Later this week yet another new temple of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saint--this one in Kansas City, Missouri--will open its doors for public tours before being dedicated. After dedication, the building will no longer be open to the public, but only to members of the church “in good standing.”
To some, it seems like a curious thing for a place of worship not to open its doors to all comers. It may be a good time to try to explain.
Mormon temples come in all shapes and sizes. They range from the iconic six-spired granite edifice on Temple Square in Salt Lake City, to the towering white marble structure familiar to Beltway commuters in Washington, D.C., to the smaller temples in unlikely places like Nuku’alofa in Tonga, or Hong Kong.
In all, Latter-day Saint temples now number around 150 built or under construction --more than half of them finished or started within the past dozen years. All of them, no matter what the architecture or location, have one external identifying feature in common. Above or close to the front entrance, etched in capital letters, is the inscription: “Holiness to the Lord. The House of the Lord.”
Bible scholars will recognize the words. In the days of Moses the phrase “holiness to the Lord” was inscribed on a kind of headband or crown worn by the high priest, whose duties and vestments are described in detail in the Old Testament books of Exodus and Leviticus. While the office of high priest has long ceased to exist among the Jews, there is a world of meaning in the same words now inscribed on every Latter-day Saint temple.
The English word “holy” doesn’t entirely capture the intent conveyed by the ancient Hebrew. English usage of “holy” certainly associates objects or people with the sacred, as in worship. But the original Hebrew (kah-dash), Greek (hagios) and Latin (sanctum) each carry the additional sense of something separate or “set apart” for sacred purposes. Latter-day Saints understand the words “Holiness to the Lord” in exactly this way. Temples are places consecrated, dedicated and set apart for sacred purposes, and when temple-goers walk through the doors they have already set themselves apart mentally.
Set apart from what? From the distractions of the world, from the profane and materialistic, and instead--as the apostle Paul urged Jesus’ followers--in order to set their affection “on things above, not on things on the earth.”
A few years ago a leader of my church put it rather well: “Holiness is the strength of the soul. It comes by faith and through obedience to God’s laws and ordinances. God then purifies the heart by faith, and the heart becomes purged from that which is profane and unworthy. When holiness is achieved by conforming to God’s will, one knows intuitively that which is wrong and that which is right before the Lord. Holiness speaks when there is silence, encouraging that which is good or reproving that which is wrong.”
Isn’t this the same reason why we walk through the doors of any church? No, not exactly. There are many thousands of Latter-day Saint chapels, or meetinghouses, around the world, and of course just like other churches they are treated with reverence and respect. Our buildings typically include a chapel for public Sunday services, classrooms, a basketball court and a kitchen to service recreational activities through the week. For Latter-day Saints, these buildings are part house of worship, part community center and all are welcome to join us in worship and communion.
No Latter-day Saint would ever regard the temple as a community center. For a temple-going Latter-day Saint, crossing the threshold of a temple is accompanied by a wholly different feeling than walking through the doors of a chapel for Sunday worship. To begin with, we don’t go to the temple on a particular day of the week. There is no schedule for temple attendance and no expectation of frequency beyond a person’s own motivation. Temple attendance is not a matter of calendar but of a personal desire for a higher commitment to God. In a weekly Sunday service, our taking of the “communion,” or “sacrament” as we call it, is an act of reconciliation, a reminder of Jesus Christ’s sacrifice and a symbolic gesture that invites the influence of the Holy Spirit in our lives for the coming week. In the temple, however, “Holiness to the Lord” engenders something more - an understanding that we are not simply going to try to live our faith for another week, but that we are about to make personal promises to God to consecrate and dedicate our whole lives to him.
Ultimately we show our loyalty and devotion to God by observing what Jesus described as the second great commandment --by loving our neighbor. Men and women through the ages have sought places of spiritual sanctuary, free from the temptations of the outside world, where they can draw close to God. Monastic orders and convents are one manifestation of this. But Latter-day Saints see the temple not as a place of permanent retreat, but as a place of personal covenants, where for an hour or two they can immerse themselves in communion with God, render ceremonial service for those who have departed this life, and unite families together for eternity through sacred ordinances. Paradoxically, the resultant effect of temple worship is not withdrawal or isolation from the world, but to impel the believer to re-enter the world better prepared to serve members of one’s family, church, neighborhood and beyond.
Former Church President Gordon B. Hinckley described it this way when speaking to a large gathering of men in the church in October of 1995:
“If every man in this church…were to go to the house of the Lord and renew his covenants in solemnity before God and witnesses, we would be a better people. There would be little or no infidelity among us. Divorce would almost entirely disappear. So much of heartache and heartbreak would be avoided. There would be a greater measure of peace and love and happiness in our homes. There would be fewer weeping wives and weeping children. There would be a greater measure of appreciation and of mutual respect among us. And I am confident the Lord would smile with greater favor upon us.”
With all of this in mind, a few moments’ thought should make it obvious why temples are not open to the public. In my whole life I have never heard a church member refer to a temple as “secret.” The term of choice is “sacred,” and Mormons understand the difference. It is important for Latter-day Saints to maintain that sacredness. Large “visitors welcome” signs routinely flank our chapels, but they are not to be found at temples, other than those few that have adjacent visitors’ centers. Rather than places for casual visits from the public, temples are places where we continue a spiritual journey already begun. While we do not invite the public into the temple, we do invite sensitivity, understanding and mutual respect for the sacred - values which are sadly diminishing even in our religiously pluralistic society.
Michael Otterson is an On Faith panelist and heads the worldwide public affairs functions of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
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