No religion is complete without a little mystery—Catholicism with its Immaculate Conception, Scientology with its OT Levels, Buddhism with its Nirvana. It goes without saying that the Latter-day Saints have their share of enigmatic rituals. Some Christian fundamentalists are quick to point out the esoteric beliefs of the LDS church, including the ideas that Mormons become gods of their own planets when they reach one of three heavens, that Jesus vacationed in the Americas, and that they once sort of had a thing against black people.
The Mormon obsession with building gigantic temples around the globe also raises some eyebrows in non-believers, owing to the secrecy of whatever goes on inside.
Mormons hold regular Sunday services in churches open to the public, even slobs like you and me. But unless you’re an incredibly loyal, obedient member, you won’t be getting into any of the temples, a “house of the lord” specialized for prayer, fasting, marriage, baptism (including the controversial “baptism of the dead”), and other “ordinances” or contracts with the Almighty.
Nevertheless, the LDS church hosts an open house when it completes a new temple, inviting society to stroll through God’s crib, free of charge. Afterward, they dedicate the place, forbidding public entry. Naturally, the rumors fly: The temples are rooted in Freemasonry. In temple ceremonies, you are given a secret new name. You learn a secret handshake. Couples are sealed for all eternity in a “celestial marriage,” and in the afterlife, women will forever give birth to “spirit babies.” I could list dozens of other weird rumors I’ve heard—for instance that, after an open house, the church tears out and replaces the carpet—but I can barely find references to these online, let alone confirm them.
So, despite what the Lord God saith in Doctrine and Covenants 132:8 ("Mine is a house of order… and not a house of confusion"), there is obviously a lot of ambiguity. According to the LDS church, when Jesus returns to reign for 1,000 years, he'll be chilling out in one of these temples. With 142 across the globe and plans to build another 29, he’ll have plenty to choose from. Now would be a good time to start making bets on the lucky House of God Jesus selects.
Maybe Christ will pick Gilbert, Arizona, the suburbanite Mormon paradise just southeast of Phoenix and Tempe, where the latest temple was erected. Gilbert is an incredibly fascinating place formerly known as the "Hay Shipping Capital of the World," featuring engrossing landmarks such as the Gilbert Water Tower and Gilbert Day Rodeo. I can imagine Christ picking this place to settle down one day.
I decided to take acid and go for a look around the Mormon temple open house. Dressed in my Sunday best, I ingested two tabs of acid and headed over.
When I arrived, every branch of the family tree, newborns to grandparents, queued in a long train wrapping around the church. Nearly all the visitors was dressed for a funeral, but they were smiling bright. One by one, we filed into the church. We grabbed a pew, the lights went out, and a video began.
It was hard to control my laughter. Not because anything was particularly funny, but you know. I repeatedly bit my tongue and kept staring at the portrait of Jesus on the back of a brochure I picked up. Christ radiated in 3D, staring back into me with sad, puppy-dog eyes.
The video summarized temple history and what makes this particular temple unique. Spoiler: not much. The fourth temple built in Arizona is a mere 14 miles south of the “Solomon-style” temple in Mesa. Considering the others are built in Snowflake and the town of Central (population: a whopping 645), it’s safe to say Mormons have picked some of the most boring locations in Arizona to put these things.
The video prided Mormons on being among the first pioneers to germinate the arid badlands of south-central Arizona. No mention of the fact that this real estate once belonged to aborigines—or of the 1857 Mountain Meadows Massacre in Utah, during which a Mormon militia dressed up like Native Americans and slaughtered around 140 settlers. Maybe they just didn’t think that was very relevant? Whatevs!
Next, various teary-eyed elders, including church president Thomas S. Monson, explained why temples are so crucial to the faith. All these old white men, their jowls quivering as their faces warped, made it very difficult to concentrate. Not a single controversial belief was confirmed, denied, or even mentioned.
The lights came up, and we were scooted outside, then led up to the temple itself. Oh boy, oh boy! As far as I could tell, the line ran all the way up and down the building’s five levels and out the other end. But before we were allowed in, we were given white booties to slip over our shoes.
Everyone chattered excitedly, some snapping selfies with the temple behind them, although no photos were allowed of the interior. I realized how big a deal this was for the families, as the temple would become the place where they would centralize their lives. The brochure even said, “Latter-day Saints view the temple as a spiritual center where each person can feel a special closeness to God,” and “what we learn in the temple gives meaning and direction to our lives.” That’s actually pretty cool to me. I wasn’t here to spit on anyone’s pageant, but that doesn’t mean I swallowed anything (other than blotter paper).
As we approached the door, the acid was really apparent. I shuffled in my booties and prayed no one would notice my bulging eyes and eager, shit-eating grin. I mean, everyone around me was delighted, but did I seem too delighted? I couldn’t tell.
Finally, we were let inside. The only words to describe the place are "fuckin’ gorgeous" and no, that wasn’t just the lysergic talking. The lobby was beautifully tiled, bordered by immaculate Victorian furniture and brilliant ornamental lighting.
The striking oil paintings on every wall blossomed outward, breathing and waving back at me. I wish I had more time to stare into each one until my eyes bled. Shirtless, hard-bodied Jesus baptizing his shivering followers. An apostle on bended knee, held down by the hands of Christ. The Messiah returning, roaring through the clouds over a barren wasteland surrounded by a legion of trumpeting angels.
