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Taking a ‘stand': Exhibit features noted LDS pulpits

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SALT LAKE CITY — They stand front and center at nearly all LDS Church conference sessions and worship services — so much so that it doesn't seem like a Mormon meeting without them. Yet, they seldom call attention to themselves. Like the saying goes, they tend to blend into the woodwork. And despite their presence, many struggle with their names.

Oh, we're talking pulpits here, not people. Perhaps you call it a "podium." Possibly a "lectern" or "rostrum." Or maybe simply "the stand."

Whatever the name, there are a handful of prominent pulpits — historic originals and feel-free-to-touch replicas — on display this weekend in downtown Salt Lake City as The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints conducts its 180th semiannual general conference.

The featured pulpit is that of the Conference Center, site of this weekend's sessions. The latest versions of the pulpits in the Salt Lake Tabernacle and Assembly Hall also await Temple Square visitors, as do three replica pulpits scattered throughout the nearby Church History Museum.

And the pulpit from the since-razed 6th/7th Ward meetinghouse — where LDS Church President Thomas S. Monson first attended church as a youth and later presided as bishop — is currently the prominent display element in Deseret Book's flagship store south of Temple Square.

Be it a pulpit, a stand or whatever name you like, the object serves myriad purposes in the LDS Church — providing a focal point above the people, enhancing acoustics, allowing for eye contact, emphasizing a fixture of authority in an authority-based church and acting as a location for leaders to receive and convey revelation.

The Conference Center pulpit is affectionately know in some circles as "the Hinckley pulpit," not just because the center was built during the tenure of the late LDS Church President Gordon B. Hinckley. Or because it was his mandate to create an arena of more than 20,000 seats with an unobstructed view of the speaker — at the pulpit, of course.

As many Mormons know, he gave the Conference Center's first address in April 2000, sharing a personal story about a black walnut tree he had planted near his family home nearly four decades before the tree died the previous year.

He inquired about possibly using the walnut wood for the soon-to-be-completed building's pulpit; the tree provided just enough for the pulpit's thin veneer.

President Hinckley also requested the design of a series of beehive images across the upper front and sides. The pulpit also features a white leather top surface along with built-in air-conditioning and fan, a clock, a video monitor and a set of sound speakers to provide audio balance for the individual who is talking.

When President Hinckley used a cane in his later years, a small wooden strip was attached by Velcro to the back of the pulpit, providing a resting place for the cane while he spoke, said Jeff Palmer, supervisor of Conference Center staging.

The pulpit has a pair of replicas — one a portable version, the other replica on display at the Church History Museum.

As for the original, the LDS Church's most featured pulpit today is really used only about a half-dozen times a year — twice a year for church general conferences, once each for the annual Relief Society and Young Women general meetings and a couple of times for multi-stake conferences.

Even when it's not in use, the pulpit remains essentially at the same location, just dropped a dozen feet below the rostrum on the same vertical footprint. It sits on a motorized pylon — one that not only adjusts the pulpit to preset measurements of the speakers' respective heights but also lowers it into permanent storage underneath the main staging area.

Practically all of the Conference Center's rostrum area is moveable, from all the seating to the entire decking. "The only permanent pieces are the organ pipes and the pulpit," said David Miles, director of the church's Event Services. "The pulpit doesn't move — it can only go up and down."

The best place to get a sense of pulpit history is the Church History Museum — and more specifically, the second-floor exhibit on the Salt Lake Tabernacle.

Kirk Henrichsen, a senior exhibit designer at the museum, points out an illustration that depicts a portable rostrum used by Joseph Smith and other early Mormon leaders as they preached at outdoor meetings. Then he shows historical photos of multiple pulpits in the Tabernacle, reflecting the church's first meeting structures — specifically the Kirtland and Nauvoo temples – where auditoriums featured three pulpits on either end, the tiers symbolizing the three offices of the church's Melchizedek and Aaronic priesthoods.

In the Nauvoo temple, Henrichsen noted, hinged benches allowed the pews to be flipped over from facing one set of pulpits to the other, depending on the occasion and the speakers.

The multi-podium trend continued in both the Tabernacle and the Salt Lake Temple, the latter having multiple podiums on either end of a fifth-floor assembly hall used for solemn assemblies.

Historical photos show the tabernacle broke tradition a bit. The three-pulpit configuration — which continued through the first third of the 20th century — appeared only in the front, not in the back.

With the tabernacle also used for regular Sunday meetings, the first of three rostrum rows areas was given to the Salt Lake Stake high council, the second for members of the Quorum of the Twelve and the third for the First Presidency, said Henrichsen. It was possible speakers from the different rows spoke at the respective pulpit.

And, he noted, the pulpits aren't the same shape and design as modern-day podiums — in fact, they're not podium-like at all, and he pointed to the exhibit's replica tabernacle rostrum.

Built from actual wood discarded from the tabernacle during its 2005-07 renovation, the replica is actually more of a horseshoe-shaped railing with grip-like handles at the ends, providing a standing speaker balance or support for an extended period.

"It suggests the spontaneous nature of the early sermons — there's not space for notes or books," Henrichsen said. "It's our best guess on how they were constructed, based on drawings, photos, seating — even some fragments of the original rostrum were found during renovation, and we used those measurements to verify sizes."

The design suggests how the term "stand" is part of the Mormon vernacular — to speak from the "stand." It's underscored even more when one considers the dedicatory prayer given on the edifice — that those who "stand in these sacred places" minister and receive revelation.

"Stand" took a different meaning for the initial Sunday worship services conducted once the first pioneers reached the Salt Lake Valley, as speakers were recorded as having stood on a wagon tongue when addressing the congregation in the outdoor meeting held near where they camped.

The ornately carved pulpit from Salt Lake City's old 6th/7th Ward chapel rests as a centerpiece for a Deseret Book display promoting the recent release of President Monson's biography, "To The Rescue."

As a 10-year-old some seven decades ago, a young "Tommy" Monson stood behind the pulpit to give his first church talk. Twelve years later, he returned to the same pulpit as a young bishop presiding in his home ward.

The Sixth/Seventh Ward meetinghouse was demolished in 1967, but not before President Monson — then a member of the LDS Church's Quorum of the Twelve — helped save the pulpit.

In June 2009, President Monson found himself once again behind the same pulpit, as it served as the podium for the dedication of the Church History Library. During the program, he spoke of his recollections of the pulpit's role in his life.

"Every bishop needs a sacred grove to which he can retire to meditate and pray for guidance. Mine, as a very young bishop, was beside this pulpit in our ward chapel," he said.

"I could not begin to count the occasions when on a dark night at a late hour, I would make my way to the stand. I would kneel and share with my Heavenly Father my thoughts, my concerns, my problems. Those prayers were always answered in one way or another."

He concluded: "This pulpit is, to me, a cherished remembrance of sacred experiences."

General Conference broadcast, transit information

With the exception of the 6 p.m. today Priesthood session (a closed broadcast to select LDS meetinghouses worldwide), the 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. conference proceedings are available via TV, Internet, radio and satellite broadcasts. For availability information, see www.bonneville.info, www.lds.org/broadcast or www.byutv.org.

Utah Transit Authority is expanding its TRAX service to and from downtown Salt Lake City for conference weekend, with extra light-rail trains, extra cars and earlier service planned; however, the FrontRunner service between Salt Lake City and Ogden does not operate on Sundays. Additional information is available at www.rideuta.com.

e-mail: taylor@desnews.com