Rites And Wrongs
BY: Mark Eddington
On Sunday evenings, northern Utah County teens descend in droves on the Mount Timpanogos Temple, which is closed on Sundays, to sing hymns with friends and peers on the lush grounds. And if singing were all they did there, it probably would be fine with church leaders.
But the high jinks and lowbrow behavior of a sizeable minority has struck a sour note with the members of the temple presidency, who have informed Mormon bishops and stake presidents in the area that the informal Sunday night socials are getting out of hand.
Indeed, the temple at 792 N. 900 East in American Fork has become quite a hangout for high-school age youths, prospective church missionaries and betrothed couples. The area around the temple was rollicking several Sundays ago with bumper-to-bumper traffic. Cars full of teens leaning out windows and exchanging banter with pedestrians did laps around the place of worship.
On the temple grounds, a few couples necked and one couple sprawled on a blanket, groping each other. On the lawn outside the south fence, a woman walking a large dog paused to allow her pet to defecate. An impromptu game of tag erupted nearby as a handful of boisterous teens chased each other through the parking lot, careening off parked cars and knocking over a boy on his bicycle.
A man cruising by periodically in a temple security truck appeared to have little deterrent effect. Neither did the hymns sung by several more respectful groups on the west lawn.
Temple-grounds decorum is better than that on most Sundays, however. The gathering usually begins around dusk. As the sun dips below the the west Oquirrh Mountains, a steady stream of teens can be seen meandering from the temple parking lot to the west lawn to socialize, cuddle or organize into small circles for some a cappella fun.
"We call them the Cumorah Hill Singers," quips Kira Cluff, a California visitor commenting on the circle at the Aug. 6 temple singfest.
Actually, none of the groups has a moniker. Spontaneity, not organization, characterizes the song circles. But they all operate pretty much the same way. Someone usually opens with prayer, after which group members sing hymns out of the green Mormon hymnal.
The Spirit of God Like a Fire is Burning," "Lead Kindly Light," and "I Need Thee Every Hour" are popular staples for temple singers. Sometimes, they take a breather to share in the excitement of group members who have received mission calls. After hearty handshakes and group hugs, tradition calls for members to launch into a spirited rendition of "Called to Serve." Singers cap off the evening with prayer.
"It's a celestial moment," American Fork resident Heidi Kirschbaum, 19, says of the temple songsters. "I think a lot of young people come here to the temple because they know Daddy [Heavenly Father] is watching."
Certainly there are watchers about. Not all of them heavenly, though. And some of them are not thrilled about what they are seeing on Sundays when the temple grounds closely resemble the old Frankie Avalon/Annette Funicello movie "Beach Blanket Bingo."
Couples lying about the grounds necking are a common sight. So are twosomes retreating to their cars or pickup trucks to pitch their woo. Others eschew romance for tomfoolery: giving each other piggyback rides, vaulting temple fences or pestering those there for quiet walks or reflection.
While teens engaging in breaches of temple decorum are in the minority, there are enough to warrant concern from the temple presidency. LDS Church spokesman Dale Bills acknowledged the misbehavior at some singfests has not gone unnoticed.
"There has been some contact with local priesthood leaders to encourage appropriate behavior," Bills said.
Many youths at the temple on Sunday admit they have been advised by their church leaders to stay home. Pleasant Grove teen Nanette Labadie said her stake president recently told the youths to stay way because too many people were gathering at the temple for purely social reasons.
"But he didn't tell us we couldn't come," she said.
Like Labadie, many others at the temple Sunday find the illuminated and immaculate grounds and chance to sing and mingle with friends hard to resist. Pleasant Grove teen Erin Ballard said she comes to the temple nearly every night. Kara Cruz, also of Pleasant Grove, likes visiting during daylight hours to watch newly married couples "because they look really cute and so happy."
"I can't wait until it's my turn," she said.
Temples are considered by members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to be sacred places where the faithful can congregate to practice the faith's most sacred rites. But temple singing and the notion of the edifice as a teen hangout apparently are a northern Utah County phenomenon. No one is sure when the practice originated or why teens prefer the Mount Timpanogos Temple.
Angus Belliston, second counselor in the Provo Temple presidency, said small groups from the nearby Missionary Training Center might meet outside that temple's gates to sing hymns on occasion. But he does not think it is a regular practice or attracts anywhere near the number of singers as Timpanogos. He said most visitors at the Provo Temple are well-behaved, though some youths like to roll down the sloping grounds.
One possible explanation for the phenomenon--at least the temple- singing aspect of it--is that it is an outgrowth of tunnel singing at Brigham Young University. On Sunday evenings during the fall and winter, BYU students gather in a tunnel where two walkways converge near the Marriott Center to sing hymns. Mark Killingbeck, a former resident assistant at a student dorm on campus, is credited with starting tunnel singing in 1992. It has been a campus tradition ever since.
"I don't think they have a leader or they are sponsored by anyone," BYU spokeswoman Carri Jenkins said. "They just get together and sing."
Church policy for temple etiquette is simple. Bills said visitors are expected to act respectably, "in keeping with the dignity of these sacred buildings." But church policy does not address temple singing. Most at church headquarters are unfamiliar with the practice, although the happenings at the Timpanogos Temple did rate a brief mention in the April 1999 edition of The New Era, the official church magazine for youth.
"When I first read through the Book of Mormon, I fasted and prayed to know if it was true," Mormon seminary student John Fisher is quoted as saying in the article. "I was singing at the Mount Timpanogos Temple. During 'I Need Thee Every Hour,' I looked up at the temple, and I got my answer right there. The temple just seemed to be glowing about three times brighter. I just knew."