Joseph Smith as Peeping Tom
This essay hopes to solve a great mystery: the origins of the naked part of the endowment.
Most people know that the signs and tokens of the temple come from Freemasons. And the Adam and Eve part comes from the book of Genesis. But where do the washings and anointings come from?
The lost ceremony
In modern temples, “washings and anointings” refer to applying oil to the head, water to the feet, etc. These are like Biblical practices: kings had their heads anointed with oil, and Jesus famously washed his apostles’ feet. And in the 1836 predecessor to the endowment Joseph Smith did just that: washed feet and anointed heads. (The report also refers to “washing” but that seems to refer to washing their hands etc.). But from 1842 there was another part: you had to get stark naked, with a bathtub! Where did that come from?
Let’s get naked!
Most people don’t know that until the early 20th century, the “washing” required you to stand there naked, with no towel to cover you. Then you got in a bath: this was no symbolic dab of water, your whole body got washed! Here is one of those bathtubs, from the Salt Lake temple in 1911, courtesy of Wikipedia.
In modern times the “washing” is fully clothed and takes about a minute. In fact the whole endowment session, including all ordinances, is over in a couple of hours. But in 1842 it took pretty much all day. For example, when you were finally given underwear you were left sitting on your own for an hour or so (in the version described in the Naked Mormonism podcast). And it was a lot weirder: originally there were no washings for the dead: you only did it for yourself. So your first time was your only time. And this was the days before electric lights: this was a time of shadows, real blood oaths backed by real Danites, belief in all kinds of supernatural things. Getting naked and having someone wash you was just icing on the weirdness cake.
Where did the weird naked stuff come from? One clue is that the endowment is all about the priesthood. We are endowed with power to become kings, and kings are strictly male. So in the 1836 version it was all male. But in 1842 Joseph decided that women should be allowed in. And the ceremony should involve getting naked. Coincidence?
Naked endowments and Peeping Toms
It should be obvious to anyone that a naked bathing ceremony is a Peeping Tom’s dream.
“While the temple ceremony encouraged reverence and decorum, Brigham Young complained that church members sometimes peeked through partitions to observe others being endowed.” (source)
The peeping problem is so obvious, that only Peeping Toms would want a naked ceremony. So where did the idea come from?
The naked ceremony cannot be traced to Freemasonry. And it cannot be traced to anointing kings and washing feet: foot washing was about being humble, and head anointing was about becoming a king. But the naked washing was abut being promised health and strength. It’s just a different concept. We might try to trace it to baptism, except baptism is a completely different concept too and a separate ordinance. Just where did the naked bathing ceremony come from?
The revelation on polygamy
The endowment is closely linked to polygamy: it was invented to bind people in oaths of secrecy, and polygamy at the time was the biggest secret of all. So to understand the endowment we need to understand polygamy. The key text is Doctrine and Covenants 132, and the key passage is verse 39:
“David’s wives and concubines were given unto him of me, by the hand of Nathan, my servant, and others of the prophets who had the keys of this power; and in none of these things did he sin against me save in the case of Uriah and his wife; and, therefore he hath fallen from his exaltation”
What was “the case of Uriah and his wife”? David spied on Bathsheba while she was bathing. David then sent her husband Uriah away to war, so that David could have Bathsheba for himself.
You might wonder how David came to be spying on Bathsheba bathing? This was because David owned the palace and temple, the highest buildings in Jerusalem. Everybody else had small houses. The women could bathe on their roofs for privacy. But David, in his office at the top of his castle, could see them all, and choose any he wanted. As long as Nathan approved.
Modern readers often skim over the “Uriah and his wife” passage without realising its significance. In Joseph’s day the Bible was far better known than it is now. The Uriah story was one of the best known stories of all: the fall of king David! A story of drama, sex, violence, reversals, it has everything! When talking polygamy, this is the most famous example of all! And in those almost-Puritan times, when seeing a woman’s ankle could make a man horny, imagine how this story stayed in a man’s mind. King David could stand on his balcony and see every woman, naked! And then choose to bed the ones he wanted! For a man like Joseph, that idea would tend to crowd out all others. Once referenced it would tend to stay in the mind, no matter what else was being discussed.
