Mind on Fire Vlog – Episode One: “I would suffer my life to be taken.”

This episode is 94% Temple, 6% Beer. Mostly I talk about the throat-slitting penalty that was removed from the endowment ceremony in 1990, when I still had the (mis)fortune of experiencing it.

I would love to hear your feedback.


Most of my attributions got edited out (I had to seriously shorten my ramblings, believe it or not), and I had intended to include them in the accompanying post, so thanks Wren, for the reminder! The excerpts I read are from “Bad Blood, Good Blood: Mountain Meadows Massacre and the Atoning Sacrifice of John D. Lee,” a paper I wrote for a religious studies class three years ago. I also quote from David Buerger’s The Mysteries of Godliness: A History of Mormon Temple Worship. You can download the entire paper (in Microsoft Word format). It was great fun to write, stringing together with some academic glue (a la Rene Girard) a massacre and secret vengeance oaths and bloody sacrificial atonement by firing squad. Here’s the part I read in the video:

The vengeance oath is but one of several that Mormons took in temple ceremonies. In three of these oaths, temple initiates promised not to reveal certain secret hand gestures, passwords, and penalties associated with these “signs.” The penalties were particularly violent in their symbolism and deserve some attention.

The penalties had verbal and somatic components. In the nineteenth century, Mormons taking several of the oaths would describe the manner of death (i.e., the penalty) prescribed for breaking the respective vow while pantomiming the manner of death. In 1927, most of this harsh language was removed:

The language of a number of penalties was tempered. For example, previously initiates had agreed that revealing endowment secrets would bring these penalties: “[Let my throat…be cut from ear to ear, and my tongue torn out by its roots”; “our breasts…be torn open, our hearts and vitals torn out and given to the birds of the air and the beasts of the field”; and “your body…be cut asunder and all your bowels gush out.” Now these penalties simply alluded to “different ways in which life may be taken.” (Brueger, p.141. Also, see note #14.)

The penalties were not a purely Mormon innovation. Joseph Smith probably was inspired by Masonry when creating the oaths and penalties. There are parallel actions and language in Masonic rites, and there is plenty of evidence that Smith and many men who were close to him were practicing Masons in Nauvoo.

The penalties were wholly eliminated from the endowment when the ceremony was streamlined in April 1990. I participated in my own endowment rite a month before these changes were made and had the opportunity to enact the penalties before they were removed. I remember two of the three. When the officiator administered one of the oaths and said (speaking for us), “it would be better for me to take my life,” those of us in attendance mimed, in a stylized manner, slitting our throats from one ear to the other (with our thumb representing the knife). In a later oath we mimed our own disembowelment. Speaking from personal experience, I have a visceral response to this part of the ritual that I do not have to any other elements. The throat-slitting action is particularly strong in my memory, perhaps because it is reinforced by its usage in popular culture outside of the Mormon temple. It is acknowledged that ritual is a powerful teaching tool; I suspect that violent ritual is even more so, because it has the potential to provoke an instinctive visceral response that is then associated with the contextual teaching.

Finally, the beer. 😛 It was an Alesmith Wee Heavy Scotch Ale (our favorite, Kiltlifter from Moylan’s, falls into this category). You saw the head in the video. The feel was kinda lighter than I expected from a dark, high alcohol ale. It is strong on the malt, sweet, and what bitter there is comes as much from the smokey, caramelized malt as from the light hops. Since I dream of the highlands, and am not so much into hops, this is a *perfect* beer for me. Cheers!


  1. Alli

    You know, I went through the temple for the first time in 1992, so I missed the throat slitting. This once again reinforces my position that fear is a huge part of this religion, a religion that preaches “love”. Mind you, I am still an active member of my ward. Fear.

    The power is destructive emotionally in myself. I’m a lifelong member, and I was raised to fear the consequences of not being “obedient”. Sound familiar? Now that I’m almost 36, we made the mistake of moving for work to Salt Lake City from So Cal 7 months ago, and I haven’t been to the temple since. We watch Big Love, and I have to say…it is a beautiful ceremony. It’s amazing to feel a part of that congregation, but the fear I live in daily because I might just slip and say the F word, or because I might just crave a great glass of red wine every once in a while (I love wine)…this is what makes me put on that dress every Sunday. I already have the fear of God in me, bred in me, can you imagine the fear I’d have been living with had I experienced the part of the ceremony you’re speaking of? Have Mercy.

