137th Mormon temple awaits 75,000 visitors for public viewing

In their father’s house there are many rooms.

So it is with the new temple built for the 25,000 Kansas City-area members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons).

The three-story, 32,000-square-foot facility, which opens for public tours on Saturday, contains no single cathedral-like space of worship. Rather, it consists of many smaller rooms devoted to specific ceremonies or ordinances such as baptism or marriage through which, members believe, families are united for eternity.

The temple’s looming presence along Interstate 435 in Clay County signals a new, higher local profile for the church, which traces much of its history to western Missouri but whose members, targeted by an 1838 extinction order signed by the Missouri governor, largely were driven from the state by people who feared their beliefs and growing numbers.

The first Kansas City stake, or church organization, dates only to 1956.

But on Saturday the first of about 75,000 visitors from 46 states and nine foreign countries will be led through the building — only after they pull temporary booties over their shoes to protect the floors and carpeting. Reservations continue to be accepted for free tours that have been extended an extra week through April 28, said Janeen Aggen, local LDS spokeswoman.

“The hottest ticket in town is free,” Aggen said.

The tours represent the only opportunity for non-church members to visit the temple’s interior. After the building’s formal dedication by LDS President Thomas Monson on May 6, the building will be open only to church members considered to be in good standing.

“Some people say that we are secretive,” said William Walker, executive director of the LDS Church temple department, who led a media tour on Thursday. “It’s just that we consider the temple to be sacred.”

The building represents the 137th LDS temple built worldwide, Walker said. The nearest temples had been in Omaha and St. Louis County.

The temple’s construction in western Missouri is significant for at least two reasons.

First, it’s located only a few miles from Liberty, where church prophet Joseph Smith Jr. was imprisoned during the winter of 1838 and 1839.

“It’s a great day for us, the church returning to Missouri in a magnificent way to where the prophet Joseph once walked,” Walker said.

But it is more than just where the temple is located, Walker said — it is also how many members will be using it. Though church members began to slowly return to the Midwest before World War I, today there are about 66,000 members across Missouri and Kansas.

LDS temples differ from church meetinghouses and chapels where members gather for Sunday worship services. Temples are considered “houses of the Lord,” where church teachings are reaffirmed through marriage, baptism and other ordinances.

On Thursday, visitors were shown the baptistery, where a large baptismal font is supported on the backs of 12 oxen, symbolizing the 12 tribes of Israel. LDS church members, serving as proxies for deceased ancestors located through family genealogy, participate in full-immersion baptism ceremonies to allow their ancestors the opportunity to experience church gospel.

There are three “Sealing Rooms” where marriages are performed, sealing wife and husband together for eternity.

There are men’s and women’s dressing rooms, complete with rows of lockers, where church members change out of their street clothes into white clothing worn inside temples as part of the effort to feel closer to God.

The clothing does not consist of robes but standard-issue apparel. In Walker’s case, it consists of white pants, shirts and ties purchased, he said, at “Dillards or Macy’s.” Walker at one point unbuttoned his shirt to display his standard-issue white undershirt. Such clothing can be rented, Walker said.

But most church members just bring their own white clothes to the temple.

“If you have Mormon neighbors and see them leaving the house with small suitcases and then returning a few hours later, it doesn’t mean they had an argument at the airport,” he said.

The brightly lit Celestial Room is on the temple’s top floor. There, speaking is discouraged. Two large rectangular mirrors are hung in such a way as to suggest — when visitors look into them — a vision of eternity.

Walker praised J.E. Dunn Construction, the building’s general contractor, whose employees helped install its many handsome appointments. Interior limestone and accent stone came from Mexico, India or Pakistan, and the majority of its dark interior wood was imported from Africa.

The LDS church considers the expense of such appointments as a way to honor God, Walker said.

“Just as the ancient Israelites did, as detailed in First Kings in the Old Testament, we try to build a temple as a tribute to our God that is beautiful, with fine workmanship and fine materials,” Walker said. “This is an effort for us, as a tribute to God, to see that the temple is beautiful and lovely without it being outrageously expensive.

“It is part of our feeling that nothing is too good for the Lord.”

Walker declined, however, to give a construction cost estimate.

“We’ve just always felt that is not helpful to detail exactly what was spent on a building,” he said, adding that it distracts from the good works done by church representatives around the world.

Joseph Smith Jr. founded the church in 1830 in New York state. Its official name is the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The popular term “Mormons” comes from divine revelations Smith said he received when the angel Moroni led him to golden plates, which Smith translated into English as the Book of Mormon: Another Testament of Jesus Christ. The church considers the Bible as its Scripture, along with the Book of Mormon.

Today, different religious organizations trace their beliefs to Smith’s revelations.

The LDS Church has about 14.4 million members across the world. It is separate from the Community of Christ, formerly known as the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, that is based in Independence and has about 250,000 members.

The Community of Christ operates a spiral-topped temple, built in 1994, and an auditorium that dates to 1926. Both buildings stand just east and south, respectively, of a 2.5-acre Temple Lot, a grassy expanse at 200 S. River Blvd. that is thought to have been dedicated by Smith in 1831 as the site of a future temple that would herald the arrival of a New Jerusalem.

For years the LDS church has maintained a visitors’ center just to the lot’s southeast.

The lot itself is owned, however, by the Church of Christ (Temple Lot), a separate organization.

In choosing to build the new temple in Clay County, Walker said, the LDS leadership was not “avoiding Independence.” Rather, he said, the Clay County site was considered “ideal.”

“The prophet Joseph Smith indicated that there would be temples, plural, built in this part of Missouri,” Walker said.

“Latter Day Saints all over the world know the history here. This is indeed a very significant and historical event in the history of our church, that a temple would be built in this part of Missouri.”

To reach Brian Burnes call 816 234-4120 or send email to bburnes@kcstar.com
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