• Finding a place
For Mormons, the geography of faith started with the search for a place.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints began in New York, but they were severely persecuted by residents of the state so they went west to Missouri, where in 1838 governor Lilburn Boggs issued Missouri Executive Order 44, authorizing law enforcement to expel Mormons from their lands. Boggs said, “The Mormons must be treated as enemies, and must be exterminated or driven from the state.” Mormons left their Missouri homes, usually at gunpoint, and with only what they could carry. On they moved to Illinois, where their temple was burned and a mob murdered the president of the Mormon church, Joseph Smith. The church then migrated west to Utah to build their community in safety and peace, apart from the persecution they had endured.
The Mormons were unwilling nomads for the years they crossed the American plains, living out of their ox carts and wagons. In contrast, upon arrival in Utah they built one of the most organized cities known today: Salt Lake City. Their temple stands at the center of a grid, on a plaza bordered by the roads North Temple Street, South Temple Street, and West Temple Street. Locals just call these roads “North Temple” and “South Temple,” et cetera. Roads are numbered from the plaza outward. For example, all roads to the West of the temple plaza are known as 100 West, 200 West, and so on.
Salt Lake City is an easy-to-understand cartesian plane, the navigation of which is simple for outsiders. The city’s original Mormon planners oriented each 10-acre block plot of land so that every family had a sense of spaciousness and privacy. They took great care in executing their city plan before permanent settling occurred.
• Finding a place today
For the member of any faith, moving is hard. When you arrive in a new place, you have to unpack, acquaint yourself with neighbors and neighborhood customs, figure out the commute, and accustom yourself to the traffic patterns. You also have to find a place to pray.
Mormons, though, don’t need to shop around for a congregation. Each congregation is connected to a specific geographic area. Where you live determines the congregation of which you are a member, and you are immediately welcomed into that community. You always have a place (a congregation) as a Mormon, no matter where you move.
In college I moved to Spain to study at the University of Salamanca for a semester. I arrived in the city knowing no one. I bought a calling card, found a pay phone, and called a number that would connect me to a local Mormon leader. The man who answered the phone heard my broken Spanish and asked me where I was located. He kindly told me where and when I could attend church. I arrived that Sunday and was immediately welcomed in. I immediately had a place. I became the pianist. Nearly no introductions needed: I was family.
The same thing happened when I moved to Australia: I was welcomed into the congregation as if I had been there all along. When I moved back to America to live in Boston, you can guess what happened. I always have a place as a Mormon, no matter how many times I change location. Even on a short trip, it is easy to find a congregation. And the membership treats you, even for a day, like you’re just that sibling who lives in another state.
• Temples: places of peace
The Mormon temple is a symbol of the peaceful, safe, unpolluted place Mormons eagerly sought after years of persecution, expulsion, and chaos.
Many Mormons choose to live near a temple. Mormon meetinghouses – where we hold Sunday services and weekday activities – dot the landscape. Temples, on the other hand, are for marriage ceremonies and other religious ordinances. A Mormon temple is a quiet, peaceful, open space in which to sit, ponder, pray, and meditate upon questions one has for the Lord regarding life’s journey. As in the ancient Near East, where life and economy revolved around the temple, Mormon geography is organized with a temple at the center.
Mormons are still persecuted today. We practice a misunderstood religion. Discussions about the faith are sometimes founded on as much rumor and falsehood as truth. This misinformation can sometimes trigger animosity. As a result, Mormons place a high value on physical places of peace. It is little wonder that temples are sacred in the Mormon landscape.
In its essence, the temple is a place ‘outside of geography’ – a plot of heavenly oasis planted in the ground. There are no clocks on the walls (except for a few discreet digital timekeepers near doorways) and no noise from the outside, even in the well-insulated Manhattan temple. All conversation is kept to a whisper. It is a place set apart for peace.
Post and photo by Stephanie Hatch.