Temple Square in downtown Salt Lake City is the headquarters for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints and a holy site for the church’s 14 million members around the world. It’s the friendliest and best-organized spiritual site I’ve ever visited (and I’ve seen quite a few).
Members of the LDS Church came to the area in 1847 after having been persecuted and driven from states in the eastern U.S. Led by Brigham Young, they found refuge in the Great Salt Lake valley of Utah, an area unwanted by others. There they built a temple and settled the surrounding regions. Today about 35 percent of the population of Salt Lake City belongs to the LDS Church, and about 70 percent of the rest of the state.
The church offers free shuttles to Temple Square from the airport and other sites in the city. While many Mormons tour the 35-acres of buildings and gardens each day, the large majority of visitors are not members of the LDS Church. It’s easy to tour the sites in whatever depth you wish. You can spend a half-hour or several days exploring the square, which are all free. The only building closed to non-members is the Temple itself, though a nearby visitors center gives a thorough background of what is contained within it.
When Bob and I visited, we were asked if we wanted a tour by “sister missionaries,” young women who volunteer for an extended period. One of our guides was from Chicago; the other, amazingly, was from Mongolia. When we expressed surprise that she came from so far away, we learned that the guides hail from dozens of countries and that tours can be given in 45 different languages.
The young women were delightful tour guides, giving us an introduction to the square and telling us a little of their own history in the church. While they made it clear that they would love to talk to us further about the LDS Church, they also didn’t pressure us in any way when we said we were already happy members of an Episcopal church. “If anyone does express interest, we give them a brief introduction and then put them in touch with a church member near their home,” explained one of the young women.
As we toured, I found myself thinking of what my own church could learn from the Mormons. The practice of sending young people out to do mission work is brilliant. Even if they don’t make many converts (and goodness knows it must be exceedingly discouraging work to go around knocking on doors day after day), the experience shapes, refines, and defines their commitment to their faith. I spoke to one woman whose three sons had each served a mission in a Latin American country. They came back fluent in Spanish, deeply committed to their faith, and mature in ways they hadn’t been when they left.
I was also struck by how easy it was to experience Temple Square as an outsider. I was never made to feel unwelcome or ill at ease–that’s another thing other faith traditions could learn from the Mormons.
Temple Square is the most-visited attraction in Utah, a peaceful oasis in the middle of the city with singing birds and blooming flowers. Its major sites include:
The Salt Lake Temple was built by Mormon pioneers between 1853 and 1893 and sits at the heart of Temple Square. Topped by a golden statue of the angel blowing a trumpet, it’s the site of sacred ordinances such as baptisms and marriages. While the Temple is only open to LDS church members, adjacent to the structure is the South Visitors Center, which has an exhibit on how the building was constructed and what it includes. In front of huge windows overlooking the Temple, a scale model of its interior gives a sense for what’s inside.
The Tabernacle is home to the famed Mormon Tabernacle Choir. The domed building was completed in 1867 and is an acoustic marvel, dominated by a massive pipe organ. The choir associated with the tabernacle began as a small group organized to sing at a church conference in 1847, just a month after the first Mormon pioneers arrived in the Salt Lake Valley. Today it includes 360 volunteer members who live within a 100-mile radius of the city. The public is invited to attend choir rehearsals and broadcasts of the choir, which are held both in the Tabernacle and in the nearby Conference Center.
Built in 1882, Assembly Hall is a charming building with white spires and stained-glass windows. Concerts and recitals are frequently held here. (During the summer months, many musical events are also held in Brigham Young Historical Park, which is also on the square).
The Family History Library houses the world’s largest genealogical collection. Visitors can use the collection free of charge. (See more on the Family History Library).
The North Visitors Center houses two sets of murals based on Biblical stories and an interactive map of Jerusalem in the Jesus’ day. Its focal point is the Christus statue, an eleven-foot marble figure reached by climbing a winding stair past a mural painted with clouds, stars and planets. You can also view two one-hour films, one about the Mormon pioneer journey and the other about the mission of Jesus Christ viewed through a Mormon perspective.
The Joseph Smith Memorial Building houses a 500-seat theater that shows the 68-minute movie Joseph Smith: The Prophet of the Restoration. Filmed with high production values, the show traces the life story of the man who founded the LDS Church.
Temple Square also includes the Beehive House, the 1854 residence of Brigham Young, who led the church following Joseph Smith’s death, as well as a Church History Museum, Church History Library, Conference Center and Church Office Building.
One of the remarkable features of Temple Square are its gardens, which include 250 flower beds, 165,000 bedding plants, and more than 700 varieties of plants from around the world. There’s even a four-acre rooftop prairie garden atop the Conference Center. The gardens are redesigned every six months and replanted by hundreds of volunteers. Garden tours and instructional lectures are held throughout the summer. The Mormons are still making the desert bloom, just as they have done for more than 150 years.
Lori Erickson is one of America’s top travel writers specializing in spiritual journeys. She’s the author of the Near the Exit: Travels With the Not-So-Grim Reaper and Holy Rover: Journeys in Search of Mystery, Miracles, and God. Her website Spiritual Travels features holy sites around the world.