From a bend in the Beltway the temple soars into view like a revelation. Luminous white marble walls vault above the treetops. Six gilded spires, mounted on towers, loft still higher, lifting the eye up to the figure of a trumpeting angel and beyond to the infinite reaches of the sky.

In the seven years since the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints dedicated this windowless citadel a few hundred yards from the Beltway in Kensington, the Mormon Temple has come to mean many things both sacred and secular.

To 110,000 motorists passing each day, it is an architectural spectacle, suburban landmark, and, especially at night when it appears magically out of the darkness, a well-spring of fairy tales. To the neighbors who live in its shadows it's a fair alternative to low-income housing. But most of all, because it is off limits to all but the Mormons, the citadel is an inexhaustible curiosity, shrouded in a sort of mystery that prompts people to call it Oz, and inspired some spray-painting partisan to scrawl, "Release Dorothy" on a nearby overpass.

The 35,000 people in the Washington area for whom the Mormon church is a way of life, indeed, the 4.6 million so-called "saints" in 83 countries around the world, see the temple much differently. It is the largest and perhaps most heavenly house they have built for the Holy Father on earth. It is the place where the family-centered Mormons come to baptize, marry, perpetuate the family in eternity. Not least it stands as a triumphant symbol of the Mormons' climb to power, influence and respect after early years of religious persecution.

More than ever the tenor of Mormon life -- patriotism, hard work, righteousness, and above all, family life under a patriarch -- is the tenor of the times. Their brand of conservatism has permeated the nation. Mormons serve on presidential cabinets and regulatory agencies. Mormon senators control powerful banking and labor committees. Only a fortnight ago, the church's announcement that it would oppose the MX missile was heralded as possibly the program's death knell. Those outcast pioneers who once fled New York, Ohio and Illinois to stake a new life in the Utah desert now count themselves among mainstream society's most upstanding members.

"The church has been driven out every time clear to the West," says Keith Wilcox, the Mormon architect wh designed the Washington Temple in 1969. "We wanted to do this building in a significant way. We are returning symbolically to that part of the country which we had been driven from."

The better to convey this symbolic dimension, the Mormons chose to locate their first eastern temple in the Washington area. The church purchased to woodsy 57-acre tract in Kensington in 1962, and broke ground in 1969 on an edifice scaled to match the other monuments of the federal city. In 1974 the $17 million shrine was completed, and for a month and a half before it was sanctified, more than 750,000 people toured its 294 rooms.

Since the dedication ceremony, however, the temple has been open only to Mormons in good standing with their church. For those who missed their chance, the curiosity is eternal.

"All I wonder is what's in there," says Verona Garvey, who lives near the Temple on Hill Street."I pass by. I stare at it every day. At night I see it out my window, but I can't get in. I'd pay money to go inside."

Rising above a reflecting pool and clipped temple grounds of holly, dogwood and more than 100 other varieties of trees and shrubs, the Washington Temple culminates 288 feet in the sky with the Angel Moroni, who revealed the Book of Mormon. The 18-foot 2 1/2-ton gold leaf statue of the angel balances atop the tallest of six gold-dipped porcelainized steel spires. The spires are clustered in groups of three to represent the two priesthoods -- the senior positions -- of the Mormon church.

Architect Wilcox's design for the temple germinated long ago at the University of Oregon where he wrote a master's thesis on a design for a Latter-day Saints church. Although the temple-builders might have chosen a more contemplative location, the Mormon church is a missionary church that annually sends 35,000 proselytizers around the world, and, Wilcox, a 59-year-old lifelong Mormon asks, "Where better can we preach the message than down on the Beltway?"

The appearance of the temple, at once medieval and futuristic, was an architectural idea intended to symbolize timlessness, and from afar the temple, perched lordly on a wooded hill, resembles a couple of space shuttles on the launch pad as much as a feudal castle.

