Saturday, August 16, 2008

Twin Falls Temple Open House

Introduction and Background

Despite being the second most Mormon state in the union by percentage of the population (24.1% to Utah’s 66.4% as of the 2000 Census) Idaho’s temple history is surprisingly sparse. The states first temple was dedicated in Idaho Falls, Idaho on September 23rd 1945, about a month after Japans surrender and the end of the Second World War. In fact the war greatly delayed the construction of that temple, for while the exterior was completed in 1941 (construction began in 1939), material shortages kept the interior unfinished untill the summer of 45. At the time of the Idaho Falls Temples dedication, Utah already had four operating temples.

Idaho did not get another temple until 1984 (Utah then had seven working temples), when one was dedicated in Boise, Idaho. This temple was built to small for regional needs and had to be expanded and re-dedicated in 1987. Then it was not until earlier this year that Idaho got its third working temple, this one in Rexburg, Idaho, home to Church run Brigham Young University- Idaho. It was dedicated on February 10th by newly ordained Church President Thomas S. Monson, only two weeks after the death of his predecessor Gordon B. Hinckley. On August the 24th President Monson is scheduled to dedicated Idaho’s fourth temple, this one in Twin Falls. Interestingly this will also be Presidents Monson’s fourth temple dedication as Church President, in addition to Rexburg he has since dedicated a Temple in Curitiba, Brazil, and is set to dedicate another in Panamá City, Panama' August 9th. The state of Utah by the way currently has eleven operating temples, with two more under construction. By further way of comparison the state of Arizona has five temples with I think four in the works, and California has seven with I believe a few more on the way as well. California by the way is the second most Mormon state in terms of shear numbers with 529,575 members to Idaho’s 311,425, again as of the 2000 census. While Rhode Island is the lest Mormon state with only 3,578 members. In a last bit of trivia the state of Texas has four temples as well.

As is standard procedure when the Church prepares to dedicate a new ’House of the Lord’ (as we hold our temples to be) an open house is being held for the general public, the Twin Falls Temple will thusly be open for tours from the 11th of July until August 15th. While I have been in about a half dozen dedicated LDS temples and have participated in most of the different types of ceremonies performed there, I had never been to an open house and was fairly curious as to how the temple would be presented. Temple worship is in many ways the pinnacle of LDS doctrine and practice, it is the ‘meat’ to the ’milk’ that is generally the subject of our chapel services, General Conference addresses, and official publications. In other words, what we do there is kind of deep and involved, it varies even markedly form the rest of traditional Mormon ceremonial practice, and is something which church members generally prefer to speak about in only the vaguest of terms, in fact that is expected of us. This is why I was so excited for the opportunity to go and attend the Twin Falls Temple open house with my Boise singles congregation on Saturday the 2nd of August.

The Trip and Pre-Tour

That morning members of the ward gathered at the parking lot of the University Stake Center (1). We had prayer, then split up among probably a dozen or so vehicles for the roughly two hour drive to Twin Falls. Joe F., Alyson, Katie C., Suzanne and I traveled up together, enjoying some interesting conversation, and stopped briefly in Kimberly, Idaho to visit Alyson’s sister-in-law and her kids before making our way to the temple. There we were greeted by a man in a straw-type cowboy hat protesting the non-Christianity of Mormonism. Such ’Anti-Mormon’ protesters show up at virtually all high profile LDS events, and while this guy was providing counter point solo, there had been more protesters there earlier in the open house (click here).

Upon arrival we stowed electronic items (cell phones, camera's) per policy, and headed up to the church building that conjoins the temple grounds (it is common practice for the Church to place a Stake Center next to a Temple). There we were all ushered into the chapel to await our tour. While waiting I got to speak with a member of the incoming Temple Presidency (A body of three that serve as the temples administrating executives), who told me that as of closing the previous day, 85, 000 people had toured the Temple since the open house began, resulting in 265 referrals, and three baptisms. Also while waiting Joe’s mom showed up, in an unplanned but pleasant surprise; I myself saw a distant cousin.

After some time waiting our group was filed out of the chapel, down the hall, and into one of the classrooms, where we were shown a introductory video. The video presentation was part general, and part local, highlighting some basics of Mormon belief, the concept of the temple, and Church history in the Twin Falls area. The latter connection was of particular resonance to our good Bishop, who grew up in the area and whose grandmother would always tell him as a boy that some day there would be a temple there (2). It was also in this room that we meet a few non-LDS visitors, whose reactions I would try to keep an eye on throughout the tour. They consisted of a couple from Ogden, Utah who came because "We’ve never been inside of one of these before", and a one’s sister from Tennessee, as well as a couple of young children (3).

