The Black Robes of a False Priesthood

Here Dr. Hugh Nibley quotes himself in one of his most well-known sayings. The video is taken from his prominent BYU commencement address he gave on August 19, 1983 that he entitled “Leaders to Managers: The Fatal Shift.” We smile and chuckle at the brazenness with which Nibley makes this tongue in cheek submission. But is there any real merit to what he said? He seemed to think so; that is why he took the opportunity of this commencement address to explain himself.

In classic Nibley style he goes on to talk about how the graduation ceremonies have become a type of priesthood, a false one at that, and about the caps, gowns, and hoods and their origins in medieval times, and even dating back to the Bible, being very similar to the white robes and linen caps of the Hebrew priesthood. Indeed, the departure from the original intended use of such ceremonial apparel is so vast that Nibley brings up a comical hypothetical:

What if I appeared for an endowment session in the temple dressed in this outfit I’m wearing now?” There would be something incongruous about it, perhaps even comical. But why should that be so? The original idea behind both garments is the same—to provide a clothing more fitting to another ambience, action, and frame of mind than that of the warehouse, office, or farm. Doctrine and Covenants 109 describes the function and purpose of the temple as much the same as those of a university: A house where all seek learning by study and faith, by a discriminating search among the best books (no official list is given—you must search them out), and by constant discussion—diligently teaching “one another words of wisdom”; everybody seeking greater light and knowledge as all things come to be “gathered in one”—hence university (D&C 109:7, 14; 42:36).

Nibley continues to address the vestige, explaining that what makes them different than the real deal is precisely what is wrong with them—they are worldly, opulent, apostate symbols, outwardly proclaiming stations, attainments, or degrees which neither rightly profess the inward intelligence of their wearers nor their attainment of any true light or skill of merit. I heard just a few days ago from a well-known radio talk show host the same truth, that education itself does little to advance us. One can purchase a degree today with the flick of a finger. What makes the difference is how we apply that education. What skills do we possess, what virtue, honesty, integrity, truth and right do we fight for? What difference are we making in the world? How do we use the education that we’ve attained? But the philosophy of the Sophists has become much too solidified into our culture such that many locales of employment will not even consider applicants without that scrap of paper with their name so neatly written, no matter how high their skill level or experience. While at the same time, those of high certificates are accepted and exalted no matter their actual talent. Of course, this isn’t anything new. The Old Testament attests to the same – “for man looketh on the outward appearance, but the Lord looketh on the heart” (1 Sam. 16:7; see also 2 Cor. 10:7, and Christ’s words in Matt. 23:27–28).

Although torn from their original environment and context, like most fragments of the temple experience have come down to us, they are nevertheless very instructive in the parallels they present to the restored ordinances that were revealed through the prophet Joseph Smith. A comment by Jonovitch on the Times and Seasons blog makes some additional observations of the graduation exercises (proceeding carefully by only describing one side and not the other, for most Latter-day Saints will immediately “hear the ringing of familiar bells” (Nibley, The Message of the Joseph Smith Papyri, xxvi)):

  • receiving a higher “degree” of knowledge
  • some being clothed with ropes, hoods, banded sleeves, or other special markings to identify their distinction or level of knowledge as Undergraduates, Masters or Doctorate degrees
  • being in the presence of family, siblings, friends, and associates who affirm our right to receive the degree
  • the exercises in the deJong Concert Hall at BYU are especially dramatic with the use of the stage curtain which is drawn back to reveal the students graduating
  • being called forward one by one as your name is called
  • the head of the college, or supreme “knowledge-giver”, shaking your hand and presenting a token of your advancement, your diploma (although noting the actual receipt of the diploma comes later as long as you are faithful in completing and scoring well on your last classes, finals and theses!)
  • crossing from one side of the stage to the other, the graduate moves the tassel from the right side to the left side of their cap (although Wikipedia notes that this mark of transition or advancement in status was traditionally done by “individual conferring of the hood, or a complete change of dress part-way through the ceremony”)
  • some ceremonies of higher learning are even more striking in their ritual qualities, such as those displayed at the beginning of the movie Mona Lisa Smile, which I will talk about in my next post.

The degree of imitation of these counterfeit rites even caused the blog post’s author, Ben Huff, to abstain from walking in his own graduation. Can we blame him? Must we “rummage in a magpie’s nest” when we have the unadulterated “king’s treasury” before us (Nibley, The Message of the Joseph Smith Papyri, xxviii)?

But tradition is tradition, and Latter-day Saints might actually find themselves feeling more comfortable in the familiar trappings and forms of graduation ceremonies than many others.

