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18 December 1998

The brightness and the glory

A 154-foot tower, a chandelier weighing 300 kilos. Stephen Smithgains entry to the Mormon temple in

By Stephen Smith

It must have been all the excitement, but as I entered the soaring new Mormon temple in Lancashire, I was distracted by an urge to perform an irredeemably earth-bound function. Under my breath, I asked a colleague whether he thought the builder’s spec had included anything so worldly as a Gents. Hardly had we taken another pace across the marble flags than my elbow was seized in a firm but kindly grip. A man in a dark suit, whom I’d last noticed in a distant corner, had materialised noiselessly at my side. “I understand that you’d like to go to the bathroom,” he murmured.

Paying a call at the temple, if that’s the expression I want, provided a rare insight into one of Britain’s fastest-growing but least understood religious movements. First, and at the risk of sounding like an Irish swimmer, I should say that I had not been taking any stimulants, because those popular diuretics, alcohol, tea and coffee, are off the Mormon menu. The cubicle itself boasted state-of-the-art Armitage Shanks vitreousware, and was carpeted in beige shagpile to ankle height, as indeed was the temple throughout. There have been rumours that these floor coverings will be ripped up and thrown out after a series of open days which finished last summer, but church authorities have dismissed this. However, they say that the temple had undergone “cleansing” – understood to be both spiritual and domestic – before its formal dedication last June.

Most impressive of all was the display of trouble-shooting by my friend in the dark suit. Having led me to the WC, he waited for me outside it, not unlike a prison escort. I’m sure that if I’d succumbed to a temptation to scribble something on the walls, he would have been through the door and snatching the Biro out of my hand before you could say Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which is the style the Mormons favour. Very reasonably, they didn’t want people defacing their temple after they’d just spent a reported £100 million on it. Spokesmen were coy about the exact price tag, which was odd considering they went out of their way to explain that only the best raw materials had been good enough, North American cherry and Austrian crystal finding their way to the site, at junction eight of the M61. A formula I heard from more than one pair of lips was, “The key question is not what it cost, but what it’s worth”. Funds came from the 10 per cent of income every follower gives the Mormons.

At every doorway, on every passage, the church’s investment was protected by an “elder”. This was something of a misnomer; with a buzzsaw haircut and corn-fed complexion, the typical elder was actually more like a younger. Brought over from the church’s American heartland for the big launch, the elders looked and sounded like Navy Seals attending a dressy reception ashore.

Thousands of visitors have been anticipated from far and wide for what you might call the Mormon experience, most of them, admittedly, converts from the United States. The nearest town is Chorley, not necessarily the sort of place you’d bracket with Beaver, or so I guessed. But the youthful elder reassured me: “Chorley’s a small town, it kind of reminds me of home.”

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As far as the Mormons are concerned, the temple is really an outpost of nearby Preston, the base of their oldest branch. In 1837 seven missionaries arrived from New York to look up relatives in the town. Before long, they were preaching and baptising new believers in the waters of the Ribble. The Mormons now claim 180,000 members in the British Isles. They believe that theirs is the true church, restored by God in the last century. Cecil O Samuelson Jr, the president of the Mormons in Britain, made a speech about an American called Joseph Smith bearing witness to “two personages whose brightness and glory defied all description”. Samuelson had the steely hair of a Republican senator. He explained that further revelations led to the discovery of gold plates inscribed with what turned out to be the text of the Book of Mormon, a kind of addendum to the Bible. Whenever I looked up from my notepad, Samuelson’s eyes were on me.

He led the way through the temple’s rinsed air and artificial light to a baptismal font in the basement. Twelve life-size fibreglass oxen, one for each of the tribes of Israel, were supporting a sunken whirlpool bath. The domed ceiling was a Milky Way of shimmering bulbs. Mormons maintain that baptismal privileges can be conferred beyond the grave, entire family trees united in God’s sight by the act of a believer standing in for his late relations at the hygienic foot-spa. This raised the interesting textural crux: what if a dead ancestor was perfectly happy not being a Mormon? While I was pondering this, the president said that the greatest number of people for whom he had acted as a baptismal proxy at one go was a dozen. Whites were worn during the ceremony. “We have a significant laundry challenge,” said Samuelson. The pool gurgled.

