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KENSINGTON, Md. — When Latter-day Saint leaders decided to buy land for what would become a monumental temple in Washington, D.C., they sent a large check to Milan Smith in his name.

The idea was that Smith, who was the president of the church’s Washington D.C. stake responsible for the area’s congregations, could approach the owners of the land without revealing who was interested in purchasing it and why.

How Smith got to that point is a story worth reviewing now that the temple, a D.C. landmark, has been renovated and is opening to the public for the next six weeks. His son, former U.S. Sen. Gordon Smith, R-Ore., is leading tours for invited guests for a second straight week.

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Here’s what was learned when journalists from top media companies descended on the Washington D.C. temple

Milan Smith replaced famed hotelier J. Willard Marriott as stake president. The two men and one of Smith’s counselors, Robert W. Barker, encouraged senior church leaders to consider construction of a temple east of the Mississippi River, where no temple existed.

“In dad’s first meeting as stake president, he announced that his goal would be for the stake to prepare for a temple in Washington, D.C.,” Gordon Smith told me after leading a tour for a large coalition of LGBTQ allies who are working with the church to protect gay rights and religious rights.

“That became something of a passion for him and really one of the great works of his life,” Gordon Smith said. “Those three brethren went repeatedly back and forth to Salt Lake to visit with President (David O.) McKay, (and his counselors,) President (Hugh B.) Brown, President (N. Eldon) Tanner and the Quorum of the Twelve about the timing for a temple here.”

Smith remembers his father showing the family the church’s check at the dinner table. He was 10; he briefly thought the family was rich. You can read the story of how the land’s Jewish owners reversed their initial rejection of the church’s offer in this story.

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The Washington D.C. Temple site’s history is as American as the capital city itself

Gordon Smith prayed in the woods on the future temple grounds when he was deciding whether he would serve a church mission. When President Spencer W. Kimball invited Milan Smith to speak at the temple’s dedication in 1974, Gordon Smith took the opportunity to propose to his wife below the Angel Moroni.

They were one of the first couples married in the temple after it was dedicated.

He has seen the temple’s influence across the past five decades. It is both the House of the Lord for Latter-day Saints and a D.C. area feature 10 miles north of the White House that is mentioned in daily traffic reports about I-495, the Capitol Beltway that encircles the American capital.

“It is a landmark in a city known for great architecture,” Gordon Smith said. “It has taken its place among those great structures, and it serves so many of the Lord’s purposes that it is a source of unending joy and satisfaction to the Latter-day Saints. I think it is a source of great appreciation by the larger community in Washington, D.C.”

“It really adds to the stature of the church in the corridors of federal power,” he added. “It’s recognized as a significant religious community and one of influence, and that building is emblematic of all of that, and its influence is seen as a source of good.”

Smith said that is seen in the list of guests who accepted invitations to tour the temple this week and next before the general public open house begins on Thursday, April 28.

“It has an enormous impact,” he said. “The evidence of that is that so many of my former Senate colleagues and members of Congress and their chiefs of staff are all coming to the open house in large numbers. So is the international community.”

Smith feels his father’s presence is near as the temple’s rededication approaches after a four-year renovation.

“It’s a structure that was my dad’s passion and a source of enormous pride that what he envisioned in dream was in his lifetime a reality as the house of the Lord,” he said.

Smith has long made it his practice when he flies out of Reagan National Airport to sit by the window.

“I look over the verdant landscape of green canopy and there sitting alone, rising above the trees, are the beautiful spires of the Washington D.C. Temple,” he said. “So even from above, it has an impact and it is visible. When you land here, you always see it glowing in the darkness. It’s a source of great light to this whole community.

“It’s a glorious special building, and it’s wonderful to see it refitted, retooled and ready for another 50 years.”

My recent stories

How the Tabernacle Choir turned its canceled European tour into cruises for charity (April 20)

Washington D.C. Temple draws people of diverse faiths as it opens for first time since 1974 (April 19)

Latter-day Saint leader joins open letter to Georgia: LGBTQ, religious rights don’t have to conflict (April 19)

Here’s what was learned when journalists from top media companies descended on the Washington D.C. Temple (April 18)

The marriage advice a Latter-day Saint apostle shared with CBS News in the Washington D.C. Temple (April 17)

About the church

In a ChurchBeat newsletter last year, I noted that President Russell M. Nelson was the second longest-living prophet since the church’s Restoration in 1830. Last week he became the first.

The church donated more than 2.5 tons of food in Hong Kong during a fifth wave of the pandemic there.

President Nelson and other church leaders used social media to testify of the Savior on Easter.

The First Presidency issued its annual Easter message last week.

Elder Holland’s message for Latter-day Saints on Easter — and every day of the year.

What I’m reading

This is very cool. In anticipation of the Washington D.C. Temple open house, a group of Latter-day Saints in the region instigated what they called a reverse open house, visiting other sacred spaces in the region and inviting others to the temple’s sacred space when it opened.

One of our better read stories of the last week was about how “defaced” billboards were part of a strategic ad campaign by “The Chosen” to grow the show’s audience.

The obituary for American Christianity has been written again and again, but the data tells a different story.

The Deseret News editorial board called for civility at Utah political conventions and an end to booing candidates at them. Delegates, the board said, “have the obligation, for the good of their party and the nation they serve, to treat those with whom they disagree with civility and respect. That wouldn’t diminish their own beliefs a bit, but it would elevate their character and reputation considerably.”

For baseball’s Jackie Robinson Day, one writer insisted he was even better than most people think he was. It’s a great read. This part really caught my attention:

“Robinson had starred in baseball at Pasadena City College, but in two years at UCLA he was much better known as a star halfback for the football team and also a letter winner in basketball and track. He played just one season of baseball ... (but) hit .097 for the Bruins. … It’s clear that, at the time, baseball was hardly the young man’s best sport. Robinson also won the Pacific Coast intercollegiate golf championship and reached the semifinals of the national tennis tournament for Black players. He also won swimming events for UCLA. So if he really did hit .097, baseball was perhaps his seventh-best sport.”

Behind the scenes

News cameras capture video in front of the Christus statue at a press conference in the Washington D.C. Temple Visitors’ Center.
News cameras capture video from a stand in front of the Christus statue as two apostles speak at a press conference in the Washington D.C. Temple Visitors’ Center of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ in Kensington, Maryland, on Monday, April 18, 2022. | Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News
The Rev. Dr. Amos C. Brown, pastor of San Francisco’s Third Baptist Church, speaks at the Washington D.C. Temple Visitors’ Center.
The Rev. Dr. Amos C. Brown, pastor of San Francisco’s Third Baptist Church, speaks at a press conference in the Washington D.C. Temple Visitors’ Center of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ in Kensington, Maryland, on Monday, April 18, 2022. Elder Gerrit W. Gong of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, left, and Dan Holt, the temple renovation project manager, also spoke. | Tad Walch/Deseret News