The Joseph Smith Memorial Building looks like an old luxury hotel, which is unsurprising because it is, in fact, and old luxury hotel converted to offices, conference halls, and banquet rooms for Salt Lake City’s most famous entity: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS). Members, formerly referred to as Mormons as a nickname from their sacred text “The Book of Mormon,” have lived in this city from its inception, and have shaped the American West as much as any other group. The mountains of northern Utah are visible from one side of the building, just dusted with snow. From the other side: the magnificent spires of the Salt Lake City Temple. I am here to meet Dean and Annette Burgess, who are serving a two-year term as VIP (yes, VIP) hosts on behalf of the Church, sharing information with celebrities, dignitaries, journalists, and one lucky travel blogger. This piece represents a non-verbatim rough transcript of our conversation.
The Royal Tour: Thank you so much for taking the time to meet with me. Let’s start with some introductions. Can you tell the readers a bit about you and your role within the Church?
Dean Burgess: We are Dean and Annette Burgess, we both grew up here in Utah, and we have been called to be Assistant Directors of Hosting for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. This is a two year calling, as volunteers.
TRT: What qualifies a VIP? (Note: I am beaming since their department has considered me enough of one to arrange this meeting.)
DB: We consider every guest important. We have seen ambassadors, guests, and visitors from different places, and of different religions. Our job is to open our arms to everyone, to welcome them, and to thank them for their desire to learn more about the Church. So yes, we are native Utahns, we grew up here, and we live near the ski resorts, which is a very important piece of our state, as you know. We don’t ski, though.
TRT: They let you stay in Utah even though you don’t ski?
Annette Burgess: Our children do, though. We raised our family here in Utah. We have five children. And you joke about skiing. We thought as we raised them that we need to learn to ski. Well, we took a lesson, and it wasn’t for us. But they love it.
TRT: I’ve actually never been skiing. Maybe one day.
DB: Well, they call the snow here the greatest snow on Earth, and partially due to the Winter Olympics here, the state has just exploded with out of state visitors coming here to discover our amazing ski resorts.
TRT: So here we are in Salt Lake City. This is the headquarters of the Church, and has been for some time. Going back into the history, why Salt Lake City? How did the Church end up here?
DB: I can start. The Church began in 1830 in upstate New York, and as it started to grow very rapidly, they faced a difficult time and couldn’t practice their religion the way they wanted to, so they settled in Ohio and Illinois, but were still being persecuted. So the Prophet, the President of the Church, decided that they needed to go somewhere out West, somewhere that was untouched territory. So he gathered up a group of individuals, the first group was about 150, and they came west, about 1300 miles, in covered wagons and on foot. Lives were lost, and it was very hard, but ultimately they found themselves here, through divine inspiration to the Prophet, Brigham Young.
AB: It was a desert when they arrived here, but Brigham Young said this was the place, so they stayed. And they made this whole desert blossom, and built a city, and farms, and industry.
DB: Over the years, there were 70,000 members of the Church who came here to practice their faith in peace. So Brigham Young sent groups to other places because he knew they couldn’t all stay here. In that way he became a great colonizer of the West. But this has remained the center. So to answer your question, it was due to his inspiration and his study that the Church ended up here in Utah and Salt Lake City specifically.
TRT: This is an objectively gorgeous place, but are there times, maybe in the middle of January when the snow is higher than the house, that you wish Brigham Young and those original 150 settlers had kept going, and ended up on the beach in California?
AB: Well, some did, because the gold rush was happening, and there was a large congregation formed in the San Diego area later on. But I love this area, and I am glad we are here. I love having four seasons. Even winter has its own beauty, and I couldn’t imagine a better home.
DB: You can imagine it was a huge test of their faith, because when they got here, there was nothing. It was sagebrush desert, and they had come – walked – 1300 miles for this. And they had some major hardships, especially at the beginning, but they could worship the way they wanted. Throughout history, so many religions have sought that place where they could be free to worship.
TRT: You are absolutely right. There has always been, throughout human history and even today, a fear of anyone who looked, or spoke, or worshiped differently, and I am glad that there was this place that your people were able to come. For anyone interested in this period, there was – as I recall – an episode in Ken Burns’ “The West” about Brigham Young and those early times.
DB: I haven’t seen it, but I think this hits on another key reason Utah attracts people. This was the wild west. The early settlers had to work with the Native American peoples living here, and build a society, and ultimately a State.
TRT: History like this is so fascinating to me. In so many ways, Utah is, like you said, the quintessential American western story, not the ghost towns of Arizona and Nevada, but this people who built a separate – and thriving – society out here, and then the integration into the larger country. That alone is a reason to come here!
DB: And it has grown, and just exploded with the Transcontinental Railroad going right here through Ogden.
AB: Yes, in 1869. So this year was the 150th anniversary of the joining of the two coasts by rail. And just after that was when this building was constructed as a hotel for the railroad guests and other visitors.
