Tourism to religious sites normally isn’t associated with America. The holy sites of Jerusalem, St. Peter’s and the Vatican, the mosques of Istanbul, or temples and shrines of Japan or Thailand, these are known around the world for being destinations in and of themselves. But in the US? It’s hard to imagine someone visiting Washington DC simply to see the National Cathedral, despite it being the second largest (by area) cathedral in the world.
Salt Lake City’s Temple Square is the exception.
In 1847, Brigham Young led a group of pioneers from the new Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to what is now Utah, fleeing persecution that saw their founder, Joseph Smith, murdered by a mob three years earlier. Young and roughly 150 other settlers made the journey by foot and covered wagon, finding themselves in a valley next to a large salt lake. Setting up their new home, Young led as both leader of the Church and civil society, and more than 60,000 Church members came over the next number of years.
A monument to the pioneers who walked and dragged handcarts to reach Utah
Here in what became Salt Lake City they built their Temple, as well as a Tabernacle (in 1867) and other buildings for various Church functions. This area survives today as Temple Square.
Temple Square is easily the most popular tourist attraction in Salt Lake City, attracting millions of visitors each year. Many of those are members of the Church who come to visit what is arguably their holiest site. Others are tourists like me, interested in the history of the American West and the founding of this place, or eager to learn about a religion that now counts itself the third largest Christian denomination in America, and with nearly as many worldwide members as Judaism.
The Temple itself is only open to Church members, who yearly have to be “recommended” by their local leadership and given a card that allows them access to all of the worldwide Temples. However, the grounds and gardens are free and open to explore, manicured and filled with wonderful monuments and sculptures to the history and principles of the Church. Also open to visit: the Tabernacle, home of the world famous Mormon Tabernacle Choir.
The Salt Lake City Temple. Just stunning!
(This feels like a good spot to discuss the term Mormon. Until recently, Church members were routinely called Mormons, a nickname derived from their holy Book of Mormon. However, the Church has decided to focus on its connections to “mainstream” Christianity – perhaps in an effort to better its outreach among such – and now simply goes by its full title.)
The Tabernacle itself is stunning. Columns made of wood painted to resemble marble surround a seating area facing an organ with 11,700 pipes (or so I am told). The draw of the building is its acoustics, with are truly astounding. Missionary guides demonstrate, first by dropping a pin, and then a nail, on the lectern. The sounds can be heard and distinguished clearly from my seat near the back. They then speak without a microphone, turning their backs to the gathered visitors. Shockingly, their voices don’t change in the slightest. I can only imagine what a choir concert here would be like, and determine to return one day on a Sunday to hear one.
The outside – and inside – of the Tabernacle
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is not without its controversies. A model of the Temple shows the inside, and the eye is drawn to the Baptismal pool, where, as a core tenet of the faith, one is able to posthumously Baptize one’s ancestors. For a time – a time I am assured is over – members would also take with them names of other deceased people, including victims of the Holocaust, thereby converting them (or at least offering a sort of conversion). I am not convinced on the morality of converting one’s dead relatives; I certainly wouldn’t want to be Baptized by proxy after my death. But the practice of doing so with Jewish victims of the Holocaust of no relation is abhorrent. Adding to that the lousy – that word is being generous – track record of the Church on LGBTQ issues, women’s rights, and other similar issues, and it isn’t surprising that many in the world are a bit put off by the Church. However, there is no denying it plays a meaningful role in world religious life, and is therefore worthy of both a visit and time spent learning.
This model of the Temple shows the Baptism pool at the bottom.
For those who wish to learn about the Temple or the Church, Temple Square features a couple hundred handpicked missionaries who will give visitors tours (in a couple dozen languages) and answer questions. In theory, their job is NOT to attempt to convert those they meet, despite their title and the public perception of what a missionary is and does. These services are part of the Church’s outreach programs, just as is a free city tour from the Salt Lake City airport for those on long layovers.
Small meeting are held in this building, also free to enter.
A couple other buildings spark interest for visitors. First is the Church History Museum. It largely isn’t worth more than a cursory look, as most of its space is filled with art rather than history. However, the replica of the Angel Moroni statue that adorns each Temple is nice to see up close. Second is the Genealogy Center, the largest of its kind in the world.
The Angel Moroni, heralding the “good news” adorns each Temple.
Overall, Temple Square provides a fascinating look into the religion, and the history of those who brought it West with them. If you find yourself in Salt Lake City, this is a place not to miss!
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