Covenants: The Stuff of Dreams and Nightmares

Image of the Salt Lake City temple. Photo by Scott Catron.

I have been thinking and writing about temple covenants during the past few weeks. I am writing a paper for an upcoming Mormon Studies conference and am in the middle of cataloging the changes to the Law of Obedience covenant over the last hundred years. My feelings have alternated between catharsis and anger.

One of the things that I’m finding is that the language for the Law of Obedience covenant that women make, including the things that are promised to them, are made increasingly unclear with each successive language change. Melyngoch’s discussion of the word “hearken” on the Zelophehad’s Daughters blog  illustrates some of this problem. This has left me feeling that the authors of these changes never intended to alter the meaning of the covenant, only the language that was used to make the covenant. This has made patriarchal temple covenants easier for some LDS women to accept but more difficult for some to understand and see clearly.  

I’m also listening to Brene Brown’s new book Dare to Lead, which is about using research around vulnerability as the foundation for thoughtful and effective leadership strategies. Throughout the text she repeats the phrase “clear is kind. Unclear is unkind.” Clarity of instructions or feedback is beneficial to colleagues who must act on those instructions or feedback. Avoiding hard conversations by avoiding clear feedback or instructions is not a good leadership strategy, suggests Sister Brown. 

This “clear is kind” tip for leaders does not mesh well with my understanding of the history of women’s covenants in LDS temples. Men’s covenants do not change much over time and use clear language.  Women’s covenants grow more confusing over time, employing words and phrases with multiple meanings.  “Unclear is unkind.” What hard conversations are LDS Church leaders avoiding? What hard conversations are we avoiding?

This has left me feeling a lot of regret and sadness about my experiences in LDS temples. I wish that I had known in advance what I was expected to covenant. So many of my covenants were dangled in front of me with the carrot of a sweet setup in the afterlife. I now struggle with a belief in the afterlife. How am I supposed to make sense of the specifics of eternity if I am questioning its existence? 

I wish I had been able to make covenants that could grow with me as my faith has grown and changed. I wish that my covenants had less to do with obeying God and more to do with seeking God. I wish that my covenants had been less about affirming correct answers and more about searching for questions. I wish that my covenants had been less about what God promises and expects me to promise, and more about what we expect of each other in our communities. 

What is your experience with clarity or confusion over temple covenants? What covenants do you wish you had been able to make in the temple?

Nancy Ross

Nancy Ross is an art history professor by day and a sociologist of religion by night. She lives in St. George, Utah with her husband and two daughters and co-hosts the Faith Transitions podcast.

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5 Responses

  1. Josi says:

    What a fascinating observation! I’ve been through a rollercoaster of emotions, especially after hearing about the preside word added to the sealing. Like you explained, it becomes so appallingly obvious that some words have changed but the role for women hasn’t. I feel embarrassed that I did so much mental labor to find a way to feel at peace with the hearkening and covenanting to my future and current husband. I’m so ashamed that I couldn’t see it. Now I know that I never want my daughter or future daughter in-laws to suffer knowing that this church sees them as second class citizens, not as important, less valuable than men. It has been such a painful realization. I feel like without the journey of submitting, struggling to comprehend why God would ask me to promise to a man, then coming out to leave it all behind has changed me. Maybe I’m stronger today because of it. But it made me weak first and did nothing to help me get to the person I am today. I mourn the strong capable person I could have been had my church not been sexist in the first place.

    Before I learned about the change to the sealing my anger was about how the whole church could continue on as normal. In my mind we needed to do the endowment and work for all of the living and dead females all over again. The covenant had changed! I also thought that all men, living and dead, should unrecieve the ordinance of being promised to be obeyed. But alas, there’s nothing to see here, just more abuse more damage. While some words have been changed, the meaning is the same.

  2. Brittany says:

    I liked the way James E. Talmage explained the covenants: “The ordinances of the endowment embody certain obligations on the part of the individual, such as covenant and promise to observe the law of strict virtue and chastity, to be charitable, benevolent, tolerant and pure; to devote both talent and material means to the spread of truth and the uplifting of the race; to maintain devotion to the cause of truth; and to seek in every way to contribute to the great preparation that the earth may be made ready to receive her King—the Lord Jesus Christ.” (House of the Lord, 1968)

    To me, this conveys a very broad covenant to do good, to help humanity be better, to make the world a better place. That is a covenant I can happily strive to keep.

    However, I think Talmage’s explanation is wishful thinking on his part. The actual wording used in the ceremony is much more specific and more to do with the church than the human race at large. I think it would be a stretch to pull Talmage’s ideas from the wording used, even though I like his ideas.

  3. Chelsea says:

    I am sifting through my feelings with covenants and I feel devoted to God in my own way. I also love the idea of covenants being to seek God rather than just obey. Obeying for the sake of obeying church “doctrine” really ended up hurting my relationship with myself and God (she/he). Seeking them in my own way brought peace and resolution to a lot of the issues I couldn’t make right and go away.

    Thanks for the article! 💜

  4. Lisa Murphy says:

    To seek God, rather than obey God. How profound! Thank you for clarifying that! How kind. Seeking God encourages spiritual growth. Obeying God stunts growth, keeps the believer small and in a box. Our own stories tell us that that is Satan’s way. Yet, we’ve adopted it completely.

  5. Ziff says:

    I love your thoughts here, Nancy. What you say about lack of clarity being an unkind way to avoid straight up telling women they’re in a subordinate position is spot on!

    And your next-to-last paragraph, wow! A great summary of how we Mormons have gone wrong with the temple, and even more generally.

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