Mormonism and temples/Endowment/Penalties
Why were "penalties" removed from the Endowment?
A former version of the endowment (prior to 1990) used to contain mention of various "penalties" associated with the breaking of the temple covenants. Some people use this fact to claim that the temple encouraged violence or vengeance against those who violated its covenants, or that the Church sought to use fear to motivate members to keep their covenants. One critic of the Church even proposes asking the following question of Mormon politicians as a religious test for those who are running for office,
"Before 1990, the endowment ceremony required members to take an oath of secrecy not to reveal anything that happened in the temple under penalty of death. Did you take that oath?"
To see citations to the critical sources for these claims, click here
Temple penalties involved promising to resist even extreme efforts to cause us to break temple covenants. They never contemplated or advocated inflicting such penalties on others, or the threat of having them inflicted upon us. Only the wicked would inflict such penalties; the endowed member simply covenanted to resist all such efforts.
It is easy for people to misrepresent this part of the temple ceremony, since only members endowed prior to April 1990 will have had direct experience with the penalties mentioned.
Contrary to this representation, the ceremony said nothing about what would happen to people if they revealed that which they had covenanted to keep secret. Nor did the ceremony encourage anyone to inflict penalties on another.
Rather, the person making the covenant indicated what they would be willing to have done to themselves rather than reveal sacred things. (The penalties also had symbolic implications that are rooted in the Old Testament, which are beyond the scope of this article). So, the temple ceremony did not involve descriptions of what God (or others) would do to someone if they failed to keep their covenants, but instead illustrated the seriousness with which the participant should make the temple covenants.
The penalties served, among other things, to teach us how determined we should be to resist those who would encourage us to violate covenants. The endowment said nothing about the consequences of violating covenants save that one would be judged by God for doing so. Such judgment of necessity remains always in the hands of God alone. (The Church might, of course, discipline a member for violation of covenants via excommunication, but this is the extent of the penalty which the Church can apply; see D&C 134:10.)
This important distinction was sometimes not well understood by some members, and this is likely one reason that penalties were removed from the current ceremony. The penalties confused people more than it helped them, in our era, and the presentation of the endowment has changed (and will likely continue to change) when necessary to administer the ordinances and associated doctrinal teaching in the most effective way.
Still today, our common vernacular is laced with mentions of penalties. Solemn claims are often followed with, for instance, "cross my heart, hope to die" or "may Heaven strike me dead". Obviously, such penalties are not to be taken literally (the person saying them does not literally want to die, or ask someone to kill them, or commit suicide), but rather to convey the veracity of a claim or the seriousness with which claims are made.
This kind of language or approach was not foreign to the early Christians' rituals either. Hugh Nibley wrote:
The Ritual Enactment of Curses
The ritual performance of a curse was anciently an imitation sacrifice. The priest shed his own blood either for the king, whom he originally represented, or for the people, whom the king also represented (see 1 Samuel 13:8–14). But as he can represent them by proxy, so he too may shed his blood by proxy by the sacrificial beast. All of this, of course, is "a similitude of the sacrifice of the Only Begotten" (Moses 5:7), which atoned for the sins of all, and thus redeems or saves from death....
The ear has a significance in ancient Israel. When a servant in Israel, out of pure love, wished to be sealed to a master for the rest of his life, even though free to go his own way, his bond was made sure by fixing his ear to the door with a nail driven through it (see Deuteronomy 15:16–17). It was a relatively painless operation, since there are only three nerves in the lobe of the ear. But it would be hard to find a more convincing symbol of anything fixed in a sure place (Isaiah 22:23).
One penalty is particularly interesting, because of a very early Christian writing known as the Discourse on Abbatôn [a Satan figure], which goes back to Apostolic times in Jerusalem. It was discovered in a chest preserved from the earliest days of the Church in the house of John Mark's mother. Timothy, the Bishop of Alexandria, while attending a conference at Jerusalem, persuaded the aged keeper of the old Church archives to show him the book. It tells how, when the council was held at the foundation of the world and Adam was chosen to preside over the project, Satan refused to recognize him, saying, "It is meet that this man Adam should come and worship me, for I existed before he came into being. And when my father [it is the Lord speaking to the apostles] saw his great pride and that his wickedness and evil doing had reached a fullness, he commanded the armies of heaven, saying remove the token [mark, document, authorization] which is in his right hand, remove his panoply [protective armor] and cast him down to earth, for his time has come." With him go all his followers, for "he is the head over them and their names are written in his hand." The angels were reluctant to demote so great a one "and they did not wish to remove the writing from his hand. And my father commanded them to bring a sharp sickle and cut him at breast level from shoulder to shoulder, on this side and on that, right through his body to the vertebra of his shoulders." This cost him a third of his strength and rendered him forever incapable of prevailing by force. Henceforth, he gains his ends by deception and trickery, which makes him all the more dangerous.
- Hugh W. Nibley, "On the Sacred and the Symbolic," in Temples of the Ancient World: Ritual and Symbolism, edited by Donald W. Parry (Deseret Book Co. and FARMS, 1994).