Symbolism and Sacredness: Ideas for Teaching Children

We can respect the sacredness of the temple by teaching children and youth of all ages about symbolism

President Benson once lamented, ”Because of [the Temple’s] sacredness we are sometimes reluctant to say anything about the Temple to our children and grandchildren. As a consequence, many do not develop a real desire to go to the Temple, or when they go there, they do so without much background to prepare them for the obligations and covenants they enter into.” (President Benson, “What I Hope You Will Teach Your Children about the Temple,” Ensign, August (1985): 6-10, emphasis added)

We want to maintain the sacredness of the temple and be true to our covenants, but we also want to make sure we are properly preparing our children for the temple. This can be a challenge for many members of the church, but there are many things we can do to help our children prepare now, at any age.

President David O. McKay revealed that his first temple experience was difficult because he was so focused on what he called “the mechanics” that he missed the symbolism.

“Do you remember when you first went through the House of the Lord? I do. And I went out disappointed. Just a young man, out of college, anticipating great things when I went to the Temple. I was disappointed and grieved, and I have met hundreds of young men and young women since who had that experience. I have now found out why. There are two things in every Temple: mechanics, to set forth certain ideals, and symbolism, what those mechanics symbolize. I saw only the mechanics when I first went through the Temple. I did not see the spiritual. I did not see the symbolism of spirituality… I was blind to the great lesson of purity behind the mechanics. I did not hear the message of the of the Lord. … And then that great ordinance, the endowment. The whole thing is simple in the mechanical part of it, but sublime and eternal in its significance.” (From Gregory Prince and Wm. Robert Wright. David O. McKay and the Rise of Modern Mormonism (Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 2005): 277, emphasis added)

Symbols bridge heaven and earth and are essential to all of God’s covenants

David A. Edwards observed, “Through symbols, the Lord forges a link with us by using the things of this earth to represent the things of heaven. He has given us revelations, prophecies, teachings, ordinances, and ceremonies filled with symbols that can give us spiritual insights if we are prepared to receive them.” (The Simplicity of Symbols, The New Era, February 2007, emphasis added)

Joseph Fielding McConkie and Donald W. Parry wrote, “Symbols are the universal tongue. … Symbols are the language in which all gospel covenants and all ordinances of salvation have been revealed. From the time we are immersed in the waters of baptism to the time we kneel at the altar of the temple with the companion of our choice in the ordinance of eternal marriage, every covenant we make will be written in the language of symbolism.” (Joseph Fielding McConkie and Donald W. Parry, Guide to Scriptural Symbols (1990), 1., emphasis added)

John A. Widtsoe taught about the importance of symbols, “We live in a world of symbols. We know nothing, except by symbols. We are glad to have symbols, if only the meaning of the symbols is brought home to us… No man or woman can come out of the temple endowed as he should be, unless he has seen, beyond the symbol, the mighty realities for which the symbols stand. (“Temple Worship,” page 62, emphasis added)

We can prepare our children at any age, and those preparing for future missions and marriages for the temple by teaching them now about symbolism. This may seem like a daunting task, you might not know much about symbols yourself let alone how to teach others, but we can help you get started!

Helping Children Understand Symbolism

If you want to get started learning about symbols, here are some links below with some age-appropriate material that can be studied by the youth.

Primary

YM/YW (12-18)

Pre-mission/marriage

Websites about LDS Temples and symbolism

Symbolism activities and resources

We have assembled some practical tools, activities, and resources to help even young primary-aged children learn about symbols! There are printables, products, and fun activities to help get you started!

Printable and Products for all ages

Primary

  • Resource 1
  • Resource 2
  • Resource 3

YM/YW (12-18)

  • Resource 1
  • Resource 2
  • Resource 3

Pre-mission/marriage

  • Resource 1
  • Resource 2
  • Resource 3

Recommended books on symbolism

If you feel like you would want to expand your own knowledge of symbols, there is a list of great books below that we recommend.