Inside, if one can judge from the descriptions offered by the church officials, it is hard to turn without encountering something symbolic. The 12 oxen that shoulder the baptismal font represent the twelve tribes of Israel. The seven main floors of the temple represent the seven periods of creation that Mormons say it took to make the world. In many temple rooms opposing mirrors reflect the Mormon's preoccupation with the infinite nature of God.

The top floor is devoted to the largest chamber in the temple, the Solemn Assembly Room which seats 1,800 saints but is used infrequently for special congregations. On the sixth floor are eight sealing rooms where weddings are conducted and children are joined to their parents for all eternity on cushioned altars surrounded by mirrors and chairs.

Below the sealing rooms, on the fourth floor, is the two-story-high gold-carpeted Celestial Room where saints repair for philosophical rumination under a plaster-domed, 37-foot ceiling. On this level are also the six "ordinance" rooms seating 80 each where eternal questions are discussed, blessings given and covenants made, and the curtains on the walls open up on screens where films on creation and the meaning of life are shown.

On the third floor are nearly 500 locker rooms where saints change into their white temple clothes.The administrative offices, chapel, nursery area are located on the second floor. Below them is the laundry, the temple kitchen and cafeteria and the baptismal font, a round pool borne on the backs of the oxen and filled three feet deep with ordinary Montgomery County water.

To enter, Mormons pass through a long glass-enclosed bridge. They head directly for the locker room where they change into their temple whites. White clothing, symbolic of purity, is required. The church rents out white gowns and suits, including white belts and shoes. A notice taped inside the locker doors counsels that, "Meekness and love are the tools of those who enter the temple." No saint raises his voice above a whisper as he goes about his "temple work" -- sacred, not secret, rites that saints participate in many times, first for themselves, then as proxies in behalf of dead relatives and strangers who may not have had the opportunitry to enter the kingdom of righteousness.

The consequences of not leading a righteous life are spelled in a 12-by-33 foot mural that greets saints as they cross into the temple. The mural depicts the Second Coming of Christ, who emerges from a cloud of light, with righteous folk to his right gazing beatifically up at their savior, and the sinners to his left, recoiling across a wretched landscape of shadows and ruin, clutching their heads, averting their eyes, cringing from the light.

If the people in the mural bear a likeness to some of the citizens of Richfield, Conn., it is because the painter, John Scott, based many of his figures on the residents of his hometown. A gladiator on the sinning side was modeled on the local garbage man. About his millennial masterpiece the 73-year-old artests says nonchalantly, "It was just a job, like an illustration for Sports Afield. The church gave me the idea of a panel in which the figure of Christ would be central and then the good guys on one side, the bad guys on the other."

Scott declares himself not at all religious nor a churchgoer of any creed. Nevertheless he painted himself into the mural, a devout-looking figure in a blue work shirt who just happens to be kneeling the closest of all to Christ. Beside him is his wife Slavia, and nearby their two daughters. "We took no chances," Scott said.

Scott's place in the temple may be secure, but other "gentiles" -- as non-Mormons are known -- who try to get in don't have much luck. To be admitted you first have to be a member of the church and second have to have secured a "temple recommend." These are granted after interviews with local church leaders to tithing, morally righteous Mormons.

Occasionally, someone without such credentials will give it a try anyway. The other day for example, Jack Zivotofsky, pediatrician and self-proclaimed cynic, sauntered through the front door of the temple's annex, and was headed past the desk toward a long hallway that leads into the temple proper and the forbidden territory. Before he could get very far, Cora Lee Strickland, an elderly gatekeeper clamped onto the cynic's arm, and in no uncertain terms, reversed his direction.

Strickland is one of 615 volunteer workers at the temple, called by the church to serve without pay for two-year stints. "It's sacred, not secret," she declared, and turned Zivotofsky back to the visitor center to settle for pictures of the interior temple and a chat about the gospel with more volunteers.

