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I understand that there are certain garments which temple-going Mormons are obliged to wear after going through their initial Temple Ceremony. My question is regarding the basis for this. When did it originate? Was it a new revelation from God? Is it recorded in any LDS Scriptures or the Doctrines & Covenants? Does it have any relation to the priestly garments worn by Levites in the Old Testament?

I also understand that there are various symbols on them. What are the specific purposes of those?

I do not wish to be irreverent here. That would not be constructive, so please observe the same tone in any answers.

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+1 for your courtesy; I can imagine this is a sensitive topic for some. –  Matt Jul 26 '12 at 20:47
    
All of the below answers are sensitive and well said. –  Robert Rey Black Mar 16 '13 at 6:05

4 Answers 4

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The "temple garments," as they're commonly known, serve as a constant physical reminder of the covenants that the person wearing them have made. They are associated with the temple ceremonies, as you noted in the question. These ceremonies were revealed to Joseph Smith, and as they are not meant for the world in general, the details have not been published in works of scripture meant for the world in general, such as the Doctrine and Covenants.

I have not heard of any doctrine that directly equates them to the Levitical priestly garments, though I did at one point hear a somewhat similar explanation from a top church leader. (Vague memory, and I have no reference to link to, but I remember that this was given in the spirit of analogy and explanation rather than as solid doctrine, during a discussion involving leaders of other churches.) It went something like this:

In your church, you have people who hold clerical offices. This carries certain rights and responsibilities with it. And they wear special clerical clothing as a symbol of their office. Well, for us it's a very similar system, except that we have a lay priesthood that any worthy member can be ordained to, not just leaders. These people have their own vocations and day-to-day activities, and it would be impractical for them to go around dressed like priests all the time, but the temple garments allow them to carry such a reminder of their ordination with them at all times as a personal reminder, to them, of what it means, instead of an outward symbol to the rest of the world.

Likewise, the symbols on the garment are meant to serve as reminders of specific spiritual truths. Exactly what they represent cannot be effectively discussed in a setting such as this, where objectively correct answers are desired above all else, because those who have been through the temple ceremonies are under a strict covenant obligation to not reveal the knowledge gained therein to the world.

This means that anyone who claims to explain their meaning either have not actually received the ceremony and so they are just making it up, or they have received it and, in telling, are willing to break a solemn vow made to God, and thus their explanation cannot be trusted, especially as in practice, those who do are almost invariably doing so for the specific purpose of trying to make the church look bad, which should automatically call their objectivity into question.

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Mason, you always beat me to it! :) –  Matt Jul 26 '12 at 20:36
    
Thanks, Mason. As I asked Matt... When did they originate in the LDS church? Were they introduced by Joseph Smith? –  Narnian Jul 26 '12 at 20:58
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@Narnian: They were revealed to Joseph Smith fairly early on in the Church's history, I believe during the Kirtland period but possibly earlier. I'd have to do some research to find out exactly when, which I don't have time for at the moment. Maybe Matt knows. If not, I'll look it up tonight after work. –  Mason Wheeler Jul 26 '12 at 21:02
    
@MasonWheeler Thanks. –  Narnian Jul 26 '12 at 21:03
    
PS. I only know it after looking it up... my research is usually shallow because I also don't get home until the evening. Feel free to be more comprehensive. –  Matt Jul 26 '12 at 21:18

Mormon Temple Garments can be of any material, including skins. Joseph Smith's were originally made of unbleached muslin.1 They should be made of wool:

Some of you have got an idea that wool will not do will not do; but let me inform you that when Peter came and sat in the Temple in Kirtland, he had on a neat woolen garment, nicely adjusted round the neck. What do sheep wear next the skin? Wool, of course. What do goats wear? Hair, for that is their nature. These are facts that are apparent to all who will look. 2

The Sufis wear a special garment made of wool. Suf means wool, and is the garment worn by early Muslim ascetics.

1 James Allred as quoted in "Mormon Fundamentalism" by Max Anderson. Page 326; "Early Pioneer History" by Eliza M. A. Munson; "The Book of Remembrance of Elna Garner McReavy"

2 Original Mormon Apostle, Heber C Kimball, Journal of Discourses, 9:376

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Update: The LDS Church posted a new online resource solely about the temple garments. The video interviews are quite helpful here.

