A legacy of misunderstanding and persecution has bred a keen instinct for public relations in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. And so, in what has become something of a ritual itself, the Mormon church opens every newly built temple to the public. Then it shuts the doors.
The latest viewing takes place next month at a new temple – the 119th in the world and the only one between Washington and Boston – carved out of an existing Mormon-owned building across the street from Lincoln Center, at 65th Street and Columbus Avenue. After an open house from May 8 to June 5 and the dedication of the temple on June 13, only Mormons – and only those Mormons deemed worthy – will be allowed to enter what are considered the most sacred precincts of the faith.
After 16 months of work, the temple is nearly complete. An army of workers, including skilled Mormon craftsmen who travel the world to work on new temples, are painting walls, installing carpet, and adding gilt edges to architectural details.
“We view the temple literally as the house of the Lord,” said Scott Trotter, the church’s spokesman in New York. “We believe it is the most sacred place on earth.”
Sunday services and weekday activities take place in Mormon meeting houses, or chapels, which are open to outsiders. There are 78 in New York and its suburbs for the 42,000 metropolitan-area members, double the number 10 years ago.
Until now, New York’s growing Mormon population had no place to partake of the highest forms of worship – receiving “endowments,” or the church’s teachings, contemplation in a light-bathed Celestial Room, “sealing” ceremonies for married couples or their children, and the baptism of the dead, a central Mormon tenet.
Mormonism has deep roots in the city. Joseph Smith, the religion’s founding prophet, traveled here to preach two years after organizing the church in 1830. (He wrote home that “the buildings are truly great and wonderful, to the astonishing of every beholder,” but that the people had “disagreeable” countenances.)
Worldwide, Mormonism is one of the world’s fastest-growing religions, counting nearly 12 million members. The number of temples has more than doubled in the past four years alone, the result of a recent policy of building them where the people are, instead of drawing people to Mormon centers like Salt Lake City.
, by Roger Loomis
The church is not seeking New York converts through the open house, Mr. Trotter said. “There are so many misconceptions about us out there. It’s more of a way to reach out and say, ‘Come in and understand us.’ “
The most obvious misconception, of course, is that Mormons practice polygamy; the church officially banned the practice in 1890. Mr. Trotter also said that many people think “weird things are going on” in temples. And the view persists, he acknowledged, that Mormons are not Christian, which he said was false.
During a preview tour, Mr. Trotter telegraphed the sensitivities. He stressed the eternal, sacred nature of a sealed marriage between one man and one woman, and referred often to the central nature of Jesus in the Mormon faith.
Mormons believe the angel Moroni led Joseph Smith to golden tablets in Palmyra, N.Y., which contained the teachings of the prophet Mormon. They believe Smith translated and published the teachings as the Book of Mormon in 1830. The book recounts the migration to North America of a group of Israelites who are believed to be the ancestors of Native Americans, and the resurrected Jesus’ role in preaching to them.
Mr. Trotter described the simple marriage sealing ceremonies and pointed out the large tiled font where youngsters stand in for the baptizing of dead souls. He also talked of teachings imparted in two “instructional rooms,” one a mini-auditorium, with murals depicting a forest grove and river valley, where the faithful watch an inspirational video.
But Mr. Trotter declined to discuss other aspects of the endowments, which Mormons and non-Mormon chroniclers of the church have said include the bestowal of sacred names and sacred undergarments, and ritual anointing.
“It’s just understood that we don’t talk about them in public,” he said. A non-Mormon photographer was not allowed to take pictures inside.
Once past the front desk, a templegoer is immediately confronted with a three-paneled, back-lighted stained-glass window showing Jesus with two apostles. Worshipers turn right to take an elevator to changing rooms where they don white garments and shoes or slippers. The halls are lined with thick carpeting, oak doors and elaborate molding.
The décor has the flavor of vaguely French neo-Classical opulence. Door fixtures are topped with a Statue of Liberty flame, reflecting the custom of incorporating regional design elements. Lightly veined white marble from New Hampshire covers some floors.
Rooms grow brighter as a visitor ascends to the highest point, the Celestial Room with its 24-foot-high ceiling, stately armchairs and couches and decorative balcony. Giant mirrors face each other, signifying eternity. Dale Jolley, a Mormon contractor from Salt Lake City who has worked on 55 temples, was tracing gold leaf on the elaborate column capitals and corbels in the room.
“I’m still not used to the idea I get this opportunity,” he said.
Stained-glass windows depict trees of life. Interior walls have been built six inches away from the original walls to create utter silence.
“We build as well as men can build here,” said Elder Milton Farr, a church construction manager imported from Fort Thomas, Ariz.
The 20,630-square-foot temple includes a grand hallway, and a baptismal font that appears to rest atop 12 fiberglass oxen, three at each compass point, a reference to the Old Testament description of Solomon’s temple.
The initial cost estimate was $10 million, Mr. Farr said, but the expense was probably far higher once additions were made. Mormon officials are deeply reluctant to discuss money, given the church’s reputation for great wealth and power.
“We give the finest that we have to the Lord,” Mr. Trotter said.
Tickets are available through www.lds.org/reservations, or by calling (718) 672-0326 or 0487. Mr. Trotter said walk-ins would be accommodated if there was room.