As Salt Lake City welcomes the world during the Winter Olympics, the world is taking a look at an institution that permeates the history, culture and politics of the region: the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, popularly known as the Mormons.
And the dominant architectural symbol of the city and the church is the Salt Lake Temple, its six stately spires reaching toward the heavens.
In a church with a history and practice that spark curiosity and often off-the-mark speculation, the Mormon temples are one of its most intriguing features.
They are buildings so architecturally interesting that they can slow traffic. It isn't uncommon for the flow on the Capital Beltway to lag as motorists crane necks to gawk at the Washington Temple in Kensington.
Adding to the intrigue is the fact that non-Mormons can never see what goes on inside them. After construction of a temple is completed, there is an open house, where anyone may visit and tour the inside. Until Saturday, tours were conducted in Snowflake, Ariz., of the latest temple. But once a temple is dedicated - the Arizona temple will be dedicated March 3 - only a card-carrying Mormon (and they do have cards) is admitted.
Temples are not places where Mormons worship on a weekly basis. All temples are closed on Sunday so members can attend services in local meetinghouses as part of a ward, or congregation. Rather, it is in these grandiose buildings that Mormons perform the most sacred rites of the church: eternal marriage of husband and wife; the sealing of families to one another for eternity; and proxy baptism of one's ancestors.
In each temple there is a reception desk where Latter-day Saints, as members of the church prefer to be called, present a card called a "recommend" that attests that they are Mormons in good standing. That standing is determined annually in an interview with the president of the local ward, equivalent to the pastor of a local congregation, and with the president of the stake, analogous to the bishop of a diocese. These religious leaders are not theologically trained clergy but lay people who volunteer their services.
In that interview, the church officials affirm that the member is paying the required 10 percent tithe (of gross income); is adhering to the Mormon health code, which includes refraining from alcohol, tobacco and stimulants such as caffeine; and is wearing the sacred undergarments required of members.(The sacred garments, which members receive at an "endowment" ceremony analogous to a confirmation or bar mitzvah, have several varieties, but a typical garment would be a one-piece white cotton or nylon undergarment with a V neck and short sleeves. Sacred insignia are sewn into four places: over the breasts, the navel and the right knee.)
After showing their card, the Latter-day Saints go to a locker room to change into the white clothing - which they bring with them or rent at the temple - which is required attire inside the sacred building.
Inside, the temple is not a cavernous building like a cathedral but is divided up into many rooms where the sacred rites, called ordinances, are performed. There are usually several ordinance rooms, where the endowment ceremonies are conducted, and several sealing rooms, where husband and wife are sealed to each other for all eternity. Families may also be sealed to one another for eternity, which many converts, particularly those who have lost a family member, mention as an appealing aspect of Mormonism. There is also always one celestial room, the most sacred space in the temple, which is for quiet contemplation.
The eternal sealing of families is based on the Mormon belief that each person once lived in a premortal state, born of heavenly parents, and comes to Earth to assume a physical body. A person who lives by the moral requirements of the Gospel will once again return to the presence of God to live as an eternal family.
It is also a Mormon belief that those who never heard the Gospel of Jesus during their lives may be baptized by proxy and given the opportunity to embrace it - or reject it - after death. These proxy baptisms are performed in a large baptistry in the lower level of the temple.
It has been Mormon practice to scour census and other records to compile lists of people for proxy baptisms. As Richard and Joan Ostling note in their 1999 book, Mormon America, this activity has caused some dispute. Proxy baptisms have been carried out for U.S. presidents, signers of the Declaration of Independence and even some Roman Catholic saints.
The Ostlings recount the experience of a fellow religion journalist in Salt Lake City to cover the 1998 LDS General Conference, a semiannual meeting, who "spent a lunch break visiting the genealogical library and returned to the press gallery visibly shaken and muttering angrily because she had just discovered that her late and very Catholic Irish mother had been vicariously baptized Mormon." The church stopped the practice of baptizing Jewish victims of the Holocaust in the mid-1990s because of protests from Jewish groups.
To perform the proxy baptisms, the Mormons maintain their widely admired genealogical libraries, called family history centers, where anyone can come to research his family roots. But for church members, the genealogical research isn't just a hobby. It is a religious mandate.
Maryland has 12 family history centers, including centers in Essex, Hampstead, Ellicott City and Annapolis. In Salt Lake City, the church maintains the largest collection of genealogical records in the world, the Family History Library of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, with more than 2.3 million rolls of microfilm, 180,000 microfiche, 288,000 books and 4,500 periodicals.
In addition, the church has computer access to approximately 35.6 million lineage-linked names on the Ancestral File database, the U.S. Social Security Death Index and the U.S. Military Index.
Much of this is available to people on the Internet, through the FamilySearch Internet Genealogy Service (located at www.fa milysearch.org). And last year, the church made available a searchable database of 22 million immigrants to the United States who came through Ellis Island between 1892 and 1924 at www.ellisislandre cords.org.
As a result of the church's aggressive missionary efforts, it has seen explosive growth. There were 1 million Mormons in 1947; by 1963, the church doubled in size, and it doubled again to 4 million by 1978.
As the growth continued, the proportion of church members in Utah, and the United States, decreased. In 1996, for the first time, there were more Mormons outside of the United States than in it. By 2000, there were more than 11 million Mormons in the world, with one-seventh living in Utah.
At one time, Mormons were encouraged to move to Salt Lake City, or Zion, as the church called it, and become part of the fold. Today, Mormons are encouraged to stay where they are. To help the church come to them, temples are being built in every corner of the world. As recently as 1991, temples outside Utah were rare. Now, there are 107 temples in the world, 55 of them outside the United States. Six out of the last 10 temples dedicated are in foreign countries.
Under the leadership of 91-year-old President Gordon B. Hinckley, chief prophet and apostle of the church, Mormons have embarked on the ambitious temple-building project, which he announced in 1985 and which is helping to transform the church from a provincial creed into an international religious force.
"I believe that no member of the church has received the ultimate which this church has to give until he or she has received his or her temple blessings in the house of the Lord," he told a churchwide meeting in 1997. "Accordingly, we are doing all that we know how to do to expedite the construction of these sacred buildings and make the blessings received therein more generally available."