Early Christianity and Mormonism:
"Orthodox" Christian Esoteric
©1997 Barry Bickmore. All rights reserved.
Reference Info - glossary of
ancient Christian writers and documents, guide to abbreviations, bibliography.
There are perhaps dozens of allusions to the secret rites of the ancient
Church in the early Christian documents, but two descriptions of these
rites stand out from the rest as more complete and clear. First, Clement
of Alexandria described in various places in his writings a rite he called
a "mystery", which was an initiation ceremony not necessarily
connected with baptism. Second, Cyril of Jerusalem, in the fourth century,
described in detail the liturgies of baptism and the eucharist, which by
that time included a variety of ritual actions, some of which are recognizable
in Clement's earlier "mystery".
The Mysteries of Clement
According to Mosheim, Clement of Alexandria claimed to possess a secret
tradition of knowledge (Greek gnosis) handed down from the Saviour
to the Apostles and on to Clement himself by way of certain of his teachers.
Clement represents this secret discipline, to which he gives the
title of gnosis, as having been instituted by Christ himself.... [I]t appears
that he considered this gnosis, or gift of knowledge, as having been conferred
by our Lord, after his resurrection, on James the Just, John, and Peter,
by whom it was communicated to the other apostles; and that by these this
treasure was committed to the seventy disciples, of whom Barnabas was one....
Clement makes it a matter of boast that the secret discipline thus instituted
by Christ was familiar to those who had been his masters and preceptors,
whom he very lavishly extols, and seems to exult not a little in having,
under their tuition, enjoyed the advantage of being instructed in it himself.1
Clement represented the true gnosis as having been transmitted
to initiates in the form of a "mystery", which, as we have seen,
probably meant in a ritual enactment or symbolic ordinance. He also stipulated
that certain "purifications and previous instructions" were given
before the mysteries were revealed:
But since this tradition is not published alone for him who perceives
the magnificence of the word; it is requisite, therefore, to hide in a
mystery the wisdom spoken, which the Son of God taught.2
Wherefore also all men are His; some through knowledge, and others
not yet so; and some as friends, some as faithful servants, some as servants
merely. This is the Teacher, who trains the Gnostic by mysteries, and the
believer by good hopes, and the hard of heart by corrective discipline
through sensible operation.3
Thence the prophecies and oracles are spoken in enigmas, and the
mysteries are not exhibited incontinently to all and sundry, but only after
certain purifications and previous instructions.4
The teachings of these mysteries were probably quite symbolic, and Clement
wrote that the Lord teaches in "enigmas" so that one has to work
to get at the truth:
Dreams and signs are all more or less obscure to men, not from jealousy
(for it were wrong to conceive of God as subject to passions), but in order
that research, introducing to the understanding of enigmas, may haste to
the discovery of truth.5
What form did this "mystery" take? Clement made several allusions
to the initiation rite in his Stromata and his Exhortation to
the Heathen. Another possible reference was made in Clement's recently
discovered letter to a certain Theodore, in which he quoted a lost Secret
Gospel of Mark.
In the Exhortation to the Heathen he invited the Greeks to abandon
their mystery religions and participate in the true mysteries of God. He
represented the Christian mystery as a "drama of truth" and an
"initiation", lighted by torches and including a hymn sung about
the altar in imitation of the choir of angels around the throne of God:
Come, O madman, not leaning on the thyrsus, not crowned with ivy;
throw away the mitre, throw away the fawn-skin; come to thy senses. I will
show thee the Word, and the mysteries of the Word, expounding them after
thine own fashion. This is the mountain beloved of God... consecrated to
dramas of the truth,--a mount of sobriety, shaded with forests of purity....
O truly sacred mysteries! O stainless light! My way is lighted with torches,
and I survey the heavens and God; I become holy whilst I am initiated.
