There are several major ages in the Church in which important rituals and practices are performed. The first being at eight, as I discussed in chapter one, for baptism. The next one is at 12, significant for all Mormons, but especially for the boys. It is when a young man receives what is called the Aaronic Priesthood. Now the Priesthood is a historically controversial topic for the Church. Joseph Smith claims to have received two priesthoods. One from John the Baptist, the figure who baptized Jesus in the Bible, presently referred to as the Aaronic Priesthood; and the other from Peter, James, and John 3 of Jesus' 12 disciples from the Bible, presently referred to as the Melchizedek Priesthood. But the date around which time he received the second Priesthood is questionable. Nor did Joseph Smith even mention it to anyone, including those in his close circles until nearly five years after he claimed that it happened.1 Additionally, when Joseph Smith died, it was not entirely clear who had the Priesthood authority to continue leading the church; the Priesthood was not given to people of African descent until 1978 (you read that right); and women have never been allowed to receive the Priesthood, much to many people’s dismay. Yet, they entrust 12 year old boys with it.
For those boys, it isn’t really a choice, but an expectation that you will receive it and perform the duties expected of you. As a 12 year old the only responsibility that anyone cares about is passing the sacrament to the ward members every Sunday. Scripturally, the sacrament consists of drinking wine and eating bread but later the Church began using water. This is usually used as a huge source of shame and fear to hold over the boys heads. I remember being told that people in the ward depended on us to get the sacrament every week and that it would be horrible for them to see us doing something that we shouldn’t throughout the week. There I was, 12 years old, feeling like I have to act like an adult.
As stated, 12 years is an important age for all Mormons, not just the boys, because you can also enter the temple. In Mormonism, temples are different from the chapels where they attend church every Sunday. They perform special ordinances and rituals inside the temples that are not performed elsewhere. When someone turns 12, they don’t get to participate in everything that happens in the temple, but they do get to represent deceased persons in baptisms. Yes, Mormons practice what they call baptisms for the dead. So yes, only boys get the important responsibility of allowing people to take the sacrament every week while the girls get to represent dead people.
Some youth in the Church make great efforts to go to the temple regularly, even weekly. I knew groups of friends in high school that went every Wednesday morning before school. I know some that oddly went to the temple on group dates. To clarify, that was not the norm by any means and I remember thinking it was slightly strange. The experience consists of being handed a white jump suit that is inevitably going to be too large or too small — never did I get one that was ever comfortable — changing into it, waiting your turn to be called into the baptismal font (a small pool of water), and be dunked again, again, and again for different people. Women stand in for deceased women and men for deceased men.
The experience could be very spiritual in nature, but it often led to public displays of “holier than thou” in which people showed exactly how reverent they could be inside the temple. It was spiritual peer pressure. I remember always being told that you could feel the Spirit stronger than anywhere else inside the temple. I always felt this pressure to have some sort of personal revelation or something. Often, I would make decisions in the temple. I was told that Satan had absolutely no power over you while you were in the temple, so I always felt extra guilty if I ever had a “bad” or “dirty” thought while inside. It led me to question what kind of person I really was and caused a lot of emotional stress on me as a teenager. After all, those kind of thoughts are not natural and are the influence of the devil, that’s what I was taught anyway. So to have them by your own power means you’re like him. That was the conclusion I came to anyway. I’m sure I’m not the only one.
“I never heard that an Angel had ordained Joseph and Oliver to the Aaronic Priesthood until the year 1834[,] 5. or 6—in Ohio.… I do not believe that John the Baptist ever ordained Joseph and Oliver…” — (David Whitmer, quoted in Early Mormon Documents, ed. Dan Vogel, 5:137)