The president of the church is a useful man to know if you’re a Mormon. Most church events happen in relatively humble chapels, and not every follower may enter the temple of Preston. Select men and women will receive a “temple recommend”, a sign that they are in good standing with a member of the rank of bishop.

On a different Chorley morning, the temple not yet finished, a roly-poly man had breathlessly propelled his recommend across a table to me. He said, “That’s literally priceless, that. No money on earth can buy that.”

Oh, I knew how difficult it was to get into the temple, alright. I discovered it that day, when the Mormons declined to admit me and even disappointed their own PR people, who had made the journey from London. We would all have to wait for the one-off press tour.

The temple was finished in Sardinian granite, which recalled the cliff-face of the palace erected by the Ceausescus in Bucharest; it was as much of a bunker as the abandoned American embassy in Saigon. On the face of it, though, the stakes were much higher in Chorley. Inside the temple, it was possible to learn the meaning of life, or so I gathered. There was even a taster of the ambrosial hereafter.

Despite their strict admissions policy, the Mormons were far from inhospitable. They were unfailingly courteous – almost creepily so, if that doesn’t sound ungrateful – putting up with any number of irreverent questions. The spire of the temple was a tapering digit thrust 154 feet into the sky, capped by a golden trumpeter representing an angel called Moroni, but the rest of the structure had the undisguisable look of a municipal crematorium. I asked the roly-poly man: “Be honest, do you really think it’s beautiful?”

He said, “I do, yes. But you could show the Taj Mahal to half a dozen people and they’d all have a different view.”

The temple, and the coming of the Mormons to Lancashire in large numbers, have certainly provoked different views. One shopper told me, “I think it’s great, actually. It’s got people talking.” Another said, “It’s just opulence for opulence’s sake.”

“You know the film Independence Day, where the spaceship suddenly appears over the White House? It’s like that with the temple,” said Reverend Ian Dewar, vicar of All Saints Church in the village of Appleby Bridge. The Anglican church has joined forces with the Catholics, the Baptists and others to produce a leaflet challenging the Mormons’ claims to be Christian. Reverend Don Gilkes made his parish church available while the temple was holding its open days, in case disoriented members of the public needed a stiffening shot of caffeine and a chat. He told me that the Mormons’ views on doctrines such as baptism and heaven were at odds with established teaching. The churches in turn have been accused of running scared, outflanked by the Mormons’ remorseless doorstep proselytising (they reckon to tread 1,000 front paths for every convert they make). The Mormons deny they will be staking out the porches of Chorley. They will be training missionaries, they say, not sending them out willy-nilly into the roads around the temple – which brings me back to the guided tour.

We were in the wedding guests’ waiting room, among wipe-clean lacquered panels and scenes from the life of Christ. Devoted Mormon couples don’t have to settle for pledging themselves to each other “till death us do part”. They can cement their marriages for eternity in a “sealing room”. Here, the conversation pieces included a bench with a doily over it and mirrors facing each other, allowing the bride and groom to observe themselves for as far as they could see in each direction, a representation of their timeless union.

Now we were penetrating the inner sanctum of the temple, the very heart of the Mormon creed. In the ordinance room, nothing less than the chronology of creation was brought to life. Samuelson said, “In this room we have the opportunity of learning the things to answer life’s great questions: Where did we come from? Where are we going?”

Never mind that it was an antiseptic sort of chamber; not after a build-up like that. Unfortunately, there was a let-down on the way: it emerged that our party would not be vouchsafed the mysteries of the ordinance room. We had to be content with titbits.

Still, the best was yet to come, or so we had been given to understand: the celestial room, a place of beauty, peace, reverence; an appetiser for the afterlife. “We will ask that we don’t have lots of dialogue in there,” said Samuelson.

What to say of the vision of paradise presented by the celestial room? Picture a reception suite for the use of minor royalty, as envisaged by the set designers of a South American soap opera. It was done out in the vivid lemons of daytime television. There was a chandelier, which weighed 300 kilos.

The Mormons have now shut their doors to the outside world, and the ineffable comforts of the celestial room are reserved for the elite of the church. I wouldn’t have missed the temple for anything, even though, by the end of my visit, the soul-searching riddle “What am I doing here?” had become a rhetorical question.