Membership triples in nation’s capital

Temple direct link to decade and half of growth

The year was 1974. The soon-to-be-dedicated Washington Temple loomed breathtakingly over the Beltway. Church membership in the area was approximately 21,000, divided among four stakes.

A decade and a half later, as preparations are being made to launch a year-long celebration of the temple's 15th anniversary, the Church in the nation's capital has seen 200 percent growth. Members now number approximately 63,000 in 19 stakes.Many wonder how and why, during a time when many religions were experiencing nominal growth at best and declining membership at worst, the Church has grown so rapidly. Perhaps the answer is best found by looking at individual stories.

Lynn Jensen, coordinator of crowd control during the 1974 temple open house, recalls one story. Most days during the temple tours, 2,000 to 3,000 people were waiting, snaked in double lines on the grounds, to preview the awe-inspiring structure. On one such day a 10-year-old girl approached Brother Jensen.

"Hey, mister, my grandma can't walk very well. If I stand in the line, when I get to the front will you hold my place while I get her out of the car?"

Brother Jensen had a better idea. With wheelchair in tow they got Grandma and brought her to the front of the line. When asked what had brought her there, the young girl replied that she had seen a picture of the temple in the local paper. Her uncle didn't want to see the temple, but had agreed to drive her from Pennsylvania if she would pay for the gas. The youngster didn't have enough money but Grandma made up the difference and here they were.

The pair thrilled at the temple tour. The bride's room particularly impressed the young girl. She told the worker helping them to the parking lot that when she got married she would go through the bride's room again. He wondered if she fully realized she would have to join the Church first.

Brother Jensen continued the story 13 years later: "While I was working in the temple, a beautiful bride greeted me. She said she had hoped, but never dreamed, that she would see me in the temple. I stepped back, a bit embarrassed to say I did not know her. She then reminded me of the little girl, her grandmother, uncle and the promise she had made when she left the temple in 1974."

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Andrew and Myrna Wahlquist also well remember their tour of the temple. As presidents of a young married group of a Protestant religion, they instigated a tour of the temple as one of the group's monthly activities. They prepared for the visit by inviting the missionaries to present a film on the temple. As questions were posed, Wahlquist, who had been raised in the Church, drew on information he had retained from his youth.

"As we toured the temple, there was a strange excitement and anticipation of something wonderful about to happen," recalled his wife, who was not a member of the Church at the time. "I hoped my friends thought so, too."

"This visit brought to mind many truths which had faded from my conscious thought," said Wahlquist. "I recalled as a youth performing baptisms for the dead. Our group was truly astonished to see evidence everywhere in the temple of the Christ-centered nature of this Church."

The temple tour served to dispel many misconceptions for the group.

Some years later, the Wahlquists heard a knock on the door and opened it to find the missionaries. They invited the pair in and, during the next four years, heard many discussions given by many missionary pairs. Wahlquist, knowing his wife was opposed to the Church, quietly served as a support for her study, until the time that she, too, was touched by the Spirit.

She asked her husband to baptize her. This required him to put his life in order and return to activity.

Sister Wahlquist said, "I know now that Andrew's heart had never left the Church. His example was what kept me listening to and inquiring of the missionaries. He was, without doubt, the most significant missionary in my life." Brother Wahlquist baptized his wife in 1985. The couple's daughters, Kristen and Andrea, were baptized in 1986 and the family was sealed in 1987.

In 1975 Richard and Ruth Wildricks, returning from an overseas assignment at the end of a 30-year military career, were driving on the Washington Beltway when they braked in astonishment at the glowing white edifice that emerged in its full beauty as they rounded a curve.

Some months earlier, Richard, a Marine colonel, arose hurriedly from his bed to write down words that kept running through his mind.

"There are those living, but dead. There are those dead, but living. It's a pity that those who are living, yet dead, do not know it." He still did not understand the meaning of the words, but glimpsing this temple the words again ran through his mind.

Ruth was a do-it-yourself Christian, relying on her own faith and Bible study. Accepting a leadership position in a non-denominational English-speaking church during their last year in Belgium, she had had a chance to study all faiths represented and became convinced that none of them contained the complete doctrine of Jesus Christ.

The Wildricks retired to Tacoma, Wash. When missionaries knocked on their door that fall, they were welcomed. Soon the couple decided to be baptized. Later, in St. George, Utah, they served in the first stake name extraction program, reading the records in antique German. They have also served in numerous ward and stake callings. However, their favorite work is in the temple. They have served two full-time temple missions and are currently working two days a week at the Washington Temple, helping the Church grow in this bustling area.

Such rapid growth has presented some challenges to the members here. The city itself poses an interesting challenge. Those who joined the Church in the inner city found it difficult to travel to the suburbs to attend meetings. There were also many young professionals and students who lived downtown, but there was no downtown meetinghouse.

In a novel solution, space was rented at the National Press Club for Sunday meetings for the Washington, D.C. 2nd Ward. Press club members, arriving for Sunday lunch, are sometimes surprised to find Primary, Sunday School and other meetings in session.

The ward truly has an international membership. This diversity is also seen throughout the area. Dotting the area are half a dozen Asian branches, two Spanish wards and four Spanish branches, a deaf branch and five singles wards.

The Church is also reaching out to and being accepted by the black community. The story of Winston and Gloria Wilkinson demonstrates this. For many years, they searched for a religion, attending several churches but finding none that really "felt right."

Both worked at the Department of Education and so they often attended political functions. In 1981, Wilkinson attended such a function and was drawn to a particular man, V. Dallas Merrell. After a conversation, he asked Merrell what his religion was. The reply, "I am a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints," did not surprise Wilkinson, who remembered the temple on the Beltway and his desire to visit during the open house period.

Brother Merrell invited the Wilkinson family to come to Church with him and, in preparation, the Merrill family had the Wilkinsons to their home where the missionaries presented the first two discussions. Wilkinson knew immediately that this was the end of his search.

"The answers the missionaries gave to my questions were so balanced – physically, mentally and spiritually," he noted. "After all my years of searching, I knew that I had been led to this man."

But his wife had doubts about fitting in. When the family first attended the Merrells' ward, she saw only a sea of white faces. However, she found the members warmly welcomed every member of the family.

"I am pleased to see more and more reaching out to the African-American families in the area," Sister Wilkinson observed. "Our first ward had four or five such families. I want to see this wonderful message and lifestyle shared with all my brothers and sisters, black or white."

A year after the family was baptized, they were sealed in the Washington Temple.

These individual stories are but the beginning. In each case, each convert has touched others, contributing to the growth of the Church and spreading the gospel through daily contacts. As a result, membership multiplies. One by one, or family by family, the story unfolds. A story of personal conversion, of fellowshipping, of reaching out to neighbors and friends, of reactivation, of personal inspiration, impressions, thoughts and experiences are etched in the history of the Church growth in Washington, D.C.