Temple talk trends

Over at fMh yesterday, Sara Katherine Staheli Hanks introduced a new series, “When the Temple Hurts.” I was particularly interested in a point she made in the post about how often we discuss the temple in lessons and talks at church:

The temple is a regular focus of meetings, lessons, talks, and discussions in church settings. I’d estimate that, in my experience, 1 out of every 4-5 Sundays in my adult life as a church member has included a talk or lesson where the temple was a primary focus.

I’ve been teaching primary now for a couple of years, and my memory of adult classes is maybe suffering from a bit of haziness, but Sara’s numbers sound good to me. This would mean an average of at least one temple-related lesson or talk per month, with of course lots of variation where there is a cluster of them, and then maybe no mentions for a longer period of time.

I would be interested to know how well that matches up with other people’s experience. It seems like this would be a difficult thing to measure well. Sure, we have correlated lesson manuals, but we also have locally chosen topics for things like sacrament meetings, first Sunday meetings in RS and priesthood quorums, and Teachings for Our Time lessons. And for that matter, even how correlated lessons are taught varies a lot from ward to ward and from teacher to teacher (much to the frustration of the Correlation people, I’m sure).

So I thought I would look at a related question that’s easier for me to answer, which is whether talk about the temple at the general level of the Church has been increasing or decreasing over time. If there’s a noticeable change over time, this is probably felt by people in their local experiences, as general-level material like Conference talks are not only used directly in the preparation of lessons and talks, but they also likely help drive local leaders’ perceptions of what topics are important at the moment.

I used the ever-wonderful Corpus of General Conference Talks to look at how often the word temple has been used in Conference since 1900. This graph shows the result. The dark purple line is the 10-year moving average, and the faded purple line shows the year-to-year rates.

temple refs in conference 1900-2013It looks like mentions of the temple are as high now as they’ve been in the last century. (Actually, although I left the older years out of the graph, they’re as high as they have ever been, at least since 1851, which is as far back as the corpus goes.) There has been a steady increase since 1970 or so, although it looks like references might have flattened out since about 2000. This is kind of a surprising pattern to me. Thinking back to my last post on what’s been reported in the Church’s annual statistical report, there was a period of over a decade when temple building wasn’t even included. Of course, this ended in the late 1990s with the beginning of the temple-building boom. But it looks from the Conference data like GAs were talking more and more about the temple through the time when very few new temples were being built, but then they’ve leveled out in how much they talk about the temple even as more temples were built in the late 1990s and early 2000s.

I also looked at how often temples were talked about in Church magazines. To find this, I used Google to search for temple, restricting my search to lds.org, and to the magazine and year I was looking at. For example, to search for mentions of the temple in the Ensign in 2010, I used this search string: “temple site:lds.org/ensign/2010” (without the quotation marks). I wanted to know what percentage of articles were mentioning the temple rather than just the count (since the Church magazines have probably varied in size across time), so to estimate the total article count, I searched for a very common word that was likely to occur in most articles and not vary across time. I chose the word he, so for example to estimate the total article count in the Ensign for 2010, I just substituted he for temple in my search string: “he site:lds.org/ensign/2010” (again, without the quotation marks). One other thing to note on the off chance you try to replicate my work is that Google typically gives a really high estimate of the number of hits on the first results page, but then if you click through to the last page of results, it tells you how many there actually were in the end. I always clicked through to the end to find how many actual results were found, rather than how many were estimated on the first page.

Here’s the result:

temple refs in magazines 1971-2014The results for the Ensign are really surprising here, given what’s in the previous graph. The Ensign includes Conference reports, so the data for the graph above and the data for this graph actually overlap. But there’s no sign of the increase in mentions of the temple in this one. Of course, what’s being measured isn’t exactly the same. The first graph above is looking at what fraction of all words in Conference talks are temple. This graph is looking at what fraction of documents (articles) have at least one use of the word temple. Still, though, I would expect them to be more related.

The New Era and Friend lines look like they’re showing an increase since maybe the early 1990s until now, pushing the frequency with which articles mention the temple in these magazines to as high as it is in the Ensign. I’m not sure what was important about that time, but I think it’s interesting that both started to increase at about the same time.

So hit me with your hypotheses. What do you think is going on with these data? What’s behind the New Era and Friend trends, or for that matter, the Ensign lack of trend? Or what’s behind the Conference trend? Or why might these data be biased or otherwise untrustworthy?