What interesting selections. I might’ve missed them, but I didn’t see a single crucifix. Not one image of Christ suffering to redeem mankind. Nor were there any portrayals of Joseph Smith, and I didn’t catch any of those Freemason symbols I’d heard so much about. Maybe they install those later? Guess we’ll never know unless we convert, huh?
Cameras weren't allowed inside, but this CNN report from 2012 featured some shots of the interior of a Mormon temple in Kansas City. Screencaps via CNN
We were led upstairs past the baptismal font, an archetypal pool built on a dozen oxen symbolizing the twelve tribes of Israel. I couldn’t help thinking of Baal and golden calves. Here, Latter-day Saints baptize their followers and also dead people by proxy. They don’t actually dig up and dunk corpses—though I’d definitely help with that—but instead baptize a surrogate. The Latter-day Saints have been doing this since 1840, but recently some members of the Jewish community were outraged to learn Mormons were “baptizing” Holocaust victims. Oops!
Now, in Mormon belief, no one, no matter how much he or she claims the blood of Christ, can enter the Kingdom of God unless baptized. Those baptized by proxy still get to choose whether they wanna live with God forever in Heaven or rot in Hell (tough call), so what’s the big deal, right? Isn’t it kind of generous of the LDS church to double-check for you? If you don’t believe it anyway, does it matter? And if the Mormons turn out to be right, wouldn’t you want that chance?
No? That still annoys you? Understandable, as the LDS church has claimed to stop doing that for any dead folks’ relatives that don’t like the idea, i.e., Jews.
Moving on, we were led through the men’s locker room where followers dressed in pristine white linen, better known as temple garments or “Mormon underwear.” The clothes symbolize holiness and also provide spiritual protection against temptation and evil. This was, unfortunately, not demonstrated.
We then moved into a double-mirrored hallway. I looked at myself vaporizing into infinity and giggled, realizing I hadn’t showered in a week. My hair was a greasy smudge, and my eyes were disco balls. Fuck. No wonder they made us wear crap over our shoes and lined the floors with plastic.
I took note of the many fire exit signs, each doorway graced with a placard indicating the room’s maximum capacity. I wondered whether the fire department made regular inspections like they do to other structures—and did they have to be Mormon to enter, and how did God feel about His house being “up to code,” and had there ever been a fire at one of these places, and what was the electrical bill like? Signs and questions like that kind of take away from the magic, or at the very least I don’t imagine “holy” places to be so practical.
We entered the glowing Instruction Room, where LDS members worship and receive directives from God. Everyone hushed. The sudden silence was both relaxing and unnerving. My teeth chattered. I’ve felt the presence of God before, or something like it, but not here.
Next was the Sealing Room, where marital ceremonies are performed and kids are “sealed” to their parents for eternity, followed by the Celestial Room, a place for deep introspection. An 18-foot long, 1,500-pound crystal chandelier dangled in the center of the room, ringed by floor-to-ceiling stained glass windows, all designed to resemble the afterlife. It felt accurate, especially the way my vision kept getting warped by rainbow beams shooting through the air. Heavenly indeed.
As soon as it began, we were outside again. We gulped the fresh air, removed our booties, and joined blathering families taking portraits by some fountains. Not far away was a tent for asking questions. Here we met John, an elder in the church and a lifetime Mormon.
"How much did this thing cost?" I asked. John shrugged, then whispered something along the lines of "I don’t know, but upwards of millions of dollars." No expense was spared, most of the art was donated, blah blah blah.
"Did the chandelier have real diamonds?" Another shrug. Maybe. "Do you go to the temple often?" "Oh yeah," John grinned. "Very often." He explained it was a great venue for finding peace and relaxation, and for that I envied him. I wish I had some beautiful place I could escape to.
"What about baptism of the dead? Have you ever done that?" I asked John. Oh yeah, of course, all the time. He was as nonchalant as if I’d just asked him whether he clipped his toenails. No surprise there. Every other Mormon I’ve asked about postmortem baptism acts like it’s NBD.
John quickly explained that, out of respect for different cultures, they don’t baptize folks that might get them in trouble, saying Baptism of the Dead was an important part of learning one’s genealogy, that it strengthens family ties and keeps you in touch with your ancestors.
I asked if, before there were digital databases, there were any mistakes. John laughed but admitted yes. It wasn’t too long ago when eager Mormons, wanting to be the first baptized on behalf of George Washington, Socrates, and John Lennon, overlapped. John said this wasn’t a problem now, of course, and the Mormon genealogy database is meticulously organized. Hallelujah, right?
But then, I think, John could tell I wasn’t asking run-of-the-mill questions about square footage or any of that bullshit. Maybe he could tell I was fried as fuck, but rather than growing paranoid, I started to laugh for no discernable reason. I chewed my lip and turned away until I could breathe again. I’m sure my pulsing eyeballs gave me away.
Speaking to me more excitably and avoiding eye contact, John was quick to emphasize temples are sacred, not secret. There aren’t any bizarre, hush-hush rituals going on behind closed doors, Mormons don’t believe Joseph Smith usurped Jesus Christ, and no, thanks for asking, they probably don’t rip out the carpet when the open house period ends. They do shampoo them, however.
I wasn’t trying to back John into a corner, but I was genuinely curious about these principles. After a few more dodged inquiries, I rousingly shook his hand and made way for the car.
Yeah, I felt enlightened for some reason. But I don’t credit that perception to visiting the temple so much as I attribute it to Albert Hofmann’s marvelous discovery, my problem child and irreverent entheogenic utensil, LSD.