The Lord is the hierophant [teacher of mysteries], and seals while illuminating
him who is initiated, and presents to the Father him who believes, to be
kept safe for ever. Such are the reveries of my mysteries. If it is thy
wish, be thou also initiated; and thou shall join the choir along with
angels around the unbegotten and indestructible and the only true God,
the Word of God, raising the hymn with us.6
E. Louis Backman, of the Royal University of Upsala, Sweden, indicates
that this hymn was probably sung as part of a "ring-dance" performed
in many religions, including early Christianity:
Let me first emphasize that the closing words must not be regarded
as referring only to that which awaits in the future a person inducted
into the Christian mysteries. These remarkable final words should also,
perhaps mainly, be interpreted quite literally. If you are inducted into
the Christian mysteries, then you must perform a ring-dance round the altar...
not only with the other novitiates but also with the angels! For they are
present and participate in the mystery.7
The idea that the "ring-dance" was performed in imitation
of the angels around God's throne may be significant for the interpretation
of a certain remark Jesus made in the Epistle of the Apostles. There
Jesus alluded to a certain "service" or rite which was performed
daily at the "altar of the Father".8
Hennecke and Schneemelcher speculate: "Is this a projection into heaven
of a practice of the Christian community?"9
If so, the practice of such "mysteries" extended back long before
This "ring-dance" was an act of praise and included a prayer.
Backman10 cites a passage from the Stromata
in which Clement reveals that the initiates raised their hands in prayer
during the dance: "So also we raise the head and lift the hands to
heaven, and set the feet in motion at the closing utterance of the prayer...."11
References to the mystery of the ring-dance/prayer circle in early Christianity
can also be found in the writings of Gregory Thaumaturgus (A.D. 210-260),
bishop of Pontus, and Basileios (A.D. 344-407), bishop of Caesarea:
We do find the following [in Gregory's writings]: 'He who has done
everything preserved and prescribed by Providence in its secret mysteries,
reposes in Heaven in the bosom of the Father and in the cave in the bosom
of the Mother (Christ Jesus). The ring-dance of the angels encircles him,
singing his glory in Heaven and proclaiming peace on earth.' In his Four
Sermons (10:1146) he quotes a curious legend, 'Today (Christ's birthday)
Adam is resurrected and performs a ring-dance with the angels, raised up
In [Basileios'] writings there are several references to the existence
of the dance in early Christianity. Thus he says of one who has died in
blessedness (Letter 40): 'We remember those who now, together with the
Angels, dance the dance of the Angels around God, just as in the flesh
they performed a spiritual dance of life and, here on earth, a heavenly
dance.' Thus life in this temporal world, were it is lived in righteousness,
may be described as a spiritual heavenly dance. In another letter (ad 1:2)
he writes 'Could there be anything more blessed than to imitate on earth
the ring-dance of the angels and at dawn to raise our voices in prayer
and by hymns and songs glorify the rising creator.'13
One might think it strange that the prayer described by Clement was
given with arms raised, but J. G. Davies asserts that this was the natural
posture for one consumed with the thought of the risen Lord.14
A passage from the first-century Odes of Solomon explains that this
posture was adopted in imitation of the Saviour on the cross: "I stretched
forth my hands and sanctified my Lord: For the extension of my hands is
His sign: And my expansion is the upright tree [or cross]."15
An Egyptian Christian work of unknown date, called the First Book of
Adam and Eve, intimates that Adam and Eve were believed to be the first
to adopt this posture in prayer: "Then Adam and Eve spread their hands
unto God, praying and entreating Him to drive Satan away from them...."16
Clement's letter to Theodore also sheds some light on the early Christian
mysteries. In this document, Clement wrote to a certain local church leader
who had asked several questions about a document called the Secret Gospel
of Mark, which a libertine gnostic group called the Carpocratians had
corrupted to suit their agenda. Clement decried the fact that the gnostics
had corrupted the text and described the document as an expansion of Mark's
