After hearing that The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was “reconfiguring,” rather than restoring, the interior of its iconic Salt Lake Temple, art historian and collector Micah Christensen immediately began gathering objects, souvenirs, artworks and images from the 128-year-old edifice and its 40-year construction.
Within a week of the March 12 announcement — and while crews were disassembling the temple and its surrounding square for a major makeover and seismic upgrade — Christensen, who co-owns Anthony’s Fine Art and Antiques near the city center, had assembled an extensive collection and launched “Remembering the Salt Lake Temple: A Celebratory Exhibit.”
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The art expert was troubled by the church’s decision not to save the interiors so lovingly and painstakingly crafted by his pioneer ancestors — as it had promised in a 2019 news conference.
If the government had demanded that the church tear out murals and walls “to meet some zoning laws,” Latter-day Saint leaders would have been outraged and vehemently resisted, he says. But when it came from the governing First Presidency itself, the move was deemed uncontroversial and above questioning.
On Christensen’s Facebook page the day he learned of the church’s plans, he wrote: “At great sacrifice, pioneers built the Manti, St. George, and Salt Lake Temples even while they went without building their own homes and cities. They used skills they learned as woodcarvers, gilders, and painters that they had learned in workshops and academies that no longer exist; skills that died with them. We cannot replace their work nor ‘update’ it.”
Still, he didn’t want Anthony’s exhibit to be a negative experience for those who viewed it.
“It was meant as a celebration,” Christensen says of the show, which closed after the Pioneer Day holiday.
At the end of the exhibit, there was a place for attendees to write their memories of the temple and pin them to the wall. Hundreds did so. Anthony’s co-owner also kept a log of comments people made to him.
“So many said they didn’t expect to go back because it would be a different temple,” Christensen says. “It had lost the personal meaning it used to have.”
The vast majority, he says, stated that the temple “would no longer be what it used to be.”
A number of long-standing, multigenerational members who have “close associations with current leadership” remarked that they had “reached out to President [Russell M.] Nelson with their concerns,” Christensen says, and told the church leader the decision would not be “viewed favorably by history.”
People would come through the exhibit and say, “Look at all we have lost, look at these interiors.”
Multiple attendees also mentioned “their grievances of destruction of local tabernacles and wardhouses in their lifetimes,” he says. “They were angry about the loss of the Coalville Tabernacle.” And they resented not having an “advise and consent” role in what would happen to the faith’s signature temple.
Some 90% of people told Christensen the Salt Lake Temple “is our building, the public’s building, our ancestors’ building. We should have been told what the plans were — before they were executed.”
When the massive work on the temple began in late 2019 to protect the structure against earthquakes and improve accessibility, officials said the temple interiors “would be enhanced and improved but remain essentially the same.”
The endowment ritual performed by live actors would remain part of the sacred ceremony, they said, in which templegoers 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.
This year, though, the First Presidency unveiled plans to replace the live performances with a filmed presentation — found in the faith’s other temples across the globe — which would require the removal of historic murals and reconfiguring the rooms.
“While perhaps not as devastatingly irreversible as the loss of the artwork, [the end of the live ritual] is also immense,” Latter-day Saint writer and editor Kristine Haglund said at the time of the announcement. “So much of the symbolic significance of the endowment ritual is clearer when the actors are not merely the slick, glossy surface of a film image. The work of mental and spiritual imagination that has to occur in a live session is very different from the effect of the mass-produced and passively received photographic version.”
The temple interiors have been redone several times in its century-plus life span, Christensen says, while keeping the live ceremony and walls intact.
The largest concern of visitors to Anthony’s was that the sacred space “is no longer a temple with the patina of multiple eras,” he says. “It is now the vision of one era and one administration.”
For their part, top church leaders have said the Salt Lake Temple and other pioneer-era temples “have been a blessing to the Latter-day Saints for more than 140 years, and ... they will continue to serve their sacred purpose for generations to come.”
On May 1, church leaders did an about-face on their plans for the 133-year-old Manti Temple, opting to keep the rooms as they are, including 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.
That could still happen with the Salt Lake Temple, says Christensen, with hope in his voice. “I’m an optimist.”
View a photo gallery here of the latest construction:
View a gallery of historic photos here: