Sunday, November 1, 2015

A History of LDS Tabernacles: Part 5 - Who's to Blame?

Note: This is a series on the history of the preservation and destruction of LDS Tabernacles. To see a full list of the posts in this series, click here.

For a Google Map that lists all of the tabernacles and their locations, click here.

Today's post looks at the personal involvement of various Church leaders in the destruction of tabernacles. This is not intended to be a criticism of the Church, its leaders, or its policy; this is simply an open study of this period of history.

David Fitzen was probably elated as he hung up the phone with President Harold B. Lee, a member of the Church's First Presidency in 1971. David was one of several preservationists that was actively working to save the Coalville Tabernacle. He had unexpectedly been put through to President Lee when he called Church headquarters, and he asked President Lee about the possibility of purchasing the building, since the Church was unwilling to remodel it or continue to use it. President Lee had told him to submit a formal proposal. Wasting no time, David had the proposal hand-delivered to the First Presidency's secretary that afternoon.

When he called the next day to follow up, President Lee told him that the First Presidency could not sell the tabernacle; only the local leaders could do that. The events were summed up thus: "However true this may have been, it did little to erase the impression of disingenuousness on the part of church leadership. The suspicions of the preservationists that they were being given double talk was measurably increased" (John Haggerty, "Historic Preservation in Utah," 71-72).

This example is one of many that illustrate the confusion that accompanied dealing with the Church when tabernacles came down. The Church has a complex organizational structure; there are different channels and levels that could have taken responsibility for the destruction of tabernacles. In reality, every layer played its own part, and the combination of layers may have made it harder to stop the destruction. Let's take a look at these different levels, and the parts they played in the destruction of tabernacles.

The Coalville Tabernacle is razed.
The First Presidency & Quorum of the Twelve

It is unrealistic to depict the top leaders of the Church as anything more than marginally involved in the destruction of so many tabernacles. It would also be false to insist they had no input. Sources indicate that they met with preservationists, discussed issues, and had influences on the decisions made in Heber, Coalville, Bountiful, as well as many other areas.

Joseph Fielding Smith's biography noted that they were shocked at the amount of controversy occurring around the Coalville Tabernacle, but refused to get involved because of a new decentralization policy (Francis M. Gibbons, "Joseph Fielding Smith: Gospel Scholar, Prophet of God," 478). If this is accurate, we can certainly say that they struggled to adhere to that policy. They were obviously involved in Coalville; they were the ones that ended up saving the tabernacle in Bountiful (which will be discussed in our next post).

Of course, like all Church leaders, personal opinions could have played a role in some cases. Ruth Furr recalled meeting with President Hugh B. Brown to discuss the Heber Tabernacle. He referred to them as a rebellious group; she responded by saying that if it weren't for groups such as their's, there a United States of America, nor a Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Ruth Furr papers).

The interior of the Heber Tabernacle in the 1960s.
General Authorities

The levels of involvement of other General Authorities varied depending on each situation; however, they almost invariably encouraged members to support their local leaders, even if their own opinions were different. For example, when the Summit Stake (headquarters in Coalville) had a stake conference in the middle of the controversy over the tabernacle, the visiting General Authority told the members "not to alienate themselves from the Gospel for love of a building," and not to "set their course against the leaders of the Church" (Haggarty, 62). Statements such as these mixed architectural concerns into spiritual matters, and affected how members did or did not act.

Local Leaders

The local leaders technically were the ones who could make the final decision about their tabernacle. I say "technically," because their options were usually limited by the Church Building Department, who gave them a "replace or nothing" type of deal. They could either continue on in an inadequate building, or they could tear the tabernacle down and get a new chapel.

A good example of this is found in Coalville: the local stake president initially tried to find ways to save the building. After numerous discussions with the Church Building Department, he was firmly convinced that razing the tabernacle was the only viable option--despite what anyone else said.

And, of course, personal opinions and experiences would affect the outcome, too. The stake presidents in Coalville and Heber strongly felt that their decision to raze their tabernacle was inspired, and a spiritual revelation. Indeed, the Coalville president wrote that the suggestion to sell the tabernacle was “the temptation of Satan…I knew exactly what I should do…The spirit told me that very clearly" (Reed Brown, President Reed Brown relating experiences in connection with the razing of the old Coalville Tabernacle and the building of a new Stake Center building," 10-11). This would affect how the local members could react.

Local Members

Shortly after the Coalville Tabernacle came down, one article concluded that only local members working together could save their tabernacle. This does appear to have a great affect, but the persuasions of local leaders had a tendency to reduce the activities of local members who wanted to save their tabernacle. Ruth Furr frustratedly wrote that “the approach the stakes take often is that they have…been led and inspired and ask for sustaining" (Ruth Furr papers). Or, in other words, the question put to the congregation was not, "Who's in favor of replacing the tabernacle?"; it was, "Who will support the Stake Presidency in their decision to replace the tabernacle?" That's a very different question!

People who campaigned to save the tabernacles were usually in the minority. They were putting themselves out there and were prone to criticism. It wasn't easy.
An article that covered the criticism of the razing of the Coalville Tabernacle.

Church Building Department

Perhaps the part of the Church that had the most influence on the tabernacles was this department, which oversaw all building projects. As would be expected for this department, the focus seemed to fall more toward frugality and efficiency than historical sensitivity. However, the committee, as noted above, advised everyone from local leaders to General Authorities with their recommendations to (more often than not) replace tabernacles. Edward Geary lamented that “[The Coalville Stake President] and the General Authorities were betrayed by the Building Committee. The people they most naturally relied upon for guidance gave them bad advice" (Geary, "The Last Days of the Coalville Tabernacle," 44).

Thus, no one person or group could be blamed for the fall of tabernacle. Everyone was at fault. Everyone played a part. It appeared that a tabernacle could be saved only with tremendous effort that most communities simply could not live up to. However, as the number of razings increased, the opposition continued to grow. Eventually, communities were resisting the destruction in ways that were unseen in decades before.

Next: Part 6 - "Save the Tabernacle"

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