canonical gospel written after Peter died:
[Thus] he composed a more spiritual Gospel for the use of those who
were being perfected. Nevertheless, he yet did not divulge the things not
to be uttered, nor did he write down the hierophantic teaching of the Lord,
but to the stories already written he added yet others and, moreover, brought
in certain sayings of which he knew the interpretation would, as a mystagogue
[teacher of mysteries], lead the hearers into the innermost sanctuary of
that truth hidden by seven [veils]. Thus, in sum, he prearranged matters,
neither grudgingly nor incautiously, in my opinion, and, dying, he left
his composition to the church in Alexandria, where it even yet is most
carefully guarded, being read only to those who are being initiated into
the great mysteries.17
Even though the Secret Gospel of Mark does not reveal many of
the secret teachings, it may give us one more detail about what Clement
called "the great mysteries". Clement includes a passage from
the Secret Gospel in his letter which tells of Jesus teaching the
mysteries to a young man whom he had recently raised from the dead:
And after six days Jesus told him what to do and in the evening the
youth comes to him, wearing a linen cloth over [his] naked [body]. And
he remained with him that night, for Jesus taught him the mystery of the
Kingdom of God.18
Therefore, it may be inferred that people participating in the "great
mysteries" were dressed in linen robes. Certainly it would have been
standard procedure to call for special ritual clothing in such an important
rite, just as was done for the rites of the temple at Jerusalem. And indeed,
references to special symbolic garments or robes abound in early Christian
literature. Note, for example, Backman's description of a certain passage
from the Shepherd of Hermas:
Here, [in the Shepherd of Hermas], are found, among other things,
a number of similes of a marked secret and symbolic nature and in the ninth
simile Hermas visits God's mountain. There he beholds twelve virgins, clothed
in white linen.... The shepherd explains to Hermas that these virgins are
holy spirits, and that nobody can enter the Kingdom of God unless he is
clothed in their vestments.19
Origen insisted that the faithful must have garments kept apart from
the common clothing of the world:
You have therefore a priesthood, being a priestly nation. Therefore
you ought to offer to God a sacrifice of praise, of prayers, of pity, of
purity, of righteousness, of holiness. To offer this aright you have need
of clean garments, of vestments kept apart from the common clothing of
the rest of mankind.20
Perhaps this earthly garment was meant to symbolize the heavenly garment
which is described in many apocryphal documents. This garment is obtained
after one ascends through the various spheres of heaven, giving the appropriate
passwords along the way. The Ascension of Isaiah includes a good
example of this motif:
... and then many of the righteous will ascend with him, whose spirits
do not receive their garments till the Lord Christ ascends and they ascend
with him. Then indeed will they receive their garments and thrones and
crowns when he shall have ascended into the seventh heaven.... And again
I beheld when he descended into the second heaven, and again he gave the
password there, for the doorkeepers demanded it and the Lord gave it.21
Such ascension narratives often included ritual handclasps, such as
were included in the Christian Gnostic, Jewish Gnostic, and Greek mysteries,
as we shall see. Whoever was being conducted through the heavens was lifted
along after grasping the right hand of the guiding angel or God. For example,
in the Gospel of Nicodemus, Jesus ascends into Hades after His death,
grasps the right hand of Adam, and leads him to paradise with all the saints
following: "The King of glory stretched out His right hand, and took
hold of our forefather Adam, and raised him.... And setting out to paradise,
He took hold of our forefather Adam by the hand, and delivered him, and
all the just, to the archangel Michael."22
A similar occurrance was also recorded in 1 Enoch: "And the
angel Michael, ... seizing me by my right hand and lifting me up, led me
out into all the secrets of mercy; and he showed me all the secrets of
righteousness."23 Perhaps a representation
of this heavenly reality was given in these rites, as well.
What did the esoteric teaching that went along with these rituals include?
