The Washington D.C. Temple of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is a familiar icon to Beltway drivers. Visible from the highway in suburban Maryland, this landmark stands seven stories tall, with pristine white spires jetting upward from the tree line. Due to the closed nature of LDS religious practices, the temple has remained a thing of mystery to most nonmembers since it opened in 1974. This year, however, the temple is opening its doors to the public—including the media—to mark its extensive renovation, with an emphasis on change, both architectural and spiritual, from the inside out.
It was a drizzly day when I arrived for a press tour in late April, but it was easy to forget the weather upon entering the brightly lit D.C. Temple visitors’ center, where the last of the day’s three groups of media were greeted with welcoming smiles by temple staff and volunteers, and shown to a generous charcuterie spread. It included disposable wooden plates, water bottles emblazoned with a stylized image of the temple, and chocolate chip cookies that were just the right ratio of firm-to-chewy. This was far from the imposing projection the majestic white structure conveys to uninitiated D.C. commuters, evocative in enough people’s imaginations of the Wizard of Oz’s Emerald City that nearby overpass graffiti over the years has frequently, prominently, conveyed the message “SURRENDER DOROTHY.”
“This is my third milking,” explained the Rev. Dr. Amos C. Brown, as part of his opener. A Baptist minister from the Third Baptist Church of San Francisco and NAACP board member, Brown began with an anecdote he said Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. liked to share, about an inexperienced girl on a dairy farm who gave her cow its own milk to drink after a successful milking, so she could milk it again with even better results. Brown was the only nonmember of the LDS Church on the multiracial panel of Church and temple officials who addressed the assembled media. In the spirit of his joke, his oratory did not betray any sense of fatigue with the remarks that he was delivering one last time that day. His voice grew louder and his speech more emphatic as he spoke about the LDS Church’s founder, Joseph Smith, and his commitment to the abolitionist cause. “The man who founded this Church, Joseph Smith,” said Brown, “was no bigot. He was no arch-racist.” Smith, Brown said, was an abolitionist prior to his spiritual awakening and the founding of the Church in 1830 (Smith wrote against abolition on scriptural grounds later in the 1830s and seems to have evolved into a more abolitionist position by 1844, when he ran for president).
Brown said the temple was a testimony to the LDS Church’s “romance” with learning, and said last year, LDS President Russell Nelson reached out to the NAACP. Brown said that Nelson had told the NAACP: “We want to talk. We want to have conversation. We want to be enlightened about each other’s experiences.”
“More than going into a refurbished, renovated, beautified temple,” Brown said, once inside, LDS members would “give practical expression to the unfinished agenda of ridding these United States of America from racism, sexism, homophobia, xenophobia, misogyny, and racial and religious bigotry. That’s what will be happening from this beautiful place of learning, of fellowship, and love.” More denominations following in the example of the LDS Church, Brown said, could “save the soul of America.”
Brown hit on what was to be a recurring focus throughout the opening panel and the tour itself: the renovation of the temple as an opportunity to familiarize a curious public with an inclusive, diverse Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
According to the D.C. Temple fact sheet, the LDS Church first broke ground on the Beltway structure in late 1968, and was dedicated in November 1974. Measuring 156,558 square feet, it sits on 52 acres in Kensington, Maryland. At the time of the D.C. Temple’s completed construction, it served as the temple for LDS Church members in the eastern U.S., eastern Canada, and the Caribbean, as well as those living in the capital region.
It was in 1974 that the temple last hosted an open house, and nearly 50 years later, the temple will once again roll out the immaculate custom carpets (shoe coverings were handed out to media upon entry) to the general public ahead of its August rededication. At its construction, the LDS Church had not built a temple east of the Mississippi River in over a century. The D.C. Temple is meant to be evocative of the Church’s flagship temple in Salt Lake City. Where the Salt Lake Temple was a monument to the faith’s founding, the Washington D.C. Temple was, in the words of Dan Holt, the project manager for the D.C. Temple renovation, a representation of ”the international future of the Church.”
