Robert A. Rees, Ph.D.
It is not uncommon for Latter-day Saints to hear jokes, ridicule and derisive remarks about the sacred underclothing Mormons wear. On late-night television, on blogs, on YouTube and the Internet one hears these garments referred to as “weird,” “bizarre,” or “magic” underwear, often accompanied by sniggers (or more likely guffaws) and rolled eyes. Because Mormons tend to be regarded as square rather than as simply quaint, media commentators have less compunction in mocking their sacred clothing than they would a Jewish yarmulke, a Sikh turban, or the mitre worn by Catholic bishops.
As someone who teaches religion, I am aware of how easy it is to ridicule the beliefs of others, to take what some believers consider sacred and make it seem silly or ridiculous. In my classes at Graduate Theological Union, I sometimes begin a course by showing clips of Hindu rat worshipers, Pentecostal handlers of poisonous snakes, Catholic exorcists, or Day of the Dead celebrants. I do this not to ridicule any of these practices but to demonstrate how difficult it is for believers to consider their own religious rituals and practices as strange and how easy it is see others’ rituals and practices so. That is, every religion has liturgical practices, rituals, ceremonies, or rites of passage that they see as sacred but which others might see as strange or even aberrant. And so it is with sacred undergarments worn by Latter-day Saints.
Sacred garments (outer and under) have been a part of religious practice for millennia. Genesis speaks of “coats of skins” made by God for Adam and Eve, Exodus speaks of “holy garments” worn by Aaron and other priests, the Secret Gospel of Mark alludes to Jesus teaching the “mystery of the Kingdom of God” to a young man “wearing a linen cloth” over his naked body, and other early Christian Apocrypha describe both Jesus and his disciples as clothed in special white garments and associate the donning of such garments as clothing oneself with the Holy Ghost or with Christ himself. Thus, in wearing such garments, Latter-day Saints signify that they are putting on the new man or new woman or, in biblical language, the armor of God (Eph. 6:11).
Orthodox or Hasidic Jews wear an undergarment called a tallit katan in remembrance of covenants made with God (see Numbers 15:39-40). Sikhs wear Katchera, cotton underwear signifying their commitment to purity, as well as a variety of outer clothing and accoutrements. Holy clothing or vestments (robes, cassocks, surplices, veils, tunics, etc.) are a part of nearly every world religion, ancient and modern, and have special symbolic significance for adherents. Latter-day Saints wear sacred clothing under their regular clothing because it represents their personal, private covenant with God. It is a way of taking the temple into the world without making it open to ridicule or mockery.
I have worn such garments (as Mormons call them) from the time I was eighteen and first went to a Mormon temple. On that occasion and on numerous subsequent visits, I have made or renewed covenants to be a better, more faithful person, including trying to be a better Christian. Each symbol on the garment represents a specific devotional covenant, the totality of which can be summed in Christ’s two great commandments—to love God and to love others as ourselves. Thus, Latter-day Saints attempt to show their inward covenants through outward acts of devotion and service.
We live in a world in which the secular seems increasingly to triumph over the sacred, in which the number of sacred spaces and experiences seems to be diminishing as a part of our lived human experience. In actuality, we lose an essential part of our collective culture when we lose the sacred. To consider nothing sacred is, to paraphrase Rumi, to create a division between our hearts and our ability to act in the world. Believers of all persuasions (and hopefully non-believers as well) have a responsibility to preserve the sacred, to keep at least some flame of the holy alive. If Thoreau was right in stating, “In wildness is the preservation of the world,” we might also say, “In the sacred is the preservation of humanity.”
Originally published in religionnews.com 24 August 2012; Oakland Tribune, Contra Costa Times, 1 September 2012.