The invitation came as a shock to many who received it on that spring day in 1893: they were invited by the First Presidency of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to tour the new Salt Lake Temple on the eve of its dedication.
Some of them had every reason to be surprised; in the decade before the temple was completed, they had been among those trying to destroy the Church. Other recipients of the invitation had thought that the interior of the temple was to be forever closed to them and would be seen only by Church members.
Many of the government and business leaders, journalists, other special guests, and their spouses who took the tour that day found their perceptions of the Mormons permanently changed. It quickly became apparent that inviting prominent nonmembers to tour the temple had been an inspired decision. Moreover, this first-of-its-kind event established a precedent for future temple open house events. Throughout the world, acceptance of Latter-day Saints has increased wherever community leaders and citizens of other faiths have toured an LDS temple before its dedication and experienced the spirit that is to be felt there.
The 1893 temple tour came at a time when some kind of bridge between Church members and their neighbors was badly needed.
In the 1830s and 1840s, Latter-day Saints had been forcibly driven from settled parts of the United States. In the unsettled West, they sought peace and the opportunity to shut out or limit the influence of the society that had rejected them.1 Sometimes, however, the relationship between Church members and the rest of the world grew turbulent as lies, distortions of truth, and prejudice were spread or perpetuated outside of LDS strongholds.
In 1857, for example, not long after an army was ordered to Utah in response to unfounded reports of rebellion,2 a writer from Harper’s Weekly visited Salt Lake City to give readers a firsthand look at the Mormons. He described a poverty-stricken and backward people living in “mud hovels” and “adobe” buildings. He passed on lurid secondhand reports and speculation about plural marriages. He described Brigham Young as a “conspirator against his country” ambitiously seeking to establish his own independent kingdom and boasting of “‘raising up a set of boys here who will carry blood and thunder to the very gates of the Capitol.’”
But the writer showed a grudging admiration for the temple project, “quite a stupendous undertaking. … Its foundations, which are foolishly costly, are of solid rock. … [The Latter-day Saints] have now resolved to erect it entirely of cut stone. Its plans are publicly exhibited, and, should it ever be completed, it will form a very magnificent pile.”3
Such inflammatory reports helped fuel continual government efforts to force reform on the Latter-day Saints. In 1856, the new Republican party had adopted as one plank in its national political platform a pledge to eliminate “those twin relics of barbarism—polygamy and slavery.”4 Legislation to punish Church members for the practice of plural marriage was passed in 1862.5 In the early 1870s, United States President Ulysses S. Grant was adamant that the Mormons must be brought into line.6
Firsthand contact with members of the Church often changed the perceptions of people who had been fed on biased or malicious secondhand reports. When Ulysses Grant visited Salt Lake City on 3 October 1875, several thousand Sunday School children lined the streets to greet him, “all singing songs of welcome and literally strewing the President’s roadway with flowers,” Mrs. Grant recalled.7 He could not believe that children so well dressed and well behaved were Mormons. When Utah Governor George W. Emery confirmed that they were, President Grant muttered to himself, “I have been deceived.”8
Such firsthand contacts were too few, however, to overcome the influence of negative stereotypes on national legislators. Repeatedly, Utah initiatives toward statehood were blocked. By the late 1880s, punitive legislation aimed at the Church had in effect stripped those who practiced or believed in plural marriage of the right to vote, disfranchising both men and women. Under the laws, many prominent Church members had been imprisoned, and President John Taylor had died in the Mormon “underground,” avoiding federal officers eager to prosecute him publicly.9 The government had confiscated most of the Church’s property;10 this latter step was a move toward “legal dismemberment of the church itself.”11 Leaders in the legislative fight against the Church were willing to admit that their real objective was to prevent Mormon domination of political, educational, and economic affairs in Utah, but plural marriage was the rallying point for mass support.12
Their rallying point suddenly evaporated late in 1890, when President Wilford Woodruff issued the Manifesto (Official Declaration—1 in the Doctrine and Covenants) declaring an end to plural marriage. President Woodruff told the Saints that he had deliberated over the problem for some time, until “the God of heaven commanded me to do what I did do. … I went before the Lord and wrote what the Lord told me to write.”13
