Mormon underwear keeps body and soul together

I get a lot of questions about my 'magical' underwear, but our garments are just like a Christian cross or a Jewish yarmulke

The Guardian, UK/March 1, 2011

For a plain old suburban mom and housewife, I get a whole lot of interest in my underwear. When people discover that I'm Mormon, many of them just can't help themselves from eventually inquiring about the state of my unmentionables. I'm sympathetic to the titillation. Underwear is typically sexy and private, and this underwear also happens to be a symbolic entry into the "secret" world of Mormons. It's a taboo that can't help but capture the imagination.

The Garments of the Holy Priesthood, or garments, as we call them for short, are simple underclothes that a member of the church who has participated in the endowment ceremony wears at all times in lieu of traditional underwear. Other than a few religious symbols, they look like unflattering undershirts and boxer briefs. Pictures of the garments exist all over the internet, despite the fact that it's a bit of a knife in the heart for believers. They are considered a sacred symbol, a private, personal expression of belief not for show or public acknowledgement, and it's that reverence that leads us to keep them covered.

A sacred religious garment is certainly nothing new, nearly every sect has something devout believers wear as a symbol of their relationship to God. The Jewish yarmulke, the Hindu sacred thread, the Mennonite bonnet, the Christian cross. Our own garments are not even unique, being inspired by ancient Jewish ceremonies and arguably influenced by Masonic symbols. Religious people throughout time have felt great resonance in a tangible symbol of their ethereal beliefs.

The Mormon garments are most similar in purpose to a Catholic habit. When a Mormon man or woman decides that they want to make a solemn commitment to dedicate their life to God, they go to the temple to participate in the endowment ceremony. Just as a novitiate nun taking her vows, during this sacred religious rite I made covenants to obey the commandments and to offer everything I am in the service of God. My garments are a habit and wimple I wear under my jeans and T-shirt.

Aside from the fact that it's underwear, the garments also cause a lot of interest because of their alleged "magical" properties. There is a folk tradition that wearing the garments offers physical safety, and some members put faith in that. The actual temple ceremony doesn't promote anything so specific, just promises of blessings from obedience that have been interpreted by some to mean literal blessings of safety. This folk teaching gained particular traction when Joseph Smith was killed without wearing his garments. Smith and two other men were killed by a mob in Carthage jail, while the one man who wore his garments that day lived, leading many saints of that generation to put more of their trust in the protection of the garments, and to pass that belief along.

The meaning members invest in their garments is totally personal and varies wildly, but in my experience, it's rare to find someone in this day and age who believes that the garments will save them from accident. Throughout my life in the church I've heard a few people tell stories about miracles surrounding the garments, but no more than miracles performed by any other thing, and I don't think I've ever heard someone blame a physical catastrophe on not wearing the garments.

Instead, what you'll usually hear is people talking about the spiritual physical protection they feel when they wear the garments as part of a life of obedience to the promises they've made to God. Rarely do people expect to be saved from drowning, but they do talk about the peace they feel, the strength they feel to follow spiritual witnesses, the clarity of purpose in having a physical reminder of their most fundamental beliefs.

Mormon doctrine, sometimes ironically given the effects of our prioritising modesty and chastity, has an elevated place for the body. Mormons believe that God has a physical body, that attaining a body is a necessary cause for our mortal condition and that the definition of a soul is a union of body and spirit. From that viewpoint, all of the ordinances we participate in, including wearing the religious garment, is an expression of the desire to reach the soul. To connect the eternal and ethereal next life with the mundane and temporary current life. And what could be a more appropriate symbol of the ethereal and mundane than underwear.

For non-religious people, I am aware that this discussion might seem more ridiculous than sublime. I get the mocking, we often do it among ourselves. It's quite common for close friends to spend time complaining about the fit or the comfort, or how goofy they might look. Those aspects are not lost on us. But they are also a symbol of the most profound commitment we can make to God. So unless you would ask your Jewish friends about their magic beanies, maybe you should think twice about asking me so dismissively about my underwear.

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