What happens inside a Mormon temple?
Mormons have two different types of buildings that they use in their worship of Jesus Christ. The most common is a church, where anyone is welcome to attend any of the meetings. Churches are used for regular Sunday worship, and meetings are held at various times throughout the world. The second building is the temple. These are not used for Sunday services, so you will not find someone giving a sermon there. They serve a different purpose and are closed on Sunday.
These buildings are dedicated for specific ordinances that the latter-day saints believe are required to return to their Father in Heaven. These ordinances include baptism for the dead, the endowment, and the sealing of families together forever.
Who gets to enter the temple?
Before one can attend the temple, one must have a temple recommend. Standard recommends are available to latter-day saints who are over 18. These recommends are good for two years at a time and allow you to participate in all of the ordinances of the temple. Special recommends are available for those who are between 12 and 18 and allow the individual to participate in baptisms for the dead only.
In order to receive a recommend, a person must be interviewed by both their Bishop and Stake President. The Bishop and Stake President ask a series of set questions asking about your personal worthiness and testimony. These questions are listed in the temple recommend book and do not vary. These leaders do not have leeway to keep you from holding a temple recommend unless you are not keeping the commandments or do not have a testimony of the restored gospel.
These interviews are conducted one-on-one, however the leader performing the interview must always have a parent, a member of the presidency, or another leader in the adjoining room at all times. The only exception to this is if the person meeting with the leader is an adult male or if it is a married couple.
Why is a testimony required to get a temple recommend?
Latter-day Saints believe that the temple is the house of the Lord. They are dedicated as sacred spaces where latter-day saints can receive specific ordinances they believe are required to return back into the presence of Heavenly Father. Latter-day Saints believe these ordinances were established by commandment from the Lord and are things that the Lord would not have taken lightly or mocked. In other words, latter-day saints believe that these things are sacred to the Lord.
Latter-day Saints also believe that "whomsoever much is given, of him shall be much required," as stated in Luke 12:48. Accordingly, they believe that a man who has made promises to the Lord will be held more accountable than the man that has not. If a man enters the temple without a testimony of the Church of Jesus-Christ of Latter-day Saints and makes promises to obey the commandments and to sustain and support the LDS church, he is more likely to break those promises. If God holds mankind accountable for the promises that they make to Him in any way, whether the LDS church is true or not, than this man will fall into greater condemnation for breaking those promises than the man who never made them. Therefore the LDS church requires that a person has a testimony before making the promises of the temple.
What oridinances are done in the temple?
The sealing ordinance is the highest ordinance done in the temple. It requires all of the other ordinances to have been done beforehand. This ordinance is what seals a husband and wife together for time and all eternity. It is a covenant between each spouse and God. This is why Mormon weddings are done in the temple; that sealing is both an ordinance and a covenant with God, and an eternal promise to one another.
Latter-day Saints believe that one of the purposes of the Millennium is to complete this work for all those who have died without it. Therefore if someone has not been sealed to their spouse in life they will be sealed to them before the end of the millennium. If they accept this ordinance and they have lived a righteous life, they can be sealed together forever.
The endowment is another ordinance received within the temple. As part of this ordinance, we are taught about the purpose of life, the mission and Atonement of Jesus Christ, and Heavenly Father’s plan for His children.
"The ordinances of the endowment embody certain obligations on the part of the individual, such as covenant and promise to observe the law of strict virtue and chastity, to be charitable, benevolent, tolerant and pure; to devote both talent and material means to the spread of truth and the uplifting of the race; to maintain devotion to the cause of truth; and to seek in every way to contribute to the great preparation that the earth may be made ready to receive her King—the Lord Jesus Christ. With the taking of each covenant and the assuming of each obligation a promised blessing is pronounced, contingent upon the faithful observance of the conditions."
The endowment is symbolic in nature and latter-day saints believe that it is sacred. Being sacred, latter-day saints believe that it should only be discussed in equally sacred places. The only places that are dedicated as such are the temples. It also allows the members to demonstrate to their Father in Heaven that they can keep and respect sacred things as sacred.
Brigham Young said this of the endowment:
"Let me give you a definition in brief. Your endowment is, to receive all those ordinances in the house of the Lord, which are necessary for you, after you have departed this life, to enable you to walk back to the presence of the Father, passing the angels who stand as sentinels, being enabled to give them the key words, the signs and tokens, pertaining to the holy Priesthood, and gain your eternal exaltation in spite of earth and hell"
The endowment is a protection for those who believe in it as far as it gives them hope, peace, and a reminder to do those things which are righteous.
Baptisms for the dead are also done in the temple.
Latter-day Saints believe that baptism is a required ordinance. We believe that this allows those who accept it the permanent companionship of the Holy Ghost, and the opportunity to take full advantage of the atonement of Christ. We believe both of these things are required to enter back into the presence of our Father in Heaven.
Because baptism is a representation of the burial and resurrection of Christ, latter-day saints believe that it must be done by submersion. Latter-day Saints also believe that once a person has died their bodies are separated from their spirits. Since they no longer have a physical body they cannot be submerged. Therefore in order for someone to actually receive this ordinance it must be done by the living. Those who have died can receive this ordinance through someone that is living to stand in as a proxy for them. This is why Mormons believe in baptism for the dead.
For more information on temples
At the bottom of the 'About Mormon temples' page of this site is a list of temple resources including interior pictures, an in-depth look at the ordinances, and the history of the temples.