Saturday, June 16, 2007


The following is the next in our series of lessons dealing with the Reform Mormon Endowment. This lesson deals specifically with the second of the four covenants administered in the Endowment. Unlike other Mormon traditions, Reform Mormonism does not require a special Temple Recommend or some proof of “worthiness” in order to celebrate the Endowment. Anyone sixteen years of age or older who identifies him or herself a Reform Mormon, who understands the covenants and is willing to enter into them, may participate in the ordinance. Currently the Endowment is presented in spaces temporarily set apart and dedicated for the ordinance, during special “Temple Events.” If you would like more information on having such an event in your area, write us at: or


Each of the four covenants administered in the Reform Mormon Endowment is related to one of the Four Principles of Reform Mormonism. The second covenant is related to the principle of Knowledge.

Often many other religious traditions have looked upon human knowledge with suspicion. Many teach that the only knowledge which benefits the individual is mystical knowledge or knowledge from some supernatural sphere or realm

But Mormonism—born on the American frontier of the early 19th century—developed an opposite view. Knowledge and understanding were linked. Even early Mormonism’s claims of supernatural revelation had as their objective increasing one’s understanding regarding the nature of God, humanity, the past, the earth and the solar system—knowledge that would benefit people not only in “eternity” but also in this “temporal sphere” of life on earth. By the mid-1840’s Mormon theology had more or less dismantled the wall that had traditionally separated the profound from the mundane, the eternal from the temporal, the sacred from the secular, and the human from the divine.

In the new vision presented by Mormonism, the “Truth” was not mystical, arcane or otherworldly. Mormon scripture defined “Truth” in much the same terms as any secular dictionary might define the word: “Truth is a knowledge of things as they are, and as they were, and as they are to come.” (Doctrine & Covenants 93:24)

Mormonism became unique in that religiously speaking “Truth” became an individual’s knowledge of existence itself.

Armed with knowledge, individuals are free to use their agency (Free Will) to decide what their values should be, what actions they should take and how they should live their lives. In the process, mistakes will be made; wrongs will be committed—both intentionally and unintentionally.

What does one do when one is guilty of wrong-doing?


As is evident from reading “The Book of Mormon,” Joseph Smith (the First Mormon) initially put great emphasis on the traditional Christian doctrines of repentance and faith in the Atonement of Christ

This doctrine teaches that Christ had to suffer, spill his blood and die on the cross in order to atone for the sins and mistakes of the individual. Only by exercising faith in Christ’s “sacrifice” could one escape eternal damnation.

At this early point in Mormon history, God was envisioned in a traditional Christian way: God was all powerful, holy and righteous. Being just, He could not tolerate in His presence anyone who was not completely pure and holy. Thus even the most common human shortcoming or weakness rendered an individual unworthy to enter God’s presence. Indeed, the supposed human inclination toward sin meant that all humanity was doomed from ever being united with God. In this regard, the majority of “The Book of Mormon” teaches the well-know doctrines of 19th century evangelical, fundamentalist Christianity.

This stark, negative view of humanity within early Mormonism not only changed during the first decade of the movement’s history, but had been completely discarded by the mid-1840’s. Toward the end of his life, instead of teaching that God’s holiness required that He damn humans for their frailty, Joseph Smith was teaching, “God is much more liberal in his mercies than we imagine,” and “what is wrong in one circumstance, may be—and often is—right in another.”

Even as the first edition of “The Book of Mormon” (with its Evangelical sermons on the damnation awaiting those who rejected Christ’s atoning sacrifice ) was coming off the printing press in preparation, Joseph Smith began to change his ideas regarding the subject.

