Episode 15: Church News managing editor Scott Taylor joins the podcast to discuss temples in a pandemic year

In the year 2020, when many projects were put on hold because of the COVID-19 pandemic, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints broke ground for 21 new temples in a powerful display of looking forward during a time of uncertainty.

Today, R. Scott Taylor, managing editor of the Church News, joins the Church News Podcast to discuss how the Church handled temples during the global pandemic — first closures and then the phased reopening of temples — and the resulting greater appreciation for the blessings temples bring into the lives of members, families and communities worldwide.

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Transcription

Sarah Jane Weaver: In the year 2020, when many projects were put on hold because of the COVID-19 pandemic, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints broke ground for 20 new temples and engaged in extensive renovation projects for landmark temples, including the Salt Lake Temple. It was a powerful display of looking forward during a time of uncertainty.

During this podcast, we’re going to talk about Latter-day Saint temples by the numbers. I am joined by R. Scott Taylor, managing editor of the Church News, who has seen tremendous milestones in growth for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints since starting as a reporter for the Deseret News in 1984.

One of the most impactful topics he has covered has been the widespread construction of temples. There were 31 temples in operation when he began as a reporter in 1984 and 231 dedicated, under construction or announced temples today. He has witnessed how temples have blessed the lives of members, communities and families worldwide, and how current restrictions on temple operations amid the worldwide pandemic are helping members develop an even greater appreciation for these houses of the Lord.

Welcome, Scott. It’s good to have you with us today.

Temple focus during President Nelson’s tenure: More than numbers, it’s about principles, invitations and promises

01:10

R. Scott Taylor: Thanks, Sarah, I feel awfully old all of a sudden when you talk about 31 temples back in 1984.

Sarah Jane Weaver: That has been three decades of reporting on all things, including things about The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, but certainly one of the most remarkable years that you’ve covered as a reporter has been the year 2020.

R. Scott Taylor: Yeah, it’s remarkable for what has happened and what seemingly hasn’t happened as well.

Sarah Jane Weaver: We’re actually approaching almost a year since the Church had to close temples because of the pandemic.

01:42

R. Scott Taylor: In mid February of 2020. I was in South Africa, with Elder Ronald A Rasband of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles as he dedicated the Durban South Africa Temple. That was Feb. 16.

After that dedication, within a week, there were four temples — the Church’s first four temples had started to close because of the COVID-19 pandemic, all four were in Asia. You had the Seoul Korea Temple, the Taipei Taiwan Temple, and the two temples in Japan that were still open — the Sapporo and Fukuoka Japan temples. A week after that, 24 temples were closed; within a month, 111. And the First Presidency makes that late March announcement to close all operating temples because of the pandemic.

And from there, temples became a fascinating topic in 2020, because of the closures and the reopenings — and yet the ongoing growth that happened.

02:38

Sarah Jane Weaver: And we documented that at the Church News week by week, updating those temple numbers on Monday mornings each week.

One of the most impactful moments for me was participating in an interview with President Russell M. Nelson in May of 2020. And in that interview, he talked about how he felt having to close temples worldwide. In fact, he said it left him “wracked with worry.”

Let’s listen to that right now and then talk about it.

Video: President Nelson talks about the ‘painful’ decision to close temples amid COVID-19

03:18

President Russell M. Nelson: In the ordinances, the power of God is manifest. Those powerful ordinances are administered in the temple. The purpose of the Church is to bring the blessings of God to his children, on both sides of the veil. So only in our temples do we receive the highest blessings that God has in store for His faithful children.

So how difficult was it to make the decision to close the temples? That was painful, it was wracked with worry. I found myself asking, ‘What would I say to the Prophet Joseph Smith? What would I say to Brigham Young Wilford Woodruff and the other presidents on up to President Thomas S. Monson. I’m going to meet them soon.’ To close the temples would deny all for which all those brethren gave everything. But we really had no other alternative.

04:28

Sister Wendy Nelson, wife of President Nelson: In January and February, every time I went to the temple, I felt like I wanted to do multiple sessions. That’s really unusual. I usually do that twice a year. Early March, I said to my husband, at this point, I have done the number of ordinances that I typically would do in a five-month period — just in two months. Well, little did we know that the temples would then be closed for three months. So that’s all about how the Lord will actually prepare us.

