Do Mormons Wear Special Underwear?
Daniel Mallia is an HNN intern and an undergraduate at Fordham University.
Mormonism has often been viewed by non-Mormon Americans and members of other Christian faiths with a sense of curiosity and distrust, as a faith filled with bizarre traditions and rituals. That Mormons wear “special underwear” seems to conform perfectly with the stereotype, and some have ridiculed the tradition as a part of a broader attack on Mormonism. Indeed, Mormons do wear “special underwear,” but what is meant by underwear must be clarified. It does not, in this case, refer to the kind of underwear the word traditionally refers to (i.e. boxers, briefs, etc.) given “special” significance, but it is a one or two piece article worn directly over the skin. In this function, it does replace conventional underwear for most Mormons who wear it, a condition which has led to its popular classification as underwear, but the correct term for it is a “garment.” To be more specific, what this question refers to is properly known as a “temple garment,” and it holds religious significance for Mormonism.
For the sake of clarity, it must be stated that not all groups classified under the Latter Day Saints Movement wear the temple garment, but most do. However, not all Mormons wear the temple garment—it is most commonly associated with the ritual of endowment and members wear the garment during the ceremony and continue to do so thereafter, day and night, except in certain situations. Endowment is a rite which involves anointment, washing, instruction on Adam and Eve, wearing the garment (as well as additional purity clothing) and ultimately making a sacred commitment to, and covenant with, God. As not every Mormon undergoes endowment, not every Mormon wears the garment, but males who are about to go on a preaching mission (it is traditionally a ritual for inducting preachers and priests) or women who are about to be married, are the primary recipients of endowment.
Endowment, and wearing the temple garment during and after endowment, was introduced by Joseph Smith himself around 1842-1843. The concepts of the garment and endowment were derived from Old Testament traditions of priesthood initiation, as with Aaron in the Book of Exodus. The temple garment, originally a one piece suit covering most of the body (arms down to the wrists, and legs down to the ankles) styled after the long-johns of the period, was also influenced by Masonry, which John Smith had become involved with shortly before he held the first endowment. The evidence of this was the presence of symbols: the “square,” the “compass,” and notably the cut knee, as a symbol of the necessity of kneeling down before God. This alludes to the official purpose of the temple garment: it is a symbol and reminder of the oath and covenant made with God. As the garment is worn at almost all times, so it serves as a constant reminder of the wearer’s pledge to God, as well as the need to live and dress in a modest, humble fashion, as Christ did. The garment is referred to as “armor” but officially only in the spiritual sense. Some Mormons may feel that the garment affords them protection from physical danger, but official Mormon doctrine only recognizes the spiritual dimension. The real challenges Mormons face in their religious life are evil, temptation and the difficulty of living righteously. As these are spiritual in nature, so is the temple garment spiritual armor, providing the strength to overcome these challenges.
Today, the temple garment has evolved to emulate modern clothing: for males it is a two piece set, which look like a normal, plain t-shirt, and shorts which go down to the knee, and designs for women are similar but appropriately more feminine. The sale of the temple garment is strictly regulated and only those who demonstrate their membership can buy the garment, though some try to violate these restrictions. There are circumstances under which it is allowable for the garment to be removed such as swimming, sports activities and military service. But overall, the temple garment retains all of its religious significance and remains a major feature of Mormon practice.
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