Date: May 02, 2021 04:08PM
The about-face on the Manti temple murals by the leaders of the LDS church is a great example of how the church — over and over and over and over and over and over and over again — paints itself into untenable corners by claiming revelatory authority for administrative decisions. In the past, when these decisions created controversy, LDS leaders committed blasphemy—yes, blasphemy—in an effort to recover from their mistakes and save face. They have done it again with the latest dust-up over historic temple murals.
Beginning in 1856 with the Endowment House and for the next 100 years, the LDS church decorated rooms of its temples with murals . This unique Mormon art form, a fine arts backdrop, created an impressive setting for the ceremony that taught the most important parts of Mormonism to its believing members. In the Manti temple, the world room mural by Minerva Teichert is especially treasured. It is a magnificent interpretation of world history. I went through the Manti temple only once, but even forty years later, I still recall how the majestic beauty of Teichert's mural filled the room and created a powerful sense of the divine.
The Salt Lake murals deserve special mention. They were the culmination of the 1890 Paris Arts Mission. As the Salt Lake temple neared completion, the LDS church sent its finest artists—John Hafen, Lorus Pratt, John Fairbanks, and John Clawson—to study under Albert Rigolot, a prominent French landscape artist at the Académie Julian in Paris, France. Upon their return in 1892, they painted the garden and world rooms of the temple with grand landscape murals in the Impressionist style. In 1915, Frithjof Weberg added the creation room mural to the temple. By any estimation, these impressive works surely qualified as masterpieces of Mormon art.
The tradition continued until 1956 when the church dedicated the last 20th century temple to feature murals in Los Angeles, California. A year earlier, the Swiss temple (1955) saw the introduction of a stationary, one room floor plan for the endowment ceremony. The room had plain walls. For better or worse, for nearly half a century, temple design prioritized streamlined efficiency over the decorative arts.
Under Hinckley, the LDS church changed course. After 45 years, it reintroduced endowment room murals with the Columbia River, WA temple (2001). The rebuilt Nauvoo temple (2002) was the apex of this new era. A throwback to the five-room progressive endowment floor plan, it featured striking murals in three of the instruction rooms. It is beautiful, impressive, and awe inspiring — a delight to see. In addition to Nauvoo, most of the fifty-some temples that followed had either a one or two-room format with beautiful murals adorning the walls.
Soon after Nelson became president, murals disappeared from newly completed temples with no comment or explanation. Since Nelson’s tenure began in January 2018, the LDS church has dedicated seven new temples. As of May, 2021, only three (Haiti, Lisbon, and Rome) feature endowment rooms decorated with fine art. In fact, Haiti and Lisbon only have large, framed paintings on the endowment room walls, not murals per se. The temple in Rome, announced in 2008 and dedicated in March 2018, has stunning large scale murals. Due the timing of its announcement, the interior decoration of the Rome temple was obviously planned and finalized well before Nelson assumed leadership of the church.
If one drew a tentative conclusion that Nelson doesn’t place a high priority on temple murals, it was confirmed with the announcement that the historic and much-loved murals in Salt Lake and Manti were to be removed. In the case of Salt Lake, early renderings of the remodeling indicated the rooms with murals would be preserved even though the temple would change to a two-room progressive format. I am no longer a Mormon, but even so, I was excited by the renderings of the Salt Lake renovation. I was anticipating returning to the Salt Lake temple during the planned open house before its re-dedication to see it. The temple no longer holds any sacred meaning for me, but I would have been uplifted by the renewal of a monument to the dedicated people who, at great personal sacrifice, paid for, built, and decorated a glorious space in which to worship.
Then came the announcement—after the fact—that the Salt Lake murals had been destroyed and Manti would follow suit. Quite understandably, the removal of these historic, iconic works of art brought an outcry, even from faithful members of the church who usually accept, without question, whatever controversial policy du jour the leaders of the church serve up.
Now, we are told the brethren have been inspired — “impressed” — to preserve the Manti murals. In other words, rather than admit that church leaders bowed to popular sentiment and would preserve the Manti murals out of respect for the wishes of the members, we are told an indecisive Mormon god has changed his mind about the Manti murals.
There is a pattern here—an obvious and ridiculous one. Looking back over Mormon history, we see it repeated over and over. Notable examples are the reversal of the polygamy doctrine (1890); the reversal of black exclusion from the priesthood (1978); and the withholding of blessing, baptism, and confirmation for children of GLBTQ parents (2015). In each case, the LDS church folded and reversed itself on an unpopular policy in response to public pressure. However, it didn’t admit the reversals came because of flawed decisions, born of human frailty and necessitated by expediency to escape a conundrum of its own making. Rather, in each instance the LDS leaders attributed the reversal to an uncertain and fickle-minded God. Does anyone really believe this is how revelation works?
The Manti murals may survive, but in what appears to be another face-saving move, a costly new temple will be constructed in sparsely populated Sanpete County (est. population, 31,000 in 2019), less than 25 miles from Manti, a temple which is known to be under-staffed with volunteers and poorly attended by temple-going Latter-day Saints.
In Mormonism, blasphemy is sacrilegious thought, speech or action that belittles God (2). By its own definition, blaming God for their own mistakes and poor decisions is indeed blasphemy on the part of Mormonism's top leaders. Blasphemy and tens of millions of dollars for a temple that appears to be unneeded. That’s a high price to pay for a single administrative decision.
As a former member of the church, I mourn not only what appears to be the end of a unique art form, but especially the wholesale destruction of great works of art. Though the foolish games of LDS church leaders no longer impact me directly, they aren’t fooling me. I also suspect they aren’t fooling most active members of the church. They most certainly aren’t fooling their God. They are, in fact, fooling only themselves. Faithful members of the LDS church deserve so much better than what their leaders give them.
(1) The St. George temple was originally built on the model of the Kirtland temple with two main assembly rooms. Three decorated endowment rooms were added during a 1938 renovation.
(2) Gary L. Browning, “Blasphemy,” Encyclopedia of Mormonism, Daniel H. Ludlow, editor, Volume 1, p. 127. New York, NY: Macmillan Publishing Company. 1992.
Edited 2 time(s). Last edit at 05/03/2021 01:30AM by gordongrant.