Shortly after World War II, a survivor of the Nazi concentration camps wrote a book called Man’s Search for Meaning. This title captures one of humanity’s deepest yearnings. Temples answer some of the most important aspects of that search for Latter-day Saints; many of those answers are expressed visually on the exterior of the Salt Lake Temple. This paper represents my personal reflections on the visual symbolism of this temple as informed by the scriptures, the LDS historical record, and statements from General Authorities.
Because the temple is a place sacred to the Latter-day Saints, it must be studied within the framework of the tradition of faith that called that place into being. When scholars see sacred places and traditions through the lens of modern secularism, they usually deceive themselves regarding those institutions: “Examine the institutions of the ancients without thinking of their religious notions, and you find them obscure, whimsical, and inexplicable.” Such scholars miss the spirit that drives and animates. Their work would be like studying Joseph Smith as simply a collection of chemical compounds—interesting chemistry perhaps but not a very useful way to study Joseph Smith’s contributions to religious thought and history. Therefore, I have done my best to see the Salt Lake Temple with the “eye of faith” (Ether 12:19) and to describe the meaning of the temple exterior from within the Latter-day Saint tradition. Nevertheless, this exposition is in no way an official statement of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, nor am I claiming completeness. Attempting to analyze the exterior of the temple led me through a series of challenges. I first tried to create a simple equation list; sunstones equal this, starstones equal that. It was like reading a dictionary instead of Shakespeare. I discovered that it was the relationships between the symbols that contained much of the iconographical meaning. Like most complex symbolic creations, the temple has multiple layers of meaning.