Estimated read time: 9-10 minutes
KENSINGTON, Maryland — The Washington D.C. Temple was built on a prominent hill here in 1974 in part to show that The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints had arrived on the national and international stage.
The church's leaders and new public communications department at the time opened the doors then to the media and hundreds of thousands of people to proactively establish the church's brand of family unity in the minds of people in the American capital and beyond.
A four-year renovation of the temple is now complete and for the first time in 48 years, the doors are about to open to the general public again, creating a new opportunity for church leaders to make a statement and build bridges of understanding.
Two apostles and other church leaders each spent more than 10 hours on the temple grounds here Monday with an updated message for 150 national and regional journalists, including reporters from Axios, the New York Times, Fox News, the Associated Press, Politico, the Atlantic and the Washington Post.
Under rainy skies that somehow made the gold-leaf spires atop the temple shine brighter against a cloudy backdrop, the church leaders led multiple tours packed with journalists carrying microphones. They also conducted three press conferences and sat for numerous radio, television and other interviews.
Family unity continues to be a core belief, one apostle said during a tour, but because no person is perfect, no family is perfect. The message of the temple can heal and redeem imperfections, the leaders told the media.
In a world where some insist people don't or can't change, they resolutely insisted that the influence of temples does lead people to change for the better and to the benefit of individuals, families, communities and nations.
The true beauty of a temple does not lie in what you can see — the wood and stone, glass and metal — it lies in what you cannot see, in the hearts of those who will worship here and receive blessings, and the change that has happened in those hearts since this temple was built.
–Rev. Dr. Amos C. Brown, pastor of San Francisco’s Third Baptist Church
"We build temples as a testament to the immortality of the human soul, which we celebrated (Sunday) on Easter," said Elder David A. Bednar of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles in a press conference. "We build temples to make available remarkable blessings to the members of our church and to the communities in which the temples are constructed. Through the things we learn about God and Jesus Christ and the promises we make to love and serve, our hearts turn from self to God and are changed. Ultimately, the absolute primary foundational function of the house of the Lord is for us to be transformed."
A governor and a Baptist preacher praised the influence of the church and the temple during press conferences, too.
During the planning of the temple a half century ago, church leaders moved its location by 60 feet on a tall hill so that it would rise prominently over the then-newly announced route of I-495.
On Monday, Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan called the temple an iconic landmark in the Maryland skyline along that Capitol Beltway.
"I just want to take this opportunity today to sincerely thank The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints for being a valued partner in our efforts to change Maryland for the better," he said, "and to once again thank and congratulate everyone who made the renovation of this beautiful and iconic Washington D.C. Temple possible."
The Baptist preacher also called the sacred building "a beautiful and magnificent temple," but he said that wasn't its main purpose.
"This is a great spiritual enterprise," said the Rev. Dr. Amos C. Brown, pastor of San Francisco's Third Baptist Church and a member of the national board of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
"The true beauty of a temple does not lie in what you can see — the wood and stone, glass and metal — it lies in what you cannot see, in the hearts of those who will worship here and receive blessings, and the change that has happened in those hearts since this temple was built," he said.
Elder Bednar told the Deseret News that the reason church leaders spent so much time with the media Monday — they also are scheduled to host tours for major national media executives on Tuesday — is that what the temple can teach open house visitors requires both mass media and individual attendance.
He said most people wouldn't know the temple is open for a short, six-week window for the first time in 48 years without media reach.
"They wouldn't know that this was a possibility, that you get to have a chance to come and see it ...," he said. "So the more we can magnify and multiply that message, the better it is, so that people can then have the opportunity for the one by one."
The public open house begins April 28. It will run daily from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. except Sundays through June 11. Free tickets are required to reserve a tour. The tickets are available at dctemple.org/open-house/.
Demand is high, said Elder Jack N. Gerard, executive director of the Church Communication Department. Church leaders have already extended the length of the open house because of the interest.
Hundreds of thousands of people are expected to tour the temple, said Elder Gerard, who is a General Authority Seventy with the church.
The number of invited guests to special tours scheduled this week and next week has soared to 4,100, far beyond the record number for any of the other 169 Latter-day Saints temples, he added.
