The Press Tours Philly's New Mormon Temple

Last week I participated in a press tour of Philadelphia's new Mormon temple. On the way to the event I thought of my introduction to Mormonism as a teenager.

After a Mormon family moved into our neighborhood, I quickly read the only Mormon book in my high school library: Joseph Smith's No Man Knows My History. Joseph Smith, the founder of the Mormon Church (established in 1830), claimed to have had a visitation from an angel who showed where to dig to find the ancient religious history of American civilization on a hill near Palmyra, New York. That history was engraved on metal plates and became The Book of Mormon. The Book of Mormon purports to be the story of Jesus Christ's presence in the Americas after his death and resurrection in Jerusalem.

One other memory concerns a trip I made with my parents to the 1964-65 New York World's Fair. Here I saw a number of religious sites, such as the Vatican Pavilion, a Russian Orthodox chapel, and the Mormon Pavilion. What stood out for me in the Mormon Pavilion was the famous copy of the Christus statue (by Thorvaldsen) in Copenhagen.

The tall, imposing white statue of Christ was conceived by the Mormon Church for the 3 million dollar Pavilion. Its sheer size and dominance not only commanded attention, but it helped put the Church into the popular consciousness. The Christus statue followed the accepted Mormon practice of representing Jesus as striking and extraordinarily handsome. Mormon Jesus' were not dark and swarthy Rembrandt likenesses but cleft chinned, blue eyed, well built golden or auburn haired model gladiators. This is the Jesus of Jeffrey Hunter in King of Kings, not the thin, ascetically inclined Jesus in Pier Pablo Pasolini's wonderful, The Gospel According to Saint Matthew.

The New York World's Fair, in fact, was a pivotal moment for the Mormon Church. "...The huge leap forward initiated by the Mormon Pavilion must be considered a seminal event in the evolution of the Church's use of media in spreading the gospel message to the world," writes Brent L. Top, dean of religious education at Brigham Young University. "From that time to the present day, the Church's outreach through its use of technology and media has increased steadily and exponentially."

I'll say.

This fact was clearly in evidence during the Philadelphia Temple's first media tour.

The press group of about 22 people included print and broadcast media. A Fox News reporter was there along with her camera crew. There were other unidentified camera crews and a number of photographers although no pictures were permitted inside the temple itself since it is considered the House of the Lord. The press met in the less than inspiring Robert A.M. Stern-designed Meeting House, the place for Mormon Sunday worship, since the Temple is reserved for marriages (and the "sealing" of those marriages for eternity) and for the baptism of the deceased. The tour was to last 2 hours with light refreshments at the end.

There are 112 operating Mormon temples worldwide. At times the building of a temple or a Mormon institution caused some controversy. In 1984, when ground was broken in the Mount Scopus area of Jerusalem for the Brigham Young University Jerusalem campus, all hell broke out. Ultra Orthodox Jews saw this invasion of Mormons from Utah as a proselytizing threat and sought to have construction halted. The Mormon Church had to hire security guards to proceed with the project. A famous ultra Orthodox pop star, Mordechai Ben David, even composed a hit single titled "Jerusalem is Not for Sale."

Jerusalem is not for sale!

Voices, crying, thundering throughout our cities,
You better run for your life, back to Utah overnight,
Before the mountaintop opens wide to swallow you inside.

Today the BYU Jerusalem campus hardly raises an eyebrow although students there must sign a contract promising not to missionize.

Our Philadelphia Temple tour guide was the Harvard educated Larry Y. Wilson, who serves as Executive Director of the Temple Department in Salt Lake City.

The silver haired Wilson had a sleek 'Father Knows Best' demeanor. He took us from the Meeting House to the Temple entrance where coverings were put over our shoes. The shoe coverings were to keep street dirt off the meticulously clean Temple floors and rugs.

Inside the Temple, Wilson described the furnishings and the commissioned art on the walls, including several original murals. He also explained how the Temple's features were aligned to fit a southeastern Pennsylvania and Philadelphia theme, right down to the temple's main door and frame with its bas-relief mountain laurel "Pennsylvania" blossom design. "We believe that the founding of this country was divinely inspired," he said.

