Arriving at the train station of the Bern suburb of Zollikofen, the visitor first sees everyday architecture. We walk in the direction of Bern, and after about 200 m turn into Kirchlindachstrasse. Soon, above the silhouette of a residential quarter, rises a slim, tiered white tower, on top of which gleams something golden. Reaching Allmendstrasse and Tempelstrasse, a bright, modern church building is finally revealed, surrounded by a meticulously manicured park with stately trees and ornate flower beds. It now becomes clear that the golden figure on top of the tower represents an angel. The bright temple stands out against the dark green of the «Buchsiwald» (which, like the site of the temple, belongs to the municipality of Münchenbuchsee), but it nonetheless fits nicely into the park and landscape.
«The decision to build a temple in Switzerland was made on 17th April 1952 by the first presidency and the «Quorum of the Twelve Apostles» in Salt Lake City, [Utah]», says Peter Gysler. Two months later the then president of the Church, David O. McKay, travelled to Switzerland to visit building sites. The church’s architect in Salt Lake City, Edwin O. Anderson was charged with the planning. After a plot of land was bought in November 1952 in the borough of Münchenbuchsee, the already prepared plans were adjusted to conform to Swiss planning laws.
When the project was announced, opposition arose, especially, according to Gysler, from the Evangelical Reformed Church: «None of the neighbours objected. None of those who raised objections were connected to the area. The objections were therefore dismissed. The question was also raised as to whether the Church should be allowed to acquire land at all. Within Swiss regulations, however, this was quite possible.»
Gysler has an explanation for these concerns. «At the time the Church had only 1.2 million members. Many regarded the Church as a ‘strange sect’. The Regional Church naturally had fears, through not knowing who they were dealing with. Since then, they have seen that we are normal people, and their fears are long gone.» Some technical issues had to be addressed before the final building permit was given. For example, a road that ran through the grounds had to be closed. The building permit was issued in 1953, and on 2nd July of the same year, David O. McKay dug the first spade into the ground. Two years later, in August 1955, the temple was finished. The public were invited to visit the inside of the building on «open days». Since then this has only once been possible for non-members: in October 1992 after a major renovation. The actual inauguration ceremony took place on 11-15th September 1955, once again in the presence of the President of the Church, and also five «Apostles». For members of the LDS, a temple is the «House of the Lord», and «the most sacred place on earth». Here one should experience «redemptive acts».
Louis Weidmann is association president of the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter Day Saints and as such is the external representative for secular matters. Within the Church, however, he is «stake president» of the Bern «stake». (The Church is organised in «stakes», five of which are in Switzerland.) In this role Weidmann looks after the community leaders («bishops») in the area. Professionally, he runs a company dealing in medical engineering products.
Peter Gysler is public relations manager for the Church. At 27 years old he was «bishop» of the Winterthur ward, and after that «stake president» of the Zurich «stake». Today he holds the position of «patriarch». These can bless members of the congregation.
The suspicions from the period of construction seem to have subsided. As the association president explains, a priest from the area will sometimes come with a group of parishioners to visit the park or community centre (which, in contrast to the temple, may be entered). «People are open to each other, talk to each other, and I think it is because of this that we have a very good relationship with our residential, political and religious neighbours.» He reports that a few years ago German planning officials from Frankfurt came to visit Zollikofen because of a temple project in their area, to see if there were problems in the community. This visit convinced them that there were no problems, and that everybody in the community was happy.
Gysler regrets that many still associate the LDS Church with polygamy, even though this was officially abolished in 1890. However he has also had positive experiences in the local area. He reports that a baker in Zollikofen told him: «Zollikofen even has a landmark now. Zollikofen has a Mormon temple.» It doesn’t seem to matter that the temple which identifies itself with Zollikofen in fact is in the neighbouring borough of Münchenbuchsee.
The Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter Day Saints was founded in 1830 by Joseph Smith in Fayette (New York). The term «Mormon» (as used by those outside the Church) comes from «The Book of Mormon», described as «Another Testament of Jesus Christ», which has the status of Holy Scripture for the community. According to Church belief, the Angel Moroni, in a series of visions, granted Joseph Smith access to the scriptures which were written on «golden plates» in «reformed Egyptian». The Book of Mormon is an English translation of these plates. As well as this and the Bible, the Church also uses a book of «Doctrines and Covenants», a collection of «recent revelations» which came through Joseph Smith. All three are considered equally as «Holy Scripture».
Polygamy, which had been introduced by Joseph Smith in 1843, was abolished by the then President Wilford Woodruff in 1890. According to the Church’s public relations department in Europe, a member who practices plural marriage is excommunicated. Splinter groups from the Church such as the «Apostolic United Brethren» (Allred group) and the «Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter Day Saints» (the official name) led by Warren Jeffs, however, repeatedly make headlines about practicing polygamy (specifically polygyny). The stereotype of the polygamous Mormon is therefore still widespread.
The teaching of the Church assumes that Jesus Christ created the earth «under the direction of the Heavenly Father», and that after the «restoration of the Ten Tribes» and the «establishment of Zion» (the «New Jerusalem») on the American continent he will personally reign upon the earth. They also believe in the «pre-existence» of man as «spirit children of God», who have received a body on earth. In earthly life, one can observe the commandments of God in order to prepare to return to the Heavenly Father as glorified beings after death.
Temple rituals and teachings are of central importance to this development. The pinnacle of the sacred rituals is the «sacrament of marriage», also known as a «seal», which creates an «everlasting covenant» of the entire family which «reaches beyond death.» Marriages are therefore also performed on behalf of ancestors who were «only» married in the traditional way. Similarly, «vicarious baptisms» can also be performed on behalf of the deceased, to bring them in to the LDS community. For this reason, genealogy has an important place in the community.
The priesthood, and therefore leadership roles with the LDS Church, is exclusively open to men. At the top of the hierarchy are the «General Authorities» consisting of the «President and Prophet» Thomas S. Monson (since February 2008), his two counsellors and the «Quorum of the Twelve Apostles.» A system of presidents, counsellors and associated committees is repeated on the lower hierarchical levels, which are responsible for specific geographical areas. The family is seen as the «basic unit» of the Church.
Mission is integral to the Church. Currently, there are an estimated 52,000 travelling missionaries. Every male Mormon should spend at least two years in active missionary activity. Worldwide over 14 million members belong to the LDS Church according to their statistics, 8,000 of them living in Switzerland.
In 2005, 50 years after its inauguration, the temple in Münchenbuchsee underwent a small but significant change: on 7th September a 4 m high statue of the Angel Moroni was set on the spire. The mediator of Mormon revelation can thus be seen from afar.
There is also a centre for genealogy at the temple in Münchenbuchsee, whose work and microfilm archive is freely available to outsiders. The Genealogical Society of Utah, for which around 100 research teams are underway, was started 40 years ago, and now includes the data of an estimated two thousand million people. An archive was built for the conservation of this data in the Rocky Mountains, which is secure against even an atom bomb. The society describes their collection as the largest genealogical archive in the world.