Initiation Rites — The Skull And Bones Society V. The Mormon Endowment

I don’t know why, but I’m on a bit of a posting jag these past few days.

I was driving in the car this morning with my two teenage sons, aged 18 and 14, and for some reason the Skull and Bones Society came up in our conversation. One of the boys described how part of the initiation rite in that society is the disclosure of the kind of deep, dark secret that could be used by other Society members to hurt you if you ever broke their code or did other members dirt in some way. People who study initiation rites have shown that if you endure pain in order to get into an organization, the membership means more to you and you will be more dedicated to the organization. Hence, most long-lived organizations require a significant entrance price to be paid.

I explained to the boys that having to disclose some of your worst moments in public fits into that category, as do the crazy things otherwise sober, respectable Mormons do during their temple ceremonies. The boys were, respectively, 12 and eight years old when I left Mormonism, and so they were never really socialized as Mormons. They consistently have trouble imagining how the wonderful Mormons they know and love believe and do the things they sometimes hear about with regard to Mormonism. Our discussion of the temple ceremony this morning was one of those experiences from their point of view.

I went through the temple ceremony in some detail with them. We talked about the clothing, secret handshakes, the secret names, “the wave” during the prayer circle while saying “Paye lay ale”, the promises that I would allow myself to be killed if I ever divulged any of the sacred secrets involved in the ceremony, etc. I described the way in which as a trusting 19-year-old, I was taken into that ceremony by parents, grandparents, uncles and aunts each of whom behaved during the temple ceremony in a way that at the time I regarded as bizarre, but since they were all doing it with confidence, I went along. I mouthed the promises in a state of shock, wondering what they really meant. I described my initial stunned reaction at the nature of those promises, and how I assumed that that everything must be alright because people who I knew loved and cared for me were leading me through this. I also described the peace, and feelings of sacredness, that I eventually came to associate with the temple ceremony after having gone through it many times, and how this type of feeling is caused by many types of ritual behavior in virtually all cultures. By the way, I attended the temple more than a dozen times prior to my mission, and well over a hundred times in total. I was in also authorized to officiate at the veil (that is, play the role of God in ushering people into the celestial room) before going into the mission field, and continued to do that after my mission until I stopped attending the temple about seven years ago.

The boys appeared to have trouble believing what I was telling them. I promised that sometime soon I would get out my temple robes, and show them in greater detail exactly how the process works, and why it was at least as bizarre as the way in which I described it.

The main point I was trying to make is that the Mormon initiation process involves a kind of psychological pain that is similar to what we had been talking about with regard to the Skull and Bones Society. This pain is the result of being required to engage in a humiliating, unsettling if not frightening (the first time or two at least), ridiculous public ritual, dressed in a funny clothes, prostrating oneself in a variety of ways before a religious institution in what outsiders would regard as a foolish fashion. This constituted committing myself to an organization in a very unusual way, and cause psychological discomfort.

As indicated above, many studies have shown that enduring this kind of pain causes people to value the experience or status they earn as a result much more than otherwise would be the case. Women, for example, who were recruited into weight loss and fitness programs tended to lose more weight and keep the weight off longer if they were required to take a series of strenuous tests and believed that they had been chosen from among many applicants before being allowed to enter the program. Other people who went to precisely the same program after having simply applied and were immediately accepted did not treat the program with the same seriousness, and did not benefit in the same way from their membership in it. Countless other studies have demonstrated similar things. You can find those by googling “cognitive dissonance”. If you add my name to the Google search, you will find some of the things I have written in this regard.

In any event, at the end of a probably 15 or 20 minute conversation in the car, the boys asked me if I could remember any of the secret handshakes, signs, etc. from the temple. I gave them the main secret handshake, which creeped them out immensely. That is, the “sure sign of the nail”. I told them my “new name”, and then surprised myself by being able to repeat verbatim the last, long passage necessary to get into the celestial room. They were, again, amazed at the idea that their father would’ve been doing this kind of thing on a regular basis as recently as seven years ago. Their reaction to this helped me to appreciate at a deeper level how bizarre these behaviors are.

For the record, here’s the last bit. This occurs after a relatively long sequence during which the rest of the signs, tokens etc. are repeated by the person attending the temple to another person who is pretending to be God, and standing on the inside of the curtain that separates the celestial room from the rest of the temple.

First, the person attending the temple has to receive the most sacred handshake, and identify it. It is the “second token of the Melchizedek priesthood, the patriarchal grip, or sure sign of the nail”. The boys were really rolling their eyes at this point, and were amazed at the nature of the handshake. The last thing the person attending the temple has to learn, and memorize so as to be able to repeat, is the name of this handshake.

One would have thought that the name was “the second token …” as just indicated, because when the handshake is given and the temple attender is asked “What is that?” he is required to answer “The second token of the Melchizedek priesthood, the patriarchal grip, or sure sign of the nail”. But that would be far too logical and straightforward.

In any event, when the temple attender is asked, after having properly identified this handshake, “Has it a name?”, he is required to answer:

“It has.”

God then asks, “Will you give it to me?”

The temple attender has to say “I cannot. I have not yet received it. For this purpose, I have come to converse with the Lord through the veil.”

God then says, “You shall receive it upon the five points of fellowship through the veil.” (The five points of fellowship are a form of embrace that is given through the veil)

The temple attender then leans forward, clasping God in the required embrace through the veil, and God whispers the token’s name into his ear.

Then, God says, “What is that?”

The temple attender says, “The second token of the Melchizedek priesthood, the patriarchal grip, or sure sign of the nail.”

God says, “Has it’s a name?”

Temple attender: “It has.”

God: “Will you give it to me?”

Temple attender: “I will, upon the five points of fellowship through the veil.”

They again embrace, and the temple attender repeats verbatim what God whispered a few moments prior to him, which is:

“Health in the navel, marrow in the bones, strength in the loins and in the sinews, power in the priesthood be upon me, and upon my posterity, through all generations of time, and throughout all eternity.”

This is all, of course, certifiably crazy mumbo-jumbo, and my boys recognized it as such. They could barely believe what they were hearing. From their point of view, this was straight out of South Park or The Family Guy. And ironically, it is the ceremony’s bizarre nature that in large part makes it effective, for the reasons noted above.

For my part, the fact that I can still remember this stuff verbatim produced an involuntary tremor as I was walking the boys through the last part.

I thank whatever odd features of reality are responsible for the fact that the social tentacles that for a long time had me playing this ridiculous game lost their strength.

3 thoughts on “Initiation Rites — The Skull And Bones Society V. The Mormon Endowment

  1. I was raised in a neighborhood just off the BYU campus that was virtually all Mormon. The first time in my life I had any doubt about Mormonism was just after my first day at the temple. Too bad I didn’t trust my initial reaction to that bizarre ceremony.

  2. I remember feeling really weird at the temple when I went for my own endowments. Everyone around me acted like it was normal. What was I suppose to do? I went through the endowment in 1998 after they had taken out a lot of the more bizarre stuff. I didn’t even find out there were changes to it until near the end of my mission. I was so paranoid and blindly faithful that I didn’t find out what some of the changes were until about a year ago after I left the church.

    I’m still amazed when I hear other post-Mormons say they really enjoyed the temple.

  3. I would sit in temple sessions and look at the faces around me trying to see if they found the whole thing as totally nuts and insane as I did. How could these seemingly sane people participate in this foolishness with a straight face.

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