After the press conference in the visitors’ center, a brief video about the significance of temples to LDS Church members followed. In the video, a diverse group of people speaking in various accents and different languages talked about what their temple means to them. “All people are children of God,” the video said, describing a God who loves humanity and “wants us to be happy.” Two themes in the video were to emerge frequently during the D.C. Temple tour: the importance of family and its ability to be united forever through LDS temple ceremonies, and the ability to confront and live with suffering.
When the video was over, media guests walked from the visitors’ center to a reception tent, shielded from the rain by a covered walkway. One of the temple’s legions of volunteers rushed out to supply visitors with umbrellas for the roughly 10 or 20 uncovered yards between the walkway and the tent. Once inside the temple itself, my tour group gathered in the foyer, reminiscent of the lobby of an upscale hotel. Guides encouraged us to introduce ourselves, and we learned that our group included local media affiliates, high school and Brigham Young University newspaper reporters, and at least one social media influencer. Someone shouted that BYU student Batchlor Wise Johnson IV, sporting a wide cravat and double-breasted gold collarless blazer, was “TikTok famous.” This TikTok where he describes how he makes his temple experience meaningful serves as a useful introduction to what a temple visit is all about for LDS Church members. He visits regularly, and “brings names, to do family history work.” Wise Johnson also said he reviews principles on the world’s creation that he can use to “see how I can create the best life out of the one that I have.” He uses his temple visits to “vent to God,” he said, and to review the events of the week. Then, finally, in the celestial room, he expresses gratitude to God.
Prior to the D.C. Temple media tour, these idiomatic expressions would likely have been difficult for many in Wise Johnson’s tour group to parse. Afterward, a linguistic veil would be lifted. Its 282 temples throughout the world are for what the LDS Church calls “ordinances”: marriage, instruction, and baptism. Each room in an LDS temple is designed for a different ceremony. According to former D.C. Temple President Kent Colton, the temple differs from a typical LDS meeting house, the place where Church members gather on Sunday for services. Those services are open to anyone, are roughly two hours in length, and involve communion, shared testimonies, and small-group study and discussion.
Our tour was led by Elder Gerrit W. Gong, of the LDS Church’s Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, its second-highest presiding body. Gong stressed the prevailing architectural motif of the D.C. Temple is “verticality,” always moving up, with its inspiration coming from Gothic cathedrals, and a décor he described as “modest,” but “intentional.” Climbing the stairs to each subsequent story, he explained, was a symbolic ascent. Gong began in one of the lower floors at the baptistry, with a full-immersion pool atop the backs of 12 sculpted oxen, a reference to Solomon’s Temple in 1 Kings. Gong compared it to a mikvah bath, and explained it was “a place where things happen that people can’t do for themselves.” The ordinance of baptism is one reason why LDS Church members like Wise Johnson bring names with them to the temple. In what Gong called “a great gift of love” in the interest of “fairness and equity,” a living LDS Church member can be baptized for a deceased relative by proxy. Gong’s wife shared a story about her ancestor, a man named James Cunningham, her great-grandmother’s father. She spoke movingly of Cunningham, taking time to sing songs and tell stories to his little daughter before he died of tuberculosis. Proxy baptism, she said, is a way to say thank you to someone like Cunningham, for the kindnesses they practiced while they were alive. Baptism of the dead, Gong said, is a practice described in 1 Corinthians 15:29 (a concept disputed by other Christian denominations).
Baptism is not the only ordinance that can be performed by proxy, however. The next stop on our ascent was an instruction room, a place the welcome video said that Church members “learn more how we all initially lived with God as his spirit children.” This particular instruction room had a tasteful beige-green palette, with theater-style fold-down seats with arm rests, all facing an altar in front of a curtain. Like Wise Johnson said in his TikTok, this room is where Church members acquaint themselves with LDS beliefs surrounding covenants with God and their ability to unleash a believer’s divine potential, and about creation itself. Instruction is about 90 minutes, and is delivered partly through a video, partly through an audio recording, and is facilitated by a temple member. The altar serves as a reminder of the sacrificial nature of Christ’s death and the sacrificial work to which believers are called.
