Photograph by Scot Facer Proctor

Editor’s Note: This is a Part 1 of an excerpt from chapter 3 of The Temple, Where Heaven Meets Earth, by Truman G. Madsen. Used with permission of Deseret Book.

Come with me to a place called Kirtland, Ohio , and recall that the people asked, essentially, “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, saying in essence, “The Angel Gabriel couldn’t explain it to you now. But have faith and continue and the Lord will make it plain.” According to Elder John A. Widtsoe, the Kirtland Temple, using the measuring rod of the widow’s ­mite-­what they had in proportion to what they gave-cost more per capita than any other 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 met in the temple and waited on the Lord by 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, sharing their experiences, then giving 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, even the desire for sin, was past.

The Prophet had to stand up on one occasion and say, in effect, “Brethren, 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.”

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 wrenching came. After great tribulations, our scriptures tell us, come the blessings (see D&C 58:4). On the other side of that, after great blessings come further trials. That’s the nature of life. You can all testify of that from your own experience.

So after that sacrifice they were driven out. Three different times in Missouri they dedicated 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 of Zion – Independence , Missouri -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 a 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 to be used 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: The Prophet in one temple sermon in Nauvoo addressed a woman, a mother, who had been bereft of her son. Joseph 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 dead (we always say). But there are no dead. Those who are in the spirit world are very much alive. “This is your privilege: You can go into the waters of baptism for your loved ones.” And, he added another phrase, “for those whom we have much friendship for.”

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.”

It is the desire expressed here that 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.” Why?

Doctrine and Covenants 84:23-25 helps provide the answer. It tells of how Moses tried for forty years to prepare the children of Israel to go with him up to the mountain 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 and 21 say, “In [that higher priesthood and in] the ordinances thereof, the power of godliness is manifest [unto men and women in the flesh]. And without the ordinances thereof, and the authority of the priesthood, the power of godliness is not manifest unto men in the flesh.” A categorical statement.

Whatever the powers of godliness are, they come to us in mortality through ordinances and in no other way. The highest ordinances are the ordinances of the house of God. All else is preparatory to them. Moses’ people were not worthy of them. So, the Prophet taught, it was not Moses with the higher priesthood but Joshua with the lesser priesthood who crossed the Jordan and led the people 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 Moses 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 established. 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 harm 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 the higher ordinances. The temple wasn’t finished, and so it was performed in the upper room of Joseph’s store. In a meeting that was certainly the most important summary meeting of his life, he conferred everything-­keys, authorities, ­powers-upon them, 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 to eventually prepare the whole world, every man and every woman, for temples and the privilege of communion with the living God. Wilford Woodruff said fifty years later, “I shall never forget that.” They did it. You and I are the blessed recipients.

Aside from work for those we love and aside from receiving our own privileges, 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 the very depths of our souls. “A house of learning,” says Doctrine and Covenants 88. One who has written brilliantly about this is Elder John A. Widtsoe. 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 wrote, “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 that reside in the temple service. The endowment which was given by revelation can best be understood by revelation.”

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. “I advise you all,” said Joseph Smith, “to go on to perfection and search deeper and deeper into the mysteries of Godliness.” 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 stretch as high as the utmost heavens, and search into and contemplate the darkest abyss, and the broad expanse of ­eternity-­thou must commune with God.” 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. He said in a discourse given in Nauvoo: “If it should be [the] will of God that I might live to behold that temple completed, . . . I will say, Oh Lord, it is enough. Lord, let thy servant depart in peace.” But it didn’t happen.

Parley P. Pratt spoke at the dedication of a cornerstone of the Salt Lake Temple . He talked about communion with those who are beyond. He referred to peepings and mutterings and superstitions and Halloween kinds of activities in the world. But then, he said, 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 spoke about disembodied spirits: “Enveloped in flaming fire, they are not far from us, and know . . . our thoughts, feelings, and motions and are often pained therewith.” And they likewise often rejoice therewith. 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, when we receive communication from “kindred spirits, . . . spirit communes with spirit, thought meets thought, soul blends with soul, in all the raptures of mutual, pure, and eternal love.”

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. 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?”

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 be understood only by the spirit of revelation. “There was nothing made known,” said Joseph Smith, speaking of the day he taught some of the Twelve the ordinances of the temple, “but what will be made known to all the Saints of the last days, so soon as they are prepared to receive.” But know this, he said, they are “to be received only by the spiritual 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 you 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. We’ve mentioned the experience of John A. Widtsoe. As a soil chemist, he struggled 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 his answer came. That resulted in two books and in a revolution in agrarian practice. I know people who have had the most wrenching soul trials, such as that in my own life when my brother went down in a plane crash. I know for myself and for others that the place of the most tangible comfort is the house of the Lord.

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