As President Dallin H. Oaks walked through the Richmond Virginia Temple prior to its dedication, the senior leader of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was struck by its colorful design, historic architecture, inspirational artwork, and overall beauty — all of which reflect the state’s unique history.
Located in Virginia’s capital city, the Richmond temple’s blue, gold, and red color palette compliments a blend of Federal and Jeffersonian architecture and is accented by symbols of Virginia’s state tree and flower — the dogwood.
“Every temple is beautiful, but this is an especially impressive House of the Lord for this great Commonwealth of Virginia,” said President Oaks.
Still, the temple — as are all temples — is ultimately designed to lead souls to the Savior, he said. “The work of the temples is centered in Jesus Christ. All that is learned and done here relates to Him.”
President Oaks, First Counselor in the First Presidency, dedicated Virginia’s first temple in two sessions on Sunday, May 7.
“Temples are essential to our Heavenly Father’s plan for His children,” he said. “In these Houses of the Lord, we are taught the most important things we can learn in mortality, the knowledge of eternity.”
President Oaks was joined by his wife, Sister Kristen M. Oaks; Elder W. Mark Bassett of the North America Northeast Area Presidency and a General Authority Seventy and his wife, Sister Angela Bassett; Elder Kevin R. Duncan, executive director of the Church’s Temple Department and a General Authority Seventy, and his wife, Sister Nancy Duncan; and Elder Michael John U Teh, a General Authority Seventy, and his wife, Sister Grace Teh.
Symbolic Cornerstone Ceremony
Just after the start of the first dedicatory session, the choir sang “The Morning Breaks” as President Oaks and the other Church leaders came outside for the symbolic cornerstone ceremony. President Oaks invited young children from Maryland, Virginia, and Georgia to participate in placing mortar around the cornerstone.
“The most important idea about a cornerstone is that Jesus Christ Himself is the chief cornerstone, setting the direction for the building at the key position in the foundation,” President Oaks said. “So it is with this temple.”
Preston Jury, 9, of Chester, Virginia, said his heart was pounding as he stood next to President Oaks. “It was really cool,” he said.
Standing nearby, His parents and siblings were grateful that Preston could have such a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
“We are grateful that he could have that opportunity to feel the Spirit and understand maybe a little more about the sacredness of the temple and what we are doing here today,” said his mother, Shannon Jury.
“It was a father’s proud moment to see him up there with President Oaks and the testimony he will hopefully gain from that,” Mike Jury said.
Church Growth in Virginia
President Oaks said the growth of the restored Church in Virginia “has been very gradual but is currently very impressive.”
The first branch in Richmond, Virginia, was organized in 1919 with a membership of less than 100. In 1945, that branch was transferred from mission administration to the Washington Stake, where it became a ward a year later. In 1957, the Richmond Ward became part of the newly created Virginia Stake, the 245th stake in the Church and only the sixth stake on the Atlantic coast. At that time, the Richmond Ward numbered 700 members.
Today there are 34,000 Latter-day Saints living in the Richmond area and more than 96,000 in the state, compromising 22 stakes.
Ruth Henshaw, 85, joined the Church in 1957. Her husband Floyd Henshaw was 4 years old when his family traveled across the country to be sealed in the Salt Lake Temple in 1938.
Ruth remembers working with other members to build the first Latter-day Saint chapel in Richmond. She and Floyd made their own journey to Utah to be sealed in 1964.
After the Washington D.C. Temple was dedicated in 1974, Floyd awoke early on Saturdays to milk the cows and do other farm chores so the couple could drive three hours to the temple in Kensington, Maryland, and do three endowment sessions before returning home.
Ruth Henshaw reflected on these memories as she attended one of Sunday’s dedicatory sessions.
“It’s been wonderful to see how much the Church has grown. Having a temple means a whole lot. It’s so exciting to know we have one right here now. Heavenly Father answered all of our prayers,” she said. “I’m just so sorry my husband passed away and is not here to see it.”
J. Christopher and his wife, Erlynn E. Lansing, serve as directors of Church Hosting. His parents joined the Church as the Richmond branch transitioned from meeting in a rented chapel to become a ward in the Washington D.C. Stake in 1954. One year after their baptism, Elder Lansing was a young boy when his family drove across the country to be sealed in the Salt Lake Temple. He returned to Utah to receive his own temple blessings before embarking on a mission in 1969. His family was ecstatic when the Washington D.C. Temple was built.
“Our family went crazy. We couldn’t believe that we would ever have a temple in Washington. This was beyond anything,” Lansing said. “We were married there. All but one of our children were married there. That has been our temple — until now. To think we have a temple (in Richmond) — something as magnificent as this — just blows our mind.”
Erlynn Lansing said they delighted in hosting nearly 90 non-member friends for open house tours of the temple.
“It was the best three days of our life to be able to share what is so meaningful to us,” she said. “Many sent wonderful, personal thank you notes and most of them say ‘I had no idea. This explains why you are so passionate about your religion.’”