After the video an elderly man introduced himself to us as our tour guide, like all those assisting at the open house he was a volunteer from a local Stake, and while he lacked charisma in his presentation, was doubtless sincere. We were lead out of the church building onto the temple grounds (which by the way are bigger then Boise’s), which consisted of a well manicured lawn, some pathways, benches and a fountain. We had to stop several times waiting for earler groups to procced as we wound around the structures west side, we could dimly hear the afformentioned street preacher attempting to dissuade us, but mostly we kept in conversation among ourselves. Eventually we made it to the front entrance, were some local youth put little ‘booties’ on our feet, so the heavy traffic wouldn’t muff up the temple.

The Temple Tour: First Floor

The first room in the temple was a kind of Fourier, with a nice waiting room to one side, but it was ropped off. After squeezing our group of around 40-to-50 into the Fourier, the tour guide spoke to us. From here on out I’m going to omit that the tour guide spoke to us, which he did at every stop, and simply explain the purpose of the rooms we visited. The Fourier to start with has a little desk at the end, this is where in a dedicated temple one would present one’s recommend to gain access to the other parts of the building. Non-recommend holders can enter a dedicated temple, but are restricted to the Fourier and waiting area.

From the Fourier we went through a little hall way that opened out to one side of a large staircase. This staircase constituted one end of a large central room, that spans the length of the temples first floor, and slightly contracts at a few places to divide sections of this ‘great hall’ into 'effective' rooms. The first of these subrooms was an additional waiting area for recommend holders, followed by a slightly down slopped ‘hall’ that lead into the baptistry, which of course is not completely separated from the rest of the ‘great hall’ (4).

The baptistry opens up a little from the rest of the hall, it’s a room with a couple of benches facing the baptismal font. Like all the rooms in the temple it is of course nicely decorated, I think some plants, nice furniture and pots by the walls, paintings both religious and of local nature scenes. The baptismal font is per tradition actually located underground, hence the sloop in getting there. So basically you have this room with a large square indentation within it, going down say 6 or 8 feet (I’m guessing), in which sits the baptismal font. The font looks like something between a bowl and a gravy boat, and sits upon the back of twelve sculpted oxen who represent the twelve tribes of Israel. Every active LDS temple has one of these, though the styles may very (some are bronze, this a white stone-like material). Something similar to the font was among the acrutrements of ancient Israel’s traveling Tabernacle.

In this room Church members participate in proxy baptisms for the deceased, sometimes direct ancestors, sometimes not. This practice is the major impetus behind the Churches well known involvement in genealogical research. Mormons do not believe that such proxy baptisms force anything on the deceased, we hold that the dead still have agency and may chose to accept or deny any ordinance performed on their behalf. This of course gets us well into the area of Mormon beliefs as regards the after-life, which are much more involved then those held by most Christians. I will not attempt to get into any real detail at this point, but if anyone would like more information on this topic, I would be happy to write another post, or at least point you in the right direction for further enlightenment on the subject.

From the baptistry we were lead back through the great hall into the women’s locker room along the east side of the building (the mens locker room is basically a parallel space along the west side, as it would have been redundant to visit it, we didn’t). In the locker room members change from there outside clothing (typically suits and dresses, the kinds of nice outfits Latter-day Saints traditionally wear to Sunday services), into pure white variants there of, as well as other ceremonial vestments, depending on the ritual one has come to participate in. Not far from this room, though we were not shown it, would be the space were members get the names they will participate in proxy rituals for, and the area were the initiatory ordinances, also known as the ‘washing and anointing’ are preformed, again I will not get into any real detail on the specifics of these ordinances. We were then lead out of the locker room, passed the bridal room (were a bride to be changes into her wedding dress) in which we were allowed to look, and back into the members waiting area, then up the main stairs.

The Temple Tour: Second Floor

Unlike the first floor the second level of the temple was not primarily a long hall. The stairwell had a brief landing half way up, then (if I remember correctly) split into two to finish the accent. Once on the second floor we were lead to the east hall and then into the first of the Endowment rooms. The Endowment is probably the most unique of Mormon religious rituals. There is no real corollary in other faiths that I can think of, though its similarities to Masonic rituals are often employed as a point of reference and comparison (5). Again Mormons do not like to speak of rituals such as this in any real detail outside the temple, not even to others members. I will only go so far in my description of the ceremony as I have heard and read other Mormons, such as the late Apostle Bruce R. McConkie go. In short the Endowment is a symbolic teaching and covenant making ritual that consists both of a depiction of the creation of this Earth, as well as a narrative focused on Adam & Eve. While the ritual has not remained word-for-word consistent since its inauguration, it could be said that it remains the same in its essentials.