This is one detail that is never specifically stated, but the writings
of Ignatius (ca. A.D. 110) may show that the secret doctrine included the
recitation of certain ritual formulas. Max Pulver, an internationally known
expert on Gnosticism, describes Ignatius' teaching:
For Ignatius, the believer must repeat the destiny of his God, he
must become an imitator of God.... For this he must also have knowledge
of the secret name of God and of certain formulas, such as the recurrent
though much varied "Thou art I and I am thou."24
The Later Rituals of Baptism
and the Eucharist
By the third and fourth centuries much of the symbolism of the "great
mysteries" had been incorporated into the liturgies of baptism and
the eucharist. Those who had not been initiated were kept out and strict
silence in regard to the mysteries was required of the initiates. Mosheim
The multitude professing Christianity were therefore divided by them
into the "profane," or those who were not yet admitted to the
mysteries, and the "initiated," or faithful and perfect....and
as none were permitted to be present at these "mysteries," as
they were termed, save those whose admission into the fellowship of the
church was perfect and complete, so likewise was it expected that, as a
matter of duty, the most sacred silence should be observed in regard to
everything connected with the celebration of them, and nothing whatever
relating thereto to be committed to the ears of the profane.25
The most complete description of these rites now extant was given by
Cyril of Jerusalem, who wrote a series of catechetical lectures designed
to instruct investigators (or "catechumens") and the newly baptized
in the late fourth century. The last five of these lectures are called
the "Lectures on the Mysteries", and were intended for those
who had been recently baptized and given the eucharist. A description of
these rites follows.
The initiate was first taken to the vestibule of the baptistry where
facing West, he extended his arm and renounced Satan using the following
formula: "I renounce thee, Satan. And all thy works. And all thy pomp.
And all thy service." Then he recited another formula: "I believe
in the Father, and in the Son, and in the Holy Ghost, and in one Baptism
The initiate was then conducted to the inner chamber where he was stripped
naked, anointed with oil, and baptized. Cyril described this process:
As soon, then, as ye entered, ye put off your tunic; and this was
an image of putting off the old man with his deeds. Having stripped yourselves,
ye were naked; in this also imitating Christ, who was stripped naked on
the Cross, and by His nakedness put off from Himself the principalities
and powers, and openly triumphed over them on the tree.... O wondrous thing!
ye were naked in the sight of all, and were not ashamed; for truly ye bore
the likeness of the first-formed Adam, who was naked in the garden, and
was not ashamed. Then, when ye were stripped, ye were anointed with exorcised
oil, from the very hairs of your head to your feet, and were made partakers
of the good olive-tree, Jesus Christ.... After these things, ye were led
to the holy pool of Divine Baptism, as Christ was carried from the Cross
to the Sepulchre which is before our eyes And each of you was asked, whether
he believed in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy
Ghost, and ye made that saving confession, and descended three times into
the water, and ascended again; here also hinting by a symbol at the three
days burial of Christ....27
The Catholic editors of another English translation of Cyril's works
explain that the "tunic was the garment worn by both sexes next to
the skin. The candidates would already have removed their shoes and outer
garments...."28 Who performed the anointing
over the whole body? "For the men, no doubt, priests, deacons and
the lower clergy. But for the women?... [Apostolic Constitutions]
3:15-16 says that the deaconesses completed the anointing after a deacon
had begun it on the forehead."29
After baptism the initiate was anointed again, and Cyril gave a more
complete description this time:
[The] ointment is symbolically applied to thy forehead and thy other
senses; and while thy body is anointed with the visible ointment, thy soul
is sanctified by the Holy and life-giving Spirit. And ye were first anointed
on the forehead.... Then on your ears; that ye might receive the ears which
are quick to hear the Divine Mysteries.... Then on the nostrils.... Afterwards
on your breast; that having put on the breast-plate of righteousness, ye
may stand against the wiles of the devil....30
A subsequent passage in Cyril's lectures might indicate that the initiate
was symbolically clothed in white after the baptism:
...and let thy garments be always white, for the Lord is well pleased
with thy works; for before thou camest to Baptism, thy works were vanity
of vanities. But now, having put off thy old garments, and put on those
which are spiritually white, thou must be continually robed in white: of
course we mean not this, that thou art always to wear white raiment; but
thou must be clad in the garments that are truly white and shining and
This inference is more than likely, since J.G. Davies intimates that
the clothing in white garments had been part of the baptismal ceremony
as early as the second century.32 Our Catholic
editors confirm this deduction as well.33
Cyril went on to describe the liturgy of the eucharist. First the deacon
gave the officiating priest water to wash his hands and the elders positioned
themselves to stand around the altar in a circle.34
"Then the Deacon... cried aloud, 'Receive ye one another; and let
us kiss one another....' The kiss therefore is reconciliation, and for
this reason holy...."35 A prayer was
then offered by the priest in behalf of those in the circle and the others
attending which included the giving of thanks, petition for blessing to
be pronounced upon the eucharist, and petition "for the common peace
of the Churches, for the welfare of the world(1); for kings; for soldiers
and allies; for the sick; for the afflicted; and, in a word, for all who
stand in need of succour...."36
Cyril then went on to explain that the prayer included petitions in
behalf of the dead, who were expected to derive some benefit therefrom.
(Perhaps this is a remnant of other ordinances for the dead?)
Then we commemorate also those who have fallen asleep before us,
first Patriarchs, Prophets, Apostles, Martyrs, that at their prayers and
intercessions God would receive our petition. Then on behalf also of the
Holy Fathers and Bishops who have fallen asleep before us, and in a word
of all who in past years have fallen asleep among us, believing that it
will be a very great benefit to the souls, for whom the supplication is
put up, while that holy and most awful sacrifice is set forth.... For if
a king were to banish certain who had given him offence, and then those
who belong to them should weave a crown and offer it to him on behalf of
those under punishment, would he not grant a remission of their penalties?37
The editors of the Catholic edition explain that there was probably
more to this prayer which Cyril does not repeat and which was "recited
by the celebrant in a low voice and perhaps behind a curtain (veil, screen)."38
Next the priest chanted the Lord's Prayer and invited the participants
to share in the sacrament of the eucharist.39
As the faithful approached the priest they put forward their hands in the
shape of a cup to receive the bread:
In approaching therefore, come not with thy wrists extended, or thy
fingers spread; but make thy left hand a throne for the right, as for that
which is to receive a King. And having hollowed thy palm, receive the Body
of Christ, saying over it, Amen.40
Finally the participant took a sip from the cup and anointed his sense
organs with the wine:
Then after thou hast partaken of the Body of Christ, draw near also
to the Cup of His Blood; not stretching forth thine hands, but bending,
and saying with an air of worship and reverence, Amen, hallow thyself by
partaking also of the Blood of Christ. And while the moisture is still
upon thy lips, touch it with thine hands, and hallow thine eyes and brow
and the other organs of sense.41
Little of these rites now remain in the liturgies of the Christian churches
of today, so one might wonder what became of them. C.W. Heckethorne asserts
that the secret tradition of early Christianity was lost after the Church
essentially became the only game in town and there really weren't very
many people around to keep secrets from:
The number of the faithful having greatly increased - the Christians
from being persecuted having become persecutors, and that of the most grasping
and barbarous kind - the Church in the seventh century instituted the minor
orders, among whom were the doorkeepers, who took the place of the deacons.
In 692 everyone was ordered thenceforth to be admitted to the public worship
of the Christians, their esoteric (secret) teaching of the first ages was
entirely suppressed, and what had been pure cosmology and astronomy was
turned into a pantheon of gods and saints. Nothing remained of the mysteries
but the custom of secretly reciting the canon of the Mass. Nevertheless
in the Greek Church the priest celebrates divine worship behind a curtain,
which is only removed during the elevation of the host, but since at that
moment the worshippers prostrate themselves, they are supposed not to see
the holy sacrament.42
Next article in Temple series
article in Temple series
1 Mosheim, J.L., Historical Commentaries on the State
of Christianity, vol.1, pp. 375-376.
