Evolving Temple Practices: Early Church and Today

As the first temple of the Restoration (and the only one completed in the lifetime of founder Joseph Smith Jr.), Kirtland Temple holds a special position for everyone in the Latter Day Saint movement.  Although owned by Community of Christ, the temple is a pilgrimage destination open to members of all the different churches and every one else interested in history and historic sacred spaces.

The majority of visitors to Kirtland are members of the LDS Church (who make up an overwhelming numerical majority in the overall movement), but many of these visitors find that Kirtland Temple doesn’t match their expectations of what a Mormon temple ought to be.  Where are the rooms for sealings and endowments?  Did the Community of Christ folks remove the baptismal font?

As I noted with the evolution of priesthood ideas and offices in the early church period, early Mormonism was a rapidly evolving movement.  Latter Day Saint ideas of temples changed significantly between the Kirtland and Nauvoo periods and the LDS Church and Community of Christ have retained and emphasized different parts of the shared heritage.   I think this idea can be illustrated in admittedly simplified form with the diagrams attached to this post.


Kirtland Temple was built in response to revelation and dedicated as a “house of prayer,” “a house of learning,” and “a house of order” (Community of Christ D&C 85, LDS D&C 88).  Although everything was more complex in practice, in concept the temple’s three levels were set aside for these purposes.  Assembly worship in large congregations were held in the inner court on the main floor.  The upper court of the second floor was set aside for education, for example training of missionaries called to spread the gospel.  Finally, the attic level functioned as church headquarters with offices for church leaders.

The same interior layout of Kirtland Temple with one court above the other (taking up the lion’s share of space) was replicated in the original Nauvoo Temple*, but because of the temple’s increased scale, headquarters offices were able to be moved to a mezzanine level between the two courts.  However, Nauvoo included new spaces and new functions that did not exist at the time Kirtland temple was built.  A font was included in the basement for the performance of baptisms for the dead and the attic floor had rooms for the endowment and sealing ceremonies.

When Brigham Young’s followers built the four pioneer temples in Utah, Nauvoo was their clear model.  The assembly hall was retained but the secondary hall for education was left out of the plan.  As the Nauvoo-era ordinances became the critical temple function in the Utah church more space was devoted to these practices. (Although the LDS Church has a separate headquarters building from the Salt Lake City Temple, church leaders have special rooms within the temple, which I’ve indicated with the diagram.)  With a few exceptions (like the Washington DC Temple), subsequent Mormon temples are devoted exclusively to Nauvo0-era ordinances.  For this reason, Mormons in Ohio familiar with (for example) the Columbus Ohio Temple will find little in Kirtland to meet their expectations.

Community of Christ, by contrast, has emphasized the other aspects of the temple experience of the early church.  The Temple in Independence ignores Nauvoo developments and takes Kirtland as its direct model, setting aside an inner court for special public assembly worship, and space for education (library/archives, temple school, conferences, training) and space for the offices of church headquarters.  Beyond the Kirtland precedent, in response to 20th century revelation, the Independence Temple has the added function of being dedicated to peace and the promotion of peace and justice.

As with so many things, both churches are drawing from the same shared heritage, even if the end results today look very different.

* The new Nauvoo Illinois Temple dedicated by the LDS Church in 2002 does not replicate the original structure’s interior.  The original temple’s upper court was omitted and the lower court assembly hall is smaller than the original.


13 comments on “Evolving Temple Practices: Early Church and Today

  1. John Harrison says:

    Were any ordinances performed at Kirtland? I was under the understanding that some form of washing of the feet was practiced there.

    Also, I really like the infographics. Are the temples to scale?

  2. John Hamer says:

    The temples are to approximate scale, yes. Feet-washing and also anointing with oil were done in Kirtland, but not as a regularized ordinances. Feet washing is based on the story in the gospel of John and anointing on the old testament practices. These were precursors and precedents for later Nauvoo developments. But there wasn’t a space set aside for feet-washing, which may have actually taken place in an adjacent building.

  3. Thank you for this! It’s fascinating, enlightening, and the visuals are very helpful in understanding.

  4. vanatter says:

    Of course, The Spirit of God Like a Fire had the verse, “We’ll wash, and be wash’d, and with oil be anointed, Withal not omitting the washing of feet;”

    Buerger detailes in chapter 2 of his book The Mysteries of Godliness the extensive ceremony of the endowment which was had at the Kirtland Temple. B.Y. said it was essentially a preview of what was to come later. But still, very much an endowment ceremony. The chapter is very well documented, showing the washing, anointing, and blessing of the Kirtland ceremony.

    Was it Ehat who compared the portions of the Kirtland and Nauvoo endowment, showing that most of the Nauvoo endowment was reflected in the Kirtland setting, only the Nauvoo iteration _set the words_ for the anointing, etc. IOW, in Kirtland they were going by inspiration.

    • John Hamer says:

      The Spirit of God is a such a wonderful hymn, filled with rich imagery. The last verse “How blessed the day when the lamb and the lion shall lie down together without any ire” anticipates Community of Christ’s historic peace seal which is put in relief on the large metal doors in the Temple in Independence.

      You’re absolutely right that there were washings and anointings and feet-washing in the Kirtland era outside and in some cases inside the temple. However, I personally think we tend to view the washing and anointing that took place in Kirtland too much through the lens of hindsight because of their later importance in Nauvoo-era practices and their modern association as “temple work”. In the chart as drawn, the specific idea is to identify spaces set aside for regular use in the different eras.

      “Endowment” in Kirtland was not ritual; it was meant to be a strengthening outpouring of the Spirit as a blessing for completing the command to build a House of the Lord. Lots of things were done in Kirtland, some in the temple and some out, like joint-visions (closing eyes and seeing with spiritual eyes), speaking in tongues, taking communion/sacrament. I think the way to look at washing and anointing in the Kirtland period is to see these as precedents for later practice, rather than to retroject their later importance into the Kirtland period and see them as more important than they were at the time.

      That said, I do agree that the later washing and anointing practices in Nauvoo had the Kirtland-era events as a precedent, just as the word “endowment” was a precedent, albeit one that was repurposed in Nauvoo.

  5. […] it’s not the only part that was changed. (Actually, it’s interesting to note how much Mormon temples changed in purpose during the early days of the church.) The colorful BoA has distracted us from the […]

  6. wes says:

    nice article and great graphics. i am curious as to why the baptism for the dead ritual practiced in Nauvoo is left out of current Community of Christ practice? Am I correct to assume the Independence temple is open to the public and that public worship is held there?

    • John Hamer says:

      Thanks, Wes. The temple in Independence is open to the public and public worship is held there. In the Community of Christ tradition, baptism for the dead is something that members in Nauvoo did to connect themselves to their deceased loved ones and other predecessors. It could therefore be useful as a spiritual formation ritual for the living; but it is not an essential or necessary saving ordinance for the dead.

  7. Doug says:

    Thanks John for this post.
    How each church developed the Temple has always been of interest to me. it seems to me that the CofC has kept to the basic purpose of the original Temple in Kirtland with the Independence Temple of today. Are the practices of LDS Temples mostly derived from the Nauvoo and post Nauvoo periods when other people were in charge after Joseph Smith’s death?

  8. […] the solemn purposes of the temple today. Eventually I found /u/JohnHamer‘s post “Evolving Temple Practices: Early Church and Today” which beautifully and simply illustrates the changes throughout […]

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