BANGKOK — Nearly 50 years after Mormons first put down roots here, opening small outpost churches converting Buddhists, animists and other Thais, the fast-growing Utah-based faith has just announced plans to construct its first temple in Thailand, enabling their families to be “sealed” together for eternity, posthumous weddings for dead ancestors and other “highest sacraments.”
The project, one of three international outposts announced by leaders of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints this week, will shorten the trip for believers: The Mormons’ nearest temple now is in Hong Kong, about 1,000 miles northeast of Bangkok.
“The Bangkok Thailand Temple will be the first in this Asian nation,” the church said in a statement from its Salt Lake City headquarters explaining LDS President Thomas S. Monson’s announcement this month.
“It may be some time before an exact location, construction schedule, dates for groundbreaking, etc., are provided,” LDS public affairs officer Karlie Brand replied when asked for details.
Still, the groundbreaking will mark a milestone for the church, which is bucking the trend of many mainline Christian churches with explosive growth in recent years, in part the fruit of its global missionary efforts. The Mormons now operate 144 temples worldwide, with another 29 — including Bangkok — either announced or under construction. The Bangkok temple will be the church’s first in Southeast Asia.
Across all of Asia, according to the church, there are 1.08 million believers and seven temples, according to LDS records.
Mr. Monson’s announcement of the three temples — in Thailand, Ivory Coast and Haiti — was unexpected, and set off a delirious reaction among Mormon missionaries in Thailand, whose cellphones were filled with texts and calls from home April 5 announcing the news in the middle of the night.
“The room erupted in cheers and shouts,” Elder Elliot Mayo recounted in his blog chronicling his two-year mission in the country. “Young men bouncing on their mattresses, ecstatic with joy and shouting in glee.”
“The district knelt in a prayer of thanks,” he said. “A dream has been realized, a vision reached.”
Mormon temples are not used for regular Sunday worship, which is instead held in smaller chapels. Temples admit only Mormons recommended by clergy. The temples are also the only places where Mormons’ ancestors can be posthumously baptized, married and blessed through sacraments known as “ordinances.”
“Baptism and eternal marriage can be performed in behalf of those who have died,” according to the official LDS website, Mormon Newsroom.
“People who died without receiving essential ordinances — such as baptism and confirmation, the endowment, and sealing — have the opportunity to accept these ordinances,” said the website’s report, titled, “Mormon Temple Rituals: What Happens in LDS Temples.”
Posthumously baptizing ancestors who were not Mormons “is a very important part of the function of the Mormon temple. It’s to do the work for our forefathers, our deceased ancestors,” Elder William R. Walker said in an LDS video.
Living Mormons can have their families “sealed” in a temple.
“Husbands and wives are sealed to each other, and children are sealed to their parents, in eternal families,” LDS said.
In Thailand, missionaries of various Christian faiths mostly target the atheist Buddhist majority and impoverished minority tribal animists. Christians, including about 18,000 Mormons, comprise about 1 percent of Thailand’s population.
“Since November 2013, the [Thailand] mission has been baptizing in excess of 200 per month,” Reed Haslam reported in January on his unauthorized LDS-Thailand website.
“One approach has been to offer tours of Church facilities to people met on the street. When showing them the baptismal font, [church officials] ask, ‘Would you like to have your sins washed away?’ If the answer is yes, they establish a time for the first discussion.
“The continuing political turmoil in Thailand has also made many [Thais] wary of how much they can rely on their Buddhist faith, or the government, to help them find peace in their lives,” Mr. Haslam said.
A military coup in May 2014 toppled Thailand’s elected government, replacing it with a martial law regime. Coup leader Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha then invoked absolute powers on April 2.
In Thailand, which has a reputation across the region for hedonistic entertainment offerings that includes in-your-face streetside prostitutes, striptease bars, loud nightclubs and other sensational pleasures, Mormon missionaries are supposed to resist such decadence.
“Missionaries can be single men between the ages of 18 and 25, single women over the age of 19, or retired couples,” voluntarily serving up to two years, the official LDS website said. “Missionaries avoid entertainment, parties or other activities common to this [young] age group as long as they are on their missions.”
Thailand’s Buddhists are also increasingly supportive of gays, whose behavior Mormons denounce as a sin, even though the church recently said it could back nondiscrimination laws that protect gays.
“What we do know is that the doctrine of the church — that sexual activity should only occur between a man and a woman who are married — has not changed, and is not changing,” LDS Elder Dallin H. Oaks, of the church’s Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, said in 2012.
LDS then launched a Mormons and Gays website explaining that sin.
“The attraction itself is not a sin, but acting on it is,” the official gay-focused website said.
Organized in 1830 by Joseph Smith in an upstate New York log cabin, the church now claims more than 15 million members.
Beginning in 1835, many of the first Americans in Thailand — known then as Siam — were missionaries trying to convert the population to Christianity. Several U.S. consuls in Bangkok were missionaries, including the first, the Rev. Stephen Mattoon from 1856 to 1859, who translated the New Testament into Thai.
American missionaries, mostly Baptists, Protestants and Catholics, involved themselves with Thailand’s monarchy and educational, social, economic and diplomatic affairs. Some worked for the Central Intelligence Agency in addition to proselytizing.
American missionaries are often praised in Thailand, mostly because their schools, hospitals, orphanages and other facilities are open to the public.
Some Buddhist Thais who do convert simply add Jesus to their collection of protective spirits, mixing Hindu, animist, superstitions and other beliefs while continuing to pray at Buddhist temples and Christian churches.