TRT: So let’s fast forward to today, to 2019. What does the relationship look like between the City of Salt Lake, the State of Utah, and the Church? I know that the Church sponsors free tours of the city for those on long layovers here, but is there any other cooperation?
DB: Right from the beginning, Brigham Young knew this would be home for more than just our Church. He invited other religions to come and set up their own houses of worship. Ever since then, the Church has continued to have partnerships with all other stakeholders here in the area. President Nelson, our current Prophet, even recently spoke at the NAACP. And the Church remains active in helping, whether it is building a building for a group that needs it, or addressing the issue of homelessness in our community.
AB: We are told to follow local laws as part of our faith. We are taught to support the government in whatever country we live in. But there isn’t an official political side to any of it. We focus more on charity and humanitarian causes.
TRT: Wonderful! One of the things some visitors might be surprised to see here in Salt Lake City is the abundance of incredible cultural venues. Is the Church at all involved in the building of those?
DB: I am not sure if there is anything formal.
TRT: Let’s talk for a minute about the place we are now, Temple Square. This is probably the most visited spot in the city, right?
DB: I would guess so. We are told that Temple Square hosts millions of visitors per year. Both members and non-members come from all over the world. Plus we also have a lot of tourists and visitors come to see the Tabernacle and the choir.
AB: And we do our very best to welcome each of them. We have missionaries at Temple Square who are called to preach the gospel and part of their assignment is to host visitors. These young missionaries come from many countries so guests can receive tours in their native languages.
TRT: Given the perception that the Church is very focused on proselytizing, I would guess that at least some potential visitors might worry that visiting Temple Square to learn would subject them to being targeted for conversion. What would you say to those people? (Note: this did not happen to me during my visit. Everyone I met and spoke with was simply warm and friendly.)
AB: That’s not our purpose here. Those who express an interest in learning more about the Church could be invited to meet with missionaries. The missionaries in Temple Square are simply ambassadors for the Church and the Temple.
DB: Each calling has its own specialization. Those called to serve here in Temple Square are meant to create friendships, not to proselytize. It’s similar to our role in Public Affairs. Even if you wanted to convert, that’s not our role. We could, of course, give you guidance on where to go to meet with those people, but our calling is just to spread love and welcoming.
TRT: So the Church encourages learning, even with no intention of interest from a religious standpoint.
DB: Of course. Just like in the early days, we welcome everyone, no matter their faith.
TRT: Let’s talk a little about Salt Lake City in general. You both have lived your entire lives here in the area. How have you seen it change?
AB: It has definitely grown a lot.
TRT: And I read that while Utah is still more than 60% Church members, Salt Lake City is now about 50/50. Does that seem like a positive or negative change?
DB: I think the basic spirit of Salt Lake City has stayed the same. If you come here, it is our hope that you feel that you are welcome, the people are friendly, and it feels like it’s a family. I think that is still true even with all the growth.
TRT: That makes sense, and I do feel that. The city is also very clean!
DB: And the streets are wide and straight. Brigham Young said he wanted all the streets to accommodate turning around in a carriage, and they do.
TRT: They have awkward names, though.
AB: Just think of it as second or third, not as 200 S or 300 N. That makes it easier. (Note: most of the streets in downtown are in increments of 100 and the direction from the Temple, so four streets west of the Temple is 400 W and so forth.)
TRT: The brewery across the street certainly indicates that non-Church members are here in number.
DB: Again, from the moment Brigham Young got here, he wanted this to be a place for all faiths. There is a Jewish population here, and Muslim, and all branches of Christian. All are welcome.
TRT: As locals, and lifetime residents, what do you think tourists should see here? After all, this is a travel blog.
AB: Have you seen or heard the Tabernacle Choir?
TRT: I haven’t.
AB: I think that’s one of the must-see things here. But if you can’t, they stream the performances on many networks and play them on the radio. You can listen tomorrow as you drive! (Note: I didn’t, but I would plan my next Salt Lake City trip around these Sunday performances.)
DB: Also, for many, the genealogy center is a center point. It’s the largest in the world!
TRT: Amazing. What about things not affiliated with the Church?
DB: The mountains. Skiing in winter, hiking in summer, but they are always beautiful. I think that’s the most important thing to do here.
AB: There’s also a really wonderful symphony!
DB: And of course Temple Square. Do you know that at the Tabernacle you can hear a pin dropped on the lectern from anywhere in the building? They will demonstrate it.
AB: The most important thing is that we hope people who visit feel welcome, not just here in Temple Square but in the city as a whole. It’s a wonderful place to be and really great people.
TRT: I agree with you there. Thank you so much for taking the time to talk to me, and for sharing this unique look into Salt Lake City.
If you enjoyed this interview, please read our other Royal Tours here.