This action did not, of course, immediately quiet all the critics of the Church. Nothing would do that, even though Church leaders sold off many institutional business interests, gave their support to development of a secular public school system, disbanded the People’s party that had fostered LDS solidarity in politics (in response to the anti-Mormon political party), and urged Latter-day Saints to join the national political parties.14 Church members still faced suspicion as they moved to join with their neighbors in political activities; some had already been rebuffed when they tried to participate in one party’s Utah convention.15 The Salt Lake Tribune insisted that the Manifesto was only an outward show and that Mormons were simply enslaved religiously and intellectually by their leaders.16
For years, the Tribune and the Church-owned Deseret News had served as entrenched artillery in a war of words. The News had found itself cast as defender of the faith and, increasingly, the respondent for sharp attacks on the Church and its leaders. The Tribune was the voice of those who led opposition to the Church.17 In the mid-1880s, printed interchanges between the two newspapers sunk to the level of bitter name-calling as a result of charges and countercharges about which group was responsible for local evils.18 Clearly, old suspicions would be hard to overcome; careful work would be required for Latter-day Saints and their neighbors to develop a sense of community.
Opening the most hallowed sanctuary of the Church to public inspection proved to be an inspired and significant step in the right direction.
In the months before April 1893, interest in the Latter-day Saints and their temple led the Union Pacific Railroad to publish a 24-page brochure heralding the upcoming temple dedication and promoting routes and fares to Salt Lake City. The brochure painted a positive picture of the Church and of Utah.19 As Latter-day Saints crowded into the city for the April 6 dedication, they were joined by many non-LDS observers, including journalists from around the country.
Non-LDS visitors and residents were expecting to be excluded from the dedication, “and this caused everyone [who received] one of these invitations [for the temple tour] to take advantage of the privilege if possible,” the Salt Lake Tribune reported.
That newspaper, then in the process of burying some of its old enmity toward the Church, wrote favorably of the tour. To a story headlined “THE TEMPLE DEDICATION,” the Tribune added subhead lines reading: “A COURTEOUS INVITATION TO VIEW IT. … Rich and Beautiful Finish, Adornments, Hangings, and Fittings …” After a few paragraphs about the tour and the temple interior, the story summarized: “Altogether the richness and elegant workmanship of the Temple was a revelation of wonder to the visitors.” There followed “a detailed description … copied from the News of last night.”20
The idea of letting nonmembers in to see the temple was one that many Church members had to digest. “At 5 P.M. the Governor, Judges, lawyers, and principal outsiders were permitted to enter and were shown all through the building. This was a great surprise to me and most every one else I suppose,” wrote Joseph Henry Dean in his journal. But, he added, “It won’t hurt the temple and will allay a great deal of prejudice. They were profuse in their praise and admiration.”21
That Brother Dean was correct in his assessment is indicated by the observations of H. R. Harper, editor of the Chattanooga, Tennessee News. Mr. Harper had come to Salt Lake City intending to spend two days, but found the “picturesque surroundings of the city and the cordial hospitality of the people” so much to his liking that he decided to stay longer. “I considered it a great privilege to be permitted yesterday to inspect the great Temple and feel amply repaid for my long journey,” he said. “In leaving Salt Lake City and Utah I shall carry away with me pleasant memories of the Saints as an honest, industrious and God-fearing people, who have done great things for the amelioration of mankind and who have made a desert blossom like a rose.”22
The Salt Lake Herald, a local paper friendly to the Church,23 saw the temple as a landmark that transcended religious interests. “Who can conceive a more magnificent and enduring monument to the religious faith, devotion and industry of a people than the splendid architectural pile that was yesterday dedicated to the holy purpose for which it was designed? …
“Not the Latter-day Saints alone, but all residents of the region view the Salt Lake Temple with pride.”24
But the dedication of the temple attracted attention far outside of Salt Lake City. With wire service reports or stories filed by their own correspondents, newspapers from the New York Times to the Los Angeles Times covered the event. Just as press reports had often shaped perceptions of the Mormons in the past, these stories would begin to turn public opinion in a new, positive direction.
