If this had been the full extent of the Deseret News headline, I would have agreed. Mormons hold their temples (and what goes on inside) to be sacred. That is, “regarded with the same respect and reverence accorded holy things; venerated; hallowed” (Webster’s New World Dictionary). But the February 9 (2012) headline didn’t stop there. In fact, the headline read, “Helping others understand how temples are sacred, not secret.” With this I cannot agree.
The earliest use of the “sacred, not secret” mantra used by Mormons I was able to find (admittedly, after only an afternoon of research) was from then-Apostle Harold B. Lee. In 1968 he said, “Temple ordinances are sacred, not secret…Some wonder why all this so-called secrecy, and we always answer by saying it is not ‘secret’ but ‘sacred’” (Teachings of Harold B. Lee, 576. John Widtsoe made a similar distinction before his death in 1952, but did not employ the shorthand expression that is so popular today). Apostle Boyd Packer repeated the “secret/sacred” phrase at the April 1971 General Conference, and both David O. McKay and ElRay Christiansen included it in Ensign articles in January 1972. “Sacred, not secret” has been commonplace among Mormons ever since.
But Mormon temple ceremonies are more properly understood to be both sacred (to Mormons) and secret. The LDS Young Women Manual states, “The ordinances of the temple are so sacred that they are not open to the view of the public” (Lesson 17: Preparing to Attend the Temple). That is, they are so sacred that they are kept secret.
In the April 1920 Conference Report Andrew Jensen spoke of the imprisonment of Daniel H. Wells in 1879 for contempt of court. “The offense consisted in his refusal to disclose the secrets of the Endowment House,” he said (76).
Perhaps the best source for the sacred and secret (sometimes expressed only as secret) nature of Mormon temple ceremonies comes from the endowment ceremony itself. From available records we find:
- 1847: “We are also sworn by a solemn oath that we will never divulge what we here see, and do, and agree to, &c. in this Holy Temple. The penalty is, if we do, we agree to let them take our lives, and the manner of taking them is described: Our bowels are to be taken out, throats cut across, tongues taken out by the roots, &c.” (Increase McGee Van Deusen, The Mormon Endowment)
- 1882: “The penalty for revealing this grip and oath is that you will have your throat cut from ear to ear, and your tongue torn from your mouth…” (Hand-Book on Mormonism. This is a narrative account of the penalty, not a direct quote of the temple ceremony.)
- 1931: “And you will not forget that the utmost secrecy is to be observed with respect to these proceedings.” “We, and each of us, covenant and promise that we will not reveal any of the secrets of this…” (Temple Mormonism)
- 1969: “They are most sacred and are guarded by solemn covenants and obligations of secrecy…” (Tanner, Mormonism – Shadow or Reality)
- 1984: “They are most sacred and are guarded by solemn covenants and obligations of secrecy…” (Tanner, Evolution of the Mormon Temple Ceremony: 1842-1990)
- 1990: “They are most sacred and are guarded by solemn covenants and obligations made in the presence of God…” (Tanner, Evolution of the Mormon Temple Ceremony: 1842-1990)
Throughout most of its history the explicit idea of secrecy was present in the temple endowment ceremony. In 1990, the wording connected to guarding the temple ceremony under “obligations of secrecy” was changed, but participants continue to vow that they will “never reveal” the things they learn in the temple. With or without the accompaniment of the explanatory word “secrecy,” temple participants swear to exactly the same vow.
Many things in addition to temple ceremonies are deemed sacred in Mormonism. The scriptures are considered sacred; they are not only open for all to see, but Mormons encourage all people to read and study them. On Fast and Testimony Sundays an LDS Church service is filled with people standing up and telling the congregation about their own “sacred” experiences. Boyd Packer said, “How like the sacred experience in the temple becomes our personal testimony. It is sacred,” yet Mormons are taught to share their testimonies openly and often (“The Spirit Beareth Record,” Ensign, May 1971).
A secret, according to the dictionary, is something “not known or seen or not meant to be known or seen by others.” Secrecy is “the action of keeping something secret or the state of being kept secret.” This describes Mormon temple ceremonies very well. The reason they are kept secret may very well include the idea that they are held sacred, but they are secret nonetheless.
To insist the temple is “sacred, not secret” is a convenient sound bite, but it isn’t the truth.