New Understanding Through Transparency
More than 46,500 visitors toured the Richmond Virginia Temple during the open house, although big numbers were not the goal, said Michael and Sandy Waters, who served as the coordinators of the Richmond Virginia Temple open house and dedication committee.
Their mission, they said, was to create an environment for workers, leaders, and visitors to “feel a place of peace” and recognize the temple as a sacred space for Latter-day Saints. They also wanted to address any misunderstandings or lack of understanding by those outside the faith.
No event has accomplished this with more speed and permanence than opening the temple doors.
“It’s been a great blessing. … We were encouraged to be transparent, and we were. That transparency, I think, created more understanding and comfort, which I thought was very positive, particularly to those outside the Church,” Michael Waters said. “I think that will continue to go forward as members have conversations with their friends to help open the doors of understanding.”
Michael Waters can relate because he is a convert. Before he was baptized in 1974, all he knew about the Church was that BYU had a good basketball team and the story of the pioneers battling the crop-devouring crickets. He had never heard of Joseph Smith.
“That was a long time ago, but I think it is still the case for many people,” he said.
Symbol of Religious Freedom
Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin was among those invited to tour the temple during the open house on March 20. He called attention to the fact that a House of the Lord is now in “the first state to forge religious freedom into the fabric of our nation.”
Thomas Jefferson wrote the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, which was passed by the Virginia General Assembly on January 16, 1786. The statute became the forerunner to the First Amendment and its constitutional protections of religious freedom.
“Thomas Jefferson wrote in the statute of religious freedom that God created the mind free, and that all men shall be free to profess and by argument to maintain their opinions in matters of religion,” the governor said. “Today, the past meets present. … It is amazing to see the interwoven nature of this in this magnificent temple. Jeffersonian principles. Jeffersonian architecture. Virginia elements inside the temple, from the carvings of dogwood blooms, intricate patterns on the floors, pillars inspired by Monticello. You will see this blending present itself all over. There’s even a painting of the signing of the U.S. Constitution, which we stopped for a moment and just absorbed.”
Gov. Youngkin said he was humbled “by the clear expression of faith eternal by this extraordinary [Latter-day Saint] community. May this temple be a lasting symbol to all Virginians of our collective legacy of true religious freedom and give the Latter-day Saint community across Virginia and around the world a powerful central location to practice their faith.”
Not only does the Richmond temple feature historic Jeffersonian architecture, dogwood ornamentation, bright colors, and artwork depicting the landscape and the Savior Jesus Christ, it symbolizes religious freedom in a profound way, said Brad and Robyn Anderson, local members who served on the temple open house and dedication committee.
“I think it’s very significant,” said Brad Anderson of Thomas Jefferson’s and Virginia’s early efforts to protect religious liberty. “We love our history here in Virginia. That is one thing that goes deep.”
During the open house, visitors commented on “the Jeffersonian-type architecture, the Williamsburg colors, and the local touches. … Freedoms are a very important thing for people in Virginia and I think the Church and temple represent that.”
President Oaks spoke on religious freedom at the University of Virginia in November 2021.
Impact of a Temple in Richmond
Michael and Sandy Waters believe the impact of the new temple will be “tremendous,” eliminating the need to fight traffic to get to Washington D.C., or other temples in the region.
“All the ordinance work will just explode because people have better access here,” Michael Waters said. “I think members will really support this temple. Families will be blessed and there will be a legacy of temple worship.”
Having this sacred space here will also “help people outside the Church to know about us,” he said.
One Latter-day Saint who is looking forward to a dedicated temple in Richmond is 95-year-old Dorothy Tillman. She married a non-member who passed away. Her family brought her in a wheelchair to tour the temple and she has an appointment in the coming weeks to be sealed to her husband.
“That has been the focus in her life,” Sandy Waters said.
‘I Felt the Love of God’
Leading up to the dedication, Bishop Gerardo Mier received tickets to the temple dedication and prayerfully considered who to invite. He felt prompted to bring three young men in his ward and a young single adult sister.
Allan Godines, 18, originally from Guatemala, was one of the young men who attended the dedication Sunday. His favorite moment was the Hosanna shout.
“It was very special, blessed, spiritual,” Godines said in Spanish. “I felt the love of God.”
Stuart Scott was honored and “felt blessed” to be invited to speak during the dedication.
“I know that I represented my ancestors. I represented my fellow African American friends so that we all can feel a part of this church, which we are.”
The Richmond Virginia Temple was announced 10 days after Melissa Sullivan was baptized a member of the Church. The young mother and wife attended the dedication with her husband. She appreciated the chance to see President and Sister Oaks in person.
“Being a part of this moment and feeling the Spirit was special,” she said.
Following the dedication, Linda Sirles reflected on her experience as she rested in her wheelchair outside the temple.
“It was wonderful, absolutely wonderful,” Sirles said. “The Spirit of the Lord was there. You could feel it when you walked in. You could feel it as they spoke. It was glorious. It was beautiful.”