Like something from a science fiction novel, with its six golden spires and pristine white walls rising above the surrounding trees, the Washington Mormon Temple has for decades intrigued those barred from entering.

Their curiosity will soon be satisfied, however, as for the first time in almost half a century, the temple this month will open its doors to the general public.

The building, one of the most mysterious in the US capital, is usually only open to members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, for whom family, chastity and mission work are central values.

“People feel like what we do inside is a secret, but as you saw today, it’s just sacred. It’s very sacred for us,” Kevin Duncan, a senior official in the Church, told AFP.

On Monday, during an open day for the media, the temple welcomed non-members for the first time since 1974, when it was dedicated.

The visitors had to put on white slippers to view the hushed, luxurious interior with its pristine thick carpets and gilt surfaces.

The last time the public was allowed to cross the threshold, 750,000 people, according to the Church, had swarmed the site in Kensington, Maryland, a few miles (kilometers) outside the bounds of Washington proper. Among them was the First Lady, Betty Ford.

The temple closed in 2018 for renovations and was due to reopen in 2020, before the Covid-19 pandemic upended the schedule.

Baptisms for the dead

Future visitors must reserve free tickets to enter the site from the end of April to the beginning of June.

Inside they will be able to discover the rituals of the Church, where as soon as members enter what they consider to be one of the most sacred places on Earth, they abandon their street clothes to dress in white.

View of the temple of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints with its six spires in Kensington, Maryland, near Washington DC. AFP

“It’s a reset. A symbol of equality, purity,” said David Bednar, one of the 12 apostles of the Church, who came from Utah for the occasion.

The curious can also visit the baptistry, where a small pool is mounted on the backs of 12 life-size white marble bulls representing the 12 tribes of Israel.

In the Mormon faith, baptism by immersion inside the temple is reserved for the dead.

The Church allows its flock to be baptized on behalf of their ancestors, and it is then up to the souls of the deceased – if they exist, and the Church firmly believes they do – to accept the “gift” or not.

Ordinary baptisms take place in other buildings.

Among the other spaces in the sprawling temple is the “sealing room,” where marriages are celebrated (or “sealed”) around a white marble altar upholstered with beige velvet.

Unions are exclusively between a man and a woman and are deemed to last not just a lifetime but into death, because “family is essential to the Father’s plan,” said Bednar.

Family ties between parents and children can also be “sealed” for eternity in a ceremony in these same rooms.

The Church says it expects to welcome several hundred thousand visitors during its open house period.