It is notable to recognize the difference with which the world upholds the two rites, however. The graduation of a university or college is considered one of the most solemn and dignified orders of business in the world, the ceremonies carefully administered, and speeches given by presidents, consulates, dignitaries, and other officers of high rank. While many in the world, when they learn about the LDS temple practice, look down upon it with scorn, ridicule, and suspicion, suspecting only the most dark of circumstances and fears, which apparently reveals the Church’s “murky past” as one political pundit put it recently.

Let it be known that the LDS temple has the real deal.


  1. Posted January 25, 2008 at 10:39 am | Permalink

    Sweet blog Bryce! Welcome to the blog-o-sphere!

  2. Posted January 25, 2008 at 11:55 am | Permalink

    Great post.

    I am not sure why this angers people so, but over the years when I have shared this story, I find many are angered, especially BYU graduates. Like they thought the graduation ceremony was a pristine rite that was part of the restoration.

    I like Nibley’s explanation that the Temple is a model of the universe, and that the university attempts the same imagery. That the university is an unauthorized (apostate) attempt to imitate the temple.


  3. Posted January 25, 2008 at 12:21 pm | Permalink

    Thanks Chad and David.

    Yes, Nibley was not too fond of what the university has become today (see his Day of the Amateur). Instead of a symbol of education, it has become a symbol of worldly power and authority, of titles and degrees, which mean relatively little.

  4. Posted February 4, 2008 at 11:38 am | Permalink

    I love the speech that followed the “robes of an apostate priesthood” and love Nibley’s courage to denounce worldliness.

    And interesting to compare how the world views the rites of graduation and of the temple. What a fascinating contrast…

  5. Posted February 21, 2008 at 4:53 pm | Permalink

    Nibley’s observations were neither casual nor mistaken. The cap and gown traditionally worn at commencement exercises is no less than a variation of the temple garment, appropriated by the secular, educational wing of the ‘science church’ in order to secure more gravitas. This is the same church that Nephi saw in vision. That we Saints fail to see this amazed and dismayed the good doctor, who clearly understood this truth. This led him to reveal this astounding irony by pleading for God’s forgiveness. That earnest plea was not said with tongue in cheek, but with the utmost sincerity born of a profound knowledge and understanding of the past and the present. It was far more than a mere denunciation of simple worldliness; it was a condemnation of our profound ignorance.

  6. Rebekah
    Posted June 28, 2010 at 4:45 pm | Permalink

    I just found this blog and was drawn to this particular article. Very interesting. I am quite fond of my education and my degree but something about this article reminded something my father told me around the same time I graduated from my university. He basically scorned the education system of today and mentioned that when he was in school, education was something for knowledge sake to learn and grow from. That was the purpose of school and education, but now the degree means nothing more than a commodity and a means to an end. Education is used to gain wealth, power and advancement of a career and not just for a love of knowledge for knowledge sake.

  7. Marcelo Moreira
    Posted March 12, 2013 at 8:32 pm | Permalink

    This article is so comforting and eye-opening…

    I never really made it to college, though I made it through one of the most difficult admission exams in Brazil (Campinas State University – if any of you know anything about Brazil, will probably have heard about this renowned university). I had just begun my sophomore year at Unicamp when my wife got pregnant… she was 31 and I was 35, age where most of those pursuing an academic carreer will have attained their doctorate degree. But not me.

    That has never kept me from entering the Holy Temple, though – in Campinas, São Paulo, Porto Alegre, or even SLC, Ogden, Logan or Bountiful, where I finished my treasured mission to Utah, back in the late 90′s.

    The counterfeit version of the Holy Temple in Campinas could not provide the peace, understanding and personal development of one single endowment session at the TRUE University in Campinas, which I, like the majority of us, have attended so many times. I am now a 37 year old father of a beautiful, healthy, born under the covenant 5 month old boy. My name may not be written in fancy letters on expesive paper hanging on a wall, but it is my prayer that my name will be deeply and eternally engraved on my son’s heart.

    The temple really is the true place of learning on Earth these days. Bro. Nibley understood that so clearly that he alarmed on the excessive importance Church members may give to their college degree… but his comments were made out of love.

    I surely understanding the importance and relevance of a college degree in enriching our lives and making us more effective tools in God’s hands, to help our fellow men. But the the incomparably clean, neat and sparkling white robes we wear at the Temple remind me of who I really am – a child of God!

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  1. By Black and White Robes- Part One « Three Watches on April 24, 2009 at 2:26 pm

    [...] That earnest plea was not said with tongue in cheek, but with the utmost sincerity born of a profound knowledge and understanding of the past and the present. It was far more than a mere denunciation of simple worldliness; it was a condemnation of our profound ignorance.” Anthony Larson [...]

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