The Chicago Tribune headlined its story “MORMONS’ GALA DAY,” and reported that President Wilford Woodruff had “offered the dedicatory prayer … in which the entire edifice, including each pane of glass and the innumerable parts that make up the whole, was dedicated and consecrated to the Almighty God.” In an effort to interpret more of the Latter-day Saint practices for non-LDS readers, the newspaper also explained, “These temples are not, as might be supposed, analogous to the churches of other denominations, but are used for private rites or ceremonies, to which, of course, only the initiated are allowed admission.”
Noting that dedication services were scheduled for several sessions, the newspaper reported that during the evening session of April 6, the grand building “was ablaze with splendor. The hundreds of windows threw gleams of light far into the outer darkness, while from the temple spires high above all the surrounding buildings, the lights shot athwart the heavens. It is universally conceded that for general effect, both interior and exterior, there is no finer church edifice in the whole of America.”25
One newspaper, the New York Times, tried to put what the Saints had achieved in perspective: “It is difficult to overstate the difficulties under which the Mormons labored and lived in those earliest years at Salt Lake. They were set in the middle of a desert upon the shores of a lake whose fair appearance faded on close approach, and whose blue waters were bitter and acrid in the mouth. They went to work with their feeble hands and dug fertility out of the hills, brought down pure water from the snowy caps of the mountains, and created a world of their own out of chaotic and forbidding material.”
The Salt Lake Temple, the story continued, was more than simply a monument to a faithful, industrious people, and it was more than the product of one man’s mind. “Brigham Young conceived the design, presumably through inspiration of some unnatural power, for no such building is to be seen elsewhere in any quarter of the globe.”26 Even to those who focused largely on the glass and stone of the building, it obviously radiated something of the divine.
Non-LDS observers recognized the deep spiritual impact of the temple dedication on Church members. The Los Angeles Times reported that during the services, “President Woodruff … uttered a prophecy concerning the future of the people of God. The prophecy was not divulged, but it is understood to refer to the growth and prosperity of the church and the increased happiness of the Saints.”27 (Rudger Clawson, later to be a member of the Quorum of the Twelve, recorded: “Prest. Woodruff said among other things, that, following the dedication there would be a change and the Saints would see things they never dreamt of.”)28
Change, in fact, was well under way. The Manifesto in 1890, the dedication of the temple, the Tabernacle Choir visit to the World Columbian Exposition at Chicago in 1893, statehood for Utah in 1896—these opened an era of dawning acceptance for Latter-day Saints, in their region, in their nation, and eventually in areas all over the globe.
The Los Angeles Times was not the only newspaper to report on the spiritual impact of the dedication. The San Francisco Chronicle wrote that “there had been talk among the Saints that there would be some divine appearance or miraculous sign attending the dedication, but the conference speakers warned the people against laying stress on such a thing and none is claimed.”29 Outside observers who did not attend the dedication could not know, of course, that spiritual manifestations did occur; those to whom they were given recorded them privately and did not publicize them to the world. (See “The Power of God Was with Us,” pages 28–31.)
Because the Chronicle had been seen as an unfriendly observer only a few years earlier,30 Latter-day Saints were gratified by its favorable words. “The temple is the greatest landmark in Mormondom. It … stands as a monument [to their] united efforts. …
“The whole represents the freewill offerings of a frugal and industrious and, at one time, poverty stricken people. The completion of this temple is the crowning event in their history.”31
The “stupendous undertaking” that had been viewed skeptically by Harper’s Weekly thirty-six years earlier was now recognized as a monument to both the faith of Church members and the divinity of their objective. But the open house events that had surrounded its dedication made the temple a symbol of something else too. Our once-exiled, embattled people found that the society around them had begun to view them differently through the help of the Lord. And to this day, the open house period is one of the hallmark features associated with the dedication of each new LDS temple.