“In the end, the character of a civilization is encased in its structures,” stated Frank Gehry—an important contemporary architect. One of the most interesting episodes in the treatment of historic Utah structures has been the decision to tear the Ogden temple down to its frame and rebuild it with a completely new façade. Preservationist Steve Cornell related this structure to the character or nature of Mormonism by stating that, “Architectural preservationists should be up in arms about the planned changes. The Ogden temple with its counterpart [in Provo], represent a paradigmatic shift in the way Mormons conceived and interpreted the temple, transitioning from a sacred abode to a sacred machine” (Cornell and Huffaker). While the Ogden and Provo temples have an important place in history, it should not be assumed that they represent a worldview change in Mormon temple theology for several reasons.
To truly understand the subject at hand, however, a basic knowledge of both the old Ogden temple and Mormon temples in general is necessary. The innovation that Mr. Cornell is referring to when he refers to the Ogden temple as a “sacred machine” is found in its design, which included six endowment presentations rooms, rather than one room or series of rooms, creating a machine-like efficiency in the performance of the LDS endowment ordinance. The significance of this change is found in the context of Mormon temple ideology and practice. Within the temple, certain ordinances (sacred rites), such as endowments and sealings (marriages) are performed. The endowment is an ordinance centered on a presentation about the Biblical creation story and the story of Adam and Eve that includes instructions and information that Mormons believe is necessary to return to live with God after this life (Packer 153-54, 162). Mormons also believe they may perform ordinances in the temple (and only in the temple) for the souls of the dead, standing in for their deceased ancestors who didn’t have the opportunity to be baptized, sealed or receive their endowments while alive, offering their spirits a chance to accept these rites. This means that a LDS member can go through the endowment multiple times: once for themselves, then an indefinite amount of times afterwards standing in for the dead. Having six endowment rooms in the Ogden and Provo temples allowed an endowment session to begin every twenty minutes, while older temples usually were only able to begin a session every hour at best.
With this information in mind, the reasons for why we should not assume the Ogden temple represented a worldview change in how Mormons understand the temple may be presented. The performance of ordinances for the living and the dead was among the primary purposes given for temple construction for over a hundred years before the Ogden temple was announced. This created an increased pressure on temples throughout the 20th century that led to a need for a more efficient ways to perform ordinances, signifying that there was a focus on ordinance work long before the six endowment room plan was created. The architecture of older temples also indicates what their purpose was.
If we want to understand why an organization does something, it is usually a good idea to look at what the leaders of the organization stated were the purpose for the action in question. As early as 1841, “Joseph [Smith] said [that] the Lord said that we should build our house to his name, that we might be baptized for the dead” (Smith 416, emphasis added), indicating that even the Nauvoo temple (the second Mormon temple) was constructed with ordinances for the dead in mind. After the Mormon community moved to Utah and began construction on four temples there, the performance of ordinances for the living and the dead was again stated as an important purpose for constructing temples. For example, in 1877 President John Taylor—the leader of the Church at that time—stated: “Why do we want to build these temples?… The Lord has shown us that we must build Temples in which to officiate for [all men who have lived and died without knowledge of the Gospel]” (Taylor 19:155-156). Thus, the performances of ordinances was listed as a central purpose in constructing temples long before the Ogden and Provo temples were even conceived, indicating that temples were intended to be “sacred machines” before the plans were laid out for those two edifices in the 1960s.
The emphasis placed on performing ordinance work for the dead led to an increase in genealogical work and temple attendance in the Mormon community, showing an interest in performing ordinances decades before the Ogden and Provo temples were built. As indicated in the Buerger study, the amount of endowments for the dead performed per year saw a dramatic increase between 1910 and 1970, even when measured against the growing Church membership (57). With this growth, existing temples had to find ways to deal with this mounting pressure. The Salt Lake temple went from one endowment session three days a week in 1911 to three sessions four days a week in the 1920s. To further relieve pressure, the endowment ceremony was codified during the 1920s and reduced from six to nine hours long to about two to three hours in length, as it is today (Alexander, 299-300). Pressure still mounted and it was a 1967 report that “traffic in the Manti and Logan Temples is becoming so acute that it becomes necessary either to remodel those Temples or build new ones” that prompted the decision to construct the Ogden and Provo temples with the requirement that they be “economical and functional” (Prince and Wright 269-270). In this light, the efficiency in the design for these twin Space-age temples was not born of a shift in belief but an increasing need for the ability to perform endowments in more effective ways.
