After nearly 60 years, Salt Lake City’s epicenter of anti-Mormonism is destined for rubble

The Tanners excoriated Utah’s predominant faith for decades from a bookstore on West Temple. Soon, it will close for good.

A Salt Lake City bookstore that served as a pre-internet hub for opposition to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints will close up shop next year to make way for new development.

While there’s a sense of nostalgia for the buildings that housed her life’s work, the matriarch of anti-Mormonism’s modern era doesn’t seem all that torn up about moving on.

Sandra Tanner left her 119-year-old home in the Ballpark neighborhood last summer after becoming fed up with crime. In May, the 81-year-old sold both her home and the next-door building that housed her Utah Lighthouse Ministry bookstore.

“It was like, ‘OK, I’m done.’ I’ve struggled with this for years,” Tanner said. “It’s just gotten worse, and it didn’t look like there was any solution coming.”

(Steve Griffin | The Salt Lake Tribune) Sandra Tanner works on the Utah Lighthouse Ministry website in 1999.

The Utah Lighthouse Ministry will shutter March 1, and Tanner does not plan to reopen in another location.

When her bookstore and old house are eventually leveled — and the proposed apartments and shops built in their place — a decadeslong history of biting criticism against Utah’s predominant faith will be left in the rubble.

Staunch opponents of the LDS Church

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Lighthouse Ministry in Salt Lake City on Monday, Nov. 21, 2022.

Starting in the 1960s, Tanner and her husband, Jerald Tanner, who died in 2006, began exposing what they believed were lies, distortions and discrepancies in the history and teachings of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Constant clashes with the church gained the Tanners a level of fame — or infamy, depending on one’s view.

In a 2006 profile, now-retired Brigham Young University professor Daniel Peterson said the Tanners “pound for pound, year after year, have been the most successful opponents of the church.”

It wasn’t meant, he added, as a compliment.

In 1963, the couple published what is now titled “Mormonism: Shadow or Reality?” and soon began photocopying some of the faith’s hard-to-find documents and selling them out of their house near 1300 South and West Temple.

“When we bought the house on West Temple,” Tanner said, “it was with the specific purpose of having a little bookstore in our front room, which we did for years.”

The couple — both former Latter-day Saints — operated the Utah Lighthouse Ministry out of the parlor of their home until the 1990s, when they moved the operation next door.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Tony Higgins in the printing room at Utah Lighthouse Ministry in Salt Lake City on Monday, Nov. 21, 2022.

Through the years, they charted nearly 4,000 changes in the church’s signature scripture, the Book of Mormon, from the 1830 version and the text as it reads today.

The bookstore became a kind of magnet for former or questioning Latter-day Saints and young historians who were eager to get a peek at the original documents. It also attracted a revolving door of reporters and TV crews covering stories about the thornier chapters in the church’s history and theology.

“We’ve had New York Times and L.A. Times, everybody come through our bookstore through the years,” Tanner said. “So it’s been quite a Grand Central Station experience living in that neighborhood.”

Safety concerns grow

Eventually, Tanner said, living on West Temple didn’t feel safe anymore. The final straw fell two years ago, when a thump in the night woke her.

“I went upstairs to look and ran right into the burglar who was just running out the door with my computer, my purse, all my credit cards and my passport.”

If it wasn’t coming face to face with a burglar in her own home, it was the alley full of tents, the stacks of trash, or the drug deals and sex workers in the stairwell behind her ministry building that drove her to the suburban pastures of Sandy.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Lighthouse Ministry in Salt Lake City on Monday, Nov. 21, 2022.

“It was just a scary time,” she said. “And I’m older. I mean, at 81, I figured it’s time to retire anyways, but it certainly forced me out of the neighborhood to have all of that criminal activity.”

This year, the city opened a police substation nearby in Smith’s Ballpark, and law enforcement officials say a targeted approach to crime prevention in the area is working.

Tanner considered closing up shop and moving out after her husband died, but she kept the store going because the thought of relocating was too daunting.

“It finally caught up with me that it’s time to move out and retire,” she said. “It just wasn’t manageable at all for me, as an old person living alone, to keep all that going.”

Destined for redevelopment

Salt Lake City has big plans for the area around Tanner’s old house and bookstore. In October, the City Council approved an ambitious vision to guide development and make the neighborhood an entertainment destination complete with a festival street.

It’s hardly surprising to Preservation Utah Executive Director David Amott that the old Tanner house and ministry building — given their location and the fact that they’re not integrated into a neighborhood with similar homes — are up for redevelopment.

The buildings, he said, do offer a peek into the past of a neighborhood that is rapidly disappearing.

“The fact that they’re there does give the sense that the neighborhood has its own history,” Amott said. “It’s not just parking lots and large ballparks and warehouses.”

If anyone gets Tanner’s frustration with crime, it’s Ballpark Community Council Chair Amy J. Hawkins, one of the most persistent voices urging city leaders to do more to stop it.

She said more apartments might be a benefit for residents looking to move into the area, but it’s unlikely they’ll do much to help the people who already call the neighborhood home.

“Will that housing make the people who already live here safer?” Hawkins said. “I don’t see convincing evidence of that.”

Hawkins said the prospect of losing Tanner’s house to redevelopment is unfortunate because the neighborhood doesn’t have many buildings from that era in as good a condition. Tanner’s old home was built in 1903 and the bookstore in 1897.

Tanner herself bears historical significance, said Hawkins, adding that those buildings might be spared if they were someplace else.

“If that property were a mile or two east,” she said, “we might not be having this conversation.”

Tanner said she sold the properties to Sattar Tabriz this year after he spent about a decade asking to buy them.

She continues to operate Utah Lighthouse Ministry on a rental agreement but wants to get out while she knows she’s capable of overseeing the move. She’ll hand over the keys in May.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Copies of the newsletter Salt Lake City Messenger at Utah Lighthouse Ministry in Salt Lake City on Monday, Nov. 21, 2022.

It’s a shame to know the houses face certain death, she said, but she doesn’t think they’re significant enough historically to spend the money it would take to save them.

“Other than the fact that if you just think that Utah Lighthouse bookstore is that unusual,” she said, “that you want to do something about it.”

Sure, Tanner believes the large mixed-use building proposed to replace the two properties is a bit much for the narrow stretch of West Temple just south of 1300 South, but she knows it’s not her call.

She may be viewed as anti-Mormon but, in this case, she isn’t anti-development.

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