At the time President David O. McKay announced plans in 1968 to build the Washington D.C. Temple, local Church members generally were asked to donate one-third of the cost of new Church buildings in their areas. With a projected cost of $15 million, members within the new temple district — which included all U.S. states east of the Mississippi River, parts of eastern Canada and most of South America — were asked to contribute $5 million to help pay for its construction.
One of the 238,000 members living within that large geographic area was a 29-year-old Yale University graduate student by the name of Jeff Holland. Those “were lean, powerful years,” he recollected. He and his wife, Patricia, had two small children. She was Primary president and then Relief Society president while he served in a stake presidency and taught institute in two locations. He was also trying to complete four years of study for a second master’s degree and a doctorate in only three years. “That task was like crossing the Red Sea for us,” said Elder Holland, today a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, in an Ensign magazine article in the 1980s.
The Hollands received their temple-construction assessment, which amounted to “six or seven months of [our] expenses,” he recounted recently to the Church News. It was a sacrifice that changed their hearts and became a pivotal turning point in their lives.
Because of his spiritual priorities, he turned down attractive offers from Yale and other colleges that would have launched him into a promising career in national academic circles. Instead, he applied to become an institute director in Salt Lake City, thus beginning a career in Church education.
Elder Holland was the first of current Apostles who, over the last half-century, has experienced personal connections with the Washington D.C. Temple, which will be rededicated on Sunday, Aug. 14.
Two decades before the temple was built, Dr. Russell M. Nelson arrived in Washington, D.C., as the Korean War broke out to serve a two-year term of duty at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center. The Washington Stake president, restaurateur J. Willard Marriott, was impressed with the young lieutenant and called him to serve in the Washington Ward’s bishopric.
Now President of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, President Nelson will rededicate the renovated Washington D.C. Temple in three sessions on Aug. 14.
“There I was, 27 years old, a counselor in the bishopric, really a nobody, and he went out of his way to befriend me and teach me,” President Nelson said. In a letter to President Marriott’s son Bill, President Nelson later concluded: “[Your father] was the one who gave us the opportunity, along with the encouragement and example, to seek first the kingdom of God knowing that all else would be appropriately taken care of.”
Then-Lt. Nelson could not have known that he would attend the dedication of the Washington Temple two decades later, in 1974, as the personal doctor to Elder Hugh B. Brown of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles.
Elder Brown who, as a counselor in the First Presidency with President McKay beginning in 1961, counseled with the Prophet and Quorum of the Twelve for more than a decade to build the first modern-day American temple east of the Mississippi River.
But when it came time for the dedication — to which President Spencer W. Kimball had invited all the general authorities and their wives — the Prophet felt that the journey was too risky for the ailing Apostle. However, when Elder Brown said he would make the trip with Dr. Nelson, President Kimball relented. This was the same doctor who had saved President Kimball’s life with open-heart surgery only two years before.
The morning of the first dedicatory service, Dr. Nelson visited Elder Brown’s hotel room to assist him in getting ready. Although Dr. Nelson missed the first two of the 10 sessions to attend to a feverish Elder Gordon B. Hinckley, he returned to the temple in time for the third session, when Elder Brown spoke. The association with Elder Brown during that Washington D.C. Temple dedicatory week was one of the most important spiritual experiences of his life, President Nelson later said in an interview.
Another future Apostle who was drawn to the Washington Temple at that time was Salt Lake businessman M. Russell Ballard. Among the four architects President Brown selected to design the temple was President Ballard’s uncle, Harold Beecher. In a 2021 interview, President Ballard, now Acting President of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, called his uncle “a very accomplished architect,” who would often share his feelings on each of his projects with his young nephew. But there was none closer to Uncle Hal’s heart than the Washington Temple project — thus beginning President Ballard’s own connection with that particular temple.
Other than President Nelson, the only other living Apostle to have attended the first dedication is Elder D. Todd Christofferson. As a young law school graduate, he arrived in Washington in 1972 to clerk for federal Judge John J. Sirica. When he had been hired the previous fall, the Watergate break-in had not occurred yet. ”Neither of us obviously anticipated that was going to be the subject matter of my time with him,” Elder Christofferson recalled. Sirica became famous presiding over the trials that stemmed from that burglary, and which ultimately led to President Richard M. Nixon’s resignation in 1974.
The young law clerk being swept into the currents of U.S. political history was serving as a ward mission leader in suburban Washington, where his focus was to maximize the powerful proselyting opportunities provided by the Washington Temple open house. He welcomed full-time missionaries from other regions to live in his home during the open house period. This work for the Lord grounded Elder Christofferson even as the nation was being torn apart by the constitutional crisis Watergate presented.
Two years after the temple was dedicated, Elder Christofferson was called to serve as bishop, when the temple was an even more powerful and personal steadying influence for him. ”The temple was very important for me to be in time and again,” he recounted in an interview earlier this year. ”I needed that renewal and refreshing and peace in the temple when I really felt the weight of the world on my shoulders as a bishop. So the Washington D.C. Temple was, among other things, my sacred place of refuge.”
