BERN, Switzerland — In 1906, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints had four operating temples, all located in Utah.
In August of that year, President Joseph F. Smith attended a mission conference in Bern, Switzerland, and told the Saints the time would come when “temples of God will be erected in the divers countries of the earth, for the gospel must be spread over all the world, until the knowledge of God covers the earth as the waters the great depths," according to the book "The First 100 Temples" by Chad Hawkins.
Less than 50 years later, President David O. McKay cited President Smith’s prophecy when he dedicated a new temple in that same city.
The Bern Switzerland Temple, located in a northern suburb of Zollikofen, was dedicated Sept. 11-15, 1955, becoming the church’s ninth temple and its first on the European continent. This month marks the 60th anniversary of its dedication.
Like each of the LDS Church’s temples, the Swiss temple has a unique story and history. In celebration of its 60-year milestone, here are five interesting facts about the Bern Switzerland Temple.
1. Ideal location
Switzerland was an ideal place for the church’s first international temple because of its geographic location and diversity of languages, according to "The First 100 Temples."
Because Switzerland is connected to most European countries by rail, it was convenient for Saints in neighboring countries to travel there, Hawkins wrote. Most Swiss natives, including temple workers, speak multiple languages, including Swiss-German, French, Italian or Romansh, making it possible for members from all parts of Europe to participate in temple ordinances.
“Because of this representation of people of so many languages and ethic backgrounds at the temple, Bern Temple President Percy K. Fetzer referred to the sacred edifice as the United Nations of Europe,” Hawkins wrote.
Switzerland was an ideal location for another important reason: religious freedom.
Switzerland’s 1848 constitution guaranteed religious freedom and the nation’s neutrality during World Wars I and II, Hawkins wrote.
In the dedicatory prayer, President McKay expressed gratitude “for the freedom-loving government of Switzerland, which through the centuries has held inviolate man’s free agency and his inalienable right to worship ... without dictation from any man or group of men whomsoever.”
When President Gordon B. Hinckley spoke at the temple’s rededication in October 1992, he expressed similar feelings for “this nation of Switzerland, which through the centuries has been a land of peace while nations round about have been nations at war.”
“He prayed that Switzerland ‘May continue to be a land of peace, a land of freedom, a land of opportunity and an example to other nations of the world,'” Hawkins wrote.
2. Securing the site
President McKay assigned Samuel E. Bringhurst, president of the Swiss-Austrian Mission, to buy the selected temple site. Bringhurst negotiated for several months only to have the church’s initial purchase bid denied. Despite their disappointment, Bringhurst and President McKay both felt things would work out.
Bringhurst continued looking. According to Hawkins, he wrote to President McKay a short time later with good news. After asking the missionaries to fast and pray, he had located a 7-acre parcel of land that was twice the size of the original property and half as expensive.
The church purchased the property and obtained the necessary permits, and President McKay presided over the site dedication and groundbreaking on Aug. 5, 1953. Rain had been falling for weeks, but ceased in time for the services.
3. Monumental project
In the fall of 1953, President Hinckley, then an employee in the church’s missionary department, was called in to meet with President McKay and given a daunting assignment. The late church president related the experience in great detail in his biography “Go Forward With Faith” by Sheri Dew.
“As you know, we are building a temple in Switzerland, and it will be different from our other temples in that it must serve members who speak in many languages,” President McKay told him. “I want you to find a way to present the temple instruction in the various languages of Europe while using a minimum number of temple workers.”
President Joseph Fielding Smith of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, along with Elders Harold B. Lee and Richard L. Evans, would oversee the project and were supportive, but the bulk of the work rested on President Hinckley's shoulders. He would be responsible to see that it was ready in time for the 1955 dedication.
President McKay authorized President Hinckley to use the Talmage Room, a small room on the fifth floor of the Salt Lake Temple where it was believed Elder James E. Talmage wrote “Jesus the Christ.” Hinckley spent countless hours there brainstorming ideas and praying for guidance, according to the biography.
After much study and discussion, President Hinckley made a recommendation: “It appeared that the most effective way to conduct large numbers of temple patrons through the sacred service in a variety of languages and with a minimal number of temple workers was to put it on film,” Dew wrote.
