APEX, North Carolina — The Tar Heel State is no stranger to historic moments.
In 1718, the fearsome pirate Blackbeard met a violent end battling British sailors off the North Carolina coast. Almost two centuries later, on Dec. 17, 1903, the Wright Brothers launched the world’s first self-propelled plane flight near the town of Kitty Hawk.
And on March 23, 1957, the University of North Carolina claimed its first of six NCAA men’s basketball championship — defeating Wilt Chamberlain’s Kansas Jayhawks in triple overtime. (Fans of nearby Duke and North Carolina State universities will correctly remind you that their own teams have also won multiple national hoops titles.)
But for many North Carolina Latter-day Saints, no date in state history is as meaningful as Dec. 18, 1999. On that Christmas-season Saturday, President Gordon B. Hinckley dedicated the state’s first and only temple, the Raleigh North Carolina Temple.
Joining President Hinckley that day was his friend and fellow apostle, then-Elder M. Russell Ballard.
Almost two decades later — and just five days after observing his 91st birthday — President Ballard, the acting president of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, returned to North Carolina on Sunday to rededicate the Raleigh North Carolina Temple.
“I’m grateful to be back,” he told the Church News. “It’s a wonderful part of the country and a tremendously important part of the Church. There are great Saints here in North Carolina.”
All the members of the Quorum of the Twelve, he added, “are honored that President Russell M. Nelson gives us some of these assignments to help lift some of the burden from his shoulders.”
President Ballard participated in the original dedication of the Raleigh temple during a period of historic, prolific temple building. That effort continues today. On Oct. 5, President Nelson announced plans to construct eight new temples in locales around the globe — Freetown, Sierra Leone; Orem, Utah; Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea; Bentonville, Arkansas; Bacolod, Philippines; McAllen, Texas; Cobán, Guatemala; and Taylorsville, Utah.
President Ballard was assisted in Sunday’s single rededication ceremony by Elder Kevin R. Duncan, a General Authority Seventy and the executive director of the Temple Department, and Elder James B. Martino, a General Authority Seventy and president of the North America Southeast Area. Their wives, Sister Nancy Duncan and Sister Jennie Martino, also participated.
Following the Sunday morning ceremony, the visiting Brethren shook hands with all who attended the rededication as they exited the temple.
For North Carolina members, having a temple operating inside the borders of their own state marked a miracle — an eternal “game changer” — that was realized after decades of prayer and faithful temple service.
Joel Hancock is a proud son of Harkers Island, a small strip of land known here for its rich Latter-day Saint history and devotion to missionary work. As a child, he remembers watching family members travel from his native island for “the long journey” from coastal North Carolina to Utah to receive the ordinances of the temple.
By the time Hancock and his wife, Susan, married, the journey was much shorter — an 800-mile round trip to the Washington D.C. Temple.
“But after the opening of the Raleigh temple in 1999, we have had the blessing of a temple that is less than 200 miles away,” he said. “Since then, we have enjoyed the convenience of being able to attend the temple on a routine basis.”
The Hancocks served in the temple for a year prior to its closure in January 2018 for renovation. Not having an operating temple close by “has reminded us of how much being able to attend the temple regularly means in our lives, and the lives of our family.”
While several North Carolina Latter-day Saints such as the Hancocks trace deep roots to the state’s Church history, others such as Holly Springs resident Johanna Backman are transplants. No matter — the Raleigh temple is a spiritual anchor for members of all backgrounds.
A convert from Germany, Backman relocated to North Carolina about a decade ago and worked in the Raleigh temple for several years. Returning to the temple during the recent open house “was such a spiritual experience for me,” she said.
Like Latter-day Saints anywhere, Backman has faced life’s trials. But Sunday’s rededication of the beloved Raleigh temple, she said, represents renewal, new hope and the promises of eternity.
Backman made many lifelong friends serving in the temple. “And now I’m anxious to get back with them.”