Church representatives have delivered invitations to national political leaders and other potential special guests across the Washington D.C. corridor. Some governors already have visited, including Maryland's Gov. Hogan, Utah Gov. Spencer Cox, Idaho Gov. Brad Little and Wyoming Gov. Mark Gordon.
Elder Gerrit W. Gong of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles prepared the journalists who visited Monday for the quiet peacefulness of the Celestial Room, which he called a nexus between heaven and earth. He paraphrased W.B. Yeats, asking them to seek to notice what they felt in their "deep heart's core."
In one of the temple's six sealing rooms afterward, he asked them what they'd noticed in the utter and complete silence they experienced sitting in the Celestial Room.
One said it was a rare phenomenon today to be in a place where there was no sound and called it very peaceful.
Another referred to the crystals in the room's 13 chandeliers.
"I felt like it was God's spirit sprinkling out the lights," he said.
Another said she came with one purpose in mind and was leaving with a different one.
"We say, sacred space, sacred time," Elder Gong said.
During the press conferences, he encouraged the journalists to talk to some of the 150,000 Latter-day Saints living in the surrounding region.
"Listen as they tell you about connection, community, communion, compassion and Jesus Christ," he said.
When church leaders decided to build the Washington D.C. Temple, there was no temple east of the Mississippi River. The temple was built then to serve 300,000 members living in the eastern United States and South America.
Remarkably, 758,000 people attended the 1974 open house.
Since then, temple historian Emily Utt said, "It's become a community temple. Everybody knows this building, and they think of it as part of their lives. When we took down the Angel Moroni statue to repaint it in 2015, a concerned citizen stopped by to make sure we were going to put it back up."
Elder Gerard said some of the invited guests will include ambassadors from dozens of countries.
"This open house will have a global impact with the invited guests," Utt said. "It will show the international reach this temple can continue to have as a symbol of the church."
That reach was plainly on the minds of church leaders in 1974 when they built the massive 160,0000-square-foot temple, the historian said.
"We are wanting to make a statement. We are wanting to give the global community a sense that we are wanting to engage, we want to be a part of who all of you are and what you're doing," she said.
"So we want to build a building that is going to give us a seat at that table, a voice in the conversation. So we built a temple that looked to the past a little bit. We put up a nice long building with six spires, just like the Salt Lake Temple, and put a Moroni on it, just like the Salt Lake Temple. We put a little bit of Gothic detailing in it, but we made this building modern. So we will give a nod to our past in the nation's capital, but this temple is here for the future. We are looking forward to the millennium and the potential impact that we could have as Latter-day Saints on really a global discussion."
Nearly five decades later, the temple's renovation — chiefly to update mechanical, plumbing, electrical and other systems — is a metaphor for the kind of personal transformations church leaders said it can inspire, one of the church's international women's leaders said.
"It's really a journey of change that has brought us together today, is the reason that we are here, because our temple has been refurbished and renewed and the structure has been reinforced," said Sister Reyna I. Aburto, second counselor in the Relief Society General Presidency.
"We would like to share with you today that this is so similar to what happens with us as human beings," she added. "We believe that people can be renovated, that we can change, that our hearts can change, as we dedicate our life to love and serve others. So we want to share this journey with you today so you can see what happens inside our temples, and you can understand our belief in change in the hearts of people."
Temples offer Latter-day Saints a place to heal from divisions and conflicts, Latter-day Saint Charities President Sharon Eubank said.
She said the only power strong enough to knit the world back together from its chaos is the love of God, the sacrifice of Jesus Christ.
"The temple for me is a chance to change hearts, to heal difficult experiences and to allow people to be publishers of peace," said Sister Eubank, who also is the first counselor in the Relief Society General Presidency.
Sister Eubank encouraged the journalists who visited Monday that they could use their stories about the day's tours and interviews for good.
"I hope that you have a chance when you publish, that you will follow that scripture in Isaiah that talks about 'How beautiful are the feet upon the mountains of those who will publish peace,'" she said.
"You have a chance today to publish peace. And I am so excited to share this opportunity with you. Thank you for coming."