2 Clement of Alexandria, Stromata 1:12, in ANF 2:312.
3 Clement of Alexandria, Stromata 7:2, in ANF 2:524.
4 Clement of Alexandria, Stromata 5:4, in ANF 2:449.
5 Clement of Alexandria, Stromata 5:4, in ANF 2:450.
6 Clement of Alexandria, Exhortation to the Heathen,
12, in ANF 2:205.
7 Backman, Religious Dances in the Christian Church
and in Popular Medicine, p. 19.
8 Epistle of the Apostles 13-14, in ANT, p. 489.
9 NTA 1:191.
10 Backman, Religious Dances in the Christian Church
and in Popular Medicine, p. 22.
11 Clement of Alexandria, Stromata 7:7, ANF 2:534.
12 Backman, Religious Dances in the Christian Church
and in Popular Medicine, p. 22.
13 Backman, Religious Dances in the Christian Church
and in Popular Medicine, pp. 24-25.
14 Davies, The Early Christian Church, p. 64
15 Odes of Solomon 27, in The Forgotten Books of Eden,
16 First Book of Adam and Eve 58, in The Forgotten
Books of Eden, p. 39.
17 The Secret Gospel of Mark, in Smith, The Secret
Gospel, p. 15.
18 The Secret Gospel of Mark, in Smith, The Secret
Gospel, p. 17.
19 Backman, Religious Dances in the Christian Church
and in Popular Medicine, p. 18.
20 Origen, in Bettenson, The Early Christian Fathers,
21 The Ascension of Isaiah, in TOB, pp. 527, 529.
22 The Gospel of Nicodemus 8-9, in ANF 8:437. Cf. Compton,
T.M., "The Handclasp and Embrace as Tokens of Recognition," in
Lundquist and Ricks, eds., By Study and Also by Faith, vol. 1, pp. 620-621.
23 1 Enoch 71:3, in Charlesworth, ed., The Old Testament
24 Pulver, M., "Jesus' Round Dance and Crucifixion
According to the Acts of St. John," in Campbell, ed., The Mysteries,
25 Mosheim, Historical Commentaries on the State of
Christianity, vol.1, pp. 390-391.
26 See Cyril of Jerusalem, Catechetical Lecture 19,
in NPNF Series 2, 7:144-146.
27 Cyril of Jerusalem, Catechetical Lecture 20, in
NPNF Series 2, 7:146-148.
28 Cyril of Jerusalem, The Works of Saint Cyril of
Jerusalem, vol. 2, p. 161.
29 Cyril of Jerusalem, The Works of Saint Cyril of
Jerusalem, vol. 2, p. 163.
30 Cyril of Jerusalem, Catechetical Lecture 21, in
NPNF Series 2, 7:148-151.
31 Cyril of Jerusalem, Catechetical Lecture 22:8, in
NPNF Series 2, 7:153.
32 Davies, The Early Christian Church, p. 59.
33 Cyril of Jerusalem, The Works of Saint Cyril of
Jerusalem, vol. 2, pp. 162, 184.
34 Cyril of Jerusalem, Catechetical Lecture 23:2, in
NPNF Series 2, 7:153.
35 Cyril of Jerusalem, Catechetical Lecture 23:3, in
NPNF Series 2, 7:153.
36 Cyril of Jerusalem, Catechetical Lecture 23:4-8,
in NPNF Series 2, 7:153-154.
37 Cyril of Jerusalem, Catechetical Lecture 23:9-10,
in NPNF Series 2, 7:154-155.
38 Cyril of Jerusalem, The Works of Saint Cyril of
Jerusalem, vol. 2, p. 194.
39 Cyril of Jerusalem, Catechetical Lecture 23:11-20,
in NPNF Series 2, 7:155-156.
40 Cyril of Jerusalem, Catechetical Lecture 23:21,
in NPNF Series 2, 7:156.
41 Cyril of Jerusalem, Catechetical Lecture 23:22,
in NPNF Series 2, 7:156.
42 Heckethorn, The Secret Societies of all Ages and
Countries, vol. 1, p. 107.