At new Mormon temple, 'the finest materials, the finest craftsmanship, to stand forever'

Behind the baptistery in the Philadelphia temple is a mural of Mormonism's first prophet, Joseph Smith, being baptized in the Susquehanna River.

A large and commanding portrait of Jesus, his face aglow, his arms extended in a welcoming embrace, will greet the faithful who enter the new Mormon Temple, opening its doors in Center City next month.

The granite-clad, Federalist-style building near Logan Square will serve as the site of sacramental rituals, or "ordinances," for the region's 41,000 Mormons.

"We believe our temples to be the house of the Lord," Elder Larry Y. Wilson, executive director of temple development for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, said at the start of a media tour Monday.

"So they are built of the finest materials, with the finest craftsmanship, to stand forever," he said.

Called the Philadelphia Pennsylvania Temple, it will be open to the public for tours between Aug. 10 and Sept. 9, after which it can be entered only by Mormons in good standing with the church. A formal dedication ceremony is scheduled for Sept. 18.

In planning since 2008, the temple will serve members in Central and Southern New Jersey, Eastern Pennsylvania, all of Delaware, and northern Maryland. Until now, they have had to travel to temples in Washington or Manhattan to be married in the church or take part in special baptisms.

Mormons gather for worship on Sundays in their neighborhood churches, where children are traditionally baptized by full immersion at age 8.

While identical in function to the world's 151 other Mormon temples - and topped, as usual, by a gilded Angel Moroni - the new building at 17th and Vine Streets is visually unique, said Wilson.

To the right of the painting of Jesus at the entrance - it's a copy, found in many other Mormon temples - is a framed image that visitors won't see at the others: an original oil painting of the signing of the Constitution, with Ben Franklin crouched in the foreground, pen in hand.

"This temple is different in many ways from our other temples," said Wilson. "We believe the hand of God was very much manifest in the events of 1776," in part because the religious freedom that sprung from the American Revolution has allowed their sometimes controversial faith to prosper.

And because the faith's first prophet, Joseph Smith, is said to have translated large parts of the Book of Mormon in Susquehanna County, starting in the 1820s, and was baptized there, the new building visually references both colonial Philadelphia and the state's rural areas.

The large brass or crystal chandeliers and much of the Chippendale and Hepplewhite reproduction furniture is modeled on items found in Independence Hall and Christ Church, and images of mountain laurel blossoms, the Pennsylvania state flower, appear in some carpets and decorative moulding.

In the baptistery - where Mormons in good standing may baptize their non-Mormon ancestors into the faith - the large baptismal font resting atop 12 full-size carved oxen is surrounded by a sweeping mural of Smith being baptized in the Susquehanna.

"I don't know of any other temple that depicts Joseph Smith's baptism," said Wilson.

The temple's lower floors contain changing rooms for those engaging in the special baptisms, and instruction rooms where members may learn and deepen their commitment to their faith.

The grandest room of all, on the third floor, is the "celestial room." Flooded with natural light from a giant paneled window and the lantern of its high domed ceiling, it also features an enormous crystal chandelier under which visitors may sit in chairs or on sofas to meditate.

Calling it "a place of obvious beauty," Wilson described it as the "culminating point" of the temple, where the devout are invited to sense that "they have been admitted to the presence of God."

But the fourth and topmost floor contains what may be this building's - and Mormonism's - most potent expression of belief.

Here, in the "sealing rooms" where bride and groom exchange vows (the church does not conduct same-sex rites), they rise from the low altar to see themselves reflected and re-reflected unto infinity in mirrors set on opposite walls.

It is a conscious metaphor for the eternity of togetherness that the rapidly growing faith offers its 15 million members, who are taught they not only lived with God before they were born but may ultimately become the god of their own divine realm.

Adopted children, and those born before their parents joined the faith, also "seal" with them in this ordinance.

"In the celestial room, you go into God's presence," explained Wilson. "Here you are sealed to a spouse and parents for eternity."

The church expects 150,000 visitors at the temple in the month ahead.

doreilly@phillynews.com

856-779-3841