04:59

President Russell M. Nelson: Fortunately, those closures are only temporary. Temples will be opened again cautiously and carefully in stages. Even though temples have been closed, family history research and work has taken a huge leap forward. More names are being added. And remarkably, through all of this, the voluntary fast offerings of our members have increased. I’ve learned that even through clouds of sorrow, there can be silver linings found.

05:47

Sarah Jane Weaver: Certainly, as President Nelson alluded to, we are a temple-building Church, especially in recent years when we’ve had a few temple-building eras. I traveled to many, many temples myself in the early 2000s, when President Hinckley was dedicating so many temples.

In addition to having a long and very successful career as a journalist, you took three years off to serve in Arizona as a mission president. It was also during that time that the Church was constructing the Phoenix Arizona Temple. Talk about the excitement that you witnessed as the work progressed in that part of the world during that historic time.

06:24

R. Scott Taylor: It was interesting, the groundbreaking of the Phoenix Arizona Temple happened a month before, my wife and I began our mission service in Phoenix. And we thought, well, we’ll be here for three years, watch it be built, and we’ll be here for the dedication and have our missionaries involved. Well, it took a little longer — it wasn’t finished until after our service.

But every group of new missionaries that were coming in and every group of returning missionaries, missionaries who were finishing their service and returning home we would drive by the temple site — which was only four or five miles away from the mission home — and talk to them about their missionary service and what it meant to help prepare people to attend the temple, to worship in the temple, to make covenants in the temple.

And it’s been fun to listen to missionaries talk about returning to Phoenix after their missions, and going to see the completed temple, going to the temple to join people they helped convert or help to reactivate as they go through for temple ordinances. And my wife and I had the chance to go back down to Phoenix for the open house and for the dedication. It’s nice to serve in a place close like Phoenix rather than trying to make a return as far away as Johannesburg or Tokyo or Sydney.

07:41

Sarah Jane Weaver: You know, one of the groups of people that were impacted by the closure of temples in this last year were missionaries getting ready to serve.

My own daughter was planning to go to the temple, we had a temple time, scheduled for the very day that temples closed worldwide. She then waited six months, completed home MTC and actually went to the temple just a few days before she entered the mission field. And it was a really, really beautiful experience for our family because the Church opened the temple for just us, for just her.

And I have heard that at the Church News over and over and over again. A young elder in her missionary training center home district is from Central Utah, and he drove to the Jordan River temple, which is one of the Church’s largest and has six ordinance rooms. And inside the temple were a few workers and him and his parents. I think that’s such a beautiful representation of how God feels about His missionaries.

08:41

R. Scott Taylor: You know, it’s great to have missionaries be blessed with the endowment, covenants, and promises and blessings. It’s key to their missionary service. Glad that your daughter and your family had a chance to do that together.

I’m also mindful of missionaries like a neighbor of ours, who went out to his mission in Texas without having been endowed. And yet having that experience to go to the temple to the Lubbock Texas Temple to receive his endowments. Families are invited to join their missionaries, if they can manage, if they have the time and the financial wherewithal. It’s not expected. And for some it’s difficult to do, and for his family, they weren’t able to go down. But he and his companion went, and I remember him sharing his thoughts, impressions and feelings of finally having that temple experience.

09:33

Sarah Jane Weaver: So, let’s circle back and actually talk about the impact of COVID-19 on temples. You have a period of about six weeks where we have temples worldwide close and then the Church began and what they called a phased reopening. Tell us a little bit about how that worked and how that unfolded.

09:51

R. Scott Taylor: The Church called it a cautious and careful reopening of temples in four phases. The first phase, Phase 1, is where the sealings of living husbands and wives were performed in the temples, either a sealing or a marriage-sealing. And after a few months — that first started in May. By the end of July, there were temples that started to reopen in Phase 2. Phase 2 allowed all living ordinances to be performed by appointment. And then, late December of last year, the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve initiated Phase 3 with four temples. Phase 3 is where all proxy ordinances can be done for deceased individuals.

