SALT LAKE CITY — Seventeen years ago, the LDS Church had 50 temples in 22 countries, but not enough for a global church whose members believe temples provide the "crowning blessings" of their faith.
Some of those members saved money much of their lives and traveled for a week or more to finally attend a temple and receive those sacred blessings.
In October 1997, then-President Gordon B. Hinckley announced an aggressive program of construction, saying church leaders were determined "to take the temples to the people and afford them every opportunity for the very precious blessings that come of temple worship."
In the short years since then — shorter than the lifespan of the youngest of the church's younger-than-ever missionaries — 89 new temples have opened. Many of what one church leader called "a flood of small temples" are 1/10th or even 1/20th the size of the faith's largest temples but they now reach 19 additional countries and 17 U.S. states where none had been before.
The building program continues. Another 29 temples have been announced or already are under construction, but this batch includes something different. Three of the next few temples to open will be larger than any the church has completed since President Hinckley's announcement.
This week, the First Presidency, under the direction of President Thomas S. Monson, invited the public to an open house for the new Gilbert Arizona Temple. At 85,000 square feet, it will be the largest temple completed since the Mount Timpanogos Temple, with 107,240 square feet, opened in October 1996 in American Fork, Utah.
The Gilbert Arizona Temple open house will be held between Jan. 18 and Feb. 15, excluding Sundays. The tours are free and reservations can be made soon at www.gilbertmormontemple.org.
The temple will be dedicated in three sessions on March 2 and become the faith's 142nd operating temple. A cultural celebration featuring music and dance is scheduled for the night before.
The underlying principle behind the smaller temples was doctrinal.
"I believe that no member of the church has received the ultimate which this church has to give until he or she has received his or her temple blessings in the house of the Lord," President Hinckley said in his 1997 announcement. "Accordingly, we are doing all that we know how to do to expedite the construction of these sacred buildings and make the blessings received therein more generally available."
The answer, he said in April 1998, was to provide more Mormons with "nearby temples — small, beautiful, serviceable temples."
The practical application of the principle was a standardized base design of about 10,700 square feet, the exact size of the Kyiv Ukraine Temple completed in 2010. These temples do not include some typical amenities. They do not, for example, provide the opportunity for members to rent temple clothing. Construction took months, not years.
"What has happened since the 1990s has been that the church has focused only on what is really needed in that space," said Brandon Plewe, a BYU geography professor and chief editor of the book "Mapping Mormonism: An Atlas of Latter-day History." "Do we really need a cafeteria? Do we really need a laundry?"
Plewe's website, MappingMormonism.byu.edu, includes a timeline that shows when each temple was built and displays their relative size with different-sized squares.
Some of the smaller temples have reduced schedules — at least one is open three days a week — something President Hinckley envisioned.
"The other factor here," Plewe said, "is you have the really large temples built in areas where traffic is really high."
The Gilbert Temple will become the 18th-largest in the church, but soon will be surpassed by the Payson Utah Temple (96,630 square feet), which is nearing completion, and the Provo City Center Temple (85,084 square feet), which is under construction on the site of the Provo Tabernacle .
Those three temples are being built in areas with larger concentrations of Latter-day Saints. The Payson and Provo temples are expected to open and immediately reach full capacity as church members use them for the faith's highest sacraments, such as marriages and the sealing of families for eternity.
Much of the traffic is from members putting family history research, for which the LDS Church is known, into action as they perform ceremonies such as baptism and eternal marriage on behalf of those who have died — a practice Latter-day Saints believe was followed in New Testament times but that later was lost.
Access to proxy baptism ceremonies for converts was one major blessing counted by a counselor in the Alabama Birmingham Mission presidency when the 10,700-square foot temple opened there in 2001, altering the profile of the church in the state and providing new opportunities.
John Enslen said congregations throughout the state immediately began to take new members to the temple to perform baptisms while they were learning about and preparing themselves to receive other temple ordinances.
"There is a special spirit in and about our temple that strengthens the resolve of our new converts to live for the eternal blessings that only the sacred temple covenants can offer," Enslen said. "The temple may be small in size, but it has had a giant impact on the lives of the many Alabama saints who have partaken of the available temple experiences."
Four years after his announcement, President Hinckley said, "We are constructing new buildings on a scale of which we never have dreamed before. We must do so if we are to accommodate the growth of the church."
He said the construction of temples is one of the bellwether marks of the growth, vitality and maturing of the church.
"We will continue to build these sacred houses of the Lord as rapidly as energy and resources will allow."
His successor, President Thomas S. Monson, noted two years ago that the church built 21 temples in its first 150 years. In the next 33 years, it has added 121 temples. Today there are temples in 41 nations and 32 U.S. states.
Temples are under construction or announced for yet an additional three countries — Italy, France and Congo — and four other U.S. states — Connecticut, Indiana, Pennsylvania and Wyoming.
"Eighty-five percent of the membership of the Church now live within 200 miles of a temple, and for a great many of us, that distance is much shorter," President Monson said. "Those who understand the eternal blessings which come from the temple know that no sacrifice is too great, no price too heavy, no struggle too difficult in order to receive those blessings."
The Gilbert Temple will be the fourth operating temple in Arizona. A fifth is being built in Phoenix, with approximately 58,000 square feet, and a sixth, in Tucson, was announced a year ago.