In a “revelation” to Martin Harris, written in March of 1830, Joseph began teaching that Christ suffered so that others would not have suffer to if they repented. If they did not repent, then they would have to suffer punishment for their sins. According to Joseph’s evolving vision, this suffering would take place in eternity in a place where punishment (“torment” and “damnation”) were being eternally administered. However, once an individual had finished suffering for their sins in this place, they would be released to a state of salvation. (See “Doctrine & Covenants” 19:1-21) Like his father and paternal grandfather, Joseph Smith embraced the 19th century Unitarian doctrine of universal salvation. As is evidenced in Joseph’s famous “Vision” of the Three Degrees of Glory (published as Section 76 of “The Doctrine & Covenants”), Mormonism rejected the orthodox Christian concept of Hell and eternal damnation very early on in it’s history, and instead taught that all humans being would, in the end, enjoy eternal salvation. Eventually Joseph would teach that the word “Hell” was merely the English translation of the Hebrew word “sheol,” and that rather than a place of damnation, torment and suffering, it signified nothing more than “the spirit world” that awaited all humans after death.

In his March 1839 “revelation,” Joseph explained that Biblical references to “eternal damnation” and “endless torment” were not to be taken literally, but that they were merely literary devices meant to “work upon the hearts of the children of men.” (Doctrine & Covenants 19:7)

In other words, Joseph, in his early 20’s, thought people needed to be frightened into doing what was right; that the threat of eternal punishment was an effective incentive to live ethically. Since Joseph had spent his teenage years attending Evangelical revivals and as an active member the debating club of the local Methodist church in Palmyra, it’s understandable that he would think this way. However, in the coming years his ideas would change dramatically, evolving to the point that he rejected “fire and brimstone” preaching and scare-tactics. In his 30’s, Joseph often bragged that his approach to governing was to “teach people correct principles and let them govern themselves.”

The views expressed in the March 1830 revelation—that one was not damned or tormented forever, but merely long enough at atone for one’s own sins--was a major departure from orthodox Christianity and from the doctrines laid out in the then forth-coming “Book of Mormon.” Not only was the traditional doctrine of damnation and Hell dismissed (albeit in secret at that point; in verse 21, Joseph told Martin Harris not to show the revelation or its contents to anyone, but to continue preaching repentance)—but the revelation also has implications regarding the traditional doctrine that someone else (Christ) could by proxy suffer for the consequences of another’s wrong doings and mistakes.

Throughout the 1839’s and into the 1840’s, Joseph moved farther away from the traditional Christian doctrine of Atonement, placing more and more responsibility on the individual. By the end of Joseph’s life, he had moved Mormonism beyond Christianity altogether. In his last great sermon (The King Follett Discourse), he did not teach that “salvation” came through Christ or through an Atonement of any sort. Instead he taught “Knowledge is what saves a man….and you have got to learn to be gods yourselves, the same as all gods before you have done.”


Needless to say, humans are not infallible. Even when going into a situation armed with proper knowledge, we may ere. We are often blinded by prejudices and preconceived notions; emotions may get the best of us; judgments made may simply be wrong, and actions taken may result in suffering.

At such times, the ethical thing to do is to assume full responsibility for one’s actions; to acknowledge that one’s choices and actions—regardless of intentions—hurt others and caused harm; to try to make amends, and to learn from one’s mistakes. The past can not be changed—even by a divine act of atonement--but one can always “own up” to the role one played; one can try to relieve any suffering that one may have caused others. In such a case, it would be forgiveness from those whom one has wronged—not forgiveness from God--that one would seek.

From the Reform Mormon perspective taking full responsibility for one’s actions and willing suffering their consequences is in itself godly behavior, This is maturity in action; it is moving beyond the childish stage of either assigning blame to others for one’s action or wishing that someone else could “take the lickin’” for one’s mistakes.

In recent decades, other Mormon traditions—especially the LDS Church—have returned to the evangelical theology of “The Book of Mormon,” insisting that salvation comes only through accepting the sacrificial death of Christ on the cross. To illustrate this idea, a particular modern parable—“He Took My Lickin’ For Me”—has become very popular in LDS Mormon culture.

