Reviews – The Nauvoo Endowment Companies, 1845-1846: A Documentary History

Nauvoo Endowment CompaniesJohn Whitmer Historical Journal, Alma R. Blair
The two-volume documentary history, Joseph Smith’s Quorum of the Anointed, 1842-1845 and The Nauvoo Endowment Companies, 1845-1846, is a welcome addition to the small but growing body of historical literature on a little-known subject in Mormonism. The beginnings of temple endowments and their early developments under Joseph Smith and Brigham Young have tantalized observers both in and out of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints for years. Articles and references by authors such as Michael Quinn and Richard Van Wagoner have been helpful and developed general outlines of the subject.

Quorum of the Anointed and Nauvoo Endowment Companies supply the reader with original documents that have been available to only a few researchers. The editors have combined “all the available” primary documents and put them in chronological order, enabling us to see various accounts of the meetings held in the years covered. The number of accounts mentioning events on particular days is important to get the full picture, even if they seem tedious and repetitious at times. Sources used include memoirs, diaries, temple records of endowments and proxy sealings, manuscript histories, and excerpts from the church’s official history.

We are able to trace the development of the temple rituals and sense the excitement of those who were initiated into Joseph Smith’s intimate group of associates. Both men and women joined in the “prayer circles,” “quorum meetings,” or “anointed quorum” meetings as they were variously referred to. While they were essentially spiritual in their nature and had no administrative power outside their own jurisdiction, the discussions covered many topics and concerns especially in the Joseph Smith years. The “companies” of the second volume was the term used for a group of persons who came through the temple endowments on a specific day and, unlike the “anointed quorum” in Joseph’s time, had no continuity or existence after the day’s ceremonies.

There are helpful forewords, indexes, and lists of those who were in the quorum and companies and those who served as assistants in the temple ceremonies. The indexes are not as complete as some genealogists would like. I found one of my ancestors in the text, didn’t’ mark it, but couldn’t find his name in the index later. Darn! The footnotes are extensive and add greatly to the reader’s knowledge, as does the biographical section on selected individuals. Some of the more interesting parts are reports not directly pertaining to the sacred activities themselves but detailing how the workers were assigned to tasks, how clothing was supplied, how food was provided, and sleeping arrangements made when workers became tired and stayed overnight in the temple.

Several delightful entries commented on the dancing in the temple as a refreshment for the workers. The dancing was followed by mini-sermons given by Brigham Young and Heber C. Kimball. Young said he had been commanded by the Lord in the activity in “mine [the Lord’s] holy house” and “therefore let no Person go fourth in the Dance unless they will covenant to Separate themselves from the world and never again mingle in their Society nor participate in their mirth or amusements this time forth & for ever” (Endowment, 273). Later Young curtailed this activity in the temple fearing it might take away from its central purposes. Other instructions recorded from time to time give insight into the solemnity and spiritual joy felt by those who participated in the endowments.

All of the “helps” really do that for the reader. Without them a novice, and some seasoned readers, would have difficulty making sense of the contents, which are long and complicated. An example is the explanation of the “second anointing” found in the introduction and mentioned in several places. In all, a well-thought-out and executed documentary history of a somewhat arcane subject and period in Mormon history.

Journal of Mormon History, Roger D. Launius
One of the most significant beliefs about Mormon Nauvoo is that it is where Joseph Smith completed his work of restoration. Among the Mormons, a powerful interpretation is that Joseph Smith is significant not just for his life but for his religious innovations. As Ronald K. Esplin commented in an insightful essay about Nauvoo, “Nauvoo was, and is, and will be important to Latter-day Saints because it was the City of Joseph. It was the city he built, where he lived and acted, where he died. Above all, it was the city where he fulfilled his religious mission…. In a very real sense, his other labors were prologue.”1 Nothing was more significant to this achievement than the religious innovations he incorporated into the religion. The two books edited by Devery S. Anderson and Gary James Bergera document in excruciating detail the efforts of Smith and his inner circle to establish the practice of the Mormon temple endowment. As documentary records that range far in reproducing primary source material on the subject, both works are of exceptional value. They open a window into the esoteric practices that emerged in Nauvoo in the 1840s and found their place in some strains of Mormonism following the death of the founding prophet.

Joseph Smith’s Quorum of the Anointed deals with the development of the rituals that took place in the upper room of Joseph Smith’s Red Brick Store beginning in 1842, portions of which were accidentally witnessed by some in the city. For instance, Ebenezer Robinson, who later embraced the Reorganized Church and later still departed from it, for example, described walking innocently into the upper room only to see “John Taylor, one of the twelve Apostles, in a long white garment, with a white turban on his head, and drawn sword in his hand, evidently representing the ‘cherubims and flaming sword which was placed at the east of the garden of Eden, to guard the tree of life'” (p. 79). Robinson was not part of Joseph Smith’s inner circle and did not participate in these ceremonies. Like others who became part of the Reorganized Church, he was repulsed by them.

