Locals Weigh Historic Preservation And Modernization As Manti Temple Faces Renovation
Driving into rural Manti in central Utah — one of the first things visible is the huge, 19th century temple belonging to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
“In Sanpete County, we have three things — we have farming, we have sheep and we have the temple,” Manti resident Ryan Roos said. “[The] bond that we have to our pioneer past is stronger than anyone can possibly imagine from the outside looking in.”
But the Church is planning to renovate the building so it will function the same way other modern temples do. That also includes removing historic and cherished murals.
The Church’s temples are sacred places where members go to make promises with God. In the Manti temple, members are taken on a journey through a set of rooms as part of a spiritual ceremony.
One of the stops is called the world room, adorned with wall-to-wall murals that were created in 1947 by painter Minerva Teichert. The well-known artist was the first woman commissioned by the Church to paint a temple mural.
Elisa Eastwood Pulido is Teichert’s granddaughter and a visiting scholar in religious studies at Claremont Graduate University in California.
“A world room in an LDS temple is an instructional room,” she said. “Normally, it always portrays Adam and Eve leaving the Garden of Eden and they are thrust out into the cursed world. So, most often, those rooms are portrayed with ferocious beasts of prey attacking their quarry — or deserts — just all kinds of things that are not the Garden of Eden. My grandmother saw it differently.”
Joe and Lee Bennion said they admire the room because of its sacredness and the murals. The couple are artists who live in nearby Spring City, about 20 miles north of Manti. Joe said he loves the way Teichert depicted the room.
“She painted a throng of people,” he said. “On one side is biblical stories: Joseph being sold into slavery and Moses and the Golden Calf and all that stuff. On the other side is this parade of humanity with the marginalized and the outcast in silhouette. It's the world of humanity — what people have imprinted on the world.”
The Bennions said they have practiced their faith in the Manti temple almost every month for decades. Lee also has a personal connection with Teichert’s paintings — she has helped repair the murals after thermostats and light switches were put in.
“I didn't hear any words, but I felt like Minerva was very happy to be getting those repairs made because they had violated and cut holes in her painting,” Lee said.
The Manti temple was first opened in 1888. It’s one of four pioneer-era temples in Utah, and underwent a major renovation in the early to mid-1980s. But last month, Church leaders said the murals would be removed as part of a multi-year renovation project.
Pulido describes her grandmother’s artwork as “a miracle.” She says the 5-foot-2-inch artist painted the expansive walls mostly on her own in less than a month. Pulido said she was shocked when she heard about the removal of her grandmother’s murals.
“I know the struggles that people go [through] to be trained, that heartache and the sacrifice. I know the many hours they put in,” she said. “My grandmother didn't get a lot of accolades during her life, but I thought, oh my gosh, I can hear her heartbreak in heaven.”
Local residents like Joe Bennion were also caught off guard by the Church’s announcement.
“I will shed tears over this. I will. I don't know if anger is the right word, but heartbroken is certainly appropriate,” Joe said.
Benjamin Park is an assistant professor of American religious history at Sam Houston State University and he’s written a number of books on the Church. He said there’s a tension with any modern religion when it comes to preserving its past, and that’s especially true for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
“On the one hand, they want to insist that things never change, that it is the same religion that's been in existence since the moment of its creation,” he said. “Yet on the other hand, the Church is driven by the necessity to change by evolving circumstances.”
The Church is removing the murals because members will no longer move from room to room to see the temple ceremony performed by live actors. Instead people will be in one room as they watch a film, which is the norm for most every other temple.
In a statement, Church officials said they want to create a similar experience in the nearly 170 operating temples around the world.
But Park said old temples like the one in Manti have deep connections to their communities.
“I think modernizing that temple and making it much more in line with all the other temples, while it might fulfill the LDS Church's promise and potential to be a much more universal religion, it does lose a bit of the local flavor that had been at the heart of it for such a long time,” he said.
Lee Bennion said her experience is quite different at other temples compared to the one in Manti.
“It's not the same. It's not the same. I'm sorry,” she said. “They feel much more institutional.”
Douglas Fryer is another artist who lives in Spring City. He said he was sad to hear about the removal of the murals. But to him, the importance of a functioning temple outweighs the loss.
“We may love the furnishings of our Manti temple, but it's not those things that make the temple,” he said. “It's the Lord's presence in the temple that is important, it's the work that happens in the temple.”
Fryer said he trusts the leaders that have made this decision, and he’s hopeful that what replaces the murals will become familiar to them as well.
“The temple is a sort of a living, breathing thing that needs to go on fulfilling its purpose,” he said.
The Church has recently announced it will work to document and preserve all or part of the murals, and put them on public display.
This news came as a relief to some members, but they still see the removal as a loss since the murals were created specifically for the world room. Roos, who owns a local bookstore in Sanpete County, said like the sacrifices pioneer descendents made for the temple, residents today will have to sacrifice part of their temple.
“It's something that every day we encounter and we look towards it knowing what's inside, knowing all the history it contains and knowing that it stands as a monument to pioneer fortitude,” he said. “I can't imagine what it will be to experience the temple from the outside, looking in, knowing what's been removed.”
Pulido said she’s hopeful that the Church will do their best in saving her grandmother’s work. Though she doesn’t live in Manti, she said she feels the loss the community is experiencing.
She also said she’s seen how polarized the country is today and doesn’t want that to bleed into this discussion.
“I really don't want to go to that place with my grandmother's murals,” Pulido said. “She wanted to inspire people to be better and to care about each other. That’s the purpose of the world room.”
To raise awareness, people are walking in Provo April 11 in support of preserving Teichert’s artistic legacy.