The garment originated back in Biblical times and the concept is related to the priestly garments worn by the tribe of Levi. There are Biblical and other LDS-scriptural references to the temple garments.

From the Mormon Newsroom:

Biblical scripture contains many references to the wearing of special garments. In the Old Testament the Israelites are specifically instructed to turn their garments into personal reminders of their covenants with God (see Numbers 15:37-41). Indeed, for some, religious clothing has always been an important part of integrating worship with daily living. Such practices resonate with Latter-day Saints today.

LDS doctrine states that in our day, temple ordinances have been restored to the earth in their fulness, offering great and eternal blessings to faithful members of the Church. Because of the restoration of these ordinances, temples and associated commandments may be found in the Doctrine and Covenants. So in a sense, it was a new revelation from God, but was seen on the earth before.

From this article by Elder Carlos E. Asay of the Seventy:

It is written that “the white garment symbolizes purity and helps assure modesty, respect for the attributes of God, and, to the degree it is honored, a token of what Paul regarded as taking upon one the whole armor of God (Eph. 6:13; cf. D&C 27:15). … Garments bear several simple marks of orientation toward the gospel principles of obedience, truth, life, and discipleship in Christ.”

However, discussion outside of the temple of the specific meanings of details of the garment and of the temple itself is not acceptable by Latter-day Saints and such discussion is often considered offensive because of the sacred nature of these things.

It is commonly said that the temple garment is "an outward expression of an inward commitment to follow the Savior" (see Asay's full article above).

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Thanks, Matt. When did they originate in the LDS church? Were they introduced by Joseph Smith? Also, what about the symbols on them? –  Narnian Jul 26 '12 at 20:58
    
The ordinances, garments, etc, all came together, and yes it was introduced to the Saints by Joseph Smith. About halfway down in the "Historical Background" section from that linked article: "When the Church was restored to the earth in our day, the sacred priesthood ordinances associated with the holy temple were revealed anew to the Prophet Joseph Smith. The revelations he received included instructions about the garment." The next paragraph after this bit is really interesting about scriptural mentions. –  Matt Jul 26 '12 at 21:05
    
It is important to note here that the endowment ceremony wasn't actually revealed until the Nauvoo era, though certainly specific temple doctrines were taught and revealed before then such as the sealing. Possibly the Temple Garment was before as well. –  Dougvj Jul 27 '12 at 19:31

Mason and Matt have answered this quite well, but there's another aspect to the garments that hasn't been brought up.

In the temple, Mormons are told that the garments represent the clothing given to Adam and Even when they were naked in the Garden of Eden, which can help us understand other things about the garment.

For example, Adam and Eve would either had to kill or witnessed the killing of an animal, whose skin would be used to make the clothing. This would have been the first death that they saw, and is likely when they learned about the Atonement of Jesus Christ and the symbolism of animal sacrifice. As such, the covering of skins taught them the power of making covenants and developing a relationship with God. The animal skins do not symbolize modern-day garments; rather the modern-day garments are meant to remind us of the animal skins.

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Interesting... It seems like the garments should be made of leather then to resemble the animal skins rather than the fig leaves that represented man's own efforts to cover over his own sin. –  Narnian Aug 30 '12 at 15:28
    
@Narnian The garments are also white so as to represent references to those having "purified their garments and whitened them in the blood of The Lamb." They also represent the "robes of righteousness" also referred to in the Bible. Certainly to make them resemble actual leather would break this aspect of the symbolism. –  Dougvj Sep 1 '12 at 3:12
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@Narnian: I've heard at least one linguist argue that the Hebrew phrase translated as "coats of skins" in Genesis should not be read that way--as leather--but instead as "skin-coats", or clothing worn directly against the skin, as an innermost layer. (This ties in with Adam and Eve's shame over realizing that they were naked.) I wish I could remember now where it was I saw that... –  Mason Wheeler Nov 30 '12 at 23:20

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