Wise Johnson explained to his fellow tour members how the ordinance of instruction provided space for believers to bring their feelings, and to “wrestle with God.” It also serves as part of an initiation process. The LDS website explains how instruction is part of a Church member’s temple endowment, in which adults 18 years or older receive personal, individual blessings before being instructed about their Church’s understanding of creation and salvation history. Candidates then make a series of promises, called covenants, to submit to Church laws of obedience, sacrifice, and chastity, as well as to live lives worthy of the Gospel and to dedicate their resources to the Kingdom of God. Many young LDS Church members undergo endowment in preparation for missionary work, something in which all eligible young men are encouraged to participate.
After instruction is over, the curtain, also called a veil, is parted, and members proceed to the celestial room, a soaring space with Swarovski crystal chandeliers. As the name suggests, the celestial room is meant to evoke heaven itself, and the D.C. Temple’s celestial room boasts an elegance usually reserved for receptions for heads of state. Our tour was ushered in for a few minutes of reverent silence. LDS temple rites are “not secret, but sacred” we were told during the visitors’ center press conference, meaning they are not open to nonmembers. Unlike the sanctuary of a traditional Gothic cathedral, there are no windows or natural light in the celestial room, or any of the ordinance rooms.
From the celestial room, we ascended still further. To access the stairs, visitors walk along tastefully appointed hallways, with small side offices and what appear to be reception desks scattered throughout. At one point, our tour passed the locker room wherein Church members change into their simple white temple garments—meant to erase differences between believers, and bestowed on authorized members as part of their endowment.
At last, we arrived at the sealing room, wherein the LDS marriage ordinance occurs. According to Church belief, in this ceremony LDS couples are sealed for eternity, bound by covenant with both each other and with God. A bride and groom kneel across an altar in the center of the room, and make a lasting commitment. Gong said that LDS beliefs around marriage are that God has given them a gift that marriages and parent/child relationships don’t end with time. This belief, Gong said, is illustrated by the large facing mirrors on either side of the sealing room. One side shows a bride as a daughter, granddaughter, great-granddaughter, extending backward through time. The other mirror shows her as a mother, grandmother, and so forth, on into eternity.
There is one more room at the of the D.C. Temple, on the seventh floor, a large ornate assembly room where the August rededication ceremony will happen. But whether intentional or not, the visit to the sealing room was the clear emotional and thematic climax of the tour. One temple member shared a personal anecdote about the death of a child, and how because of his faith that he and his family are sealed together in eternity, he can move forward in hope that they will all be together again forever. It prompted a tour attendee to share their own personal, emotional family story, and the tour took on a different, more poignant dimension. It was in the sealing room that Gong said to attendees that a crucial LDS belief about marriage and family is that whatever came before, “the good things” can start with us.
Gong’s statement was a distillation of the tour’s overall messaging, in which Joseph Smith and the Book of Mormon were scarcely mentioned, if at all. Transformational change was the leitmotif of this unique architectural tour. Speaking to the media visitors during the pre-tour press conference, Sister Sharon Eubank, president of the Church’s humanitarian organization, Latter-day Saint Charities, said that there was no better way to address the root causes of division and suffering, than “changing people from the inside.” While the newly renovated D.C. Temple “is a beautiful architectural structure,” she said, “it’s not about the architecture,” or about the exquisite craftsmanship. “It’s about the hearts that get changed and they walk out of that building, intent on doing something good,” Eubank said. While The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has come under scrutiny in recent years for its stances on LGBT issues and its complicated racial past, the LDS speakers at the D.C. Temple tour seemed eager to strike a forward-looking tone of inclusivity. And after more than two pandemic years, they coupled that tone with a message: In a world plagued by suffering and increasing atomization, faith, family, and connection offer a promise of hope.
This story is part of a series Tablet is publishing to promote religious literacy across different religious communities, supported by a grant from the Arthur Vining Davis Foundations.
Maggie Phillips is a freelance writer and former Tablet Journalism Fellow.