrated everywhere. They agree that these southern Utah Mormons were acting against the principles of their religion. Their oaths of taught them to channel their righteous indignation into petitioning God for justice while they worked constructively to build and defend Zion.
The Smoot Hearings
Most accounts of the temple oath of vengeance stressed that God, rather than man, would do the actual punishing. For example, August Lundstrom, an apostate Mormon, testified at the Reed Smoot hearings in December 1904:
- Mr. [Robert W.] Tayler [counsel for the protestants]: Can you give us the obligation of retribution?
- Mr. Lundstrom: I can.
- Mr. Tayler: You may give that.
- Mr. Lundstrom: "We and each of us solemnly covenant and promise that we shall ask God to avenge the blood of Joseph Smith upon this nation." There is something more added, but that is all I can remember verbatim. That is the essential part.
- Mr. Tayler: What was there left of it? What else?
- Mr. Lundstrom: It was in regard to teaching our children and children's children to the last generation to the same effect.
One could object that Lundstrom, as an apostate, fabricated the existence of such an oath or, intentionally or unintentionally, distorted its wording. However, others who spoke publicly (such as David H. Cannon above) had similar recollections.
The Oath of Vengeance is a vivid reminder that the Saints understood the writings of the Apostle Paul -- that justice is a responsibility reserved for God.
- 19 Dearly beloved, avenge not yourselves, but rather give place unto wrath: for it is written, Vengeance is mine; I will repay, saith the Lord.
Christians who take comfort in the Book of Psalms find additional biblical precedent for turning their vengeance over to the Lord. The imprecatory or “cursing” psalms provide a parallel, although the graphic explicitness of them is not present in the Oath of Vengeance. The cursing psalms are nothing less than prayers for extreme forms of Divine vengeance. Examples include:
Psalms 109:8-19 prays:
- 8 Let his days be few; and let another take his office.
- 9 Let his children be fatherless, and his wife a widow.
- 10 Let his children be continually vagabonds, and beg: let them seek their bread also out of their desolate places.
- 11 Let the extortioner catch all that he hath; and let the strangers spoil his labour.
- 12 Let there be none to extend mercy unto him: neither let there be any to favour his fatherless children.
- 13 Let his posterity be cut off; and in the generation following let their name be blotted out.
- 14 Let the iniquity of his fathers be remembered with the LORD; and let not the sin of his mother be blotted out.
- 15 Let them be before the LORD continually, that he may cut off the memory of them from the earth.
- 16 Because that he remembered not to shew mercy, but persecuted the poor and needy man, that he might even slay the broken in heart.
- 17 As he loved cursing, so let it come unto him: as he delighted not in blessing, so let it be far from him.
- 18 As he clothed himself with cursing like as with his garment, so let it come into his bowels like water, and like oil into his bones.
- 19 Let it be unto him as the garment which covereth him, and for a girdle wherewith he is girded continually.
Psalms 69:22-25 prays:
- 22 Let their table become a snare before them: and that which should have been for their welfare, let it become a trap.
- 23 Let their eyes be darkened, that they see not; and make their loins continually to shake.
- 24 Pour out thine indignation upon them, and let thy wrathful anger take hold of them.
- 25 Let their habitation be desolate; and let none dwell in their tents.
Psalms 58:6-8 prays:
- 6 Break their teeth, O God, in their mouth: break out the great teeth of the young lions, O LORD.
- 7 Let them melt away as waters which run continually: when he bendeth his bow to shoot his arrows, let them be as cut in pieces.
- 8 As a snail which melteth, let every one of them pass away: like the untimely birth of a woman, that they may not see the sun.
Psalms 83:13-17 prays:
- 13 O my God, make them like a wheel; as the stubble before the wind.
- 14 As the fire burneth a wood, and as the flame setteth the mountains on fire;
- 15 So persecute them with thy tempest, and make them afraid with thy storm.
