The First Endowments

Today marks the 165th anniversary of the first endowments being given in the latter days. At that time, the Nauvoo temple was still far from completion. Baptisms for the dead were conducted in the cellar font, but there was not yet a place for the endowment. The upper room of the Red Brick Store in Nauvoo would have to suffice. “Although on one occasion Joseph Smith stated that in the days of poverty the Saints could obtain their endowments on a mountain, there were no mountains in the vicinity of Nauvoo. Moreover, the surrounding prairie offered insufficient privacy for the administration of temple ordinances…. Apparently the one place where he felt he had enough control of access to insure the required privacy was in his own store.” (1) On 4 May 1842, Joseph Smith gathered nine men (2) and gave them the endowment.

Quoting from Lisle G. Brown (3):

Various ecclesiastical functions, such as the organization of the Nauvoo Relief Society and numerous priesthood councils, were held in the [upper] room. It was also used for secular activities, including municipal meetings, school classes, theatrical presentations, debates, lectures, staff meetings of the Nauvoo Legion, and Masonic degree work. The room went by a variety of names, including… the Assembly Room.

…On 3 May 1842 Joseph Smith began to prepare the Assembly Room for the introduction of temple ceremonies. Five or six men assisted him. Lucius N. Scovil, one of the men, later recalled that the Prophet “told us that the object he had was for us to go to work and fit up that room preparatory to giving endowments to a few Elders.” Another man who helped the Prophet was James H. Rollins: “The Prophet told me to assist in carrying water and other commodities to the room above the store. Afterwards I found out it was to give endowments to some of the brethren.” According to Brigham Young, the room was not well suited for the purpose, for Joseph Smith had to divide “up the room the best he could.” Although it “was arranged representing the interior of a temple as much as the circumstances would permit”, the Prophet told Brigham Young that it was “not arranged right but we have done the best we could under the circumstances.” The completed arrangements provided for washings and anointings to be given in the Prophet’s private office and the endowment in the Assembly Room.

By the forenoon of 4 May the men finished the room. During the rest of the day Joseph Smith initiated a number of brethren into the ordinances. By the time of his death Joseph had given endowments to over sixty individuals, both men and women. During this period the Prophet also used other places than the Assembly Room for the administration of temple ordinances, including the Homestead (his first residence in Nauvoo) and the second floor room in the southeast corner of the Mansion House. A number of ordinances were also given in the home of Brigham Young.

(1) Brown, Lisle G. “The Sacred Departments for Temple Work in Nauvoo: The Assembly Room and the Council Chamber” (1979) 19:3:361. Available online at http://byustudies.byu.edu/shop/pdfsrc/19.3Brown.pdf
(2) Hyrum Smith, William Law, Brigham Young, Heber C. Kimball, Willard Richards, Newel K. Whitney, George Miller, William Marks, and James Adams.
(3) See (1).

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About Tanya Spackman

Tanya was born in Provo, Utah, on a warm July day. After escaping childhood with nothing more than a few scrapes and bruises (except for 5 stitches - oh, and that incident with the staple in the thumb), she graduated from BYU with a degree in molecular biology. Before graduation, she served a mission in Chicago. As graduation neared, she decided lab work really wasn't her thing, and she had no interest in research or teaching (but really, molecular biology is interesting), so she decided to attempt the world of technical writing. Thus, she now works as a technical writer/editor for the Navy in Washington, DC. She loves to read and travel.

15 thoughts on “The First Endowments

  1. Tanya, very interesting stuff. Your post still needs a title. :)

  2. Thanks, Tanya. I already knew that the first endowments were given upstairs at the store, but you brought a lot of details that were new to me.

    I was in Nauvoo last October and I went into the store and asked to go upstairs. The CoC people showed me to the back of the store where the staircase was and I went up. I spent maybe twenty minutes there alone, just sitting and contemplating what had taken place in that room – first endowment, founding of RS, ordination of apostles, etc. Your post brought back many good memories.

  3. What a pity, that a mere 165 years later, the Endowment (including the Initiatory ordinances) has been stripped to a fragment of what Joseph revealed. Of course, this is what happens when you put 99% of the emphasis about temple ordinances on sealing families. The Endowment becomes just a hoop to jump through on the way. Very sad.

  4. Nick, I’m afraid I must completely disagree that the endowment is just a hoop. Yes, I am aware of most of the changes, and yet I don’t see how it has become any less of an incredible thing. I mean, the things that happen in the endowment – the things we are endowed with – are amazing.

  5. Geoff, those are indeed good books. I really enjoyed The Temple in Time and Eternity. Okay, I have not yet read The Gate of Heaven, but I’ve heard good things about it. I ordered it about a week ago, though, so it should arrive soon.

  6. I think you misunderstood me, Tanya. I was not saying that the endowment was just a hoop to jump through on the way to the sealing. Rather, I was saying that was how many LDS seem to view it, because the vast majority of emphasis is placed on the sealing. If you think about it, 80-90% of the teaching about why you need to go to receive temple ordinances is “families can be together forever.” You certainly don’t hear much at all about the nature and purposes of the Endowment itself–at least not in comparison.

  7. I would kind of agree with Nick that the more I learn about Joseph Smith’s establishment of the endowment ceremony the more faith-promoting it is. If I ever teach a temple preparation class, I hope to discuss a lot of the faith-promoting history of the endowment, especially the comparisons to ceremonies that took place in the 1st century AD. I think it is impossible to believe that Joseph somehow made those things up without divine inspiration.

  8. Ah, you’re right, I misunderstood you. Sorry about that. I do agree that too many seem to view it as a hoop, and it is unfortunate. They can totally miss the significance of all that happens in the endowment because all energies are focused on the sealing.

  9. Geoff,
    “I would kind of agree with Nick that the more I learn about Joseph Smith’s establishment of the endowment ceremony the more faith-promoting it is. If I ever teach a temple preparation class, I hope to discuss a lot of the faith-promoting history of the endowment, especially the comparisons to ceremonies that took place in the 1st century AD”
    I would love to learn more about this. What references would you suggest? Thanks.

  10. Sally, “The Gates of Heaven,” which is reviewed in the link I provide in number 4, has a lot of this information. Hugh Nibley also discusses this at length.

  11. Great – thanks. With all the informative reading on the blogs, how do you actually get time to read books too?!
    There is so much to learn.

  12. Somewhere on the BYU website, you can find an audio recording that President Woodruff made. I think it’s the earliest audio recording of a Prophet. He only had a few seconds to talk, given the constraints of the media available, and I found it amazing that one of the things he mentioned was that he knew the Prophet Joseph Smith personally, and had received the endowment at Joseph’s hands. It touched me that Pres. Woodruff felt so strongly about this that he made time on a short recording to talk about it.

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