‘Leaders listened’ — Treasured murals will stay in Manti Temple; Ephraim will get an LDS temple, too

Church leaders were impressed to “modify our earlier plans,” President Russell M. Nelson says in video message.

(Michael Stack | Special to The Tribune) Elder Ronald A. Rasband describes his feelings about the Manti Temple at a news conference in the Manti Tabernacle on Saturday, May 1, 2021.

Manti • The historic murals in the 133-year-old Manti Temple of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints will remain inside the pioneer-era edifice, a change from plans announced earlier.

Instead, the Utah-based faith will build a new temple seven miles away, in Ephraim, the church announced in a special broadcast Saturday, to serve the 61,000 Latter-day Saints — including students at Snow College — in the central Utah district.

“As we have continued to seek the direction of the Lord on this matter,” President Russell M. Nelson said in a prerecorded message, “we have been impressed to modify our earlier plans for the Manti Utah Temple so that the pioneer craftsmanship, artwork and character will be preserved, including the painted murals loved by so many. We will leave those murals where they are located now — inside the Manti Utah Temple.”

(Michael Stack | Special to The Tribune) President Russell M. Nelson announces plans in a prerecorded message broadcast at the Manti Tabernacle for Manti Temple renovations and a new temple in nearby Ephraim.

The Manti Temple will close for a multiyear renovation Oct. 1, Nelson said, for mechanical upgrades, safety improvements and the implementation of filmed presentations — joining the historic 19th-century Salt Lake and St. George temples, which also are undergoing renovation.

The “live ceremony” will be eliminated in all of the faith’s 252 temples built or announced (Ephraim’s will be the 27th in Utah) and replaced with a filmed version.

In response to a question, church officials in Manti assured attendees that no walls would come down and that participants in the “endowment” rite would still move from room to room in a symbolic-rich reenactment of the creation, Adam and Eve’s expulsion from the Garden of Eden, and humankind’s mortal journey and ultimate return to God’s presence.

“What we have just heard from our loving prophet is the mind and the will and the direction of the Lord Jesus Christ,” apostle Ronald A. Rasband said during an in-person meeting in the Manti Tabernacle. “This is a great announcement for the whole Kingdom of God on earth.”

The apostle added that he had “a deep impression that there is rejoicing in this temple district and on the other side of the veil among our ancestors.”

In an interview, Rasband called the move a divine “revelation” and said that protests, petitions and phone calls — even a march in downtown Provo — opposing the art removal played no role in the decision to retain them.

The reversal was prompted, he said, “by the prayers of the people in this part of Utah.”

(Michael Stack | Special to The Tribune) Apostle Ronald A. Rasband discusses the decision to retain treasured murals in this Manti Temple on May 1, 2021, at a news conference in the Manti Tabernacle.

“Oh my gosh; this is huge,” an emotional Jody England Hansen said on hearing the news about Manti. “I am thrilled.”

Every prayer, every letter, every call “is worth it to communicate what is important to all of us,” she said. “I am grateful for all of it.”

And glad, Hansen said, that “the leaders listened.”

Hansen, who was a temple worker at the Salt Lake Temple before it closed, has relished “seeing so many artists speak up to try to help people understand the connection between spirituality and great art.”

On March 12, the church announced that the historic murals in the iconic Salt Lake Temple — some that were painted by Mormon artists sent to study in Paris in the 1890s — have been removed during the ongoing renovation and will not be returned.

There will be no such reversal in Salt Lake, said Brent Roberts, managing director of the special projects department. “That decision has already been made.”

(Michael Stack | Special to The Tribune) The Manti Temple, shown May 1, 2021, will close in October to undergo renovation.

Until Saturday, the same extraction was planned for the Manti Temple, which houses one of Mormonism’s artistic gems — a “world room” mural painted by the famed Minerva Teichert, who studied at the Chicago Art Institute in the early 20th century.

Twelve days after the initial announcement — and on the heels of repeated pleas from preservationists and rank-and-file Latter-day Saints arguing passionately against destroying the hand-painted murals inside the historic Manti Temple, church leaders said in a statement they would try “to separate the canvas or portions of the canvas from the plaster and preserve the murals for future restoration and display in a public setting.”

Saturday’s move makes such a separation unnecessary.

Teichert’s murals “are a masterpiece and a crowning accomplishment of her career. They are arguably the single greatest artistic achievement by an LDS woman,” Margaret Tarkington wrote in late March on the By Common Consent blog. “No amount of photographing can replace actually experiencing Teichert’s murals, which are vast in conception, scope, vision, and size (the room is 28 feet tall, 50 feet long, and 25 feet wide). The murals cover nearly 4,000 square feet.”

The ambitious painter “portrayed the pageant of human history in a fallen world” on sides of the giant hall, Tarkington, a law professor at Indiana University, wrote, “culminating in the gathering of the early Latter-day Saints to the North American continent and their efforts to build Zion, portrayed on the front wall.”

Roberts is excited for outsiders to see Manti’s interiors when the temple is open to the public after renovation, he said in an interview, adding that he expects them to be impressed by the “heartfelt” work of pioneers.

Manti Mayor Korry Soper said he was happy to accept whatever the church decided regarding the murals, adding that the main purpose of a Latter-day Saint temple is for temple work.

He said the city feels humbled and blessed that there will be a new temple in the Sanpete Valley.

Soper said he hopes the renovations, including landscaping and increased accessibility for older people and those with disabilities, will take place at the Manti Temple. He noted there are a lot of stairs in the current building that can be difficult for some members to navigate.

Meanwhile, the announced Ephraim Temple will be similar in size to the 36,000-square-foot Brigham City Temple, said Kevin R. Duncan, temple department executive director. It will have four 30-seat endowment rooms, three sealing rooms and one baptismal font, where members carry out proxy baptisms for deceased ancestors. This will allow the temple to provide endowment sessions with film presentations every 30 minutes.

Nelson now has announced 70 new temples since taking the faith’s reins more than three years ago. Utah has 15 operating temples — though at reduced capacity due to the coronavirus pandemic — with two undergoing renovation. Another 10, counting Ephraim, are in the works.

Once the Ephraim Temple is designed and permits are obtained, it will take about two years to build, according to W. Christopher Waddell of the Presiding Bishopric, which oversees the faith’s real estate, financial, investment and charitable operations.

Ephraim Mayor John Scott wrote in an email that the announcement of the new temple was “thrilling” for residents.

“We are ready and prepared to cooperate and help in any way with the building of this structure that will serve and bless the lives of so many people in our city, our neighboring communities and the students at Snow College,” Scott said. “We are humbled by the fact that the church and its leadership are sensitive to the desires of many people in the Manti Temple district who had an earnest desire to see special murals preserved in the Manti Temple along with Manti’s distinct pioneer heritage motifs. Also, we are humbled by the fact that Ephraim is being set apart as a temple community. Our pioneer forebears would have been thrilled to see a temple here in Ephraim.”

Sheri Dew, executive vice president of Deseret Management Corp. and CEO of Deseret Book Co., said Saturday that growing up on a farm in Kansas she could relate to the “diligence” of the Mormon pioneers who built the Manti Temple.

These “unsung heroes” from the past — as well as from today — were “doing great things,” Dew told The Salt Lake Tribune. “This is the Lord’s acknowledgment of their goodness.”

— Tribune reporter Sara Tabin contributed to this story.