The story is set in a 19th century school house where the breaking of rules is punished with a whipping (“a lickin’.”) One little boy breaks one of the rules. The teacher explains that in order to be perfectly fair and just, punishment must be administered because the rule was broken. The guilty child is, of course, repentant (out of fear if nothing else) and dreads that fact that now he must be whipped. Feeling sympathy for the guilty boy, another student—who is kind, obedient and never breaks any rules—comes forward and offers to receive the whipping from the teacher so that the guilty boy might be spared the pain. The parable ends with the guilty child feeling a deeo sense of gratitude and loyalty to the righteous student who “took my lickin’ for me.”

This parable is supposed to show how perfect justice and righteousness requires punishment when humans fall short of being perfectly righteous. Supposedly this maudlin little tale explains how—in the eyes of a perfectly just God—an innocent person can suffer and atone for the mistakes and wrong doings of someone else.

But in fact, many intelligent, ethical people would be horrified by this idea, and would think it a grave injustice if someone else were to suffer the consequences of his or her wrong-doing—even if the person who suffered did so willing.

If someone was found guilty of murder, would justice be served if an innocent person—motivated by his or her sincere love for the murderer—volunteered to serve the convicted murderer’s sentence so that he might go free? Few rational people would advocate such a thing because it would seem to be a travesty of justice. Yet in principle, this is the idea inherent on the traditional doctrine of the Atonement.

Such acts of supposed “atonement,’ in fact, do nothing but increase the injustice of the situation—for yet another innocent person suffers needlessly. In the end, such “atoning” acts do nothing to alleviate guilt. In fact, feelings of guilt, shame and unworthiness on the part of the person who committed the original mistake or wrong doing are only increased.

Though the situation may be painful and difficult, ethical maturity and spiritual growth can only come about when individuals take full responsibility for their own actions and take their own “lickins’”—meaning, accepting the consequences of their actions.


Each individual, using the knowledge he or she possesses, will formulate personal values. Each of us, based on our understanding, will decide that certain things have greater value to us than others. Values can not be faked. Other cannot force us to value something against our will. Each of us will perceive reality as we do, until such a time as our minds, by virtue of experience and/or reason, are changed. Values, then, cannot be dictated through commandments—either man-made or divine. The eternal intelligence of the individual remains always a free agent, forever self-governing.

Unhappiness and tragedy usually result when our actions are out of harmony with our values. This is often the case when individuals have one set of internal values (their real values) but set them aside because society, some person, institution or church tells them that such values are sinful or wrong. Out of fear of damnation, rejection or loneliness, people will often externally embrace values dictated by others while struggling to ignore, deny or “overcome” their true, internal values.

But if one accepts the primacy of existence (that the universe is what it is, and that one’s ideas regarding it nature must be consistent with reality), if one respects the agency (Free Will) of others, and if one remains open to the fact that there is always something new to learn, that there is an eternity of knowledge yet to embarced —if one approaches life and ethics in this way, then one can find happiness by embracing one’s true inner values and acting in harmony with them. If one makes mistakes in the process, that in itself becomes a learning experience in which new knowledge is acquired which then alters one’s view of things and thus, changes one’s values.

Having values is a constant; the exact nature of those values will change according to what we learn through our choices, actions and experiences.

If one thinks of one’s highest values as a light, when one follows that light, eventually greater light will be revealed. This is nature of progression.


The second covenant of the Reform Mormon Endowment is to always make choices that are in harmony with one’s values, to accept the consequences of one’s choices and to honor one’s commitments.


1. How have your values changed over the years?

2. What role has knowledge (your understanding of things) played in the formation of your values?

3. What has resulted when you have made commitments that were out of harmony with your real values?

4. Have you ever made commitments based on limited knowledge? What happened when you learned “the whole story?”

5. How can failures, mistakes and accepting responsibilities for harmful actions aid in one’s maturity, spiritual growth and progression?