Not so many others—who embraced the endowment as Joseph Smith taught them, even as it evolved during the last couple of years of the prophet’s life. As George A. Smith recalled in 1874:

He [Joseph Smith] stated that the Twelve were then instructed to administer in the ordinances of the Gospel for the dead, beginning with baptism and the laying on of hands. The work was at once commenced. It soon became apparent that some had long records of their dead, for whom they wished to administer. This was seen to be but the beginning of an immense work, and that to administer all the ordinances of the Gospel to the hosts of the dead was no light task. The Twelve asked Joseph if there could not be some shorter method of administering for so many. Joseph in effect replied—”The laws of the Lord are immutable, we must act in perfect compliance with what is revealed to us. We need not expect to do this vast work for the dead in a short time. I expect it will take at least a thousand years.” (38)

These ideas anchor the faith of the Latter-day Saints to this day. This work does a fine job of documenting through primary sources how the ideas emerged in Nauvoo. Arranged chronologically, various sources are connected together to describe the process of teaching these ideas among the church’s elite.

The Nauvoo Endowment Companies is in essence a sequel to Joseph Smith’s Quorum of the Anointed. It deals with efforts after Joseph Smith’s death to ensure that the temple endowment was administered to as many Saints as possible prior to the departure of the main part of the church from Nauvoo in 1846. Again, it arranges in chronological order the many accounts of temple work during 1845 and 1846. The washings and anointings; the eternal marriage ceremonies; the ritual passage from the Garden of Eden through the telestial, terrestrial, and celestial glories; the adoptions; and other endowments depicted in these primary accounts suggest the evolution of the rituals even after the death of Joseph Smith and the promulgation of this aspect of Mormon theology among the rank and file in the church.

The events of this effort are related in such accounts as this one by Abraham Owen Smoot:

On Saturday the 18th of Dec[ember] 1845, having been called on by the Council of the Twelve Apostles, I went to the Temple in Nauvoo to receive my endowment. At the hour of 8 o’clock in the morning I was received into the preparation rooms, with several others of my brethren, and I was there prepared to be conducted into the washing and anointing room, where I received my washings in clean and pure water, preparatory to my anointing, which I received under the hands of Samuel Bent, President of the High Council. I was then presented with a garment, b[e]aring the marks of the Priesthood, which I was instructed to wear as a prevention from evil. I was now prepared for the reception of further ordinances in the House of the Lord which were to me sublime, great and glorious, making on my mind endurable impressions, or as the prophet said, “engraving upon the heart or writ[t]en upon its inner parts &c.” (82-83)

The haste with which these endowments were undertaken is revealing. On February 6, 1846, the last day before endowments were suspended, 512 people in eight different companies went through the Nauvoo Temple. The intention of making these ceremonies available to as many of the Latter-day Saints as possible prior to departing from the city was apparent in these actions. Such widespread administration helped to standardize the practice among those who went west with Brigham Young.

What is most remarkable about both of these books from my perspective is the hierarchies created in the rituals in which men were endowed to become kings and gods and women to become queens and priestesses. The Mormon temple concept, as it emerged in Nauvoo with its secrecy, ritualistic washings and anointings, incantations, preoccupation with Old Testament images, and elaborate rites providing for eternal exaltation during which faithful Mormons would “inherit thrones, kingdoms, principalities, and powers, dominions, all heights and depths” (D&C 132:20), implies that those who did not experience this same endowment must occupy an eternally subservient station. The temple ritual as documented here always mandated a second-class position for women beneath their priesthood-holding husbands, but women of the faith would be exalted above all others. Did this set of ideas emerge ambivalently over time or was it deliberately fostered by status anxiety or other more subtle factors?

Both Joseph Smith’s Quorum of the Anointed and The Nauvoo Endowment Companies are welcome additions to the literature of Mormon Nauvoo. They present highly useful documentary materials for all to review. Historians will find them helpful in understanding the evolution of the Mormon temple concept and the practice of rituals in the city. Genealogists and believing LDS will profit from the wealth of biographical and canonical material contained in these works.

1. Ronald K. Esplin, “The Significance of Nauvoo for Latter-day Saints,” Journal of Mormon History 16 (1990): 72.

Midwest Book Review, John Burroughs
The Nauvoo Endowment Companies, 1845-1846 is a compilation of the original, scribed documentation of all activities and events that took place inside the Nauvoo temple of the Latter-day Saints (Mormons) the two months in which it was in operation, December 1845-February 1846. Since it is a primary source, it is of paramount insight to historians, particularly those studying the role of women in Christianity in general and Mormonism in particular, as the Mormon beliefs concerning female subservience and male dominance (“Adam, being full of integrity and not disposed to follow the woman nor listen to her, was permitted to receive … the priesthood”) is clearly spelled out. The role of the church that purported obedience to the law of the land yet demanded converts to swear vengeance against the murderers of Joseph and Hyrum Smith, the trials of its often persecuted followers, and the descriptions of ceremonies and events including live dancing in the temple offer a glimpse into daily Mormon life over a hundred and fifty years ago. Genealogists will find the documentation of sealings, including polygamous unions, particularly valuable. A superb, in-depth reference, though the fine interpretation of often dry records and methodical documents is almost entirely left up to the reader.