    Oh and congrats on the first Vlog! Keep it up!

  2. What were you reading from; was it a paper you wrote or something specificially for this video?

    Does this mean you saw the temple video with Gordon Jump of WKRP fame in it?

    What, no beer review? I was hoping for a description of its smoothness. Or at least a belch. 😉

  3. John

    I’ve updated the written portion of the post considerably, thanks to Wren’s queries. Thanks, Wren!

    Alli, I’ve been out of the church for several years now, and I’m still trying to kill the traces of fear. And having lived through the same move from SoCal to SLC, I feel for you. Hang in there!

    Maybe we’ll have to smuggle up a bottle of California vino for you the next time we drive up…

  4. As usual, I can’t speak from the standpoint of someone who has ever been Mormon, but fear was a powerful motivator for me, as well. Less physical violence and more social repercussions, including being shunned. As Alli says, being part of a community was, for me, the most compelling part of the religion (and why I spend so much time here at Mof).

    It’s interesting to get insight into rituals that I have no experience of & to get the reactions of those who did. I wonder how much these violent images played into your eventual decision to become a Quaker.

  5. Alli

    John – bring the wine.

    xJane – your last sentence…I wonder the same thing! Quakerism is so peaceful in comparison.

  6. Fear is an interesting element of religion. No religion shies away from fear in its teaching. Everyone is taught to FEAR god, but remember he LOVES you. If I am to be godlike shouldn’t my children fear the consequences of disobeying me? They interesting thing to me about the concept of a god/gods is that believers are in essence loving an abusive parent.

    Fear the wrath of god who loves you but if you do not live up to his expectations you will burn in hell for eternity.

    It is a fascinating concept to me, and to be honest I don’t have my head wrapped all the way around it. I still have twinges of that built in fear from the faith I have abandoned and even as I write this, I still feel like I am an errant school boy. I guess my spot in hell is reserved…anyone got a light?

  7. joule

    Wow, I’m a lifelong member too. Certain trials have not resolved, despite doing all I could and I’ve turned away and look at everything religous, suspiciously. My husband and children are active, I drag myself there for their sake. No one ever told me about the throat cutting mentality. No wonder the oldies are so by the book.

    I told the bishop I wouldn’t take a calling and have felt shunned in some ways, although I don’t try to mingle and participate much anymore.

  8. G

    “I have a phD in horrible-ness!”
    /snort!! hahahaha!

    on a more serious note,
    I went through the temple after the harsher oaths had been taken out, but I remember my mother talking about them~ once she even showed me the sign, the one that you just showed, the thumb-slicing-the-throat sign.
    She’s a TBM.
    I have wondered what her feelings on those oaths were; it strikes me as odd that she would have shared them with me (if I remember correctly, I think she told me when I was preparing to go for the first time.)

    A year or so ago I was sitting in gen. conference and was shocked at how every talk seemed to imply fear: fear of being led astray, fear of loosing testimony, fear of being deceived by satan, fear of making a mistake, of being misguided… fear fear fear. I had never picked up on that message before.

    I guess my point is that even without symbolic (but explicit) vows of death and disembowelment, there is still a heavy implicit message of fear wrapped up in questioning the church.

  9. So true, G. Mormons are a peculiar people; they are assailed on all sides by the devil and his minions; they must fight to keep their testimonies from withering; their families are under attack by the gays; they will be held accountable before god and jesus and joseph smith and their bishop for failing to fulfill their responsibilities and warn their neighbors and teach their children and proclaim the gospel; they must keep journals and have gardens and keep food storage and get married and have children or they are Bad Mormons.

    I think a lot of the relief I felt upon leaving Mormonism was the weight of all this fear dropping from my shoulders. Now I’m afraid of normal things, like being mugged or speaking in public or losing my job or failing out of school or being hit by a car or being alone for the rest of my life or… 😀

  10. Sean:
    Mormons are not peculiar in this way. Christianity in general is very similiar look at the kids going to Jesus camps who come away believing they are fighting a war to save souls. Or Hell House a christian haunted house that is used as a tool to scare people into coming to Jesus.