The same was true for Dr. Dale G. Renlund, who moved his family to Baltimore, Maryland, in 1980 for a medical residency at the prestigious Johns Hopkins School of Medicine. Three years into that demanding career, while his wife, Ruth, was undergoing cancer treatments, Elder Renlund, now a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, was called to be bishop of the inner-city Baltimore Ward. He, too, found personal solace and uplift in the Washington Temple, particularly during his three years as a young bishop.
At about the same time, in 1985, 32-year-old Gerrit W. Gong moved to Washington to serve as special assistant to the undersecretary of state. Except for two years in Beijing as assistant to the U.S. ambassador to China, Elder Gong, now a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, and his family stayed in the capital until 2002, as he took a series of government and private positions. The Washington D.C. Temple was their temple, but never more so than when he served as bishop of the McLean (Virginia) 1st Ward from 1993 to 1998.
In 1997, the temple was open around the clock from Thursday mornings to Saturday nights. The only way the work could continue for that many hours a day was to call stake presidency and ward bishopric members to serve as restricted ordinance workers, which meant they were on call to conduct sessions as needed. In spite of his demanding calling, career and personal life, Bishop Gong faithfully served in the temple as an ordinance worker, sometimes in the wee hours of the morning.
Elder Dallin H. Oaks, now first counselor in the First Presidency, was asked to dedicate the new Christus statue in the temple visitors’ center in 1988.
Not incidentally, as relatively new Apostles, Elder Nelson and Elder Oaks were charged with opening the nations of the world to missionary work — and both came to realize that the Washington D.C. Temple and Visitors’ Center could be a vital tool in that work.
In fact, as one of President Nelson’s biographers Spencer J. Condie noted: “Few times since the restoration of the Church in 1830 have the doors of so many nations been opened to the preaching of the gospel within such a short period of time as was the case between 1985 and 1991 (during which the Berlin Wall fell).” It was a time when Elder Nelson made more than 30 trips to Europe to open those doors, but usually by first developing a relationship with each country’s ambassadors in Washington before meeting their national leaders in Eastern Europe.
The ambassadors all knew and were impressed by the beautiful temple building along the Capital Beltway, the highway that circles Washington, and accepted invitations for get-acquainted luncheons at the visitors’ center. Then came the inspiration to add ambassadors to the annual Festival of Lights, by inviting one each year to co-host the event and turn the lights on the first night. In this way, the senior Church leaders were able to connect with many of the world’s representatives while enjoying the benevolent Christmas lights and the inspiring influence of the temple.
The first Apostle to do this was Elder Nelson in 1989. Two years later, Elder Ballard co-hosted the festival with the ambassador of Spain. The next year, Elder Oaks turned on the beautiful lights with the ambassador of Cameroon. Elder Oaks also joined the Jordanian ambassador, a Muslim, in 2000; Elder Neil L. Andersen, when he was a member of the Presidency of the Seventy, co-hosted with the ambassador of India (2008); Elder Nelson co-hosted again with the ambassador of Ukraine (2012); Elder Christofferson joined with the Swiss ambassador (2013); Elder Gary E. Stevenson co-hosted with the ambassador of Japan (2016); Elder David A. Bednar co-hosted with the ambassador of the Republic of South Africa (2017); Elder Holland co-hosted with the ambassador of Paraguay (2018); and, before the COVID-19 pandemic outbreak, Elder Ronald A. Rasband joined with the Muslim ambassador of Oman (2019).
When it came time for the Washington D.C. Temple open house this year, six Apostles participated in what proved to be a powerful missionary and public relations opportunity for the Church — including a special day with private tours for ambassadors.
First were Elder Bednar and Elder Christofferson, who gave an exclusive tour for a CBS “Sunday Morning News” correspondent, which aired on Easter Sunday. The next day, Elder Bednar and Elder Gong held press conferences and interviews and then gave private tours to dignitaries throughout the week. During one of those interviews, Elder Bednar mentioned that the Washington Temple had also been “his” temple when he was young and completing graduate work at Purdue University in Indiana.
Elder Quentin L. Cook of the Quorum of the Twelve, a former lawyer, participated during the invited-guest week by giving tours for U.S. Supreme Court justices and other federal judges and their staffs. In early May, a virtual tour of the temple was released featuring Elder Stevenson and Elder Renlund.
The last open-house-related event involving an Apostle was an historic one. Elder Bednar was invited to speak at the National Press Club’s Headliners Luncheon, which had not featured a Latter-day Saint leader since President Gordon B. Hinckley in 2000.
While acknowledging the majestic beauty of the temple as it rises high above the trees on a visually commanding hill, the Apostle explained: “Temples are much more than beautiful buildings. The commitments we make in our temple worship help us to see beyond our own self-interest, self‑centeredness and selfishness. Our hearts are changed and turn outward as we learn about God’s plan for our eternal destiny and happiness. Our love for God grows as we learn about the redeeming role of His Son, Jesus Christ, and our desire to love and serve our brothers and sisters increases.”
— Dale Van Atta, a youth Sunday School teacher in the Ashburn (Virginia) Ward, is the author of a recently-published book, The Washington D.C. Temple: Divine by Design.