KILLINGTON, Vt. An insider who helped broker the challenges that arose over construction of the Boston LDS Temple in the mid-1990s told a group of history buffs Friday that the project's highly educated opponents let ignorance about the LDS Church rule over reason.
But Grant Bennett believes that ultimately, the high-profile controversy has served the church well, simply because it forced LDS officials in both Massachusetts and Salt Lake City to explain the specifics of their faith in what ultimately became a widespread public education campaign.
He detailed those efforts for a standing-room-only crowd during the opening day of the 40th annual meeting of the Mormon History Association.
Bennett, who was serving as a bishop for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Belmont, Mass., in 1995 when President Gordon B. Hinckley announced a temple would be built there, said he believes there have been long-term benefits to the church.
A decade after the controversy began, the state has an LDS governor in Mitt Romney; two top administrators at Harvard are LDS; and former Brigham Young University basketball star Danny Ainge is leading the Boston Celtics.
"We take government, education and sports very seriously," he said, winking at the implication that his fellow residents are now more conversant about and comfortable with the LDS Church and its members.
Bennett said through the years of legal wrangling that preceded the embattled building's completion, there were definite lessons to be learned.
Foremost, he said, is that Latter-day Saints, who usually are in the minority outside Utah, are often "slow to reveal who we are and what we really believe." Failing to do so fosters ignorance about the faith, which "becomes a fertile breeding ground for rumors, and in a small number of cases, outright lies."
Belmont is home to many of the nation's leading intellectuals "more Nobel laureates than anywhere else in the nation" who make up the faculty at Harvard, Massachusetts Institute of Technology and dozens of other universities in the Boston area. In fact, an urban planning professor at Harvard became a chief opponent of the project after buying a home in the area, even though he understood there were plans to build it "in his back yard," Bennett said.
Rumors and fears over almost every logistical aspect of the temple spread like wildfire throughout the community, he said. Residents feared property values would plummet, traffic would become unbearable and the temple spire would lord over their landscape.
"We found that credibility and integrity are only built one relationship after another over the course of time." Bennett said that when he told officials in Salt Lake City that they would have to be painfully open about every aspect of the project if it were to succeed, there was some initial concern, but ultimately the church "answered every question" in painstaking detail.
Some feared Latter-day Saints would flock to the area in such great numbers they would ultimately take over the town and throw Shakespeare out of the schools, replacing his classics "with the Book of Mormon as required reading."
Despite the near hysteria exhibited by some, President Hinckley's decision to move forward with construction of the temple as it was designed, including the planned spire, was "absolutely critical" to the church's ultimate success in court, which allowed the spire to be built.
A lower court judge had ruled the spire was not "necessary" to the function of the building. The decision was ultimately overturned by the state Supreme Court. The U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear a federal appeal by opponents.
As the church continued to respond with detailed information on every logistical aspect of the project, former opponents, including some town officials, fire and police officials and contracted professionals, became supportive.
Heavy media coverage, including editorial cartoons poking fun at the irony of opponents' worries, got people talking. One such cartoon showed a NASA space shuttle impaled on the temple spire with the caption, "Houston, we have a problem." Another showed a headless Angel Moroni, cut down to size in order to accommodate residents' ire over the height of the spire.
Bennett said he hopes the lessons learned will have some bearing on how public relations on such projects are handled in the future, and on how Latter-day Saints present their beliefs.
In other sessions, presenters examined topics as diverse as church founder Joseph Smith's doctrinal developments over time, and 19th century Mormon encounters with the paranormal. The conference has drawn nearly 600 participants to the mountains near Smith's birthplace in Sharon, Vt., as the LDS Church celebrates his 200th birthday.
The MHA also presented its annual awards on Friday night, honoring historian Dan Vogel with its "best biography" award for his 744-page "Joseph Smith: The Making of a Prophet," published by Signature Books.
According to a press release, the award "raised eyebrows among some of the conservative MHA members due to Vogel's interpretation of Joseph Smith as more human than normally portrayed, someone who drew partly from his own personal experiences in crafting the Book of Mormon."
LDS Church leaders have always maintained Smith translated the book from an ancient record delivered to him by an angel.
Other award recipients included Kathleen Flake, a professor of American religious history at Vanderbilt University's divinity school, for her work, "The Politics of American Religious Identity: The Seating of Senator Reed Smoot, Mormon Apostle." Best documentary went to John Sillito, curator of Special Collections at Weber State University, for his book, "History's Apprentice: The Diaries of B.H. Roberts."Best first book recognition went to Val D. Rust, professor of social sciences at the University of California-Los Angeles for his work, "Radical Origins: Early Mormon Converts and Their Colonial Ancestors."