One hundred and fifty years after the dedication of the Kirtland Temple, the Community of Christ (then the RLDS) celebrated that event with a set of worship services in the main court of the Temple. My wife was asked to be the accompanist for the services, and so we made plans to drive from Maryland to Kirtland with our toddler daughter.
Kirtland has been a very important, sacred place for me since my own childhood. My parents had taken me to Kirtland and Palmyra as a vacation trip when I was still in elementary school. They and I were the only visitors there at the moment, so the guide, for whatever reason, gave me a special privilege. While he and my parents waited at the base of the ladder, I was allowed to climb into the top of the bell tower alone and look out over Kirtland.
It was extraordinarily easy in that setting — not much traffic or bustle in that little town 50 years ago — to see myself standing guard on the walls at night while the temple was being built, or to see the early church leaders I’d known only by the stories in Sunday School or by reading the D&C leading the people toward the establishment of Zion from homes across the grass field in front of me.
After I grew to young adulthood in the Detroit area and was ordained, the priesthood of Detroit Stake were permitted to hold a weekend retreat in Kirtland. The climax of the weekend was a worship service in the Temple in which the gifts of the Spirit were manifest in abundance, sins were forgiven, and covenants to serve the people in grace and power were renewed. And the fruits of that renewal saw eruptions of that same Spirit in outreach in ministry of housing developments for the impoverished, ministries for the elderly, and prison chaplaincy that we in the Stake had never had the guts to try before.
Personally, it had been an experience that sustained me when I finished my graduate degree and came to the East Coast to the “underdeveloped” areas of the US church.
So, as I prepared to return to Kirtland, I was particularly intent that my daughter sense the spiritual importance of the place and the events inside, even if she was going to be spending most of the day outside with me or a former pastor’s wife with whom she was comfortable.
I spent a lot of time in preparation, reading about the “endowment” at the dedication experience in 1836 so I could tell my daughter stories while we were walking the temple gardens — and, yes, looking for good spots to play hide and seek and finding the prettiest flowers and souvenir pieces of gravel.
Community of Christ experts on the history of the Kirtland Temple, Barbara Walden and John Hamer, were interviewed by John Larsen of Mormon Expression, and the interview was transcribed by Mormon Heretic. In response to a question about “the endowment of the mysteries”, John Hamer discusses the differences between the notion of endowment as understood during the Kirtland and Nauvoo periods:
“…So in fact they talk about a great endowment coming upon the saints when they complete the Kirtland Temple. It is a promise that happens, and then it happens in the course of the dedication, but this kind of temple endowment is not a ceremony. It’s not a ritual or a mystery or a secret. It’s essentially an outpouring of spirit. It’s a promise that a gift will happen. The original idea is that you will be endowed with a gift is the original meaning of that. When we speak of a Kirtland endowment, it’s a very different thing from the Nauvoo endowment.”
It was the Kirtland version of endowment that was passed down to me through the RLDS tradition, and it was that idea of endowment I wanted to give to my daughter as her inheritance. It was the notion that to establish Zion, we were going to be given divine help to become far more Christ-like than we have yet been.
That makes me a complete dummy on the idea of endowment as understood in the LDS tradition. Indeed, until I began lurking around the bloggernacle, I didn’t even realize there was a significant difference in the meaning of the terms as the two denominations understood them. That recognition has again caused me to revisit the idea of endowment, and, perhaps surprisingly, see connections to the idea of the “pride cycle”.
The basic world view of the pride cycle is, of course, that it is a cycle. People are lifted up to power and prosperity by obedience to God. They forget the Source of their power and prosperity, fall away, and collapse. The remedy is to remain faithful (or return to the true faith) and avoid collapse.
But this seems to me to miss something essential. Merely remaining faithful may prevent collapse and get one to heaven, but more may be required to bring Zion on earth.
Power and prosperity bring with them new moral choices. An illiterate, starving man doesn’t have to make the same choices about the proper use of his wealth and talents as the well-fed college graduate. The subsistence farmer doesn’t have to worry about whether his overconsumption is harming the global environment or whether the world will run out of oil. Iceland doesn’t have to worry about whether to intervene in an African genocide.
Abiding in the light given in the past is only a starting point. “If any man lack wisdom…” is not a one-time only offer, nor is it limited to those destined to hold the office of prophet. The idea of endowment as I am coming to understand it implies breaking the pride cycle by moving forward in faith to new and greater outpourings of the Spirit that help us mature as moral beings. The pride cycle is to be replaced by an “endowment cycle” in which the seeming flames of collapse of the old can motivate those who wish to grow closer to the full measure of their spiritual potential. Rebirth to a higher level from collapse — a refinement of human character and spiritual intelligence that can handle greater responsibility and gifts, not merely a cyclic repetition of the same human weaknesses generation after generation. It is going forward into the future with God, not going back to find Him.
As much as my experiences at Kirtland endowed my past to bring me to the present, it is the degree of my willingness to be endowed by the Spirit through the tests and moral choices of today that prepares me for tomorrow. That is the meaning of endowment to this dummy.