    Mormonism is a very young religion. As such it would be fair to classify it as approaching/entering Adolescence. Everything is a big deal one family member, one ward member, etc… falling away or not living their religion is a big deal. The same way in jr. high/high school if the boy/girl you had a crush on didn’t return the expected affection your life was over and you would never love again.

    Catholicism experienced this… and their adolescence was particularly violent… The middle ages…

    Now that I think about it American protestant Christianity is hitting their Adolescence as well. Though their birth and childhood was much less traumatic.

    Fear I think is going to be a staple of any religion but as young religions are figuring themselves out it is far more pervasive in all levels of the church. As religions mature the devout and strict adherents use their fear to guide their lives and try to admonish the less devout but in the end accept that it is unrealistic to try and control the everyday practice of their own constituencies and become content to preach the line and save themselves, leaving the major fear based preaching and living to the fundamentalists and radicals…

    American Christianity and Mormons will probably evolve this way in time and accept what they really have control over and seek to profess their beliefs and let the cards fall where they may(i.e. they will mature)…

    until then however brace yourself for the equivalent of a hormone infused adolescence…


  11. Eric, I don’t necessarily disagree with anything you wrote. However, that whole sentence (including “Mormons are a peculiar people”) was meant to be read from within the Mormon viewpoint of beleaguered uniqueness. A viewpoint I hope I have made clear that I no longer share.

  12. Eric—I’m intrigued by this idea of a life-cycle of religions. Certainly such a life-cycle is visible in countries (see: Europe v. the United States). I shall have to keep this in mind as a look at religions in the future.

  13. No analogy is perfect, I use this one because it seems to fit for the most part. In a human life-cycle, you grow until you hit your peak and then decline until you eventually die. Most religions do this as well.

    When you are born there is generally a lot of excitement around you. You are new something no one has ever seen. when a religion starts it is similar. it is something new that excites people both good for good and bad.

    as you hit adolescence rationality takes aback seat to hormones and the self involvement that comes along with your process of self discovery. Religions function very much the same way. Members of the religion believe they have the truth and often despite the conventions of good behavior and manners try to convince (sometimes force) others to accept their beliefs. I n a sense this is done in good faith because the believers do honestly believe that what they do is for the benefit of those they do it to. It feeds into a Mob mentality that eclipses rational thought. The same way we through a tantrum when Mom or Dad won’t by us the new (insert Fad item) that we just can’t live without.

    Then a dramatic event, or series of events happens, in human development often it is High School Graduation, College, First mature relationship, First Real Job, A child, etc… and the fire of our youth is quenched and we look inward and seek to maintain what we have. Religions experience this too… The Renaissance, The ottoman Empire, The Greek Republic, Etc..

    From then on it is maintain until death/obscurity. Religions become obscure or die as new religions replace them or scientific thought disproves them…

    I ought to do more research on this… I think this might make an interesting paper or book…

    who knows…

  14. I watched this with interest. I went through the temple for the first time in 1981 and was a frequent temple-goer. At first, I was not cognizant of the violence of the motions. They are done smoothly, and as you mentioned, stylistically, and so their import was lost to me until much later. By then, the ceremony was ingrained in me. In fact, I continue to this day to surreptitiously make the same motions that were taken out of the ceremony in 1990. I wish someone could please explain to me why I have this strange compulsion.

    I also want to use this space as a confessional to admit that I am losing all of my certainty about anything religious, while maintaining all of my guilt and my fear. It is driving me insane, and I really need counseling or medication or both, yet I have some weird disgrace or dishonor stigma that will not allow me to consider such an impropriety.

  15. I went through after the most violent of the signs/tokens were taken out. But even the ones that I experienced, when I really started looking at the symbols and what they were implying were reminiscent of slaughter.

    Oddly enough, those weren’t the parts that had the deepest psychological impact on me. The parts where women were denigrated (even as we were placed on pedestals) were what caused me the most pain and dissonance.

    BiV, I’m sorry things are so painful for you right now. You know we’re here for you, right?

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