Modern readers also tend to forget what Joseph means when he said polygamy, or some aspect of it, was a sin. For years Joseph had been saying “spiritual wifery” was a sin while practising “celestial marriage.” To outsiders they look like exactly the same thing. But Joseph had to reassure his followers that he would never do anything like that. Until he was found out of course. So when Joseph says the Uriah’s wife episode was a terrible sin, that does not mean he would not do it. It just means it was on his mind, and he wanted to reassure followers that he would never spy on their wives in their baths. Oh no sir. Definitely not. Meanwhile, Joseph was planning a new ceremony that involved naked wives and bathtubs…
In the revelation Joseph says this was the only time David sinned. Why was it a sin? 2 Samuel 12 explains:
“The Lord sent Nathan to David. When he came to him, he said, “There were two men in a certain town, one rich and the other poor. The rich man had a very large number of sheep and cattle, but the poor man had nothing except one little ewe lamb he had bought. He raised it, and it grew up with him and his children. It shared his food, drank from his cup and even slept in his arms. It was like a daughter to him. ‘Now a traveler came to the rich man, but the rich man refrained from taking one of his own sheep or cattle to prepare a meal for the traveler who had come to him. Instead, he took the ewe lamb that belonged to the poor man and prepared it for the one who had come to him.’ David burned with anger against the man and said to Nathan, ‘As surely as the Lord lives, the man who did this must die! He must pay for that lamb four times over, because he did such a thing and had no pity.’ Then Nathan said to David, ‘You are the man! This is what the Lord, the God of Israel, says: I anointed you king over Israel, and I delivered you from the hand of Saul. I gave your master’s house to you, and your master’s wives into your arms. I gave you all Israel and Judah. And if all this had been too little, I would have given you even more. Why did you despise the word of the Lord by doing what is evil in his eyes? You struck down Uriah the Hittite with the sword and took his wife to be your own. You killed him with the sword of the Ammonites. 10 Now, therefore, the sword will never depart from your house, because you despised me and took the wife of Uriah the Hittite to be your own.'”
Note the analogy with the traveler and the rich and poor man. The sin was not in taking the lamb, but in being an asshole about it. In ancient times it was good to give your very best to a weary traveler. Clearly this lamb was the best, so yes, the rich man should have taken it. But he should have made a deal with the poor man: explained the situation and offered him ten sheep in return.
Joseph learned from David’s mistake. Joseph did not simply take women by force, like a rapist. The endowment was designed to first get people totally on board with whatever Joseph needed, and to promise them eternal riches in return. Then if people disobey and need to have their throats slit it’s their own choice. The endowment solves the Uriah problem.
I wonder if Joseph saw other parallels between himself and David. The previous year Joseph had sent Orson Hyde away on a mission so he could marry Orson’s wife. And the new endowment ceremony threatened death to any followers who did not accept Joseph’s way. And Joseph previously created the Danites, showing that he was serious about the death threats.
Finally, note that only a prophet (like Nathan) could decide which wives were justified and which were sinful. Luckily, Joseph was himself the prophet. Even luckier, Joseph was also the king. Well, technically the mayor of Nauvoo, but on 11 April 1844 the Council of Fifty declared him “our Prophet, Priest & King.” So if Joseph the king saw a woman and wanted her, it was not a sin as long as Joseph the prophet approved.
Seers and peeping
Joseph was a seer. He saw stuff. He told us “a seer is greater than a prophet”. Joseph began as a glass looker, a scryer, a peep-stone user. His whole schtick was that he could see things that are hidden. Whenever God or nature had ordained that thing was hidden (far away, or buried in the earth, or lost to history), Joseph could pull aside the veil and have a good old look.
Scrying, or seeing, explains everything. For example, the coming forth of the Book of Mormon is a classic example: a spirit guards buried gold, Joseph with his peep stone finds it, and on the night of the autumnal equinox the spirit gives it up. All of Mormonism is about seeing hidden things: spirits and angels and plates and translations that others cannot see.
Nothing can be hidden from a seer. Using a peepstone or crystal ball, or other means, they can see what they are not supposed to see, and nobody else will know.
And what did Joseph look for the most, throughout his life? Apart from gold? He looked for women! As Grant Palmer (“Insider’s View”) reminded us, Joseph was accused of sexually harassing women in every single place he lived. Joseph just loved to see women’s private parts, and if possible then show them his. Leonora Cannon Taylor writes about one of Joseph’s chat up lines:
“…I had many tryals about this time [May-Sep 1843, when Joseph made polygamy public and began naked washing] but I am yet alive, “ [Her next diary entry reads] “Come Joseph Don’t be filling that up with balderdash, ‘how is your garden this year I’ll show you some summer apples my lady’ O Dear.” (source)
I am sure that readers can work out what Joseph meant by the lady’s “garden” and his “summer apples”. A lady’s “garden” is a well known euphemism. And Joseph’s “summer apples”? Apples are harvested in the Fall: summer apples are about the size of very large cherries, and summer is the time to play. If you get my meaning. No wonder Leonora’s reaction was “O Dear”.
As Leonora’s case shows, not all of the women agreed to show Joseph their gardens. This must have been extremely frustrating to him. Until one day Joseph received a revelation of how every single one of his friends’ wives could be naked before him. And specifically have their private parts touched. What an inspired idea!
Sacred ceremonies, including naked ceremonies, had to be performed exactly right. So the prophet, the seer, had to be able to see everything, including the naked part, whenever he wanted. But there was a problem with that. Joseph still remembered that time he saw Mirinda Johnson’s “garden”. And Mirinda’s brother Eli found out. Eli and his friends tarred and feathered Joseph, the mob screamed for Joseph’s castration, and he only barely escaped. That was a close call! Another problem was Joseph’s wife Emma. She had caught him in the barn with one of his lady friends. Another time when she found out about his extra-curricular gardening she kicked the other lady down the stairs. For some reason Emma was not convinced that polygamy was divine, despite God’s clear statement that Emma would be destroyed if she did not let Joseph have any women he wanted. Why couldn’t Emma understand?