One thing that I thought was interesting, the first four temples to open included the Taipei Taiwan Temple, one of the first temples to close earlier that year because of the pandemic. The other temples — Apia Samoa, Nuku’alofa Tonga, and the Brisbane Australia temples, were the first to open in Phase 3.

Apia Samoa Temple.
Apia Samoa Temple. Credit: Intellectual Reserve, Inc.

10:58

Sarah Jane Weaver: It’s interesting that this has all happened under President Nelson’s leadership. He certainly is a temple-building prophet. Since he has been President of the Church, he’s announced 49 new temples and locations across the globe. And he has also led the Church as many, many temples have been dedicated. I have been to a few of those, as he has performed those dedications. It’s certainly a moment when heaven and earth meet.

He’s also assigned many of his Brethren to preside at those dedications, which is really a sweet thing. In an interview he did in São Paulo, Brazil, after his Latin America ministry last year, he actually took time and he spoke about that. And he said, “Oh, I would love to have dedicated those temples,” he said, “but it gives me greater joy to give those opportunities to my Brethren.” And that it sort of was reminiscent of a father finding greater joy in the success of his children than in wanting to do all of those himself.

You’ve also been to some of those dedications that have been presided by members of the Quorum of the Twelve.

12:00

R. Scott Taylor: Right — dedications and rededications, and so many of those who have been done in the local language of the members of the area. I’m thinking of Elder Dieter F. Uchtdorf of the Quorum of the Twelve being asked to rededicate the Frankfurt Germany Temple, and to listen to him do that in German, to listen to him in a media session the day before talk about the Savior, Jesus Christ and the purpose of temples and covenants in the German language. With me having German ancestors, it was just touching and rewarding.

I remember being with Elder Ulysses Soares of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles in his office before he went down to dedicate the Fortaleza Brazil Temple, and he was in near tears, talking about what it meant for him to be asked by President Nelson, the Prophet, to go down to his native Brazil and to be able to dedicate a temple in his native Portuguese. And all the dedication sessions, all aspects of three sessions that day, were done in Portuguese — the hymns, the prayers and all the talks. And same goes on — you know, Elder Neil L. Anderson dedicates the Lisbon Portugal Temple in Portuguese.

Elder Neil L. Andersen of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles helps guide several children to participate in the cornerstone ceremony of the Lisbon Portugal Temple dedication on Sunday, Sept. 15, 2019.
Elder Neil L. Andersen of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles helps guide several children to participate in the cornerstone ceremony of the Lisbon Portugal Temple dedication on Sunday, Sept. 15, 2019. Credit: Scott Taylor

It’s fun to watch, the members respond not just to a prophet, but to those we sustain as prophets and apostles dedicate the temples and have the opportunity to do so in ways that are meaningful to the local members, to the local Latter-day Saints in their own tongue.

13:35

Sarah Jane Weaver: And it certainly shows a growth of the Church as it has spread across the globe. Certainly, there has to be a certain maturity of the Church in an area before it has enough members to sustain and support a temple. We’ve all seen the joy that comes to members as they get their temple.

The first temple dedication I recovered was in Edmonton, Alberta, and it was cold, it was very, very cold. And the day of the dedication, it warmed up to about zero. And the members kept saying “it’s temple weather.” They felt so blessed, and they associated it with the weather. But it really had nothing to do with that — it it had to do with this feeling and this warmth that came to them because they knew they had a temple in their city. And they knew it would transform the Church there and their own families and the community at large

14:26

R. Scott Taylor: And look and see how that warmth now is being spread worldwide. Temples are really a global thing. You talked about the 49 temples that President Nelson has announced in his three years so far, his three-year tenure as President of the Church. That includes six continents, that includes temples being announced for islands of the sea 10 different Island-type locations.

And in addition to the announcements, while the temples have been closed, the temple operations have been closed because the pandemic, temples continue to be built. He has directed the groundbreaking for 21 temples during the year 2020. Twenty-one temples — that’s the second-most groundbreakings in one year, only exceeded by the groundbreakings that happened in 1999 during President Gordon B Hinckley’s pushed to have 100 temples by the end of the 20th century.

15:26

Sarah Jane Weaver: Well, now let’s talk about specifically temples on the isles of the sea. These are temples announced for locations that a lot of members wouldn’t even know we have strong units at the Church.