Symbolism Essentials

  • A Beginner’s Guide to Constructing the Universe, Michael S. Schnieder
  • The Lost Language of Symbolism: An Essential Guide for Recognizing and Interpreting Symbols of the Gospel, Alonzo L. Gaskill

Preparation for Temple Ordinances

  • Dear Jeff: Candid Advice from an Older Brother on Preparing to Enter the Temple, J Washburn
  • Your Endowment Paperback, Mark A. Shields
  • Sacred Walls: Learning from Temple Symbols, Gerald E. Hansen and Val Brinkerhoff
  • Sacred Symbols: Finding Meaning in Rites, Rituals and Ordinances, Alonzo L. Gaskill
  • The Gate of Heaven: Insights on the Doctrines and Symbols of the Temple, Matthew B. Brown

Advanced Study

  • The Day Star: Reading Sacred Architecture, Val Brinkerhoff
  • Symbols in Stone: Symbolism on the Early Temples of the Restoration, Paul Thomas Smith and Matthew B. Brown
  • Number in Scripture, E. W. Bullinger
  • Sacred Geometry Philosophy and Practice, Robert Lawlor
  • The Book of Symbols, Taschen
  • Symbols and Their Meanings, Jack Tresidder

Other references to Symbols from LDS leaders and publications:

Gerald N. Lund
“Sidney B. Sperry noted some years ago that this penchant for figurative language is partially due to the fact that the Bible is the product of Oriental or Eastern peoples—and Eastern peoples are much more prone to use imagery than are the Occidentals or Western cultures: “We ofttimes read our Bible as though its peoples were English or American and interpret their sayings in terms of our own background and psychology. But the Bible is actually an Oriental book. It was written centuries ago by Oriental people and primarily for Oriental people … It may be of interest to contrast the speech of modern and ancient Palestinians with our own. In thought and speech the Oriental is an artist; the Occidental, on the other hand, may be thought of as an architect. When speaking, the Oriental paints a scene whose total effect is true, but the details may be inaccurate; the Occidental tends to draw diagrams accurate in detail.” (Ensign, May 1972, pp. 29–30.) While this difference provides some interesting challenges for the modern reader in our Western civilization, those challenges are not insurmountable, and when they are met, the returns can be productive and satisfying. (“Understanding Scriptural Symbols”, October 1986)

David A. Edwards
“Almost anything can be used as a symbol: images, shapes, colors, objects, actions, gestures, words. From architecture, to art, to corporate logos, to computer icons, to national flags, to civic and religious ceremonies, symbols are all around us. One of the greatest virtues of symbols is that they stimulate our minds and help us learn. And they are especially valuable when they make us think more clearly and deeply about things that truly matter, such as the gospel.” (The Simplicity of Symbols, The New Era, February, 2007)

John W. Welch
“Because of our difficulty in comprehending His infinite nature and divine fulness, God speaks to us in similitudes (see Moses 5:7). Symbols draw our finite minds to sacred truths that are embedded in the mystery of Christ’s incomparable gospel…” (“The Good Samaritan: Forgotten Symbols”, Ensign, February 2007)

Russell M. Nelson
“There we are taught in the Master’s way. His way differs from modes of others. His way is ancient and rich with symbolism. We can learn much by pondering the reality for which each symbol stands.” (“Personal Preparation for Temple Blessings,” Liahona, July 2001, 38; Ensign, May 2001, 33.)

Lenet Hadley Read
“For many reasons, scriptural symbolism can and should be generally self-discovered. All we need is an awareness of the presence of symbolism, a desire to comprehend it, a willingness to study, and perhaps a few examples to get us started. Then, as we study the symbols, the Holy Ghost will help us discover what meaning each symbol has for us.” (“All Things Testify of Him: Understanding Symbolism in the Scriptures,” Ensign, January 1981)

From the New Era
#42. Study symbols or objects from the scriptures whose meaning you don’t understand. You can divide it into categories, such as colors (red, white), body parts (shoulders, heart), animals (lamb, wolf), clothing (robe, hem), food (milk, fruit), natural elements (fire, water), places (Zion, Dead Sea), numbers (7, 40), objects (swords, oil), and nature (trees, sand).” (“50 Fun Things to Learn,” The New Era, September 2014)