Clearly Joseph had to be able to spy on the ceremony without anyone knowing. Not even Emma. Especially not Emma. But how?
A temple designed for a Peeping Tom
Let’s look at the endowment in general. The “Naked Mormonism” podcast shows how it was designed to disorient the woman. It was confusing, scary, full of strangeness and shadows and starting with nakedness, designed to make her feel helpless. The whole point was to get her to a state where she would bow her head and say “yes” to anything.
Now let’s look at the temple that was designed around the endowment. The Nauvoo temple was built for the endowment and has some interesting differences from the Kirtland temple. The Kirtland temple had its own pre-endowment elements (preaching, washing of feet, anointing of heads) but no naked women. The Nauvoo temple was “Kirtland plus naked women”. Can you see the difference?
The difference is the offices. (And the baptistry, to get people used to the idea of bathing.) Pay special attention to the top floor. Naturally you would expect washings to take place in the basement, where the water was, right? Yet Joseph wanted the washing to take place on the top floor. When Joseph died, Brigham Young changed it to the bottom floor like any sensible person:
“Earlier in 1842 there had been suggestions that the upper story of the temple will when finished be used for the ritual purposes, but at the beginning of 1845 Brigham Young decided that upon each side of the font there will be a suite of rooms fitted up for the washings and also in the recesses on each side of the arch on the first story.” (Weeks, p.351)
Why use the cramped and inconvenient upper floor? One obvious reason is that there are no windows there. But look at the design. Despite having less space, the sides are lined with offices. This is where Joseph would do his work, or wait for his time in the ceremony. In other words, when the women (and men) are naked, Joseph would be just a few feet away behind a door. And for the new washing ceremony to be correct, Joseph had to be able to peep from his office whenever he wanted. Whether he used a keyhole, curtain, or crack in the door is anyone’s guess. But his offices had to be on the same floor as the naked women, and close enough to see every detail of what was happening. Because these sacred ordinances had to be done right!
One problem with the “temple designed for a Peeping Tom” theory might be that Joseph planned the temple in 1841, a year before he got the full Masonic treatment and decided naked women could be involved. But the inside design of the temple was not finalised until after Joseph decided he wanted naked women naked women. The design of the temple, like everything else Joseph invented, was constantly changing:
“Governor Thomas Ford of Illinois gained the impression from Mormons themselves that their temple was commenced without any previous plan and that the master builder from day to day during the progress of its erection received directions immediately from heaven as to the plan of the building. […] temple plans remained
general and fluid no complete plans being presented at any one time. […] changes in temple details from first drawings to final building were dramatic” (Weeks, pp 341-2)
In particular, the interior arrangements (and whether the offices were close enough to the flesh for him to see anything) were still being tweaked right up to the end:
“During April another visitor learned that the interior plan is yet undecided upon or rather the prophet has not received a revelation in regard to the interior arrangements. In June  the prophet informed others that the temples interior structure and arrangement had not been decided on.”(Weeks, pp.347-348)
If these were just ordinary offices for ordinary business why would he care? Why not leave that part to the architect? And why put them on the same floor as the ceremony, squashed next to the naked people, unless being squashed together was the whole point?
Conclusion: the “wife of Uriah” principle
Here, then, are all the elements of the new naked bathing ceremony:
- A woman bathes naked. (And men, but the scripture focuses on the woman.)
- The king is in his office at the top of his palace, where he might “accidentally” see the bathing.
- The king then chooses the best polygamous wife.
- This is approved of God as long as all parties agree first, e.g. by being promised great rewards (in heaven)
If this is not the source of the naked bathing ceremony, please provide a better known source from the same general period. Study the Freemasons’ books. Study the Bible. I can wait.
Of course, we do not have video proof of what Joseph did. All we know is that he would be on the other side of a door or curtain while his friends’ wives got naked. Maybe he never peeped? Sure…
The original temple ceremony
(Part 2, the woman’s perspective)
Joseph Smith’s history of chasing women
William Weeks, Architect of the Nauvoo Temple
Polygamy diaries etc.
Tarring, feathering, and almost-castration
Fantastic essay, Faraday! Sure hope you write more for MSP.
So creepy, but so plausible. Thanks for the essay. “Rather than do so . . . I would suffer my life to be taken.” I actually promised that. Makes me almost puke.
Yep — disturbing, and yet… it kind of makes sense…
Funky, creepy, and all the more relevant now that further elements of the temple ceremony have been changed.
Just found this: a whole academic article on the decline of nakedness in Mormon temples: “CONCEALING THE BODY, CONCEALING THE SACRED: THE DECLINE OF RITUAL NUDITY IN MORMON TEMPLES
Journal of Ritual Studies
Vol. 21, No. 2 (2007), pp. 1-21”
This confirms that the initiatory ceremonies had the candidate totally naked. A poncho like covering for modesty was not added until the twentieth century. The need for nakedness reminds me of how male artists used to love to paint nude females. Totally for the art, you understand. Nothing carnal about it. No sir. Definitely not.