The LDS temple ceremony includes an explanation of the meaning of the compass symbol on the LDS garment:

This one on the left is the mark of the compass. It is placed in the garment over the left breast, suggesting to the mind an undeviating course leading to eternal life; a constant reminder that desires, appetites, and passions are to be kept within the bounds the Lord has set; and that all truth may be circumscribed into one great whole.

What are possible influences on the genesis of the phrase “all truth may be circumscribed into one great whole”?

Primary influence

The primary influence for the phrase may be found in (presumably) existing masonic literature/ceremonies of the day.

“Circumscribe our desires … within due bounds”

The phrase “circumscribe our desires and to keep our passions in [or sometimes “within”] due bounds with all mankind, especially the brethren” is common across the masonic literature and is part of how freemasons describe their use of the square and compass as part of their symbolism.

So, the temple phrase may be seen as a simple commutation of the word/idea “circumscribe” from modifying “desires” and “passions” to a modifier of “all truth”.

Other influences before the LDS temple ceremony

Other phrases and ideas from the time may have influenced the creation of the phrase. These may have been direct (Joseph could have read these sources) or indirect (these represent the kinds of things people were saying in that period of time).

“Circumscribe the law of nature”

A 1793 book on the Law of Scotland, by Thomas Erskine, a Grand Master Mason of Scotland, stated:

The supreme power may not only superadd, but even circumscribe or set bounds to the law of nature, without violating its authority.

And in the paragraph summary:

The supreme power may add to, or circumscribe the law of nature

“Divine truth gathered from … the wide field of revelation”

In a collection of Dr. Samuel Clarke’s sermons in the Christian Spectator, 1827 in New Haven and New York, we find:

Yet we do expect to see great conceptions of divine truth gathered from every part of the wide field of revelation, and brought down upon the hearer’s mind with force to overwhelm and crush, if not with skill to penetrate. (emphasis added)

Mathematical proofs with the compass

One of the key tools in geometry was the compass, and constructing geometric shapes and relationships using it (and a straightedge) was a big deal preceding the LDS temple ceremony, in general.

In 1796, “Carl Friedrich Gauss proves that the regular 17-gon can be constructed using only a compass and straightedge” (wikipedia)

It is unreasonable to think that this finding influenced JS in creating the phrase directly since these findings would not be widely known until much later, but in 1837, “Pierre Wantzel proves that doubling the cube and trisecting the angle are impossible with only a compass and straightedge, as well as the full completion of the problem of constructibility of regular polygons” (wikipedia) This merely shows that there was great interest in these kinds of solutions at the time.

Similar usage post-dating the LDS temple ceremony

It’s possible that later statements were influenced by the LDS temple phrase, but they may also indicate independent thought along similar lines in other masonic groups.

Embrace all truth … within its scope

Joseph E. Morcombe, an editor of Masonic [historical?] material, wrote of listening to three Past Grand Masters of Iowa (sometime in the early 1900s?). One of them stated:

“Masonry, as I understand it, lays claim to embrace all truth. It is not limited to what is specified in its ritual or even that which is remotely hinted at in its extensive sybolism. As it has borrowed and preserved truths from all the religions and philosophies of the past, and has shared in many social and political changes, all these must be closely studied to understand the course of development. And as Masonry also professes a broad receptivity, and its best thought is ever in the formative stage, therefore all the arts and sciences are within its scope. He is the best informed as a Mason who is most thoroughly versed in the ever-widening knowledge of the time.” (emphasis added)


The phrase “all truth may be circumscribed into one great whole” may be seen primarily as the commutation of the word “circumscribe[d]” from the well-known masonic explanation of the compass as bounding “desires” and “passions” to an additional, new, phrase about circumscribing “all truth”. Compass circumscription was a well-known endeavor in that period of time, and others used the word circumscribe in similar ways, or they spoke of truth being qualified with similar kinds of phrases.

Acknowledgements: prompted to research the phrase based on a post by /u/KingRiplakish here

Posted at mormonscholar and crossposted to mormon