The interior of the temple is an extravaganza of quality craftsmanship. Nowhere will you find flimsy/cheap construction materials that you see in new construction all over town. There are no thin walls or doors that weigh a few ounces. One astonished journalist asked how the temple was able to ward off the sound of outside traffic. Wilson replied, "With very thick walls."

Press questions about the Mormon religion began early on. This was to be expected, given that much of the tour included references to Mormon theology and doctrine. These references were woven into descriptions of the temple's Ionic, Doric and Corinthian columns, the decorative lighting, flooring, the outside fence, walkways and the landscaping. "We believe that this is the Lord's House," Wilson reiterated, something that many Christian denominations might ascribe to in theory but that in practice falls short, especially when one considers those Protestant sanctuaries that are used for services on Sunday but on Tuesdays are transformed into jazz festival arenas or concert halls.

Emanuel Swedenborg, A Swedish scientist, mystic and founder of the Swedenborgian Church, wrote that heaven is filled with cities and houses of many different types. There are mansions and simple homes, lavish communities and humble communities. We reap in heaven what we sow in life, meaning that those who were terrifically good in life live in afterlife mansions of marvelous splendor, while those who lived mediocre lives on earth inhabit less than spectacular 'heavenly' neighborhoods.

In Mormonism, there's a belief that non-Mormon ancestors in the after life are free to accept or reject the offer of baptism into the Mormon faith by living relatives or friends. A yes answer, however, would transfer the deceased to a Swedenborg-like greater heaven.

In the Philadelphia temple, each floor is designed as a stairway to Heaven, so as one goes higher the furnishings and the chandeliers on each floor become more elaborate until one reaches the apex, or the Celestial Room, the most scared and beautiful room in the temple.

In the Celestial Room the hanging chandelier fans out into the room like an exploding comet. Visiting Mormons in good standing (Mormons must get a recommend pass from their bishop or stake leader in order to enter the temple) pray and meditate here despite the fact that this room, as well as the entire temple, tends to resemble a lavish Ritz Carlton Hotel with a lot of pictures of Jesus.

The press' fascination with Mormonism came to a fore at the Baptismal Font. Generally, a concerted design effort would be necessary to transform a baptismal area into a secular looking space, but one can see elements of that here for it is not hard to imagine someone perceiving this space, despite its sacred nature, as a hot tube of the highest quality, perhaps a faux Disney recreation of the baths of ancient Rome. Still, 'spectacular' doesn't begin to describe the Font area that had journalists gazing into the pool of water as if lost in the bliss of hypnosis. Like characters in a Robert Altman film, we journalists formed a long line along the circumference of the curving marble barrier that overlooked the oxen accented pool as questions about Mormonism ricocheted back and forth like tennis balls.

The Baptismal Font was to me the highlight of the tour, although later in the marriage sealing room, where couples kneel facing one another across a small altar to have their marriages sealed for all eternity, things got a little dicey.

A journalist inappropriately dressed in shorts, a tight T-shirt and a frayed baseball cap, asked Wilson if same sex marriages are performed in the sealing room.

The question seemed to come across as a triggering device, designed to set off a series of consecutive explosive comments from other members of the press, all related to same sex marriage and engineered to put Wilson on the defensive.

Perhaps it was possible that a reporter in this day and age had no clue about the Mormon stand on same sex marriage. Americans, after all, are tremendously ignorant about religion. This is why the wife of one visiting Mormon Elder told me that people who should know better mistake her for a Mennonite or Amish. "But would an Amish woman wear these kinds of heels?" she asked me, showing me her feet ensconced in the brightest of the bright Frederick's of Hollywood heels that would attract a thumbs up at a Philly Style magazine party.

As for that baseball capped reporter, his question did set off a few same sex marriage follow up comments, although the ever savvy Wilson was able to defuse whatever small bomb lay hidden in the reporter's initial inquiry.