  1. The inflectionpoint seems to be President Hunter’s short tenure as prophet, with his focus on temples, followed by President Hinckley’s temple building administration. When I was a child, one could memorize all the temples, and they were invariably far away (I was a youngling in Primary when the Washington DC temple was dedicated, and our stake thrilled at having a templ that was only one long days drive away, instead of two).

  2. 1923? That was the 30th anniversary of the dedication of the Salt Lake Temple, and it was also the time when the Hawaii, Alberta, and Mesa temples were being built and dedicated.

    That first graph is very interesting, Ziff. I don’t have any supporting documentation or numbers, but it seems like the temple work done in my extended family tracks that same pattern, with much of the work being done in times when the rhetoric increased on the topic of temple work.

  3. It seems to me that there are many more talks and lessons focused on the temple now than there were when I was growing up. That in itself is not a problem. But couple that with our hesitation to actually say something about the temple has created a magic fairy dust situation. The temple is the fairy dust that will cure our ills and heal us just because. When I hear someone say that they have learned so much or have been blessed so much by the temple I want to ask, HOW? Please tell me how, tell me what those blessings are. Don’t leave it in the realm of the fairies and their magic wands.

  4. There was a period in the early 2000s where the Friend was printing ‘card’ sized images of all the temples, to be collected. So there’d be a page full every month until they got through them all, and then occasional updates every time they were able to fill a page.

  5. I turned 12 in 1998. I remember what felt like a huge surge of temple rhetoric in the early 2000’s for the youth and children that was related to the surge in temple building led by Pres. Hinckley. There seemed to be this “temples are flooding the earth” excitement. People were talking about how accessible they were. People from places like Columbia, SC and Nashville, TN (not to mention remote non-US places) now had a small temple in their area to visit. “Destination Temples” like Nauvoo, Winter Quarters and Palmyra had dedication services broadcast throughout US stake centers.

    I don’t remember talking about the temple as a child very often except for in the context of temple weddings (“I’m going there someday” felt very far off) and the yearly “Temple Trips” my siblings took to the nearest temple 5 hours away. When we had a temple built in our area, our youth group went at least quarterly to do baptisms. I would imagine that this frequency necessitated more talks and lessons about being “temple worthy”. I also think the increase of temples has led to an increase in rhetoric to try to improve temple attendance to prove that the increase in temples was needed.

  6. Here is my theory. The Church leadership under Hinckley determined that temple attendance was the key to an active, committed, converted membership. Temple recommend holders were the most likely to stay active, pay tithing, and fulfill callings. So they increased the rhetoric about the blessings of the temple, and they built temples closer to people so they would be more likely to obtain a temple recommend and attend the temple. I’m sure their internal studies backed them up on these findings.

    The increasing focus on temples also gives the impression of a rapidly-growing church even while the rate of membership growth is slowing and, in some countries, stagnant. It gives members and leaders something to point to and get excited about.

    I think the leadership really believes that temple attendance blesses people because they measure success in people’s lives by the kind of markers that require a temlpe recommend: people living the word of wisdom, able to pay a full tithe, fully active, accepting callings, etc. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy.

    Temple worship also becomes an easy marker of Christian discipleship. You can easily tell who is following Christ because they are worthy to go to the temple. Everyone wants to be perceived as worthy, so they gush about the blessings of the temple. And the high entrance costs makes people value the experience more. It’s a lot easy to use temple worship as a sign of worthiness than something loosy-goosy like love thy neighbor, feed the poor, etc.

    I suspect that there is a sizeable percentage of temple goers for whom the temple experience is the Emperor’s New Clothes. It doesn’t speak to them, but everyone else seems to be finding something beautiful in it, so they follow along and nod their heads. That’s not to say that for many, perhaps most, members the temple really is a source of peace and joy.

  7. As always, interesting stuff, Ziff!

    It seems that, as Coffinberry said, President Hunter’s focus on the temple in 1994 seems to have had an impact on the New Era and Friend (and General Conference). That continued with President Hinckley’s focus on temple building.

    The Ensign was already at a higher rate relative to the other magazines. With some fluctuations, it seems to have hovered around the high 50’s for the past 40 years. Perhaps that left less room for expanded temple coverage without crowding out other topics?

    When the Ensign and Liahona “merged” (sometime in the early/mid 2000’s) there seemed to be a shift in content. (I remember reading that there would be extra white space in the Ensign to allow for the same graphic layout in versions translated into other languages). I don’t know if that is relevant here or not.

  8. It may just be that the percentage of Ensign articles mentioning the temple is saturated at ~60%. If the majority of articles already have a passing mention of the temple, you might not be able to see an increase in the number of articles primarily dedicated to discussing the temple.


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