The mode for the presentation of the Endowment has also changed some over time. While both the Salt Lake and Manti, Utah Temples continue to offer the presentation with an entirely live ‘cast’, all other temples employ a video presentation as part of the ceremony. The ceremony can be done in a very small space, or spread out through a series of rooms to mark progression through the ritual. In the Salt Lake Temple for example the Endowment progresses through four rooms, in the Boise Temple only two. In the Twin Falls Temple the ceremony is cared out through a total of three rooms. The first such room in this temple contains a beautiful mural across all walls of the Shoshone Falls area prior to the limited human development there. It was painted by the son of the well known LDS artist Del Parsons, though I find that I prefer the sons work to the fathers. From this first Endowment room we go into the second, another room full of seats and a presentation area, but minus a mural and video screen. This second room has curtains that mark the entrance to the Celestial Room, which is a beautiful white-motifed space, were upon compilation of the Endowment the participants go to mediate, or perhaps enjoy a few reflective moments with family and friends. It’s a beautiful room, I can’t really do it justice, though I can say that some Mormons have referred to Celestial Room’s as "God’s living room".

After some moments in the Celestial Room we were lead down the west hallway and into the largest of the three Sealing Rooms. A Sealing Room is were a temple marriage is performed, it is also were ordinances uniting families not previously sealed are conducted; like all Mormon ceremonies this ritual may be performed on behalf of either the living, or in proxy for the dead.(6) The Sealing room contains chairs for the guests, and in the center a large padded ‘alter’ at which the bride and the groom kneel facing each other, as well as large parallel wall mounted mirrors that create a fittingly symbolic infinity effect.

The End of the Tour and After

From the Sealing Room we were lead back down stars, down the east hall passed the administrative offices and back outside (through the fire exit). Our shoe coverings were removed by volunteers, and we then progressed back across the temple grounds, into the regular church building, down a hall, and into the central gym area (known to Mormons as a ‘cultural hall’), a multi-purpose room located directly behind the chapel area used for conventional Sunday services. Here there were professionally done displays on the history of temple worship, Jesus Christ, and the Churchs temples around the world. There were also cookies and drinks, and nice furniture store-like mock living roomlike arraignments, in which to sit, eat, and discuss. Missionaries were also on hand, and visitors could sign up to get more information about the Church.

After a short time in the cultural hall we departed for a pic-nic near Shoshone Falls (beautiful, I’d never been there before) and an uneventful trip home. That in long was our temple tour trip. Anyway I think I’ve been verbose enough, but I wanted to give a complete depiction of the experience, and maybe shed a little light on what goes on inside an LDS temple for the benefit of non-Mormon readers. Any comments or questions, please leave them.

(1) Like a mini-deices a Stake generally consists of from half a dozen to fifteen or so wards and/or branches (read: congregations). The Stake Center is the chapel that serves as a sort of ’seat’ of the stake, generally stake offices are located at or near there (though there are exceptions) and bi-annual Stake Conferences are held there. The Boise Institute University Stake, is attached (as it were) to the Boise State Institute, which its self offers supplementary religious instruction and social activities for young Latter-day Saints and interested others attending Boise State University, or of the ages (say 18 to 30) that generally would. The University stake has congregations for both married and single young adults, and one does not have to be enrolled at either the University or the Institute to attend.

(2) Such stories are fairly common the world around for Mormons, as they express a very central hope for many members. Yet until the recent surge in temple building, which by the most generous stretch could only be dated back to around the 1980's, such hopes were not unlike the old Jewish saying "Next year in Jerusalem", perhaps comforting, but not very likely to happen.

(3) The husband was mostly stoic, perhaps trying to figure out how to take what was being presented to him. The women looked uncomfortable at a couple of junctures, but one really lit up upon entrance to the Celestial Room. Her little boy was a big fan of the large chandelier.

(4) ‘Great Hall’ is not an official Mormon designation for this space, just something I’m using to describe it with. By the way I really loved the use of space in this building, very open and airy, as contrast to the temple I’m most familiar with (Boise’s), that feels perhaps a little closterphobic and has much shorter ceilings.

(5) In fact the Idaho Historical Museum has a rather well done exhibit on Masonry running into September. The exhibit includes information on Mormonism and Masonry, including the fact that a long standing ban on Mormons joining the fraternity was not lifted until 1984. As a side note to this I just read in Sunstone the other day that Utahan Glen Cook has just been elected the first Mormon Grand Master Mason since the ban was lifted. Getting back to the exhibit, those familiar with certain aspects of Mormon temple worship will recognize there in both symbolic and others parallels shared with the Masons.

(6) The fact that members of the LDS Church will preform their most sacred religious ordinances on behalf of deceased non-Mormons, is well, controversial. The fact of this makes some people quite uncomfortable, it is often taken as offensive, and tends to make the Mormons seem just weird. However it should be noted that Mormons intentions in these rituals are to benefit the deceased in the afterlife, and can thus be liken to Roman Catholic or traditional Buddhist prayers for the dead, neither of which seem to generate this same level of negative feeling.

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