R. Scott Taylor: When you talk about the islands of the sea and temples and growth, I think of the history of the Laie Hawaii Temple and the Hamilton New Zealand Temple that for decades and decades had to be the gathering place for Latter-day Saints throughout the South Pacific — throughout, well, even Asia until there were temples in Tokyo and in Seoul. And the people had to make great sacrifices to attend those temples that required long flights, long boat rides to go there and now we’ve got temples in so many different Island locations in the South Pacific — Tahiti, Samoa, Fiji, Tonga, we’ve announced temples for Vanuatu and Papa New Guinea.

The ironic thing is is that the Hamilton New Zealand Temple has been closed for a couple of years for renovations and so the members in New Zealand that used to welcome these people and to help assist them at the temple — those that were coming from far distances — are now having to go to Sydney, to Samoa, to Tonga, when possible for their own their own endowments, their own sealings.

Sarah Jane Weaver: I remember meeting a group of members in Tahiti who had been among the first members of that nation to go on the first temple trip, and they traveled to New Zealand. They arrived in New Zealand on Christmas Eve, of all times. And the folks that I talked to had been children, when they had arrived to the temple, and they spoke about looking out the window of the bus and seeing the New Zealand temple with all of the fog around it and it looked like it was floating. And then they turn to see that whole busload of members kneeling and thanking the Lord in gratitude for the opportunity to have finally reached a temple as Tahitian Latter-day Saints.

We heard similar stories in Tonga at the rededication there, in Fiji at the rededication there — of great sacrifice, where people leave their homes or their families to work and save money so they could take their whole family to the temple, and what those temples did for those island nations.

In Fiji, for example, you know, the temple was first dedicated in the year 2000. And it was dedicated in unique circumstances because just before the temple was to be dedicated, there was a coup in that nation, and martial law was enacted. And President Hinckley still went to Fiji to dedicate that temple. He flew in, drove to the temple with what a lot of people called just determined resolve. Elder Quentin L. Cook spoke in general conference about going in early and talking to some folks in the military in the community and trying to decide if it was safe to have a temple dedication in Fiji. And he said in general conference that he reported to President Hinckley that he thought that they could go in and dedicate the temple in a private session, but that they shouldn’t hold a cornerstone ceremony, which is the one public, outside-facing part of dedications. And he said that President Hinckley said “I’ll go and dedicate the temple. But I won’t do it without a cornerstone ceremony because I won’t dedicate a temple without acknowledging the Savior as the chief cornerstone of this work.” Now, the thing that happened in that nation is the temple was dedicated, the members there had a refuge from all the political instability that was occurring in their country.

And then the temple was to be rededicated several years later, and Elder Cook went back. He was excited. He said, “We’re going to take the asterisked off this temple, and it’s not going to be the only temple dedicated in a private session since Nauvoo anymore.” But the night before the scheduled dedication, the largest storm to ever hit Fiji hit and knocked out power to that nation and curfews were enforced and most of the members were not able to participate. But again, this dedicated temple served as a literal refuge from that storm for all of those members.

19:47

R. Scott Taylor: And see, that’s what the temples are becoming again in the lives of Latter-day Saints after the pandemic. As we start to reopen the temples for proxy work little by little and certainly not as fast as we had hoped, but in that careful, cautious way that the First Presidency has asked — as we’ve been able to do limited living sealings and limited living ordinances, just think when the temples start to reopen like we hope, they will continue to be a refuge for us from all the challenges and frustrations and limitations we’ve experienced from the pandemic.

One of the challenges I have, personally — as you know, every week I’m updating the numbers and the phases and of the temples as they reopen or advance and things like that — it’s easy to get caught up in the numbers aspect and the totals and things like that.

One thing that I was really impressed with, that touched me then and has in the weeks since was when the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve announced that the first temples would be moving to this Phase 3, to the proxy ordinance work for deceased individuals. They used it not just to announce a date and not just to announce a number of temples that would reopen, but they used it to emphasize and teach and remind the Latter-day Saints of the principles of temple worship and temple ordinances, to remind Latter-day Saints of the purpose. The announcement was accompanied by three videos that were done by Apostles, members of the Quorum of the Twelve — Elder David A. Bednar, Elder Dale G. Renlund and Elder Gary E. Stevenson, — all three are members of the Temple and Family History Executive Council. And they use those videos — particularly Elder Bednar — to teach those principles. And I remember his concluding remarks in a six-minute video talking about the invitation and the promises for Latter-day Saints to prepare to return to the temples.

