The Modernist Mormon Chapel: Persecution, Insularity, and Out-Groups
Updated: Aug 2
In the early days of the pandemic, that strange time of no clear public health guidance and an overwhelming sense of impending doom, my wife and I visited the 16th Street Chapel in Washington D.C. We had decided to visit the chapel because from 1933 until 1977, the chapel served as the spiritual home of Washington DC-area Mormons, including my grandparents and their children.
Upon approaching the building, it was immediately apparent that the building had seen better days as there were cracks in the facade and the garden was poorly managed. Even so, we still had a clear view of the engravings of uniquely Mormon scriptures, which read “The Glory of God is Intelligence” and “The House of the Lord Shall Be Established on the Tops of the Mountains” and a beautiful mosaic of Christ preaching the Sermon on the Mount by Mahonri Young. The building was designed prior to the days of standard-plan chapels, as the central tower appeared to be a modernist interpretation of the towers and spires of the iconic Salt Lake Temple. At one time, the chapel’s spire even sported an Angel Moroni statue. The interiors were decorated with stylized sego lillies and stained-glass windows of Mormon history. Being in the building made me proud of my Utah Mormon heritage.
It was a Saturday, and in the cultural hall a Sabbath Service was happening for the local Spanish-speaking Seventh-Day Adventist congregation. As it turned out, The Unification Church had purchased the building in 1977 and currently rents it out on weekends to Seventh-Day Adventists. The Unification Church was started in South Korea in the 1950’s by Sun Myung Moon (hence the contested and derogatory term “Moonies”) and has been dogged by accusations of being a cult. There I was, a member of a “cult”, in the Sabbath service of another “cult”, housed in a building of yet another “cult”. It was a misfit church and I immediately felt at home. All three “cults” had suffered persecution and plenty of that smug condescension of establishment WASPy types whose professional organizations, respectability politics, political parties, and social clubs were definitely not cults.
From the beginning of the building’s history, there had been persecution. While the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was purchasing the land for the chapel, several Protestant ministers tried to dissuade the landowner from selling the plot, invoking the fashionable anti-Mormon attitudes of the day. After all, the voyeuristic and highly-publicized Smoot hearings had only happened twenty years before. Fortunately, the petition was denied and the land was sold to the church in 1924. Reed Smoot, the senator and apostle, dedicated the building in the 1930s.
The two family stories I know from my grandparents’ time attending the ward are that my aunt was baptized at the chapel, and that Reed Benson (Ezra Taft Benson’s son) told my grandfather that his career made him a bad Mormon and then walked away. My grandfather was a US diplomat, which probably triggered the conspiracy part of Benson’s paranoid far-right, John-Bircher-addled brain to conclude that because it was clearly the State Department’s fault that China fell to the communists, all those who were diplomats were secretly working for Beijing or the Kremlin, therefore, my grandfather could not be a good Mormon. My grandfather, the exceedling kind and jovial man that he was, probably did not harbor any ill will, but it was persecution nonetheless. This story is humorous, but there’s pain mixed in as well. I’ve experienced this strain of persecution multiple times in my life, where I have been told by narrow-minded members of the church that my various identities (in my case mainly political) somehow disqualify me from being a good Mormon. It’s been painful, though it’s surely much more painful for those who deviate from the norm more sharply than I do. Intra-faith persecution can be particularly hard, as its victims can feel rejected by all sides.
Persecution, especially related to identity, is a cruel thing. Mormons have our own history of persecution and at times it’s made us insular and at other times assimilationist into the American mainstream. As that mainstream has shifted away from religion, there can be a yearning to return to simpler times. There’s a tendency within the Mormon far-right (think Deznat) to embrace that insularity, but also a tendency in the Mormon left to create its own insularity. In the end, however, none of these strategies are successful, because they always leave someone out.
God is clear that no one is ever left out. If our own persecution is the centering principle for our behavior then we blind ourselves to God’s suffering children. I grow impatient with vague talk of religious liberty that applies primarily to conservative American Christians, but whose focus is never the Uighurs, Sikhs, Christians in the Middle East, the Rohingya, or tribal religions. God’s reach and suffering are more expansive than we can imagine. The world is deeply wounded and we are called to heal it. How myopic it would be to only seek to comfort the persecuted who happen to belong to our in-group.
In the months since I went to the 16th Street Chapel, I’ve started to see the visit as healing. The building confronted me with a reminder that other members of the church may reject my contributions to the faith but also affirmed my appreciation for my heritage and turned my vision towards out-groups. Ashamedly, I too often fall back into the seductive thought patterns of excessive focus on my own in-group. For me, a clear-headed look at my own culture and heritage through an old chapel helped me look outward. As an increasingly global faith, it’s time for Latter-day Saints to step up and not just care about persecution when it affects us.
About the Author
Sam Dearden believes in the power of place, history, and bodily experience. He's lived in a lot of different places, but will always love the mountain beauty of the Wasatch Front and the peculiarity of its culture. His favorite Utah sites include Iosepa, Topaz, and the Alpine Loop. Jack-of-all-trades and master-of none, he is fascinated by religious architecture, diplomacy, and music. He currently lives in Washington DC with his wife and baby son. He works for the US State Department, doing digital connectivity in developing countries.