Temples are physical structures that age. Sometimes they need to be refurbished, refreshed and even closed for a period. But members of the Raleigh temple district have learned that being a “temple people” is never conditional upon one’s proximity to an operating temple.
“While the Raleigh temple was closed, members made significant sacrifices to attend temples elsewhere — sometimes requiring significant travel,” noted Durham North Carolina Stake President Christopher Kelsey. “Specifically, the youth regularly traveled to the Columbia South Carolina Temple to participate in baptisms for the dead.
“Rising before the sun and driving several hours to attend the temple was a great opportunity for our youth to demonstrate their commitment to the Lord.”
North Carolina’s legacy of belief
North Carolina’s first temple was dedicated only two decades ago, but the state’s Church history stretches back to the early days of the Restoration. Elder Jedediah M. Grant — the father of President Heber J. Grant — was the first known missionary to North Carolina.
On May 18, 1838, Elder Grant reported that he had preached for six months in Stokes, Surrey and Rockingham counties and baptized four people. He would go on to organize a conference of 200 Latter-day Saints in seven congregations.
Since those relatively humble beginnings, the Church in North Carolina has grown steadily. The state’s first stake was created on Aug. 27, 1961, in the eastern city of Kinston. A month later, a second stake was formed in Greensboro.
Today, almost 90,000 North Carolina Latter-day Saints belong to 17 stakes. The rededicated Raleigh temple serves members from 12 of those stakes in central and eastern North Carolina.
The edifice was closed in early 2018 for extensive exterior and interior renovations. Workers enclosed the portico, and the tower’s steeple now stands 10 feet taller.
The approximately 40,000 people who visited the newly remodeled temple during the recent temple open house encountered interior features that are distinctly North Carolinian. The state flower — a dogwood tree blossom — is incorporated in new blue, gold and cream art glass found in the baptistry and other rooms. Original artwork captures the state’s verdant natural beauty.
“The open house was a chance of a lifetime,” said Elder Matthew S. Harding, an Area Seventy and North Carolina resident. “Our members invited the community to come and see the temple. That simple ‘Come and see’ was our theme. Our community was able to see the temple and learn more about our faith and sacred ordinances.”
North Carolina is part of the American South’s so-called “Bible Belt.” Many residents here hold deep religious convictions. Historically, not all have embraced the Latter-day Saints. The recent open house provided unique opportunities to teach others about Jesus Christ’s central role in the Church and in His temples and help clear up misunderstandings.
“The people who came to the open house were uplifted and saw our love of the Savior,” said Elder Harding.
Rededicating lives to the Savior
For Latter-day Saints across North Carolina and beyond, Sunday’s rededication was a challenge to rededicate their own lives to the Savior.
“Now that the temple is opening back up, it’s time to make sure our lives in order,” said Elder Harding. “It’s time to make sure our temple recommends are up to date and that we are ready to enter, learn and serve. The beautiful Raleigh temple is the symbol of our faith and our love for the Savior and His atoning sacrifice for each one of us.”
President Ballard said Sunday that the purpose of dedicating or rededicating a temple is “to increase the spiritual preparation of our people so that they can live in a world which seems it’s becoming more secular and, in some cases, where people are disregarding even the existence of God.”
As the veteran Church leader referenced a few days ago in his general conference talk, each person must wage a battle with himself or herself in deciding right and wrong.
“One of the best ways our spirits can be reinforced and strengthened is to be here at the temple,” he said. “The Spirit of the Lord is here. The temple feeds the inner soul. It makes us stronger. It teaches us of our true identity: sons and daughters of God coming into His holy house and doing sacred work.”
The nonagenarian smiled when asked about a vigorous schedule that still takes him to all corners of the world.
“I can’t complain because President Nelson’s 95 — he’s four years older than I am,” he said. “I feel honored that the Lord has allowed me to stay and continue the work I’m engaged in. I’m thankful that I have enough energy and health so that I can continue to do my part.
“I hope I can hang around long enough to get it all done.”