Let me share that with you.

22:07

Elder David A. Bednar, Quorum of the Twelve Apostles: My dear brothers and sisters, our fundamental responsibility as members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, is to assist in the gathering of Israel by inviting all of God’s children on both sides of the veil, to come unto their Savior, receive the blessings of the holy temple, have enduring joy and qualify for eternal life. The essence of the Lord’s work is changing, turning and purifying hearts through gospel covenants and priesthood ordinances. As we become anxiously engaged in the sacred work, we are obeying the commandments to love and serve God and our neighbors. And such selfless service helps us truly to “hear Him” and come unto the Savior.

Please remember President Russell M. Nelson’s prophetic teaching in the October general conference of 2018: “I urge you to find a way to make an appointment regularly with the Lord to be in His holy house, then keep that appointment with exactness and joy. I promise you that the Lord will bring the miracles He knows you need, as you make sacrifices to serve and worship in His temples.”

A global pandemic has changed many aspects of our world, and as a result, for many months our ability to attend the temple and participate in the sacred work performed in the house of the Lord has been limited. Returning to the temples is something we have prayed for and looked forward to with great anticipation. We rejoice in the opportunity to again serve and worship in holy temples, even if our experience will be different because of constraining circumstances and additional sacrifices we are asked to make.

President Thomas S. Monson taught, “Some degree of sacrifice has ever been associated with temple building and with temple attendance. Why are so many willing to give so much in order to receive the blessings of the temple? Those who understand the eternal blessings which come from the temple know that no sacrifice is too great, no price too heavy, no struggle too difficult in order to receive those blessings. There are never too many miles to travel, too many obstacles to overcome or too much discomfort to endure. They understand that the saving ordinances received in the temple that permit us to someday return to our Heavenly Father in an eternal family relationship and to be endowed with blessings and power from on high are worth every sacrifice and every effort.”

Because of our desire to follow the Savior, we’re learning to do things in new and sometimes better ways. We are now preparing to enter Phase 3 of temple reopening. We are committed to reopen each temple in a careful and cautious way, to avoid the spread of disease and protect both patrons and temple workers. This phase will be a return to the performance of proxy ordinances for our deceased ancestors. — but with smaller numbers of both patrons and temple workers, and attendance will be by appointment only. An appointment will be limited to a specific ordinance because of restrictions on the number of people who safely can be accommodated in the various ordinance rooms of the temples.

I invite every youth and adult member of the Church to obtain and hold a current temple recommend, even if we live a great distance from a temple or cannot attend frequently because of present limitations. Our participation in temple worship is a sacred privilege, not an entitlement or simply part of our established routine. We do not come to the temple to hide from or escape the evils of the world. Rather, we come to the temple to receive the power of godliness through priesthood ordinances that enable us to confront and conquer the world of evil.

For a while, we may not be able to attend the temple as we did in the past, on a weekly or monthly basis. However, we will be blessed in remarkable ways, as we honor and cherish the covenant relationship we have with our Heavenly Father and His Beloved Son Jesus Christ. And as we apply in our homes, the principles we have learned, and the patterns we have observed in the Lord’s holy house.

We do not know how long adjustments to temple worship will be necessary. But no power or influence can stop this glorious work from progressing and achieving its eternal purposes. I promise that truth and righteousness always have prevailed and always will prevail in our individual lives, in our families, and in the Savior’s true and living and restored Church. I joyfully declare my witness of the living reality of the Lord Jesus Christ, and rejoice with you in the reopening of His holy house. In the sacred name of Jesus Christ, amen.

28:16

Sarah Jane Weaver: That was a beautiful reminder of us not taking temples for granted.

That hit close to home for me a few years ago, when I was in Manaus for the temple dedication, which is located in the heart of the Amazon rainforest. I met a little 10-year-old boy named Nefi. We were having a conversation; he was practicing his English. And, you know, Manaus is a place where you can’t access by traditional roads, people get in and out of Manaus, either by plane or by boat. And Nefi had had spent a good portion of his youth in that city. And he had grown up hearing stories of great sacrifice of members going down the Amazon River and spending seven days on buses and boats to get to the São Paulo temple. And now they had a temple in their city.