Rather than ordinance work being the primary purpose for earlier temples, Mr. Cornell argues that temples were meant to be sacred abodes prior to the construction of the Ogden and Provo temples. Seeing that form follows function, the very architecture of the earliest temples indicates that this was their purpose. The first Mormon temple, built in Kirtland, Ohio, was constructed as a “meetinghouse temple” primarily consisting of two large meeting rooms placed one on top of the other, showing that meetings were among the most important functions of this temple. Further, this temple was referred to as “The House of the Lord” more often than “the temple,” and Church members were promised the chance to see the face of God when it would be complete, indicating that it was indeed meant to be a sacred abode of divine presence (Bushman 308-19). The next several temples were all designed with similar architectural patterns to this first temple. Later Church leaders also indicated that a purpose of attending temples was to draw closer to God. For example, Apostle John A. Widtsoe said that “the pure in heart who go into the temples, may, there by the Spirit of God, always have a wonderfully rich communion with God…. In this way, the temples are always places where God manifests himself to man and increases his intelligence” (Widtsoe 55-56). Thus, the idea of the temple as a sacred abode where people can draw closer to God fits in among the major purposes for constructing temples, particularly among the earlier sanctuaries constructed in the Church.
Continuing with the idea that form follows function, however, we see a change in the pattern of temple construction arise around 1877. The St. George temple was the only Utah temple to be completed at that point, and in order to effectively perform the endowment ceremony, the lower assembly hall of that temple was divided into several rooms by screens, allowing the endowment to be presented in a series of rooms. This meant new endowment sessions to start while previous ones moved into the next room, increasing the amount of ordinances that could be performed. Realizing the changing needs of the times, the designs for the interiors of the three Utah temples still under construction were modified to included progressive endowment rooms instead of a lower assembly hall (Cowan 82-83, 138-139). The next temple to be constructed—the Cardston, Alberta temple—had no assembly halls whatsoever; favoring a structure designed entirely around the endowment ordinance rooms (Anderson 186). Subsequent temples followed the same basic design. During the 1950s the Church recorded the endowment using motion picture technology, allowing the ordinance to be presented in a single, small room. This meant that the temples could be built on a smaller, less expensive scale and paved the way for further innovations. The Oakland, California temple—completed in 1964—built upon this idea by utilizing two large endowment rooms to present the film simultaneously, allowing up to two hundred people to begin the ceremony every hour (Cowan 172-173). The Ogden and Provo temples—announced three years later—merely took this one step further with six ordinance rooms, allowing a session to begin every 20 minutes. This innovation was the result of a continual process of seeking to construct economical temples focused on the presentation of the endowment, indicating that ceremonial presentations were a main purpose of their construction as far back as the late 1800s.
To return to Frank Gehry’s statement that the character of a civilization (or, in this situation a religious group) is displayed in its structures, we can tell whether the Ogden and Provo temples represented a worldview shift in the Mormon conception of the temple from a “sacred abode” to a “sacred machine” by observing the history and architecture of other LDS temples. In this light, the twin space-age temples of Utah do not represent a new ideology within the LDS community, but rather one part of a series of innovations to meet the needs that traditional Mormon theology created. Thus, while architectural preservationists have reason to be upset about the loss of the iconic Ogden temple, it is not because it represented a paradigm shift in the Mormon world.
Alexander, Thomas G. Mormonism in Transition. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1986. Print.
Anderson, Paul L. “A Jewel in the Gardens of Paradise: The Art and Architecture of the Hawaii Temple.” BYU Studies 39, no. 4 (2000), 164-182. Print.
Buerger, David John. “The Development of the Mormon Temple Endowment Ceremony.” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 20 (Winter 1987): 33-76. Print.
Bushman, Richard Lyamn. Joseph Smith, Rough Stone Rolling, Vintage Books edition. New York City: Vintage Books, 2007. Print.
Cornell, Steve and Kirk Huffaker. “LDS Should Preserve Utah’s Space Age Temples,” Salt Lake Tribune 2 April 2010. Web. 28 Oct 2012.
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Gehry, Frank, compiled by Kristen Harbeson. “Quotations on the importance of history and historic preservation.” National Conference of State Historic Preservation Officers. NCSHPO. Web. 7 March 2013.
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Taylor, John. “Discourse by President John Taylor, November 14, 1877.” Journal of Discourses. Ed. George D. Watt, et al. 26 vol. Liverpool: F. D. Richards, et al., 1854-1886. 19:151-161. Print.
Widtsoe, John A. “Temple Worship.” The Utah Genealogical and Historical Magazine. Vol. XII, 1921: 49-64. Print.