The nearest LDS temple to Bill Davis’ home in Mangilao, Guam is in Manila, Philippines —about 1,596 miles away.
The long distance makes attending the temple a once-in-a-lifetime experience for most Latter-day Saint islanders, Davis said, but a traveling temple ship would change that.
“I’m not sure of who thought of (a floating temple) first, but it is an idea based on the movable temples found in the Old Testament,” said Davis, a service center manager for the LDS Church. “There are many people who live on the isles of the sea whose island is too small to justify having a permanent temple to be built.”
The idea of a floating temple, or a temple ship, that could provide access to remote Latter-day Saints has been around for many years, Davis said. In fact, the first formal proposal for a temple ship came 50 years ago, during President David O. McKay’s presidency, in 1968.
A temple ship proposed
Authors Gregory A. Prince and William Robert Wright first recorded the idea of a temple ship in “David O. McKay and the Rise of Modern Mormonism.” According to the authors, the idea originally came from Mark Garff, chairman of the LDS Church Building Committee, in 1967.
The “novel” proposal came after President McKay asked Garff to recommend “what our program should be in the matter of providing new temples and how we could accommodate our people who wish to go to the temples,” the authors wrote, quoting President McKay.
After traveling to various remote locations with LDS populations, such as Hong Kong, Alaska and Australia, Garff calculated that around 30 percent of Latter-day Saints had no access to temples at the time and that a temple ship could potentially reach all of the remote populations.
His temple ship idea intrigued President McKay, and Garff assembled a formal proposal for the First Presidency a year later on Oct. 11, 1968, the book reports.
The proposal offered that a thousand-ton vessel could be purchased and remodeled for $2 million and operated for about $500,000 each year, cheaper than any other temple at the time. The ship “would be able to sail both the high seas and large rivers, including the Mississippi and Missouri, and repeat its circuit every year or so,” they wrote.
However, the First Presidency — then N. Eldon Tanner, Alvin R. Dyer and Joseph Fielding Smith — was “less than enthusiastic,” the authors wrote, due to various questions of temples being built outside “Stakes of Zion,” the “cursing” placed upon the waters in the last days and whether there should be such an urgent push for temple work “in remote places, since most of the temple work will be accomplished in the Millennium,” the authors quote Elder Dyer as saying.
Two weeks later, President McKay reported that the First Presidency was not considering the proposal and “the subject was never discussed again,” the authors wrote.
Likelihood of a temple ship today
Though the temple ship is still rumored today, BYU Church History Professor Casey Griffiths — whose expertise includes Pacific church history — said the idea of a temple ship might seem “redundant” for most LDS members today.
Griffiths said the “real solution” was President Gordon B. Hinckley’s smaller temples in more locations.
“Smaller temples are less expensive to build, less expensive to operate,” Griffiths said. “That was a more workable solution.”
During President McKay’s lifetime, there were only 13 dedicated temples. Today there are 159 operating LDS temples, with a total of 182 when including temples announced or under construction.
In 2011, President Thomas S. Monson announced that 85 percent of LDS Church members lived within 200 miles of a temple, leaving around 2.1 million members outside the 200-mile range at the time.
Though 23 additional temples have been dedicated since 2011, only eight were located outside of the United States. Of those, only the France and Honduras temples were the countries’ first dedicated temples, leaving many remote Latter-day Saints like Bill Davis still thousands of miles away from the nearest temple.
Richard O. Cowan, BYU professor emeritus of church history and doctrine, said he thinks the church is most likely to stick to its current temple-building program, and if the church were to consider a mobile temple it wouldn’t necessarily be limited to a ship.
“Nowadays it almost might be more likely to have them go to an idea of a flying temple,” Cowan said. “But I think probably not because … the need is much less.”
Even getting a temple ship to remote islanders would have its challenges, according to Tami Creamer.
Creamer lived in Guam for about four years while her husband worked as a facilities and project manager for the LDS Church in Micronesia. According to Creamer, the prospect of an internationally traveling temple ship opens various “cans of worms,” including immigration policies, docking locations, mandatory inspections and figuring out how temple workers would run the temple.
“It would be wonderful for the islanders, but at the same time … you can’t even imagine how many islands there are down there,” Creamer said. “It could be a feasibility, but I think there’s a lot of logistics that would have to be (worked out).”
The LDS Church’s Temple Patron Assistance Fund provides financial aid for those attending the temple for their own endowment, but beyond that, members in Guam and other remote places are unlikely to visit the temple again — something that possibly affects continued activity in the church, Davis said.
“When they go to the temple, they are very happy to have gone,” Davis said. “However, once they return some feel that they have accomplished all they need to do in the church, and over time their activity wanes.”
Creamer and Davis agree that increased access to temples could possibly raise member retention by giving members opportunities to perform ordinances for the dead as well as for themselves.
“There is a great benefit in increasing the faith and spirituality of our members through regular temple attendance,” Davis said. “Thus, the idea of a floating temple to bring the ordinances of the temple to them (is important).”