And so he said, “Well, isn’t it great that you have a temple in your basin?” He was talking about the Salt Lake Valley, and I said, “Well, we have multiple temples in in our basin.” And I started listing them and I said, “You know, there’s Salt Lake and there’s Draper and there’s Jordan River, and there’s Oquirrh Mountain and [Mount] Timpanogos and Bountiful and Ogden and Provo.” And he stopped me and he said, “Oh, sister, how do you sacrifice?”

You know, when we think about temples, and we think about sacrifice, and we think about moving forward, I think all of us are going come out of the temple closures that were brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic, a little more grateful for temples.

29:47

R. Scott Taylor: It won’t be as big of a sacrifice of time, of effort, of committing to go and participating. I know so many people are looking forward to not going back just for themselves, but to go back with family, to go back with friends and to share those associations again, inside the temple.

Sarah Jane Weaver: I loved your coverage of a temple that Elder Dale G. Renlund recently rededicated in the DR Congo — and a symbol there that actually illustrated what members were willing to sacrifice.

Kinshasa Democratic Republic of the Congo Temple
Kinshasa Democratic Republic of the Congo Temple Credit: Intellectual Reserve, Inc.

30:22

R. Scott Taylor: Yeah, that was the Kinshasa DR Congo Temple that I was hoping to go and cover in person. But as fate would have it, when I sent my passport in to get a visa, the passport was lost. I didn’t get a visa. And then the day I was supposed to fly — not that I was going to fly because I didn’t have a passport or a visa — my airline ticket got canceled as well. Three strikes, and I was out.

But I covered that remotely with the help of some Latter-day Saints there in Kinshasa and having visited with Elder Renlund before going. And I remember him excitedly talking about inside the temple on one of the walls, there is a painting called “Congo Falls,” it’s done by a Salt Lake artist. And for him, he said that painting reminded him and others of the act of devotion that was common among the early Christians in Congo.

Early converts to Christianity would take their fetishes — and fetishes are inanimate objects, they believe were magical and had spirits and that they would worship these fetishes — but they would take these fetishes and throw their fetishes into rivers or waterfalls as a token of their commitment. And he said, how fascinating it’s going to be once the temple is dedicated and open and operating — and it was dedicated and is operating — how wonderful would it be for temple patrons to walk by this representation of early Christians throwing their fetishes in as an act of commitment. And these temple patrons were in the temple, they’re performing covenants for themselves and for others as an act of their commitment.

32:05

Sarah Jane Weaver: Well, we have a tradition at the Church News podcast, which is our guests always get the last word, and we have them answer a specific question. And the question is, “What do you know now?”

So, Scott, what do you know now after writing about temple dedications, especially cataloguing and recording the numbers of temples in the year 2020, and being able to look forward at temples that are announced and under construction and dedicated and for which ground is broken?

32:38

R. Scott Taylor: As I alluded to earlier, it’s easy to get caught up in the minutiae of numbers, of openings. Two of the biggest temple highlights for me this year were the opportunities that I had with my wife to go to a couple of sealings.

One was in, well, it would be late May, of one of our return missionaries from Phoenix. Suddenly the temples were open and they could be sealed, her and her fiancé, but it was too soon that family members couldn’t come from out of state to join them because of the quick turnaround as well as the pandemic restrictions. And so because we were nearby, we were invited to join them to go be sealed in the Payson Utah Temple.

Similarly, in late December, we were invited by my wife’s niece and her husband to join them in the Billings Montana Temple as they were sealed to three children that they had adopted just months earlier.

And so the opportunities, the blessings, the experiences of going and witnessing those sealings, to stand outside a closed temple and have the temple doors be opened by temple workers, temple presidency members, to walk in and as you said, be one of the very few that are in the temple and to go in and witness the sealings, listen to the blessings, see what how the impact is taking place in the lives of these individuals was wonderful. And it made me hungry, it made me look forward to similar experiences as soon as possible, participating in all ordinances of the temple for deceased individuals.