The year 2020 has been a big year for temples of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Despite the fact that operating temples have been closed or opened with limited capacity, due to the response from the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, temple construction has not slowed down. In the April and October General conferences, President Nelson announced 14 new temples in 2020. In addition, design renderings were released for a number of temples. Of these temples, nearly all of them lack a statue of the Angel Moroni.
Elder Ronald A. Rasband dedicated the Durban South Africa Temple in February, the only temple dedicated in 2020 before the onset of the global pandemic. The church scheduled dedications for the Rio de Janeiro Brazil and Winnipeg Manitoba Temples in May and November respectively. The open houses and dedications are currently postponed until large gatherings are deemed safe and the temples are otherwise sitting completely finished. The rededication of the Washington D.C. Temple had also been announced for December, but eventually postponed indefinitely.
A Record year
In contrast to a bleak year of temple dedications, the number of groundbreakings that took place in 2020 made it the year with the second most groundbreakings in the history of the church. Church leaders were initially conservative on their estimates. Elder David A. Bednar projected in his April 2020 general conference talk that the church would break ground for 18 temples in the year 2020. In his opening remarks in the October 2020 general conference, President Russell M. Nelson said, “In the calendar year 2020, we will have broken ground for 20 new temples!” This was despite the fact that the previous day, the church newsroom had announced the groundbreaking for the temple that would be the 21st in 2020.
In the end, the Church held 21 temple groundbreakings in 2020. It is understandable that church leaders were conservative in their estimates. The groundbreaking for the Salta Argentina Temple was postponed twice before it actually took place. The Mendoza Argentina Temple groundbreaking initially scheduled for November 2020, but didn’t take place until December 17th.
If the church had been able to move forward with it’s original plans for the Tooele Valley Utah Temple, there might have been 22 temple groundbreakings for 2020. A KSL reporter was told that a groundbreaking had been planned for the second week of August. However, the likely success of the ongoing signature-gathering may have triggered a referendum initiative. Facing the prospect of the project appearing on an election ballot, the church withdrew the rezoning request.
Socially Distanced Groundbreakings
Temple groundbreakings usually included medium to large sized audiences. However, due to the conditions of the pandemic, few people could attend these groundbreakings in person. The first groundbreaking of the year occurred in Richmond, Virginia in April. The ceremony was held with only five people in attendance. They also canceled the broadcast to stakes within the temple district. Church leaders had a little bit more time to plan for the groundbreaking of the Layton Utah Temple in May. The ceremony was still simplistic. The image of padded chairs in a grassy field caused some to snicker, as if they were taken from the nearest high council room.
The amount of people that attended the groundbreakings ceremonies in 2020 was minimal. It appears that it was limited to presiding authorities and their spouses, a select group of community and local church leaders, and those who were speaking during the ceremony. You may also have been invited if you were a family member of the landscape designer who put together the backdrop for the groundbreaking. Every groundbreaking needs a great backdrop!
For the most part, the neighbors of the temple and the life-long residents of the community could not attend the ceremony. If you were a next-door neighbor to the temple, you could have watched from behind the fence, on your balcony, or on sitting on top of a shed.
Beginning in the third quarter of 2020, the Church Newsroom refrained to announce an exact date for temple groundbreakings. They simply announced a month and year. It seems plausible that the fluidity of pandemic restrictions required additional flexibility in scheduling the ceremonies. In addition, the church may have withheld the exact day of the ceremony in order to dissuade uninvited onlookers from gathering around the temple site.
During the pandemic era, knowing the date of the temple groundbreaking is not very important for those who will watch remotely. In 2020, the Church Newsroom has begun posting the entire groundbreaking ceremony on its YouTube channel. The church notifies members in the temple district when the recording is available. A few groundbreaking ceremonies took place during the week instead of the traditional Saturday.
Apostles and General Authority Seventies have typically presided over temple groundbreakings. However, due to precautions and pandemic restrictions, these authorities were not able to travel too far from their place of residence. In 2020, it appears that for the first time, Area Seventies presided over temple groundbreakings. General Authority Seventies are members of the first and second quorums of the seventy. Members of an area presidency consist of General Authority seventies (for the most part). Area seventies are members of the third through twelfth quorums of the seventy.
The first Area Seventy to preside over a groundbreaking was Paul H. Watkins, who presided over the groundbreaking of the Feather River California Temple. Area seventies also presided over groundbreakings in San Pedro Sula, Honduras; Moses Lake Washington, Brasilia, Brazil; McAllen, Texas; and Bengaluru, India. These locations are further away from area headquarters. Assigning this responsibility to area seventies allowed Apostles and area authorities to limit their travel.
Gerrit W. Gong and Jeffery R. Holland presided over groundbreaking ceremonies in Utah. David A. Bednar “presided remotely” over the groundbreaking of the Bentonville Arkansas Temple. The term “presiding remotely” appears to be one of these words that entered into our lexicon during the year 2020.
An Odd tradition
Let’s face it, groundbreaking ceremonies are kind of an odd tradition. There does not seem to be a doctrinal basis for a temple groundbreaking ceremony. The dedicatory prayer of the site is the most spiritual event of the ceremony. The act of breaking ground for a new building is not uniquely religious, plenty of secular institutions hold such ceremonies. The act of thrusting gold shovels into neatly placed soil does nothing to aid in construction. At least Spencer W. Kimball did a little bit more when he used a front end loader to break ground for the Jordan River Utah Temple. It will be interesting to see how the traditional continues to evolve in coming years. Truly, a groundbreaking is mostly a PR stunt, and there’s nothing wrong with that.
A groundbreaking ceremony typically precedes the immediate start of temple construction. However, it is not uncommon for construction not to commence for several months after the event. Regardless, it is notable that the number of temples under construction has exceeded the number of temples announced for the first time in several years.
It is an accomplishment that church employees are able to keep up with the pace at which president Nelson has announced temples in his three years as church president. It’s likely that 2021 will see a number of additional groundbreakings. Seven temples with locations announced are currently waiting for construction to commence. Look forward to 2023 for a year of many temple dedications!