Salt Lake and Manti Temples to End Live Sessions, Have Historic Murals Removed Permanently

manti-temple-2021
Two of the Church's more historic temples are about to get a little less historic.

The Salt Lake Temple is already over a year into a major renovation that saw the temple’s original foundations exposed. The Manti Utah Temple, in central Utah, was also slated to undergo extensive renovations.

Today, the First Presidency of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints announced major changes to both temples as part of their respective renovations. Both temples were the only two remaining in the Church that offered an endowment session featuring live actors instead of the video presentation used in all other temples. Both temples also contained incredible murals original to the temples’ construction. (Manti even has the original benches instead of folding seats).

Now neither temple will offer a live session upon rededication, and the historic murals will be removed and not necessarily preserved. Unlike many announcements related to temples, which come from the Church Newsroom as a press release, this announcement is actually penned by the First Presidency. It is clear the Brethren understand how sensitive these aspects of the temples are, and they wish to mollify any concerns the saints might have about such changes. After all, this is doing away with a big part of our history.

Salt Lake Temple

At the Salt Lake Temple, the renovation will now add two new instruction rooms, additional sealing rooms, and a second baptistry, all to “allow for greater capacity and more temple ordinances.”

To accommodate these additions, it will transition to single-room presentations using the film. Obviously, this is great because it allows the temple to present the endowment in more than 80 languages, as opposed to whatever language is known by the dozen or so temple workers needed to put on a live session (English). The temple will be able to hold more sessions each day. It will also help temple workers—who, let’s say, skew a little more AARP than most of the Churh—not need to memorize lines.

In addition, the temple cafeteria is going away, which has been a common change for many temples, and the space will now be used to “accommodate additional temple facilities to support the increased capacity of the temple.” There will be no more cafeteria. The horror.

Now let’s read the First Presidency’s statement on the murals:

As we make these significant changes for the future, many historic elements are being impacted. For example, the addition of new instruction rooms, a new method of presentation, seismic strengthening, and changes to meet accessibility requirements meant that the murals in the temple would need to be moved and/or repainted. It was impossible to know whether the murals could be preserved during such a move. They were originally painted directly on lath and plaster walls, which had been repaired and repainted many times because of water damage and other deterioration. Further, the change to a film presentation meant that the rooms would be reconfigured. For all these reasons, the murals were carefully photographed and documented before removal, and some of the original portions are being preserved in the Church’s archives. Many other historic features of the building have also been photographed, documented, replicated and in some cases, architecturally salvaged.

Congrats. You’ll have a photo of the murals to tide you over.

Manti Temple

The changes in the Manti Temple are less extensive but certainly drastic when it comes to historic preservation. Also couched in the explanation that rooms need to be reconfigured to accommodate single-room endowment sessions in multiple languages (again, a good thing!), all of the Manti Temple’s historic murals will be removed. But don’t worry. They’ll be photographed. The temple’s historic staircases will be preserved, however.

If you’re unfamiliar with the murals in the Manti Temple, they are stunning. The “world room” contains a full wraparound mural by Minerva Teichert that is an artistic treasure, showing the Crusades, the Pyramids of Giza, and a painting of a Native American at the front of the room. It is a travesty to lose this work. There’s no other way to say it.

Rooms will also be altered in the Manti Temple to improve accessibility, which frankly, is probably needed. Unlike the Salt Lake Temple, where patrons stay on the same floor for the first two rooms, then climb a grand staircase for the other three rooms—or take a single elevator to the next level—Manti has a layout requiring patrons to go up a small flight of stairs between every room, which provides even greater symbolism of reaching higher and higher as you go through the endowment ceremony, but is probably an ADA nightmare.

It’s worth noting that original artist renderings of the renovated Salt Lake Temple showed the endowment rooms untouched. Indeed, as the Salt Lake Tribune noted, at the start of the renovation in 2019, Andy Kirby, the Church’s director of historic renovations, promised the interiors would be spruced up but remain unchanged. He also said sessions featuring live actors would remain part of the temple. It appears the Church is reversing course mid-project, and it’s curious it did not foresee these necessary alterations when planning.

These moves are particularly notable in light of the renovation work underway at the St. George Utah Temple. While the building is the oldest functional pioneer-era temple in the church, its interior has been completely reworked many times, even removing the progressive-style endowment in favor of single rooms. Now the temple is being restored with historically accurate but modern finishes to match its heritage ?in many ways the opposite of what’s happening with Salt Lake and Manti, which appear to be moving closer to where St. George has been for the past 40 years.

And in all of this, we have no idea what’s in store for the Logan Utah Temple, which is, quite literally, a shell of its former self. If any of the four pioneer temples merits a major overhaul, it’s Logan. The. Windows. Are. Painted. Black.

To be clear, making temple ordinances available to everyone with greater frequency and in additional languages is a great thing. No questions there. But at what cost? Sure, the ordinances and covenants made in a historic temple like Manti are no different than in any other temple. We learn the same things and make the same promises with God. But even with that said, the Church’s own managing director of the special projects department described the St. George Temple as “premier,” implying some temples are more notable than others. If the Salt Lake Temple is no more important than other temples, stop using it as a symbol of our headquarters and global faith. Otherwise, treat it and other pioneer temples with the special attention they merit, rather than lumping them in with the bevy of anonymously designed temple interiors that exist elsewhere.

But is it worth the loss of part of our culture and history, and in Utah, no less, where temples are being built at a record pace? We can announce new temples in Taylorsville, Saratoga Springs, Orem, Lindon, Deseret Peak, Syracuse, and Layton but we can’t keep Salt Lake as is or just build yet another temple in the Salt Lake Valley to accommodate demand? Of course, the other side of that coin is that with more temples going up in the vicinity, Salt Lake loses many of the stakes assigned to it, thus making it even more difficult to have enough temple workers on hand to officiate a live session compared to how few are needed to run the video.

We’re not prophets. We’ll never claim to be. We have faith in the leaders of the Church. But we do have to wonder whether a Change.org petition is in order.

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