HDS students took advantage of a rare opportunity on October 15 when they, along with several alums, partners, and friends, piled into two cars and headed down to Hartford, Connecticut, for the unique experience to tour a temple of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.
Organized by Amy Bassett, MTS '17, the group was among almost 5,000 people who passed through the temple that day, and among an estimated 40,000 people more who would visit over the course of its month-long open house.
Unlike Mormon churches, where people worship on Sundays and which are open to all, the temple is a special place of sacred worship. Certain rituals can only be performed there, and once a temple is dedicated, only Mormons in good standing are allowed entry. Therefore, whenever a new temple is built, the LDS Church opens it up for public viewing before its dedication.
New temples are not built that often, and so for non-Mormons, an open house is the only chance to enter inside a temple. For Mormon families—who comprised a large portion of the visitors—it is a rare time to visit the sacred space as a family and reflect on a practice that is often experienced individually.
The HDS students who visited the temple were motivated both by novelty and the chance to see up close an important but less discussed element of Mormon religious life.
"I wanted to see some real life examples of the content I am learning about in Taylor Petrey's seminar," said Emily Smith, MTS '17, who was one of three students in the group also enrolled in "Gender, Sexuality, and Mormonism," a seminar taught by Visiting Associate Professor of Women's Studies and Sexuality, Taylor Grant Petrey, MTS ’03, ThD ’10. "This seemed like a way to take advantage of a really cool opportunity," she added.
Heather Moody, MDiv '18, agreed. "I am really interested in the phenomenon of Mormonism" she said. "And you never get to go inside a temple!"
Once on site, the group met with Kelly Jacobs, who organizes public affairs for the Hartford Temple, and were led inside one of several informational tents to watch a 10-minute video that explained the special rituals performed in the temple, and featured various Mormon couples discussing the role of the temple in their religious lives.
The group then followed Jacobs through a line of volunteers, who placed protective foot coverings on everyone's shoes as a preservation method, before entering the temple itself. The entire tour was well-organized and thoroughly staffed with volunteers. Jacobs estimated that there were about 350 volunteers a day working to keep the touring process smooth and informative.
Among the most important rooms are the baptismal fount, where members can immerse on behalf of the dead in a baptism by proxy, which grants the individual the option to accept the baptism or not, and the sealing rooms, where couples are sealed to one another in eternal marriage. There is also a celestial room, where no rituals are performed and is a place of quiet reflection and prayer.
In each room, a guide would give a brief explanation of its purpose, and as the group moved through the building students peppered Jacobs with questions on the origins of The Book of Mormon, the details of temple worship, and Mormon theology. The tour ended in an information tent, where Jacobs remained for another 30 minutes answering student questions.
The experience was eye-opening both for LDS students and those who came knowing very little about Mormon worship.
"This was the first time I have been to a temple dedication since I have used the temple myself," explained Kim Berkey, MTS '17, who is herself LDS. "It was interesting to see a space I am used to only seeing post-dedication be opened up like this, and to be walking through in my street clothes."
Before Mormons enter a temple, they change into all-white clothing. Berkey added that there was a lot of art on the walls that she had never seen before, which surprised her.
Phillip Balla, MTS '17, was very glad he made the trip, despite the long drive. "I didn't know a lot about Mormonism" he said, "and I learned so much."
—by Shira Telushkin