There, automated dioramas, audio-visual presentations, and movies spread the LDS message. In one tableau a lifesized talking mannequin of the church's founder, Joseph Smith, moves his jaw and arches his eyebrows. At the nearby Washington Stake Center, a chapel for local Mormons, a 12-foot parabolic antenna receives the televised broadcast of a semiannual church conference, via the communications satellite Westar.

The juxtaposition of past and future is a fitting paradox, for the Mormon church has one foot planted in the Old Testament and the other in the New Technology.

Since their earliest days when they were more concerned with the turning circles of ox teams than parabolic antennas, the Mormons have been a symbol-conscious, temple-building group whose piety and convictions are matched only by their industriousness, and whose creed, today, seems quintessentially American.

Among the Mormon beliefs is that Zion, the New Jerusalem, will be built on the American continent and that Christ will reign personally on the earth. Even the Mormon priesthood, while excluding women, has a democratic cast in that it is a lay organization whose members wear the three-piece raiment of businessmen rather than robes. The church's focus is still in Salt Lake City, despite the fact that their temples are scattered around the world. The Washington Temple president, a former FBI agent named Wendell Eames, reports directly to the first presidency and The Council of Twelve, who guide the church from Utah.

To be sure it took a number of years before their fellow countrymen treated the Mormons civilly, much less recognized their American strain.

The saints were driven from their first temple in Kirtland, Ohio, and the second in Nauvoo, Ill., was burned. In 1844 in Carthage, Ill., Joseph Smith as martyred in a jail cell by a mob in part enraged by his practice of polygamy, a policy the church abolished in 1890 six years before Utah was admitted to the union.

The settlers Brigham Young sheparded away from Nauvoo's flames to a new home 1,500 miles west in the Salt Lake Valley almost immediately began work on a temple, quarrying marble from a mountain canyon and hauling it 20 miles by ox team. Since then the Mormons have built 19 temples in locales as far-between as Idaho Falls and New Zealand, and they plan to erect 37 houses of the Lord all told.

"Temples are the most sacred places that exist on earth," explains Ralph Hardy, a D.C. communications lawyer and Mormor spokesman. Like all conscientious Mormons Hardy heeds Section 89 of the Doctrine of Covenants drawn up by Joseph Smith and abstains from coffee and tea, doesn't smoke, and doesn't put anything in the two beer mugs on his desk other than sharp pencils. "The Washington Temple is our contribution to the city and our expression of hope and optimism in the country. We believe this is a choice land above all other lands and that America has a righteous destiny as the cradle of freedom and the guardian of democratic principles."

However much the church of Latter-day Saints would exercise itself in American political life, the Washington Temple is not a spot where fund-raisers are held. It's not even used for sabbath services. The doors are locked Sunday and Monday, and most routine activities among area Mormons occur in other buildings.

It is impossible for some saints to visit the temple more than once a year, if that often. Some come from afar, living a temple district that encompasses 400,000 Mormons from Newfoundland to Venezuela, and more than 130,000 people traveled to the Washington Temple last year.

But the church is so much a way of life for Ivan and Judy Keller that one of the main reasons they bought their split-level house in Kensington three years ago was the grand view of the Temple that filled the picture window in the living room. "The church is the foundation of everything we do," says Ivan Keller, a computer analyst with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

Each Saturday morning Judy Keller puts on her white wedding dress, which serves as her temple gown, and goes to the temple with her husband for a two-hour "session" in the ordinance rooms where she is instructed in the Mormon's five-stage understanding of existence.

At home the Keller family kneels on prayer mats before breakfast and dinner. They make whole-wheat bread based on the recipe bakers at the temple cafeteria use. Even the six children tithe, deducting 10 percent of their allowances for the church. On Monday nights the Kellers seldom answer their phone, having dedicated the evening to talking about the gospel with their children, reading lessons from the church's Home Evening Manual, and showing church movies on the living room wall while the temple shines in the distance.

When bedtime comes, they keep the curtains open. "The children don't like to have the curtains closed," said Judy Keller. "Stacey especially. When she can see the temple out her window, she's not afraid."