This post deals with aspects of Mormonism which Mormons normally prefer not to discuss publicly, though I try to be tactful and do not violate any specific oaths of non-disclosure. If that bothers you, don’t read the post.
The Garment of the Holy Priesthood (Mormon ritual underclothing, vulgarly yclept “magic underwear”) bears, among other symbolic markings, a mark representing a square over the right breast and one representing a compass over the left.
The symbols of course come from Freemasonry. According to an exposé of Freemasonry written by Joseph Smith’s contemporary William Morgan, initiation into the first two degrees involves having a compass pressed to the left breast and a square to the right, respectively.
He enters; the angle of the Square is pressed hard against his naked right breast, at which time the Junior Deacon says, “Brother, when you entered this Lodge the first time, you entered on the point of the Compass pressing your naked left breast, which was then explained to you. You now enter it on the angle of the Square, pressing your naked right breast; which is to teach you to act upon the square with all mankind, but more especially with the brethren.”
Prior to my own initiation, when I received the Garment and had its symbols explained to me, I was already familiar with the appearance of the Garment, having seen it many times when folding laundry for my parents. I also knew — as everyone knows — that the square and compass were Masonic symbols, and I was aware of claims that Mormon temple rituals were based in part on Masonic initiation rites. Nevertheless, I never made the connection, and when I underwent my own initiation it came as a bit of a shock to learn what the marks represented.
The fact is, the Garment marks don’t look like a square and a compass (though one can see the resemblance once it has been explained). They look like the letters L and V. As an uninitiated teenager, I always thought of them as standing for the words life and vita. (The words came from Vita Adae et Evae, a pseudepigraphical work I had read in translation as Life of Adam and Eve. I knew that the Mormon temple ritual dealt with the life of Adam and Eve, so I suppose that’s why I made the connection.)
After being initiated and learning that the marks were “actually” a square and a compass, I dismissed the idea that they were letters that stood for something. Now, though, I think that, in addition to being a square and a compass, they probably are letters that stand for something. Otherwise why would the marks be oriented as they are? Representing a compass as a V (rather than as a lambda) is particularly odd, since one would not normally use a compass with the fulcrum down and the legs up. (Some anti-Mormon literature argues — implausibly, in my judgment — that this is an intentionally blasphemous inversion, analogous to an upside-down cross. Medieval iconography shows the Creator circumscribing the earth with a compass, but the Mormon V-compass implies the reverse: hubristic creatures daring to circumscribe their Creator.) Given that Mormonism was founded by English speakers, and that many other orientations of the square and compass would have been at least as natural as the ones actually used, I have to assume that the resemblance of the marks to letters of the English alphabet was intentional.
(There is some evidence that the earliest Garments actually had a backwards L for the square. However, all such information comes from disaffected Mormons reporting from memory, and such reports are usually garbled. At any rate, whatever Joseph Smith’s original design may have been, somewhere along the line someone standardized the marks as an L and a V, and they must have done so for a reason.)
For a long time I had no idea what the L and V might stand for. Max Skousen suggests liberty and virtue, but there seems to be compelling reason to accept that rather than any alternative proposal. But then I happened to see the Yale University logo somewhere, and suddenly I understood.
Joseph Smith was of course very interested in the biblical Urim and Thummim and expounds on its significance in Doctrine & Covenants 130:8-11.
The place where God resides is a great Urim and Thummim.
This earth, in its sanctified and immortal state, will be made like unto crystal and will be a Urim and Thummim to the inhabitants who dwell thereon, whereby all things pertaining to an inferior kingdom, or all kingdoms of a lower order, will be manifest to those who dwell on it; and this earth will be Christ’s.
Then the white stone mentioned in Revelation 2:17, will become a Urim and Thummim to each individual who receives one, whereby things pertaining to a higher order of kingdoms will be made known; and a white stone is given to each of those who come into the celestial kingdom, whereon is a new name written, which no man knoweth save he that receiveth it. The new name is the key word.
When an initiate is clothed in the Garment, he also receives with it a new name, which is to be kept secret and which is used as a key word later in the ceremony. The phrase key word is not used in the modern ceremony, but appears in a 1931 exposé: “With these garments I give you a new name which is never to be divulged to anyone. It is a key word and will be required of you at a certain part of these proceedings this day.” This strongly suggests that the Garment is the white stone of Revelation, and hence the Urim and Thummim. This connection is corroborated by an 1847 exposé in which the initiate reports “I am told this garment represents the white stone in scripture, in which was a new name given.”
I therefore feel quite confident in hypothesizing that the breast marks of the Garment, in addition to representing the Masonic square and compass, stand for Lux et Veritas and identify the Garment as the Urim and Thummim, the white stone of Revelation. The fact that the biblical Urim and Thummim were worn in a breastplate only serves to make the connection even more likely.
And thou shalt put in the breastplate of judgment the Urim and the Thummim; and they shall be upon Aaron’s heart, when he goeth in before the Lord: and Aaron shall bear the judgment of the children of Israel upon his heart before the Lord continually (Exodus 28:30).
When you consider that the Mormon initiatory rituals and temple clothing are clearly modeled after those of the Aaronic priests as described in the Bible, I think my hypothesis rises to the level of a near-certainty. In fact, the only problem with it is that it presupposes that Joseph Smith knew some Latin, which he apparently did not (though he did study Hebrew). However, Smith and several other early Mormon leaders came from New England, and the prominence of Yale University may have meant that even otherwise uneducated people were familiar with this particular Latin phrase. Certainly if Smith had ever encountered the Yale logo it would have stuck in his mind, given his strong personal interest in the Urim and Thummim.