Stars, planets, moons and temples
Mormonism is unique among Christian denominations for many reasons. One of the things that make it so distinctive was its founder’s interest in bringing ancient texts to light. Another was the instigation of temple use, a practice thought to be largely pagan and thus suspiciously sacrilegious by normative Christianity.
While it may not be readily apparent at first, upon closer inspection we will see that ancient sacred texts and temple use are closely related.
While the rest of Christianity contented itself with the Bible, Joseph Smith endeavored to establish the Book of Mormon as an equally important ancient, sacred record. Indeed, he tried to impress on modern Christianity the value of ancient records, beyond the Bible, to the practice of true religion.
Public interest in things from Egyptian antiquity has always been high, but it was far more than mere curiosity that compelled the latter-day prophet to purchase the Egyptian papyri that ultimately resulted in the Pearl of Great Price and the facsimiles therein.
At present, much is written and said by Latter-day Saints about the Book of Mormon, its origins in antiquity and its advent in modern times via angelic ministrations.Surprisingly, little dialog is devoted to the Pearl of Great Price, even less to the Egyptian elements found therein to which Joseph dedicated considerable time and effort. Perhaps that is so because it deals with some topics—stars, planets and moons—that seem largely foreign to religion, as is commonly supposed, topics that seem better suited to cosmology, astronomy or archeology. In fact, Joseph Smith and the church he founded have taken criticism from both science and religion over the years because he ventured into these areas.
Stars, planets and moons are seldom foremost in the minds of Latter-day Saints when contemplating the gospel. Indeed, modern Christianity as a whole has long since divested itself of nearly all such references since discussions of such objects is more typically thought to be the purview of either ancient pagan religions or modern science.Ministers and evangelists in Joseph Smith’s day were horrified by the prophet’s penchant for discussing such things in the context of the gospel. The stigma of being a “cult,” attached to Mormonism by orthodox Christianity, stems partly from these associations.
All this begs the question that nearly all Saints avoid: What seemed so vital about documents from the Egyptian culture and its religion that a prophet of God would dedicate so much time and effort to explaining their meaning and symbolism, as seen in the Pearl of Great Price facsimiles? One can easily see the value of translating the books of Moses, Enoch and Abraham for the doctrines contained therein, but what value can be gleaned from studying Egyptian hieroglyphs? Did Joseph include them simply to establish his credentials as a bona fide translator of ancient texts? Or was he pointing the way to a subject helpful in a thoroughgoing understanding of the gospel?
The answer to those questions may be provided by considering the other part of the equation cited at the outset of this article: modern temples.
The two primary temples of this era, the Nauvoo and the Salt Lake, were liberally decorated with icons of stars, planets and moons. This they have in common with both ancient texts and the temples of yesteryear, those erected by all ancient cultures. Those temples, too, were decorated with symbols of stars, planets and moons, along with illustrations of their gods, goddesses and a multitude of other religious icons peculiar to each culture.
Scholars readily acknowledge the strong and pervasive influence of astral beliefs at the heart of those ancient religions, reflected in the astronomical alignments and astrological references built into those edifices—from Angkor Wat to Tiahuanaco, from Teotiuacan to Stonehenge, from Karnak and the pyramids at Geza to Solomon’s temple and those erected by all Middle Eastern and Mediterranean cultures, including the Greeks and the Romans. They all venerated the heavens and the orbs they saw there. It is for that reason, for example, that our modern names for the planets come from the Roman pantheon.
Thus, the Prophet not only pointed to the use astronomical imagery in ancient texts by exploring the meaning of the icons he found on the Egyptian papyri that came into his hands, he also employed similar astronomical imagery in modern temples. Indeed, as in ancient temples, it is astral imagery that almost exclusively dominates modern temple iconography. In so doing, Joseph Smith, and Brigham Young after him, simply authenticated or validated the connection between the restored gospel and ancient beliefs.
The iconography and rhetorical imagery of the restored gospel stand side by side with those of ancient cultures as reflected in their writings and their art.
All this is as it should be if, as Joseph Smith maintained, his was a restoration of the original gospel, which was taught universally by inspired prophets anciently. The true religion should retain and display those same ancient traditions, rhetoric and icons.
But it also suggests an extraordinary value in studying ancient history to understand what the ancients knew and what a modern prophet knew about the past that compelled them to make astral iconography, past and present, an integral part of religion and temple iconography. After all, such imagery is not employed simply to keep authors and artisans busy writing and chiseling.
Perhaps the clue as to why knowledge of the heavens is a vital part of the true religion and how that knowledge spawned a multitude of icons in ancient cultures the world over can be found in several passages of scripture, each of which say essentially the same thing: the heavens and the earth we know now are not the heavens and earth the ancients knew; and conversely the heavens and the earth we know now will be replaced by “new heavens and a new earth.” (Isaiah 65:17; 2 Peter 3:7, 13; Revelation 21:1; Ether 13:9; Doctrine & Covenants 29:23.)
Such dramatic language suggests radical changes in our solar system anciently. These sweeping and dynamic changes would have caused tremendous natural disasters, paroxysms of nature, wiping out large populations and dramatically altering Earth’s environment—changes that would have left few survivors to experience entirely “new heavens and a new earth,” changes that compelled the ancients to include them in their religious and cultural traditions.
Indeed, one school of thought suggests that the ancients were consumed with rehearsing the celestial drama that brought about those sweeping changes, that they made every attempt to preserve that knowledge in rite, ritual, architecture, art, text and religion since they considered it sacred as well as historical.
This would explain the compulsive use of cosmological imagery in ancient temples by their builders. Temples were specifically designed by the ancients to reflect, recall and reconstruct a lost cosmology, one that existed before the heavens and the earth suffered dramatic, sweeping changes.
Thus, our modern temples become living repositories of ancient wisdom and tradition, as well as venues for making sacred covenants.
This view would also explain the admixture of two distinct cosmologies seen in those same edifices, leading to confusion among modern scholars about their meanings and use. Temple iconography juxtaposed the present cosmology and that of the past, combining both in one presentation. To those who understood the profound transformation in the heavens and the earth anciently, such juxtaposition was proper and correct, not confusing and mysterious. Only modern man, divested of his cosmological heritage, would be perplexed by this coincidence.
And those two facts explain why a modern prophet would resurrect the use of that same imagery in modern temples, they being a restoration of ancient convention.
The marvel and the tragedy is that we, their posterity, have confused, denied and ultimately rejected that part of the record bequeathed us, that we consider it mere exaggerated myth and legend. Even the inspired efforts of a latter-day prophet to bring these ideas to light have gone largely ignored by those who practice the religion he founded.
The fact that Latter-day Saints almost universally discount such a possibility, even though statements of their prophet, their revealed scriptures and their temple iconography indicate otherwise, reveals a fatal flaw in their comprehension of the legacy they inherited from Joseph Smith in the magnificent revelation that comprises this latter-day restoration of the gospel.
© Anthony E. Larson, 2002