- 16 Fill their faces with shame; that they may seek thy name, O LORD.
- 17 Let them be confounded and troubled for ever; yea, let them be put to shame, and perish:
Questions are begged concerning whether such wishes/prayers are appropriate from us today considering that we live under a New Testament forgiveness paradigm. Note that Psalm 69 was invoked by both Peter and Paul in the New Testament (Acts 1:15-20, Romans 11:9-10). The scriptures also provide examples of the Lord's vengeance subsequent to the atonement of Christ (Luke 11:49-51, Revelation 16:4-7). Examples are also present in the Book of Mormon (3 Nephi 9:5-11). Philip Yancey, author of "The Bible Jesus Read" explores the paradox and concludes that the seemingly diabolical language uttered in the cursing psalms is a form of "spiritual therapy", still appropriate for us to observe/practice today. He reasons:
- If a person wrongs me unjustly, I have several options. I can seek personal revenge, a response condemned by the Bible. I can deny or suppress my feelings of hurt and anger. Or I can take those feelings to God, entrusting God with the task of ‘retributive justice’. The cursing psalms are vivid examples of that last option. ‘It is mine to avenge: I will repay,’ says the Lord – prayers like the cursing psalms place vengeance in the proper hands. Significantly, the cursing psalms express their outrage to God, not to the enemy.
- What is a vengeful curse when spoken about someone is a plea of helpless dependence when spoken directly to God.
- Sometimes I find that in the process of expression, I grow in compassion. God’s Spirit speaks to me of my own selfishness, my judgmental spirit, my own flaws that others have treated with grace and forgiveness, my pridefully limited viewpoint.
He concludes that in praying so emotively:
- I may well find that my vindictive feelings need God’s correction—but only by taking those feelings to God will I have the opportunity for correction and healing.
- [note] Van Hale, "The Alleged Oath of Vengeance," recorded 1 July 2007 during the Mormon Miscellaneous Worldwide Talk Show, off-site
- [note] See 30 March 1836 Jesse Hitchcock record in "MS Joseph Smith Journal, 1835-36," 193 pp., Joseph Smith Collection, LDS Church Archives cited in Dean C. Jessee, ed., The Personal Writings of Joseph Smith (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1984) off-site
- [note] Wilford Woodruff interview, Deseret News 22 November 1889
- [note] For a history of prayer circles, see D. Michael Quinn, "Latter-day Saint Prayer Circles," Brigham Young University Studies 19 no. 1 (Fall 1978), 79–105. PDF link
- [note] See his 21 December 1845 diary entry in The Nauvoo Endowment Companies, 1845–1846: A Documentary History, Richard Van Wagoner, Devery Scott Anderson, and Gary James Bergera, eds. (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 2005).
- [note] Claire Noall, "The Plains of Warsaw," Utah Historical Quarterly 25:1 (January 1957), pp. 47–51.
- [note] David John Buerger, "The Development of the Mormon Temple Endowment Ceremony," Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 34 no. 1 (Spring/Summer 2001), 103. PDF link
- [note] Paul H. Peterson, "The Mormon Reformation of 1856–1857: The Rhetoric and the Reality," Journal of Mormon History 15/1 (1989): 59–88. PDF link
- [note] Ronald W. Walker, Richard E. Turley, Jr., and Glen M. Leonard, Massacre at Mountain Meadows (New York City: Oxford University Press) pp. 13–14,92,135,181,286n48
- [note] Massacre at Mountain Meadows pp. xiii–xiv
- [note] Testimony of August W. Lundstrom, Proceedings before the Committee on Privileges and Elections of the United States Senate in the Matter of the Protests Against the Right of Hon. Reed Smoot, a Senator from the State of Utah, to Hold His Seat (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1906), 2:153. PDF link
- [note] Philip Yancey, The Bible Jesus Read (Grand Rapids, Michigan, Zondervan, 1999) pp. 133–139.