Temple Elements in Ancient Religious Communities

The idea of Zion or utopia has fascinated the human race since ancient times. This topic has special meaning to Mormons, since latter-day scripture revealed to Joseph Smith is replete with references to building Zion. What, then, can Latter-day Saints learn from attempts by other groups? One thing we learn, writes Brent Schmidt, is that certain characteristics appeared in some successful ancient communities, characteristics that invoke the temple as known in the Bible and in Latter-day Saint use.

Temple teachings were known and widely dispersed throughout antiquity as a means of forming good communities within religious groups. Indeed, temple themes and practices enlightened charismatic leaders and led to the establishment of several communities in lands surrounding the Mediterranean Sea. Schmidt examines four such communities, founded by Pythagoras in southern Italy, the Essenes at Qumran, Pachomius in Egypt, and Proclus in Athens.

The charismatic leaders of these communities always led their followers to make covenants in temples (or in schools or monasteries, which functioned as temples). These covenants unified the communities, where members often held their possessions in common and had strict codes of conduct.

This ancient pattern did not persist, however. As the Renaissance spread throughout Europe, the notion of an ideal society fell out of favor. Thomas More’s Utopia meant, literally, “no place,” and the idea of “paradise lost” gained traction. Many utopian and socialist experiments failed. But one notable exception was the rise of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. While the Mormons have not succeeded in establishing Zion, they have preserved many aspects of a Zion society, and, significantly, their efforts have always revolved around temple covenants.

Published in BYU Studies Quarterly 50:1
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