Everything about the great temple in Salt Lake City speaks of tranquility—the exterior gray tones of the granite and the castle flourishes, which give an added impression of stability. Small oval windows were set above eye level on the north and south to admit only indirect, soft light and to focus worshippers’ attention inward.
Since patrons enter through underground passages, there is no street noise. Nor is there a visible clock, or music—in short, little to distract from meditation. On the lower level one hears chant-like repetitions of prayers softly uttered and the rhythmic dripping of ritual oil and water into small basins as officiators anoint novices. On the middle floors worshippers are presented with allegorical presentations of morality and theology. On the uppermost level, people sit motionless to contemplate God’s plan of salvation. On entering the building, patrons change into plain robes so that for a few hours worldly concerns can be left far behind.
Because non-Mormons are not allowed inside LDS temples, curiosity seekers have tried through a variety of means, especially upon completion of the Salt Lake City edifice in 1893, to ascertain what the interior looks like and what activities transpire therein. This inordinate interest prompted church leaders to commission Professor James E. Talmage in 1911, three months before being ordained an apostle, to compile a visual and textual representation for the general public. Despite an earlier unauthorized foray into the temple by a camera-toting intruder, Talmage’s assignment would represent the first time that good quality views of the interior would be framed and that the ordinances would be discussed in print with the church’s blessing.
In The House of the Lord, more was revealed than anyone had previously thought possible. Members had customarily refrained from speaking about any aspect of their experience there, even to fellow Saints. So through this bold gesture by Elder Talmage and the First Presidency, the cloak of mystery was removed and the temple revealed to the public for what it was—a sanctuary similar to a monastery—or perhaps an ashram or kiva, depending on one’s tradition—where adherents focus undivided attention on attaining spiritual insight. We hope you enjoy this insight into the LDS Temple.
James E. Talmage was born in 1862 in England, where his family converted to Mormonism and migrated to America when he was fourteen. Young James attended Brigham Young Academy in Utah Valley, followed by two years at Leheigh University in Pennsylvania and Johns Hopkins University in Maryland. Afterwards he studied by correspondence with Illinois Wesleyan University faculty and received a Ph.D. from that institution in 1896, becoming the first Latter-day Saint to earn a doctorate degree. He taught chemistry and geology at BYA until 1888. That year, after marrying Merry May Booth, he was named president of the Latter-day Saints College in Salt Lake City (now LDS Business College). A few years later his career shifted direction with an appointment at the University of Utah, first as a geology professor and then as chair of the department, and finally as university president beginning in 1894.
Early in his career he published Tables for Determinations of Minerals, The Great Salt Lake, The First Book of Nature, and Domestic Science, while simultaneously producing three landmark LDS books: The Articles of Faith, The Great Apostasy, and The Story of Mormonism. He became a fellow of the American Geological Society, the Royal Microscopical Society of London, and the Royal Society of Edinburgh. He also served as a consultant to the LDS First Presidency. It was in this later capacity that his intellectual and spiritual abilities came to the attention of church leaders, who called him to the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles in December 1911.
Over the next twenty-two years, his assignments included editing, revising, and annotating the Book of Mormon, Pearl of Great Price, and Doctrine and Covenants, and helping to standardize the temple endowment ceremonies. His doctrinal writings became accepted by the church as definitive expressions of LDS faith, beginning with The House of the Lord in 1912 and Jesus the Christ in 1915. He also authored priesthood manuals and numerous other church publications. His 1915 speech to the World Congress of Religious Philosophies in San Francisco, The Philosophical Basis of Mormonism,was published in several languages. By this time he had also become a popular newspaper columnist. A Boston publisher compiled his articles in 1919 as The Vitality of Mormonism. In addition, two selections of his religious broadcasts were published in 1929 and 1931 as Radio Addresses and Sunday Night Talks. He died in 1933 at the age of seventy.
Harvard S. Heath is curator of the Utah and American West Archives, Harold B. Lee Library, Brigham Young University; was a key research and writing assistant behind Ernest L. Wilkinson’s four-volume Brigham Young University: The First One Hundred Years; is the editor of In the World: The Diaries of Reed Smoot; and a contributor to The House of the Lord: A Study of Holy Sanctuaries Ancient and Modern. He has delivered papers at professional meetings of the Western History Association and elsewhere and published in the Journal of Mormon History, and he serves on the board of editors of Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought.
John Andreas Widtsoe was born in Dalöe, Island of Fröyen, Norway, in 1872. He immigrated to Utah in 1883 and graduated from Brigham Young College in 1891 and from Harvard with high honors in 1894. Widtsoe married Leah Eudora Dunford, daughter of Susa Young Gates, in 1898 and had seven children. In 1899 he was awarded a Ph.D. with high honors from the University of Göttingen, Germany. He both taught at and served as president of Utah State Agricultural College and the University of Utah. He was elected to the Victoria Institute in England, an honor received by only one other Mormon scholar—James E. Talmage. Widtsoe served as editor of the Improvement Era and wrote more than thirty books, including religious, autobiographical, and professional publications. His essay on LDS temple worship has been included in the new edition of The House of the Lord: A Study of Holy Sanctuaries Ancient and Modern. He was an apostle from 1921 until his death in 1952.