President Hinckley assembled a team of trusted cinematography and film production experts and went to work, fitting the special project around their regular jobs. He also sought advice from many motion picture executives, including M.G.M.’s Cecil B. DeMille, a personal friend of President McKay. It took a year to produce the first version for the English language. Translators then created versions in French, German, Dutch, Finnish, Swedish, Danish and Norwegian, according to "Go Forward With Faith."
When everything was ready, President Hinckley departed in advance of the dedication so the equipment could be properly installed. He confronted his final obstacle after landing in Switzerland when a customs agent informed him that his “church films and lectures” needed to be reviewed by the federal film board. He was forced to leave the spiritually sensitive films with the agent over the weekend.
After much fasting and pleading with the Lord to keep the sacred films safe, and after another tense conversation with the customs agent, President Hinckley was able to get the movies to the temple without anything being compromised. Once everything was in place and functioning, he was able to relax and enjoy the dedication.
“The entire experience — beginning with the overwhelming assignment from President McKay and culminating with his around-the-clock effort prior to the dedication — had been as sweet and spiritually fulfilling as anything with which he had ever been involved,” Dew wrote.
President Hinckley later recorded: “As I saw those people gathered from 10 nations to participate in the temple ordinances; as I saw elderly people from behind the Iron Curtain who had lost their families in the wars that had washed over them, and witnessed the expressions of joy and tears of gladness which came from their hearts as a result of the opportunities that had been given them; as I saw young husbands and wives with their families, their bright and beautiful children, and saw those families united in an eternal relationship, I knew with a certainty even beyond what I had known before that (President McKay) was inspired and directed of the Lord to bring these priceless blessings into the lives of those men and women of faith gathered from the nations of Europe.”
4. ‘Unseen audience’
Hundreds of Saints from across Europe gathered for 10 dedicatory sessions conducted in seven different languages in mid-September 1955.
The Mormon Tabernacle Choir broke away from its European tour to sing at the event and opened the services by singing “The Morning Breaks.”
President Ezra Taft Benson, then a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, spoke during the first session. He reflected on his service as a young missionary in Europe and recalled his relief efforts among the Saints following World War II. He described the dedication of the Swiss temple as “probably the greatest event that has occurred in Europe since the gospel was brought here 118 years ago,” according to an LDS Church News article.
President McKay, who celebrated his 82nd birthday in Bern prior to the dedication, welcomed those present as well as those “unseen,” Hawkins wrote.
“I welcome also an unseen, but, I believe, a real audience among whom are former presidents and apostles of the church, headed by the Prophet Joseph,” President McKay said.
According to President Hinckley's biography, President McKay recorded later: “Also (the Prophet Joseph's) nephew, President Joseph F. Smith, who prophesied 49 years ago in the city of Bern that ‘temples would be built in the divers countries of the world.’ We all agreed that the veil between those who participated in those exercises and loved ones who had gone before seemed very thin.”
Temple work was not supposed to commence until the morning of Monday, Sept. 19. But President McKay was concerned about members from nearby countries who had to return home right away. He opened the temple early, and for a few days, the temple operated around the clock in several languages. Members were able to do some temple work before returning home, Hawkins wrote.
The dedicatory prayer and address at the first session was recorded and later broadcast on a 30-minute KSL Radio Sunday night program, according to the LDS Church News.
5. Looking back
The LDS Church commemorated the 50th anniversary of the Swiss temple in September 2005. According to the LDS Church News, Elders Bruce C. Hafen, Paul Koelliker and Wolfgang Paul of the Seventy joined local leaders in a stake center near the Bern Switzerland Temple and recounted its history.
In his remarks, Elder Paul, who served in the Second Quorum of the Seventy from 2005-2010, remembered his father returning from the temple dedication in 1955.
“I was 15 years old at that time. Our family noticed that when he came back, he was somehow different. We could see his testimony of the restored gospel had become stronger,” Elder Paul said. “As he told our family about the wonderful spiritual experiences he had at the dedicatory session and described his feelings when President David O. McKay, the prophet of God, shook his hand, we listened attentively and wished that we could have been with him. Just listening to his words brought the Spirit close to us. This experience had a long-lasting impact upon me, and I decided that one day I would also go to the temple.”
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